Feel-good food The best comfort dishes don't just stick to your ribs, they nourish your soul
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2019 (1110 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A few years ago, hygge — the Danish and Norwegian word for cosy conviviality — became a major lifestyle trend on this side of the Atlantic, with over-stressed, over-worked North Americans desperate to parse the “secret” of these Nordic countries, who often rate among the world’s happiest.
Central to hygge (pronounced: hoo-gah) is comfort food. A Tupperware kale salad eaten solo at your desk is not hygge. A pile of buttery mashed potatoes and brisket, enjoyed among friends in candlelight? Hygge.
Winnipeggers take quite naturally to both hygge and comfort food, seeing as we live in a winter climate not dissimilar to that of our Danish and Norwegian friends. But what, exactly, is comfort food?
“I think, being Manitobans, would define comfort food differently than people that live in, say, Miami,” says chef Gordon Bailey, an instructor at Red River College’s Patterson GlobalFoods Institute. (To be clear, he means the Miami in Florida and not the one in, um, Manitoba.)
“I think you can look at it two different ways. Comfort food can be something that’s warm, nourishing, fills the soul, fills the stomach, or it can be something that’s nostalgic. It doesn’t have to be something hearty and warm; it can be something as simple as a dish your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather used to make, and you have an emotional connection to.
“It gives you that comfort of the soul, as opposed to warming of the body.”
A comfort food that meets both requirements for Bailey is perogies. “There’s nothing quite like some nice pan-fried perogies, some onion, bacon and kielbasa,” he says. He uses his mother’s recipe. “I gotta say, even as a chef, I adopted the way she makes them. They are off the charts.”
Before RRC, where he works with the cooking apprenticeship students and is involved in applied research at the Culinary Research Institute, Bailey worked as a chef in many kitchens, including three on Prince Edward Island, where he spent 17 years.
Perogies do not enjoy the same level of ubiquity in P.E.I. as they do in Manitoba, so Bailey added them to the menu at one of his restaurants. “They were one of the most popular dishes.”
“For me, comfort food has to be something probably not healthy,” says Mike Green, who writes Tourism Winnipeg’s Peg City Grub, and is a former CBC Radio food columnist. (He also came in fifth on Master Chef Canada.)
“It has to give you that warmth inside. Generally, it should be something slow-cooked and not rushed, something that should stick to your bones.”
One thing it doesn’t need to be is bland. Comfort food can be found over the world, in noodle dishes and curries, and in warming spices such as ginger and lemongrass.
“People who come from really warm countries tend to make really great comfort food,” Green says. He recommends the No. 6 Satay Beef Rice Noodle Soup from Thanh Huong (534 Sargent Ave.) — “the broth is herbaceous and spicy with just a bit of peanut flavour” — the souk gai, a Laotian-style spicy tangy soup, from Lao Thai (763 Selkirk Ave.), and the Shanghai noodles and beef brisket soup from Double Greeting Chinese Snack House (355 McDermot Ave.).
But when it gets cold out, Green is all about ramen.
“I moved here from Vancouver and was originally introduced to ramen when I went to Japan when I was a kid in my early 20s,” he says. “I’m obsessed with what Ed Lam does at Yujiro (1822 Grant Ave.). I think it’s really cool he brings his Cantonese-Chinese background into creating Japanese-style ramen.”
There’s plenty of comfort, too, to be found in routine, such as always ordering the same dish. For Green, that’s Yujiro’s Dan Dan Ramen, which is served at lunchtime, and boasts a spicy peanut pork broth.
“It’s one of my favourite things to eat in the city,” he says. “When my wife was pregnant three years ago, we joking that our two-year-old must love ramen because we were at Yujiro every Sunday.”
Of course, you can’t talk about comfort food without talking about mac and cheese. Green’s go-to is at Wet & Dry Dept. (upstairs, 173 McDermot Ave.), and features house-made sriracha noodles and a smoked cheddar béchamel. “It’s just a really killer mac and cheese.”
Comfort food isn’t always just about the food itself. Sometimes, it’s about the space in which it’s served.
“Passero (at The Forks) has got that really great vibe for comfort food in the sense that, when you’re there in the middle of winter, you can look outside the dining room and see people with skates and hockey sticks and stuff. It makes it a cool setting,” Green says, noting that visiting travel writers get a kick out of that, too.
Bailey is also a fan of the vibe at The Forks, and he appreciates the cosy atmosphere at Clementine (123 Princess St.), where get almost always orders the Turkish eggs. “It has a nice, warm vibe to it. The food, too. It’s not overly complicated. It’s simple food; it’s just executed very well.”
Bailey’s comfort foods aren’t always as virtuous as soft-poached eggs on hummus. “Sometimes you want something down and dirty and awesome. My go-to is Super Boy’s Burgers on Main Street,” he says with a laugh. He gets his kielbasa from Tenderloin Meat & Sausage across the street and then gets a burger.
At home, Bailey gravitates towards “one-pot wonders” such as soups and stews. He often cooks with pulses such as split peas, beans and lentils. “You can do comfort foods and keep them well-balanced and nutritious without them being the stereotypical go-to, like a mac and cheese or greasy fried foods,” he says.
Soup also figures prominently in Green’s home comfort cooking. Growing up, his father did all the cooking in the household, and Sundays were soup days. His favourite, and most nostalgic, is butternut squash, which he does with roasted pears.
Comfort food is olfactory, too. Onions in butter. Short ribs braising, low and slow, in the oven. “It’s such a nice thing to come home to,” Green says.
A childhood favourite of Bailey’s is Yorkshire pudding. “That screams Sunday to me,” he says. “That’s a very nostalgic dish to my heart. It’s funny how something (created) out of necessity to fill you became a beautiful accompaniment to a meal.”
Ultimately, comfort food is food that nourishes and fuels you in a way that goes beyond nutrition.
“I think it’s a sustenance thing, like you can last for days on it,” Green says. “There’s something very Canadian about it. There’s a romance to it in the sense that you ate this rich, heavy meal and it’ll keep you warm for days, even if it’s -20 outside.”
“When you’re talking about comfort food, you’re talking about relatable food,” Bailey says. “It’s all food you understand and have had in the past. It brings up good moments from your childhood, or coming in from outdoors and eating a nice, warm, comforting meal with friends and family.
“In the end, it makes you feel darn good.”
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Yorkshire Pudding from Gordon Bailey
9 eggs, large
2 cups/500 ml water
2 tsp/10 g salt
2 cups/280 g all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp/0.75 g nutmeg
3 cups/675 ml vegetable oil or bacon fat
- Beat the eggs, water, and salt thoroughly
- Add the flour and nutmeg and beat until smooth. Allow to rest for one hour
- Preheat oven to 400 F (205 C)
- Fill each muffin tin cup with 30 ml/2 tbsp of oil and place muffin tins onto baking sheets and heat in oven
- When the tins are heated, pour 60 ml/1/4 cup of batter into each cup and return to the oven. Bake for 15 mins or until the batter has puffed up and begun to crisp
- Reduce heat to 350 F (175 C) and finish baking
Makes 12 large. The Yorkshire cups should be crisp and hollow enough to hold their shape.
You can add herbs, onions, leeks, and other items to make different flavors of Yorkshire pudding.