Preparing comfort food from countries around the world


Robust, satisfying, affordable dishes


August 24, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Every country has its comfort food, whether it's Jamaican Hangover Chowder or Japanese Sticky Rice Balls, Pakistani Rice Pudding or Hungarian Chicken Paprika.

Pick any country, and it's a safe bet there's a recipe or two that, much like our own macaroni and cheese, is not too complex, not too costly and often turned to in times of trouble or just when the tummy yearns for something warm and hearty.

More than 200 such recipes - from American Sloppy Joes to Vietnamese Happy Pancakes - are compiled in Constance Snow's new book, The Rustic Table: Simple Fare From the World's Kitchens (Morrow Cookbooks, a division of HarperCollins, $24.95).

Snow, who won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for another cookbook, Gulf Coast Kitchens, goes well beyond the bayou this time around.

While including a few recipes from her own part of the country (Louisiana Shrimp and Grits, Cajun Crawfish Pies), she ventures not just into the cuisine of other American regions (New England Baked Beans, Native American Fry Bread), but other countries as well.

Whether it's Working Girls Pasta from Italy or Cheapo Chocolate Truffles from France, none of the dishes is too showoff-y. Instead, Snow sticks to basic, rustic, robust fare - peasant food, as it's sometimes called, meals that are affordable, satisfying and not too complicated to prepare.

And while she recommends fresh ingredients when possible for better flavor, Snow has nothing against good, old-fashioned American shortcuts.

An interesting point - though Snow doesn't dwell on it - is that most of the time-honored comfort foods, both in America and abroad, are not extravagant creations; rather they are dishes designed to stretch a dollar. Perhaps therein lies at least some of their deeply ingrained appeal - the comfort of knowing you have something to eat until the next paycheck comes in.

Take Sloppy Joes, for instance. They became popular when red meat was rationed during World War II. A pound of ground beef might make for six respectably sized hamburgers, but turn it into Sloppy Joes and - as school cafeteria operators long ago realized - you can feed a dozen easily.

Snow's recipe calls for browning the meat, draining the fat, then stirring in onion, garlic, oregano, chili powder, beef stock, tomato sauce and, as the stretcher, cracked wheat.

I was left with enough leftovers for five more meals, which, once I tired of serving the mixture on the standard bun, would go on to new life as sloppy joe enchiladas, sloppy joe nachos and (not recommended) a sloppy joe omelet.

Far more impressive, slightly more difficult and almost equally thrifty was the Hungarian Chicken Paprika - chicken sauteed, seasoned with a tablespoon of sweet Hungarian paprika and simmered in stock to which flour and sour cream are added at the last minute. Served over extra-wide noodles, it was both comforting and colorful.

If it's a hangover you're seeking comfort from, there's Jamaican Hangover Chowder, touted as a cure and served as breakfast on many Caribbean islands. Basically, it's New England clam chowder, with some extra zing. Instead of clams, white fish fillets are used, and green chiles and limes are added.

To me, though, hungover or not, nothing says comfort like the oatmeal cookie, and Snow's butter-free recipe yielded about six dozen chewy, chunky cookies that worked equally well as bedtime snack, breakfast bar or lunchtime treat.

While they lasted, which wasn't long, I had - at far less expense than a therapist, far less trouble than a dog - the kind of comfort only the oatmeal cookie can provide.

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies

Makes about 6 dozen

3/4 cup canola oil

1 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3 cups old-fashioned oats

1 1/2 cups raisins

1 cup walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the oil, sugar, egg, water and vanilla together until creamy. Sift the flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda together.

Beat the flour mixture into the creamed mixture. Stir in oats, raisins and chopped nuts. Drop teaspoonfuls of the dough onto greased cookie sheets. Bake 12 to 15 minutes.

Per serving (1 cookie): 79 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 44 milligrams sodium

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