Tuesday, January 27, 2015

REAL Comfort Food

After studying and writing about New England food and it's history for decades, I have lately been bombarded with "scientific" links to what is and isn't comfort food and the meaning. I have also read an article stating that a person receives the same gratification from a granola bar(in a comfort food sense) as one would any other comfort food dish. Even more articles are written with carbohydrates and sugars being the basis of a comfort food.

That was it!!! I have decided to lay to rest, once and for all (I hope), what comfort food is and why comfort food is. But first, we need to distinguish between comfort food and what I call "Jersey" food.

The latter could be a greasy cheeseburger, french fries smothered in chili or gravy, a big bowl of fiery red chili or that foot-long hot dog with all the fixings. Pizza, ice cream, hot cocoa, a fresh crisp apple or your favorite sandwich are generally associated with Jersey food as well.

Jersey food is any food that you can don a casual shirt or blouse and enjoy, without fear of any standards, an item of food that is decadent, sloppy, delicious or finger-licking. If it drips onto your shirt, fine! If you end up licking ALL your fingers, fine! If you just need to throw a cap on or pull your hair back in a pony tail and sit down to order at a greasy spoon, then that is what Jersey food is all about. Relaxed, unpretentious and sloppily good.

Comfort food, on the other hand, has always meant a food that brings both your taste buds and mind-set together in a place that has been visited before. A place where comfort sets in at the mere thought of a particular food item that may range from a simple home baked loaf of bread to something as complex as a Baked Alaska. A place that immediately brings you to a place that is comforting, secure, tranquil and homy. Remember that meatloaf someone in your family made and you enjoyed it as a child?

And when you are a child, you had no worries, never wondering how bills were being paid or if you would have clothes to wear or would be able to keep a roof over your head? Even if you did have to worry about such things, there may have been a food item that brought you to a safer place as a child.

They all go hand in hand. It was that blanket of 'security' that always covered you when growing up.

It was without consideration that you would have love, a bed and a meal. So these are part of who we are. Something that is not controlled, but controls us. When you think of that beloved meatloaf, it instantly brings all those other factors along with it. Meatloaf, love and comfort. It has nothing to do with serotonin, chemicals in the brain, sugar or carbohydrates, pure and simple.

Do you honestly think that a granola bar gives you that same, secure comfort? I don't even classify these bars as jersey food! What an insane "scientific" find!!!

I like to accept the moniker Comfort Food King that a chef labeled me with many years ago with pride because, not only do I try to bring families back to the table, but I sincerely try to create new comfort foods that can be passed from one generation to another. And the only way to do that is from home, at the table, make if simple yet different and above all, tasty.

Certainly I add my own touch in the way of fruits and New England staples, but because I am a Yankee, there are certain items that are comfort ingredients to us, like maple syrup, molasses, apples, Cheddar cheese and the like.

To really swell up my e-mail and responses, I will tell you that barbecue(for example) is not a comfort food, unless it brings you back to the days of your childhood or home. Barbecue is that type of food that is a Jersey Food, and for goodness sake, know that I am not talking about the state of New Jersey, you should read the ENTIRE article before e-mailing or posting replies in the negative.

Many studies have been undertaken to find out what makes comfort food....well, comforting. And the general agreement among physicians and scientists is the correlation between serotonin and that feeling of enjoying comfort food, They state that it influences almost all of our brain cells that are related to mood, desire, appetite, memory and learning. And when we are deficient in serotonin, then these functions are altered or affected in some way, even being attributed to depression.

There is one HUGE problem with this method of thinking and prognosis. THERE IS NO WAY TO MEASURE SEROTONIN LEVELS IN THE LIVING BRAIN!!!!!

So as much as most of these shallow thinking scientists may theorize(based on absolutely zero evidence), our longing and desire for(as well as the end result of enjoying) comfort food comes from heredity and the uncontrollable desire to revert to a protective, motherly time in our lives. Those simpler times when family actually sat down and enjoyed each others company during a meal. The time when 'homemade' actually meant something and not just used by every manufacturer trying to sell a product.

I can give you a great example of the term comfort food that truly epitomizes its' meaning. Just think about one time where you were either on a vacation, business venture or any foray that took you away from your home. No matter how much fun you had, no matter how thrilling the time was and no matter if you had ANY complaints or not, the second you walk into your home after being away, the words "I am glad to be back home!" is uttered without thought. And why do you think that happens? This whole article is summed up with that seven word exclamation.

So I would love to hear from you with regards to not only what your favorite comfort food is, but why.

What is MY comfort food? It would have to be real Mac and Cheese. Made with sharp Cheddar cheese, dryer than normal with a cracker crumb baked on top. Why? Because Mom and Dad made it for us numerous times as a child and it certainly brings back memories of all of us around the supper table AND the restaurant kitchen where I would often eat while helping my family.

Although......Grammy's blueberry cake rivals it!


Friday, January 23, 2015

Old With The New

I can devour myself in reading about New England lumbermen for hours on end, mainly because of my great uncle Warren "Gus" Bailey. Uncle Gus was bigger than life, a woodsman his whole life and a river driver par excellence. He also cooked at times and it is with him in mind that the following are repeated here. He is mentioned in books written about Maine lumbermen and I am proud as all hell of his legacy and the fact that I was finally able to locate his, and his wife's, graves in Kossuth, Maine. Here is a little dittie about the life and death of a lumberman.

"He lived in the company house

and he worked in the company mill.

He got his grub from the company store

and he paid the companies bill.

And when he died, they buried his hide,
for the company owned the rest."

And here is a poem dedicated to the river driver of old, by Joseph Evens:

"Close by his pal, he saunters down the street

just a bit scornful, a bit curious too.

