For some diners, “comfort food” can be homestyle meatloaf or chicken pot pie, while others may get especially warm feelings from an upscaled pot roast or fried okra Caesar salad. Club and resort chefs around the country are expanding how they define, and serve, the dishes that can make a deep-down connection with members and guests.
As temperatures fall in many parts of the country, Americans’ cravings turn to comfort foods—those dishes that may evoke fond memories and warm the soul as well as the body. Many of these recipes have humble roots, but talented chefs are putting their own spins on comfort classics by preparing them with high-end ingredients and innovative techniques.
“Consumers are looking for unique and different preparations of their favorite seasonal foods,” notes Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group research firm. “If they are in the mood for mac and cheese, for example, they may want it spiked with sriracha, made with gouda instead of cheddar cheese, or studded with chunks of lobster.”
|SUMMING IT UP
• “Comfort food” now runs the gamut from homestyle to haute.
• While some comfort-food favorites are universal, others can be developed to highlight regional specialties and preferences.
• Comfort foods have year-round and all-weather followings, but incorporating seasonal ingredients can add to their appeal.
• More diners are looking for, and responding to, healthful spins on comfort foods, such as using herbs instead of fat and salt to provide rich flavor.
While many comfort-food recipes are longtime family standards, Riggs adds, they often require more cooking time and effort than people are willing to do at home. This makes them popular and profitable items for dining venues that can execute them well, she notes.
And an emphasis on comfort foods doesn’t have to be confined to cold-weather seasons or regions, new research indicates. In a study conducted last year, The Harris Poll found that two-thirds of Americans use their favorite comfort foods as a “pick me up,” whether they’ve been having a good day or a bad one. More than six in 10 (62%) adults said their favorite comfort food reminds them of their childhood—and 47% said their favorite comfort foods change with the seasons.
Tastes of Home
Some of Shelley Cooper’s fondest childhood and early-adult memories revolve around her family’s summer visits to her great-grandmother’s home in the mountains of North Carolina. To fuel a day filled with chores from picking apples and digging potatoes to washing laundry by hand and hanging it out on the line to dry, lunch had to be hearty and filling, yet quick and easy to eat.
On her menu as Executive Chef of the Dancing Bear Lodge & Appalachian Bistro in Townsend, Tenn., Cooper now mines those treasured memories every day for classic regional favorites she can transform with contemporary twists and flourishes. Her Appalachian Lunchable, for example, pays homage to such Southern staples as deviled eggs, pickled proteins and vegetables, pimento cheese spread, bacon, country ham and buttermilk biscuits.
“When we were up to our knees in chores, we put together what we had on hand, to make a lunch hearty enough to get us through the rest of the day,” Cooper explains.
In a recent variation on her menu, Cooper swapped out the traditional cheddar for smoked gouda in her cheese spread; the bacon took on a sweet-and-savory, jerky-like bite with a rub of hot sauce, apple pie spice, brown sugar and benne seeds; green-goddess dressing gave the deviled eggs a new flavor profile; the locally sourced ham was paired with a compote made from strawberries grown on the property (she also sometimes makes the compote out of raisins); shrimp provided the pickled element; spring garlic gave the biscuits an herby twang; and fennel slaw rounded out the meal.
“The components of the lunch change seasonally and with what I have in-house and what’s growing in the garden,” Cooper notes.
Fried okra gives Cooper’s Caesar salad a homey accent. The ubiquitous Southern side dish, ambrosia salad, usually made with heavy cream, sour cream and/or marshmallows, gets a sophisticated spin with Cooper’s recipe of fresh seasonal fruits, toasted coconut and goat cheese dressed with a warm brown-butter walnut vinaigrette. (The goat cheese gives the dish a creamy tang, which plays well against the sweetness of the fruits.)
In Cooper’s version of a BLT, the “B” stands for biscuit as well as for bacon, the “T” for tomato jam, and other layers of flavor are provided by candied jalapeno, chow-chow and smoked cheddar cheese. Cooper even takes something as simple as succotash and elevates it by pairing it with lobster and crab-stuffed mountain trout.
From her travels around the world, she also brings international comfort foods into the mix. For example, a pork dish she tasted in Taiwan made with searing-hot Szechuan peppers became a little tamer, yet just as flavorful, when she substituted some milder, homegrown chilis.
A World of Comfort
American-style comfort food is always on the menu at Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Ariz., but Keith Dary (the club’s former Executive Chef who recently turned independent restaurateur) also brought some of his German heritage and French training into play to familiarize members with comfort classics from other cultures. His own favorite meal, and one that he has successfully featured on his menu, is cassoulet, a rustic, French, one-pot stew made with beans, pork and duck confit.
