Comfort food is one of my very favorite topics to discuss because everybody’s idea of it is different. The flavors and textures and aromas that comfort each person vary widely based on where they grew up, at which point in history, and frankly, the ethnicity of their most beloved grandmother.
Sometimes the recipe that lights somebody up is a five-minute sandwich, but usually it’s a sauce or a stew or a meat cooked low and slow for most of a day. Always always always
, however, the common ingredient in every single person’s comfort-food favorite is love.
It’s the truth. There’s no substitute for thought and love and care. Not even time. A semi-homemade soup that comes together in minutes is just as delicious and memorable as one that’s simmered on the stovetop since breakfast. It perfumes the home just as wonderfully as well.
So, with all of this in mind, I offer up to you my best tips and tricks for making quick and easy comfort foods with a heavy dose of l-o-v-e.
Shortcuts to Low-and-Slow Results
Comfort recipes that include a full-fledged timeline of steps don’t work for any given Tuesday night. But just because I have to start dinner 30 minutes before I’m going to serve it shouldn’t mean that my family has to sacrifice comfort when we sit down together. With strategic shopping and smart pantry-stocking I am able to trade long hours for convenience.
Instead of soaking dry beans overnight for my Mom’s famous pasta e fagioli, for example, I buy canned versions of the bean I need. Instead of roasting a hunky pot roast for hours, I buy a quick-cooking cut of meat like ground beef or steak and simmer a pan sauce out of the dried onion soup mix that usually flavors a roast.
And instead of seasoning and roasting any protein that needs to be shredded, I buy unseasoned, prepared products that I can tailor to our taste for comfort – shredded pork for homemade BBQ sandwiches, shredded beef for pastas and simple soup bowls, and rotisserie chickens for pizza toppings and hearty salads. I shred whole chickens when I get home from the grocery and keep them in the fridge for recipes throughout the week.
Semi-Homemade Smarts Make for More Quality Time
As far as I’m concerned, as long as half of what I’m serving is homemade, the whole darn meal is homemade. In the interest of saving time in the kitchen so we have more time as a family at the table, I am all for taking advantage of the many convenience foods at the grocery today.
For homemade chicken and dumplings, a staple of comfort-cooking, I use canned biscuit dough. I pop them open, pull them apart, and toss the biscuits in flour before adding them to the broth to give them the opportunity to thicken it the same way homemade dumplings do.
For easy appetizers to comfort a house full of guests, I smear jarred pesto onto small toasts. Topped with a wedge, crumble, or slice of just about any cheese, it makes a delicious crostini offering for impromptu entertaining.
And for a whole slew of comfort classics, my favorite ingredient to have on hand is frozen puff pastry. It keeps in the freezer until I am ready to use it and it’s the perfect canvas for sweet and savory applications. The key to puff pastry’s comfort, though, lies in its many layers of butter, the ultimate
comfort ingredient. I use it to top last-minute pot pies, cut it and bake it as a layer in beautiful breakfast trifles, and sprinkle sheets of it with cinnamon and sugar to roll, slice, and bake into crispy little cookies.
Keep Your Own Secret
Perhaps the most indelible stamp in my memory bank is the one made by the smell of my mom and dad’s kitchen. It’s garlic. Chopped fresh garlic, sautéed and caramelized garlic, even garlic salt. To me, garlic makes everything taste better, and, in an instant, just the smell of it takes me home.
The sense of smell is a powerful thing. I like to play with comforting spices to inspire the olfactory senses of my own family. A dash of nutmeg in cream sauces or braising greens adds thoughtful complexity. The kick of cayenne sneaks in heat and warmth too. Fresh lemon zest and juice add brightness to any recipe. And spice blends like Chinese five spice or pumpkin pie spice bring together the best of the warming spices to make better recipes involving caramel, nuts, sweet potatoes, or squash. Any one of the above could be the “secret ingredient” my kids associate with home someday.
So, in the end, quick and easy comfort food is really no different from the comfort food that cooks all day long. Comfort comes with the genuine intention of the cook, the love in the kitchen, the smell in the home. When all of these are bountiful and fragrant, comfort food may be served any darn day, easily.
Feature image via Flickr