For me, it’s Snickers bars, refried beans, candied corn, and vanilla ice cream. (No. I don’t eat them together.)
We’re talking about comfort food today, or, as the dictionary defines it: ” food that is enjoyable to eat and makes the eater feel better emotionally.”
Potato chips are most often identified as the top comfort food in America, but a comfort food can be any food that relieves stress and makes a person feel safe. For example, writer Anneli Rufus, in an article titled “How comfort foods work like Prozac”, confides that she finds comfort in small sourdough buns she purchases from a neighborhood shop: “In a certain cheese shop in my town, there is a rack of rolls. Gleaming golden outside and airy, stretchy, satiny inside, they’re sourdough and only vaguely square as if cut by clowns. One fits in my palm, then my sweatshirt pocket, which it must because this is the acid test by which I define comfort food: It’s small. It’s portable. It can be consumed silently. My comfort food must never call attention to itself. It must be dazzlingly bland, like Zen koans. Rolls. Marshmallows. Mochi. One round bowl of rice.” (Rufus is a recovering anorexic who is working to mend her relationship with food.)
There are gender differences in identifying comfort foods. According to research conducted at Cornell, women find comfort in snack-related foods like candy and chocolate while men prefer more meal-related comfort foods such as pasta and casseroles.
But why do we equate foods with well-being?
Studies show that the foods we enjoy are often tied in our minds to the positive memories and associations they evoke. Those foods make us feel safe, calm and cared for. It could be Mom’s minestrone or the chocolate cake we were always served on birthdays or the Snickers bars we hoarded every Halloween.
Foods also affect brain chemistry. State University of New York (Buffalo) psychology professor Shira Gabriel quotes studies that have shown that sugars and starches cause our brains to release seratonin, a neurotransmitter that triggers a sense of well-being. Salty foods, on the other hand, cause the release of oxytocins, the so-called “cuddle” chemicals that give us the same comfort that we get when we get a hug from a friend. So, a sociable person who feels isolated might reach out for a culinary hug with a salty snack like a bowl of pretzels while a piece of Amedei Chaou chocolate might calm someone down when the oven breaks down just as the first guests arrive for an important party. (Considered by some to be the best chocolate in the world, you can buy a 50 gram bar of Amedei Limited Edition Chaou chocolate on Amazon for $21.15. That’s about $191 a pound–a guilt-inducing indulgence that might trigger its own crisis eating binge.)
Not everyone agrees, though. The University of Minnesota did a NASA-funded study where 100 subjects were shown 18 minutes of clips of sad/upsetting movies (Sophie’s Choice, Armageddon and The Hurt Locker) after which they were fed various foods–some comfort, some not. All their subjects reported feeling “awful” immediately after the movie clips. What surprised the researchers, though, was that all the study’s subjects, regardless of what they ate, felt better after the passage of a short amount of time. Their conclusion? People are remarkably resilient and the effect of comfort foods on moods is transitory at best. (Interestingly, some of the subjects quit the study after watching the three movie clips, so remember to paste a reminder on your TV not to queue up those three films to binge watch on Netflix.)
This broccoli and cheddar cheese soup seems to push some definite comfort buttons for me. I’ve never had an especially close connection to broccoli but cheese and I have a long and happy relationship.
Serves 4 Servings
20 minPrep Time
45 minCook Time
1 hr, 5 Total Time
- 1 T. plus 4 T. unsalted butter (divided)
- 1 medium sweet yellow onion (cut in small dice)
- 1 garlic clove (minced finely)
- 1/4 C. all-purpose flour
- 2 C. vegetable stock
- 2 C. half and half
- 3 C. broccoli florets (diced into bite-size pieces)
- 2 large carrots (peeled and sliced into thin rounds)
- 3/4 t. salt (or to taste)
- 3/4 t. freshly grund black pepper (or to taste)
- 1/2 t. smoked paprika (or regular paprika)
- 1/2 t. dry mustard powder (optional or to taste)
- pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- 6 ounces grated high quality extra-sharp cheddar cheese (reserve some for the garnish)
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Melt 1 T. butter in a saucepan and sauté onion over medium heat for about 4 minutes. You want the onion to be lightly browned and translucent. Stir this mixture while the onion sautés to prevent the onion from burning.
- Add the minced garlic and cook briefly (about 30 seconds). Stir while you cook the garlic to be sure that it doesn't burn. Burned garlic will give your soup an unpleasant bitter taste. Set the onion/garlic mixture aside while you prepare the rest of the soup.
- Melt 4 T. of butter in a large soup pot. When the butter is bubbling, whisk in the flour. Continue to whisk the flour until the mixture is thickened. The flour/butter mixture will brown a bit but you don't want it to overcook and take a really brown color. (This flour and butter mixture is a thickening roux.)
- Whisk the vegetable stock into the flour roux, whisking constantly. Whisk in the half and half. Simmer this mixture for 15-20 minutes. You want the roux to cook down a bit and to thicken.
- While your roux mixture is cooking, chop your vegetables. Then, when the roux has cooked for 15-20 minutes, add the broccoli, carrots, and the onion/garlic mixture.
- Add the seasonings: salt, pepper, paprika, optional dry mustard powder and the optional cayenne. Stir to combine.
- Continue to simmer your soup for 20 to 25 minutes, whisking occasionally to incorporate the "skin" that will form on the surface.
- Grate cheese and stir it into the soup, reserving some of the cheese to garnish the individual bowls of soup when you serve it to your guests. Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the finished dish. (If your soup is too thick, thin it with a bit more half and half or broth.)
This recipe is adapted from one that appears here: Averie Cooks’ Recipe for Cheddar and Broccoli Soup