Finding comfort in what's familiar


February 19, 2003|By Stan Levy | Stan Levy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's been said that I ate my way from the north to the south of France.

During high school, I spent five months in the country with my family while my father was there on sabbatical. It was then, my mother claims, over an omelet pan filled with the freshest ham, eggs and cheese, that I proclaimed my dream of becoming a chef.

I came back to the States and worked my way through the rest of high school in a wholesale-food operation, making things as diverse as quiche and desserts and learning to create dishes from what was abundant and fresh.

After attending college, I bussed and waited tables at a local bar until one night the kitchen was understaffed and I was asked to fill in. The rest, as they say, is history. Within six months I was second in command in the kitchen.

Now I'm the head chef at the Roland Avenue location of Eddie's of Roland Park. Despite the mind-boggling array of spices, sauces, marinades, vinegars, seasonings, exotic fruit and vegetables, and specialty meats at my disposal, what I find my customers want more of is simple, tasty, familiar comfort food.

They want food that brings back feelings of being in their grandmother's kitchen, where a pot of soup sat perpetually on the stove and the smell of roasted chicken filled the house.

Convenience and ease are still at the top of customers' minds, but instead of something drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, more are requesting stewed tomatoes, braised short ribs of beef, creamed spinach and rice pudding.

Comfort food, in my mind, is food that evokes warm feelings and fond family memories. It needs no other adornment. Comfort food, to me, is not only traditional, it's seasonal. I think it's food that helps you mark time, food that plays a part in your life at about the same time every year.

For example, when I think of spring, I think of lamb. My mother's simple recipe is my favorite: Empty a jar of Dijon mustard into a bowl, add an equal amount of soy sauce and mix them together.

Brush the mixture on top of a butterflied leg of lamb and let it sit, for at least an hour, but better overnight. Roast the lamb on the grill, with coals on each side of the grill instead of in the center. Put the lid on and cook for 40 to 45 minutes. The smell of the lamb cooking on the grill, mixed with the warm air and the blooming flowers, is spring to me. I wouldn't think of welcoming a season any differently.

When making comfort food, less is more. Don't over-spice or marinate. Don't cook things too long. Revel in food's natural flavors. It helps to watch the Sunday papers because often the foods that are on sale at the local supermarkets are in season, fresh and plentiful.

Shad and shad roe should start coming in soon. You could follow my mother's recipe of baking shad smeared with mayonnaise and lemon pepper, or you could split the shad roe sacs open and spread them onto the shad and then bake for a more traditional Maryland dinner. Another way is wrapping the shad roe in bacon, brushing it with butter, salt and pepper and lemon juice and serving it on toast points for breakfast.

Asparagus is another seasonal favorite that you'll see on sale soon. Boil it with the smallest amount of water possible. If you enjoy it crispy take it out after four minutes, 12 minutes if you like it mushy like my wife does. You'll also start seeing lots of fresh new potatoes. I prefer to toss them with very good olive oil, salt and pepper and paprika and roast them or cut them in half and boil with parsley and chives.

Part of the allure of comfort food, aside from its power of signaling seasonal changes, is knowing that it has been made for generations. Who doesn't feel good about their great-grandmother's fried chicken or meatloaf?

As Eddie's on Roland Avenue celebrates its 59th birthday this month, I am reminded of the dishes that were popular when Victor Cohen first opened the doors. Since Victor's daughter, Nancy, started the Gourmet to Go, Eddie's chefs have maintained her recipes for crab cakes, fried chicken, roasted turkey, sweet-potato casseroles, macaroni and cheese, and an assortment of fresh vegetable and pasta salads.

I create my weekly menus based on what our customers want. Several times a day I leave the kitchen to mingle with the customers who are eager to make their food favorites known. And what they want is food that represents simplicity, warmth, stability and predictability. Waldorf salad, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried chicken livers and spaghetti are among the favorites.

I sell approximately 100 pounds of Eddie's Macaroni and Beef a week. It's pure comfort and to prove its importance, there's a sprightly octogenarian gentleman who stops in regularly just for that dish. It's made with the highest quality ground beef gently sauteed together with fresh onions and peppers then mixed with imported elbow macaroni and gently baked.

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