Comfort food: Culinary curatives, plain and simple

Foods that make us feel good provide real comfort

Special to The Washington PostJanuary 2, 2014 

One winter, I came home with a fever and chills. I took myself to bed and dozed, dreaming of the one medicine I knew would work. Where could I get it? I could barely sit up, much less poke around the kitchen for noodles and carrots, celery and onion, a plump chicken and a pot big enough to hold them all.

I needed chicken soup, the surefire curative for my sore throat and virus, or at least the palliative. A box of Kleenex, a warm quilt and a bowl of chicken soup. That's what comfort food means to me.

But I'm not everyone. For others, comfort food might as easily be a bowl of ice cream. Mashed potatoes are a natural. So are meatballs, rice pudding and applesauce.

When I started thinking about it again recently, it took no time to list 75 possibilities. Every culture has its comfort foods; in ours, they are most commonly what is otherwise known as nursery food: Jell-O, custard, oatmeal without lumps. In addition to being soft, their color is neutral, and most likely they are basically a starch. (What can out-comfort chocolate pudding or tapioca?)

Everything about comfort food is soothing. The varieties of softness might range from silky to creamy to fluffy. Supporting that idea, most comfort foods require little chewing and are bland enough to leave your taste buds asleep. That leaves Thai food and Indian food behind, at least for many Americans. Still, every comfort food rule has an exception, which explains chili.

I once conducted a survey of what people ate when they woke up in the middle of the night. (As I'd expected, nearly everyone did eat when they awoke.) The overwhelming majority ate ice cream. A few ascetics drank warm milk. Almost all thought that the tryptophan, serotonin or melatonin in their milk helped them go back to sleep. That hasn't been proved, but the belief itself is effective.

For a more professional view on the subject, I asked a chef about comfort food. David Scribner, who has five young children, a busy restaurant in Washington, D.C., and four sandwich shops, undoubtedly has a great need for it. But it wasn't the need that he addressed. "Restraint," he said, repeating it a couple of times. What he meant is that comfort food is not an expression of a chef's personality. Quite the opposite. A chef must set aside personal expressions; comfort food is meant to be universal, the simplest and plainest of recipes, food with no individuality added.

When you veer from the straight and narrow, you'll find subcategories of comfort food, and exceptions to that rule about nursery food. The smooth purée edges into the creamy: chicken pot pie or tuna noodle casserole. Those segue into soft meats: chicken, meatloaf, meatballs. Chocolate is its own category.

And then there is crispness, Americans' most beloved of textures. Potato chips, fried chicken, Oreos. Despite their noisiness and chewing requirements, to leave them out would be un-American.

So what we are talking about here is food that is quiet in its mood, its effect and its impact, even when it crunches rather loudly. It might be considered an antidote to modernist, post-modernist and especially molecular gastronomy. It is beloved food, food that makes us feel good. If we hadn't come across it, we would have had to invent it.

Which is what I did, they say.

I don't really believe I created the term, but the Oxford English Dictionary and some Webster's dictionaries give me credit. They attribute the first print mention of "comfort food" to an article in the Washington Post Magazine in 1977. I wrote that article. I used the term to describe shrimp and grits. Since then — if not before — it has been one of my favorite food descriptors.


Steaming this torta inside a slow cooker helps create a tender, creamy texture.

You'll need a 6-cup souffle dish, a round rack to rest it on and a slow cooker large enough to contain the dish. If you don't have a rack, make a thick coil using crumpled aluminum foil.

Green bean and scallion torta

Unsalted butter, for the souffle dish

8 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed

Kosher salt

6 large eggs

1/4 cup whole or low-fat (2 percent) milk

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions, white and light-green parts

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

Grease inside of the souffle dish with a little butter. Place rack inside the slow-cooker.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add green beans and a generous pinch of salt. Cook about 7 minutes or until beans are bright green and tender. Drain beans in a colander and immediately rinse under cool running water. Pat them dry, then arrange them in the bottom of souffle dish.

Whisk together eggs and milk; season with small pinch of salt and generous sprinkling of pepper. Pour slowly into souffle dish. Gently stir in cheese, scallions and basil.

Pour 2 cups very hot just-boiled water into the slow cooker, then place souffle dish on the rack in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 11/2 to 2 hours or until a knife inserted into center of torta comes out clean. Remove dish from the slow cooker.

Run a knife around the edge of the torta to help dislodge it from the souffle dish, then carefully slide it onto a serving plate. Cut into wedges; serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Adapted from The Mediterranean Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone

Nutrition information per serving (based on 6, using low-fat milk): 130 calories, 11 g. protein, 5 g. carbohydrates, 8 g. fat, 220 mg. cholesterol, 250 mg. sodium, 1 g. sugar

Creamy and delicately perfumed, this version of rice pudding provides a cool lift at the end of a meal. You'll need a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. If you don't have cheesecloth, use a rolling pin to smash the lemon grass, then tie it together with clean kitchen twine.

Citrus-lemon grass rice pudding

5 inches lemon grass, smashed, then finely chopped

3 cups low-fat (2 percent) milk

31/2 cups (two 13.5-ounce cans) canned, well-shaken coconut milk (do not use low-fat)

11/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

11/2 cups uncooked medium-grain white rice, preferably arborio, rinsed with cold water and drained well

11/2 tablespoons finely grated zest from a mixture of lemon, lime and orange, plus optional zest for garnish

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

1⁄8 teaspoon ground cardamom

Use cooking oil spray to grease inside insert of the slow cooker.

Wrap up and tie lemon grass in a piece of cheesecloth (for infusing). Place it in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan low-fat milk, coconut milk, sugar and salt over medium heat. Once the mixture is hot but not boiling, pour it into the slow cooker and include the lemon grass sachet).

Stir in rice. Cover and cook on low for 2 hours; the mixture will be bubbling at the edges. Remove from heat; discard lemon grass sachet, then stir in zest, vanilla extract or paste, and cardamom.

Cool slightly, then divide among individual bowls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.

Discard wrap; garnish with optional zest, if desired. The pudding will thicken further as it cools. Makes 8 servings (9 cups).

Adapted from Year-Round Slow Cooker: 100 Favorite Recipes for Every Season,

Nutrition information per serving: 520 calories, 8 g. protein, 74 g. carbohydrates, 23 g. fat, 5 mg. cholesterol, 180 mg. sodium, 38 g. sugar

This is not the stuff you'll find in a TV dinner tray. Savory and satisfying, these steaks can be pan-fried or baked. Serve with mashed potatoes.

The steaks and sauce taste even better after a day's refrigeration. Reheat in a skillet over medium-low heat, covered, until warmed through.

Swiss steak

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton) or Hungarian sweet or hot paprika

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

Four 5-ounce beef cube steaks (may substitute two 10-ounce cube steaks, each cut in half)

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes with basil, oregano and garlic, with their juices

1 rib celery, cut on the diagonal into thin slices

1 medium carrot, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut crosswise into thin rounds

1 small onion, cut into thin slices that are separated into rings

1/4 cup water

Line a large plate with a few layers of paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large, heavy skillet (not cast iron) over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, stir together flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a wide, shallow bowl. Dip each cube steak into the flour mixture to coat evenly and well, shaking off any excess.

Once oil shimmers, add two or three of the coated steaks. Fry until golden brown on both sides, then transfer to lined plate. Repeat to cook all the steaks, using the remaining tablespoon of oil.

Drain, wipe out fat in the skillet, then return skillet to medium-high heat. Add tomatoes and their juices, celery, carrot, onion and water. Once the mixture comes to a boil, stir, then return all the meat to the pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 11/4 hours or until meat is tender. Taste; add salt and pepper as needed.

Serve Swiss steak hot, with the vegetable mixture and its sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Variations: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare and brown the cube steaks as directed above. Transfer them to an 8-cup-capacity baking dish. In the same skillet, combine tomatoes and their juices, celery, carrot, onion and water over medium-high heat; scrape bottom to dislodge any browned bits, then pour mixture evenly over meat in the baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake 1 hour or until the meat is tender.

Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens: 365 Comfort Foods

Nutrition information per serving (pan-fried): 300 calories, 13 g, fat, 60 mg. cholesterol, 500 mg, sodium, 12 g. total carbohydrates, 5 g. sugar, 33 g. protein.

This bread is easy to make, needs only a single rise and is remarkably low in fat.

The dough needs to rise for at least 1 hour. The bread may be kept in a plastic bag at room temperature for 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Oatmeal batter bread

1 cup warm whole or 2 percent milk (105 to 115 degrees)

1/4 cup honey or packed light brown sugar

1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

13/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup old-fashioned or steel-cut rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking oats), plus more for optional garnish

Combine milk, honey or brown sugar and yeast in the bowl of stand mixer or a mixing bowl, stirring until yeast has dissolved. Let the mixture rest for 5 minutes.

Grease an 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan with cooking oil spray.

Add all-purpose flour, egg, oil and salt to yeast mixture. Beat on low speed until combined, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Increase speed to high; beat for 3 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky.

Use a wooden spoon, stir in whole-wheat flour and oats until well incorporated; this will take some arm strength. Transfer batter to the loaf pan, spreading it evenly. Cover and set pan in a warm place to rise for at least 1 hour or until dough is doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Uncover loaf pan; sprinkle the bread with some oatmeal, if desired. Bake about 15 minutes, then tent loosely with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when lightly tapped.

Uncover; immediately transfer bread (in the loaf pan) to a wire rack to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving, or cool completely before storing. Makes 12 servings.

Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens: 365 Comfort Foods.

Nutrition information per serving: 160 calories, 3 g. fat, 20 mg. cholesterol, 100 mg, sodium, 29 g. total carbohydrates, 2 g. sugar, 5 g. protein.

Phyllis Richman was a restaurant critic for The Washington Post from 1976 to 2000. She is the author of three food mysteries and many dining books.

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