Some of the region’s top restaurants offer a new take on familiar comfort foods to satisfy the body and soul.We talk with the chefs of The Blue Duck Tavern, Clementine, Founding Farmers, and PAZO for the dish on the comfort food craze and coax them into offering recipes you can try at home.
GRILLED CHEESE. MEATLOAF and mashed potatoes. Spaghetti and meatballs. When someone says “comfort food,” we know what that means. Whatever the dish, all hold one thing in common: comfort foods are uncomplicated cuisine that bring about a pleasant emotional response often connected to our childhood and cultural backgrounds.
What’s new about the old familiar comfort foods is that they are making their way onto menus of some of the top restaurants in the region. Why? According to Michael Costa, Executive Chef of Baltimore’s PAZO, it is partly because one of the goals of good chefs is to “give people an emotional experience—and one of the most important emotions we can convey is comfort.”
Of course fine dining establishments offering comfort food fare aren’t simply dishing out mac-n-cheese to sate the soul. Top chefs elevate comfort food to a whole new status. If it is mac-n-cheese, suggests Chef Brian McBride of DC’s Blue Duck Tavern, “maybe it’s a lobster mac-n-cheese with a duck confit and a funkier pasta, but it still has the flavor that people warm to.”
Another factor likely taking comfort food to new heights is the importance of provenance. “Comfort food is in high-demand,” says McBride, “in part because people have become more focused on the sources of their food.” How and where were the livestock raised? Is the produce fresh, local, and organic? The quality of ingredients itself has become extremely important—and as quality goes up, so to does the need to let those ingredients shine.“The idea of local food from local farms grown by local people is a comforting concept,” says Costa. This concept is at the core of newer restaurants like Founding Farmers in DC and Baltimore’s Clementine.
Founded and owned by a collective of 42,000 American family farmers, Founding Farmers promotes environmental sustainability and the products and services of family farms, ranches, and fisheries. Listening to Executive Chef John Regan talk about Founding Farmers, one quickly learns that for him, “comfort” is about layering—layer the comfort we can all take in the establishment’s green certifications for architecture, business practices, and sustainable sourcing, with the food itself. Described by Regan as “food just like mom never made,” the Founding Farmers menu is comprised of dishes that often look to a model of cuisine that was being prepared at home by “mom” in an era when dual income families were rare. Realistically, most Americans just don’t have time to prepare those meals anymore. “By the time people go to the store, buy good ingredients, and do things the right way, it is becoming more cost and time effective to go out for comfort food,” says Regan. “Our slow simmered chili really builds in flavor over time. You don’t just add all the ingredients at once—it is a lot of work and effort.”
Similarly, Winston Blick, chef and owner of Clementine in Baltimore, points out that restaurants have access to the time, techniques, equipment, and ingredients people at home do not. “At Clementine, we aren’t doing anything fancy, we are doing it well, and with consistency. We make food like mom and grandmom made, but use fresh, organic, all-natural ingredients—a style of cooking that skips back maybe three generations to when people had to use fresh and local because that was the only option.” For Blick, ingredients and emotion are at the core of comfort food, and he draws a comparison to music. “It’s all derivative,” he says. “When I think back to my childhood and remember all the music that was being played, I didn’t really like it then, but today almost everything I listen to is either similar to, or has its foundations there.” That’s what comfort food is. Something you might’ve regarded with indifference as a kid, but today, brings back fond emotions or memories, perhaps of a better, simpler time; a dish that takes the best of the past and blends in new and unique influences of today—sustenance not just for the body but also the spirit.
Favorite comfort food recipes from each of the chefs follow.
