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Kicked-Up Restaurant Comfort Foods – US Food Trends

19 February 2009

What do weary restaurant customers crave? Hearty, homespun comfort foods at sensible prices.

This article first appeared in the 1 February 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Oysters Rockefeller, andouille-crusted catfish and other New Orleans-inspired dishes shape the menu at Parish Foods & Goods, the latest concept from hotshot Atlanta restaurateurs Bob Amick and Todd Rushing. Yet comfort-driven entrées such as Cochon de Lait Pot Pie and Angus-beef meatloaf are what have really taken off in the nine months since the restaurant opened.

"It's a direct result of the economy," says Executive Chef Tim Magee. "Not everybody is struggling financially, but the people who aren't are still concerned. When they eat dinner, they want to feel like they're carefree 8-year-olds eating their mothers' recipes and everything's going to be OK."

Such dishes typically match comfortable pricing with homey appeal. Diners can pay $15 for meatloaf at Parish Foods & Goods instead of $24 for rib-eye steak, while the shepherd's pie at Rustic Canyon sells for $20 compared with $32 for diver scallops. And therein lies a hook for operators, too: Because simplicity is integral to comfort foods' attraction, most recipes rely on bottom-line-friendly staples such as pasta, rice, beans and secondary protein cuts.

"A lot of these things that Mom cooked at home are less expensive, because Mom had a budget," says Clark Frasier, chef and co-owner of American bistro MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, which offers $19.99, three-course comfort-food dinners every Monday night.

Traditional recipes still resonate, but the scope of comfort food now extends well beyond meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Frasier says. He and partner Mark Gaier build their Monday-night menus around themes such as Southern (hoppin' John with shrimp and grits) and Italian (Tuscan kale-and-white-bean soup with house-made linguine and meatballs).

"It doesn't necessarily have to be standard American fare," he says, "but I do think you need simple preparations that are very straightforward-things you could do at home if you had the time."

Comfort Redefined

The average home cook might not attempt a recipe like Parish's Cochon de Lait Pot Pie, but chefs can take inspiration from the upmarket adaptation.

Magee regularly buys half a pig from a local farm and reserves the loin, shoulder and side for other uses. He roasts the rest over mirepoix with garlic and herbs to use in the pot pie. For the accompanying gravy, stock made from the roasted carcass and vegetables is thickened with a paste of softened butter and flour. The juice-rich pork, along with gravy and roasted root vegetables, is tucked into individual cast-iron casseroles, topped with puff pastry, brushed with egg wash and baked.

"It's an easy pickup, a great price point and it doesn't cost us a lot," Magee says. "It's an easy sell for the staff."

Parish’s meatloaf
Parish’s meatloaf
The restaurant's meatloaf appears in two places: as a dinner entrée and a hot lunchtime sandwich. Magee's original recipe featured venison as a way to introduce game-a New Orleans wintertime staple-onto the menu in an approachable, affordable format. But the dish didn't catch on, so the current incarnation puts forth a more-traditional meatloaf mix: ground beef with sautéed onions, celery and garlic, and seasonings such as Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and fresh herbs.

Comfort foods also drive the menu at Atlanta-based Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, where core offerings are home-style favorites-fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and gravy-emboldened with Cajun flair. The quick-service chain's recently launched Big Easy Chicken Bowl fits neatly into this approach while targeting on-the-go customers with a more-portable format.

The recipe's foundation is red beans and rice, a Cajun comfort staple that stands as one of Popeyes' top-selling sides. The slow-simmered beans deliver plenty of savory pork notes, lending a bold-flavored platform for the dish, says Director of Culinary Innovation Amy Alarcon. Pulled chicken soaked in the same Cajun gravy that comes with Popeyes' signature mashed potatoes tops the beans and rice. Shredded cheese and parsley garnish the dish; hot sauce and sour cream are optional additions.

Popeye’s Big Easy Chicken Bowl
Popeye’s Big Easy Chicken Bowl
"When you talk about winter comfort food, you want something soothing and warming," Alarcon says. "It's about texture, too-something soft and smooth and creamy."

