The comfort food to fuel your winter

The comfort food to fuel your winter
By Karl Wells
First published by

These brief, cold, damp days of winter make us seek ways to counteract the gloomy emotional and physical effects of our maritime weather. When we’re not taking southern mini breaks under hot sunshine and azure skies, we often seek comfort in food. Highly satisfying comfort food, like deliciously gooey macaroni and cheese or slow-cooked beef stew.

It – comfort food – is the culinary equivalent of a mother’s embrace, wearing a favourite wooly sweater or a cozy pair of slippers, snuggling up beside a crackling fire, wrapping yourself in a fluffy duvet, or finally being able to sleep in your own bed after two weeks on the road.

Of course, each of us has his or her own idea of comfort food. Sometimes cultural or geographical differences are at play, as I was reminded last fall when I read a piece by Kimberly Pierceall of The Virginian~Pilot about the Mercy Chefs organization. These remarkable chefs prepare and serve comfort food to victims and first responders in disaster zones.

Pierceall wrote, “Depending on the disaster zone, Mercy Chefs menus have been Kosher, Halal, Tex-Mex and Cajun.” Most recently, in the Carolinas, Mercy Chefs served those affected by Hurricane Florence “clam chowder, ham-and-sweet potato biscuits and mac ‘n cheese.”

No matter the recipe, there are certain qualities that all comfort food dishes have in common. They’re hot, rich and buttery. Ingredients are easily sourced. Flavours are robust, aromas intoxicating. Umami, the savoury fifth taste, is present. Textures are tender, cooking uncomplicated and, finally, comfort food dishes are nostalgic.

We love comfort foods because they remind us of the first, wonderful time we tasted them, when we were young and contented. They’re dishes we turn to, time and again, when we want to feel better, to have our spirits lifted. For me it’s deep brown, molasses flavoured baked beans enriched with salt pork. My Mom would make them for Saturday supper, along with her fragrant, warm, white bread.

When I make baked beans and white bread I use the recipes from Edna Staebler’s classic Canadian cookbook, Food that Really Schmecks – which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication in 2018. The word “schmecks” refers to something that tastes incredibly good.

My mother never used recipes. She made baked beans and everything else from memory. Edna Staebler’s recipe is perfect. It tastes the same as my Mom’s, as does the recipe for basic white bread in Food that Really Schmecks, which came from Staebler’s friend, Clara May, of Neil’s Harbour, Nova Scotia.

In 1968 Staebler wrote, in her book’s introduction, about the first dinner party she ever gave. Fellow writers were visiting her cottage at Sunfish Lake (in Southern Ontario) from Toronto. The following passage sums up what Edna Staebler’s food was all about. I believe it’s as good a description of comfort food as you’ll find.

“My dinner would not be elaborate, or exotic, with rare ingredients and mystifying flavours; traditional local cooking is practical: designed to fill up small boys and big men, it is also mouth-wateringly good and variable.

My guests from Toronto arrived. I served them bean salad, smoked pork chops, shoo-fly pie, schmierkase (spready cheese) and apple butter with fastnachts (raised doughnuts). At first they said, ‘Just a little bit, please,’ but as soon as they tasted, their praise was extravagant–lyrical to my wistful ears. They ate till they said they would burst. They ate till everything was all (nothing left).”

I was curious what other people might choose as a favourite comfort food dish. So, I employed social media and asked my Facebook friends what dish they would pick. I received over 100 responses. The five most popular choices were: macaroni and cheese, stew, lasagna, roast turkey dinner and chili con carne. Other choices ranged from risotto and biryani to pan-fried cod tongues and enchiladas. I was surprised that only one person chose meatloaf, which would have made my top three list: baked beans, mac ‘n cheese and meatloaf – with ketchup of course!

Next, I asked some Atlantic Canadian cooks to name their favourite comfort foods, including recipes available in their books. (All have new cookbooks on the market.)
Alain Bossé is the affable Acadian known as “The Kilted Chef.” His cookbook, The Acadian Kitchen, celebrates the Maritimes cuisine that originated when Canada’s East Coast and parts of the USA were called, Acadie, and ruled by the French.

At least 85 percent of The Acadian Kitchen’s recipes – including Cajun and French-Acadian fusion recipes – qualify as comfort food, beginning with seafood chowders and stews like oyster chowder and wine braised beef stew, followed by a variety of much-loved dishes like cabbage rolls, chicken pot pie and meatloaf, ending with creamy rice pudding, blueberry grunt and old fashion jelly roll cake.

“We didn’t grow up eating any foods that could be classified as fancy,” Alain Bossé told me. “Comfort foods to me,” he continued, “are one-pot dishes such as casseroles, and one item that I’m a bit embarrassed to share. I would have to say shepherd’s pie, hamburger and macaroni (what my Mom called goulash) and, pasta with Catelli meat sauce.”

The latter, as you may have guessed, is the source of Bossé’s slight embarrassment. Although, I’m sure Alain Bossé and all of us agree that apologies are never necessary when it comes to a personal choice in foods that comfort and gladden the heart.

Naturally, Bossé recommends every recipe in The Acadian Kitchen but suggests two that stand out. “Chicken fricot, which is basically a chicken stew with dumplings and the jam-jam cookies. They’re a molasses type cookie with a jam centre.” “But,” he adds, “I think Acadian food in general ticks all the comfort food boxes. It’s just basic wholesome food. So, maybe, that’s the real definition of comfort food.”

