It’s the time of year when diners are craving the warmth and tingles that only good comfort food can offer. Check out these modern takes on good ol’ favorites, and get creative with your own hearty offerings this season.
The words “comfort food” mean something different to everyone, but we all know it when we taste it. It evokes a memory of the past, often connected to a hot dish from childhood. It leaves us nostalgic and gets to the essence of what food is really meant to be: comforting.
While winter is the season for traditional and hearty entrees that warm both bodies and souls, chefs are re-defining ways to bring much needed comfort food to their customers. Here are four dishes from chefs who want to achieve just that, each in their own way.
Pot pie on the beach?
Chef Sean Yontz’s specialty is culturally-driven comfort food, so he offers an original take on the traditional pot pie at Yontz’s Plan Check Kitchen + Bar in Santa Monica, Calif. It’s a lobster pot pie with curried lobster bisque, golden beets, green beans, corn, carrots, onions, celery and potatoes. The dish reflects the neighborhood’s rich history of commercial fishing and its scenic surroundings. Plus, it’s packed with flavor.
This popular dish is also a laborious one for Yontz and his staff. The daily process includes boiling and cleaning 75-100 fresh lobsters. The shells are used to create a hardy stock for the bisque; then the veggies and lobster meat are added. Yontz adds chili powder along with the curry, creating a different flavor profile than the typical pot pie. It’s baked in a cast iron skillet with puff pastry dough on top that’s buttered and sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning. What’s the catch when it comes to keeping pricey seafood profitable? “We use plenty of lobster meat, and adding the vegetables and the bisque makes this dish both approachable to the guest and financially feasible for the menu,” says Yontz.
Japanese comfort food
When it’s winter in Japan, comfort food comes in a very definite format: sukiyaki, a.k.a. hot pot-style cooking tableside.
The key to good sukiyaki is to create a balanced flavor profile between the beef, the vegetables and other ingredients. The folks at Wagyu Japanese Beef (WJB) suggest using either cuts of their sirloin or rib loin for this heady scent-inducing purpose, adding them to vegetables, soy sauce, sugar and mirin (type of rice wine, similar to sake). It’s also important to coach diners to not overcook the meat, which can greatly impair its flavor.
“Compared to other beef, the sweetness of the fat of WJB blends with such flavorings as soy sauce, sake and sugar, as well as the vegetables cooked with the beef, creating a mellow, very flavorful end result,” says Kaori Iwatoh of the Japan Livestock Products Export Promotion Council. “WJB is a luxury ingredient, which ensures the best possible quality.”
The beef from WJB is most cost effective when purchased in full sets, which means that very little of the premium ingredient is wasted. Compared to other beef, wagyu cuts have extremely distinct characteristics depending on where they originate from the animal. “For instance, well-marbled regions, including the sirloin and the spencer roll, are appropriate not just for steaks but for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu when thinly sliced,” Iwatoh says. “The chuck close to the ribs is well marbled and may be used the same way as the spencer roll, while close to the neck there is more red meat. The round may also be enjoyed stewed, sliced or barbecued. The shank and tendon turn melt-in-your-mouth tender when stewed and are regularly used for cooking in Japan.”
More than a ragout
Proof that a chef can take a comfort food standard and make it more: the House-Made Rigatoni with red wine game ragout, duck egg, parsley gremolata, and roasted mushrooms— new to the menu at David Burke Kitchen in New York City.
Executive Chef Raoul Whitaker wanted a “belly warmer” on the menu, but he yearned for more depth of flavor compared to the everyday ragout. “It’s different because we use duck, venison and lamb, whereas most use veal, pork and beef,” says Whitaker. “Plus, ragouts often have more of a tomato base. Ours is a reduction of stocks made from those game meats and red wine reductions, which becomes your sauce and binds the dish. Then, we add the duck egg on top and the yolk becomes another sauce for the dish.”
Ragout, especially a game-based one, fits the season, and those meats are most readily available in the fall and winter, so it makes sense. “They’re all very flavorful meats,” says Whitaker. “I didn’t want to use grouse or hare, thinking they might be too gamey for the average person.” Whitaker and his team use mostly legs and shoulders for the ragout, which allows them to utilize the entire animal. He buys the meat as primal cuts and then breaks them down the rest of the way onsite. “It’s not a ton of work, but it is work,” says Whitaker. “It makes sense to not just use the most desired, expensive cuts of the animal from both an ethical and a practical standpoint.”
As far as procuring those meats, the duck is sourced from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son in Shartlesville, Penn. “It’s a local farm where they take good care of their animals,” he says. “We’re very happy with the product. We try and use particular farms when we can, but it’s not always possible.” Other benefits to a standout ragout dish, according to Whitaker: You can make a lot of it, and it has a long shelf life.
Just like the ragout, the pasta is also a serious comfort food enjoyed by a wide range of diners. “It’s not necessarily a lot of work. You can batch it out, and it’s not too hard once you learn to make it,” says Whitaker. “All together, it’s approachable, durable and seasonal, and I’m really enjoying having it on the menu.”
Burger up your brunch
Both brunch and burgers have been trending hard the last few years, and that fervor shows no sign of abating, so Chef Dave Hawley recommends serving the coma-inducing Brunch Burger.
Hawley’s version includes a soft poached egg, hash browns, cheddar cheese, and the kicker: a sriracha- lime Hollandaise sauce on a brioche bun. “It’s always a good idea to mix trends when looking at menus on a big-picture level. Sriracha is a hugely popular flavor right now, so I mixed it into a sauce I’d made in the past. It gave it a nice tanginess, which makes this burger really pop—it’s nice and bright.” As far as the art of making Hollandaise, there isn’t one, says Hawley. “It’s not hard if you know the trick, which is to use a blender. You don’t need a double boiler and all that. We put egg yolks, sriracha, lime juice, etc., in the blender and slowly pour in the melted butter. It works every time.”
For operators, Hawley also points out that this can be a highly profitable item due to its innovative nature and higher-end components, like the brioche bun. “A bar and grill can use this recipe as a staple or a special, thereby offering something the restaurant down the street isn’t,” says Hawley. “It costs less to produce than a bacon cheeseburger and you can charge more for it, so you’re making more money through innovation and offering something new and appetizing to your customers.”
Hawley is the go-to chef at Rochester Meats which, along with Holten Meats, is owned by Branding Iron Holdings. So, when he goes to make a burger, he’s using the Holten Thick ‘n’ Juicy patty.
“It’s already seasoned, so it’s consistent and maintains its juiciness really well. It can stand too much time on the grill, so you can cook a lot of them at the same time,” says Hawley of his company’s product, adding, “Brunch burger mentions on menus are up nationwide by 350 percent, so it’s a huge trend that has staying power.”