Slow Braised Beef Short Ribs
By Executive Chef Brian McBride of Blue Duck Tavern
Prep: 1 hour & 30 minutes
Cooking: 3 hours & 30 minutes
6 lbs. beef short ribs on the bone
1 small onion, medium dice
2 carrots, medium dice
1 red pepper, medium dice
1 yellow pepper, medium dice
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 plum tomatoes, halved
1 tsp. peeled and sliced ginger
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
1 pinch chili flakes
1 Tbsp. cumin
4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
1. Place the short ribs in a clean pan that has room enough for all the ingredients.
2. Cover the ribs with all of the vegetables, spices, and herbs and pour the chicken stock and balsamic vinegar over the top.
3. Cover the pan with foil and place into a 425°F oven for 30 minutes, reduce heat to 325°F and slowly braise for three hours.
4. Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
5. Remove the ribs and vegetables from the braising liquids and set aside to keep warm.
6. Place the braised liquid in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Reduce the volume of liquid by 50 percent until it forms a sauce-like consistency.
7. Taste for seasoning.
8. Pour braising liquid back over the ribs and serve to the table in an ample bowl.
Very Slowly Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Cabrales Butter
By Executive Chef Michael Costa of PAZO
Serves 10 (with leftovers—see following recipe)
The secret to a nicely roasted piece of beef is first cooking it very slowly in a 275°F oven, and then searing and basting it to ensure an evenly cooked, moist, and flavorful piece of beef.
For the Roast:
2 whole beef tenderloins, trimmed and tied*
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 oz. unsalted butter (for basting)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 cloves garlic
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 Tbsp. pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
For the Cabrales Butter
12 oz. unsalted butter (3 sticks), room temperature
3 oz. cabrales, or feel free to substitute your favorite blue cheese, cold
1/4 tsp. salt
To make the Cabrales Butter:
1. Place soft butter in a bowl, sprinkle in salt and mix with a spatula or wooden spoon.
2. Tear cabrales with your hands, dropping it into the bowl as you go.
3. Mix together gently to avoid smearing the cheese.
4. Hold at room temperature.
To Roast the Meat:
1. Preheat oven to 275°F.
2. Season the meat with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
3. Place meat in a roasting rack over a heavy roasting pan (heavy and thick enough to be used directly on a stove burner).
4. Roast meat in oven to desired temperature. For a nice medium rare, remove from oven at 130°F. This can take up to 2 hours; plan accordingly. (I promise it’s worth it.)
5. Remove rack and place roasting pan directly on burners. Add olive oil to the pan (you may need more, depending on the size of your pan).
6. Place meat directly in pan and sear on all sides until caramelized.
7. Add garlic, butter, and herbs to pan and lower heat slightly.
8. Tilt pan slightly (you may want a second hand for this) and spoon this beautiful, herby garlicky, brown butter over the meat.
9. Baste meat in this fashion for 2 minutes.
10. Sprinkle meat on all sides with pimenton.
11. Remove meat to cutting board and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
12. Slice meat and sprinkle with additional kosher salt or fleur de sel if you have it.
13. Garnish with as much of the cabrales butter as your conscience will allow.
Tip: Purchase whole beef tenderloin from a skilled butcher. The butcher should be happy to trim and tie your tenderloin for you. Trimming and tying the meat has two advantages. Firstly, there will not be any fat or connective tissue and thus a more pleasant, tender texture. Secondly, your piece of beef will have a more uniform shape and will thus cook more evenly which is, incidentally, the object of this technique. A whole beef tenderloin weighing 7-1/2 lbs will trim down to about 4 lbs. Ask your butcher to grind the trimmings for hamburger meat.
What to do with the Tenderloin Left-Overs?
