what is it about
comfort food?

I often say that you can be miserable before eating a cookie and you can be miserable after eating a cookie, but you can never be miserable while you’re eating a cookie. And while I say that half-jokingly, the sentiment is true. Food has an almost magical ability to comfort us, soothe us, and bring us together in so many ways. We celebrate special occasions with food—a birthday cake or a big roast turkey—and we also turn to food for comfort on not-so-happy occasions, a delivery of baked goods to a family member who’s under the weather, or a homemade dinner for a friend having a rough time. Food can be so much more than simple sustenance.

So, what exactly is comfort food? It’s food that’s not just nourishing but it’s also emotionally satisfying. After September 11, 2001, I can’t tell you how many people told me they went out to get all the ingredients to make my Outrageous Brownies from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. After the financial crisis in 2008, restaurants everywhere suffered as customers cut back on their spending. But fast-food places prospered because they served inexpensive classics like hamburgers and French fries. As I write this, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and I have no idea when it will end or what devastation it will cause. People are isolated and stressed. Everyone I know has stocked up their fridges and pantries with ingredients they can cook for weeks or even months—chickens, vegetables, fruits, beans, rice, and dried legumes. But my friend Deborah Davis commented that she opens her fridge and looks at all the healthy food in there, and all she wants is a grilled cheese sandwich! I can totally relate to that! During times of financial and political stress, there’s something about a hamburger and Coke or a big bowl of beef stew that just makes us feel better. They’re not fancy—in fact, quite the opposite. They’re familiar, delicious, and soul-satisfying. In other words, they’re comfort food.

cheesy chicken enchiladas

There are many foods that are universally comforting. I think we can probably all agree that a mixed green salad isn’t anyone’s idea of comfort food. But chicken soup? Every international cuisine has its own version: Greek avgolemono soup, Vietnamese chicken pho, Belgian waterzooi, and my personal favorite, chicken soup with matzo balls. For this book, I developed Chicken Pot Pie Soup (this page), a mash-up of classic chicken soup and chicken pot pie that hits all the right notes when you’re tired or cranky.

Comfort foods are often the dishes that transcend cultures and borders. Many popular foods that have become ingrained in American culture—ramen, tacos, pizza—were originally brought to this country by immigrants who sought to re-create the comforting taste of home. Many of the recipes in this book are inspired by comfort foods from around the world—from Emily’s English Roasted Potatoes (this page) to Shrimp & Linguine Fra Diavolo (this page) to Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas (this page).

Comfort food may be different for each person. An egg salad sandwich on toasted rye can cheer me up on a bad day, but it might not be what does it for you! Often the foods we turn to for comfort are rooted in what we ate as children. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the classic American lunch for kids but when I offered to make them for my British film crew, they recoiled in horror. Instead, they offered to make me their classic childhood lunch—white bread with cold baked beans from a can and Kraft singles on top. Yikes! (Please don’t tell them but I’ll take a PB&J any day!)

Lots of the recipes in this book evoke old-fashioned American foods that many of us remember from our childhoods. My mother used to make canned split pea soup with cut-up hot dogs in it (I know it sounds bizarre, but I thought it was delicious). I’ve updated it by making homemade Split Pea Soup with Crispy Kielbasa (this page). The soup is filled with lots of vegetables and flavored with a smoked ham hock and sautéed kielbasa. It’s basically the grown-up version of the soup my mother made, but so much more satisfying.

ultimate tuna melts

I polled my friends and you’d be surprised how many said their go-to comfort food was a tuna fish sandwich and potato chips (in one case, the potato chips went in the sandwich!). So I knew I had to include a recipe for a tuna melt in this book that was nostalgic but better than the diner classic. My Ultimate Tuna Melts (this page) are made with really good imported tuna and have melted cheese and microgreens on top. Jeffrey’s favorite comfort food—tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich—was the inspiration for both my Creamy Tomato Bisque (this page) with a hint of saffron and the Cheddar & Chutney Grilled Cheese (this page). You don’t need to have a bad day to love these two together.

