Comfort Food For A Winter Day Essay


Essay on Comfort Food


What is "comfort food"? The standard definition is a dish that's simple to prepare and which conveys a sense of well-being when you indulge in it. Most often, I think, it's something we identify nostalgically with childhood, which is why a peanut butter & jelly sandwich is perhaps the classic comfort food. So is tomato soup. I've gotten involved in several discussions with other foodies on the subject of comfort food, which got me thinking about it in somewhat more detail.






Peanut Butter Sandwich

Ah, yes. Peanut butter sandwiches, the favorite food group of the average ten-year-old. It's hard to think of any eating material (as Alton Brown might say) that is more a matter of personal taste and preference. What kind of bread? Crusts or no crusts? What kind of jelly, or jam, or whatever? What else might go in the sandwich? It can be as simple as plain ol' Skippy's and Welch's grape jelly on fluffy white bread. That's what I used to make, back in the early '50s. But I became more sophisticated over the years. I still eat a P.B. & J. probably once a week or so, often late at night, when I want a little something but don't want to "cook" anything.

But now, by preference — and by that, I mean this is the only way to make a really good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as far as I'm concerned — it starts with crusty Italian bread, if I have any, sliced as thin as I can get it, since I'll have to fit two thicknesses in my mouth. If there's none of that handy, I usually have Peppridge Farm Seeded Rye or Pumpernickel in the breadbox. (Yes, I own a breadbox.) The peanut butter has to be Peter Pan (I've tried all the other major brands and this is still the best), it has to be Crunchy (texture, you know), and, when I can find it, it needs to be the kind with honey added (nice extra flavor). The fruit component can be any of several things, depending on what I currently have open: Dundee Orange Marmalade (the kind that comes in a little crock — yum!), or raspberry or blackberry preserves, or something else with seeds in it. I don't often eat smooth jelly and jam these days. (Texture again.) What about extras? Usually, the three main ingredients are fine. Sometimes, I'll slice a banana and add that, but that's about it. Don't want to spoil the perfect midnight snack.






Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Back in the early 1970s, when I was in grad school (the first time), I lived near campus for convenience but I worked full-time at the main public library in a city an hour's commute away. Like almost all librarians, I worked late one night a week and, especially in the winter, driving my VW Beetle home after 9:00 p.m. in the cold rain, being blown sideways by passing semis, was an exhausting end to a day spent answering reference questions. By the time I got back to my apartment, I was usually too wired to go straight to bed, so I generally fixed myself a little something and read or watched TV for awhile while my brain decompressed. A little something easy, and hot. Very often, that meant a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of cold milk.

My mother, like all mothers, had a repertoire of quick, easy lunches and snacks that would keep the kids out of her hair in the afternoon, and she hooked me on grilled cheese at an early age. But she didn't use a skillet. Sometime back in the 1940s or early '50s, she had acquired a small electric sandwich grill consisting of a flat lower plate and a very heavy hinged upper plate that pressed straight down on the sandwich. Both surfaces were smooth metal, so the sandwich came out rather shiny and rather thin. (I loved to watch it cook and shrink.) When I graduated from college and moved into my own place, I finally got up the nerve to ask my mother (who no longer had kids at home) if I could possibly have that grill — and found that my brother had asked first, dammit.

Anyway, I've never seen another grill like that, so I use a skillet and I've also devised a few variations and developed a few rules over the years:

1. Use good cheese, like real Cheddar or Gruyere. I'm partial to Longhorn. But definitely not Velveeta! This is the heart of the thing, so why scrimp?

2. If you have the time and the energy, grate the cheese first. It will melt more evenly.

3. Try adding a little Dijon mustard and freshly-grated black pepper before you grill it. Sometimes I add a little mayo (or, to be honest, Miracle Whip). I like to add a couple of slices of dill pickle, too. Some people put a slice or two of tomato in there, or even some salsa. That might make it too wet, though.

