Comforting Foods

As the cool nights of fall foretell the coming of winter, we begin to spend more time indoors, and renew the seasonal menu changes from grilled meats, to hearty stews and soups. There are a few more weeks before the grill is semi-retired, but it won't be long before the fragrant smells of the cold weather kitchen evoke hospitality and warmth. It is the time of year when we turn from picnics and barbeques to chili, pot roast, meatloaf and pasta. It is time for comfort foods.

We have all heard the term "comfort foods", although I have doubts that we could reach any agreement as to what constitutes a "comfort food". For each of us, there are certain dishes, which draw us back to times when we felt secure, loved and happy. These are our comfort foods. The recipes are different but the emotional anchor they provide us is substantially similar. Comfort food is more than tasting good; comfort foods make us feel good.

Comfort foods are more than consuming what's placed on the plate. Many times, it is the actual process of preparation that makes a food comforting. The memories of making cabbage rolls with Aunt Sadie, being assigned the "important" job of spaghetti sauce stirrer by Mom, or learning to bake dropped sugar cookies with Grandma causes a reaction to the food that amplifies the mere culinary enjoyment of what's been prepared.

Your comfort food may be as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup which evokes memories of a hot lunch after a cold and wet morning of sledding or perhaps meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy that draws us back to the warmth of our childhood kitchen. Of course, there's always ice cream, a culinary balm for the soul. The emotional connection we have with our particular comfort food isn't to be confused with the general dependency some develop on ANY (and all) food as a source of security. No, comfort foods are singular, personal and specific, going deeply into our psyche.

It seems to me that as cold weather drives us indoors, the days are shortened, and things are just sometimes cold and bleak, we rekindle our need for our comfort foods. There is something that draws us in the dreary fall and bleak winter to our own snug hearths, to the warmth of family and friends gathered in the kitchen. We experience this throughout the Holiday season, but it is present (and perhaps more important) on a damp and dark October evening when the forecast calls for more damp and dark or a cold, blustery February Sunday when all we have to look forward to is an equally cold, blustery Monday.

For me, the holy grail of comfort foods is my mother's pot roast. As the beef slowly cooked all Sunday afternoon, the wonderful smells would seek you out. The gravy was so good, with a loaf of bread, you could make a meal. Sure, I like meatloaf or lasagna as much as the next guy, but on a cold weekend, it's just got to be that pot roast. So, while chicken soup may be good for a cold, just when you think winter will never end, I can guarantee that you'll find solace in my favorite comfort food.

Catalonian Pot Roast: For 6-8

2-3 lb. square cut round roast
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large sweet onion, chopped
1 bottle red table wine (if you wouldn't drink it, why would you cook with it?)
¼ cup olive oil
3 bay leaves
coarse ground pepper
salt to taste
3 tbsp. flour blended in ½ cup reserved wine
1 tsp. sugar

Place beef, peppers, and onions in a large zip-lock bag (or glass bowl). Cover with wine, reserving ½ cup. Refrigerate overnight, turning 3 or 4 times until ready to cook. Remove meat from marinade, reserving all peppers, onions and liquid. Dry meat well and dust with flour. Add oil to preheated Dutch oven and brown meat on all sides. Add reserved peppers, onions and liquid, bay leaves, coarse ground pepper and cover, reducing heat to a low simmer. Cook 3 hours, turning once. Remove meat to a plate, and puree the cooking liquid with vegetables (food mill, food processor, stick blender) until smooth. Return liquid with pureed vegetables to Dutch oven, and bring to a low boil. Add flour/wine mixture, whisking to thicken gravy. Check seasoning, add sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Return meat to pot, partially cover, and allow to barely simmering as balance of meal is prepared. Place meat on a heated platter; carve against the meat grain in ¼ inch slices. Ladle gravy into serving bowl.

I usually serve this with homemade spaetzles, and for those with a spaetzle maker (see culinary gadget competition #2), I'll post the recipe on the Observation Deck. Otherwise, there are some good dried spaetzles (Magi) and Heinen's usually has fresh ones. Of course, you can always go with mashed potatoes.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 1, Issue 8, Posted 09.45 AM / 16th November 2005.