Friday, November 9, 2012

Food, Comforting Food

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the November 9, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Last week when Hurricane Sandy pounded Norwood and the rest of the Eastern seaboard, I spent the day at home cooking comfort food. I was tempting fate but I also knew that I had a gas range and oven to fall back on. In any event, I started preparing early in the day: a braid of bread, macaroni and cheese, and a potato-leek soup.

Thanks to Norwood Light, our home and the rest of the town were both blessed with continuous power. We stayed toasty and warm and constant whiffs of baking bread, bubbling cheese and simmering vegetables accompanied our furtive glances outdoors as the trees blew and bent and the leaves swirled at our doorstep.

Comfort food might seem to be a relatively recent phrase but it’s apparently an ancient concept. Comfort food is usually high in sugars, fats and carbs and often reminds us of our grandparents, families or times of security and contentment. It certainly can’t be considered the healthiest of food; note that my menu above had an overwhelming scarcity of the green stuff. Who exactly craves broccoli or kale under stress?

American comfort foods include a host of sweet, fatty, carb-rich foods like chocolate chip cookies, mashed potatoes, apple and pumpkin pies, banana pudding, and macaroni and cheese. Certainly there is plenty of nourishment to be found among the unhealthy calories and some comfort foods like chicken soup and lean chili can actually have medicinal qualities during times of illness.

But, let’s face it. The soft and creamy, warm and hearty foods are the ones many of us reach for when we are dealing with stress.

Pasta-type recipes mixed with cheese can be found in many cultural cuisines. Thomas Jefferson returned from Paris and Italy and the American palate was forever changed with the addition of macaroni pie. Layers of pasta and cheese sauce, baked in the oven until bubbly, became a household standard in this country over a century ago.

“Mac & Cheese: More than 80 Classic and Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food” by Ellen Brown (2012) was recently published in September. It is full of classic and exotic versions, all of which are full of comfort and calories. Whether you like the standard dish with an abundance of cheese or want to try something a bit different with crab or lobster, Brown has all the choices. The book also includes a few decadent and caloric desserts such as orzo pudding made with Grand Marnier or macaroni with a rich and nutty Mascarpone sauce.

Laura Werlin is an authority on cheese and she has written several books (“The New American Cheese” and “Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials”) and she adds her cheese expertise to “Mac & Cheese, Please!: 50 Super Cheesy Recipes” (2012). The book includes fun and quirky recipes like Porky Mac & Cheese and Breakfast for Dinner Mac & Cheese. And if you’re looking for double the comfort (tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches), Werlin wrote “Grilled Cheese, Please!” in 2011 with gobs of deliciousness melted between slices of focaccia, bacon, onions and croissants.

The Brass sisters, Marilyn and Sheila, are hometown girls from Boston with over 114 years of cooking between them. They’ve written several cookbooks with traditional foods as a familiar theme and “Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters, Queens of Comfort Food: Recipes You Remember and Love” (2008) is just one of them. The Brass sisters have collected best-loved recipes over the years and this book might take you down the memory lane your own family walks.

Comfort food isn’t only a New England invention and proof of that is books like “Southern Plate: Classic Comfort Food That Makes Everyone Feel Like Family” (2010) by Christy Jordan and “Emeril’s Potluck: Comfort Food with a Kicked-Up Attitude” (2004) by Emeril Lagasse. Christy compiled her recipes from her Alabama family of cooks, especially those of her grandmother. Emeril does his cooking up big, as usual, and most of the recipes in his book serve just less than a dozen people. Crowds love comfort, of course, and his book includes plenty of it in the form of soups and casseroles.

Paula Deen wrote the introduction to David Venable’s “In the Kitchen with David: QVC’s Resident Foodie Presents Comfort Foods That Take You Home” (2012) and there should be no surprise that the book is full of recipes like Scrumptious Hush Puppies or Banana Cream Cheesecake. It’s no surprise, either, that David Venable loves bacon and other calorie-laden comfort foods that reside in his roots of a South Carolina childhood.

Further afield, of course, is “Saveur: The New Comfort Food: Home Cooking from around the World” (2011) edited by James Oseland. Americans don’t corner the market on comfort; bowls of noodles and huevos rancheros are examples from other cultures. Saveur is an international magazine and there are a hundred yummy examples from around the world.

So, now you’re afraid you’ve gained a few ounces just reading this column? Take heart. You can rely on “Cooking Light Comfort Food: Home Cooked, Delicious Classics Made Light” (2011) by the editors of Cooking Light Magazine and “Comfort Food Fix: Feel-Good Favorites Made Healthy” (2011) by Ellie Krieger. The Cooking Light editors help transform some favorite comforting recipes into healthier versions while keeping some of the best flavor. Imagine! A heart-healthy version of sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes. Beyond that, there are improved versions of fried chicken and brownies. Ellie Krieger includes tricks to make favorite recipes like meatloaf and lasagna with less calories and saturated fat without taking away the flavor and good feelings of sustenance.

Comfort food can also be gluten-free. “Paleo Comfort Foods: Homestyle Cooking for a Gluten-Free Kitchen” by Julie and Charles Mayfield and “The Gluten Free Gourmet Cooks Comfort Foods: More Than 200 Recipes for Creating Old Favorites with New Flours” (2004) by Bette Hagman are proof that “healthy and comfort can co-exist.” Healthy versions of chicken pie and banana pudding? You’ll find them here.

If you would like to reserve any of the titles above please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or visit the Minuteman Library Network catalog online to reserve them.