4. Instead of buttering the outside, try olive oil. It's a different and rather interesting taste — if you like olive oil, and I do. It's also less greasy and less fattening.

5. You can use plain ol' white sandwich bread, as my mother did back in the Eisenhower era, but a heavier type of bread holds up better. I like thinly-sliced Italian bread. Or, if you're just a white bread kind of person, Pepperidge Farm Buttermilk White is a pretty good compromise.

6. Use high heat and don't be impatient. Give it 4-5 minutes, turning the sandwich over every minute or so and pressing down firmly with a metal spatula or a flatiron.

7. Ideally, you should use a cast iron skillet. (You own one, don't you? Of course you do.)






Lebkuchen

Now that I'm more or less retired, I cook more than I used to, but I don't often bake, at least not from scratch. (Boxed brownie mix doesn't count, nor do store-bought pie shells.) My mother, naturally, was an accomplished cake- and cookie-baker. My job when I was little used to be sifting the flour and I finally graduated to rolling out the pie crust dough, my reward for which was licking the frosting bowl when she made a cake.

When we lived in Germany, my mother discovered a whole new array of cookies and other baked goods beyond those with which she had grown up in Indiana. She always made dozens each of eight or ten types of cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but what I really remember is the Lebkuchen she would make back around Thanksgiving. After baking, they went into a stack of fruitcake tins sealed with waxed paper and stacked on top of the refrigerator to age for a few weeks. I was aware of them, taunting me silently, every time I entered the kitchen. I was also aware of the dire consequences that would befall me if my mother ever caught me getting into them ahead of their proper time.

She continued to make Lebkuchen after we returned to the States, and even after I left home, when I came back to visit at Christmas time I usually received my very own fruitcake tin full of delicious, chewy cookies. After she was widowed, she still lived in her own house, but after awhile she became too infirm to cook, much less to bake cookies. I've attempted Lebkuchen myself any number of times over the years and, while the results aren't bad (my own kids certainly consumed them without hesitation), they've never come even close to what I remember.

This is my mother's version of the standard recipe, which will temporarily empty out your spice rack:

1-1/3 cups honey
1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
3½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon candied fruit (mixed fruit is best)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon cardamom
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Spray 10"x15" glass pan with non-stick spray. Preheat oven to 325°. In a 2-cup measuring cup, heat honey and brown sugar in the microwave for 1 minute, and pour into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Sift together 2 cups of flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to the honey mixture, stirring well. Add candied fruit, oil, and all spices, mixing in by hand. Add 1-½ to 2 cups more flour (starting with 1½ cups and adding more if you need it). Knead dough well to mix everything together; it will be stiff. Spread into the pan.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. (I didn't put those on the ingredient list, but I assume that anyone who cooks at all keeps a box of toothpicks in a lower drawer next to the oven.) Cut into squares and allow to cool. You can ice this with sugar glaze, but I prefer them plain. Separate the squares and pack them into fruitcake tins or something similar, sealing with a sheet of waxed paper. Really — it has to be as near air-tight as possible. Store on top of the refrigerator, or in a cupboard away from heat, for two or three weeks at least. The result will be nice and chewy. Yields about 2 dozen cookies. Don't forget to share. Better yet, take a tin of these to work and leave them open on your desk. Morale will soar.

NOTE: Probably you will want to make more than a single dozen of these. I have found that you can double the recipe with no problem. Just use bigger bowls, and so on. Multiplying it by three times or more, however, is asking for trouble as the material at its various stages simply becomes unwieldy. If you want, say, 8 dozen cookies, you really want to make 4 dozen in a batch — a double recipe — and simply go through the whole thing twice. Trust me. I found all this out the hard way.






