Can Comfort Food Be Healthy?

beef bourguignon

Whitney Cardozo’s Beef Bourguignon

We asked a chef how to make your favorite comfort foods health-ier

For many of us, 2020 was the year of comfort food. After a day filled with nonstop news updates and social distancing, we found peace in curling up on the sofa and eating grilled cheese and tomato soup. So, why is it that some foods are so comforting? According to a 2017 study, researchers found that we associate comfort food with good memories — something we could all use a lot more of. 

We asked Whitney Cardozo, owner of Chez Foushee in Richmond, Virginia, why some foods are so comforting. She shares two of her go-to recipes and tips on how to make our favorite comfort foods a little healthier. Even a salad can be comfort food, Whitney says. 

Katie Couric Media: Why do you think some foods are so comforting?

Whitney Cardozo: When I think of comfort foods, I get a little nostalgic and remember the quote from one of my favorite movies, The Hundred-Foot Journey, “Food is memories.” It not only supplies us energy, but it is food that binds us to our family, neighbors, and community. 

We associate well-being with those times in our lives when someone was taking care of us and feeding us at the same time! For me, it’s remembering summers in Nova Scotia with my grandmother’s incredible cooking, but specifically warm pillowy biscuits with homemade strawberry jam she made while sitting at the kitchen table with me. Comfort food gives you an excuse to indulge in an old favorite and remember those happy times. Comfort food comes with a side of childhood nostalgia. 

Can comfort food be healthy?

Comfort foods can be healthy, but some may need a makeover to lighten up a bit. These favorite foods are most likely high in calories, sweet, gooey, and fall into the sugar and carbohydrate category. A little tweaking and substituting those high-calorie ingredients for their skinny relatives is not the worst thing to do. 

For instance, baking instead of frying, using ½ meat and ½ beans in a recipe or making sauces with stock rather than cream pull comfort food to the healthier side. Although Julia Child reportedly used “753 pounds of butter to bake her masterpieces” on the show Baking with Julia, moderation is best like with most things.

What are some alternatives to the less healthy ingredients we see in comfort foods? Cauliflower is definitely having a moment.

1. Focus on the ingredients: The secret to making comfort food healthier is the ingredients you use, roasting spaghetti squash instead of using pasta for your marinara, or making (or buying) zoodles for your stir fry instead of white rice. Both of these substitutes means fewer carbohydrates, but you still get that delicious pasta and rice experience. 

2. Flavoring: This another secret to healthier comfort food. Choose to use less salt and up your herb game. Fresh herbs can add so much flavor to a dish. Did you know oregano is an antioxidant? We also use fresh Thyme in quite a few dishes, and it is high in Vitamin C. 

3. Add more veggies: Substituting and adding more vegetables is probably one of the easiest things you can do to make comfort food good for you. Cauliflower is the ‘it’ vegetable because of its versatility. It is low in carbohydrates, absorbs flavor, substitutes as rice, risotto, pizza dough, and is a gluten-free option. It’s everywhere!

What are some of your go-to ‘comfort’ recipes? 

As we are in winter now, we want warm, heavier dishes. Our Beef Bourguignon and Mushroom Risotto are customer favorites. The recipes below I’ve adapted for convenience. I can’t imagine whipping up a 3-4 hour simmered Beef Bourguignon after work and stirring risotto for an hour while your children wait for dinner.

#1 Beef Bourguignon (Stove Top)

Ingredients: 

1 tablespoons olive oil
8 bacon roughly chopped
Boneless beef sirloin steak, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
2 large carrot sliced 1/2-inch thick circles
About 1 # little potatoes (creamers or any baby potato)
1 large white onion, diced
3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons flour (optional)
12 small pearl onions (can be found in freezer department already peeled)
3 cups red wine 
2-3 cups beef stock 
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2-3 tablespoons fresh thyme (stems removed)
4 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped (divided –save some for garnish)
2 bay leaves
1 pound fresh small mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: 

1. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, sauté the bacon over medium heat until crisp and browned. Keep the bacon fat and transfer bacon to dish and set aside

2. Pat beef dry with paper towel

3. Sear in batches in the hot oil/bacon fat until browned on all sides and remove (add to dish with the bacon)

4. Next with remaining oil/bacon fat, sauté the carrots and diced onions until softened, (about 3 minutes), then add minced garlic and cook for about a 1 minute.

5. Add the bacon and beef back into the pot; season with 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. (Optional: Sprinkle with flour or rice flour and stir)

6. Add the pearl onions, wine and enough stock so that the meat is just covered. 

7. Add the tomato paste and stir

8. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally until meat is falling apart

9. Before you take it off the stove, prepare your mushrooms: For the mushrooms heat the butter in a medium-sized skillet and then add the mushrooms. Cook for about 3 – 5 minutes, stirring and shaking the pan occasionally to coat with the butter. Season with salt and pepper.

10. Add mushrooms to the pot, and let simmer for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to combine 

Garnish with parsley and serve with cauliflower mash! (mashed potatoes, rice or noodles).

#2 Mushroom Risotto

To make it easier you can pre-cook the risotto another day so the recipe will not take as long.

For the pre-cooked Risotto:
Ingredients: 

1 cup rice type of your choice for true risotto 
2 tbsp. butter or olive oil
Pinch of salt
½ cup white or yellow onion diced small
½  cup dry white wine
2 cups of stock (Stock is best but you can use water as needed)

Directions:

1. In pot sauté butter and onion together with a pinch of salt until the onion is translucent

2. Add the rice, and stir to coat the risotto, cooking about 2-3 minutes

3. Add the wine and cook until it has almost all evaporated

4. Add ½ cup of stock or water to the pan at a time, and cook and stir until it liquid is almost gone then add another ½ c of water to prevent the pan from burning 

5. Do this until the rice is soft on the outside and very chewy in the middle, about ten minutes

6. Immediately spread it out on a wide surface, then score with a butter knife in a cross-hatch pattern it to help it cool even faster

7. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days

For the Mushroom Risotto (4 servings)

Ingredients:
8 c. – 10 chicken or vegetable broth
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. button/crimini mushrooms sliced
4 sprigs thyme leaves removed
kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 c. Arborio rice
1/2 c. white wine
1 C heavy Cream
1 C freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

Directions:

1. In a heavy skillet melt half of the butter over medium heat. 

2. Add mushrooms and shallots and sauté until tender about 8 minutes. 

3. Add garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and stir for an additional minute. 

4. Remove mushroom mixture from pan and set aside.

5. Add remaining butter to pan over medium heat

6. Add rice and stir until rice begins to look  a little translucent 4-5 minutes.

7. Add ½ cup dry white wine and bring to a simmer stirring constantly until liquid is absorbed. 8. 9. Add 1 cup stock and stir until almost all broth is absorbed. Continuing adding broth ½ cup at a time until liquid is almost absorbed. (This can take 20 -25 minutes.)

10. Add mushrooms mixture and stir to combine. 

11. Gently stir in heavy cream and parmesan cheese 

12. Simmer for an additional 5 min on low heat stirring. Risotto should be creamy, but firm to the bite. Transfer risotto to a serving bowl

13. Garnish with shaved parmesan and fresh parsley.