Tom Nick Cocotos
Tim 'One Pot' Lloyd
Comfort food. It's the culinary counterpart to a pair of old jeans, a frayed flannel shirt and your favorite reading chair. That macaroni has a security blanket of cheese. A meatloaf even sounds relaxed. Comfort food is the food you go back to time after time. It's the familiar dish you crave when life deals you a sling and an arrow, when you are feeling low. It's ' well, comforting.
The term 'comfort food' has been part of Webster's Dictionary since 1972. It refers to 'any food or drink to which one habitually turns for temporary respite, security or special reward.' Often it has a pleasant association going back to childhood. And researchers have noted that comfort foods are composed largely of complex or simple carbohydrates, which induce an opiate-like effect in the brain. Yes, mashed potatoes and gravy may be your drug of choice.
Comfort foods can be regional in nature ' collard greens in Mississippi, a tuna hot dish in Minnesota, roti in India. But mostly, they bring back pleasant personal associations. And when you sit down and talk with a renowned chef, you may be surprised when you ask about his or her favorite comfort food.
Take Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of NPR's The Splendid Table. 'There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I am worn out and the world isn't such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta.'
Sound familiar? I interviewed one chef, who asked not to be identified, who confessed that, after a day of cooking up $35 entrees in one of Madison's fine restaurants, he often stops for a Big Mac on the way home at night.
How about Terese Allen, who probably knows more about Wisconsin's rich variety of ethnic food traditions than anyone else. Her favorite comfort food? 'Hot noodles with nothing but butter and salt. It's the first thing I cooked on the toy stove I had when I was a kid. Took forever to get the water to boil. But the smell of macaroni cooking still makes me feel 'all grown up.''
Allen also is partial to gumbo. 'It's a comfort food not just because it's dark, smoky, rich and spicy, but because I've made it so many times over the years, altering it, evolving it. It's changed as I've changed, and we'll both probably keep on doing so. When I eat a bowl of gumbo, I relish the past and anticipate the future.'
Comfort food can also be defined not only by the food itself, but the process in making it. Lynne Eich, longtime head (recently retired) of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, says, 'One of our favorite dinners on a snowy, midwinter night is a humble but fortifying hash. (Because Bill and I always make it together ' he chops and I mix ' it's a Four-Hand Hash.) I like to think of it as the culinary equivalent of a quilt, where leftover bits can be resourcefully combined to create a delicious and sturdy whole. I often make it with yesterday's rib-eye steak, chopped potatoes, onions and peppers, laced with a little paprika and loads of fresh parsley. I toss the ingredients with some sour cream and let all the flavors absorb before reheating. Then I top it with fried eggs. It's especially satisfying when served with a green salad, crisp ciabatta bun, glass of Cabernet, and savored in front of a roaring fire with a purring cat nearby. Comfort doesn't come much better than this.'
Lifestyle can also dictate comfort food. John Motoviloff, noted outdoorsman and author of Wisconsin Wildfoods, traces his love of homemade potato pancakes to his Ukrainian grandmother. But he also takes comfort in foods from the wild, that he has hunted or gathered himself. 'Simple fried squirrel, venison stew, or crisp mallard on a bed of sauerkraut top my list. And we can't forget just-out-of-the-stream trout fried in bacon grease.' Surprisingly, Motoviloff was the only one of my informants that listed fried squirrel as a favorite comfort food.
Comforting memories of childhood often trigger favorite comfort foods of today. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk remembers: 'One of my favorite comfort foods rich with memories is my family's hickory nut cake. This evolved from my childhood tradition of gathering hickory nuts with my grandparents where they grew up on farms near Burlington. Those treks were followed by letting the nuts dry. These were the fun and easy parts. Next was cracking these little toughies. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more steely natural beauty ' except for diamonds. But, with a vise and hammer in hand, my grandfather and I first cracked the shells. Then, we toiled to extract the precious hickory nutmeats while we were parked in front of the television watching the Milton Berle and Lawrence Welk shows. We'd present our harvest to my grandmother who would then bake them into the most wonderful hickory nut cakes.' Falk carries on the hickory nut tradition in her family today.
Craig Kuenning, head chef at Quivey's Grove, has made his reputation in creating comfort foods at the restaurant. At home, it's not much different, as he describes his potato pancakes: 'A couple days after Thanksgiving, my mom would always take the leftover mashed potatoes, combine with a little egg and roll it in cornmeal, then fry it in an iron skillet with lots of butter. There were no more leftovers after that. I can still taste them just thinking about them.
'One of my other favorites is creamed chipped beef on toast. Had it every Friday before playing a high school football game. Still make it at home as the quick meal when there is nothing else in the cupboard. And still enjoy its rich, salty taste. And my all-time favorite would have to be pot roast, made with sweet onions and carrots and served over buttered noodles with toasted croutons on top.'
Teresa Werhane, promotions and advertising director at MATC and a great home cook, speaks for many of us when she says, 'My favorite comfort food? Hands-down winner is homemade macaroni and cheese. It has all the great elements: pasta, milk, butter, cheese. My mother was quite disdainful of the 'box' mac 'n' cheese, so I learned to make the real thing when I was in grade school. I like the top to be browned and crunchy, but not everyone can wait for this step, so sometimes it gets served right out of the saucepan. And it has all the important food groups: protein, carbs and love.'
Simplicity is often the key to favorite comfort foods. Madison historian David Mollenhoff and his wife Leigh find comfort in sandwiches. 'Leigh's favorite comfort food is a grilled cheese sandwich on her homemade whole-wheat bread. Mine is a peanut butter sandwich with butter and lettuce on a soft, white Wonder Bread-type hamburger bun. Sounds delicious, don't you think?'
Sabi Atteyih, proprietor of The Casbah and host of his own TV cooking show, has no hesitation: 'It's mom's rice pudding. Made with orange blossom and topped with crushed pistachios. Just like mom, always a great help during a moment of emotional need.' Atteyih also thinks of stuffed sour apples with walnuts and cinnamon and a touch of maple syrup.
Tim Lloyd, the popular and inventive chef at Monty's Blue Plate Diner, confesses, 'I'm on my feet all day making just those kinds of dishes, so when I'm done I want to just go home and sit. And often I make dinner with the telephone. China Wok delivers.
'But every so often on a Sunday I'll make a one-pot meal that lasts several days and can easily be morphed into something different each time. With chili, one day I'll serve it over rice, the next day over spaghetti. Or I'll make my famous pork roast that goes in the oven at 11 a.m. at 250 F. covered with soy sauce and apple juice, and comes out at 6 p.m. The next day I'll cut up the leftovers and add them to a pot with a can of tomatoes, onions and hot sauce, and simmer for another three hours. Unbelievable taco meat!'
Tim is not the only chef who depends on restaurant comfort. Janie Capito, proprietor of Lazy Jane's CafÃ, says her favorite comfort food is the No. 9 soup with chicken at Lao Laan-Xang: 'I have it about once a week in winter, with an order of sticky rice.' Capito also loves the pot stickers (with double sauce) at Wong's Garden on Atwood Avenue. 'Isn't it funny that I like ethnic restaurant dishes for comfort? I wonder why that is.'
Capito also confesses a love of the Avenue Bar's Saturday night prime rib, which takes her back to various officers' clubs when she was a kid in a military family. 'I used to hang out at the bar and drink kiddie cocktails.' She also puts in a plug for the coconut cream pie at Monty's Blue Plate Diner.