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Let's talk comfort foods, shall we?
By Johanne McInnis

        These recipes will hit your sweet spot

        Here we are the first week of November.

        All the colourful leaves have fallen from the trees and it's time to take out the mittens, scarves and winter boots. The cold weather is upon us and soon the temperatures will drop below freezing. It's time to close up the windows, put the extra blanket on the bed, turn up the heat just a little and get ready to settle in for four long months of cold winter days.

        Hibernation, here we come!

       

        Our bodies naturally end up craving the foods that hold us over during those long dark nights: Hearty soups and stews, pastas and casserole dishes and of course anything sweet racks up more points in our comfort books.

        Just as the smell of Play-Doh or Crayola crayons brings us back to more carefree times, so does the smells of the foods we enjoyed as children.

        I can remember coming in from playing outside with cold red cheeks, runny nose and the appetite of a giant. My grandmother would sit me down to a big bowl of beef stew with dumplings or a nice piece of lasagne with homemade bread followed by a chunk of chocolate cake with boiled icing. I'd roll away from the table so full but yet warmed from the inside out and left with a fuzzy sleepy feeling all over.

        There is a chemical connection to comfort foods. They boost the flow of feel-good chemicals in our bodies. For example, if you eat too little fat, the amount of endorphins in your body is decreased. In this case, eating a fatty food like chocolate or cheesecake can kick up the level of endorphins and get you feeling good again. In the same way, if you are getting too little in the way of carbohydrates, levels of the mood boosting brain chemical serotonin drop. Now my favourite comfort food just happens to be chocolate.

        I'll eat just about anything that is covered in chocolate (and that includes ants, but that's another story altogether). It is for all intense purposes the perfect comfort food. Not only is chocolate half carbs and half fat, but it contains stimulators that create a feeling of satisfaction.

        Eating chocolate also releases endorphins.

        Believe it or not there is also a gender connection.

        Men are much more conservative when it comes to comfort foods. They develop their comfort foods much earlier, and tend to stick to the more masculine meat-and-potatoes whereas women have a broader variety of comfort foods including many sweets.

        One word of caution while we are on the subject of comfort foods: If you combine the enticing smell, taste and texture and then factor in that most are laden with calories, you would think there was a conspiracy to make us pack on the pounds and no wonder. Today most of us sit in front of a computer for 8-10 hours and then go home and sit in front of a TV or another computer for 3 to 4 hours. That can really be a problem and too much of a good thing, becomes a really bad thing. So a little bit of comfort foods, in moderation of course, is very good not only for the body but also the soul.

        This week, I've included three great recipes that are quick and easy to make. The first can be made in 30 minutes flat, even less if you have someone help with the prep work.

30 minute chili

1 lbs ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 (14oz) can of red kidney beans, undrained
1 (28oz) can of diced tomatoes, undrained
1 (14oz) can of tomato sauce
1 tbsp + 1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp beef bouillon granules (like OXO)

* Heat a heavy non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook ground beef, onions and celery 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until beef is browned.

Discard drippings.

* Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil.

        Reduce heat to medium low and simmer 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

        Serve with tortilla chips, warm bread and/or sprinkle with cheese before serving.


Serves 4

        What is comfort food without recipes that involve chocolate? This second recipe is really tasty and you dont have to tell your friends how healthy they are either.

Chocolate oatmeal cookies

1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2-1/2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup quick cooking oats
1/2 cup walnuts (optional)

* Preheat oven to temperature 350F (177 C).

        Sift together first 3 ingredients in a mixing bowl and set aside.

* Beat butter in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until soft. Add vanilla and sugar, mix thoroughly. Beat in egg and continue beating until mixture is light.

        Add sifted ingredients very gradually on low speed. Beat until just incorporated.

* Stir in chocolate chips, oats and nuts with a heavy wooden spoon. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, shiny side up.

        Drop cookie dough by 2 Tbs. onto foil.

* Bake 15 minutes or until cookies just spring back when touched lightly in the center. Cool a couple of minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.

        Makes about 12-16 cookies --- This last recipe is so sinful you'll feel like you are cheating. The secret is, however, they are very low in calories, carbs and fat. This is a simple but excellent dessert to make if you are looking to impress someone special.

Baked molten chocolate puddings

1 square (1 oz/28 g) bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup (175 mL) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (50 mL) cocoa powder
1 tbsp (15 mL) instant coffee granules
3 tbsp (45 ml) unsalted butter
1/4 cup (50 mL) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) milk, preferably 1 per cent
4 egg whites
1tbsp (15 mL) vanilla extract

* Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Place 8 individual baking dishes, ramekins or custard cups that each hold about _ cup (125 mL) in a broiler pan or shallow roasting pan. Finely chop chocolate and place in a large bowl. Stir in _ cup (125 mL) sugar, cocoa and coffee granules.

* Melt butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir in flour to form a paste. Gradually whisk in milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly between additions to keep mixture smooth. Stir often until it starts to boil, about 2 minutes. Add cocoa mixture and stir constantly until chocolate is melted. Turn into a large bowl.

* In another large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until frothy, then gradually beat in remaining 1/4 cup (50 mL) sugar and vanilla.

Continue beating until soft peaks form when beaters are lifted, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir one-third into chocolate mixture, then gently fold in remaining whites just until no white streaks remain.

* Spoon into baking dishes. Pour enough hot water into broiler pan so it comes halfway up side of dishes. Bake in centre of preheated 325F (160C) oven just until tops start to crack and centres of puddings are almost set when jiggled, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from water. Great warm or at room temperature.

Makes 8 servings

Can dried herbs be used as a substitution for fresh in recipes and if so, what is the conversion?

- Question from M. Webster via email.

Answer: Yes. Use one third (1/3) of the amount of dried for the amount of fresh herb called for in the recipe. For example, you can substitute 1 teaspoon dried herb when the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh.

Two quick hints

1) Crush the dried herbs between your finger and thumb to help release the flavours.

2) If you use dried, add it to the recipe at the beginning of cooking to develop the flavours. If you have fresh herbs only add it at the end because a long period of cooking can destroy its flavour and color.

Until next time, happy creating cooking! If you would like to ask a food related or cooking question, see an article and/or specific recipes, please feel free to email at:

jxm550@yahoo.ca