Comfort Food for March

Gourmet Girl - March 12, 2014

"Classic comfort foods for the mercurial month of March."

 Kheer, Indian Rice Pudding Photo: Stu Spivack

March is a mad, mad month in New Mexico. Between the wind, dust and allergies and the sudden snowstorms that invariably blow in, it can be a long 31 days. What better time to feast on comfort food; dishes from your childhood that make you feel better no matter how bad your day is going. I'm talking about classic comfort foods like creamy mac 'n' cheese, beef stew, tuna casserole, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, beef stroganaff, cinnamon-scented rice pudding and mile-high lemon meringue pie.

Comfort foods can cheer you up, calm you down, even make you happy, especially if they're foods that hold memories—dishes your mom made you when your team lost a championship; dishes your dad cooked up from his bachelor days to prove his culinary skills; dishes you made with your best friend after a bad break-up. Any food can be a comfort food, if you think about it. It just has to have a strong association to a certain time in your life.

Comfort foods exist around the world, from noodle dishes in Peking to a fresh baguette spread with a soft Brie in Paris. In London, the classic comfort food is bangers and mash, while in Warsaw, its pierogis. In Moscow, they turn to blinis and borscht, and in Jakarta, it's chicken congee. Chicken soup is widely regarded as one of the world's most popular comfort foods since it's widely regarded as a remedy for the cold and flu.

Here in the U.S., we have a long list of classic comfort foods, from fried chicken and mac 'n' cheese to grilled cheese sandwiches paired with tomato soup, shepherd's pie, and chicken 'n' dumplings. Even the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a top comfort food—who hasn't turned to chunky peanut butter slathered on toast and topped with jam for comfort at some point in their childhood...or even adult life?

Because my parents lived in Sweden for two years, and I was born there, my personal comfort foods include a few Swedish dishes, from the traditional Christmas dish of Janssen's Frestelse, made with potatoes and anchovies, to the crispy ginger cookies and glug, a spiced red wine drink made with currants, oranges and other spices that will knock your socks off.

On days when I was sick as a kid, my mom always made me a real English muffin with butter and Welch's grape jelly, and somehow I'd feel better. Her spanokopita was outrageously good, a Greek spinach pie made with salty feta, spinach leaves and lots and lots of butter spread between the thin leaves of phyllo dough. I also loved her moussaka, a classic Greek eggplant casserole with enticing spices and flavors. Her chocolate mousse was the best, and after a field hockey or lacrosse team loss, I could eat it by the bowlful.

Her piece de resistance of comfort foods, however, was her chocolate almond cake, reverently made from a recipe in Julia Child's classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The ingredients included melted chocolate, coffee, pulverized almonds and plenty of butter, and the rich cake was topped off with a creamy chocolate/coffee frosting. Ultimate cake perfection! I'll make this cake today—for my husband's birthday, for dinner guests, to celebrate my mom's birthday—and it always makes me happy.

That's the true role of comfort foods—to make us happy. Like madeleines reminding Proust of his childhood in "Remembrance of Things Past,”  a bite of your favorite comfort food should transport you back, too, as you recall the simpler days of childhood and the foods your mom used to cook to make you feel better.

Here are a few recipes for my favorite comfort foods.

Oven-Baked Penne with Onions, Walnuts and Goat Cheese (Serves 6: From “Bistro Cooking at Home” by Gordon Hammersley)

1 pound penne
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, sliced
¼ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Pinch of red pepper flakes
3 ounces chopped walnuts
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup heavy cream
5 to 6 ounces fresh goat cheese
½ cup Parmesan
About 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Add penne an cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and put in large bowl. Toss with olive oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat butter in medium saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring every few minutes, until onion is tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Add wine, bring to a boil and stir, scraping up any browned bits on the pan bottom. Transfer onion to the bowl with the penne. Add thyme, red pepper flakes and half the walnuts and toss well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Combine cream with 2 ounces of goat cheese and toss this pasta. Pour pasta into a high-sided baking dish. Dot the top evenly with remaining goat cheese and sprinkle with remaining walnuts. Drizzle with walnut oil and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (Serves 6-8: From “The Big Book of Casseroles” by Maryana Vollstedt)

12 ounces elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons butter
3 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup fresh bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place half the cooked macaroni in a 9-x-13-inch baking dish lightly coated with oil or butter. Sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper. Dot with 1 tablespoon of butter, cut into bits. In layers, add half the cheese, the remaining macaroni and then the remaining cheese.

Mix milk and Worcestershire sauce and pour over casserole. Melt remaining butter an mix with bread crumbs. Sprinkle over top of the macaroni.

Cover and bake 40 minutes. Remove cover and bake until bubbly, about 10 minutes longer. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Kheer, Indian Rice Pudding (Serves 4-6: From Saveur Magazine)

6 teaspoons jasmine rice
2 teaspoon unsalted butter
½ teaspoon lightly crushed saffron
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
6 cups milk
6 tbsp. light brown sugar
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted
¼ cup thinly sliced pistachios

Place rice in a fine strainer, and rinse under running water until water runs clear; drain thoroughly. Heat butter in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat.Add rice, saffron, and cardamom, and cook, stirring until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Add milk, and cook, stirring occasionally, until milk is reduced by half and rice is tender, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Add brown sugar, almonds, and half the pistachios, and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with remaining pistachios and serve.