One of the most fruitless questions I am ever asked, and one that seems to come up with unerring regularity, is: "What's your favorite comfort food?"
That query stops me cold because most things I eat give me a measure of comfort. But that is not the answer they are looking for, so I rally and name a few foods that come closest to my mind.
"Peanut butter," I will confess, "and thick malted-milk shakes and really good chocolate bars that are so rich they turn your teeth brown as they melt."
Those answers always seem to satisfy. But I will tell you a little secret; all of the above are private addictions, fantasized about but rarely indulged. Comfort food is another dish of gratification altogether.
Cocoon of Childhood
In truth, that concept summons up that warm and safe cocoon of childhood when one was comforted with a capital \o7 C\f7 .
The comfort food I ate in my grandmother's kitchen was usually cooked for the two of us alone. When I grew bored or sulky, Grandmother would say: "I know what's the matter with you. You're hungry. Have you ever had a Tomato Hamlet?"
When I shook my head, she would nod back, as if that lack must be corrected instantly. From the shelves she would produce a bit of cheese, a tomato, bread and some ham. In minutes it would become the most delectable broiled open-face sandwich I'd ever eaten. I say that--not mixing memory with desire at all--because I eat hamlets still, whenever I feel the need for a quick restorative.
Warming Flagging Spirits
Another way my grandmother warmed flagging spirits was to serve a dish we always called chicken-fried noodles. She prepared this dish from scratch in less than a half hour, while my mouth watered at the prospect of the creamy mixture of noodles, cheese and bits of re-fried chicken.
And that's what I call real comfort foods.
This dish has no relation to any ham and cheese sandwich you've ever eaten. My grandmother made it with any good white cheese she kept in the refrigerator. I prefer Brie. My friends opt for Monterey Jack.
1/2 fresh baguette
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
8 thin ham slices
8 thin tomato slices
1 (5- to 6- ounce) wedge Brie cheese, cut into thin slices
Cut bread into 2 (4-inch) long pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise. Toast lightly under broiler. Lightly butter, then spread 1/4 teaspoon mustard over each half. Place halves in shallow baking dish.
Layer ham slices over each bread half, then layer with tomatoes. Cover each piece with cheese and bake at 400 degrees 8 to 10 minutes. Makes 2 servings.
\o7 Note: \f7 Prague or Black Forest ham is recommended.
My grandmother would say that I'd gone ritzy if she knew I substituted fettuccine for homemade noodles; but actually they're very similar.
2 pieces leftover fried chicken
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
2 teaspoons flour
3/4 cup chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup cooked fettuccine noodles
1 1/2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Remove skin from chicken pieces. Finely chop skin. Remove meat from bones and cut into pieces to yield about 1 cup. Set aside.
Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add chopped chicken skin. Cook 4 minutes. Add shallots and cook 3 minutes longer.
Reduce heat to low and sprinkle mixture with flour. Cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Whisk in chicken stock and cream. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook over medium heat until thickened.
Add nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in chicken and cook over medium-low heat until pieces are warmed through. Toss in pasta until warmed through. Sprinkle with cheese and parsley. Makes 2 to 4 servings.