Scrambled Eggs with Chorizo

As I get older, the size of breakfast I'm comfortable consuming has shrunk. I used to routinely go through a full truck-stop meal of eggs, bacon or sausage, grits, biscuits, juice, and coffee, but these days I'm more often content with a pot of coffee and a bowl of grits, or maybe a bagel (preferably onion) with cream cheese (preferably pineapple). Every couple of weeks, though, especially when it's chilly and wet out in the morning, and if I don't have to be anyplace else before noon, I'll get more ambitious.

When I was a kid, my father, a career Army officer who had learned to cook in self-defense when he was assigned overseas and living in the BOQ, was in charge of Sunday breakfasts. He went through fads, depending on where we were stationed at the time, but whatever he fixed, it almost always involved scrambled eggs. He told me once that when he was younger, he had found himself unable to break an egg into a frying pan without busting the yolk, so he made a virtue of necessity and stuck to scrambling them. And I learned from him. I was in my twenties before I would voluntarily eat fried eggs. My father also didn't add milk; he didn't approve of fluffy scrambled eggs, just stirring them with a granny fork until they began to curdle. But he always added scallions or cheese or garlic or mushrooms or tomatoes or chopped-up leftover roast beef or ham — something, anyway. Nothing so fancy as an actual omelet, just "scrambled eggs with."

Living in San Antonio in my teenage years, I acquired a taste for the spicy Mexican-style sausage called chorizo, and it turned out to be especially good in eggs. And that's still my preferred "large" breakfast: Scrambled eggs (no milk) with chorizo and tomatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy, and a big pot of coffee (with a teaspoon of milk per mug, no sugar).

This is my rendition of the recipe, expanded a little to feed several other people:

8 oz bulk chorizo
8 large eggs
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup milk (if you really must)
1 medium-sized fresh tomato (peeled, seeded, and chopped)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional, but a nice additional flavor)

Cook the chopped onion in a 10-inch skillet until tender but not brown. Crumble in the sausage out of its casing (which you don't eat!), cooking and stirring until done, about 15 minutes. Drain off the excess grease.

While the sausage is cooking, lightly beat the eggs, milk, oregano, salt, and pepper with a granny fork in a bowl. Pour over the sausage in the skillet. Cook without stirring until the eggs begin to set on the bottom. Now, you can leave it like that, lifting the edges of the egg so the uncooked part can run underneath, in which case you get more of an omelet, or maybe a frittata, which you can cut into pie-wedges to serve. I like to stir the mixture a little, breaking it up into chunks. But don't stir too vigorously or the eggs will get tough. Cook about three minutes, until the eggs are just about fully set but still moist, then stir in the tomato. Serve hot. Yields 4-6 servings.






Magic Lemon Meringue Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

When I was a kid, the tradition in my house was that you could pick the kind of cake you wanted for your birthday, and my mother, an accomplished baker, would make it. We wandered from the "cake" theme pretty early, though; as far as I can remember, my father always asked for cherry pie. My kid brother wanted as much chocolate as could be forced into a cake and, while I couldn't argue with his motives, I had my own favorite.

When I was learning how to read, I spent a lot of time sitting on the kitchen floor in the afternoons, working through the recipes in my mother's dozens of cookbooks while she cooked supper, and asking for explanations of unfamiliar ingredients and cooking directions. I also read the labels on all the cans in the pantry, including the little recipe booklet that came glued to the top of the Eagle Brand Condensed Milk can. (That particular tin fascinated me because, like evaporated milk, it lacked a raised edge around the top. There was nothing to hang the can opener on. That changed, though.) One of the recipes was for Magic Lemon Meringue Pie with Graham Cracker Crust. I don't remember whether it was my suggestion or my mother's, but she finally made that pie one day, and I was hooked. For the remainder of my time at home, until I went off to college, Magic Lemon Meringue Pie was always my choice of birthday "cake," every single year. I still make it about once a year.