Jessica Mitton is a holistic nutritional consultant and author of Some Good, featuring many popular Newfoundland recipes which she’s adjusted and classified gluten free, dairy free and refined-sugar-free. She says, “My definition of comfort food might differ from some. For me, comfort food isn’t only the food that satisfies your taste buds, but that also nourishes your mind and body … My favourite comfort foods are hot elixirs, warming soups or stews, and cookies.”

Bossé’s The Acadian Kitchen and Mitton’s Some Good are similar in that they feature the dishes of a specific region and each region’s locally sourced ingredients. Both authors believe that local ingredients are essential for taste and good nutrition. In fairness, these days most cookbook authors, cooks and chefs advocate using fruit, vegetables and protein from local farms and producers, or ingredients that come from as close to where you live as possible.

Some Good has Newfoundland’s unique tasting moose, bakeapples, partridgeberries, cod, scallops, salmon and root vegetables. Bossé’s cookbook is larger, with more recipes, and taps into a wider variety of ingredients. The Acadian Kitchen, as its name suggests, focuses on much loved Acadian ingredients like oysters, herring, lobster, game and fiddleheads, often seasoned with the Acadian staple, herbes salées.

Jessica Mitton identified several comfort food recipes in Some Good.

“Seafood chowder is one of my favourites, as well as the smooth and warming curry lentil root stew. Others would be baked beans, roasted veggies, healthy hermit cookies and blueberry cottage pudding.”

While a comfort food main course can easily be found amongst the rib-sticking recipes of The Acadian Kitchen and Some Good, hors d’oeuvres and appetizers occupy every inch of real estate in Jenny Osburn’s, The Kitchen Party Cookbook.

Osburn says that when she dines on comfort food she feels “like the luckiest human on earth. My youngest daughter asked me, ‘Mommy, why do you close your eyes like that when you’re eating?’ She hasn’t noticed yet that I also breathe weird, so I can really taste the food. When it’s gone there is a feeling of sweet contentment, unless I’ve overdone it, which can be a real danger with comfort food.”

Osburn told me that her favourite comfort food is maki rolls, followed by her Mom’s seven-layer dip and “Italian-influenced cooking, the kind where the vegetables are soft, and you pour olive oil over everything.”

The Kitchen Party Cookbook, has no photos but what it lacks in visual stimulation it makes up for in plenty of well-written recipes. Jenny Osburn claims many of them as comfort food recipes, including the seven-layer dip.

“There are downright tasty meatballs, tiny donairs, coconut fried scallops, and snow crab dip. There’s a recipe for the samosas I’ve made since I was 15 and the garlic topped mushrooms I swooned over in Spain. I’ve tried to create recipes that taste amazing every time, which is key to the true comfort food experience.”

If we were to put together a multi-course comfort food buffet, with appetizers from The Kitchen Party Cookbook and mains from The Acadian Kitchen and Some Good, then Rock Recipes Cookies by Barry C. Parsons could be our dessert provider. It’s a cookie compendium of recipes that Parsons has posted on his website for the past decade.

Like many of the people who responded to my Facebook survey, Barry C. Parsons chose a Newfoundland favourite as his top comfort food.

“A turkey dinner with all the trimmings is probably my favourite comfort food. In our extended family, this is often Sunday dinner, not just holiday fare. It takes me back to many a happy Sunday in my Nan’s kitchen.”

Rock Recipes Cookies, with its colourful, mouth watering photos of cookies of every variety imaginable, can give you a sugar rush just by skimming it. Parsons’s cookie cyclopedia has them all, including the Parkin, a “sticky oat spice cake” from Old Blighty, the Australian Lamington, “cake dipped in a decadent chocolate syrup and then rolled in coconut,” and the UK’s beloved Jammie Dodger, two vanilla cookies stuck together with jam. Raspberry jam is preferred, or so I’m told by my British correspondents.

As for especially comforting choices from his Rock Recipes Cookies book, Parsons admits, “Many are from my grandmothers and aunts. Nan Morgan’s snowballs and Aunt Marie’s date crumbles leap to mind, as do Aunt Aggie’s peanut butter cookies. I can’t count the endless numbers of those I must have eaten over the years, or the countless number of them I must have made for my own children. In our family, comfort food does not skip a generation.” An interesting point, which supports a notion of mine.

After spending so much time with the cookbooks I’ve been telling you about, I noticed a strong, common theme. A warm, reassuring thread that binds the books together. It’s the devotion to treasured recipes devised – in some cases, generations ago – by close family members and friends. The evidence was in every book I dipped into in my search for comfort food.

In Edna Staebler’s, Food that Really Schmecks, her dear friend Bevvy, whose soups Staebler loved, is mentioned almost as much as the author’s mother. In The Acadian Kitchen, Alain Bossé refers to his Mom’s delicious corn chowder and his vivid memories of selling fiddleheads as a Boy Scout – later making soup from the leftovers.

Jessica Mitton borrows from her parents and grandmother in Some Good, with recipes like her Mom’s baked beans, baked bread – inspired by her Dad – and her grandmother’s molasses cookies. Jenny Osburn’s, The Kitchen Party Cookbook, and Rock Recipes Cookies by Barry C. Parsons contain similar references to parents, relatives and friends.

Parents, grandparents and others we care about, and who care about us, use a special ingredient in the food they cook for us. It’s why my Mom’s baked beans and the authors’ family favourites tasted so good. The ingredient is love. Love is what they poured into their pots and pans, along with everything else, and we could taste it.

It’s why all other versions of our favourite comfort foods, including ones we make ourselves, never taste quite as good. Still, when we make them, long-held memories and the feelings we’ve stored in our hearts, are strong enough to make those comfort foods taste better than anything we will ever taste again.