The first taste brings you back home. Or just cheers you up.
Whether it's the creamy bubbling gold of macaroni and cheese, the spicy warmth of a hearty bowl of chili or tender roasted meat that practically melts in the warm confines of your mouth, there is no mistaking what it is.
You immediately know in your soul why they call it comfort food. It could be any of a variety of tasty, but probably fatty, high-calorie dishes that nevertheless remind us of simpler times or good home-cooked meals or even just make us feel better on a cold winter evening.
For Dean Morgan, a cook at Cavanaugh's Grille in Fairview Township, it's a variation of a standard theme that gives him – and his customers – comfort on such a night.
I make buffalo mac and cheese, he said. It's mac and cheese with chunked-up chicken with either a hot or mild sauce. It goes pretty fast here.
He said the secret is in the cheese.
I don't use the Velveeta like some people use. … I use Cooper cheese. It's a sharp cheese.
He also can make it with lobster, if people prefer.
The dish is not only comforting to Cavanaugh's customers who order it.
I do make it at home, Morgan said.
For some chefs, comfort is a bit more extravagant.
Dan Matechak , executive chef at Isabella Restaurant and Bar in Plains Township, finds comfort in beef bourguignon.
It's like a beef stew, with onions, mushrooms. It's comforting, Matechak said.
Add applewood smoked bacon, pearl onions, red wine, celery and carrots, and the tastebuds can get very comfortable.
While that comfort may seem reserved for a pricier palate, Matechak sees it as more the norm.
What you'll see with a lot of food nowadays is people take that comfort food and elevate it, he said.
I enjoy it; people enjoy it. People can recognize it.
And it's not that foreign.
Anything French sounds hard (to make), but it's relatively easy, Matechak said.
He makes it mostly in the fall and winter.
Nobody wants to eat stew in the summer.
Peter Adams III, owner of Adams Escoffier Catering, Wilkes-Barre, and a consulting chef at Oyster at the Genetti Best Western in Wilkes-Barre, cooks up some braised short ribs when he craves comfort food.
I braise them for 12 hours, nice and slow in Bordeaux red wine sauce, Adams said. I usually take the bone out of the short rib, and, right before it's done I put asparagus in where the bone should be. Then I usually take Yukon Gold potatoes and make mashed potatoes. You can't go wrong with mashed potatoes. That's the classic comfort food.
He mixes goat's milk in to give the mashed potatoes a creamy texture.
It goes with red wine and asparagus short ribs, Adams said. It's like the perfect marriage.
Along with that, he makes fried shallots cooked in a batter of India Pale Ale and rice flour that has the consistency of cold potato soup.
They're like onion rings. You cut them large and fry them. It goes right on top of the short ribs. When I make it for myself, I prefer short ribs with bleu cheese melted on top at the last second.
And then there is Marcello Ahmeti, owner and chef at Café Toscana on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre, who has many personal favorites when it comes to comfort food. Among those are what's popular at his restaurant.
In the winter, we cook a little bit heavier dishes, like osso buco, veal shank, Ahmeti said. It's one of the good sellers for the winter time. Also, rack of lamb.
Ahmeti said a new addition is pappardelle con ragu di Toscana, or wide, flat pasta in a Tuscany-style sauce with slow-cooked beef and vegetables.
(Makes 4 pounds; adjust amounts accordingly)
5-pound block Cooper sharp cheese
1 1/2 quart half-and-half
Dash of salt
Dash of pepper
4 pounds elbow macaroni
5 pounds 3-ounce chicken breasts
Hot or mild wing sauce
In a big broiling pan, melt mixture of cheese, half and half, salt and pepper in oven, about 15 minutes.
Boil water and cook macaroni until tender; drain water, rinse pasta and dump into cheese mixture; mix together.
Broil chicken breasts on grill for about 3 minutes, or until cooked through. Place chicken atop macaroni, top with any hot or mild wing sauce, and broil for a couple of minutes.