So, that’s what makes dishes comfort food, but I had to ask myself, what makes the recipes in this book modern?? When I’m working on a recipe, I like to start with a remembered flavor and spend time researching how the dish was traditionally made. Then, I figure out how I can update that dish—whether it’s lightening up the recipe, making it easier to cook, or simply adding more modern flavors, such as Sriracha and pomegranate. I wanted each dish in this book to feel familiar but be so much more delicious than you expected. And I realized that while comfort food is the focus of this particular book, that’s what I’m always looking for in a recipe: true home cooking but with a twist or update that makes it special enough to serve to company.

applesauce cake with bourbon raisins

For example, I wanted to make a classic beef stew, but in my experience beef stew can be pretty boring—with tough or stringy chunks of beef and a thin, bland tomato sauce. I knew it could be so much better! In order to update that American classic, I borrowed ingredients from two other dishes I love—beef Bourguignon and braised short ribs. Instead of starting by searing bacon, I used pancetta, which has a great flavor without the smokiness of bacon. Then, I swapped the usual beef chuck for boneless short ribs, which added a richness that made everything, particularly the sauce, so much more delicious. And finally, I added a bottle of good red wine and a splash of Cognac to give the sauce more depth of flavor. Now whenever I serve my Ultimate Beef Stew (this page), my guests say they’ll never make beef stew any other way again.

One of my personal favorite comfort foods is a BLT. It’s classic diner food, and just fine as is, but when I’m entertaining I like to make a new version that’s really over the top. For my Lobster BLTs (this page), I use applewood-smoked bacon, ripe summer tomatoes, creamy Hass avocados, good bakery white bread, Thousand Island dressing, and, of course, perfectly poached lobster. They’re good and messy to eat but everyone loves the old-fashioned flavor of BLTs with this more elegant, grown-up spin. It’s comfort food dressed up for company.

When you’re having a dinner party, it can be tempting to make something fancy to impress your guests. But when I tell my friends that I’m making Truffled Mac & Cheese (this page) or Smashed Hamburgers with Caramelized Onions (this page) for dinner, and Applesauce Cake with Bourbon Raisins (this page) for dessert, they light up with glee. I might order cassoulet or grilled octopus at a restaurant, but at home we all want something simple and satisfying. The look on my friends’ faces when they see me bring Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù (this page) to the table says it all.

brussels sprouts pizza carbonara

One of the dinners I love on a cold winter night is sausage and peppers with polenta. What I don’t love is frying sausages on the stove and turning my kitchen into one big oil slick! Instead, for my Roasted Sausages, Peppers & Onions (this page), I found a way to make the whole thing in the oven. You set a timer and forget about it—and no mess to clean up! Spicy cooked sausages, lots of onions and peppers, and if you serve it with a big puddle of my creamy Fresh Corn Polenta (this page), your guests will be very happy.

Another way I make comfort food more modern is by finding new ways to serve dishes we all know and love. Everybody associates Hollandaise sauce with eggs Benedict, but for my Roasted Shishito Peppers with Easy Hollandaise (this page), I serve the classic French sauce with a vegetable that’s kind of new to me—shishito peppers. I love the rich, lemony sauce with the mild heat of the peppers. And instead of standing over a double boiler to make Hollandaise on the stove or dragging out my blender, I developed a way to make it with just a bowl and a small whisk—in the microwave! So easy!

Sometimes, simply adding a fresh ingredient to a classic dish will make it seem more modern. For my Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara (this page), I started with pizza dough from the local pizzeria (instead of making it from scratch!), spread on a rich carbonara sauce with lots of Italian Pecorino cheese, and topped it all with thinly shaved Brussels sprouts. The creamy sauce and piquant cheese are the perfect combination with the sprouts, which get crispy and sweet when you bake the pizza. We all love a big bowl of spaghetti carbonara but it is so rich that I need a nap afterward. I added fresh spring vegetables like asparagus, snap peas, and fresh English peas to the carbonara and came up with a modern twist on a classic—Spring Green Spaghetti Carbonara (this page).

spring green spaghetti carbonara

I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that these days, I’m a little grumpier than I used to be. I’ve always loved reading the newspaper in the morning but now it feels as though it’s only bad news. Friends are angry with each other. People are venting on Twitter. It’s all just so stressful. So, what do we do about it?? We reach for a cold martini, or a pint of rum raisin Häagen-Dazs ice cream to soothe our hurt feelings. This book is devoted to helping you serve up seriously satisfying and delicious food that will feed not only your cravings but also your soul. I hope it will help you take care of yourself and the people around you so everyone is happier and less stressed. In this crazy world, that’s an incredible gift you can give to yourself, your family, and your friends. Cooking really delicious comfort food—particularly fresh, modern comfort food—ensures that everyone at your table will feel happy and satisfied, and isn’t that how we want the people we love to feel? I know I do!!

Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook