When we think of comfort food, we often think of carbs, cheese, and meat. But warm, filling, unpretentious dishes, like mac ’n’ cheese and pot roast, aren’t the only players here.
On Pinterest, there was a 336 percent spike in the word “veggies” in comfort-food searches, according to an August 2016 article in Food Business News. In fact, traditional comfort-food dishes, such as lasagna, macaroni, and stroganoff, plummeted 69 percent, 55 percent, and 50 percent, in that same time, respectively. So just what are these vegetables that are supposed to soothe our souls during the winter doldrums?
Mashed cauliflower, eggplant Parmesan, broccoli casserole, butternut squash bisque, vegetarian chili, creamed spinach, and pumpkin-anything fills that cold-weather void.
Remember, though, what you consider comfort food depends on your culture and what your family fed you when you were growing up, says Chef Beau Widener, culinary director for ERL Hospitality Group. (The group operates Red Zebra in Sleepy Hollow, Sweet Grass Grill and Grassroots Kitchen in Tarrytown, and Tomatillo in Dobbs Ferry.) This is a category of food based on nostalgia, after all.
“Comfort food is evolving with every generation, and we’re at a time now when the market is shying away from beef and pork,” Widener says. “Especially here, we have such great farms and farmers’ markets, and that’s key.”
At Sweet Grass Grill on Thursdays, the farmers’ board announces five or six specials based on what they receive Tuesday and Wednesday from their favorite farms — such as Westchester’s Hilltop Hanover Farm and Environmental Center, Blooming Hill Farm, and Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, plus McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton in the northern Hudson Valley. Then Widener and the restaurant chefs conjure a casserole from that week’s produce. Casseroles are a natural go-to dish in wintertime, he says.
“The weather lends itself to that, the oven on and warming the house, and a lot of winter produce works well there, like cauliflower, broccoli, and fall squashes,” Widener says. The ERL chef likes to make a cauliflower gratin, in which the ivory bite-sized pieces luxuriate in a white cheese bath, and the top edges get all browned and crispy.
Rosemary and Vine in Rye bills itself as a wine bar with vegetarian comfort food from around the world. Think five-cheese mushroom lasagna; saffron-scented Moroccan tagine with butternut squash, chickpeas, zucchini, toasted almonds, and harissa over couscous with scallions; kale and arugula pesto fettuccine; shakshuka (skillet dish of eggs poached in a smoky, spicy tomato sauce); and Turkish-braised eggplant ragout. You’ll feel so warm and fuzzy after a meal there, you won’t even notice meat was never invited to the table.
Rosemary and Vine’s shakshuka, a North African skillet dish of eggs in a spicy tomato sauce.
At the Copper Kettle Café in Hartsdale, customers can find a wild-mushroom flatbread with goat cheese and truffle oil; spaghetti squash with sage, brown butter and seasonal vegetables; and crispy eggplant balls with mozzarella, Parmesan, and crushed tomatoes.
“It’s almost like you’re eating a meatball; some people ask if there’s meat inside,” says Copper Kettle chef-owner Joe D’Angelo. “We crunch it up by rolling them with a little bit of bread crumbs on the outside.”
The eggplant balls are such a favorite, he smashes them like falafel onto slices of house-made ciabatta bread piled with creamy mozzarella and crushed tomatoes for a vegetarian rendition on the classic meatball sub sandwich. When D’Angelo gets giant mushrooms, he treats them like steak.
“A lot more people are into vegetables, especially local vegetables, and you’ve got to think of new ways to put them on the plate. We have vegan and vegetarian customers, and you have to give them the comforting feeling they’re looking for,” D’Angelo says.
Balducci’s corporate executive chef, Jason Miller, likes to play with cauliflower, too, in the fall and winter. He concocted a Parmesan-crusted cauliflower for the gourmet grocery store’s prepared foods section. Balducci’s has eight locations from Connecticut to Virginia, including one in Scarsdale and another in Rye Brook.
“Fall and winter are my favorite times of year to eat because of that hearty, stewy, brown food,” Miller says.
These dishes may not be Instagram-worthy, but they taste great and will satisfy you.
For instance, you can mash up more than potatoes or cauliflower. Almost any starchy root will work, such as celeriac, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, oyster root, and parsley root. Miller likes to use those alternative vegetables when he makes a mash for his 3-year-old daughter, because it’s a little healthier.
The trends toward bowl meals and spiralizing vegetables as a substitute for pasta noodles also come into play, Miller says. Balducci’s creates different grain bowls, ramen soup bowls, and squash noodle bowls, changing it up with ingredients and flavors based on the season.
“They’re super-cute and fun; they’re sexy as all get-out; and you seem to be fuller when you’re eating from a bowl,” he says. “Comforting food has to be hearty, fill the body but also fill the soul.”
Amy Sowder is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City, published in Bon Appétit, Upworthy, Chowhound, and USA Today. Find her at www.AmySowder.com.