If you can get that silly-looking can open, this is really not difficult to make:

1¼ cups crushed graham crackers (about 20-24 squares)
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¾ stick butter, melted
2 eggs, separated
1 can (14 oz) Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
½ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup sugar

For the crust: Mix together graham cracker crumbs and sugar and stir this into the melted butter, mixing well. Press mixture firmly into a 9-inch glass pie pan. (Yes, it needs to be glass for this one, not metal.) I simply chill the crusted pan for an hour before filling it, but you can also bake it at 375° for about 7 minutes and allow to cool.

For the filling: Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and stir in the condensed milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Pour into the pie shell.

For the meringue: In a small bowl, beat the egg whites with cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until stiff but not dry. Spread meringue on top of pie, sealing it carefully to the edge of the shell. Bake 15 minutes, or until meringue is golden brown. Allow to cool, then chill before serving. Refrigerate the leftovers — if you have any.






Red Beans and Rice with Cornbread

I don't know why it is, exactly, but what people consider "comfort food" — the dishes they fix at the end of an especially bad week, the things that remind them of childhood, back when there was someone else they could depend on to make the decisions — are generally what can also be thought of as "peasant food." Basic stuff like macaroni and cheese or chess pie or chicken soup or tamales, or even peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, right? I don't know of anyone who turns to artichokes or paella when their soul is in need of hand-holding.

In the South and Southwest, pinto beans, rice, and cornbread are about as "peasant" as you can get. Beans, rice, and corn also make up what Indians in the Southwest called the "Trinity," an almost perfectly balanced source of nutrition that doesn't require much meat protein. Before the advent of McDonalds and Lean Cuisine, Anglo kids in south Texas grew up with this stuff, too. And even now, there's not much that can compare to a big bowl of fluffy rice with a couple of ladles of red beans poured over it, with hot buttered jalapeno cornbread and a tall glass of cold milk on the side. It's good for whatever ails your psyche.

There are a lot of regional and ethnic versions of this staple, but this is how I make it:

2 cups kidney beans, washed & drained
6 cups water
Meat scraps (ham or pork, preferably) for seasoning, or bacon drippings, or what have you
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 large bay leaves, crushed

Put beans in water. Season with salt and bacon drippings, or ham, or other seasoning meat. Simmer 1½-2 hours. Add onion, garlic, celery, and bay leaves. Continue to cook over low heat for about 1 hour. If beans become too dry, add a little more heated water.

Adding 2 tablespoons of sugar will improve the whole thing amazingly. Serve over mounds of cooked white rice.

Yields 8 servings.

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You can also do this successfully with black beans, which are very popular in South Louisiana:

2 cups dried black beans
1 medium or large onion, chopped
3 quarts water
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cover beans in a bowl of cold water and soak for 10 hours, or overnight. (There will be about 2½ cups of beans after soaking.) Drain and remove any broken or discolored beans.

Place beans in a large pot with onion, water, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2½-3 hours, or until beans are tender. Stir about once every hour; after first 2 hours cooking time, check to be sure beans still have enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Discard bay leaf.

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And the cornbread:

1½ cups cornmeal
2½ cups milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced jalapenos

Preheat oven to 400°. In a small bowl, combine cornmeal and milk; let stand for 5 minutes. Grease a 9"x13" baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix in the cornmeal mixture, eggs and oil until smooth. Add the jalapenos. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake 30-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cornbread comes out clean.

VARIATION: Sometimes I add about ¾ cup of drained whole kernel corn at the same time as the jalapenos.






Guacamole

My paternal grandfather was an Iowa farm boy who got fed up with winters on the Plains and moved to San Diego in the 1920s. My father mostly grew up there, except for a few years in the Depression when they had to retreat to the family farm to survive. Their San Diego property (which is now in the heart of Pacific Beach and I really wish they had kept it . . .) orginally included a small grove of avocado trees, which had been introduced from Mexico only a few years before. Avocados were a bit too exotic even for my adventurous grandfather, I think, and he never seemed to entirely trust them. But my father grew up with them and loved them.

When they were in season, I remember there always seemed to be a row of the things ripening on the kitchen window ledge in San Antonio. (Another window usually had a row of styrofoam cups with avocado seeds in various stages of sprouting.) My father liked to wait until they got nice and soft, and then he'd peel one and spread a slice of it, raw, on pumpernickel bread. That was a bit too concentrated a flavor-hit when I was in high school, but I was already a devotée of guacamole. It's incredibly fattening, of course, and I have to be careful these days not to over-indulge, but I still love it.

There are lots of variations, but this is how I make it — and you must use only the Haas variety, with the warty-looking greenish-black skin:

2 ripe Haas avocados
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (better than lemon juice)
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 small tomato, seeded & choppe
d 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (from your herb garden, right?)
Dash of salt & freshly-ground black pepper
1 small clove garlic, minced
Dash of Tabasco

Mash the avocados in a bowl with a granny fork. (Don't stuff them in a blender in an attempt to get a smooth paste. This stuff is supposed to be lumpy.) Stir in lemon juice. Stir in remaining ingredients. Serve immediately, preferably with freshly-made tostados (wedges of corn tortillas fried in oil in a skillet).

It's unlikely you'll have any left (not in my family, anyway), but if you have to refrigerate the leftovers, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic into direct contact with the guacamole. Avocado darkens after contact with air.






Macaroni and Cheese

Ths is another of those dishes that is so ubiquitous, there is no "standard" recipe. Do you make Béchamel sauce or use sour cream? Cheddar or Velveeta? (This is actually the only semi-legitimate use I can think of for Velveeta.) Bread crumbs or potato chips? Elbow macaroni or shells? Oven or stove-top? I don't know where my mother got her recipe — no actual published source, probably — but I suspect it was a variant of the standard Fannie Farmer or Betty Crocker 1940s version.

My mother thought supper should have a proper entreé, usually meat, plus a vegetable and a starch, so she tended to view mac and cheese as a side dish. (I remember it went well with pan-fried pork chops.) Sometimes, though, when the press of Friday night dates and other family activities got to be too much, she'd make macaroni and cheese and just set it on the counter with a stack of bowls and spoons and a loaf of crusty French bread and tell us all to help ourselves whenever we had time. More than once, I brought a date home after a dance and we refueled with a bowl of late-night leftover macaroni and cheese at the kitchen table.

My kids, in the '60s and '70s, influenced by their friends' mothers, seemed to think mac and cheese came in a box. I confess I actually have eaten the "convenient" version a few times, with its synthetic/plastic "cheese-food" sauce, but only when I was desperate. And I always felt guilty afterward.

Anyway, this is how I do macaroni and cheese:

2 cups (8 oz) elbow macaroni
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2½ cups cold milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup grated onion
½ teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ cups (6 oz) shredded Cheddar
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup bread crumbs (I like the seasoned Italian type)

Butter a 2-quart casserole and set aside.

Bring water to rapid boil in 4-quart saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and oil. Gradually add macaroni, being sure water continues to boil. Cook macaroni uncovered until tender but firm, stirring occasionally. Drain. Place in prepared casserole.

In a medium saucepan, blend milk into cornstarch. Add ¼ cup butter or margarine, onion, mustard, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low.

Stir in cheese. Continue stirring until cheese melts. Spoon over macaroni.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine. in small skillet. Stir bread crumbs in melted butter to toast lightly. Sprinkle toasted bread crumbs over casserole. Place casserole in cold oven. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes until golden.

Yields about 6 servings.






Biscuits with Sausage Cream Gravy

People (especially Northerners) sometimes make fun of a breakfast that includes cream gravy slopped over biscuits because it's not sufficiently aesthetic. I think that's mostly because they've only been exposed to really bad cream gravy, and there's certainly plenty of that around — especially the greasy, tasteless paste served at Denny's. The real thing, as rural Southerners know, is a fantastic accompaniment to a couple of fried eggs and a pot of black coffee. And the real thing must include crumbled-up pork sausage, preferably Jimmy Dean's, which is spicier than Northern-style sausage. For some, biscuits and gravy is either a nice change from, or an addition to, grits as a side dish for breakfast.

A confession: Though I do know how to make scratch biscuits, I haven't actually done it in several years. I pop them out of a tube, like everyone else. And I much prefer Pillsbury Golden Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits or Pillsbury Golden Layers Flaky Biscuits to any others I have tried.

Frankly, making biscuits takes considerable time and effort to do properly — about an hour, which is more than I'm willing to give at 7 a.m. Plus, I don't keep buttermilk on hand, and you simply can't make real biscuits without buttermilk.

Okay, enough excuses. This is how I make this kind of gravy:

1 lb Jimmy Dean sausage (I like the spicy kind)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt & black pepper to taste

Crumble and cook sausage in large skillet over medium heat until browned.

Stir in flour until dissolved. Gradually stir in milk. Cook gravy until thick and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot over biscuits.






Basic Bread Pudding

This, again, is my grandmother's recipe, as filtered through my mother. It's a very simple dish, great for dessert after a steak and salad — or reheated for breakfast, which is how I remember my mother's father, the Irish railroad man. He worked for the Pennsy for nearly fifty years and in the '50s he ran the roundhouse in Toledo. He had to work odd hours sometimes (like when one of the switch engines broke down) and when he got home after a long night, what he wanted for breakfast was, not bacon and eggs, but a pot of coffee and bread pudding with a splash of milk on it.

When I was in college and getting around more, I discovered the New Orleans version, served with whiskey sauce, which can be pretty good if you pick the right restaurant. But my grandmother's family were South Indiana Methodists and the thought of putting booze on her bread pudding would have made her extremely uncomfortable.

1½ cups bread cubes
3 cups milk
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup seedless raisins

Soak bread in milk for ½ hour. Beat eggs. Gradually add sugar. Beat in salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in raisins. Combine egg mixture with bread. Pour into a greased oven-proof dish and set in a pan of hot water. Bake at 350° for 45-50 minutes.

Variation: Use half heavy cream and half milk for a much richer pudding. Try using cinnamon rolls instead of bread.






Wienerschnitzel

As I've mentioned, I grew up in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, the son of a career officer, and we lived in Germany for several years. This was when Germany was still under allied occupation (no American coinage allowed, just undersized paper scrip in various denominations, and so forth), before the "economic miracle" had really gotten started, when Germany still possessed some of the characteristics of a temporary American colony.

In the cellar of the Rathaus in our town, there was a small, family-style restaurant called the Bunker (referring to its role in the war, presumably) which served extremely good Wienerschnitzel. I realize, per the name, that this is actually a Viennese dish, but American military families weren't allowed to travel to Vienna in those days (or Berlin either, for security reasons), so I was exposed only to the German version.

Schnitzel is very thinly-cut veal in a light breading that doesn't actually adhere to the meat. In fact, one traditional test of a good schnitzel is the ability to slide your butter knife between the crust and the meat without damaging either. (Another test is being able to actually sit down on the schnitzel for a moment in flannel trousers without getting a grease stain on the seat of your pants.) For a family, the schnitzels at the Rathaus were brought to the table arranged in an overlapping cascade on a big metal platter that sat atop two or three candle-powered food-warmers, and you served yourself from that. Plus green beans and vinegary German-styled cooked potatoes with crumbled bacon (sometimes called "warm potato salad," which it isn't, really).

After we returned to the States, I dreamed regularly for years about those mouth-watering schnitzel. (And I can still taste them.) And this was one dish my mother never fixed at home because proper veal was so hard to find — and when you did find it, it was way beyond our budget.

Another place, rather fancier and more expensive, but with more ambience, was the Eisen Hut (hotel and restaurant) in nearby Rothenberg. The name means "Iron Hat" and there was a 16th centuy Habsburg-style helmet hanging over the front door. They went the classic dish one better with Veal Cordon Bleu, which in this case meant slicing the already thin cutlet through the middle and inserting an equally thin slice of Westphalian ham (this is the German version, remember) and some Emmental cheese. God, it makes me drool just thinking about it. . . .