How can folks live in houses prim and new

And not miss lakes and streams and woodways sweet?

His shirt is checked all black, green and red,

his hat is rakish on his tousled hair.

His socks of wool are made to stand long wear

and wettings like his boots, and he has fed

fair eagerly on bacon, beans and bread.

He's a prouder of his purse than King of Crown.

He'd give his last cent for chum or drink;

He'll sing or dance or swear, and knows no dread,

and risk his life for others and not shrink;
He's just come off the drive and owns the town."


So by taking the old time staple of beans and combing it with the newer fad which is crock pot cookery, I think you will love the following recipes.
Cookee Chili

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term Cookee, he/she was a cooks assistant in New England lumber camps of old. They were the 'gophers', dishwashers, potato peelers....heck, all the menial tasks the camp cook didn't want to deal with was done by the cookee. I have replaced the traditional kidney beans found in most chili recipes with a Yankee lumber camp staple, Yellow Eye's. Don't be alarmed that this recipe will taste like Baked Beans though, the addition of classic chili ingredients transforms this protein packed meal into a crock pot classic.


1 1/2 cups dried beans(I used Yellow eye)
1 pound ground pork
1 small green pepper, minced1 small onion, minced
1(28-ounce) can diced or stewed tomatoes 1 1/2 cup strong brewed coffee
1 cup vegetables broth*1 cup whole kernel corn1 (6-ounce)can tomato paste
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons chili powder 2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper


Soak beans in plenty of water overnight if desired. In the morning, rinse and add to crock pot. In a large skillet over medium heat, add ground pork. Break up well and cook until completely done, about 8 minutes, stirring to continue breaking up. Add to crock pot along with remainder of ingredients. Stir well, cover and cook about 8 hours, or until beans are soft but still hold their shape. Add additional spices as needed. Serve with shredded cheese over the top.

*I would have 2 cups total of the broth set aside. When chili is done, add more broth in order to thin out if desired.

Makes about 8 cups

Cheddar-Garlic Drop Biscuits

How can you eat chili without some good, tangy drop biscuits? I love love LOVE this recipe, and they are the perfect accompaniment with this old-fashioned chili recipe.

2 teaspoons garlic powder, divided
2 teaspoons parsley
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted and divided
Nonstick cooking spray
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese


In a small bowl, stir together 1 teaspoon garlic, parsley and 1/4 cup melted butter; set aside. Preheat oven to 350-degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, cayenne pepper and salt. Add remaining melted butter, sour cream and cheese, mixing to incorporate well.

Using a 1/4-cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup, scoop biscuit batter onto prepared baking sheet, leaving 2-inches between each mound. Bake 12-14 minutes, or until slightly browned on top. Remove from oven to brush with equal amounts of the garlic butter and serve immediately.

Makes about 8

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Fun, Informative and Superb Read

I obtained a book entitled Hudson Valley-Food & Farming, Why Didn't Anyone Ever Tell Me That? by Tessa Edick, and was asked for my honest opinion and review. Where do I begin?

After banging my head for a little while, it occurred to me to simply follow the same steps as the author herself.....from the beginning. This book started at the 'grass roots' of this wonderfully organic region on both sides of the Hudson River that traverses, almost vertically, the entire state of New York. Tessa lays down an easy stepping stone on the building of a trip through time, food processing and culture of this area and beyond.

Throughout this engaging repertoire of the Hudson Valley, she writes with the laymen foody and horticultural professor in mind, yet with the style all of us can understand. Showing a condensed history of farming in New York, she is still able to get a superb amount of information in very few pages, making an English teacher very proud.

Tessa also deftly informs the reader on the truths and myths of organic and locally sourced farming in an honest and open dialogue. One feels as though their mother or grandmother had written this book because of the interspersed "homy" pictures of farmers and family, as well as simply prepared recipes that you would swear came from your mother's recipe booklet. You know, the one with all the food stains and marked by dog ears?

As the foremost New England Food Historian, I am pleased that Tessa dots every chapter with the history of certain time-honored beginnings of our American food heritage. It is obvious from the start that she adores her vocation as well as the small and larger farmers, writing of them as she would her own neighbor.

She also expertly gives you her insight on the future of organic farming and sustainability, with which should be considered as a top priority for all of us.

As a parent, I find this book especially gratifying because of her many references to children and family, both in the present sense and the future, with regards to our health resulting from our eating habits. In particular, the many family farms strewn around this valley that produces the best of the best in New York and what they are doing to improve lives. If I didn't know better, I would swear she was a Yankee, having that same proud cut and tenacity for neighborly love that we are so well known for.

On the same hand, she honestly and cautiously informs us of faults in our eating habits, the ramifications of the current eating trends and the 'how's and why's" of making better decisions.

I could distinctly see her sly grin in my mind's eye as her words of wisdom came at me at every turn of the page. And, much like our mother, she always had a way of smoothing out these eye-opening facts with a simple recipe that had me forgetting the "honest talk" we just had.

At the conclusion of this book was a simply prepared list of great farms, big and small, that hold the same love and concern for us as consumers as she showed during my time reading this great book.

And to sum up my opinion of the book? It was a great read! Only realizing I had learned something after I finished reading. I felt as though I just had a long talk with my mother or grandmother about options and choices about my diet. My Dad, the second Yankee Chef, would have easily attributed this book as a "comfort read", of which I sincerely agree.

Tessa Edick. I applaud your honesty, information and love for your 'neighbors" you so lovingly show in writing. I am proud to have had the opportunity for this review and would love to visit someday, spending time with these same neighbors and family. I also eagerly await your next book.....Mom!