Eating in the name of comfort: Chefs dish on fond foods
Chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, pot roast, mashed potatoes, fried chicken ... for many, these foods not only sooth hunger pangs, but they conjure good memories and offer a sense of safety and enjoyment.
Comfort food is a complex concept that embodies the interplay between memory, history and brain chemistry. The foods we eat are tied to our memories of the people with which we've shared them, the circumstances through which we discover them and the situations we associate with them.
And while preferences for comfort foods tend to be as diverse as the people who consume them, they ultimately come down to three factors: security, reward and connectedness.
Physiologists at the University of California have reported that nervous tension causes the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, which in turn trigger comfort-seeking responses in humans and animals alike. Lab rats respond by seeking pleasure, including eating high-energy food like sugars and fats. Humans seem to respond similarly, often looking to indulgent foods as a form of comfort and relaxation.
As the weather grows chilly and the holiday season approaches, our desire for comfort food increases. So, I invited a few Milwaukee chefs to share some of their own favorites, and give me a sense of which dishes they're making in their restaurant kitchens that carry those same comforting qualities.
For Justin Carlisle, executive chef at Umami Moto, comfort has everything to do with his memories of his grandmother and foods she used to make.
"Riced potatoes, green bean or Tater Tot casserole ..." he muses. "It's warm and comforting. It's food with memories and good thoughts that puts you in a good place."
It's no surprise he recommends the pho on the Umami Moto menu to anyone seeking a moment or two of respite from their fast-paced lifestyle.
"It's warm and rich, the smell is relaxing, and it makes me smile," he says.
Soup is a big comfort-food trigger for Suzzette Metcalfe of The Pasta Tree as well, whether it is chicken with matzo balls, split pea with smoked ham or navy bean with sage pesto. But, it's her mom's cooking that really strikes a chord.
"My mom's tomato and caraway-braised country pork ribs with homemade potato dumplings and sauerkraut is very personal comfort food," she tells me. "I have great memories of making it with her!"
When it comes to dishes she loves at the restaurant, Metcalfe falls hard for the lasagna, which is made with three cheeses and three different kinds of meat. But, her favorite item on the menu is the scallops with artichoke cream – sushi-grade scallops sauteed with artichoke hearts and served with Pernod cream sauce.
Meanwhile, Chef Nell Benton of The National Café conjures both simplicity as well as her memories of international travel when she talks about one of her favorite comfort foods, stuffed potatoes, or what the British call "jacket potatoes."
"They are true English pub food and a good winter lunch item," Benton explains. "They consist of a baked potato, stuffed with a variety of fillings. Some of my favorites are chicken curry, ham and cheese, baked beans and cheese, and bacon, leeks and mushrooms."
She plans to add jacket potatoes to the café menu at The National this week, and is eager to see how the offering goes over.
"It's a great winter comfort dish and the perfect option for our gluten-free customers, of which there are many," Benton says. "I'll be serving it with a side salad and customers can choose either one of the specialty ones – think braised short ribs or ratatouille-stuffed baked potato – or with their choice of three ingredients. I'm calling them 'haute potatoes.'"
Another Milwaukee chef's answer also belies his time spent abroad in Italy when he mentions that his idea of comfort food is almost always comprised of very simple fare.
"It's often two or three really good ingredients simply seasoned and cooked," says Paul Funk of Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub. "A bowl of really well cooked beans with a drizzle of good olive oil and hard cheese is difficult to beat. Same goes for simply grilled hearty greens, especially mustard greens or Tuscan kale. In the summer, a dish of very fresh greens, some cheese and peppery olive oil does the same thing."
For something more substantial, Funk recommends large whole roasted pieces of meat that can be shared with family and friends.
"Part of 'comfort food' to me is sharing," Funk explains, "A whole roasted chicken with crisp skin or a coppa roasted on the bone is where it's at."
Funk says that one of his favorite dishes at Hinterland is the grilled kale.
"It's grilled over the wood fire, which adds so much flavor, and dressed with a vinaigrette made with Meyer lemons, red wine vinegar, capers, chili flakes, lots of SarVecchio, par-cel (think of a cross between parsley and celery tops), garlic and leeks."
He also loves the creamy polenta with sauteed duck hearts, livers and maitake mushrooms finished with sherry and mounted with butter and herbs, which he proclaims "simple, nose-to-tail delicious."
And my picks? When I'm craving food that transports me back to my happy place, I look toward simple homestyle dishes like the unctuously cheesy macaroni and cheese at Comet Café, the deliciously tender meatballs at The Eatery on Farwell or a steaming bowl of soup at the Milwaukee Public Market.
On the more unusual side, I occasionally get the urge for a big plate of liver and onions – a meal I never loved as a child, but which always drew a sigh of satisfaction from my liver-loving mother. And I've acquired quite an affinity for the veal brains they serve at Hinterland, largely due to the fact that eating them always takes me back to stories my grandmother used to tell about the pan-fried veal brain breakfasts her family would enjoy after the calves were slaughtered and taken to market.
I'll admit, my cravings for offal are probably not for everyone. But, sometimes the comfort we derive from food is all about the memories.
Leave a comment in the Talkbacks section and tell us about your favorite comfort foods. Where can you get them in Milwaukee?
Meatloaf at Comet Cafe is awesome. Love the mac & cheese too.
Comfort food is best in comfortable surroundings. I have yet to find Meatloaf, Mashed potatoes and cream-style corn on any fine restaurant menu. Which is OK, because no one makes it better than I do!
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