I've tried making this only a couple of times in the past forty years. It's a lot of work, especially for "comfort food," and I don't think I've ever really gotten it right. Plus, these days I have trouble making myself pay for a ribeye, much less high-quality veal. Therefore, this is the only dish on this page that does not include a recipe. If you live in a part of the country that includes a tradition of German and Austrian cooking, consider youself fortunate. And if you know of a comfortable little family restaurant that turns out a good Schnitzel, cherish it.


From her book of family recipes, Valerie Bertinelli’s recipe for a quick and easy version of a comfort-food classic.

2.) Helper-Style Un-Stuffed Shells and Meat Sauce
 


This cheesy, meaty pasta dish comes together in no time.

Watch Rach make it in the video above!

3.) Jordan Andino's Beer Gravy Bacon Poutine
 


I mean, what says comfort more than beer, fries and CHEESE?!

4.) Sunny Anderson's Grilled Cheese Egg In The Hole


Roasted red peppers upgrade this mash-up recipe featuring two comfort-food classics.

5.) Rachael's French Onion Rolled Meatloaf


A gruyere cheese-topped crust and caramelized onions make this meatloaf extra special.

6.) Rachael's Ultimate Mac & Cheese



Gruyere, bacon, and truffles take comfort food to another level.

7.) Meatballs with Red-Wine Tomato Sauce


This recipe is a favorite of Rach's mom and hubby -- and for good reason. The meatballs alone are filled with a one-two-three punch of beef, pork and proscuitto, mixed in with with flavors like ricotta, parsley, grated cheese and EVOO. Roll them into the sauce, and you'll be saying "Bellisimo" in no time.

More Great Meatball Recipes:Kelsey Nixon's Pork and Apple Meatballs with Quinoa; Clinton Kelly's Spicy Turkey Meatballs; Beef Meatballs with Blue Cheese and Horseradish

8.) Sweet Pepper Riggies


What better way to beat the cold than by making a spicy pasta? This recipe smells as good as it tastes, and is packed with so much love and comfort, you'll totally forget it's absolutely freezing outside.

9.) Mac 'n Cheese with Leeks and Ham


Nothing says comfort food like a classic mac 'n cheese, and Rach takes this one to the next level of happy goodness by adding a meat-and-vegetable combo that is equal parts delicious and, well, delicious.

Related Recipes:9 recipes for Mac 'n Cheese Lovers

10.) Nutty Turkey Meatloaf with Cracked Cranberry and Orange Sauce


Who says you can only enjoy turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving?! The cranberry dressing is especially comforting, as it has the brightness of the citrus flavor; the tanginess of the cranberry; and it's a little less sweet because we cut way back on the sugar recommended on the package. Yum!

11.) Turkey Croque Monsieurs or Madames with Cranberry-Rosemary Relish


Take a trip to France by making this hearty, comforting twist on a French classic. Rach also adds a dash of Italy by adding in some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and it's pretty much the best thing, ever.

12.) Curtis Stone's Baked Mashed Potatoes with Pancetta


Sure, you could bake any ol' potato. Or, you could try this upgrade from our good buddy, chef Curtis Stone, who adds ingredients like pancetta, mascarpone and Parmesan cheese to make a baked potato dish worthy of a 5-star restaurant. Seriously, this is the one time you'll be wishing winter lasted a little longer.

Also Try This: Curtis Stone's Garlic Mashed Potatoes

13.) Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Butternut Squash and Chicken Thighs
 


This recipe is so good, so hearty, you'll be wondering why you avoided eating brussels sprouts as a kid. The butternut squash gives this recipe an extra seasonal flavor; and the chicken, well, that's your home run right there.

