We have all heard the term "comfort food" - we have, in fact, all craved it, smelled the aromas from it in anticipation and, of course, eaten it.
But what is comfort food, exactly? Is it only big bowls of stew-type foods on a cold winter day that one eats while wearing pants with a stretchy waistband? Does it exist in climates where it is warm year-round?
Comfort food can be, and is, whatever you want it to be. That's the beauty of it - if by eating it it gives you a level of comfort, be it physical or emotional, then it can be considered comfort food.
The physical contentment from eating comfort foods would come from the warmth felt by the temperature of the dish or the spiciness of it, or even the mouth-feel of the richness about it. However, pairing these physical sensations with the psychological satisfaction from eating something considered to be a comfort food is where I think the true definition lies and where the pleasure really comes from.
Comfort food can be a dish that stirs up sentimental feelings, for example. Maybe a certain aroma and corresponding flavour is linked to a memory of a place once visited, a special time or celebration in one's life or of a beloved person.
For example, when I smell turkey and stuffing cooking, my mind always takes me back in time to when I was a boy and would come in the house from playing outside on a crisp autumn Thanksgiving Day. The warm aromas of sage and turkey blanketing every nook and cranny of our old house revealed my mom's selfless efforts.
Smell is a huge part of the enjoyment of eating and tasting, and it has been scientifically proven that our sense of smell is directly linked to memory. This is also the reason we are turned off by some foods or dishes, because the aromas and related tastes are linked to times of unhappiness or ill feelings.
Recipes of a nostalgic nature may also be classified as comfort foods. For instance, on March 17 when our table is filled with classic Irish dishes, it not only feels more fitting, but also fulfilling - or comforting. This is just one example of many celebrations that could include, but are not limited to, Asian delights on Lunar New Year, incredible Indian food on Diwali, or haggis on Robbie Burns Day - yes, there are people who consider even haggis to be comfort food.
For those of you not in the Scottish culinary loop, haggis can be defined as a savoury pudding containing a sheep's organs (heart, liver and lungs, for example) and combined with onion, oatmeal and spices traditionally encased in the sheep's stomach and simmered for hours. I am actually quite fond of it myself on occasion as long as it is served warm; once it gets cold I find the texture loses its appeal.
The feel-good sensation of comfort food can also be obtained by just loving the taste of something, maybe that of your favourite type of food or recipe, which literally could translate into almost anything for any one individual.
Basically, comfort foods make you feel good because you are consuming something you love to eat. The act of doing so would bring on positive emotions and help to suppress negative feelings, and that alone could be enough to make the dish comfort food.
Now if this was a column on dietary pros and cons and examining how food addictions can alter lifestyles in a negative way, we would then discuss moderation, balanced diets and portion control.
However, for the sake of the love of the culinary arts we will end it here on a positive note instead.
So, in conclusion, comfort food can be, and is, anything you want it to be, as long as it makes you happy for one reason or another - even if it is just temporary.
Dear Chef Dez:
I have heard that "braising" is the best way to make tough meats tender. Do you agree and what is braising?
Alfred S. Winnipeg
Marinating is a good way, too, but I guess if I had to choose I would pick braising. Braising is a combination of dry-and moist-heat cooking processes. First, the meat is seared at a high temperature to create a flavourful crust and then cooked through in a moist-heat environment at a low temperature for a long period of time. The low-moist heat is what breaks down and transforms tough connective tissue into mouth-watering tender meals. Searing meat in a hot pan and then cooking it in a covered casserole dish with liquid in a 250 to 300 degree Fahrenheit oven for a few hours would be considered braising. Please keep in mind that this is an example only and would depend on the type and size of the piece of meat you are cooking.
. Chef Dez is a food columnist, culinary instructor and cooking show performer. Visit him at www.chefdez. com. Send your food or cooking questions to dez@ chefdez.com.