Legends of the Fall: Classic Comfort Food

by David Ross

One recent Saturday morning, I walked outside to get the morning paper and I immediately picked up the unmistakable scent of fall in the air.

Just the day before, the temperature had reached into the 80’s, and I had thought it odd that in October we were still in the grips of this year’s long, hot summer.

Yet this day was different. That whiff of fresh, crisp, almost moist air was a distinctive sign that fall had arrived. The air was still and calm, and the sky a perfect pastel baby blue. The signs that the neighborhood mice had eaten their way back into the food magazines stored in my garage was a sure-fire sign that the seasons were a-changing. Mice are wily critters and they know when it gets cold that it’s time to chew through pages of Gourmet and Bon Apetit to build a cozy and warm winter bed.

In the Inland Empire of Eastern Washington where I live, late October can bring a Monday of sweltering heat followed by frozen dew on the grass on Tuesday morning. We don’t really have what one calls “fall” in the traditional, New England sense – forests of big, leafy deciduous trees painted in a rich palette of fiery earth tones. Our fall doesn’t last for weeks like it does in more easterly regions. Yes, we do have brown leaves that fall into the street and make a mess, but once Mother Nature cedes that summer is finally over, fall comes one day, winter the next.

Yet I don’t complain when the weather turns cool, even though I’m still a bit numbed by the memory of last winter’s record 23 degrees below zero one January night when the water in the toilet bowl froze solid. Rather than gripe about our short days of sunlight and the thought of home heating oil hitting a record high price this winter, fall is the season to celebrate the return of those wonderfully warm and satisfying dishes that we call “comfort foods.”

It was back about fifteen years ago or so that the term “comfort food” became permanently inscribed in the culinary dictionaries of America. And we can thank my generation, the baby boom generation, for the return in popularity of comfortable dishes like macaroni and cheese, tuna ala king, iceberg lettuce, Jell-O salad and orange cream-sickle pie.

Now for those of you who are of another generational ilk, us “boomers” are the folk who were born to parents who married after peace was declared in September of 1945 at the end of World War II. We are the parents of the Gen Xer’s and in some cases, now the grandparents of the Gen Yer’s.

Shortly after the soldiers began to come home in the fall of 1945, the American suburb was born and along with the following growth in the building of single family homes in grid like neighborhoods, came a “boom” in babies. I take a small measure of comfort in the fact that at 46, I am one of the youngest of the baby boomers.

About this time, American families were looking for foods that were simple to make yet reminded them of the comforts of the good old days before the war when fat and carb-counting weren’t even a wisp of a thought in anyone’s minds. The dinner table was still a place for food, fun and family.

By 1950, we had moved off the farm, but we hadn’t yet faced the onslaught of fast food and the diet wars that would continue to attack our eating habits for the next 50 years and on into the 21st century.

America after the war still liked good old-fashioned meatloaf and mashed potatoes with thick, pasty brown gravy and rice pudding for dessert. (We always had dessert back then.)

But in the coming years, Americans would shrug off their cloak of comfort food and dive into a craze for both fast and faster food. We wanted food that tasted good but didn’t take any time to cook. With such a vengeance for food that was fast, good, wholesome, natural food could only be left behind. In order to make food “convenient,” it had to be flash-frozen, injected with binders and stretchers, chemically preserved and with the flavor removed.

We didn’t want to spend the hours it took to wait for the crescent roll dough to rise and we didn’t want to stir the cooked caramel frosting for exactly seven minutes. Families in the 1950’s wanted food that was fast – all Mother had to do was put a frozen, fried chicken dinner into the oven and the family could sit down in front of another new technological wonder of the day – television. Swanson and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite would become names inscribed into the history books of popular culture.

In the ensuing decades of the 60’s, 70’s and into the 1980’s, America’s steadily increasing waist line allied with her ravenous appetite for fast-food literally caused a food-fight to erupt, and the soothing comfort provided by a grilled cheese and bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup was lost in the haze of the diet wars.