14.) Curtis Stone’s Roasted Cauliflower, Broccoli and Pasta Bake with White Cheddar
 


Since it's hit well below zero degrees in a lot of places, odds are, your kids have spent a lot of time indoors this week. So, why not keep 'em happy with this family-friendly dish? Not only is it delicious, it's a great way to get your kids to eat their vegetables.

Related Recipes: 7 Cozy Casserole Dishes

15.) Chef Ludo's Hot Chocolate Galettes
 


A hot chocolate dessert on a cold winter's day. Seriously, this is good. (If you stopped reading our list to go make these, we totally, totally understand.

16.) Dana’s Favorite Savory Chicken Scaloppine


Since it's so cold outside, it's pretty hard to get motivated to get out and exercise. At the very least, keep things healthy by making this savory chicken from our good pal Dr. Ian? It's another crowd-favorite dish your entire family is sure to love.

17.) French Onion Croque Madame


Another great French dish is this French Onion Croque Madame, which you can serve for breakfast, lunch or dinner (or brunch, if we're talking weekends). Rach and her hubby, John, especially love to make this on a cold, rainy day. It's perfect for cuddling up in front of the television.

18.) Zesty Green Bean Stew



The key to having healthy, fulfilling cooking is adding lots of flavor, and this one has all of that and then some. Lots of fresh thyme, garlic, onion, celery -- need we go on?

More Recipes: 7 Hearty Dishes That Will Warm You Up

19.) Wintertime Italian Wedding Soup


This recipe -- which is basically chicken noodle soup with little baby meatballs -- is a real crowd-pleaser around wintertime. In fact, it's so good, by the time you're done, you'll be ready to pop the question (the question being, "Can I have seconds?", that is).

20.) Buffalo Turkey Chili-Stuffed Baked Potato Skins


These oven-baked, twice baked potato skins are, believe it or not, a pretty healthy wintertime dish. You can even serve them as an entree, as they're filled with a boatload of hearty, good protein.

21.) Roasted Pork Chops with Green Beans and Potatoes


This is the type of meal that people often approach Rach at the grocery store about, because it's every bit as time-saving as it is delicious to eat. One-pan pork chops -- who could ask for anything more?

22.) Potato Lasagna with Butternut Squash and Escarole


This recipe, which is a pasta-free lasagna, really proves how much fun you can have in the kitchen with potatoes. Here, we layer potatoes with butternut squash and escarole for a comforting, mouth-wateringly-good taste you'll be raving about for weeks (okay, maybe months).

23.) Ryan Scott's Brownie in a Mug


A brownie ... in a coffee mug!? It's hard to think of a better foodie way to spend time indoors this winter, especially if you have a sweet tooth. It's also a great way to keep your kids active -- not to mention totally and utterly happy.

24.) Trisha Yearwood's Cheese Boat


Throwing a party this winter? Why not go the extra mile by making this incredibly delicious -- not to mention time-saving -- cheese boat? Your guests will eat it up in the amount of time it took you to make it (hint: mere minutes), then spend the rest of the party asking how they can make it themselves.

25.) Katie Lee's Pumpkin Monkey Bread


Anyone who grew up on Monkey Bread will love this fake-out. Chop up your store-bought biscuit bread like you normally do. But instead of cinnamon, add in some pupmkin pie spice. Then, mix some pumpkin purée and brown sugar into your melted butter mixture and you've got your kids' next favorite wintertime tradition.

26.) One-Pot Chicken Alfredo


This one-pot supper will keep both you and your entire family happy all winter long. They'll love the great taste; you'll love the easy clean-up.

27.) Roasted Vegetable and Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese and Caramelized Onion Croutons


Did you really think we could end a comfort foods listicle without grilled cheese and tomato soup?! This classic dish gets a legitimate upgrade thanks to Rach, who adds roasted vegetables and probably the best carmelized onion croutines you'll ever had.

Go ahead and dig in!
 

Aired February 20, 2015

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