Global Comfort

Executive Chef Matthew Thompson at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., says the comfort-food category continues to expand as it encompasses recipes that stem from an increasingly diverse student population. "Comfort food is something you're familiar with from home, and we have a wide range of cultures and ethnic backgrounds here," he says.

Thompson meets this demand with global comfort foods such as Thai red curry with chicken, which was so popular when it debuted as a special on the school's pan-Asian station that it graduated to the regular menu cycle. He makes the spicy sauce from scratch, starting with a house-made paste that includes Thai red chiles, kaffir-lime leaves, lemongrass, coriander, cumin and cilantro. Instead of adding coconut milk, he blends the paste with chicken stock, creating a lighter sauce that accompanies marinated chicken thighs and fresh vegetables over vermicelli.

Other simple-yet-satisfying ethnic dishes are joining Thai curries alongside comfort classics. Tagines, the Moroccan stews often simmered with vegetables, olives and preserved lemon, are a prime example.

Jennifer Buehler, who menus chicken tagine with butternut squash, chickpeas and pistachio couscous as chef de cuisine at Mediterranean-themed Lauro Kitchen in Portland, Ore., says stews' appeal lies in their broad accessibility-a hallmark, in her view, of any comfort food. "When people are searching for something to warm them up on a cold winter night or take their blues away, they don't necessarily want to experiment as much as they want something tried and true," she says.

Buehler braises chicken legs and thighs with cumin, saffron and paprika. At service, the chicken is browned briefly in the oven in hot cazuelas (clay pots); sprinkled with roasted butternut squash, chickpeas, currants and fresh ginger; drizzled with honey; and returned to the oven. The dish is finished with scoop of couscous and a sprinkling of cilantro and olive oil.

Because the tagine provides an outlet for whole chickens broken down in-house (the breasts are stuffed with goat cheese for another entrée), the recipe is especially economical, says Buehler. The same, she adds, goes for another soothing stew on the menu, Daube Á la ProvenÁ§al.

The daube calls for chuck roll-an affordable cut of beef that takes well to slow cooking-braised in red wine with brandy, orange zest and pancetta. The hearty, saucy entrée is delivered in a big bowl topped with two crisp polenta wedges.

Special Delivery

The ritual of scooping foods such as soups, stews and braises from thick, deep bowls or hot, steaming mugs can be as integral to satisfying customers' cravings for comfort as the recipes themselves, notes Alexandra Guarnaschelli, executive chef at contemporary American restaurant Butter in New York City. Cooking techniques, too, enter the equation.

"Instead of pan-searing chicken breasts, I've started roasting chicken whole and slicing it off the bone for the home-cooked quality," she says.

Like many chefs, Guarnaschelli also puts twists on traditional comfort dishes. Dijon mustard punches up her Three-Cheese Macaroni, while potato-filled biscuits are a riff on twice-baked potatoes. The recipe calls for baked russet and red potatoes that are mixed with heavy cream and paprika and then chilled. The savory potatoes later fill Cheddar-accented biscuit dough to yield treats that are crisp and golden on the outside and creamy inside.

At Commerce, another New American restaurant in New York City, Executive Chef Harold Moore also appreciates how preparation and service styles can play up the comfort factor. His whole roasted chicken for two, rubbed in simple herb butter, accounts for 20% of Á la carte sales. Such high demand for the dish amid a menu that includes lobster with gingerbread and bacon or veal sweetbreads with Swiss chard, salsify and truffled sabayon makes a strong statement about consumers' appetites for straightforward, homey fare.

Although the dish costs $28 per person, diners get a value proposition, too, as the whole chicken provides plenty of leftovers to take home. Serving cuts beyond the ubiquitous breast also lets guests enjoy the bird's varying flavors and textures, Moore says.

"The chicken takes 40 to 45 minutes to cook, so the waiters prepare people for it to take awhile. It puts guests in a different frame of mind. They relax, have an appetizer-it changes the whole experience," he says.

