This is getting monotonous, not to mention scary. I have thought a lot lately about my grandmother, my mother’s mom who died in the last great pandemic that swept the world, the 1918 flu epidemic. She was assisting the overcrowded and overwhelmed Grand Rapids hospital with the care of my 5-year-old mother and her 3-year-old little sister, both of whom were badly burned in the Hinckley forest fire. One day when my grandfather called the hospital to check on the girls, he was told, “Your daughters are fine, but your wife died last night.”

With burns covering 80% of their little bodies, it was incredible that my mother and aunt did not succumb to the flu as well. Mom recalled two memories about food from that experience — how she enjoyed cornflakes for the first time in her life, and how she marveled at Jell-O. One food was crispy and one was “wiggly.” Remembering her badly scarred arms and legs gives me pause. Her story of that horrific time came out in bits and pieces over many years. Yet, she lived her whole life with an unshakable positivity — a characteristic that many people today still remember about her.

I think what we all need now is comfort food — simple, cozy, familiar foods that taste like a hug. The worst thing to do is sit back and mindlessly munch on just anything we can get our hands on. When I was growing up, I learned from Mom to make nutritious meals from just a few ingredients. She always advocated healthy eating with whole grains, simple high-protein meals, and not so much sugar. I remember when, in her later years, if mom experienced an unsatisfying restaurant meal or ate a highly processed food, she would say in astonishment, “I ate the whole thing looking for the flavor!” On the farm, Mom made easy-to-prepare, delicious, familiar foods. Comfort foods.

Chicken Noodle Soup

When most people think of comfort food, one of the first things that comes to mind is chicken noodle soup. It is so simple to make that you don’t even need a recipe. One night, we’ll have a rotisserie chicken. For the next night, I’ll put the carcass from the leftover chicken into a large pot, cover it with a quart of chicken broth or water, and bring it to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes and skim away the foam as necessary. Then remove all the bones, skin and cartilage from the broth using two forks or tongs. Chop and add an onion, a couple carrots and a couple celery stalks. Heat to a boil and add a bay leaf. Cook until the vegetables are tender and then throw in a half cup of rice, orzo, or a box of broken spaghetti or other pasta. Cook another 10 or 12 minutes until the rice or pasta is al dente.

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I’ve always loved the comforting taste of whole grains. Earlier this year, I picked up a mix called “Ancient Grain Blend” for some project I was working on. It was a blend of red rice, barley, rye berries, black barley, oats, jasmine rice and white quinoa. I found a packet of it in the back of my cupboard recently and made a main dish with it. You could add any leftover cooked meat, fish or chicken you have on hand and make this Whole Grain Bowl. My mother would have loved this!

Whole Grain Bowl (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
Whole Grain Bowl (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

Whole Grain Bowl

This makes a delicious meal paired with quickly sauteed shrimp with garlic butter. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

2 cups mixed whole grains (choose from red rice, pearl barley, rye berries, black barley, whole oats, jasmine rice, quinoa)

2 teaspoons salt

8 cups water

8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved

11 ounce package frozen whole kernel corn

1 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup shredded Mexican style four cheese blend

Optional leftover shredded meat or fish

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Combine the grains, salt and water in a large saucepan. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Add the grains and reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until the grains are tender. Stir in the tomatoes, corn, and black beans. Mix in the cheese and any leftover meat or fish or shellfish if you wish. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.

Quickly Sautéed Shrimp with Garlic Butter (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
Quickly Sautéed Shrimp with Garlic Butter (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

Quickly Sauteed Shrimp with Garlic Butter

I like to keep a bag of frozen shrimp or a mixture of frozen seafood on hand for a quick meal. It often is something I find on sale in the supermarkets. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

1 package (16 ounces) frozen shrimp or a mixture of frozen seafood

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup (1 stick) butter

Salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste

Rinse frozen shrimp in cold water and pat dry. In a saute pan, heat the garlic and butter until melted, Toss in the shrimp and over high heat stir-fry until the shrimp turn pink, two or three minutes. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Spoon over servings of the whole grain bowl.

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My father’s favorite comfort soup was one made of not much more than potatoes and milk. He called it “maitopottua,” or milk potatoes. So, if it turns out that all you have on hand are a few potatoes and milk, here’s what you can do:

Maitopottua (Milk Potatoes)

Peel one potato per person you plan to serve. Cut up the potatoes and put into a pot. Add just enough water to cover the potatoes and a bit of salt. Heat to simmering. Watch it so that the potatoes don’t cook dry. When you can easily poke a fork into them, the water will have boiled down. Then add milk to cover the potatoes again. Add salt and pepper and butter, if you have some, and simmer until the milk cooks down a bit, five minutes or so. Enjoy with rye bread.

