One winter many years ago, I came home from Florida with a fever and chills. I took myself to bed and dozed, dreaming of the one medicine I knew would work. Where could I get it? I could barely sit up, much less poke around the kitchen for noodles and carrots, celery and onion, a plump chicken and a pot big enough to hold them all. I needed chicken soup, the surefire curative for my sore throat and virus, or at least the palliative. I had another problem, too. Because I'd been away for a week, not only was my refrigerator empty, but I had no restaurant notes. I was a bedridden restaurant critic with no immediate prospect of a restaurant to review for that week.
By dinnertime, I'd identified the obvious solution to my problem: I'd write a column on chicken soup. I started calling to find out who delivered.
A box of Kleenex, a warm quilt and a bowl of chicken soup. That's what comfort food means to me.
But I'm not everyone. For others, comfort food might just as easily be a chilled bowl of ice cream as a hot bowl of soup. Mashed potatoes are a natural. So are meatballs, rice pudding and applesauce. When I started thinking about it again recently, it took no time at all to list 75 possibilities. I asked a couple of my grandchildren their thoughts, and although they had never heard the term, they could easily guess its meaning. "Soft and sweet," said Kirk, age 8, who assumes that every food he'd be emotionally attached to would be sweet. He was right about the "soft" and close with the "sweet."
Every culture has its comfort foods; in ours, they are most commonly what is otherwise known as nursery food: Jell-O, custard, oatmeal without lumps. In addition to being soft, their color is neutral, and most likely they are basically a starch. (What can out-comfort chocolate pudding or tapioca?) Everything about comfort food is soothing. The varieties of softness may range from silky to creamy to fluffy. Supporting that idea, most comfort foods require little chewing and are bland enough to leave your taste buds asleep. That leaves Thai food and Indian food behind, at least for many Americans. Still, every comfort food rule has an exception, which explains chili.
I once conducted a survey of what people ate when they woke up in the middle of the night. (As I'd expected, nearly everyone did eat when they awoke.) The overwhelming majority ate ice cream. A few ascetics drank warm milk. Almost all believed that the tryptophan, serotonin or melatonin in their milk helped them go back to sleep. That hasn't been proved, but the belief itself is effective.
To get a more professional view on the subject, I asked a chef about comfort food. David Scribner, who has five young children (plus a busy restaurant, Surfside, in D.C., and four Jetties sandwich shops), undoubtedly has a great need for it. But it wasn't the need that he addressed. "Restraint," he said, repeating it a couple of times. What he meant is that comfort food is not an expression of a chef's personality. Quite the opposite. A chef must set aside personal expressions; comfort food is meant to be universal, the simplest and plainest of recipes, food with no individuality added.
When you veer from the straight and narrow, you'll find subcategories of comfort food, and exceptions to that rule about nursery food. The smooth puree edges into the creamy: chicken potpie or tuna noodle casserole. Those segue into soft meats: chicken, meatloaf, meatballs. Chocolate is its own category.
And then there is crispness, Americans' most beloved of textures. Potato chips, fried chicken, Oreos. Despite their noisiness and chewing requirements, to leave them out would be un-American.
So what we are talking about here is food that is quiet in its mood, its effect and its impact, even when it crunches rather loudly. It might be considered an antidote to modernist, post-modernist and especially molecular gastronomy. It is beloved food, food that makes us feel good. If we hadn't come across it, we would have had to invent it.
Which is what I did, they say.
I don't really believe I created the term, but the Oxford English Dictionary and some Webster's dictionaries give me credit. They attribute the first print mention of "comfort food" to an article in the Washington Post Magazine in 1977. I wrote that article. I used the term to describe shrimp and grits. Since then - if not before - it has been one of my favorite food descriptors.
Naturally, I was delighted to be asked to write about comfort food again, 36 years after that 1977 introduction. But I didn't want to just repeat myself. Perhaps I could write about the opposite. I could include beans and apricot kernels, with their gastric discomforts; shad fish, with all its tiny bones to choke on. Fugu, that potentially poisonous fish, came to mind. Discomfort Food, I'd call it: a Christmas guide for Scrooge.
Then again, maybe I should just order an emergency bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Griswold Inn New England Lobster Potpie
3 to 4 servings
The Griswold Inn of Essex, Conn., dates to 1776. In addition to its Americana, evident in each room, its restaurant celebrates New England seafood. Besides the star ingredient, this homey dish is chock-full of corn, carrot, fennel, onion, celery and fresh herbs.
