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Get Stuffed - Seeking comfort from the cupboard

Comfort foods appealing during rainy weather, long days, when feeling pressure…

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I don’t know about you, but this recent spate of unseasonably cool weather has, not to be too repetitious, made me feel a bit under the weather, as in "blah". And it has me eating a lot of dark (as in 70-per cent cocoa) chocolate.

It could be cool rainy weather, a ridiculously bad day when not only do the wheels come off but they hit someone, the tentacles of the flu, or the return of your ex-whatever. On any of these all too frequent, adult thumb-sucking occasions, chances are pretty good that at some point you’ll reach for your favourite comfort food.

While comfort food is highly personalized, it also shares a few common traits. First, it’s always food that makes us feel good, not in a hyped-up glitzy way but more in a cozy-afternoon-tucked-under-your-favourite-quilt-with-a-good book kind of way. It also usually reminds us of childhood or adolescence (if they’ve been golden), or less complicated times, however we perceive them – cartoons after school, white picket fences, father sometimes knows best and all that jazz.

Comfort food is often white or neutral-coloured (think milk, apple pie, mashed potatoes), easy to chew (see above) and definitely reminiscent of mom. It’s also high in refined carbohydrates or fat or both. But the thing that’s really comforting about comfort food is that it can stare down Dr. Atkins and every other diet fad broker on the planet, plus it’s never competitive or intellectually demanding, as in, damn, where did I stash those freeze-dried Oaxacan chipotles, anyway?

Medical experts are still holding court on whether comfort food creates psychological benefits or physiological ones – or both. Either way, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and better for you than alcohol, drugs or compulsive shopping.

The nice thing about comfort food is that you may not have to actually eat it to reap the benefits. Some people swear that just browsing through a bakery or their favourite recipe book can do the trick. Equally appealing is the idea that if you do indulge, you don’t have to go over top like some diet-possessed robotic – one or two of your favourite comfort foods can be mixed in with your regular day’s fare. (How long would you last on a steady diet of mashed potatoes and apple pie, anyway?)

That said, let’s take a look at some favourite comfort foods and see if we don’t get you at least thinking about heading to Nesters Market or The Grocery Store for a few items… say, a little chicken to fry up, some oatmeal and raisins for cookies, or maybe one of those 70-per cent-cocoa chocolate bars.

Fried chicken

Of all the comfort foods, fried chicken tops the list in my books, especially when its dance partner is mashed potatoes. Heaven. There are as many ways to do up fried chicken as there are grandmothers but all of them speak, in greater or lesser degrees, to that high-fat contentment level described earlier. Pan-fried, deep-fried, dredged in flour or cornmeal, or dipped in batter with secret spices – the Colonel knew he was onto something when he franchised all those chicken outlets.

Unfortunately for our arteries, nothing beats the colour, taste and texture of frying chicken, or anything friable for that matter, in lard. But for health’s sake, go for a healthier fat (if that isn’t an oxymoron) such as canola oil. You can also sidestep the fat trap by using organic chicken, which usually has one-zillionth the fat content of most commercial rapid-raised chickens, plus it delivers that "old-time" chicken flavour necessary in times of distress. I also always skin the sucker, something you wouldn’t dream of if you’re from the southern states and serving fried chicken.

My first and last tried-and-true fried chicken recipe was shared by a friend from Louisiana while we were literally serving up a huge communal-type dinner in her farmhouse in California’s high sierra. Her perfect fried chicken was simple: wash the chicken pieces; dredge them in white flour; sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and fry it all up in an iron skillet, low-medium heat, in mixture of oil with a dab of butter. You don’t need a lot of oil, only enough to keep the pan wet and the chicken frying, not sticking.

For chicken crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, the secret is time and patience, a sort of a meditation on chicken, which in itself is a comfort. Monitor the chicken constantly, adjusting the heat and frequently turning the pieces. About 20 minutes per side and it’s done to finger-licking goodness. Pair with Kraft dinner or mashed potatoes, or both if you need them!

Mashed potatoes

Never mind the Colonel and his fries, the perfect pairing for fried chicken is good old mashed potatoes, full of good old potassium (that’s why they comfort us so much, as do bananas). And good mashed potatoes start with good firm potatoes like Yukon golds with their sweet flesh, which is also just the right density.

I know we’re supposed to cut back on salt, but mashed potatoes need a decent pinch of it added to the boiling water. If you mash them in the pot on the same burner you boiled them on, the milk will warm nicely. Better yet, try buttermilk, Avalon if you can, and adding a good dollop of fresh horseradish and maybe a clove or two of minced garlic.

If all that sounds too complicated, ergo not comforting, forget it. Mash ’em up with milk and serve hot, pressing out a little hollow with the back of your serving spoon in which to melt a puddle of golden butter.

Chicken soup

Here’s another big contender on the all-time top 10 list of comfort foods. In the 12th century, a philosopher identified it as a healing remedy and chicken soup has been a down-home comfort ever since.

Scientists recognize that it is more than good for the spirits when you’re feeling under the weather, though the research is still divided on why it works its magic on the body. One camp cites collagen, the fibrous protein found in connective tissue such as ligaments, which creates that sproingy gelatinous effect when the soup cools. Another group cites an amino acid which mimics a drug prescribed for respiratory infections.

But never mind the science of it all. Just remember to add your favourite veggies, and don’t forget the slurpy noodles you loved when you were a kid.

Poutine

We in the west are just waking up to the joys of poutine, one of Quebec’s greatest comfort foods, and they have many. Poutine scores its comfort food bragging rights from the unbeatable satisfaction of combining French fries with cheese and gravy. Some places, at least out west, use a number of different cheeses, but the best poutine features white cheddar curds sprinkled generously over the hot fries, topped off with a good spicy gravy that melts the cheese.

If you’re lucky, you’ve already shared poutine with Francophone friends, or maybe stumbled across it in an eatery staffed by French-Canadians offering a bit of comfort from home. The poutine at Hungry Herbie’s in Cache Creek is worth a stop next time you’re on your way to Kamloops (they also have excellent banana milk shakes, made with real bananas).

Real hot chocolate

If you’ve been opening tins of instant hot chocolate for so long that you can’t remember it was any other way, then run out right now and buy yourself an honest-to-goodness tin of cocoa. My cocoa of choice is Fry’s, I’m sure because that’s what my mom used. But the luscious golden yellow label is reason enough to have it on your shelf. Other people swear by Dutch cocoa.

If you do have Fry’s, a fail-safe cocoa recipe is right on the tin: one tablespoon cocoa, one tablespoon sugar, one tablespoon cold milk. Mix, mix, mix it up right in your cup, and suddenly it turns into a rich brown slurry before your eyes. Finger dipping allowed, even encouraged. Fill your cup with warm milk – careful, don’t boil it. If you’ve bought Avalon milk, just holding that old-fashioned glass bottle will make you feel better. Ahhh! Now where are those oatmeal cookies?

It’s still raining outside, so grab a blanket and your cup of cocoa and curl up with a good book. Holly Garrison’s Comfort Food will do very nicely.