The days are shorter. The knit sweaters have emerged from the back of the closet. The wood logs are stacked near the fireplace. It’s time to bring on the comfort food.
“I always associate fall and winter with soups, stews and hearty foods,” says nutritionist Christine Hickson, owner of Healthy Now in Newmarket. “I think that’s why people love this time of year – it’s the food.”
“We’re nesting more,” says Chef Deb Rankine, national food writer and author of the Fridge Whisperer cookbook series. “You don’t want to be outside with a flashlight, barbecuing a steak in November. You tend to do a lot more oven cooking.”
For her, comfort food is about whole foods cookery. Like many Canadians, Rankine grew up in a “meat and potatoes” type of household. Sunday afternoons were designated for chopping vegetables, slow roasting meats, and baking pastries. There was always an abundance of food, with plenty of leftovers for additional meals. “If you did a nice roast beef on Sunday, it would be hot roast beef sandwiches on Monday.”
The fall season produces an abundance of local produce perfect for comfort food cooking. You can pick up some butternut squash from the local farmers’ market and roast it in the oven with just a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. “You can’t replicate that out of a bag in the frozen foods section,” says Rankine.
“The root vegetables add so much substance,” says Hickson. “They can last a very long time too – turnips, squash, and pumpkins can all be chopped up and frozen through the winter as well.”
When Hickson thinks comfort food, she thinks of dishes like mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie. But the thick, heavy creams traditionally used in these meals have given comfort food a negative reputation. It’s often viewed as somewhat of a guilty pleasure, as people are more mindful of the carbohydrates and fat calories they’re consuming.
Hickson cooks her mac and cheese with butternut squash, adding a small amount of a sharper tasting cheese, like Parmesan, which gives the rich flavour without the cream.
Rankine notes there are plenty of alternatives for enhancing the flavour of a dish without adding more fat. One suggestion she offers is to brown the butter before adding it to your mashed potatoes. “It smells and tastes like a shortbread cookie at Christmas,” she says. “You’re adding a depth of flavour that is incredible.”
She also advises being mindful of your sodium intake. “We’re just so conditioned in North America to over-salt our food,” she says. Use a dried vegetable seasoning in your savory dishes, and only salt as needed for service.
If you don’t feel like cooking, you can also get your comfort food fix by visiting a local restaurant. The grilled beef on The Pickle Barrel’s Local Harvest Menu features a tender slice of sirloin steak and Ontario woodland mushrooms served with a medley of local, seasonal vegetables.
If it’s a pasta dish you’re after, visit Roman Bistro in East Gwillimbury for Mama’s Homemade Oven-Baked Lasagna made with ground meat, fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmigiano.
While it’s important to practice mindful cooking and mindful eating, comfort food is meant to be pleasurable. Hickson says it’s all about balance – be aware of your portion sizes. “If you’re going to have comfort food, I think it has to satisfy your mind, body and soul,” says Rankine. She suggests following Julia Child’s advice: “Everything in moderation, including moderation!”
By Charlotte Ottaway
The Pickle Barrel, Newmarket
Roman Bistro, East Gwillimbury
Olde Village Free House, Newmarket
Joia Ristorante, Aurora