Friday, March 25, 2016

What's YOUR comfort food?

Imagine you’re having a stressful day. You blew a deadline for your boss, and he’s not happy. One of your coworkers accidentally spilled coffee on your white shirt. Your kids are giving you grief about wanting a new car. And speaking of your car, that pesky “check engine” light just came on…..again! Wait, are you starting to get a runny nose?

We’ve all had stressful days like this, right? That’s when we crave our “comfort food.” The Merriam-Webster definition of comfort food is: “Food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.” It is often used to invoke feelings of nostalgia, safety, and, well, comfort.

Did you happen to notice that the Merriam-Webster definition didn’t name any specific foods? No surprise, really, as it’s such a personal thing to all of us. I took an informal survey on Facebook, as well as asked several of my coworkers and family members to get an idea of what comfort food meant to them. I asked people to name just ONE comfort food and collected about 50 answers, and found some interesting results.

Now, I’m not going to turn this into a dry, boring statistical analysis of what brings us comfort. Food isn’t about percentiles or standard deviations. It’s about that first bite of your childhood favorite, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the feeling of simple pleasure. It’s about how food can take you back to a special time in your life when your biggest worry was a scraped knee or how to keep your bratty little brother out of your room. If you’ve ever seen the 2007 film Ratatouille, you might recognize this very sentiment in one of the final scenes. I’ll just leave it at that in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen this fun movie. Crawl out from under that rock, or walk out of that cave. Give it a try, and you just might like it.

I’ll start by naming my own comfort food. Since I held everyone to just one answer, I will name only one thing too, even though I have a few faves, as did most others. For those who read my “Pi blog,” you’ll see I tend to have a few favorites at any one time. In this case, though, I’ll limit my choice to just one: “breakfast” tacos. I’m an equal opportunity eater when it comes to “breakfast” items. I’ve had pancakes for dinner, and breakfast tacos for dinner are a common occurrence at our house.

I was raised on breakfast tacos. My mom would make these for us when we worked cattle on the weekend. She had a special touch with them, much like her fried chicken. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to replicate her fried chicken, even when she would stand right beside me, supervising the whole process. I guess you are still stuck on chicken duty, mom.

My basic “blueprint” for breakfast tacos is really quite simple. First and foremost, I use flour tortillas exclusively. Well, let me backtrack just a little. If I’m making chorizo and egg tacos, I’ll use corn tortillas for that specific combo. Otherwise, it’s flour tortillas all the way. Obviously eggs are the backbone of my breakfast taco. I’ll vigorously beat some eggs with a little milk and a dash of red pepper flakes. If I’m making tacos just for myself, I use two eggs, otherwise I’ll add more depending on how many I’m cooking for. The next critical ingredient is some form of potato. Ideally, I’ll have leftover chunks of roasted red potatoes or homemade hashbrowns. Barring that, I’ll bake some “tater tots” or something similar. Oh, relax! It’s OK to cheat and use prepared components from time to time. Besides, these are my tacos! By the way, if you decide to use something like this, I recommend putting them under the broiler for 1 - 2 minutes at the end to achieve maximum crispiness.

So now we have our eggs beat and our potatoes in whatever form ready on the side. For the meat component, I prefer bacon, but will use pan sausage if I don’t have any bacon in the house. Scary concept, huh, no bacon in the house. Let’s not contemplate that too deeply. I cook my bacon until it is very crisp, almost to the point where it will shatter if you thump it. Crumble it up and set it aside, being careful not to sample too much of it before it goes into the pan. That’s always a high potential in the Newman kitchen…..oversampling the bacon. Hey, I believe in quality assurance, sure, but I don’t want to QA myself out of a good taco.

Dump the beaten eggs into a warm to hot skillet and let them cook until almost done. Add the potatoes, bacon and any other ingredient you want at this point, along with a good handful of shredded cheese. I’ll leave the specific type up to you, although sharp cheddar or pepper jack seem to work quite well. Mix everything well and cook until the eggs are done. Add a little (or a lot, up to you) more shredded cheese and you’re done! Heat the flour tortillas and add a nice dollop of filling onto it. If you have some fresh pico de gallo or salsa go for it. Wrap it up and enjoy.
My breakfast tacos


That’s my comfort food. It was a tough choice, though, as my second choice was homemade carne guisada tacos (with brown gravy, NOT red gravy!). So, maybe it’s just tacos that are my comfort food, and not necessarily the specific kind of taco….. Nah, it’s pretty much breakfast tacos for me.

Earlier I mentioned an informal poll I posted on my Facebook page as well as a verbal poll of several coworkers. I promised not to make this a boring statistical analysis, but I do want to make some observations I found quite interesting.

I got almost 50 responses from Facebook, coworkers and via Twitter. Of these, only five people selected a non-savory dish. Two said chocolate (good choice!), one preferred oatmeal, one selected pancakes and my wife said, hands down, chocolate pudding. I don’t know why I find this so interesting, but I do. I figured more people would’ve chosen a “sweet” dish but that wasn’t the case at all.

The top four answers, in no particular order, were pizza, mac & cheese, wings, and steak. I’m giving honorable mention to meatloaf and chicken and dumplings, as they popped up almost as frequently. One quick note about the meatloaf entry: One reply was actually “My mom’s meatloaf.” I guess I’m not the only one who prefers one of mom’s dishes, and that absolutely confirms the definition of comfort food. Not surprisingly, two of my friends from Louisiana picked classic dishes from their state: gumbo and boiled crawfish. A friend from Alaska named “dry fish” as her comfort food. I can definitely see regional tastes being an influence here. An award winning author was kind enough to reply to my query with “low country BBQ shrimp and grits with grilled peaches.”

Naturally, I had a good idea what some of my family would say. Mom of course said fried chicken, although I had her pegged for Fritos and bean dip (her second choice). Both of my sisters prefer a good grilled cheese sandwich. One of my brothers from another mother was definitive about egg sandwiches being his comfort food. He actually turned me onto this gem of a food at a restaurant in Galveston called Farley Girls. Check out their menu item called “Good Morning Galveston.” It’s quite yummy and a preferred lunch choice for me when we eat there. My other bro surprised me with his choice of an Egg McMuffin. I make my own version of this from time to time, and prefer it over the original article. I’m not knocking his choice, just providing a little extra commentary. But really though, an Egg McMuffin? Seriously? Just kidding, brother, if it works for you, great.

My coworkers fell pretty much in the mainstream with gumbo (my boss) pizza and steak topping the list. Two of our UTMB police officers had the same idea of chicken fried steak, with white gravy, of course. My lab manager selected kielbasa as her preferred comfort food.

I really didn’t know how a chef would answer this question. Via Twitter, I asked some Food Network chefs, and they replied with such dishes as roast chicken with mashed potatoes, spaghetti carbonara and goulash. A local chef and culinary instructor (and friend) preferred chicken and dumplings. I wondered if being a chef would influence their decision with something like “arctic char with truffle oil sautéed vegetables” or Beef Wellington or some other fine dining type dishes. Nope, not at all.

All this talk about comfort food and now I’m wondering what I’ll do for dinner tonight. I guess I’ll order a pizza with a side of wings. While waiting for it to get delivered, I’ll jump into a big bowl of mac & cheese.

Until next time…….

carpe cerevisi