Beef Tenderloin Salad with Arugula, Cabrales, and Walnuts
Leftover slowly roasted beef tenderloin
4 oz. Cabrales cheese (feel free to substitute your favorite blue cheese)
2 oz. sherry vinegar
1 Tbsp. honey
4 oz. canola oil
1 oz. walnut oil (can be substituted with additional canola oil if unavailable)
8 oz. walnuts, roasted, tossed in walnut oil and sprinkled with salt
To make the dressing:
1. Whisk together sherry vinegar, honey, walnut oil, and canola oil.
To serve the salad:
1. Slice beef as thinly as possible and lay directly on plates. Season beef with kosher salt.
2. Toss arugula in a bowl with dressing and divide it between the plates.
3. Garnish each salad with walnuts and Cabrales.
By Winston Blick of Clementine
One whole roaster chicken (approx. 3 lbs)
1/8 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup kosher salt
1/8 cup aromatic bitters
1/8 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. poultry seasoning
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 onion, chopped
1 whole egg
3 cups ice
1 gallon hot water
1.Combine all ingredients except ice in hot water and stir to mix. Add ice and chill brine so as not to scald the chicken.
2.Brine chicken for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
3.Remove chicken from brine and pat dry. Place on roasting pan and cook in oven at 350°F until interior temperature is 165°F (about 40 minutes for a 3 pound roaster, but ovens vary).
Garnish with Tomato, Corn & Crab Salad
By Winston Blick of Clementine
1 lb. medium lump crab
2 large tomatoes
3 ears corn (cooked as you would corn on the cob)*
1 red onion
1/8 cup brown sugar
splash of apple cider vinegar
Dice onion and tomato, remove corn from cob and toss everything together with a pinch or two of Old Bay. Serve over chicken.
Tip: A terry towel placed on the cutting board when removing corn from the cob will help catch kernels as they fall and help keep your kitchen more tidy.
Shrimp and Grits
By Executive Chef John K. Regan of Founding Farmers
(Recipe modified for ChesapeakeHome Magazine)
20 shrimp (10-15 Gulf shrimp/jumbo shrimp) peeled, de-veined, butterflied, tail on
5 Tbsp. flour
10 oz. andouille sausage, grilled & sliced 1/2-inch thick
3 oz. olive oil
4 oz. crumbled bacon “lardon” (4 pieces crumbled)
1 bay leaf
1/4 yellow onion, 1/4 inch diced/small dice
2 stalks of celery, no leaves,1/4 inch diced
4 tsp. garlic – fresh, 2 cloves minced
6 Tbsp. green onions, about 1/4 bunch sliced thin
4 tsp. thyme – fresh, minced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 cup green tomatoes, 1/2 inch diced
4 oz. dry sac – sherry
8-10 oz. chicken stock, make or buy natural/organic, no MSG
2 pinches cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
3 tsp. fresh lemon juice
4 tsp. parsley – Italian (the flat stuff, it is better) chopped fine
6 oz. butter – unsalted, 1/3 stick
1 lb. prepared grits (kind of thick) serve warm
1/2 cup prepared, buttered popcorn (it is fun with a good texture)
1 Tbsp. green onion, sliced thin
1. Gather and prepare all ingredients as listed.
2. Cook sausage halfway and cut into half moons.
3. Season shrimp with salt and pepper, flour and set aside. Preheat a non-stick skillet on high heat for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. To hot oil add bacon, sausage, bay leaf, onions, celery, and sauté 1 minute.
5. Add shrimp and fresh thyme and sauté until shrimp are 50 percent cooked, appearing translucent.
6. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and cook it down to reduce the contents by half.
7. Add chicken stock and simmer for 5 minutes.
8. Add tomatoes and green onions, incorporating fully with other ingredients.
9. Season with cayenne pepper, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce.
10. Swirl in butter, turn down the heat.
11. Taste for salt and pepper if needed.
1. Place approx. 1/2 cup of grits in center of plate.
2. Arrange shrimp around grits.
3. Ladle sauce around shrimp and over grits.
4. Garnish with popcorn and sliced green onions
Dennis Hockman is the Editor of ChesapeakeHome.
Blue Duck Tavern: blueducktavern.com or 202-419-6755
Clementine: bmoreclementine.com or 410-444-1497
Founding Farmers: wearefoundingfarmers.com or 202-822-TRUE (8783)
PAZO: pazorestaurant.com or 410-534-7296