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Comfort foods

July 20, 2011

Most everyone has those characteristic meals that make them think of good times at home, with family, or with friends. They’re not always the healthiest choices. In fact, the food we feel is good for our soul is sometimes what most sticks to our ribs. One of my comfort foods is good old orange-yellow mac and cheese. Stereotypical, but there it is. Usually when I spent the night at my childhood friends the twins’ house, we’d make a big stainless steel pot of Kraft mac and cheese. Or, on nights when their mom was in the mood for cooking, we’d have her trademark special dinner: enchiladas (chicken for them, bean for me) with cream sauce. So rich that you sit at the table for an hour talking afterwards to avoid having to move.

But with the proliferation of vegan soul food restaurants in Chicago, there are equivalents without the meat or dairy. The Chicago Diner, for example, offers a veggie reuben (my husband’s favorite), chicken fried “steak,” and even eggs, biscuits, and vegan gravy for brunch. A vegetarian or vegan can sit back, stuff themselves, and feel right where they belong. It’s like being back at home enjoying my mom’s meat-less-loaf.

So comfort food doesn’t have to include the discomfort of animals. But can comfort food go local too? Dave and I tested this last night on a favorite from his side of the family: Green bean casserole.

We already had a good supply of green beans. Some were picked from my dad’s garden the week before.

Garden green beans ready for snapping.

And to make sure I had enough for the recipe, I found some more beans (French this time) at the Tuesday Federal Plaza market, including both green and a deep shade of purple that fascinated me and didn’t seem edible. For the hash-brown base of the pie, I also bought some Illinois-grown potatoes at the market for grating. More of the Wisconsin two-year cheddar got grated to go on top.

Purple, yellow, and green French beans at the Nichols Farm stand

To get the other non-produce elements of the casserole, we then did a little cheating. A can of cheddar cheese soup, chopped veggie burgers, and a can of French fried onions later (all from the grocery store and full of preservatives, I’m sure), we had this strange but delicious amalgamation. Tender green beans, earthy potatoes, made all cheddar-gooey, with the it’s-so-bad-it’s-goodness of French fried onions to top it off. A work in progress (maybe we can fry our own onions? does someone make a somewhat more natural cheese soup? or maybe some mushroom gravy instead..), but a definitely comforting late-night dinner nonetheless.

The finished green bean casserole hot from the oven.

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