It wasn’t a food fight in the John Belushi, Jell-O slurping, “Animal House (1978),” sense of the word, but a fight between the struggle to take off the extra pounds born of a national feeding frenzy at the troughs of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, combined with the desire to continue shoving tasty food down the gullets of Mr. and Mrs. America and their ever-hungry offspring.

In one corner, fighting in the blue and white-striped tights with white leggings was the challenger, Ms. Jane Fonda, previously recognized for her contributions on-screen in the movies “Nine to Five” (1980) and “On Golden Pond” (1981).

Jane FondaIn late 1980’s, Ms. Fonda steered her career in a different direction and her “Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout” videotapes shot to number one in both popularity and sales figures.

The war that Jane began, was fought on by other generals and lieutenants leading the troops. From the rather fay Richard Simmons screaming and sobbing for us to “Dance to the Oldie’s” and “Deal a Meal” with various colored playing cards each with a special recipe for something low-fat and tasty; to Ron Popeil hawking $99.95 “Showtime” rotisserie grills that made our roast turkeys and prime ribs beautifully golden brown and tender, leaving the hated fat, (which all good cooks know translates into flavor), in the special “fat trap” in the bottom of his plastic contraption.

While Jane and Richard have slipped down to the “C” list of diet celebrities, the low-carb advocates of Dr. Atkins and soldiers of the South Beach Diet continue to fight the mega-mighty regiments of Pizza Hut and Frito-Lay. And while the goal continues to be money, American’s have fought back the insurgency by saying “enough” – I want some Comfort Food.

We want meatloaf with ketchup sauce. We want lemon pound cake with stewed fruits. We want to buy that old-fashioned “retro,” hot-pink electric coffee percolator.

We finally realized that what satisfies us most, what in fact is the reason why we saw old people in the supermarket filling their carts with Brussels sprouts, cheddar cheese, noodles, cartons of bread crumbs and cans of tuna was that in fact, a simple tuna noodle casserole, made the same way as it had been for probably 80 years, was something that made us feel good. Comfortable in a sort of pajamas, furry slippers, t-shirt in front of the fire watching Andy Griffith reruns sort of way.

Jiffy-Pop Popcorn“Comfort Food” makes you feel good, comfortable. It’s food made with butter, cream, whole milk, red meat and russet potatoes. “Comfort Food” is “Jiffy-Pop” popcorn made not in a microwave but in a foil wrapped pan that expands on the stove. Comfort food is the dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes and creamed carrots that June served Ward, Wally and the Beaver in “Leave it to Beaver.”

Now, it would take far too much web-page space and more time than you have today to read the definitive tome on “Comfort Food.” And it would probably take me days to decide, and then share with you, the top 10 or even the top 5 comfort food recipes.

So I’m going to start today with what will be an occasional “Comfort Food” recipe.

A great recipe to start with is “Chicken and Dumplings” or in my version, “Chicken and Biscuits.”

Chicken and Biscuits is a classic example of comfort food – simple and inexpensive ingredients that are comforting, creamy and served up in the classic “casserole” or one-dish format.

Another reason Chicken and Biscuits is a classic example of the comfort food genre is found in a brief history of its beginnings.

Most comfort food recipes find their roots in the American Farm Family.

Chicken Pot PieChicken Pot Pie, Chicken Ala King, Chicken with Dumplings and Chicken with Biscuits are all variations on one basic farmhouse theme: once the oldest hen in the coop used up her life as an egg-layer, she was ready for the family stewpot. Fresh, seasonal garden vegetables were added to the pot, and then some type of pastry topping, or a starch like potatoes or noodles, was added as a finishing top to the dish.

The pastry on the top of the chicken casserole sometimes took the form of rolled and cut biscuits. Or it might be dropped dough balls that became dumplings which cooked and rose in the hot, chicken-soup base. It might have been homemade egg noodles or a crust made with either pastry or mashed potatoes.