Great Taters
Potatoes are a common denominator in many comfort-driven side dishes. Earning spots on the most-sought-after list are mashed potatoes, french fries and potatoes gratin. The mashed-potato-filled biscuits below, from Executive Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli at Butter Restaurant in New York City, might stray from tradition, but they certainly meet comfort food's soothing, rib-sticking profile.
Golden Biscuits with Creamy Potato Center
Executive Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli, Butter Restaurant, New York City
Russet potatoes, washed - 2lb.
Red potatoes, washed, unpeeled - 1lb.
All-purpose flour - 2 cups, plus extra for rolling
Baking powder - 2½ tsp.
Kosher salt - ½ tsp.
Heavy cream, divided - use 1¼ cups
Cheddar cheese, grated - 1 cup
Salt and pepper to taste
Paprika - 1 tsp.

  1. Arrange russet and red potatoes on baking sheet (cutting, if necessary, so all are roughly the same size). Bake at 450F until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare biscuit dough: In large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt. Add 1 cup heavy cream; whisk to blend or mix by hand. Once cream has integrated with flour, knead in cheese.
  3. Turn out dough onto floured surface; roll out ½ in. thick. Slice in half; refrigerate 15 to 20 minutes.
  4. Chop cooked red potatoes and season with salt and pepper; reserve in bowl.
  5. Slice russet potatoes in half lengthwise. scoop out flesh and transfer to bowl; discard skin. Whisk in remaining heavy cream; season with paprika and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in red potatoes. Refrigerate until well-chilled, about 30 minutes.
  6. Cut one sheet of biscuit dough into rounds large enough to cover bottom and sides of muffin-tin molds. Press dough gently into bottom and up the sides of oiled molds; fill centers with potato mix. Cut smaller rounds for tops; place over mashed potatoes, pinching edges to seal (or bake without tops for "open-faced" biscuits).
  7. Bake biscuits at 375F until light golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from tin.

Mmm, Meatballs
Ground meat-be it beef, chicken or even game-is a comfort-food staple for good reason. It's economical, versatile and familiar in beloved recipes from meatloaf and Salisbury steak to burgers and meatballs. Meatballs in particular have been in vogue on menus recently, often with accompaniments beyond the expected pasta and tomato sauce. Chef-owner Hoss Zaré's savory-spicy version below, from Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, reflects the restaurant's Mediterranean and Persian influences.
Meatballs with Honey-Harissa-Pomegranate Paste
Chef-owner Hoss Zaré', Zaré at Fly Trap, San Francisco

Pomegranate paste - 2 cups
Honey - 1 cup
Red wine, preferably Shiraz or Zinfandel - 1 cup
Harissa, divided - use 2 Tbsp.
Whole-grain mustard - 2 Tbsp.
Chile flakes - 1 tsp.
Ground beef - 2 lb.
Large eggs - 2
Large onion, finely puréed -1
Pistachios, finely chopped - 1 cup, plus extra to garnish
Italian parsley, chopped - 1 cup
Savory, chopped - ½ cup
Tarragon, chopped - ½ cup
Breadcrumbs - ¼ cup
Rosemary, chopped - ¼ cup
Lime juice, freshly squeezed - ¼ cup
Ground cumin - 1 Tbsp.
Salt and pepper to taste
Pomegranate seeds to garnish

  1. To make glaze, mix pomegranate paste, honey, wine, 1 Tbsp. harissa, whole-grain mustard and chile flakes in saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring. Reduce heat; simmer until mixture reduces by half. Reserve.
    Combine beef and eggs in large bowl; mix well.
  2. In separate large bowl, mix onion, pistachios, parsley, savory, tarragon, breadcrumbs, rosemary, lime juice, cumin and remaining harissa; season with salt and pepper.
  3. Incorporate herb mixture into meat mixture by kneading well with hands for 2 minutes. Form mixture into 2¼-oz. meatballs.
  4. Bake meatballs on oiled baking sheet at 400F for 12 minutes, turning halfway through.
  5. To order, heat ¼ cup of glaze over medium heat in frying pan. Add 3 meatballs; toss with glaze for 2 minutes. Place on serving dish; garnish with chopped pistachios and pomegranate seeds.
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