We all have comfort foods—dishes we grew up with, meals based around favorite flavors, recipes that are filling and satisfying. Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as “food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.” Oxford Dictionaries gives a more specific definition: “Food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically having a high sugar or carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.”
The “high sugar or carbohydrate content” bit is unfortunate but all too common. It also seems to be the antithesis of comforting: Instead of being enjoyable, high-calorie meals and snacks can make us feel guilty or even queasy after the thrill of the initial bite. Many traditional comfort foods are now mass produced, giving only a faded memory of the family table. So I prefer to focus on the other defining element of comfort food: simple home cooking.
Redefining Comfort Foods
My definition of comfort food might be “simple, satisfying, easily home-cooked fare that provides a feeling of well-being and a reminder of family and friends.” It may cheer me up, offer solace, bring back memories, or just taste good. Sometimes there’s more fat, oil, sugar, or carbs than I would normally eat, but I choose these dishes so rarely that I don’t feel guilty about digging into them. As food writer and “home-cooking evangelist” Emily Nunn puts it, “If it makes you feel ashamed, it no longer qualifies as comfort food, does it?”
Personally, I’m comforted by foods that are more on the savory side than sweet. Many are heavier on flavor than carbs and calories. My comfort foods are generally seasonal, but I often crave fresh produce in winter and do what I can to appease my taste buds by capturing those flavors for year-round use. My definition of simple requires planning, but it lets you make what you want, when you want it, you’re keeping necessary ingredients at hand.
The secret to making comfort foods at home is in stocking small quantities of a large number of basic ingredients and a few go-to mixes. By storing fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and proteins individually, you can create endless variations. By making up batches of salsas, pestos, purees, syrups, and stocks, and by premixing spice blends, pastes, condiments, grains, and other favorite flavor combinations, you can shortcut regularly used recipes.
I put long lists of ingredients in many of my recipes. They often use small quantities of numerous spices or herbs, and layers of vegetables build a rich, full flavor. Still, if you keep small amounts of many ingredients on hand, dishes come together quickly.
But even I can be comforted by meals that take almost no time to prepare. This is particularly true when I pressed snooze too many times, I’m fighting a cold bug, or I had a long, late day. I’ll be sharing recipes this month that I pull out in these situations. But here are some of my instant meals.
- Breakfast. Smoothies top my list when I need to rush out the door. By keeping bags of frozen berries and grated vegetables, jams, a container of yogurt, and some milk or juice on hand, I can make a different one each morning. If I’m staying home, yogurt, jam, and granola often get me going. If you reach for into the freezer to start your day, you can premake and freeze up batches of your own waffles.
- Lunch. I love leftovers for lunch, and make enough of most dinners to have a second meal later in the week. This is particularly true of soups: By freezing a portion or two from each batch, you have not just an immediate meal but several choices.
- Dinner. When I need a quick dinner, I often reach for a jar of home-canned pasta sauce or relish or a frozen pesto or puree. These can go on rice, pasta, or fish; get stirred into beans; or fill a baked potato. By putting up several variations in each group, dinner stays inventive and satisfying.
- Snacks and sweets. Canning can tamp down the desire for chips, candy, and other guilt-ridden comfort foods. The crisp, sharp bite of a pickle; a dab of low-sugar jam on a slice of sourdough bread; a bowl of homemade applesauce sprinkled with pecans; a spoonful of fruit syrup stirred into unsweetened yogurt—if you get in the habit of taking a minute to grab these, you’ll soon find fewer processed snacks taking up your precious shelf space. If you’re a daily dessert eater, consider making your own cookies and baking a dozen or fewer at a time; the rest can be rolled into balls and frozen so that you can bake just enough to fulfill a craving.
New Comfort Foods
When you fill your pantry with the intent of being able to make a variety of meals suited to any craving or time frame, your outlook on comfort foods will begin to change. High-sugar, high-carb processed fare that gives instant gratification but no long-term satisfaction will eventually become unappealing. Such habits take time to build, but in the long run you’ll find yourself eating a new diet with healthier cravings. I’m talking diet in the sense of habitual nourishment that becomes second nature, not a prescribed set of rules your constantly tempted to break. So don’t tip your house and kitchen upside down; instead, gradually transition from processed comfort foods to those that fit the “simple, satisfying, easily home-cooked” definition. Soon, you’ll be making new food memories with family and friends as you share your new comfort foods.
These substitutions are already on the blog:
|Instead of buying||Make|
|Baked beans||Seasoned Pot Beans|
|Cheeseburgers||Black Bean Veggie Burgers|
|Chocolate chip cookies||Pumpkin–Chocolate Cookies|
|Doughnuts||Crepes with Wild Berries and Lemon Cheese|
|Hash browns||Braised Breakfast Potatoes|
|Ice cream||Fruit Sorbet|
|Potato chips||Sourdough Pita Chips|
|Flavored nuts||Roasted Pumpkin Seeds|
|Strawberry–rhubarb pie||Rhubarb–Huckleberry Galette|
When you do crave an old comfort food, you can feel less guilt if you make it yourself. You’ll know exactly what’s in it and may even be able to change a family recipe to make it easier on your body yet fulfilling. Some recipes to get you started are already on the blog:
- Basic Granola
- Cheesiest Mac and Cheese
- Thin-Crust Pizza
- Gorgeous Grilled Cheese
- Apple Crumble Pie
- Grilled Fish Tacos
- Red Beans and Rice
- Sourdough Waffles
Twice as Tasty
This month, I’ll be sharing some comfort foods I eat throughout the day. Next week’s recipes focus on hot cereals you might never tire of eating each morning. I’ll also provide some of my favorite healing soup recipes—and explain how to prepare them for yourself even when you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep. And we’ll look at comfort food that is probably on everyone’s list but give twists for making it with pantry staples—and with less guilt. See you next week!
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