The doyenne of American cooking, the late Julia Child, never met a stick of butter she didn't like. She credited her long life not to avoiding certain foods, but rather, to enjoying everything in moderation.
That's good advice in this age of conflicting health news. Saturated fat is bad; wait, it's good now. It's trans fats that are bad. Not long ago beef was verboten, but now it's back, because carbs are enemy No. 1 — unless you pay homage to the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. And what exactly are “superfruits,” anyway? Omega-3s, whole grains, probiotics, cocoa phenols (finally, an excuse to eat dark chocolate!) … no wonder diners are turning to comfort foods amid the confusing landscape of nutrition buzzwords that emerge and shift quicker than you can say “phytonutrient.”
Indeed, when it comes to diet and health, these days Americans are adding more than they're subtracting, according to Harry Balzer, vice president of the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. In June, NPD reported that the percentage of adults on a diet has decreased by 10 percentage points since 1990, while the percentage of Americans who say they are eating healthier has increased.
“While dieting for both women and men remain huge markets, they are not growing markets,” Balzer said. “The desire to lose weight really was a ‘90s trend.”
Today, says NPD, even with concerns about the economic downturn, eating healthfully remains top of mind with consumers. Another NPD survey suggests that adults who identify themselves as financially worse off compared to last year said that eating healthfully still has the greatest impact on the foods and beverages their households select.
Enter healthful comfort foods, which offer a diversion from diners' economic and other woes while allowing them to feel better about enjoying the dishes Grandma used to make.
Familiar Friends, Healthy New Attitude
Ray Noonan, an executive chef with Eurest Dining Services in St. Louis, looked no further than the classic cheeseburger as inspiration for a vegetarian entry in a recent recipe contest for chefs of Compass Group North America.
“I work at a health-insurance company that is dedicated to serving more-balanced choices and healthier meals,” Noonan says. “I wanted to create a healthy vegetarian burger that meets Midwesterners' demand for comfort food, but in a guilt-free way.”
Noonan forms patties from a seasoned mixture of prepared commercial blend of bulgur wheat and quinoa flakes with sautéed diced veggies, bound with egg and panko bread crumbs. The pan-fried patties are plated on a bed of fresh organic spinach (the “lettuce”) and topped with cheese and “bun,” both represented by a creamy disk of pan-fried Montrachet goat cheese coated in panko.
Plated dollops of chipotle ketchup and horseradish Dijon, along with a garnish of julienned cucumber (the “pickle”) and tomato concassé, complete this upscale, low-fat, vegetarian twist on an American favorite.
“Comfort foods can soothe the soul and chase away the winter chill,” says Phyllis Famularo, MS, RD, CSG, senior manager of nutrition services for Sodexo Senior Services. “However, let's not forget about focusing on the now five-or-more-servings-a-day push for fruit and vegetables.”
As a dietitian, Famularo welcomes the life-enriching power of comfort foods for long-term-care residents who are trying to maintain or increase their weight while benefiting from “real food.”
For Senior Services' large population of active independent dwellers who must manage such conditions as high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension, Famularo promotes familiar dishes made healthier, such as multigrain pasta or spaghetti squash topped with marinara sauce studded with sautéed fresh mushrooms, carrot and zucchini. She's currently revamping comfort-food standbys such as macaroni and cheese using low-fat, low-cholesterol dairy products and “better for you” multigrain or whole-wheat elbows.
“At the end of the day, diners don't want to be too adventurous,” says Andrew Mayne, executive chef of catering at Stanford University in California. “What works and gives us the best raves are those foods people can identify with.”
For his range of clients, that means an increasing interest in vegetarian fare prepared with locally grown produce, which speaks as much to the health of the planet as the health of the individual, Mayne says. He also notes a soaring interest in tofu, which has benefited in recent years from creative chef preparations and, for Generation Y, could be the comfort food of tomorrow.
David P. Skorka, regional executive chef for Centerplate responsible for foodservice operations at the Dallas Convention Center, sees interest in more-healthful fare among clients of his accounts, too, evidenced by greater demand for crudite platters, low-fat and fat-free dressings at popular salad stations and high-antioxidant berry parfaits as a breakfast option. Even concession stands — that bastion of comfort food for many Americans — are offering more-healthful sandwich and add-on options.
Comfort Without Borders
While for many Americans comfort food means meatloaf and mashed potatoes, hearty chilis and chowders and roast turkey with stuffing and gravy, for many others it means Asian noodles and stir-fries, fresh-made tortillas wrapping rice and beans or enveloping melted queso, or kabobs skewering juicy chunks of meat and vegetables recalling the sun-splashed Mediterranean.
“Every culture has its comfort foods, and they have one thing in common: authentic flavor profiles, cooked in a traditional way,” says Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, chef and managing director of Nutrition + Culinary Consultants in New York City. “Comfort foods in smaller portion sizes, with health benefits such as low fat or less sodium, and fortified comfort foods are going to become more popular — as long as they taste the same as, or even better than, their ‘less healthy’ counterparts.”