The Thing About Comfort Food

When you think of comfort food, what comes to mind? My mom always says it's her mom's fried chicken wings or a baked potato.  And sure, while fried chicken wings are comforting in their decadence and deliciousness, they are not the first thing that I yearn for. As for baked potatoes, I realize this sounds crazy to some, but they never appealed to me. It's easy to find goodness in a great array of foods that are labeled "comfort foods" (like chocolate chip cookies, big juicy burgers, chicken soup or cheesy pastas). But what is it about comfort foods that make them so comforting anyway? What exactly are we looking for in comfort food? 

roast chicken and sweet potato

I've spent a fair amount of time these past few weeks helping a loved one who just had major surgery. Last week, I made dinner for her kids while she was in the hospital and yesterday I brought groceries to cook in her kitchen for her family. Both times, I relied on my own definition of comfort food: simple roast chicken (dark meat only). For me, roast chicken is a return to home. To reliably delicious family dinners where I sat around a formica table for 18 years with my parents and sister and discussed the comings and goings of the day. Where we hashed out familiar family chatter and where I began to discover, embrace and enjoy the world and my place in it. I'm grateful for those evenings, and a large part of what I find comforting in the food is that return to the simple pleasures of the company of loved ones. 

The smell of my mom's roast chicken and the taste of juicy thigh meat with white rice soaked in chicken juices is, to me, the most comforting food ever. When I was little, we had vegetable minimums; my mom told us we had to eat 4 green beans or two pieces of broccoli. I never had a problem with that, and in fact, green beans alongside that chicken and rice absolutely completes the comfort meal for me. And we must have eaten rice three days a week with dinner. I absolutely love rice. 

So as I set out to make a difficult time even slightly easier for my loved ones, I returned to my concept of comfort food and made roast chicken. I made some additions and modifications to suit the tastebuds of others and included a spinach salad with eggs, onions and bacon with a warm bacon vinaigrette that I knew would be appreciated. 

What do you seek in comfort food? 

Roast Chicken with Roasted Sweet Potato Chips

roasting chicken and sweet potato chips

8 drumsticks
2 large sweet potatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 375. Arrange the chicken on a baking tray lined with either aluminum foil or parchment paper. Sprinkle salt, garlic and thyme on both sides of the meat. Drizzle with 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Slice the sweet potatoes into rounds. Arrange on a baking tray lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Drizzle with remaining olive oil. Roast for approximately 35 minutes or until the juices of the chicken run clear and the sweet potato chips are slightly browned and crispy. 

Spinach Salad with Bacon, Eggs, Onions and Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

10 ounces baby spinach
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
1 large red onion, sliced thinly
1 package of bacon
6 ounces of mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons of dijon mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Spinach Salad with Bacon and Eggs

Toss the spinach and mushrooms in a large bowl. Fry the bacon in a pan (I used a cast iron skillet). Remove the bacon and  reserve most of the bacon grease. Fry the onion in the same pan, in the bacon grease. Cut the bacon into small pieces and add to the salad. Remove the onion from the pan and when slightly cooled, add to the salad. While the skillet is still hot, add the mustard, sugar and red wine vinegar with the reserved bacon grease and stir vigorously so that the mustard clumps dissolve and a fragrant dressing magically materializes. Add the sliced egg to the salad and pour on the warm vinaigrette. Special thanks to The Pioneer Woman for the idea of this recipe! 

Spinach Pesto (Dairy Free)

When I close my eyes and dream of the ultimate comfort food, it's nothing fancy... it's the dinner that my mom cooked often when I was a kid: roast chicken with broccoli and white rice, with the chicken juices poured on top. I probably complained about it at the time (chicken again?!) but even now when I go to my parents' house and smell her chicken roasting in the oven, it's a comfort like no other. I'm hungrostalgic just thinking about it. 

Beyond dishing up delicious food, though, cooking enabled my mom and I to spend time together. As a food writer and cookbook author, she was always in the kitchen and she encouraged my sister and I to get on board early and often. It was a thrill to be included. Today, I invite my kids into the kitchen as often as possible. And while they don't always take me up on my offers, I see that each of them is slowly developing an interest in flavors, ingredients and cooking. Most recently, my youngest (2 1/4 years old) joined me in the kitchen for the very first time and helped get her own dinner on the table! 

Spinach Pesto dairy free 1

She's at an age where she enjoys bold flavors and doesn't shy away from new foods or textures so pesto was a huge hit. She helped me to wash spinach and basil, peel a clove of garlic and pour olive oil. When I loaded the ingredients into my mini chopper, I let her press the buttons (and naturally, made sure to unplug immediately after we were done). This was a hit! 

spinach pesto 2

When the pesto was done (in about 2 minutes), I let her spoon it into the bowl of cooked macaroni and stir. Voila! 

spinach pesto 3

Fast, easy, delicious. My gal gobbled this up and reminded her older brother and sister at least four times during dinner "I made that, you know!" I used the leftovers in her lunchbox the next day: 

spinach pesto 4

Here's the very-flavorful, super easy recipe: 

Spinach Pesto (Dairy Free)

1/2 bunch spinach, washed and cut
10 basil leaves
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/3 cup olive oil
2-3 cups of cooked macaroni (we used half whole wheat and half plain pasta) 

Cook the pasta as directed on the box. As it cooks, add the spinach, basil, garlic, salt and olive oil to a cuisinart or chopper of your choice (an immersion blender can also work) and blend until smooth. Spoon into cooked pasta, stir and enjoy! 

Easy Spinach Pie (Dairy Free)

My husband declared that he was going to be meat-free for the month of May. Why? I don't know, maybe just to shake things up a bit. We don't eat a ton of meat around here but I'll admit, it's been both challenging and fun to design completely vegetarian dinners for us a month. Here's the rub: dinners also have to be nut-free (my allergies), dairy free (my preference) and pasta free (my husband's preference).

This spinach pie recipe is based on a classic recipe that I got from my mom. It's a family favorite. My adaptation of her recipe has no crust and no cheese and just five ingredients. It's the kind of thing you're going to want to make in bulk not only because it's delicious and you'll plow through it but also because it freezes beautifully. Having one of these tucked away in your freezer is like a goldmine on those days when you're too pooped to make anything. 

Popeye would be delighted! 

I use frozen spinach for this recipe. Most of the produce that I buy is fresh but I've read numerous articles like this one from the Washington Post suggesting that green leafy vegetables like spinach are "so nutrition-dense that it's good for you either way you eat it" (i.e. fresh or frozen). Spinach is like the superhero of greens. It has vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron and fiber. The eggs in this dish hold it together and give it added protein and the sautéed shallot and dill round out the flavor. This recipe can serve 4 people as a main course but my husband and I ate 2/3 of a recipe for dinner. I had the rest for lunch the next day. 

Leftover Spinach Pie for lunch.

Leftover Spinach Pie for lunch.

Spinach Pie (Dairy Free) 

20 oz chopped frozen spinach (two 10 oz packages) 
2 whole shallots, chopped
1 tablespoon of olive oil
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons of fresh chopped dill
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375. Cook the spinach as directed on the package and drain as thoroughly as possible. Place in a bowl. Sauté the chopped shallots in olive oil until translucent. Let cool for a few minutes and then add to spinach. Mix well. Add the eggs and dill and make sure everything is well combined. Add salt and pepper as desired. Place in a baking dish (I use an 8x8). Bake for approximately 30 minutes.