Comfort Food to Feed the Soul
What to eat in troubled times
When the world becomes overwhelming, we naturally turn to food...comfort food. The kind that nourishes the soul and the spirit as much as the body. And lately the world seems to have turned upside down. Across America, the news has been too horrific to bear, and each new day brings more terrible tragedy. As these events have unfolded, I've been struggling with my own unbearable sorrow after my dear Dad passed away, with his family at his side, in the early morning of July 4.
As family and close friends gathered together back East, food played a pivotal role. Friends stopped by bringing love and comfort along with homemade lasagne, spaghetti with meatballs, cheese and fruit platters and hoagie sandwiches, a Jersey specialty. Most of all, there was dessert—trays and trays of cookies, chocolate and almond croissants, intricate petits-fours, lemon bars and my niece's homemade Snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies, which my Dad loved with a passion.
For days, we sat around the dining room table and on kitchen stools as we shared stories about Tony Cline that made everyone laugh, and cry. The food that we ate was quickly replenished by more friends who stopped by throughout the week, including the owner of a local restaurant where my Dad and stepmother were regulars. He brought enough food to feed the Russian army, as my Dad used to say.
Comfort food inherently makes us feel good. It's often associated with childhood and the homemade meals prepared by mothers and grandmothers using recipes handed down through generations. Typical comfort food can range from gooey and cheesy—like mac'n'cheese—to hearty and fortifying—like fried chicken and mashed potatoes. But when it comes to instant gratification, nothing beats dessert and the accompanying sugar high.
In troubled times, comfort food has always played a pivotal role. It's brought people together to share a communal experience as well as their grief. Consider the Irish wake, which involves both food and beverage, usually a fortifying one. Or the Jewish Seudat Havara'ah ("Meal of Condolence"), a meal of bread, peeled hard-boiled eggs and lentils shared by the deceased's immediate family. In China, it's customary to eat jai, a vegetable and rice dish, and avoid meat during the time of mourning.
All across America, you'll find an incredible range of comfort foods, from the traditional Amish dessert in Pennsylvania known as funeral pie— flaky double crust filled with custard and raisins—to the Minnesota Bundt cake. In the Midwest, the hot dish is a comfort food staple, a casserole of chicken or tuna, canned soup, tater tots or pasta, and peas or corn.
Down South, they feast on fried chicken, deviled eggs, and potato and Jell-O salads and in New Orleans, it's often jambalaya. In the South Carolina Lowcountry, they turn to frogmore stew, a popular seafood boil. In Utah, solace is found in funeral potatoes, a gooey panful of cheddar cheese, crispy hash browns and cream of mushroom soup topped with potato chips crumbles and sour cream. Hawaiian comfort food includes chow mein noodles and laulau, a traditional take on finger sandwiches made with pork or chicken wrapped in taro leaves then steamed on a stove. We have our own version in New Mexico that includes enchiladas, green chile stew, tamales and sopapillas sopped in honey.
If the state of the world has you in need of food that feeds your soul as well as your stomach, here are some of my favorite comfort foods served up in Santa Fe restaurants. This is a short list, as there are so many freat options around town and I'm sure you have your favorites, too. I'd love to hear what those are (you can add them to the comments below), as we can also use a little comfort food these days.
At the Drury Hotel's Eloisa, John Rivera Sedlar offers down-to-earth fare inspired by the foods his grandmother, Eloise Rivera, taught him to make. His take on corn chowder is an elixir for the soul. The silky soup, garnished with roasted corn fresh off the cob, smoky pancetta and a black bean puree garnish, is manna from the Gods, and will restore your faith in humankind. And his exquisitely tender pork and red-chile tamale is another balm for the spirit, wrapped in a fragrant banana leaf and served with fresh salsa. A few bites of this dish will transport you to
Over at Joe's Dining, you'll find a fried chicken dish so good it's addictive, featuring two classic comfort foods. The fried chicken, marinated in buttermilk , has a perfectly crisply crust and the buttermilk marinade yields meat so tender it melts in your mouth. The mashed potatoes are pooled with a savory gravy and there's even a biscuit so you can sop it all up. Joe's Eggplant Parmesan is another dish that delights the soul, made with rice-flour dusted eggplant that is fried then layered with fresh mozzarella, served atop spaghetti and ladled with marinara sauce. A basket of fresh, homemade bread accompanies this hearty dish.
We already know that a green chile cheeseburger can work wonders. But the one served up at Shake Foundation is a miracle worker, indeed. Add a heap of shoestring fries and one of the best milk shakes in town, and you've got a meal that will soothe your soul. One of my favorite dishes in town is Shake's Fried Oyster Sandwich, as it reminds me of the oyster rolls I can't wait to devour on Cape Cod, where my family has spent summer vacations for years. This version is the real deal. The fried oysters are crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside, tucked into a soft bun along with lettuce and tomato, and topped with a red chile mayo that's just fantastic. One bit of this gem and I can almost smell the salty breeze by the ocean.
The Loyal Hound is all about comfort food, so just about every dish on the menu will make you feel good. But one of my favorites is the Mac & Cheese, a gooey concoction featuring cavatappi pasta enveloped by a sauce made with Tucumcari cheddar and Gruyère. You can enhance the comfort factor by adding green chile, applewood smoked bacon, roasted mushrooms or grilled free-range chicken...or be utterly decadent and add them all. Another over-the-top option here is Pork and Waffles, a creative pairing of an herbed Belgian waffle drizzled with maple syrup and covered with braised Kyzer Farms pork in a housemade spicy BBQ sauce. The whole thing is then topped with green chile slaw, and one bite will have you feeling great.