Comfort food: minimal effort maximum result
Some dishes are not meant to be served for guests but eaten alone or with people very close to you. The so called comfort food is like a warm blanket on the couch, the blanket that when snuggled under is warming and consoling but becomes an eyesore laying there in the morning.
The intimacy of comfort food therefore has many restrictions; eating ice cream from the bucket in your underwear, shamelessly scraping the crust from the edges of a tray of lasagne, plastering toast with choco paste or killing a plate of pasta with parmesan cheese, all things that do not go well with a judging public.
Embellishing comfort food
In this section we are going to clear comfort food from its limits, make it presentable, even adorn it with respectability. It is a pretty demanding task since this kind of food tends to release childhood memories.
You will have to be careful not to slide off the traced path and find your hosts in a gorge of emotions, sobbing, laughing or expressing god knows what other unwanted sentiments. The collective well-being of your diners should result as a product of your skills, your bravura. You need confidence to pull off the trick, there is nothing worse than an uncovered magician.
Serving the correct amount of wine –or a little more -will be your assistant, the way you serve the food will be the diversion. People want to be entertained, not just fed.
Pasta with salmon
This is a very recent dish, but already considered a classic one. Nor cream nor salmon are rooted in the Italian culinary tradition but since it is so yummy, this is forgotten and forgiven; quite an achievement in the most culinary conservative country.
It is interesting to observe that the type of pasta to be used is beyond discussion, as giving it an identity; farfalle, butterflies, are part of the so-called short pasta and can hence be replaced by similar types.
The preparation is easy, and therefore a popular dish among weekend chefs and young people.
There is a downside to this dish and it arises soon after the eating. Only people with a remarkable metabolism won’t suffer the ‘brick in the stomach’ feeling. Make sure you have enough couches and armchairs to let your guest try to digest in.
King of comfort food: Pasta carbonara
This dish is emblematic for the Italian culinary scene: everybody has his or her version and claims it to be the original one, all of them matching the standards of being comfort food.
These declarations and solemn sworn rectitude contrast and yet created this icon; it somehow represents Italy as a country, with rivalry among – and even within – regions, sharp geographical differences and historical fractures, occasionally all cheering as one.
It takes a common enemy and the ‘tricolore’ (the Italian flag) goes up, the hatchet gets buried and shoulder by shoulder in battle they go.
Pasta carbonara differs from cook to cook, house to house. The worst thing that can happen though is when prepared by non-Italians.
Old ladies will make the sign of the cross, chefs will curse and other will blame them bloody foreigners for demolishing traditions.
Originating in Rome, this is probably a rather recent dish. It could very well have been introduced by American soldiers at the end of world war II, who used pasta instead of bread to accompany their supply of bacon and eggs. There is a total discord on the ingredients; cheek lard, bacon or speck?
Whole eggs, yolks only or somewhere between? Milk, cream or rigorously without? Black pepper, white pepper, no pepper? Roman pecorino cheese, pecorino cheese in general or parmesan?
Italians are pretty touchy when it comes to Italo-American cooking. More precise, they are touchy about food in general. Somehow they are terribly disturbed by these fettuccine Alfredo. As if Alfredo somehow betrayed the Italian cuisine, appropriating it unlawfully. It is unclear what drives this antipathy: plain narcissism or fear? So when you’re craving fo Alfredo’s fettuccine, order pasta butter and cheese.
Pasta with butter and cheese
Very easy indeed, probably a trifle too easy, is pasta with butter and cheese. Only two situations justify preparing this dish: extreme laziness of the one who prepares and utmost fuzziness of the eater (that could very well be the definition for comfort food).
But note that usually no justification for preparing this dish, nor eating it, is given or remotely offered; you keep it for yourself, a matter that’s no one else’s business. The stigma only shows on the outside. This preparation is very popular and often requested by hungry and wistful family members.
The pasta to be used is the small type and bears diminutive names such as ‘stelline’, little stars, ‘pastina’ little pasta, ‘tempestina’, little tempest or ‘quadratine’ little squares.
All kinds that introduce young children to the world of pasta, to Italian food with a reduced risk of choking. Straight back to childhood. Small pasta tends to patch together and cannot be drained dry.
The starch makes it slightly gooey, and that is the way is supposed to be. This mush is dense and keeps it heat very well, which is why it is often blown before eaten. Be though careful not to let it cool down too long, because when the starch sets, the creamy paste transforms in a solid block, very much as fresh concrete stiffening up does.
Butter or oil, that's the question
Ever since butter has been accused of murder – and although acquitted of all accuses – its use raises eyebrows. Olive oil happily and willingly filled the void.
The cheese is usually parmesan or grana Padana. Children – officially – and adults – gluttonously – may use a triangle of processed cheese to melt in the hot mush.
This, of course, will be denied by any trespasser of the Italian cuisine. Although the ingredients are few and the preparation is truly simple, this should not be considered a desperate dish. It does not result out of laziness alone, nor out of pure incompetence.
Having a steaming plate of pasta with butter and cheese brings people back to the essence of nutrition, it breaks with the tendency to elaborate, adorn and surprise; served in a fancy restaurant, it would come under the section ‘comfort food’. Under the name ‘Why not?’