Taste Of Comfort
When the going gets tough, the tough turn to... tuna noodle casserole?
Thursday, October 21, 1999
What is the recipe for comfort? If you read this week''s Chef Profile about how two entrepreneurs successfully figured out that cheeseburgers are the steadfast opiate-of-choice for hungry, foot-weary travelers of the Western hemisphere, you probably understand the concept. But when someone fairly new to the vagaries of the English language recently asked me to explain the meaning of "comfort food," I paused to ponder a more universal definition. Mercifully, my rambling attempt at providing an explanation was shortly preempted. "Oh, I get it," she interrupted. "Comfort food means ''like home'' ?"
"Yep. That''s it," I agreed, there''s the one-size-fits-all definition in two syllables. Real soul-soothing comfort doesn''t come in a Styrofoam container, and it''s not located in the freezer section. It''s the kind of craving that won''t be satisfied by a trip down drive-thru lane. Really bad cases have been known to send hapless insomniacs to the 24-hour Safeway at unholy, nostalgia-wracked hours in pursuit of everything necessary to reinvent tuna-noodle casserole. The kind that mothers used to feed kids who got to stay home from school, sick in bed with the chicken pox.
I remember a story that chef and fishmonger extraordinaire Phil DiGirolamo of Phil''s Fish Market in Moss Landing once told me about his grandmother who would often get up and bake cakes in the middle of the night. Who knows what perplexities she was laying to rest while she sifted and stirred in a house that slept? He tells lovely stories about this grandmother who taught him to cook, and all the cakes that came out of her oven, ready to put smiles on the faces of countless sea-worn fishermen.
Even if you don''t have a resident chef/matriarch, or the desire to fire up the stove, there''s still hope when your appetite can only be appeased by dinner at the homesick cafe. Just show me a restaurant that doesn''t have something just like Mama used to make on the menu, and I''ll show you a restaurant with some seats left to fill. It''s good to know that when your whole day has been sucked up with barely any time to eat, much less breathe, somewhere there is meat loaf waiting, with garlic mashed potatoes.
At LALLApalooza in downtown Monterey, Pat Ottone has spent years perfecting his meat loaf recipe. "It''s a mixture of ground pork, beef and veal, about 20 ingredients all together," he explains. "We use green onions, red and green peppers, crushed Saltines, ketchup, bacon bits, evaporated milk, bind it with eggs, form it up and smoke it in-house." Smothered in spicy mushroom gravy, it could be just the thing when you''re feeling like grabbing Toto and high-tailing it back to Kansas.
Then, of course, there''s the matter of chicken fried steak. They pound out their eye-of-round beef cutlets by hand at Elli''s Great American Restaurant in Del Monte Center. "Then we bread it in flour, dip it in a mixture of cream, eggs and spices, coat it in bread crumbs and fry," says Sixto Arango. And he ought to know, because they come right off his station, and he''s the guy who makes the gravy, too, the kind that''s just right for soppin''.
But, you say, your idea of roots cuisine is more about the Mediterranean than the Midwest. An oversized plate of slow-braised lamb shanks from Salinas'' Spado''s has been known to bring cheer to the most maudlin sufferer of culinary ennui. John Spadaro braises them for almost three hours in lamb stock that''s rich with red wine, roasted onions, carrots, celery and fresh tomatoes, and gives it a twist of lemon rind. Served with polenta that''s layered with roasted eggplant, goat cheese and marinara, it holds the cure for what ails you.
Likewise, offers Daniel Barduzzi of Los Laureles Lodge, if it''s Tuesday you can almost pretend you''re back in Provence. After all, Carmel Valley and Provence share several aesthetic similarities, one of which is the rabbit stew special. Only the most tender loin section is sauteed before it''s slowly braised in white wine, turning a rich, golden brown to meet its final destination ladled over a bed of soft polenta.
If you''re Chef Andre at Swiss Bistro in the Barnyard, the prescription for comfort comes in one pot. "Fondue is the quintessential comfort food," he reassures. "Two or more people, all gathered around and eating out of the same pot? You can''t get much more comfortable than that." Chunks of crusty bread, dipped into a melty blend of Emmenthal, Gruyere, Appenzeller and white wine is his recommendation for attitude adjustment. Herein lies the antidote for angst at the brink of a new millennium.
Then there is the cure for comfort-questing by which Arthurian souls count themselves rich: A sack of squid burritos to go, from Taqueria Del Mar in New Monterey, and a bottle of paisano red. Better yet, make it two bottles, passed between friends sitting on the living room floor. In Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck appreciated the spiritual benefits of such communal acts, and could predict the course of conversation by watching the wine level drop in the bottle: "Below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of old and bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point on anything can happen."