Comfort Food Comes Home for Fall
Summer eating is almost by default healthy-ish. How much damage can a grilled chicken breast do to your cholesterol, right?
Grilled corn with lime zest, fish drizzled with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon, sliced zucchini and summer squash scorched and topped with fresh herbs - well, they all sound pretty darned good for you.
But as the days inch longer and the weeks skid toward the holidays, many of our thoughts turn to comfort food.
The definition of "comfort food" isn’t exactly comforting. While most descriptions of the term seem harmless enough, the devil, as usual, is in the details.
Dictionary.com says comfort food is "simple, home-style food that brings comforting thoughts of home or childhood," but those pesky Brits expound on that in the Oxford Dictionary, defining comfort food as "food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking."
Heavy sigh. High sugar? High carbs? But that’s what makes it taste so darned good.
Three cookbooks released recently can help us bring a bit of that comfort home.
Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook
"Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook," by Alex Guarnaschelli, takes us inside the Iron Chef’s childhood and its impact on her cooking.
Before we get to the recipes, there is a 16-page mini-autobiography of Guarnaschelli’s childhood, training and subsequent journey to executive chef at New York City’s Butter and The Darby restaurants and her star turns on "Iron Chef America," a judge on "Chopped," and various other Food Network and related appearances.
Having grown up with a cookbook editor mother and kitchen-loving father certainly has its advantages.
"My love affair with food began in the simplest of settings: my childhood kitchen on 55th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. My mother was whipping up a cheese soufflé ... . I was mesmerized."
Guarnaschelli doesn’t shy away from what makes food taste good, either.
"The tasting aspect of my culinary education," she writes, "began the minute my mother pulled a brick off the top of a paté she had weighted down and cut me a slice. It might have been the first time I encountered the power of animal fat as an ingredient."
She also includes a handy section titled "What kinds of stuff I like to use in the kitchen." The contents of that alone should make any amateur cook stop and ask why in heaven’s name he/she has all those crazy kitchen gadgets. Guarnaschelli’s alone-on-a-deserted-island chef’s kit has just four knives (paring, chef’s, boning and serrated), and her tools are tightly edited to a wooden spoon, rubber spatula, vegetable peeler, Microplane grater, Mandoline and a small strainer. Hugely informative.
And the recipes? Let’s just say everything looks and sounds good. From the Spicy Cauliflower Fritters to Crispy Squid with Garlic, Red Pepper Flakes and Basil; from Breaded Chicken with Mustard and Dry Sherry to Grilled Radicchio with Honey and Hazelnuts - Guarnaschelli has found a way to make a professional chef’s comfort foods your comfort foods.
The Meatball Cookbook: Great Balls of Fire
It’s hard to say when the meatball went from red-sauce Italian-American staple to restaurant specialty food, but it appears the trend spans the Atlantic.
In "The Meatball Cookbook: Great Balls of Fire," Jez Felwick has codified the gourmet delights from his Bowler Meatball Truck, one of the hottest food trucks in London.
"Everyone loves a meatball," he writes. "The flavor combinations and possibilities are endless, they’re fun, they’re comforting, they conjure up all sorts of nostalgic childhood memories because people have grown up eating them, and almost every culture has its own variation."
Felwick’s Mexballs are a savory take on pork carnitas, and the, um, Balls on the Line offer a definitive technique to grilling meatballs.
The ball plays on words continues, with Sweaty Balls (hotly spiced meatballs), Sticky Balls (coated with a sweet honey and garlic sauce), Björn Balls (his take on Swedish meatballs), and Baa Baa Balls (lamb, of course) just a few of the variations.
"The Meatball Cookbook" also includes some rather tasty non-meat balls, like Brown Rice and Red Lentil, Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese, and Zucchini and Asparagus, as well as sauces and dips to accompany your balls.
Pie may be one of the most ubiquitous comfort foods in any culinary culture.
In the introduction to Pie, British food writer and stylist Angela Boggiano cites her realization of what "an emotional issue pies are for many people."
"Almost everyone has a favorite pie, and with that pie comes a story, often about a family member or childhood memory. Favorite pies are not necessarily gourmet pies," she writes. "It’s often the nostalgia and comforting thoughts they conjure up that make the pies seem to taste all the more delicious."
In the new "Pie," which has been revised and re-released seven years after its initial introduction in the United Kingdom, Boggiano even includes a brief history of the pie (as with most things, it seems, the ancient Egyptians may have indulged). Still, being British (those pesky Brits again), Boggiano, claims that her people "have as great a claim as any nation to being the ultimate exponents of the art of pie making."
Unlike what perhaps most Americans think of as pie (Mom’s Apple, Chocolate Cream, Mile-High Lemon), Boggiano turns the tables on traditional tarts and focuses mostly on the savory aspects of the flaky goodness.
While many of us might be happy to forego some of the more English of the dishes (Steak and Kidney Pie, anyone?), and there does seem to be more of a fixation on game pies than we’re used to (Rabbit Pot Pie with Polenta Crust, Venison Pie with Thyme, Mustard and Shallots), I kid you not when I say that every single recipe in this book made me want to go into the kitchen, rolling pin in hand.
The Deep Egg and Bacon Pie ("You really can’t go wrong with the combination of egg, bacon, cheese, and onion," Boggiano writes) puts the lid on the standard French quiche and uses Cheddar in lieu of Swiss or Gruyère, adds some ground pork and virtually does away with the cream. Self-contained, this beauty would be a perfect picnic bring-along and would look stunning on a buffet.
"Pie" includes handpies, the intricately decorated so-called noble pies (think of four and twenty blackbirds), and yes, sweet pies. I don’t even like bananas, but the Banana, Chocolate and Salted Caramel Pie is now in my pie rotation. And the Pumpkin Pie, made with fresh-cooked pumpkin, will grace my Thanksgiving table, a sweet rebuke to the Brits on our colonial holiday.
Despite the propensity of comfort food to be not necessarily good for you, the sentiments, memories and sheer nostalgia behind it is surely worth something to the diet gods. And it’s always a comfort to have creative new approaches to the tried-and-true dishes of our childhoods.