Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comforting Food

When the weather turns cooler and the sweaters become less a fashionable choice and more a necessity for getting through a life lived in skirts, I find myself fantasizing about hearty soups, grainy breads, homemade preserves and thick, spreadable cheeses. I start buying more meat - tonight, I roasted a pork loin and threw thin slices into an Japanese-inspired noodle soup (it was delicious). A bite of ginger cookie or pumpkin hummus and I become completely undone.

Fall brings out my desire for heartiness in food. A slurpable noodle is a necessity, as is a gourmet sausage. I look forward to winter citrus and spiced Christmas cookies. Summer cooking is mostly an avoidance game - how many meals can I assemble without turning on the stove? - but in fall, I dive back into baking and cooking multi-part meals. I like turning to other cultures for inspiration; our recent trip to New York left me with a hankering for Tex-Mex and barrio-inspired dishes, up to and including fish tacos (yuk it up, you dirty minds).

Summer has a reputation as an eat-a-thon: grilled skewers and frosty brews, made roughly a thousand times better for the fact that we're eating it all outside. Canadian summers vary wildly, but Toronto runs absurdly hot in July and August, and the unrelenting heatwaves can usually only be assuaged by chilled melons, pilsners, avocado and brie sandwiches, and iced coffees. We get up early and go to bed late, and small snacks fuel the summer citizen's need for energy without greasy faces or heavy bellies.

But once that mercury drops, man, we love to just stuff ourselves silly. The kickoff is Thanksgiving - held in October, thanks, and just as full of tryptophan-laced foods like turkey and wine as its American counterpart. We do the seven-layer nacho dip, the pumpkin pie and the turkeys, but this year, we ate dinner outside on a deck overlooking Lake Huron. That's just not possible in November. This year I also attended a chosen-family dinner, with delicious green beans and carmelized root vegetables, and a bread pudding/caramel sauce combo that was so delicious that all the men in attendance, and some of the women, declared publicly that they wanted, and I'm paraphrasing here, to make respectful and tasteful love to their desserts. A few months later, we'll get Christmas, which usually incorporates multiple rounds of family visits and dinners, and the corresponding metric ton of food. Vegetarians, lock up your morals, because tonight, we eat ham.

Comfort food can be many things to many people: some folks get the warm-and-fuzzies from Kraft Dinner with tuna and tomatoes; others long for mom's trademark nachos. Depending on your background and where you grew up, you crave different things in your hour of emotional need. My dad claims to remember something called "milk soup" from his childhood, a dish of dubious authenticity. I love Japanese candies and cookies: long plane rides between Japan and Canada as a toddler left me with a strong association between Koala's March chocolate-stuffed cookies and airport adventures. If your parents are immigrants, you might have eaten goulash or tamales while your grade-school friends chowed down on broccoli or the aforementioned KD; you might have been a picky eater, so white toast and peanut butter were your self-imposed preferences.

I turn to comfort food like banana muffins or a great cookie recipe when I want to feel accomplished. I've made those recipes so many times I know them by heart. I try recreating my mom and dad's dishes when I want to feel close to them - we were a family that ate every dinner together, and often weekend breakfasts, so making up a hash of potatoes, peppers and onions in a pan brings me right back to sitting at the kitchen counter while my dad wore a yukata and a pair of moccasin slippers, unselfconsciously showcasing his globe-trotting as he made brunch for his kids and wife. There's a direct link between those moments and the weekend breakfasts I love making for me and my boyfriend. Pancakes, sausages, bacon, fresh fruit, cheese and yogurt, fried eggs and elaborate omelets all benefit from the two of us working together: he slices melons and flips omelets, I work the toaster and slice up veggies. Our harmony is something I associate with the very finest of love, since it comes from taking care of each other and ourselves. What's more comforting than that?

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