Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Comfort food: sin, guilt, lardoons

I write this as I push through a head cold. The appetite is dulled. The diet leans towards liquids and thin flavours: soup over steak, tea instead of coffee, and, above all, comfort foods.

Each of us has a comfort level established long ago. Mine starts with a thick Swiss cheese sandwich on freshly buttered pumpernickel. This brings me back 50 years to the Snowdon Deli, where my father got our weekly Sunday brunch to take home. It took a while because his routine required a long schmooze with the Marantz brothers, who owned the deli, while I was hived off to my own table with a glass of milk and my sandwich.

What else? Oreo cookies, rice pudding, even congee, which is a Chinese rice gruel with pieces of fish or meat and bits of preserved salty vegetables. Some, but not me, revert to Spam or Marmite as comfort foods. Each of us has a couple of dishes to get us through a rough day.

The ultimate comfort food has to satisfy basic requirements. It must be filling. Celery sticks don’t qualify. It must be gratifying in the sense that we are grateful to eat it, which means we probably don’t enjoy it everyday. We save comfort for solace. This also means that it is, perhaps, a private sin. “This is really good,” we think as we eat. “I need it.” It might not be good for me, in terms of nutrition (how much ice cream do I need to feel good?) but it is good for me in the sense that it reaches a deeper level. Comfort food is, at its essence, soul food.

Comfort food is rarely a pure food, in the sense that an apple, a piece of toast or a slice of chicken is a food by itself. Comfort food involves preparation. It brings together different textures and flavours. As we eat slowly,we move through one level to another. While a slice of chicken does not rate high on the comfort food scale, a piece of last night’s roast, still with a crackling skin, warmed just a little,maybe with a bit of grease, salt and garlic to chew on, is much more comforting.

This brings up another point. Comfort food must have fat – melted cheese on toast, the buttery flavour of a good cookie, a dollop of whipped cream on hot chocolate. Fat does two major things: It spreads the flavour around and it helps us feel full. Then there is the sin quotient. If you want a little comfort you might feel a little guilty. Fat gives us that reassurance as well. “I shouldn’t but…it tastes so good.” This is important: Something that tastes good makes us feel better, which is why we seek out comfort foods in the first place.

As the Flavour Guy, my ultimate comfort food keeps changing. Currently it is a Tartiflette – a dish made with cheese, onions, potatoes, cream, and lardoons or bits of smoked bacon. You could layer it, bake it in the oven and present it in a casserole or onion soup dish, but I like it best the way it was recently served to me, ladled from a huge cauldron that was stirred constantly. Here’s a home version: Use a large fry pan, wok or deep cooking dish. For each person, take two medium-sized boiled potatoes (you want them soft but not crumbly), a small to medium-sized onion, and Reblochon cheese. It’s available in Montreal cheese shops, but if you don’t find it, use a good Emmenthal and add a little grated Parmesan.

Heat the pan over medium heat and add enough butter to give it a coating. Add the bacon bits and the sliced onions and cook them until they are soft. You can throw in some finely chopped garlic, too, if you like. Slice the potatoes moderately thin, add them to the pot and cook until they break easily. Add a thick slice of cheese and a tablespoon of table cream (about 15%). Grind a little black pepper over this. Stir slowly until the cheese is completely melted.

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