Adapted from "A Century of Restaurants: Stories and Recipes From 100 of America's Most Historic and Successful Restaurants," by Rick Browne (Andrews McMeel, 2013).
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium carrot, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut into
2 large ribs celery, cut into
1 medium white onion, cut into
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and cut into
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups chardonnay
3 cups water or lobster broth, plus
1/4 cup water for brushing
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into
4 cups (frozen/defrosted or from 3 ears) corn kernels
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground white pepper
2 cups heavy cream
Cooked meat from two 1
1/4-pound lobsters (10 to 12 ounces; see NOTES)
1 sheet (9 ounces) frozen/defrosted puff pastry, preferably Dufour brand
1 large egg, for brushing
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the carrot, celery, onion, fennel and garlic, stirring to coat. Cook for about 8 minutes or until the mixture begins to brown a little. Clear a small space at the center of the pan and add the tomato paste. Cook for a minute or two, then add the wine and stir to incorporate those ingredients, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Cook until the liquid has reduced by half, then stir in the 3 cups of water or lobster broth, the potatoes and corn. Cook for at least 20 minutes or until the liquid has reduced by half. The potatoes should be barely tender. Add the tarragon and basil, then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in the cream; cook for 15 minutes or until the liquid has reduced by half, then stir in the lobster meat. Remove from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to grease a medium-size souffle dish. Place on a rimmed baking sheet. Cut the puff pastry to fit just inside the rim of the dish.
Pour the potpie mixture into the dish, then cover with the puff pastry, trimming off the excess. (Reserve for another use, if desired.) Combine the remaining 1/4 cup of water and the egg to create an egg wash; brush it onto the puff pastry and discard the rest. Use a sharp knife to create a small hole at the center of the pastry or cut a few slits in the top. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until golden brown.
Let the potpie rest for 5 minutes before serving.
NOTES: To cook the lobsters, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the (live) lobsters, head first. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, then use tongs to transfer to the lobster to a large bowl of cold water and ice cubes. Once the lobsters have cooled, crack the tails, claws and knuckles to retrieve the meat, cutting it into 1/2-inch chunks.
To make lobster broth, transfer the lobster heads and any cracked shell to a large saucepan. Cover with at least 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat; cook for 10 to 15 minutes, then strain; discard the lobster heads and shells — or use a head for a striking garnish.
Nutrition Per serving (based on 4): 1,120 calories, 30 g protein, 93 g carbohydrates, 64 g fat, 37 g saturated fat, 280 mg cholesterol, 650 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Green Bean and Scallion Torta
4 to 6 servings
Steaming the torta inside a slow cooker helps create a tender, creamy texture.
You'll need a 6-cup souffle dish, a round rack to rest it on and a slow-cooker large enough to contain the dish. If you don't have a rack, make a thick coil using crumpled aluminum foil.
Adapted from "The Mediterranean Slow Cooker," by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
Unsalted butter, for the souffle dish
8 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed
6 large eggs
1/4 cup whole or low-fat (2 percent) milk
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions, white and light-green parts
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Grease the inside of the souffle dish with a little butter. Place the rack inside the slow-cooker.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add the green beans and a generous pinch of salt. Cook for about 7 minutes or until the beans are bright green and tender. Drain the beans in a colander and immediately rinse under cool running water. Pat them dry, then arrange them in the bottom of the souffle dish.
Whisk together the eggs and milk; season with a small pinch of salt and a generous sprinkling of pepper. Pour slowly into the souffle dish. Gently stir in the cheese, scallions and basil.
Pour 2 cups of very hot/just-boiled water into the slow cooker, then place the souffle dish on the rack in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on HIGH for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until a knife inserted into the center of the torta comes out clean. Remove the dish from the slow cooker.
Run a knife around the edge of the torta to help dislodge it from the souffle dish, then carefully slide it onto a serving plate. Cut into wedges; serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition Per serving (based on 6, using low-fat milk): 130 calories, 11 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 220 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
Citrus-Lemon Grass Rice Pudding
8 servings (9 cups)
Creamy and delicately perfumed, this version of rice pudding provides a cool lift at the end of a meal.
You'll need a 5- or 6-quart slow-cooker. If you don't have cheesecloth, use a rolling pin to smash the lemon grass, then tie it together with clean kitchen twine.
Adapted from "Year-Round Slow Cooker: 100 Favorite Recipes for Every Season," by Dina Cheney (Taunton, 2013).
