I often say you can be miserable before eating a cookie and you can be miserable after eating a cookie, but you can never be miserable while you’re eating a cookie. And while I say that half-jokingly, the sentiment is true.
Food has an almost magical ability to comfort us, soothe us and bring us together in so many ways. We celebrate special occasions with food — a birthday cake or a big roast turkey — and we also turn to food for comfort on not-so-happy occasions: a delivery of baked goods to a family member who’s under the weather or a homemade dinner for a friend having a rough time. Food can be so much more than simple sustenance.
So what exactly is comfort food? It’s food that’s not just nourishing but also emotionally satisfying. After September 11, 2001, I can’t tell you how many people told me they went out to get all the ingredients to make my Outrageous Brownies from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. After the financial crisis in 2008, restaurants everywhere suffered as customers cut back on their spending. But fast-food places prospered because they served inexpensive classics like hamburgers and French fries.
As I write this, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and I have no idea when it will end or what devastation it will cause. People are isolated and stressed. Everyone I know has stocked up their fridges and pantries with ingredients they can cook for weeks or even months — chicken, vegetables, fruits, beans, rice and dried legumes. But my friend Deborah Davis commented that she opens her fridge and looks at all the healthy ingredients in there but all she wants is a grilled cheese sandwich. I can totally relate to that!
During times of financial and political stress, there’s something about a hamburger and Coke or a big bowl of beef stew that just makes us feel better. They’re not fancy — in fact, quite the opposite. They’re familiar, delicious and soul-satisfying. In other words, they’re comfort food.
There are many foods that are universally comforting. I think we can probably all agree that a mixed green salad isn’t anyone’s idea of comfort food. But chicken soup? Every international cuisine has its own version: Greek avgolemono, Vietnamese chicken pho, Belgian waterzooi and my personal favorite, chicken soup with matzo balls. For my newest cookbook, Modern Comfort Food, I developed Chicken Pot Pie Soup, a mash-up of classic chicken soup and chicken pot pie that hits all the right notes when you’re tired or cranky.
Comfort foods are often the dishes that transcend cultures and borders. Many popular foods that have become ingrained in American culture — ramen, tacos, pizza — were originally brought to this country by immigrants who sought to recreate the comforting taste of home. And many of the recipes in my latest cookbook are inspired by comfort foods from around the world, from Emily’s English Roasted Potatoes to Shrimp & Linguine Fra Diavolo to Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas.
Comfort food may be different for each person. An egg salad sandwich on toasted rye can cheer me up on a bad day, but it might not be what does it for you! Often the foods we turn to for comfort are rooted in what we ate as children. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the classic American lunch for kids, but when I offered to make them for my British film crew, they recoiled in horror. Instead, they offered to make me their classic childhood lunch: white bread with cold baked beans from a can and Kraft singles on top. Yikes! (Please don’t tell them, but I’ll take a PB&J any day!)
I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that these days, I’m a little grumpier than I used to be. I’ve always loved reading the newspaper in the morning, but now it feels as though it’s only bad news. Friends are angry with each other. People are venting on Twitter. It’s all just so stressful. So what do we do about it? We reach for a cold martini or a pint of rum raisin Häagen-Dazs ice cream to soothe our hurt feelings.
Modern Comfort Food is devoted to helping you serve up seriously satisfying and delicious food that will feed not only your cravings, but also your soul. I hope it will help you take care of yourself and the people around you so everyone is happier and less stressed. In this crazy world, that’s an incredible gift you can give to yourself, your family and your friends. Cooking really delicious comfort food — particularly fresh, modern comfort food — ensures that everyone at your table will feel happy and satisfied, and isn’t that how we want the people we love to feel? I know I do!
Skillet-Roasted Chicken & Potatoes
Makes 4 servings
Any roast chicken is comfort food to me, but roast it in a cast-iron skillet with garlic, potatoes, mustard and white wine, and I’m in! If you marinate the chicken in the morning, it takes no time to cook when you get home from work, and the skillet can go from the oven directly to the table. This is a great weeknight dinner.
4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (2½ to 3 pounds total)
freshly ground black pepper
2½ cups buttermilk, shaken
good olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon dry white wine, such as Chablis
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
⅛ teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1 pound medium Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
1. At least 4 hours (but not more than 12 hours) before you plan to serve, sprinkle chicken all over with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Place in a 1-gallon sealable plastic bag and pour in buttermilk. Seal bag and massage it lightly to be sure chicken is coated with buttermilk. Place in refrigerator to marinate.
2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil in an unheated 12-inch cast-iron skillet and tilt pan so oil covers bottom. Lift chicken thighs out of buttermilk, letting any excess buttermilk drip off, and place in skillet, skin side up, in 1 layer. Discard marinade.
3. In a small bowl, combine mustard and wine, and brush it on top of chicken. Sprinkle with thyme, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Place skillet in oven and roast chicken 30 minutes.
4. Using tongs, transfer chicken to a plate and put potatoes, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper into skillet. Toss to coat with pan juices then spread potatoes out. Return chicken to skillet, placing it on potatoes. Roast 30 minutes longer, until chicken registers 155°F on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer just chicken to a plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.
5. Return skillet to oven, raise temperature to 425°F, and roast potatoes 15 minutes, until they’re tender and starting to brown. Return chicken to pan and sprinkle with parsley, chives and extra salt. Serve hot from skillet.
Recipe courtesy of Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Copyright © 2020 by Ina Garten. Photography by Quentin Bacon. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.