Friday, January 4, 2013

Comfort Food: Maple Chicken and Scalloped Potatoes

A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice. – Thomas Paine 

Home, plated.

Related recipes: 

What exactly is comfort food? It can mean a lot of different things to different people, without taking into account country regions or even ethnicities.

For North Americans – and I’m massively generalizing – “comfort food” usually includes homemade bread, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, baked beans, chocolate cake, apple pie, potato chips and fried chicken. 

Of course every one of us has our own favourite on the list, or even different ones. But we all have foods that make us feel satisfied, comforted and happy.

Many of the recipes we consider comfort food contain sugar and/or starch, like cakes, pastas and bread. Those foods tell the body to increase its output of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of well-being. The result is that feeling of "comfort."

Fatty foods help trigger the release of oxytoxin. Oxytocin is a hormone that helps us relax, reduces blood pressure and also cortisol levels. It increases our pain threshold, reduces anxiety and stimulates various types of social bonding.(Oxytoxcin has also been nicknamed "the love hormone.")

Foods high in fatty acids, like chocolate and ice cream, elevate our mood as well. Therefore the overall effect of a tub of Ben and Jerry's is that it makes you happy.

Interestingly, in all three cases it appears that the stomach is talking to the brain.

Maybe there is some truth to the adage: “The path to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” If not a direct route, perhaps a detour...

Of course we shouldn’t discount good old-fashioned memories. We remember the happy times in our lives, usually associated with communal activities where food was served.

Comfort food recipes are memory recipes that make us nostalgic for home and hearth, when our lives weren’t so stressed, complex and rushed. The tastes of those foods trigger those memories just as easily as any chemicals that may be contained in them.

What are my favourites? Just to name a few, my mother’s beef stew, Nova Scotia brown bread, haddock chowder, and fried chicken and scalloped potatoes. All things my mother used to make. The first three are linked at the top of this post.

The scalloped potatoes recipe below is pretty standard, a b├ęchamel sauce layered between perfectly soft potato slices with a cheesy browned top.

I took a few liberties with the “fried chicken.” The addition of garlic, thyme and maple syrup just kick it up one more level. It’s a perfect paring for the scalloped potatoes.

I hope you enjoy comfort food as much I do. On reflection, pretty much all of the recipes on this blog fall into that category. Homey, easy to make, and sure to spur a memory or two for your family, or at least I hope.

Take a chance. Enjoy life. As my mother says: "Can I get you anything else?"

Maple Chicken with Thyme
Prep: 2 min  |  Cook: 40 min  |  Serves 3-4
6-8 chicken thighs
4 garlic cloves
1/2-1 tsp thyme
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 tsp salt
cracked black pepper to taste (lots)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat a dry oven-proof frying pan on the stovetop. Chop the garlic cloves and set aside.

Place the chicken, skin side up, in the hot pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and let cook until browned on the bottom and the thighs have naturally released from the pan.

Turn the thighs skin side down and sprinkle again with salt and pepper.

Once the second side has browned (but is still not cooked through) remove to a plate.

Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the chicken fat. To the fat, add the garlic, thyme and maple syrup. Let cook for about 2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant.

Return the chicken to the pan and coat both side with the sauce.

Place the pan in the oven and allow the chicken to finish cooking for about 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 180°F in the thickest part of the thighs.

Remove from the oven and serve.

Scalloped Potatoes
Prep: 15 min  |  Bake: 60 min  | Serves 3-4
4 medium potatoes
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
1 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 cup grated mozzarella
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the potatoes and slice to no more than 1/8” thick. Place in a bowl of water while you prepare the b├ęchamel. (A mandolin is a quick way to do this task.)

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Then whisk in the flour to make a roux. Let the mixture cook for about 2 minutes. Do not let it brown.

Slowly add the milk to the roux. Continue to whisk until it comes to a boil and thickens. Continuing to whisk, adding the salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, 1/2 cup of the mozzarella and nutmeg. Stir until the cheese melts.

Generously butter an 8” x 8” ovenproof dish. Place a little sauce on the bottom of the pan. Then add a layer of potato slices. Add more sauce, then potato and sauce, ending with a layer of sauce on top. You will get either 3 or 4 layers of potato.

Sprinkle the top with the remaining mozzarella and some more cracked black pepper, if desired.

Bake for one hour in the preheated oven, or until the top is browned and the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork. Let cool slightly and then serve.


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