Our Chicken and Biscuit Forefathers realized that one-pot meals were easy to serve and even more easy to clean up.

So we must start with the right chicken before we begin our Chicken and Biscuits comfort food dinner.

In the old days, those pre-war days when many American families had chickens running through the backyard clothesline, poultry for the stewpot was right outside the back door. But today, few of us have fresh chickens pecking at our doorstep.

Most supermarkets sell what is called a “Capon” or a “Stewing Hen” in a rock solid frozen form.

Capons are actually male chickens that have been neutered. A capon is the male chicken counterpart to a beef steer. Capons grow to the size of a small turkey, anywhere from 10-15 pounds, so there is plenty of good chicken meat on the carcass. But since a capon is basically an old fart, he’s a bit tough and needs the long cooking time of braising in liquid to stay moist and tender.

Now a stewing hen is more commonly found today than her brother the capon. A stewing hen is the old dowager of the flock. She layed her last egg days or even years ago, and while she is still useful pecking at bugs in the garden, Ms. Henny the Stewing Hen is delicious when she’s the meat in the stewpot.

A stewing hen is smaller than the capon, as little as 5 and up to about 8 pounds. Like the capon, a stewing hen must be braised slowly in liquid to stay tender, but she’s got far more tasty chicken meat than one of those silly little 2 pound “fryers.”

Once we’ve got our chicken, the second most important part of our comfort food meal is how we cook the chicken.

Now, I have an extensive collection of cookbooks, many of them from some of the most famous, world-renowned, four-star chefs in the world. Leaf through the “kitchen basics” recipes from any of these cooking compendiums and you will find a recipe for chicken stock. Yet what these egocentric chefs sometimes have forgotten is that the cook in Cleveland may not want to spend hours standing over a simmering pot of roasted chicken bones, skimming off foam and fat so that the end result chicken stock will be clear.

Chicken StockHogwash. Or chicken wash I should say. You can simply ignore any previous recipes you have read for chicken stock. You don’t need to roast the bones. You don’t need to throw in a veal knuckle. You definitely don’t need to buy a special flat ladle to spoon off any scum off the top. You will only need a large kitchen spoon and you will only skim about three times, not the hours on end most recipes call for.

Simply place Mr. Capon or Ms. Stewing Hen into a large pot. I actually use a pot that holds up to 5 gallons of water.

Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you to thaw your chicken first before placing it in the pot. A frozen, 10 pound chicken just won’t work. Discard the giblets and pour in enough water to cover the chicken. Add the aromatics you are choosing to use (carrots, celery, onion, garlic and black peppercorns).

Bring the pot to a boil then turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover the pot and let the chicken cook for about two hours or until the meat begins to fall off the bones.

You then return the bones and meat back to the stock for more simmering.

When it is done in about two more hours, you will have a delicious, deep-brown, chicken stock that is the essence of poultry. And a side benefit of making chicken stock this way is that you’ll be left with gobs of succulent and moist chicken meat that you are now going to turn into a delicious chicken and biscuit pie.

You can add peas or mushrooms, some diced carrots or chunked potatoes. Once the chicken base is ready, the filling of the pie is a matter of personal taste.

The third part of our recipe is the biscuits.

The idea here is to add the biscuit dough to the hot, bubbling, chicken pie during the last 20 minutes or so of the oven-baking process. The heat of the oven allows the biscuits to rise into flaky haystacks while the chicken pie underneath makes the bottom of the biscuits moist and chewy.

While I admire the financial achievements of Ms. Fonda, Mr. Simmons and the Board of Directors of Taco Bell, in the battle they waged against one another, the fight between fast and fat, they seemed to lose the greater war to teach us all how to have a healthy, hearty and “comfortable” life. Food was and is always going to be the answer for victory.

Just remember to be true to the roots and history of comfort food, and you will win too.

Chicken Pie with Biscuits

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