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Comfort Food


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Comfort Food

"Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power,
has that ability to comfort."
Norman Kolpas

"Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love."
Song of Solomon, 2:5

 "I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them,
but never the potatoes that went with them."
~ Nora Ephron, "Heartburn"

Who among us has not had occasion to seek solace in the kitchen? Who does not remember attempting to drown their sorrows, or fears, or worries, in a huge plate
of mashed potatoes and/or macaroni and cheese? To console themselves with chocolate? If you don’t know what I am talking about, perhaps you should just
skip this and go to the vegetable recipes index…there will be no references to
lean cuisine here, I assure you!

 Just what is it, this comfort food phenomenon? Is it physiological, psychological,
a figment of our combined imaginations, a cosmic curse (or blessing)? All of the
above? None of the above? 
Does it have to do with our childhoods, our mothers?
Or our lack thereof?

"In the childhood memories of every good cook, there's a large kitchen,
a warm stove, a simmering pot and a mom."

~ Barbara Costikyan

And just what sort of adversity triggers this critical craving? Consider this if you
will: You are doing a very long commute. Between Jackson, MS and Memphis
TN, a good 200 miles. Good grief! Trying to relocate, but things are not going so
well. You arrive home one weekend to find your younger son, the aspiring rock
star, sporting a red-white-and-blue hairdo. And telling you he thinks high school
is for idiots. Well, thank God for small favors, you think, at least his brother has
a level head on his shoulders. Said brother, the conservative, now attending a
nearby Southern private college (that reads ultra-conservative) then comes
wheeling into the driveway. As he gets out of the car and approaches you, a
glint of metal catches your eye. No. Yes! An earring! That does it. Every fiber
of your being is screaming for mashed potatoes and gravy. NOW! Followed
closely by chocolate pudding. In a tureen, if you please.
And let us not even get into the truly tragic hands dealt to us in this poker game
we call life. Bad enough, and then came September 11...  Are you with me?
[And then came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita! And Gustav. And Ike! Yikes!]

At last count, my personal cookbook collection numbered well over 1000, would
you believe! Ever since I discovered my first cookbook (not long after I learned
how to read), I have been intrigued, entranced, captivated. No way out. I read
them like novels and make absolutely no apology for that cherished proclivity.
How fortunate, indeed, that these gems of wisdom have now become an integral
part of my profession. My bread and butter, so to speak (heavy on the butter).

Through the years, in the course of devouring said cookbooks, I have paid
particular attention to what their authors divulged about the effect of certain
foods upon one’s psyche. Naturally, I have my favorites. I make no apologies
for this either. The late Laurie Colwin - author of
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen -
and internationally acclaimed guru Sarah Ban Breathnach, of
Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy
fame, are at the top of the list. Gourmet magazine's Editor-in-Chief
Ruth Reichl, author of
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table
among others, is a close runner-up.
 Here is an example of Laurie Colwin’s marvelous approach to cooking
(from More Home Cooking, 1993, HarperPerennial):

“Scalloped Potatoes go wonderfully with roast chicken. In the old days I took
great pains with these, and they never came out the way I liked them. I have
since learned a trick from a now-unrecalled magazine article, and I make
them in a trice. If you have a food processor you can make them in less than
that. The potatoes – say about 2 1/2 pounds – should be cut 1/8 inch thick
and then plunged into cold water. Bring 2 1/2 cups of milk to a boil in a
large saucepan, pat the potatoes dry, and boil them in the milk until they
are barely tender. Add salt to taste and then tip the whole affair – the sludgy
milk and the half-cooked potatoes – into a buttered dish. Add garlic if you
like it – if not, not – scatter bread crumbs on top, and bake the potatoes in
a 400-degree F. oven for about 15 minutes, or until they are bubbly and
brown. (You will have to soak the saucepan for quite a long while – that’s
boiling milk for you – but it’s worth it.)”

I can vouch for this approach.  I cannot resist adding onions, however.
Sautéed in butter. Goes without saying, no?

To date, what sums up this whole comfort food scenario best for me comes
from Sarah Ban Breathnach:

”Comfort food: quirky, quaint, quixotic. Personal patterns of consolation,
encoded on our taste buds past all forgetting, as unmistakable as greasy
fingerprints. When the miseries strike, and you’re down in the dumps,
food transformed by love and memory becomes therapy... When hearts
are heavy, they need gravitational and emotional equilibrium.
(from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy )

 From the maternal love point of view, my most memorable meal was one served
to me at age six or so, just as I was beginning to recuperate from a two-week bout
of the measles. The big, bad kind. My grandmother, with whom I lived, had taken exquisitely good care of me, just as she always did. It was my mother’s arrival
from New Orleans, however, that brought me the comfort I yearned. She cooked
and served to me the first actual meal I’d had in what seemed an eternity: T-bone
steak (medium rare), mashed potatoes, tiny green peas cooked in butter, and
sliced tomatoes. Absolute manna. And absolutely indelible in my memory - as
crystal-clear as though I had eaten it yesterday.