I like to add dill weed or other green herbs when I have them.

Note: The name “maitopottua” is an amalgamation of Finnish and Swedish.

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One can hardly talk about comfort foods without mentioning two favorites: lasagna, and mac and cheese. So, to fill out expectations, I am including the two here only with some modifications. I have taken to making lasagna without cooking the noodles ahead of time. I always kind of hated the messiness of cooking the noodles.

Easy Spinach and Pesto Lasagna (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)
Easy Spinach and Pesto Lasagna (Susanna Ojakangas / For the News Tribune)

Easy Spinach and Pesto Lasagna

Start by cooking the meat mixture, then by making a creamy cheese mixture and layer everything. Just be sure to cover the noodles with the sauces so they rehydrate. Makes 6 servings.

1 pound ground extra lean ground beef

4 cups prepared spaghetti sauce

½ cup water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese

1 egg, lightly beaten

3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

½ cup prepare basil pesto

1 teaspoon dried basil

12 dry lasagna noodles

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a skillet over medium-high heat, cook the beef until it is no longer pink. Add the spaghetti sauce, water and salt. In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, egg, 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese.

In a small bowl, mix the spinach, pesto and basil. Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Top with four of the uncooked lasagna noodles, then a third of the ricotta mixture and half of the spinach. Top with four more noodles, 1 cup of the sauce and another third of the ricotta mixture. Cover with the remaining spinach and sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Top with four remaining noodles and remaining ricotta, sauce and mozzarella. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese.

Coat a sheet of foil with cooking spray and place it over the lasagna. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour until bubbly. Remove the foil during the last 15 minutes of baking.

Mac and Cheese

One could hardly talk about comfort foods without mentioning this old favorite! But, to upgrade this to another level, check out the Lobster Mac and Cheese option. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

8 ounces elbow macaroni

1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 cup shredded Gruyere, cheddar or havarti cheese

½ package (4 ounces) cream cheese

2 cups half and half or whole milk

1 tablespoon butter

2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

2 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced (optional)

Salt and pepper

½ cup panko or fine dry breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a shallow 3-quart baking dish with cooking spray.

Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside.

In a medium skillet, bring about 2 inches of water to a boil. Combine the cheese (Gruyere, cheddar or havarti), 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the cream cheese in a metal bowl and place the bowl over the water. Melt the cheeses, stirring. Gradually stir in the cream or milk and remove from the heat when it is warm. Pour out the boiling water and melt the butter in the skillet. Cook the garlic and onions for about 2 minutes.

Pour the reserved cooking water over the macaroni to loosen it and drain. Add the macaroni to the cheese mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste. Turn into the baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake, uncovered, for about 10 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

Lobster Mac and Cheese: Add 1 pound cooked lobster meat to the cheese sauce. Continue with the preparation as directed.

And finally, have you checked today's date?

April Fool's Day, or "The Feast of the Fools," dates back to medieval times, according to some sources.

The timing of the holiday is related not only to old and new calendars but with the vernal equinox, when nature tends to fool us with sudden changes in weather. (I think we can relate to that!)

Another account tells of the way in which the old calendar was deemed inaccurate, as it didn't match the earth's movements around the sun, so scientists created a new calendar, the one we use today.

However, until 1564 the French continued to celebrate their New Year on the first day of spring, which for them was April 1. When Charles IX of France ordered that the new calendar be used, people rebelled by exchanging fake gifts such as candy boxes filled with straw and bouquets made of onions instead of flowers.

While I was writing "The Great Holiday Baking Book," I did some research on the origin of holidays and really enjoyed the story of April Fool's Day and the fact that old habits die slowly in France. However, I always enjoyed baking something special for every holiday, and April Fool's Day was a challenge. So I decided to make a fruitless Mock Apple Pie — you know, the "apple pie" that was filled with soda crackers flavored with cinnamon, lemon juice and sugar, or Mock Baby Ruth Bars (remember them?) made with uncooked rolled oats and peanut butter. I included those two recipes plus a "Mock Cheese Souffle" and a couple more "mocks" in my book.

Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks.