By Lia Jonsson
It doesn’t matter where in the world you live: When the winds blow and the temperature dips, it’s time to stay indoors, sip warm drinks and eat comfort food.
From one region to another and one culture to the next, the only differences are what, exactly, constitutes comfort food. I think many would agree that simple preparation, familiar ingredients, one-dish meals, and recipes that are as good reheated the next day as they are when originally consumed are “comforting.”
They can be the glue that binds families together on weekends — and they are often the favorite meals of those who must be away from home and family, because they speak of good times, good tastes and good memories.
Comfort foods are often the simplest: Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and dumplings, and beef stew. In some parts of the country, comfort food is gumbo, clam chowder or mashed potatoes and gravy. In other areas, it’s green chile chicken enchiladas; in others, oyster stew; and in still others, barbecue and ranch beans. Whatever comes to mind, in your mind, qualifies.
Cook What You Love
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard came from Bobby Flay, that lovable cooking show grilling guru, at a cooking show here in Dallas a couple of years ago.
“Learn to cook what you love to eat,” he said. It’s as simple as that.
Flay said, “If you love salad, learn to make the best possible vinaigrette dressing.” By mastering that one simple recipe, he said, your salads will always be spectacular. He quickly showed a 9-year-old who said she loved salad to whip up a great dressing out of 4 or 5 readily-available ingredients. Good advice, and advice too often dismissed. Other great chefs recommend learning to “play” in the kitchen. It works!
There are few rules in cooking, other than pleasing your own palate and using the best, freshest, most flavorful ingredients you can find. We have talked before about experimentation, and about improvising in the kitchen. Michael Pollan talks about that as well in his new book, Cooked: A History of Transformation . “Cooking makes food taste more interesting, and generally better,” he says, and makes the diet more varied. He also underscores the fact that food flavors and odors remind us of other experiences, stimulate our memories and speak to us of good times.
Note: We are likely to hear more about Michael Pollan when Adam Cohen returns next week from the Urban and Small Farms Conference in Milwaukee, where Pollan was featured.
Add Comfort to Your Routine
Now that fall is undeniably with us here in North Texas, it’s time to indulge that need for shelter, comfort and warmth. Football games, movies and quiet afternoons in front of a blazing fire seem perfectly acceptable ways to spend a weekend. So, settle in to enjoy the things you love this fall; enjoy the warmth of home and hearth with your family and friends, and think about what defines your comfort zone.
You may find that inviting a group to watch the game at your home is much more fun than meeting friends at a drafty sports grill. If you can get the group to help you cook, as suggested by Pollan, it’s much more of a social occasion, and something to be encouraged.
If so, stock up on your favorite drinks, plump up the sofa pillows, make some fresh popcorn, and prepare some hearty comfort food. Here’s a basic recipe:
Baked Chicken Legs
Season the legs with garlic and celery salt, and a bit of cayenne, and roll them in Italian bread crumbs. Pop them into a 400 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until browned and crispy. Serve with a blue cheese dip, ranch dressing or a honey mustard sauce. Add some kale chips or bite-size pieces of fresh kale and cherry tomatoes; and cheer your favorite team on to victory.