Sunday, December 9, 2012

Comfort Food

As published in the Ojai Quarterly magazine, Fall 2012

Photo by Bill Snider
Ojai is one of the few places in Southern California to experience seasons. As the autumnal equinox approaches, the light changes, taking on a warm cast. The Pink Moment becomes speckled with gold, and the liquid amber trees' green leaves turn radiant shades of red and bronze.

Daylight’s golden glow and a slight chill in the evening air signal to me that my husband's annual hunting trip is just around the corner. Every year before he leaves, he makes me a macaroni and cheese casserole to keep me warm and sated for the week he's gone. I am comforted by this. I need comfort because he's away, and I miss those long carefree days of summer.

For many, comfort food brings back childhood memories of mom’s chicken noodle soup, given to soothe or feed a fever. For me, the comfort food of my childhood was my mother’s Maryland blue crab cakes, made with mayonnaise, bread crumbs (not too many), Old Bay seasoning and huge chunks of fresh crab meat.

Early fall was the annual crab harvest at our house in Southern Maryland. We’d buy the crabs by the bushel, boil them with Old Bay and beer, and then throw them out on picnic tables covered in butcher paper. I remember my father corralling the live crabs into a boiling pot. One made its escape and scampered across the kitchen floor. I stood on a chair, pointing and squealing, begging my father to hurry, hurry before it pinched me. He snatched it up and threw it into the pot, then pretended he lost his thumb to the giant snapping crab.

Fall not only conjures these wonderful memories, but it does some crazy things to my appetite. You know how bears gorge themselves before they go into hibernation, tearing the heads off of the salmon? This is sort of what happens to me – a primal subconscious urge to prepare myself for winter. When Bill’s macaroni and cheese runs out, I'm grateful I won't have to turn to devouring fish heads, thanks to the many restaurants in town with an abundance of comfort food on their menus to offer this ravenous patron.

The Village Jester
139 E. Ojai Avenue

Nigel Chisholm runs a very traditional pub in downtown Ojai, and as such, you will find plenty of traditional comfort food to warm you on fall's cool nights. Red wine beef stew, slow-cooked with chunks of carrots, potatoes, turnips, and celery, along with pastry-topped chicken pot pie and shepherd's pie covered with creamy mashed potatoes are all made from scratch and oven-baked until piping hot. While you wait, warm up with a Bailey's and coffee or a Hot Toddy. The portions are plentiful, so don't hesitate to ask for a to-go box.

The Deer Lodge
2261 Maricopa Highway

Perhaps best known for their tri-tip and waitresses in short-shorts and cowboy boots, comfort food now takes center stage with garlic mashed potatoes, maple mashed sweet potatoes, meatloaf, and, yes, macaroni and cheese, made with Gouda or bacon and cheddar. But the stand-out here is the fried chicken, soaked overnight in buttermilk and dipped in crispy panko bread crumbs. Chef Rosie Brooks tells me she perfected her fried chicken recipe by watching countless episodes of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network!

Feast Bistro
254 E. Ojai Avenue

Chef and proprietor Susan Coulter changes up her menu seasonally, which features New American cuisine. What I most look forward to in the fall is the braised pork, slow-cooked until it falls apart, and so succulent it melts in your mouth. Side dishes usually include the old stand-bys of comfort: creamy polenta, parmesan risotto, mashed potatoes or, every once in a while, a potato gratin that will make you want to stake your claim to your table and never leave. If you find yourself missing summer's bounty, not to worry, because Chef Susan insists that peppers and tomatoes will stick around for a while, as well as her favorite vegetable side dish to prepare, succotash.

It's a gesture of love to offer someone a plate of food - warm, soothing, satisfying, familiar. Dust off your Dutch oven and take inspiration from our local eateries. Slow down, slow cook and warm up to cooler nights and early golden Pink Moments.