If you live up in my neck of the woods, there’s snow on the ground. Yesterday there was too, and tomorrow and the day after there will probably be snow outside as well.
Since we’re all stuck inside with no place to go (that’s certainly not a new experience), one of the topics that usually pops up in these situations is comfort food. Specifically how people love to make it and eat it when it’s cold, icy and snowy outside.
I find the term comfort food to be one of the most misused and abused terms in the food world. By my count, everything ever cooked except steak, lobster and caviar is considered a comfort food. If you at some time in your life liked it and didn’t have to mortgage the house for the ingredients, it’s a comfort food.
About 90 percent of what’s described as comfort food in my experience is laughable, but then again, my experience is colored by a mother who cooked as well as Taco Bell makes…well, anything. My Dad was the cook (he passed that on to me) so comfort food was pretty much whatever he made.
As a result, when people wax on about chicken soup being comfort food, I think of something awful that came out of a red and white can. Meatloaf? Growing up, I’d rather take a bite out of the guy singing “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights.” Beef Stew? Ours was Dinty Moore’s cheapest variety of mushy ingredients, covered in a brown, motor-oil-like gravy.
You get the picture.
The old man had a philosophy of comfort food that I’m not sure isn’t a good way to look at it. He thought – probably because he was really good at cooking it – that Italian food was the ultimate comfort food. He also made a distinction between the kind of food his father grew up with in the Potenza region of Italy in a town called Melfi, and what people in this country have long viewed as Italian food.
The stuff he was raised on – and loved – he referred to as “peasant food.” Where his Dad grew up, there wasn’t much money, meaning there was virtually no meat in dishes, you grew your own tomatoes and spices like basil and oregano, and you got your best flavor from using the freshest of ingredients you could find. He said once Italians came to America, meat and other ingredients were much more available, and it changed how a lot of dishes were made.
That’s why my dad called spaghetti and meatballs the ultimate peasant food. Pasta was just flour and eggs, you made the sauce from items in your garden, and if you did find some beef, it was really tough, so you ground it up and added bread crumbs and every filler you could to turn half a pound of meat into two pounds of meatballs. Then you let it simmer for hours until everything was tender.
My Dad extended this frugal philosophy into other dishes, which is why my top 5 comfort foods is probably different from yours. Here’s mine, in no particular order:
- FRIED BOLOGNA: It is lunchmeat’s original peasant food, but fried bologna and eggs brings back great memories for me. You can have the bacon, ham and other hi brow meats you want with breakfast (and I enjoy them too), but on a cold snowy morning, fried bologna, scrambled eggs with a little cheese on them, and a hot cup of coffee hits the spot.
- BAKED BEANS: He did it old school, soaking the white beans in water overnight, then cooking them with every ingredient in the refrigerator: ketchup, mustard, chopped up bacon, chopped onions, Karo syrup, brown sugar, molasses, and anything else he thought would be good, then baked it all for hours. We don’t go that old school, using Bush’s beans out of a can to start, but the rest of the process is similar. You will find, too, that if you visit 50 families, there will be 50 different recipes for baked beans. I was once at a picnic where the baked beans had ground beef and a few other ingredients I’d never used. It was wonderful, but that’s the magic of baked beans: The worst one you’ll ever have is still pretty good, as it goes with everything. And speaking of recipes, my wife thinks hers is better than mine, so she always makes them and my version just stays in my mind.
- LASAGNA: You knew there would be an Italian dish on this list, and this one is the ultimate comfort dish for me. Part of the appeal is you have to make a really good sauce (I use San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onions and everything in the spice cabinet) which needs to simmer for many hours, giving the house an aroma that I once described to my daughter as “this is what home smells like.” Then you layer the noodles, ricotta cheese, sliced meatballs and mozzarella. The old man judged you by how many layers you made, as we were once in a restaurant and the lasagna served was only three layers. “What, did the cook take a cigarette break and never come back to finish it?” was his comment. Mine are six rich layers of ingredients, topped with a thick and hearty sauce. It’s an all-day commitment, but worth the work.
- CHICKEN SALAD: As mentioned earlier, my mother wasn’t much of a cook. She’d throw chicken, beef, pork, or any meat into the oven, cook the life out of it, then put it on your plate and tell you that you could not leave the table until you finished it. I think this was generational, because early in my 40-year marriage, I made a pork loin using a meat thermometer to get the internal temp exactly right. My wife said “this is so moist and tender. How did you do it?,” and I answered that I had cooked it three hours less than her mother used to.
The old man didn’t like it either, but was a master at salvaging overcooked food, as he never threw anything out. He’d chop up the Sahara-like chicken, add sweet pickle, onion, chopped egg, mayo and everything he could get his hands on. To this day, I’ll buy a pack of chicken breasts, roast them, then send them straight to the cutting board to be chopped up and mixed together with the same ingredients the old man used (although I substitute chopped apple instead of onions sometimes). Served with a Ritz or Townhouse cracker, it’s a poor man’s caviar on a snowy day.
- BARBECUE: I was 40 years old, spending $10 for a BBQ plate all over the south in my travelling days before seeing this new cable offering called The Food Network. They showed how you took a cheap cut of meat called a Boston Butt or a pork shoulder, covered it in a dry rub, then slow cooked it to get it tender for 10 or more hours. It was the southern version of the old man’s “peasant food” philosophy. “This is the cooking technique of my people, so I should be able to do this,” I thought. The next time they were on sale for 99 cents a pound, I bought an 8 pounder, and for less than the cost of those barbecue plates, I had fantastic BBQ that has become a regular item on the menu here in my house ever since. It has everything Italian food does: fills the entire house with an aroma that smells like home, is in a big enough quantity to last for days, and family that rarely sees you, comes to visit when you make it (usually with a Tupperware container in hand). I always keep at least one pork shoulder in the freezer so whenever it’s cold and snowy, the option is there. Also works when your wife says your daughter hasn’t come for a visit in weeks. One text plus one pork shoulder usually equals one immediate visit. Trust me on this, it works 😊
That’s my list, but I’m always looking for better. Got a better comfort food? Leave a note about it in the comments!
...And I’m right there with you. Absolutely the best.
In my (Jewish) home, noodle kugel = comfort food. Has that same “thriftiness” idea to it.
My mother also made a potato-noodle soup (bring on the carbs!) that is the very definition of cheap comfort food.
My mother grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, and a lot of her favorite foods were influenced by all the great Kosher Delis in the area, so she preferred salami and eggs. My Dad, growing up in Altoona, PA, preferred bologna. He also preferred Scrapple, which is something that will never come into my house, refrigerator or kitchen. It's an acquired taste I will NEVER acquire
We had virtually no money and even less skill but frying up a can of spam sliced thin with sliced onions and sliced potatoes made us feel like we were living pretty well—and it chased a third roomie—who thought we were disgusting—out of the apartment.
I think it was a Navy thing. I know it was an acquired taste I never quite acquired