 I love a good steak. I must admit, however, that meat does not fit my personal definition of comfort food. For me comfort food must be very easy to digest. It
must go down easily, smoothly, and not compromise my energy in any way. If
my energy level were not already in jeopardy, chances are I would not be
craving comfort food to begin with!

 "From morning till night, sounds drift from the kitchen, most of them
familiar and comforting... On days when warmth is the most important
need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it; it
dries the wet sock, it cools the hot little brain."

~ E. B. White

Okay. Favorite comfort foods. What are they? What are yours? Let’s start with
some celebrities. Sarah Ban Breathnach seeks solace in fettuccine Alfredo and
tells us that Nora Ephron prefers mashed potatoes eaten in bed. For Judith
Viorst it’s a package of Mallomars. And esteemed cookbook author Marion
Cunningham leans toward spaghetti with garlic and a good olive oil. Naturally,
I simply could not resist consulting The Major Himself (remember him?) on
this vital topic.
His words of infinite wisdom:

 “Comfort Food. What the hell is 'comfort food'? I think we can rule out chocolate and Hagen Daaz. [What?!?!? Obviously, the man is losing his mind! Or could this
be due, perhaps, to yet another male genetic defect... ] I would tend to categorize
these things more as compulsions. No, comfort food should be real food. Some-
thing substantial. This is not a midnight snack, this is something to wrap around
when, from time to time, having a full belly seems to help get us through the
night, or whatever.
Not surprisingly, many of the things we would consider 'comfort food' are things
we grew up with. They are generally simple (after all, this is a time for comfort,
not a time to spend the whole damned evening in the kitchen). Almost always
hot (another reason that ice cream does not qualify). Generally substantial
and filling.
I suspect that my need for comfort food is most closely met by a nice macaroni
and cheese casserole. And we ain't talking the stuff in the blue box, folks. A
goodly pile of grated Swiss (and a little Cheddar) cheese. At least as much
cheese as macaroni.
[But of course!] A jar of Armour dried beef. And a little
coarse pepper. A few cracker or bread crumbs sprinkled over the top. Baked
up. Eaten right out of the casserole dish…
A close second is probably tuna and noodles. Boiled noodles, a can of tuna
(in oil), a little salt and pepper and a generous dose of bread crumbs. Mixed
up, liberally dotted with real butter and baked for a few minutes.
SOS is comfort food. 
[Ed. Note: SOS? Just in case you are not familiar with
the vernacular, please allow me to explain that The Major is referring to that
creamed hamburger stuff on toast. It's a military thing...] Which goes to show
that comfort food is kind of an individual thing, too. But that is okay. That
is comfortable.”

Substantial. Sheesh. But we were not expecting pabulum, were we? Not
to worry. This is probably a guy thing, no? We can have our chocolate and
ice cream if we want to, ladies. It is our party, and we'll cry if we want to!  

So, how about you? Hot cocoa and animal crackers maybe? Let me give you
a jumpstart, if I may, with my Top Ten List (in no particular order, right after
mashed potatoes and gravy, and chocolate in any form, as mentioned above):

Reese’s miniatures (nothing less than Satanic!)
Did somebody Say Reese's?
Pound cake
Banana pudding, chocolate pudding (see below)
Bread pudding with bourbon (or rum!) sauce
Double Chocolate Bread Pudding with
Salted Bourbon Caramel Sauce

Polenta with cheese
Chicken and Dumplings (key word - dumplings!)
Chicken Pot Pie (the BEST!)
Fried Chicken and Cream Gravy
Pork Chop Gravy or Sausage Gravy,
or Roast Beef Gravy...
Gigi's Infamous Creamed Chipped Beef
Potato Soup
Corn Chowder
Grandmother Dolly's fried corn meal mush,
fried in bacon grease, of course...
Ice cream, including, but not limited to,
Jamocha Almond Fudge
Lemon Ice Box Pie
, or Key Lime Pie
(but with whipped cream, NOT meringue!)
Chocolate Pie would be okay too!

  "What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes,
he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow."
~ A. A. Milne

My Favorite Garlic and Onion
Mashed Potatoes

 10 cloves garlic
1 large yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter (well, you might
need a little more...)
2 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled,
cut into chunks
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 bunches fresh basil, coarsely chopped

Peel and press the garlic; cover and set aside. Peel the onion, halve
it and cut it into thin slices. Sauté the onion slices in the butter over
medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are nicely browned.
Cook the potatoes until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes, and press
them through a potato ricer while they are still warm.

