Comfort food. At one time it referred to simple, indulgent, humble food that "sticks to your ribs." These days it can mean standing in line for the privilege of forking over $30 for a plate of truffle mac n cheese plated by a celebrity chef. That was pre-pandemic, of course. Post-pandemic, who knows how the restaurant scene will play out, and whether people will climb over each other for a table at the latest and greatest "classic" diner. Hopefully our best local restaurants will survive and thrive once we're all sharing personal space again for a night on the town. Until then, though, we can certainly make comfort food at home.
Just what is comfort food? According to Wikipedia, "Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone, and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation. The nostalgia may be specific to an individual, or it may apply to a specific culture." I think everyone can agree on that. It's an indulgent food that makes you think happy thoughts of the past.
When I think comfort food, I think of my mom. My mother was the cook in our family, even while running the business she created and raising a child. Family meals were important to her, as was pushing the boundaries of American food. At that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, Julia Child's influence had begun to change the American palette for the better. As we emerged from the assembly line, casserole, frozen TV dinner era (Hello Swanson, food look like the pictures much?) into more adventurous cooking with influences from abroad, my mother produced some fantastic home made dishes. My father regularly reminded me that not every family ate that well, and he was right. Still, the dishes that stay lovingly in my memory are those I'd label as comfort food.
One such dinner employed a can of Campbell's tomato soup. Yes, we should all try not to routinely cook with a can of processed tomatoes and sodium, but most of us love reaching for this classic every once in a while. The dish was "Porcupine Meatballs." I don't have an exact recipe for this one, and like a lot of recipes, the actual procedures and proportions are not vital to the final outcome. The basics are as follows:
- Roll some large meatballs with a little instant rice (yes, I know, forget my earlier disparaging comments on said rice, it's required here, this is a quick and easy dinner)
- Brown them in an electric skillet (I use Le Creuset ovens these days, no cheap teflon to flake off in your food, better heat retention and cleanup)
- Pour a large can of tomato soup in the skillet/oven, add enough garlic powder to really taste it, throw a lid on it, and turn the heat down to simmer. Let it ride, as they say.
Not a fancy dish. Not a healthy dish. But...it was hot, fatty, salty, creamy, and tremendously satisfying. We always had it with au gratin potatoes (there are the carbs!) and strangely enough, blueberry muffins (more carbs). In retrospect, the muffins were likely a cheap and effective way to shove extra calories into a teenager with a "hollow leg."
That's my comfort food dish, and it ticked all the boxes. A fattier ground beef enriches the soup along with the garlic powder, and when the flavors all simmer together for a couple hours, it really is greater than the sum of its parts. Right, the "porcupine" part. That was due to the rice absorbing liquid and expanding, spiking out of the meatballs like a porcupine's quills. A link to an actual recipe is below, and I suppose I'll have to try it, maybe it's better. But it's not my nostalgia, not my comfort food from the past.
Now is a great time to whip up some of your own comfort food, maybe dust off an old classic from mom's recipe book, or find some new ones online. We could all use a little more comfort during this time, and cooking together at home is the best comfort of all.
Wait, that photo doesn't look like meatballs, what the heck is that? I couldn't find a royalty-free photo that matched my story. That is Poutine. Fries with cheese and gravy. Another recent foodie obsession. Hashtag Canada.
Why Comfort Food Comforts - The Atlantic
Classic Retro Porcupine Meatballs - The Kitchen Magpie
The French Chef - Dan Aykroyd