There is a lot of talk about comfort food but just what is it, anyway? I asked The Chef (Ann Walker) to define comfort food.
“Can’t be done,” The Chef said. “Comfort food depends on where you are from, how old you are, whether you are a man or a woman.”
Tell me more, I said.
“Let’s begin at the beginning. It is a fairly new term, as food talk goes, First used in 1977 according to Webster’s Dictionary. I do get a lot of clients who tell me they want comfort food and when I ask what is comfort food for them, it’s just all over the place.
“For some, comfort food is grilled cheese sandwiches. Others call for mashed potatoes and gravy. I think chicken wings might be one of the new comfort foods. Oh and pizza. Don’t forget pizza.”
Does it matter where you are from.
“Absolutely. If you grew up in New Orleans you comfort food is gong to be way different than someone who grew up in San Francisco. I’ve seen research that there is even a difference between men and women when it comes to comfort food, Men prefer high carb foods, you know, meat and potatoes. Women are more likely to go for sweets or even more healthful foods. In the end, comfort food is whatever makes you happy,” The Chef said.
What are some of the strangest requests you’ve had for comfort foods?
“We once catered a party for some Australians. They insisted on vegemite on toast. Well, why not, I thought. I have a Brit friend who insisted on Spotted Dick for her birthday dinner. We did it. The kitchen staff was amused.”
What is your comfort food?
The Chef didn’t hesitate a moment. “Paella. No, I did not grow up in Spain. Never got there until I was almost 30, but paella gets to me. I try to never let a birthday go by without paella.”
What is it about paella that makes it your go to comfort food?
“It makes me happy. Makes me feel like smiling. Makes me in love with the world.”
Ann Walker’s Paella Recipe
(It will make you smile.)
The Chef has even developed a recipe to bring paella into the comfort zone of California’s back yard cooks—Paella cooked on the Weber. Don’t let the length of this recipe intimidate you. It goes quite fast and once you have it down, making a paella is ridiculously simple.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound tomatoes, chopped
1/2 pound cleaned squid, tubes sliced into rings
1 1/2 pounds meaty chicken pieces, cut into chunks. Use all dark meat for more flavor.
1 pound thinly sliced Spanish chorizo
2 teaspoons salt, or more, to taste
6 cups chicken stock, fish stock or water
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
3 cups short-grain rice, preferably Valencian or Italian
1 pound cleaned mussels, in shells.
1 pound prawns, in sells
1 cup fresh peas or 1 pound asparagus tips (optional)
2 lemons cut into wedges
Light the coals in a covered Weber-type barbecue. When coals are white hot, heap them in center. Place paella pan on grill above hot coals and pour in the oil. When the oil is hot, add onion, garlic and cook until limp. Stir in tomatoes and cool until dry. Push the vegetables to the side, add squid, chicken and chorizo. Sprinkle with salt. Grind the saffron threads to a powder in a mortar and add or simply rub the threads between your palms and sprinkle over the chicken.
Continue coking, turning the chicken pieces over until it begins to brown, about five minutes. Add the stock or water. At this point you may want to add a few sticks of kindling to the fire to bring the stock to a boil.
Taste for salt. The broth should be slightly salty. Continue to cook with broth at a rapid boil for about five minutes. Stir in the rice, turning the chicken over so all the rice is submerged in broth and cook for about ten minutes. Arrange prawns over the top of the paella. Arrange the mussels hinge side down around the edge of the paella. If you are adding peas or asparagus tips, do it now. Cook another five minutes, then close the cover of the cooker and cook another five minutes.
Remove the paella to the table and cover with a cloth, letting it rest for about five minute. Decorate with lemon wedges, garnish each dish with a lemon wedge and squeeze over each dish.