Is "comfort food" a culinary or a psychological term? How do you define it? Historically, we can see that it goes back to at least 1958, when a Dr. Gerald Brill, physician in charge of a New York City nutrition clinic at the time, used it in an article in The Catholic Digest (thanks, Erica Peters of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and the ASFS ListServ for finding this for me).
"Psychologists call these 'comfort' foods. Comfort foods are remembered from childhood. The child who scrapes a knee is comforted with ice cream. 'A comfort food,' says Dr. Brill, 'no matter what the food is, helps do away with the cause of stress. It is better, in such cases, to eat it than to eat an unsatisfying 'digestible' dish of cereal."
Bret Thorn, food editor at Nation's Restaurant News, explains that "as a general rule, comfort food is used to describe the cuisine that takes you to a safe emotional place, usually your childhood." He reminded me of the scene in "Ratatouille" when the critic took a bite of Rataouille's food and was immediately transported back to his childhood.
But, of course, some of our cravings for comfort food come this time of year, when it's chilly and perhaps we need an emotional or culinary blankie. But, even that has an explanation, Peters pointed out. Comfort food "didn't really take off until the 1970s. And it didn't become connected specifically with warm, wintery foods until the 1980s when the soup industry decided to market soup as comfort food."
Food has always been a source of comfort, both historically and from birth. But now in the U.S. comfort food's become culinary slang for dishes like macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, and rice pudding. We eat it in Mom's or Nana's kitchen or in a diner. In different cultures, you'll obviously find different common comfort foods. Congee in China, perhaps. Goulash in Hungary. Bangers and mash in England. Ramen in Japan. Menudo in Mexico. The list could go on and on. And while typically what it's all had in common is that it's inexpensive, uncomplicated, and easy to prepare, we're now seeing upscale chefs adopting the basic concepts of comfort food but using the more refined techniques and ingredients of haute cuisine to create an elevated version of comfort food.
A local chef who has built a restaurant around the concept (and will be launching a second this year in Encinitas) is Matt Gordon of Urban Solace in North Park. He doesn't make macaroni and cheese. He makes duckaroni. Pot roast? Nope. Now, it's beef cheeks. And if dessert is your culinary blankie, try his red velvet cake.
Matt and I will be on KPBS radio's These Days Tuesday, Feb. 2 from 10 to 11 a.m. to talk about comfort food with host Maureen Cavanaugh. We'll talk about our favorite comfort foods and how to make them, traditional winter comfort foods, economical tips for making these dishes, local restaurants that offer delicious comfort foods, and we'll finish with dessert.
Now, just because I've bought into the soup industry's marketing doesn't mean it isn't valid. This time of year I love making big pots of soups and stews that I can freeze in individual servings so that when the overwhelming craving hits, I have it at the ready. One of my favorites is something my friend Laura Levy of laurasbestrecipes.com introduced me to: Green Chile Stew. She's since altered it to include a variety of different vegetables. I still prefer the original because the flavors are purer and the texture is richer. That's the recipe below. Next summer when Hatch chiles from New Mexico are available, be sure to pick up as many as you can afford. You can usually find them at Bristol Farms or at the Hillcrest Farmers Market or Little Italy Mercato sold by Richies Roasted Products. Roast them, peel the skin, and either use them or freeze them for winter so you can make this stew.
Laura Levy's Green Chile Stew
3 cups chopped roasted New Mexico or Hatch chiles - skins and seeds removed
2.5 - 3 lbs cubed pork shoulder
3 Tbsp - Masa Flour
2 Tbsp - Oil
1 large yellow onion - chopped
2 Tbsp - butter
32 oz - Chicken stock
2-3 Yukon Gold potatoes - 1/4 inch cubes
8+ cloves of garlic - chopped
2 Tbsp - Fresh chopped Oregano
1 Tbsp - Fresh chopped Thyme
2 Additional Tbsp - Masa (if needed to thicken)
• Dredge pork cubes in Masa Flour in plastic bag until all pieces are coated.
• Brown in oil in large Dutch oven or pot - set aside
• Add butter to same pan, lightly cook onion until slightly colored (not browned) - then add garlic cook 1-2 minutes until aromatic.
• Add small amount of chicken stock to browned bottom of pot/dutch oven - as stock heats up, scrape browned bits off of the pan to create a roux. After all bits are scraped, add remaining stock to pan
• Add remaining ingredients to same pan (except added Masa). Bring to slow boil, then cover, reduce to simmer and cook until pork is tender - an hour is usually good - too long and the meat will toughen. Make sure it isn't boiling too much as it will cook too fast. Sometimes I turn the stove off after about 40 minutes to make sure it cooks slowly.
• Add salt/pepper to taste
• After 45 minutes, check consistency - if it needs to be thicker slowly add a small amount of Masa at a time and stir until thick - shouldn't be more than 2 Tbsp. The chiles will breakdown into the roux while cooking. Taste for heat - if you like it spicy, add a couple of diced serrano chiles. Garnish with sour cream and cilantro. Serve with corn bread or homemade tortillas... and several Tecate's or margaritas!!