What makes us crave comfort food?

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There is something about the sizzling corkscrew noodles coated in a silky layer of sharp cheddar that warms me to the core and always sends me back for another scoop.  I crave the buttery crisp breadcrumbs that sit on the surface of the casserole dish.  As I sat savoring each decadent bite of my mac n’ cheese I wondered…what makes us crave our mom’s celebrated mac n’ cheese or our grandmother’s famous sour cream pancakes? Comfort food is what brings us home.  We unconsciously learn to associate certain memories and traditions with food from an early age.  Everyone has a different favorite when it comes to classic comfort food whether it be mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, peirogis, kimchi, or a decadent piece of fudgy chocolate cake.

Especially with the arrival of winter in New England, many people seek the warmth and security that comfort food provides.  In recent years classic comfort food has been given a bad reputation for being unhealthy.  Typically comfort food is laden with dairy, meat, and heavy carbohydrates.  This, however, is not always the case – or is certainly doesn’t have to be.  Any dairy, meat, and/or carbohydrates are healthy in moderation – in fact they are essential for good nutrition.  Therefore modern comfort food made from fresh and wholesome products can be an excellent well-balanced meal.

There are many ways in which you can make small substitutions in your recipes to re-invent your favorite comfort classics into healthy, well-balanced meals. Personally my favorite comfort food is my mom’s homemade mac n’ cheese.  As a mother who worked nights she often made it for my brother’s, dad and me during the school week.  Even on the most chaotic of nights my dad could throw it in the oven between picking me up from dance and dropping my brother’s off at karate.  Today it is what we crave after practice on a freezing, dreary day or at the peak of exam week.

I collected a list of ingredients, which you can use as healthier substitutions when making you favorite macaroni recipe. In my opinion, comfort food should be savored and enjoyed and bring back those childhood memories. It shouldn’t be altered to the point where it no longer tastes like the comfort food you remember.  My mom always says everything in moderation is okay – so go ahead and enjoy!

I usually only make one or two healthy swaps when I make this dish; I don’t want to strip it of its original integrity and taste.  Macaroni has a bad reputation being comprised of the notorious trifecta: pasta, dairy and butter.  Good homemade macaroni doesn’t have to feel sinful… so here is my mom’s recipe for mac n’ cheese and healthy variations to follow:

My Mom’s Mac n’ Cheese

Yields 10-12 servings

Ingredients

1 lb of Cavetelli pasta

8 tablespoons of butter

1/2 onion (chopped)

6 tablespoons of flour

6 cups of cheese (you can use your favorite assortment – typically ours includes a combination of cheddar and sometimes gorgonzola)

3 cups of milk

2 Worcestershire sauce

1 cup of beer

1 cup of breadcrumbs for topping

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente (about 10 minutes). Preheat the oven to 350º degrees. In a large sauté pan melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook onion until translucent.  Then add flour and create a roux (cook for 2-3 minutes to eliminate the raw flour taste).  Then add cheese, milk, Worcestershire sauce, and beer.  Cook until thickened.  Drain noodles and pour into a large casserole dish.  Pour cheese mixture over the top and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and pads of remaining butter.  Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden brown.

*Our family loves to pair this dish with homemade applesauce.  You can make a simple, healthy applesauce by boiling down peeled and chopped apples and adding a dash of cinnamon.

1.     Switch up your pasta – every once and a while use whole-wheat pasta, multi/whole grain pasta or vegetable pasta.  Whole-wheat pasta is said to have higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber (which keeps you feeling full longer).  However, don’t eliminate regular refined pasta from your diet all together because it is just as efficient and important as an energy source as wheat pasta. It provides you with the same amount of protein and calories as whole-wheat pasta.

2.     Switch out that heavy cream – it might not give the same richness you would expect to find in a baked macaroni dish (with heavy cream) but milk can provide you with the same taste and texture.  It gives the dish a lighter feel and eliminates a significant amount of fat.  My mom and I always make this modification in our recipe.

3.     Mix in a pureed vegetable: you can also cut back on some of the liquids and cheese in this recipe by substituting it with a vegetable.  Puree any cooked vegetable and mix it into the sauce for mac n’ cheese. Some of my favorites include pumpkin, butternut squash and cauliflower.  You could also use carrots or sweet potato if you wanted to keep the trademark orange hue.

4.     Cheese – not so fast! You will find many websites and recipes urging you to switch out the cheeses in your recipes for low fat or reduced fat versions (or using cottage cheese or sour cream instead); however, regular cheese (or full-fat cheese) are an exceptional source of protein and healthy fat and won’t deprive you of that beloved flavor.  Instead of substituting the type of cheese reduce the amount of cheese you use in your recipe by a half to a quarter of the amount called for in the original recipe.

5.     Butter – if the recipe calls for a significant amount of butter you can substitute part of it with olive oil; however, keep in mind that the butter provides it with the distinct taste we all know and crave.  The butter plays a crucial role in the flavor and silkiness of the mac n’ cheese.  I would recommend using butter to make your roux but if you wanted to cut back on the amount of butter you could top the breadcrumbs with olive oil instead.

6.     Breadcrumb topping – you can make an easy alteration just by making your own breadcrumbs.  By using fresh breadcrumbs, you eliminate added sodium and synthetic flavor enhancers.  If you have a food processor or blender it couldn’t be simpler because you can just fill your food processor/blender with bread (I use the leftover bread ends that know one in my family uses) and pulse until fine.  Sometimes I like to throw in a couple handfuls of fresh herbs like parsley, basil or sage for flavor (make sure if you choose an herb that it does not compete with the flavors in your dish – parsley is always a good go to!).

Sources:
http://www.gilttaste.com/stories/622-explaining-the-psychology-of-comfort-food
http://www.livestrong.com/article/402879-white-vs-wheat-pasta/