Comfort FoodsWith a Twist

Comfort FoodsWith a Twist

Don't mess with a good thing." It's a well-loved adage, generally accepted by multitudes. But onsite operators know there's a big difference between "messing" with a good thing and "tweaking" it.

So when it comes to venerable comfort foods, many find that some modest fine-tuning—from the addition of one different-but-intriguing ingredient to a fun, new presentation style—is just the thing to not only continue satisfying nostalgic food buffs, but also to lure in customers who might not otherwise go anywhere near mac 'n cheese or meatloaf with mashed potatoes.

Individualized Nostalgia
That's the idea behind FLIK International's Time Capsule Value Meals, which use both methods to create new interest in old standbys.

First the menu items themselves—among them, Frank and Bean Casserole with Cheddar Spoonbread Crust, Cheese Burger and Potato Pie with a crunchy crust of shredded potatoes and cheddar cheese on top and pie crust on the bottom, and Tuna Noodle Casserole with sundried tomato and pesto crumb—champion new ingredients, or different approaches to preparation.Then, they're attractively and tempt-ingly presented in individual casserole dishes or ramekins.

"The program is a big hit," says Vice President of Culinary Bill Chodan. "People love it because they recognize the foods, but see they've got some creative twists added. And having each one in its own individual serving dish is so much more appealing than getting it served from a big hotel pan." And by using oven-proof, disposable casserole dishes, the program adds a grab-and-go element to its already captivating pull.

At Davidson College in North Carolina, Executive Chef Craig Mombert recently debuted a made-to-order, chef-manned chicken and biscuits station. Although it also features a vegetarian option (gravy made with vegetable stock, poured over tofu and vegetables), the chicken and biscuits recipe itself is a reliable standard.

The technique works. With all the items prepared in advance and held separately at the display station, students enjoy the customized aspect of seeing their individual biscuits broken open and smothered in their choice of gravy, vegetables and protein, he says.

Classics Reinvented
A limited-time offer promotion introduced last winter through Sodexho Corporate Services urged customers to try some "time honored favorites, transformed" as part of a Classics Reinvented series of menu items.

The division's Director of National Program Development, Bill Mitchell explains, "Consumers like comfort foods because they're looking for cozy, approachable food. But at the same time, they want new flavors. This program offered new flavors in familiar themes—a safer way to try new foods than just completely stepping out into uncharted waters with something too exotic or unusual."

So pork and beans became a carnitas sandwich: slow-cooked pork rubbed with Latin spices, topped with Jack cheese and grilled red onions and served with a side of rancho beans and pico de gallo. Everyday fried chicken was transformed into Amazon fried chicken tenders with chimichurri-cilantro sauce and cheese in a tomato tortilla. Philly cheese steak turned into Philly cheese steak pizzarito, with pizza dough wrapped around the customary ingredients as a whimsical switch.

In Sodexho-serviced schools later this winter, students will find their own versions of twists on ethnic classics with the unveiling of International Bowls. With rice or noodles as the base, the bowls will all highlight chicken as the protein component. Hungarian chicken will come served in a spicy tomato sauce over noodles, topped with sour cream. Crustless Chicken Pie will feature the traditional potpie style filling, but poured over egg noodles instead of tucked inside a pastry crust. Lemon, orange, Caribbean and Indian Tandoori chicken bowls with rice will further fill out the promotion's "international flair on comfort foods," notes the division's national executive Chef, Steve Cooney.

Upscale Ingredients
To stimulate renewed interest in the tried-and-true standards, chefs often take the approach of substituting high-end or unusual ingredients for some of the more established ones.

For instance, Executive Chef Eric Eisenberg's Penne Baked with Smoked Bacon and Gruyere served at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle just seems so much more tantalizing than plain old macaroni and cheese.

And who wouldn't be intrigued by the spiffed-up Mexican comfort foods Executive Chef Daniel Skay of Parker Adventist Hospital in Colorado dishes out? Especially when they come with such mouth-watering names as Wild Mushroom Tostada with Smoked Tomato Salsa and Cilantro Lime Crema, or Chicken Flautas with Roasted Ancho Chile Sauce and Sweet Onion Marmalade.

Skay also modernizes ordinary pot roast with a portobello mushroom sauce and chipotle demi-glace; and before cooking a beef inside round roast, he'll smother it with a freshly-ground coffee/herb rub.

Playing tricks with tastebuds' expectations, Chef/Instructor Larry Weiss, CCC, CEC, of the Western Suffolk Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) in New York, creates a Szechuan Turkey Chili that substitutes Asian spices for conventional Southwestern heat.

Labor-saving Efforts
In a FLIK International annual wintertime promotion dubbed Not Just Soup, operators succeed with a double agenda by staging treasured menu items in a surprising way (served up in soup wells or cauldrons), while saving labor costs at the same time.

True to its name, the promotion presents not only hearty and warming soups and stews in the tureens or kettles, but actually such items as tuna noodle casserole, flavored mashed potatoes, chicken cacciatore, beef stroganoff, and even desserts like bread pudding, cobbler and "crushed apple pie" there as well.

The Lighter Side of Comfort

Although comfort foods are most often synonymous with creamy, rich and indulgent fare, it is possible to achieve that same soothing quality without all the usual fat and calories, emphasizes Chef/Instructor Larry Weiss.

For his high school students in New York's Western Suffolk Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) culinary program, Weiss says he tries to instill the idea that "there are alternatives and ways to modify food for better nutritive profiles." Instead of creating chicken pot pie in heavy pastry crust, Weiss shows them how to utilize puff pastry or filo dough to lighten the dish. He urges the use of arrowroot as a thickener rather than a traditional butter-laden roux. And getting in the habit of defatting chicken stocks should become second nature to all aspiring chefs, he says.