When you think of comfort food, what comes to mind? I think of warm, hearty meals that remind me of my family; meals that appeal to me on an emotional level. This emotional connection may be one reason that people turn to comfort foods in the winter, when the gloomy skies and lack of sunshine can dampen spirits; warm and decadent favorites like mac n' cheese or mashed potatoes and gravy sure do hit the spot when it's chilly outside, too. January might as well be called National Comfort Food Month!
For a lot of us, these classic comfort meals tend to fall on the heavier side - such as braised beef, pot roast, fried chicken with rich gravies or creamy, cheesy mashed potatoes, to name a few.
While all of this food can be delicious, many "traditional" comfort foods are not particularly healthy. They generally consist of high-calorie ingredients with few fresh vegetables or nutrients.
As a chef, one of the trends I'm focusing on this year is updated, healthier comfort food. I want my guests to experience the warmth and familiarity of some of their favorite comforting dishes while getting the nutrients they need and not feeling weighed down. Here are some of my favorite "new" comfort foods:
Roasted or Grilled Vegetables
The king of trendy comfort foods is the Brussels sprout. Brussels sprouts have been popping up on menus nationwide for many months now. While often served with bacon or béarnaise sauce, these little green gems can be simply roasted (recipe below) for a healthy, warm and flavorful side dish. Roasting veggies boosts flavor by adding light caramelization, without overpowering the natural flavor of the vegetable. I imagine that we'll be seeing a lot of other vegetable side dishes getting a healthy makeover in 2016, such as green beans, corn, and asparagus- all delicious when grilled and sprinkled with chili!
Also ripe for innovation are the starchy sides. Butter- and cream-heavy mashed potatoes can be replaced with sweet potato mash, warm polenta or grits. A Southern staple, grits recently have made their way to mainstream consciousness, much to the pleasure of comfort food-seeking, healthy foodies everywhere! I'd recommend stirring in parmesan cheese for a low-fat cheesy starch, and replacing butter with olive oil for a more heart-healthy dish.
Cream-free, vegetable and broth-based soups are one of the healthiest, easiest options when it comes to comfort food. Clear broth-based soups like Vietnamese Pho with bright, fresh Thai basil and cilantro and Chicken Noodle Soup with carrots and celery are warm, nutritious, and generally low in calories. I also love the rich layers of flavor and spice from a traditional Mexican Pozole, which you can garnish with fresh lime, cabbage and up the heat factor to your liking. Soups are also a great base to use up whatever veggies you have laying around.
Lighten up your favorite meaty comfort foods by substituting lean proteins. Spicy meatballs made with chicken or turkey have lower cholesterol content and taste just as good - I promise!
Boost Flavor with Spices and Herbs
Naturally low in calories and fats, fresh herbs and spices boost flavor in a big - and healthy - way. Swap butters, oils and cheeses for your favorite herbs and spices to add a modern, lighter twist to your favorite comfort foods. This way you can enjoy them twice as often!
Recipe: HEALTHY ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
4 cups Brussels Sprouts
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ teaspoon Kosher Salt
½ teaspoon Fresh Cracked Pepper
1. Pre-heat oven to 475°F.
2. Trim the bottom of the brussels sprouts and cut in half lengthwise.
3. Toss brussels sprouts with oil, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl.
4. Distribute brussels sprouts evenly in a single layer, cut side down, on a sheet pan.
5. Bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes rotating the pan halfway through to ensure even browning.
6. Serve hot.