In a small skillet sauté the garlic until it is golden, remove it with a
slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels.
To the potato mixture add the garlic oil, heavy cream and approximately
1/2 cup hot water (the amount of liquid you need will vary somewhat depending on the potatoes used). Combine well using a wire whisk.
Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Place the potatoes in a serving dish and top with the sautéed onion and
garlic. Garnish with coarsely chopped basil. 6 servings.


The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
Horseradish Grill, Atlanta, Scott Peacock
Bon Appetit September 1995

Bon Appetit - One Year Subscription  

"Leave it to Scott Peacock - a man so insistent on authenticity that he makes
his own baking powder - to come up with the ultimate recipe for macaroni
and cheese. This former chef to Georgia's governors arrived at the Horse-
radish Grill with a commitment to use only regional ingredients in dishes
that showcase the flavors of the American South, old and new. He has just
one pasta dish on his menu, macaroni and cheese, but it is the macaroni
and cheese against which all others should be measured...
Peacock reports that it has become so popular, diners order it when
they've already got a plateful of fries in front of them."

1 3/4 cups small elbow macaroni
1 1/4 cups 1/2-inch cubes extra-sharp
cheddar cheese (about 5 ounces)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/3 cups half-and-half
1 1/3 cups whipping cream
2/3 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/4 cups packed grated extra-sharp
cheddar cheese (about 5 ounces)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass
baking dish. Cook macaroni in large saucepan of boiling salted water until
just tender but still firm to bite. Drain pasta. Transfer to prepared dish.
Mix in cubed cheese. Whisk flour, salt, mustard, black pepper, cayenne
pepper and nutmeg in medium bowl until no lumps remain. Gradually
whisk in half-and-half, then whipping cream and sour cream. Add eggs
and Worcestershire sauce; whisk to blend. Pour over macaroni mixture;
stir to blend. Sprinkle grated cheese over. Bake macaroni and cheese until
just set around edges but sauce is still liquid in center, about 25 minutes
Remove from oven; let stand 10 minutes to thicken slightly (sauce will
be creamy). 6 main dish servings.

More Macaroni and Cheese

Decadent Soft Chocolate Cream
Food & Wine Archives

Food & Wine - One Year Subscription

5 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 pound milk chocolate, melted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups heavy cream

In a medium heatproof bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar. Set the bowl
over a saucepan of barely simmering water and stir till yolk mixture is hot
to the touch. Remove bowl from heat and, using electric mixer, beat yolks
till double in volume. Add the chocolate and beat on low speed just until incorporated; the mixture will stiffen. Beat in melted butter. Add 2
tablespoons heavy cream and beat on medium speed until smooth.
In another bowl, whip the remaining heavy cream until soft peaks form.
Beat one-quarter of the whipped cream into the warm chocolate mixture,
then fold in remaining whipped cream. Pour chocolate cream into a
serving bowl and refrigerate until firm, preferably overnight.
[How many servings? One, during a tornado warning, or more,
under less stressful circumstances…]


if that fails to do the trick, give this a shot…


Chocolate Pudding from
New York City’s “Home”

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate,
preferably Valrhona
1/2 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
4 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

Coarsely chop chocolate and reserve it in a large mixing bowl.
In a medium bowl whisk 1/4 cup of the sugar into the egg yolks.
In a medium saucepan mix the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with cream
and vanilla. Heat the cream to just below boiling point. Add a little of
the cream to the eggs and stir vigorously for smoother mixing; set aside.
Pour the rest of the hot cream over the chopped chocolate. Gently stir
the chocolate with a spatula until it has melted. Add the egg-cream mixture
and the salt to the chocolate and stir to mix. Strain pudding into a pitcher
or bowl.
Heat oven to 300 degrees F. Fill six 8-ounce ramekins with pudding,
leaving at least 1/4 inch space at top. Put ramekins in a baking pan not
more than 1 inch deeper than the molds. Fill pan with warm water about
halfway up sides of molds. Cover pan with foil and bake pudding in water
bath until no longer runny, about 1 hour. When cooked, a lighter colored
spot about the size of a quarter appears on top. Cover pudding and refri-
gerate for at least 3 hours before serving.

I double-dog dare you to serve this topped with whipped cream!
Are you feeling more comfortable now? 
Thought so!

There's more:  Grits Deserve a Better Name!

Until next time, remember Miss Piggy's advice:

"Never eat more than you can lift."


Comfort Food Revisited, September 2002
More on Comfort Food
Nursery Food
Nursery Food, Take Two
Comfort Food for Times of Loss
What to Eat When Tragedy Strikes

"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love,
are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think
of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I
am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the
love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and
fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one."

~ M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating icon icon



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