“This morning, we are having an egg-white scramble with a Cajun-crab crème sauce reduction, shallots and gorgonzola crumbles,” I said, swirling $5 worth of fancy olive oil in the bottom of a Wal-Mart pan.
“Great,” said Torie. “Another late night watching the Food Network?”
“No,” I said, a bit defensively. “It’s a modified version of last night’s winning dish on Top Chef, and that’s on Bravo.”
Weekday evenings, I’m working my way to becoming a foodie, thanks to a barrage of shows from Top Chef to The Next Iron Chef to Paula’s Home Cooking, with the ever-buttery Paula Deen, to my personal favorite, No Reservations, with traveling chef Anthony Bourdain.
Late-night foodie couch potato; for dinner and weekends, ambitious home chef.
These days, instead of a simple steak and baked potato, I’ll plate a Dijon-and-almond crusted New York strip with a triple-baked bacon and scallion potato.
“What’s up for today?” my normally easygoing fiancé asked suspiciously after we’d finished our delectable breakfast.
“Prep work for lunch,” I said, peeling apples. “For lunch today, I will be serving roasted breast of turkey with bruised spinach, melted Brie and a side of spiced rum apple dipping sauce.”
“Sounds great,” she said. “How about I cook dinner?”
Visions of a committed sous chef, partners in the kitchen for life, for our new plated-meal, multiple-adjective menu items foodie lifestyle. “What are you planning?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Leave it to me.”
Dinner was simple that night: a steaming mound of macaroni and cheese.
“What’s this?” I asked, disbelievingly.
“Kraft,” said Torie, tucking in happily. “It’s the cheesiest!”
“That’s it?” I asked, opening and shutting the oven door.
“Hey, if you want, I can sprinkle some bacon bits on top. Would that suit your palate?”
It was warm. Gooey. Salty. I sucked cheese through a noodle, like I had done a hundred times before as a kid.
“This is good,” I told her. And it was good.
And so it was that a $2 box of mac and cheese brought me back down to earth from my latest foodie rapture. A cheap meal, from early childhood through college, conjuring up deep food memories.
It was food with feeling – something missing from my most recent culinary adventures.
Let’s face it: Sometimes all you really want is a plate of noodles and cheese.
In the early evening hours of a long cold November night, we stopped into La Marmotte, Telluride’s longest-operating fine dining restaurant, to chat with Chef/Owner Mark Reggiannini about comfort food.
“Comfort food starts when you are young,” Reggiannini said. “It’s food that you grow up familiar with.”
For Reggiannini, who grew up in Boston, comfort food included Boston baked beans, clam chowder, cob and lobster. But, he cautioned, one person’s comfort food can, for a chef, mean trouble.
As in: “Everyone has a lasagna recipe to compare yours to,” he said. “People already have preconceptions on what it should taste like, and it can be tough to please them. There is definitely a balance with what you want to do as a chef, and what the customer wants.”
Reggiannini is now in his seventh winter as chef/owner of La Marmotte, where he combines classic French culinary technique with that famous Yankee simplicity. The menu at La Marmotte changes daily, depending on what is seasonal and fresh; that evening’s menu items included Wianno oysters on the half shell, white-wine-steamed mussels and clams in a yellow curry sauce, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with honey-and-cumin glazed carrots, and veal paillard with French lentils, roasted peppers and juniper berry sauce. And for dessert, La Marmotte’s warm molten chocolate cake, that will almost certainly unlock childhood memories of licking the mixing bowl clean after Mom poured chocolate cake batter into a pan.
With all of these soothing options, I wondered, what would Reggiannini cook at home for his young daughters, given the choice?
“Number one comfort food of all time?” he asked. “I would have to say braised-beef short ribs. And here, we do them with Parmesan mashed potatoes. I would also say that a coq au vin” – a red-wine-braised chicken – is a great comfort food – it’s definitely a French comfort food.”
Wife Mairen, it turned out, was in complete agreement about the chicken.
“For our family, I suppose it would be roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes,” she said. “You put everything in the oven and it makes the house smell so good. It is one of those things that warms the soul.”
“It’s all about getting in touch with the food that triggers a memory,” Reggiannini said. “I think that is what comfort food is all about.”
And the roasted chicken in these photographs is what the Reggiannini family ate that night for dinner.
Finally, Food With a Feeling
The next evening, I began a different recipe search for our next dinner and hopefully, it would be something other than what I saw prepared on cable TV. What dish would be a culinary masterpiece, yet one that would bring memories and feeling back to the dinner table? I wanted no foodie, just down home family cooking with feeling.
I frantically searched through the boxes in my garage and dusted off the recipe collection my mom had sent to me a few years back. The first one I found was my grandmother’s recipe for chicken paprikash over rice. Now this was a dish I had many, many times growing up in the cold winters of Colorado, but I hadn’t had it since my parents left for the warmer climate of central Florida about five years ago. It’s the comfort food my mom served when I was growing up. It is simple, tasty and hot. I remember my dad’s eyes lighting up when he would come home from a frigid day on the job site to the tender chicken steeped in the rich, spicy broth.
Perfect, I thought, this recipe will satisfy my need to prepare something different on this cold winter night. And not only will the dish be something different for me it will be a dish that has been passed down from my grandmother Emma, who I never got to meet as she was one of the many who lost their life to cancer at an early age.
So I went out and bought all the ingredients and put the recipe card up onto the counter to begin my prep work. I browned the whole pieces chicken and began simmering the sauce. Once the spicy flavors of the dish began to meld together and cook, the smell in the kitchen became intoxicating.
“Smells great,” Torie said, walking in the door. “Another Food Network experiment?”
“Nope, grandmother’s recipe. I think you are going to like this. Probably the best thing I have cooked yet.”
I spooned the hot chicken and sauce onto our plates over a bed of sticky rice. Hot, scented steam filled the dinner table. Memories of cold winters past and comfort within. Eat your heart out Emeril. No meal this good can come from TV land.
– La Marmotte is located at 150 San Juan Avenue in Telluride. 970/728-6232. Info@lamarmotte. Emma’s Chicken Paprikash Serves 4
1 whole chicken cut into pieces
1 small onion, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
2 Tbs. Hungarian paprika
(maybe just a little more for spice)
2 Tbs white flour
2 cups milk
Brown chicken in a large pan with onions and green pepper. Add paprika, salt, and black pepper. Add water until chicken is covered. Simmer until chicken is tender. Mix together the flour and milk; add to chicken to create thick sauce.
Serve over bed of rice and a dollop of sour cream.
When Daddy is a Chef, daughters Emma and Kaleigh Reggiannini will grow up with memories of comfort food that include salad with goat-cheese wontons, and perfectly roasted chicken and carrots.