What is it about comfort food?
I often say that you can be miserable before eating a cookie and you can be miserable after eating a cookie, but you can never be miserable while
you’re eating a cookie. And while I say that halfjokingly, the sentiment is true. Food has an almost magical ability to comfort us, soothe us, and bring us together in so many ways. We celebrate special occasions with food—a birthday cake or a big roast turkey—and we also turn to food for comfort on not-so-happy occasions, a delivery of baked goods to a family member who’s under the weather, or a homemade dinner for a friend having a rough time. Food can be so much more than simple sustenance.
So, what exactly is comfort food? It’s food that’s not just nourishing but it’s also emotionally satisfying. After September 11, 2001, I can’t tell you how many people told me they went out to get all the ingredients to make my Outrageous Brownies from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
. After the financial crisis in 2008, restaurants everywhere suffered as customers cut back on their spending. But fast-food places prospered because they served inexpensive classics like hamburgers and French fries. As I write this, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and I have no idea when it will end or what devastation it will cause. People are isolated and stressed. Everyone I know has stocked up their fridges and pantries with ingredients they can cook for weeks or even months—chickens, vegetables, fruits, beans, rice, and dried legumes. But my friend Deborah Davis commented that she opens her fridge and looks at all the healthy food in there, and all she wants is a grilled cheese sandwich! I can totally relate to that! During times of financial and political stress, there’s something about a hamburger and Coke or a big bowl of beef stew that just makes us feel better. They’re not fancy—in fact, quite the opposite. They’re familiar, delicious, and soul-satisfying. In other words, they’re comfort food.
There are many foods that are universally comforting. I think we can probably all agree that a mixed green salad isn’t anyone’s idea of comfort food. But chicken soup? Every international cuisine has its own version: Greek avgolemono soup, Vietnamese chicken pho, Belgian waterzooi, and my personal favorite, chicken soup with matzo balls. For this book, I developed Chicken Pot Pie Soup (page 58), a mash-up of classic chicken soup and chicken pot pie that hits all the right notes when you’re tired or cranky.
Comfort foods are often the dishes that transcend cultures and borders. Many popular foods that have become ingrained in American culture—ramen, tacos, pizza—were originally brought to this country by immigrants who sought to re-create the comforting taste of home. Many of the recipes in this book are inspired by comfort foods from around the world—from Emily’s English Roasted Potatoes (page 171) to Shrimp & Linguine Fra Diavolo (page 130) to Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas (page 114).
Comfort food may be different for each person. An egg salad sandwich on toasted rye can cheer me up on a bad day, but it might not be what does it for you! Often the foods we turn to for comfort are rooted in what we ate as children. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the classic American lunch for kids but when I offered to make them for my British film crew, they recoiled in horror. Instead, they offered to make me their
classic childhood lunch—white bread with cold baked beans from a can and Kraft singles on top. Yikes! (Please don’t tell them but I’ll take a PB&J any day!)
Lots of the recipes in this book evoke old-fashioned American foods that many of us remember from our childhoods. My mother used to make canned split pea soup with cut-up hot dogs in it (I know it sounds bizarre, but I thought it was delicious). I’ve updated it by making homemade Split Pea Soup with Crispy Kielbasa (page 62). The soup is filled with lots of vegetables and flavored with a smoked ham hock and saut.ed kielbasa. It’s basically the grown-up version of the soup my mother made, but so much more satisfying.
I polled my friends and you’d be surprised how many said their go-to comfort food was a tuna fish sandwich and potato chips (in one case, the potato chips went in
the sandwich!). So I knew I had to include a recipe for a tuna melt in this book that was nostalgic but better than the diner classic. My Ultimate Tuna Melts (page 79) are made with really good imported tuna and have melted cheese and microgreens on top. Jeffrey’s favorite comfort food—tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich—was the inspiration for both my Creamy Tomato Bisque (page 83) with a hint of saffron and the Cheddar & Chutney Grilled Cheese (page 84). You don’t need to have a bad day to love these two together.
So, that’s what makes dishes comfort food, but I had to ask myself, what makes the recipes in this book modern?? When I’m working on a recipe, I like to start with a remembered flavor and spend time researching how the dish was traditionally made. Then, I figure out how I can update that dish—whether it’s lightening up the recipe, making it easier to cook, or simply adding more modern flavors, such as Sriracha and pomegranate. I wanted each dish in this book to feel familiar but be so much more delicious than you expected. And I realized that while comfort food is the focus of this particular book, that’s what I’m always looking for in a recipe: true home cooking but with a twist or update that makes it special enough to serve to company.
For example, I wanted to make a classic beef stew, but in my experience beef stew can be pretty boring—with tough or stringy chunks of beef and a thin, bland tomato sauce. I knew it could be so much better! In order to update that American classic, I borrowed ingredients from two other dishes I love—beef Bourguignon and braised short ribs. Instead of starting by searing bacon, I used pancetta, which has a great flavor without the smokiness of bacon. Then, I swapped the usual beef chuck for boneless short ribs, which added a richness that made everything, particularly the sauce, so much more delicious. And finally, I added a bottle of good red wine and a splash of Cognac to give the sauce more depth of flavor. Now whenever I serve my Ultimate Beef Stew (page 104), my guests say they’ll never make beef stew any other way again.
One of my personal favorite comfort foods is a BLT. It’s classic diner food, and just fine as is, but when I’m entertaining I like to make a new version that’s really over the top. For my Lobster BLTs (page 80), I use applewood-smoked bacon, ripe summer tomatoes, creamy Hass avocados, good bakery white bread, Thousand Island dressing, and, of course, perfectly poached lobster. They’re good and messy to eat but everyone loves the old-fashioned flavor of BLTs with this more elegant, grown-up spin. It’s comfort food dressed up for company.
When you’re having a dinner party, it can be tempting to make something fancy to impress your guests. But when I tell my friends that I’m making Truffled Mac & Cheese (page 138) or Smashed Hamburgers with Caramelized Onions (page 116) for dinner, and Applesauce Cake with Bourbon Raisins (page 198) for dessert, they light up with glee. I might order cassoulet or grilled octopus at a restaurant, but at home we all want something simple and satisfying. The look on my friends’ faces when they see me bring Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragu (page 134) to the table says it all.
Copyright © 2020 by Ina Garten. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.