Feeling food

Henri weighs in on healing powers of comfort food

Mac 'n’ cheese in ramekins.

Mac 'n’ cheese in ramekins.

Photo by JeffreyW (via Flickr)

Henri can barely turn around these days without seeing a reference to “comfort food,” from high-end restaurants serving meatloaf and mac and cheese to cookbooks and magazines devoted entirely to the subject. And why not? Don’t we naturally seek comfort in uncomfortable times? Whether the source of our discomfort is the weather, the economy or right-wing politicians spewing inanity, insanity and profanity, we want to feel better, and certain foods and their associations—with friendship, family and better times—can be a huge help.

Confession: Henri’s comfort foods tend to extend the conventional definition a bit and come from a more widely cast net. In fact, Henri can hardly think of a food or drink that wouldn’t bring at least some degree of comfort—including one of my favorite comfort foods, a Bloody Mary, especially one with two crispy strips of bacon for garnish.

That said, Henri has a few standbys that are rather more traditional. The first is mac and cheese, of course. I discovered this delicious variation by Mark Bittman in an issue of Cooking Light magazine.

Steakhouse side mac 'n’ cheese


4 teaspoons olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

8 ounces (uncooked) whole-wheat penne pasta or macaroni

3 bacon slices

10 ounces mushrooms, quartered

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 (5-ounce) packages fresh baby spinach

1/4 cup plain 2% Greek yogurt

4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup whole-wheat panko

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400. Coat 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish with 1 teaspoon oil. Set aside. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add salt and pasta. Cook for 6 minutes or until just barely tender. Drain pasta in a colander over a bowl; reserve 1 cup cooking liquid.

Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon from pan, reserving 2 tablespoons drippings in pan; crumble bacon. Add mushrooms to drippings in pan; cook for 8 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally. Add pepper, garlic and spinach (in batches); cook 3 minutes or until spinach wilts, tossing occasionally.

Combine yogurt and cheese in a large bowl, stirring until almost smooth. Add pasta and mushroom mixture; toss to combine. Stir in 1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid (or more if mixture looks dry). Spoon pasta mixture into prepared dish.

Combine crumbled bacon, panko and parsley in a bowl. Drizzle with remaining 3 teaspoons oil; toss to combine. Sprinkle evenly over top of pasta. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and bubbly. Excellent with a burgandy or pinot noir.

Note: For a fun presentation, make individual portions by dividing among ramekins or small ceramic loaf pans.

Henri’s slow-cooked turkey thighs with polenta


2 turkey thighs

2 tablespoons olive oil

4-6 garlic cloves, minced

1 large onion, sliced

2 or 3 large bell peppers (red, green and/or yellow) sliced

3 or 4 large carrots, sliced

3 or 4 celery stalks, sliced

4 cups beef or vegetable broth

1 cup polenta mix (or cornmeal)

1 tablespoon butter

Pour olive oil in large slow cooker, and add turkey thighs. Add vegetables (feel free to experiment with what’s seasonably available), fresh ground salt and pepper and cover with broth. Set cook time at 6 or 8 hours. Check from time to time to make sure vegetables and thighs are still covered with broth. If not, add water or more broth.

A half hour before the turkey is done, bring four cups of water to boil in sauce pan. Add the butter and a pinch of salt. Pour polenta in slowly, stirring constantly. Reduce heat, and continue to stir until polenta is done (about a half hour).

Spoon the cooked polenta into large, shallow soup bowls and ladle the turkey thighs and vegetables on top. Also good with a pinot.

A votre confort!