JohnMichael Lynch, Executive Chef of Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga., says that for some of his members, a simple Caprese salad with hand-pulled mozzarella and tomatoes grown in the on-site garden is comfort food. He also likes to give international favorites some contemporary (and sometimes whimsical) new twists, such as his popular deconstructed coq au vin.
“We marinate and braise the legs, then make a croquette out of them,” Lynch explains. “We pair that with a chicken breast roulade that’s stuffed with chicken and bacon sausage, wrapped in its own skin, and served with a red-wine reduction.”
Even the most beloved comfort foods can be tweaked and updated, Lynch emphasizes, as long as the execution is top-notch and consistent.
While Keith Dary was growing up, substantial chicken dishes satisfied the need for many comforting meals. Two of the recipes Dary brought with him to Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Ariz. (where he was most recently Executive Chef before purchasing his own independent restaurant in Idaho), were chicken pot pie and chicken and dumplings.
The pot pie, which is packed with chunks of chicken and vegetables in a thyme-scented gravy, is baked in a cast-iron pot with a flaky pastry crust on top. It proved to be so popular that it became a menu must at the Canyon Clubhouse, one of Forest Highlands’ two dining venues.
“We [went] through a ton of it,” Dary says.
The tradition of the fish fry has also found a permanent place on the club’s menu, in the form of fish and chips. In his version, Dary coats the fish, usually halibut, with a batter bolstered with ale or porter.
“The beer gives the batter a heartier flavor,” he explains.
At Forest Highland’s country retreat-style Meadow Clubhouse, brined rotisserie chicken is a favorite. Dary also tricked out an airline breast of chicken Southwest-style with a coating of grits and chilis, cooked with local squash, tomatoes and tepary, a native heirloom bean with a nutty flavor.
The Meadow also spotlights comfort fare for its weekly themed nights. Tuesday, for example, is taco night, while Thursday is burger night. “Thursday [was] our biggest night of the week,” Dary points out.
There are few foods as soul-warming as soup, and Dary’s menu featured two different varieties. One of the most requested has been a five-onion soup en croute, and Friday means that clam chowder will be on the menu.
For his more upscale version of the comfort classic chili, Dary uses quarter-inch diced sirloin instead of ground meat. To add complexity to the dish, he uses a little bit of brewed coffee instead of water.
Health- and gluten-conscious members of Forest Highlands can enjoy the sauciest of comfort foods without hesitation, because Dary usually uses a reduction rather than a roux as a thickener. For his take on mom’s meatloaf, he adds bison, to reduce the fat and amp up the flavor.
The NPD Group’s Riggs says these types of adjustments are important nods to diners’ changing preferences. “Many Americans are looking to chefs to use ingredients such as herbs, instead of fat and salt, to add rich flavors to comfort dishes,” she points out.
No Time Limits
While many people associate fall and winter with comfort foods, JohnMichael Lynch, Executive Chef of Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga., finds that they sell briskly year-round.
“I’ve worked in clubs around the country, and some comfort foods such as pot roast, chicken and dumplings, and spaghetti and meatballs are universal,” Lynch says.
In addition to satisfying members’ comfort-food cravings, Lynch adds, many of these dishes can be made in one pot or are otherwise easy to produce in high volume and with good profit margins.
“Members who dine often at their clubs are not looking for over-the-top food all the time,” he notes. “Even younger members, who have a greater tendency to go outside the box when dining, still often want that connection with their food.”
While a basic pot roast with its attendant potatoes and carrots is rarely viewed as an upscale dish, Lynch’s re-imagined version for his menu at Druid Hills elevates the humble ingredients. The traditional chuck roast is present, but instead of being the star of the dish, it plays a supporting role as an ingredient in an herb-spiked farce (stuffing) in a mushroom-wrapped beef tenderloin roulade.
Lynch pairs the roulade with a braised short rib, potato croquettes, carrots two ways and tomato jam, playing with textures and presentations while still preserving the warm, homey flavor profile that makes pot roast such a beloved comfort dish. In fact, he calls this elevated dish “The Flavors of Pot Roast.”
Like Dary, Lynch also has members who are looking for more healthful versions of their long-time favorites. For chicken parmigiana, for instance, some diners at Druid Hills order the chicken grilled rather than fried, then topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella. They’ll also skip the spaghetti side and replace it with a vegetable. And burgers may be ordered sans bun and wrapped in a lettuce leaf.