5 inches lemon grass, smashed, then finely chopped
3 cups low-fat (2 percent) milk
3 1/2 cups canned, well-shaken coconut milk (two 13.5-ounce cans; do not use low-fat)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups uncooked medium-grain white rice, preferably arborio, rinsed with cold water and drained well
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated zest from a mixture of lemon, lime and orange, plus optional zest for garnish
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
Use cooking oil spray to grease the inside/insert of the slow-cooker.
Wrap up and tie the lemon grass in a piece of cheesecloth (for infusing). Place it in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, along with the milk, coconut milk, sugar and salt, over medium heat. Once the mixture is hot but not boiling, pour it into the slow-cooker (including the lemon grass sachet).
Stir in the rice. Cover and cook on LOW for 2 hours; the mixture will be bubbling at the edges. Remove from the heat; discard the lemon grass sachet, then stir in the zest, the vanilla extract or paste and the cardamom.
Cool slightly, then divide among individual bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.
Discard the wrap; garnish with the optional zest, if desired. The pudding will thicken further as it cools.
Nutrition Per serving: 520 calories, 8 g protein, 74 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 38 g sugar
This is not the stuff you'll find in a TV dinner tray. Savory and satisifying, these steaks can be pan-fried or oven-baked; see the VARIATION, below.
Serve with mashed potatoes.
Make Ahead: The steaks and sauce taste even better after a day's refrigeration. Reheat in a skillet over medium-low heat, covered, until warmed through.
Adapted from "Better Homes and Gardens: 365 Comfort Foods," from Better Homes and Gardens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton) or Hungarian sweet or hot paprika
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
Four 5-ounce beef cube steaks (may substitute two 10-ounce cube steaks, each cut in half)
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes with basil, oregano and garlic, with their juices
1 rib celery, cut on the diagonal into thin slices
1 medium carrot, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut crosswise into thin rounds
1 small onion, cut into thin slices that are separated into rings
1/4 cup water
Line a large plate with a few layers of paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large, heavy skillet (not cast iron) over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, stir together the flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a wide, shallow bowl. Dip each cube steak into the flour mixture to coat evenly and well, shaking off any excess.
Once the oil shimmers, add two or three of the coated steaks. Fry until golden brown on both sides, then transfer to the lined plate. Repeat to cook all of the steaks, using the remaining tablespoon of oil.
Drain/wipe out the fat in the skillet, then return the skillet to medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes and their juices, the celery, carrot, onion and water. Once the mixture comes to a boil, stir, then return all the meat to the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 1 1/4 hours or until the meat is tender. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
Serve the Swiss steak hot, with the vegetable mixture and its sauce.
VARIATION: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare and brown the cube steaks as directed above. Transfer them to an 8-cup-capacity baking dish. In the same skillet, combine the tomatoes and their juices, the celery, carrot, onion and water over medium-high heat; scrape the bottom to dislodge any browned bits, then pour the mixture evenly over the meat in the baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
Nutrition Calories per serving (pan-fried) 300, fat 13 g, saturated fat 3 g, cholesterol 60 mg, sodium 500 mg, total carbohydrates 12 g, dietary fiber 2g, sugar 5g, protein: 33g
Oatmeal Batter Bread
12 servings; one 1-pound loaf
This bread is easy to make, needs only a single rise and is remarkably low in fat.
Make Ahead: The dough needs to rise for at least 1 hour. The bread can be kept in a plastic bag at room temperature for 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.
Adapted from "Better Homes and Gardens: 365 Comfort Foods," from Better Homes and Gardens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014).
1 cup warm whole or 2 percent milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1/4 cup honey or packed light brown sugar
1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned or steel-cut rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking oats), plus more for optional garnish
Combine the milk, honey or brown sugar and the yeast in the bowl of stand mixer or a mixing bowl, stirring until the yeast has dissolved. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes.
Grease an 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan with cooking oil spray.
Add the all-purpose flour, egg, oil and salt to the yeast mixture. Beat on low speed until combined, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Increase the speed to high; beat for 3 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky.
Use a wooden spoon to stir in the whole-wheat flour and oats until well incorporated; this will take some arm strength. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan, spreading it evenly. Cover, and set it in a warm place to rise for at least 1 hour or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Uncover the loaf pan; sprinkle the bread with some oatmeal, if desired. Bake for about 15 minutes, then tent loosely with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped.
Uncover; immediately transfer the bread (in the loaf pan) to a wire rack to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving, or cool completely before storing.
Nutrition Calories per serving 160, fat 3g, saturated fat 1g, cholesterol 20 mg, sodium 100 mg, total carbohydrates 29 g, dietary fiber 2 g, sugar 6 g, protein: 5 g