Finding comfort in what's familiar


It's been said that I ate my way from the north to the south of France.

During high school, I spent five months in the country with my family while my father was there on sabbatical. It was then, my mother claims, over an omelet pan filled with the freshest ham, eggs and cheese, that I proclaimed my dream of becoming a chef.

I came back to the States and worked my way through the rest of high school in a wholesale-food operation, making things as diverse as quiche and desserts and learning to create dishes from what was abundant and fresh.

After attending college, I bussed and waited tables at a local bar until one night the kitchen was understaffed and I was asked to fill in. The rest, as they say, is history. Within six months I was second in command in the kitchen.

Now I'm the head chef at the Roland Avenue location of Eddie's of Roland Park. Despite the mind-boggling array of spices, sauces, marinades, vinegars, seasonings, exotic fruit and vegetables, and specialty meats at my disposal, what I find my customers want more of is simple, tasty, familiar comfort food.

They want food that brings back feelings of being in their grandmother's kitchen, where a pot of soup sat perpetually on the stove and the smell of roasted chicken filled the house.

Convenience and ease are still at the top of customers' minds, but instead of something drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, more are requesting stewed tomatoes, braised short ribs of beef, creamed spinach and rice pudding.

Comfort food, in my mind, is food that evokes warm feelings and fond family memories. It needs no other adornment. Comfort food, to me, is not only traditional, it's seasonal. I think it's food that helps you mark time, food that plays a part in your life at about the same time every year.

For example, when I think of spring, I think of lamb. My mother's simple recipe is my favorite: Empty a jar of Dijon mustard into a bowl, add an equal amount of soy sauce and mix them together.

Brush the mixture on top of a butterflied leg of lamb and let it sit, for at least an hour, but better overnight. Roast the lamb on the grill, with coals on each side of the grill instead of in the center. Put the lid on and cook for 40 to 45 minutes. The smell of the lamb cooking on the grill, mixed with the warm air and the blooming flowers, is spring to me. I wouldn't think of welcoming a season any differently.

When making comfort food, less is more. Don't over-spice or marinate. Don't cook things too long. Revel in food's natural flavors. It helps to watch the Sunday papers because often the foods that are on sale at the local supermarkets are in season, fresh and plentiful.

Shad and shad roe should start coming in soon. You could follow my mother's recipe of baking shad smeared with mayonnaise and lemon pepper, or you could split the shad roe sacs open and spread them onto the shad and then bake for a more traditional Maryland dinner. Another way is wrapping the shad roe in bacon, brushing it with butter, salt and pepper and lemon juice and serving it on toast points for breakfast.

Asparagus is another seasonal favorite that you'll see on sale soon. Boil it with the smallest amount of water possible. If you enjoy it crispy take it out after four minutes, 12 minutes if you like it mushy like my wife does. You'll also start seeing lots of fresh new potatoes. I prefer to toss them with very good olive oil, salt and pepper and paprika and roast them or cut them in half and boil with parsley and chives.

Part of the allure of comfort food, aside from its power of signaling seasonal changes, is knowing that it has been made for generations. Who doesn't feel good about their great-grandmother's fried chicken or meatloaf?

As Eddie's on Roland Avenue celebrates its 59th birthday this month, I am reminded of the dishes that were popular when Victor Cohen first opened the doors. Since Victor's daughter, Nancy, started the Gourmet to Go, Eddie's chefs have maintained her recipes for crab cakes, fried chicken, roasted turkey, sweet-potato casseroles, macaroni and cheese, and an assortment of fresh vegetable and pasta salads.

I create my weekly menus based on what our customers want. Several times a day I leave the kitchen to mingle with the customers who are eager to make their food favorites known. And what they want is food that represents simplicity, warmth, stability and predictability. Waldorf salad, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried chicken livers and spaghetti are among the favorites.

I sell approximately 100 pounds of Eddie's Macaroni and Beef a week. It's pure comfort and to prove its importance, there's a sprightly octogenarian gentleman who stops in regularly just for that dish. It's made with the highest quality ground beef gently sauteed together with fresh onions and peppers then mixed with imported elbow macaroni and gently baked.

I also have customers ask me to re-create a favorite dish from their childhood. I make a chicken-chow-mien recipe that one particular customer comes in for all the time, rather than ordering Chinese takeout, because it tastes just like his mother's. No wonder -- it's my own mother's recipe!

People even bring their cherished family serving dishes for us to fill with our food. Many families celebrate birthdays with our lasagna overflowing from Grandmother's favorite casserole dish.

One of the benefits of working in a grocery store is that I can go to the shelves and pull out the ingredients I need and experiment, just as you can do at home, until I get the perfect spaghetti sauce or macaroni and cheese. Sure, I could whip up a rockfish turban with lobster mousse and saffron essence, and our customers would love it. But I understand our customers want "at-home" food, even though they don't have the time to make it themselves.

And it is every bit as exciting to me to make a delicacy out of macaroni and cheese or a bowl of fresh asparagus and know that it's going straight to the heart of one of my customers.

Stan Levy is head chef at the Roland Avenue location of Eddie's of Roland Park.

Eddie's Macaroni and Beef

Serves 20 people - great for a party

1 pound macaroni

5 pounds lean ground beef (see note)

1 each: red, yellow, green bell pepper cut in thin strips

1 large onion sliced thinly

two 16-ounce cans chopped tomatoes

two 16-ounce cans tomato sauce

4 tablespoons dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon (4 cloves) fresh chopped garlic

salt and pepper

shredded cheese (optional)

Cook macaroni per package instructions. Rinse with cold water, drain and set aside. In large skillet brown ground beef and drain off any grease. Add peppers and onions and continue cooking, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes and tomato sauce and stir in spices. Simmer 20 minutes. Stir in cooked macaroni. Top with your favorite shredded cheese, if desired, and serve.

Note: Ground turkey may be substituted for ground beef.

Rice Pudding

Serves 20

1 gallon whole milk

2 cups granulated sugar

12 lightly beaten egg yolks

1/4 cup butter

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

dash of nutmeg

2 cups uncooked Carolina rice

8 ounces raisins

cinnamon sugar for sprinkling before serving

Place all ingredients except rice, raisins and cinnamon sugar in a heavy soup pot. Stir constantly over medium heat. Bring to near boil but do not boil -approximately 180 degrees.

Add rice and continue constant stirring until rice is tender and pudding has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in raisins. May be served hot or chilled. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar just before serving.

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