Thursday, March 31, 2011

Comforting Farewell

As I steal a glance outside the window, the atmosphere is grey and promises to rain; the thermometer is hesitant to nudge above a chilly forty degrees.  While the raindrops begin to pelt the window pain, friends upstate will have a different scenic view as they watch snowflakes tumble down like dice to coat the grounds yet again.  Such is the ushering in of spring here in the northeast.  Although spring began over a week ago and we certainly have been taunted with bright sunny days and temperatures which broke the rules as they climbed to seventy in March, we still have those days to remind us that winter does not want to go quietly into its good night.  Soon we will have plenty of opportunity for cold salads and lemonade and for firing up the barbecue grill.  For now, we should make the most of those last vestiges of chilling temperatures and seize these days to make just a few last meals of what we like to call comfort food.

Comfort food is very simply that: food which is comforting.  Comfort dishes are often cold weather fare, because to prepare them is comforting as the oven or the pot on the stove provides a warmth which permeates our home.  The aromas are also comforting as they are scents which make one feel like they have gone to best place on earth.  A perfect example for me is the smell of Italian foods and ingredients.  Whenever I walk into an Italian pork store, all the scents of roasting garlic and eggplant, simmering tomato sauce, broccoli rabe being sauteed, and the wafting fragrance of sausages and cheeses are all comforting to me; it is aromatherapy as its best.  I experience the same sensation at home when a lasagna is baking in the oven.  Comfort food also warms us through and through when we savor that first mouthful of bubbling macaroni and cheese that just made its trek from the oven to the table, bringing forth the sensation of being enveloped in a warming blanket.  Comfort food is also reminiscent as the lifelong favorite dish teleports us back to childhood, memories of coming home from school to the aromas of a homemade dinner being prepared by mom, our original provider of comfort, security and love.  Those cravings to prepare such dishes years later are merely a desire to return to those carefree days of experiencing the feelings that emerge when dining on fare which says 'I love you, I will comfort you, I will keep you warm and safe.'

Everyone's tastes vary, as do their ethnic backgrounds, and so comfort foods are diverse; the ultimate experience however is best achieved with homemade variations.  There is also something very satisfying, and comforting about trying to duplicate a dish that mom used to make, then tasting it and being instantly brought back in time as you conclude 'Oh, yeah, wow, that's it, that's exactly how I remember it!'  Because, as defined above, many of these dishes come from quite far back in our family trees, they are usually very basic fare that can often be taken for granted in these times of gourmet cooking as celebrity chefs tempt us with new and exotic ingredients.  Some of the most popular entrees to make the top ten list of favorite comfort foods include macaroni and cheese, lasagna, beef stew, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, roast chicken, chili, spaghetti with meatballs, chicken stews and hearty homemade soups.  Comfort food can also be a pick-me-up, something in the way of a treat.  Homemade apple pie, brownies and chocolate chip cookies fit that bill.  Again, basics which were made at home for generations.  While ingredients may be tweaked occasionally for some updated 'wow' factor, there are times when the familiarity of the basic original incarnation can still be the most comforting.

Sadly, not everyone has had the good fortune of growing up in a stable home with daily homemade dinners being served.  Don't worry, such individuals have found their comfort foods too.  Sometimes the foods which are most comforting to us might not stem from our youth, but have come about through our culinary journeys as we delve into cooking and fine dining.  Someone with an Italian background might discover Thai food or Indian food at some point in their life's timeline and fall in love with that.  Something about the scent and flavor of a coconut curry may become something that they just can't get enough of because it takes them to that comforting and happy place every time.  I have had a similar experience.  My mother was a fantastic cook and provided us with home cooked meals every evening, many of which were French delights which I fully enjoy and appreciate to this day.  French dining is among my top two favorites.  It is rivaled, however, only by Italian food, which I have always enjoyed but only savored occasionally at home.  There has always been something about the creamy, cheesy texture of a northern Italian pasta sauce that would draw me into the savoring process of consumption.  The sight and sound of a tray of lasagna being pulled from the oven, the melted cheese browning and the bright red sauce bubbling, wins me over every time.  Ironically, I hear that my mother prepares plenty of Italian dishes at home now.  Perhaps, as did I, she discovered her new comfort food.

So what are my personal favorites?  Classic Italian dishes, particularly heavy pasta entrees such as fettuccine alfredo, lasagna and pasta carbonara.  Eggplant parmigiana is also very high on my list, as is escarole and cannelini bean soup served over toasty garlic bread.  Possessing the sweet tooth that I have, I also find any good pastry or baked confection to be comforting and for that I am definitely all-inclusive as to the origin, whether it's an American gourmet cupcake with mounds of frosting on top, a French eclair or Napolean, a bubbling hot fruit pie or an Italian cannoli.

Winter is coming to an end, the warmer days are imminent.  Enjoy one final hurrah with your baking dish or big pot and cook up a meal of your favorite comfort food as you say farewell to the cold and the snow.  Enjoy your favorite today, treat your family to their favorites in the coming days, and be sure to pass those favorite recipes down to your children so they can always return to their comforting days for years to come, even if only for an occasional meal.

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