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Comfort foods: the good, the bad and the ugly. March 5, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The world of food writing, informative and entertaining as it is, is not exactly known for its bon mots. Personable, even irascible, often. Funny? Not so much. So I sat up and took notice when I read the following lead in an article about beignets by Regina Schrambling: “Deep-frying is the bacon of cooking techniques: It makes everything taste better.” Priceless!

Mind you, I’d be more inclined to agree with Gerard Depardieu’s character in the wonderful Queen Latifah movie, “Last Holiday,” Chef Didier, when he informs her that the secret to happiness is butter. Well, butter and salt. And sour cream and onions, and maybe some shredded extra-sharp white Cheddar cheese.

Which brings me to comfort foods. In the same issue of our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that featured the beignet piece (beignets are basically doughnuts, New Orleans style), Diane Stoneback wrote the lead article on local residents’ favorite comfort foods. Let’s just say that many of the folks who submitted their favorite recipes for the article clearly agreed with me that hot, rich, starchy, cheesy, buttery, creamy, salty dishes were the essence of comfort food. (We’ll try not to think about the reader whose favorite comfort food is a grilled cheese sandwich—so far, so good, right?—dunked in hot chocolate.)

Macaroni and cheese casserole, fettucine Alfredo, Cheddar broccoli soup, baked noodle casserole, mashed potato casserole, macaroni and cheese (yes, a second recipe), and pierogi casserole were all featured. You’ll note the common themes of pasta, potatoes, and cheese, typically accompanied by a ton of butter, cream or half-and-half, cream cheese or sour cream, and bread crumbs. Thank God the article failed to give the calorie counts for these recipes, or we’d all have died just reading them. None weighed in (so to speak) at under a million calories, I swear. But hey, maybe each dish feeds eight, so you’re only taking in a few hundred thousand calories instead.

Not that I’m arguing with these folks. I love potatoes, for example. But I would not love boiled potatoes mashed with a little of their cooking water and served plain, or a plain baked potato or, God forbid, the oft-recommended “dieter’s special” of half a baked potato topped with fresh salsa.

Hey, I love fresh salsa. I love it on refried beans, huevos rancheros, black bean soup, and taco salad (minus the taco and, God forfend, ground beef). But salsa and potatoes really don’t do it for me. Give me a (whole, please) baked potato with butter, salt, and black or lemon pepper. Give me mashed potatoes with butter, milk or half-and-half, salt or Trocamare, and black or lemon pepper. If I’m making a special comfort meal for our friend Ben, scale back the butter and milk or half-and-half in those potatoes and add some cream cheese instead.

Oatmeal is another classic cold-weather comfort food for me, with a little cinnamon and milk. I figured this one was healthy enough to do double-duty on the diet angel’s list, until I saw the version in Diane’s article that one reader called comfort food, oatmeal “enriched with craisins, brown sugar, butter, banana slices, pecans and half-and-half.” Why not have a sundae and be done with it?

But the most mind-boggling comfort-food recipe in the article was for a pierogi casserole. Our friend Ben and I were not acquainted with pierogies when we first moved to Pennsylvania, and are still more than bemused by the concept of enclosing mashed potatoes in pasta. (Admittedly, we feel the same way about gnocchi, those iconic Italian potato-flour dumplings.) Could we please just have pasta or potatoes?! Of course, we feel this way about bread being served with pasta, too, so maybe we’re just weird, or un-American, or something.

Our attitude is not shared around here, however, and simply marks us as outsiders. Our friend Rob’s idea of the ultimate comfort food is pierogis, as he says, “swimming in butter.” No doubt he’d love this casserole, which features 10-12 mashed potatoes, 1 lb. lasagna noodles, 3/4 lb. shredded white Cheddar cheese, and 2 1/2 sticks of butter. Could I just say again, 2 1/2 sticks of butter in one casserole?!!! The dish also includes 2 chopped onions and salt to taste, in case you’re wondering. I guess at least the onions are healthy.

What are my favorite comfort foods? Biscuits with fried eggs and grits (a once-yearly treat, when visiting down South), or a crusty baguette with butter and good cheese (served with grapes or apple slices or sliced radishes or cherry tomatoes or salad, and, of course, wine), rank very high on my list. So do buttered table water crackers, preferably with Brie and apple slices, or buttered, salted rice, preferably with plain yogurt and dal. So does full-fat, small-curd cottage cheese, with sliced tomatoes in season or—a regional favorite around here that I was a very long time trying but found to be delicious—with apple butter in winter. So does a club sandwich with Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato, and mayo on whole-wheat toast with sweet potato fries. So does a Caprese salad with arugula, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, sliced tomatoes, capers, olive oil, salt, and pepper in hot weather. So do fabulously good vegetable spring rolls with dipping sauce and salt, or appallingliy hi-cal Chinese treats like bean curd Szechuan style and General Tso’s bean curd, with, of course, lots of rice and salt.

Our friend Ben was considerably less restrained when I asked him about his favorite comfort foods. “All of the above (except the cottage cheese and tofu dishes), plus peanut M&Ms, potato chips, Cheetos, fried chicken, bacon and tomato sandwiches, barbecued spare ribs—well, barbecue, period—corncakes, fried grits, real waffles, fresh-baked bread… And say, Silence, what about dessert?!”

Our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders had a good deal to say about his favorite comfort foods as well. “Jalapeno poppers, super-hot salsa and tortilla chips, chiles rellenos, quesadillas, fajitas, red-hot Buffalo wings… and hot dogs.” Hot dogs?!! “Sorry, sometimes nothing says comfort like a fat, sizzling hot dog or bratwurst, split and grilled until it’s covered with black stripes, in a bun topped with relish, onions, mustard, chili, hot sauce… ”

“How about a huge, hot corned beef sandwich on rye with all the trimmings?” OFB added, getting into the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.

“Can anybody say ‘pizza’?” I decided to go for the obvious.

“PIZZA!!!!” everybody shouted. Well, alrighty then.

Okay, guys, fine. Comfort desserts, from my point of view, deserve a post all their own, from tiramisu and baklava to banana cream pie and chess pie to tapioca pudding and Dove bars. We’ll get back to you. Meanwhile, what are your favorite comfort foods? Please share them with us. And if you’d like to find the recipes for the Morning Call‘s comfort-food recipes, go to www.themorningcall.com.

        ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Comments»

1. My Grandparent's Kitchen - March 5, 2011

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. ~Luciano Pavarotti

Ah… words to live by!

2. h.ibrahim - March 5, 2011

You gotta love Pavarotti—i agree with your version of oatmeal though i like a little cream on top and the corned beef sandwitch—yumm

Yum is right!


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