What comes to mind when you hear or see the words “comfort food?”
Dictionary.com has a pretty straightforward definition:
Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone, and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation.
Well, that’s about as bland as raw eggplant.
Here’s my definition for comparison: Comfort food is any edible item or dish that connects your taste buds to memories of people or places that you love. It’s food that triggers a smile.
Carbs and calories be damned. We’re not eating these foods three times day. Many of us don’t eat like this three times a month. Perhaps now more than ever, reaching back into our cupboard of memories and digging out a favorite recipe from the family cookbook is absolutely in order. In case you need more permission, let me list a couple of reasons you should embrace a meatloaf without any shame.
• We’re facing a global pandemic. It’s been in all the newspapers. A lot of us have COVID fatigue.
• Home and the kitchen table should be the place that provides healing and solace.
Food costs have risen. Our moms and grannies knew how to squeeze the last drop out of a food budget. Mine surely did, and we can find a lot of wisdom in their old recipes.
• Time around the table should also be story hour. With so many families still more or less sheltered together, what better way to remember Grandma than over a bowl of her beef stew?
Speaking of Grandma, I remember a dinner from the early 1980s. My Bubba had made a family favorite, baked beef stew. But this night, it was exceptionally tasty. Even Dad commented. “Mom,” he said, “this is really very good.” Bubba thanked him, saying she was out of cooking sherry so she used some of his 12-year-old Scotch.
A cook can’t miss with fine ingredients.
But a comforting dish doesn’t always need fine Scotch and sirloin to be special. My mother’s favorite comfort food was this very weird concoction called — and I’ll spell it phonetically — “chewyspice,” which was essentially a turnip, potato, and bacon fat mash. Don’t bother with a Google search because you’ll get a cookie recipe.
Chewyspice was a staple in the Brolaski household because they didn’t have much to eat. Making a pot of turnips and potatoes reminded Mom of her childhood.
A childhood food memory for me involves a humble plate of grub you may remember from the comic strip Beetle Bailey: Cookie’s creamed chipped beef or, as soldiers like my Dad used to call it, “sh*t on a shingle.” I’m sure while serving in the Korean War, Dad had his share of this stuff, but somehow, he seemed to enjoy it when it was served at our table.
For me, creamed chipped beef was a Saturday dinner special, to be followed by either family game night or watching TV sitcoms like Petticoat Junction and Here Come the Brides (boy, did I have a huge crush on Bobby Sherman). Root beer floats often would follow my bath and then bedtime by 10 p.m.
Bobby might have been a cutie, but creamed chipped beef isn’t much to look at. However, it was filling and cheap! Check this out: You have most of the ingredients in your refrigerator and pantry right now. In my area, Instacart lists a two-ounce package of Buddig brand chipped beef at about 80 cents. So, for under $4 (not including tax), you have dinner for four people!
And who isn’t instantly comforted by Béchamel sauce? I could bathe in its velvety luxuriousness. But instead, I’ll drown my cheap chipped beef in it and find reruns of The Partridge Family on Hulu.
Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups warm milk
8 ounces packaged dried beef
(substitution ¾ pound browned, drained ground beef)
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
8 slices toast (sourdough is nice)
1 pinch paprika for garnish before serving
1. In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk just so tiny bubbles start to form on the side; be careful not to scorch.
2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Whisk in flour to form a roux. Slowly whisk in the warmed milk and once it’s incorporated, increase heat to medium. Stir until thickened.
3. Pop bread in toaster
4. Cut the beef into strips and fold into white sauce. Stir in garlic powder and pepper.
Spoon over bread and add a pinch of paprika to each serving
YIELD: 4 servings