Food & Drink

Comfort on a plate

Classic comfort food combination: grilled cheese, with bacon, and tomato soup
Classic comfort food combination: grilled cheese, with bacon, and tomato soup

Wednesday marks one month since the devastating floods that hit Columbia and much of the state.

In that time – when there was little else we could do for friends and neighbors who had lost cars, possessions, even homes – we often reached out to bring comfort with food.

Food is powerful because it encompasses all of your senses: The eyes perceive a good looking dish; the ears can register the crunch of a cookie or an apple or something sizzling in a pan; you touch the food to pick it up or bring it closer to your face to feel the warmth (or chill); the nose gathers the aroma, whether fair or foul (or fowl); and finally you taste sweet, sour, herbal, bitter.

We crave food high in fat, sugar and sale – and in fact, some can be addictive, especially those that are fatty, highly processed or those with refined carbohydrates like white flour and sugar, according to research from the University of Michigan. Favorite comfort foods that fall into this category are chocolate, french fries and pizza.

Pizza? Yes. First of all, it’s the dough. Then, there is the cheese addiction factor.

Cheese addiction, it seems, is a real thing. According to a recently published study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, University of Michigan researchers found that cheese is especially addictive because of casein, a protein found in all milk products.

During digestion, casein releases opiates called casomorphins that affect the dopamine receptors in the brain, causing a calming effect in much the same way that heroin and morphine, and triggers an addictive response. So there’s a reason that the grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup combination is high on a list of comfort foods.

Trisha Mandes, lead nutritionist for the Cancer Prevention and Control Program and director of Columbia’s Cooking! at the University of South Carolina, said there is a way to break a food addiction: go cold turkey.

“Avoid the addictive food for 3-6 weeks. That will give your taste buds time to readjust and the cravings will go away,” she said.

Replacing the sugar and fat with natural whole foods or plant-based ingredients will ease the transition while leading to a more healthy diet overall.

A plant-based diet featuring fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes has been shown to help reverse some health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, said Mandes. But she also understands that a plant-based diet isn’t for everyone.

“You have to adopt a diet in the way that you see fit. Some people will go all in, some will do bits and pieces and some won’t do it at all,” she said.

But moderation is key.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a dish to bring for a friend in need, these comfort recipes will be enjoyed, indeed.

Mark Bittman’s Wintertime Tomato Soup

4 servings

1 28- or 35-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (optional)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 medium carrot, finely diced

1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 quart (4 cups) stock or water

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Drain tomatoes and reserve liquid. Halve tomatoes and put them in a roasting pan; sprinkle with 2 tablespoons oil and thyme (if using). Roast tomatoes, turning once or twice, until lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Use wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits from pan, adding a little liquid if necessary.

Put remaining olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until it just begins to color, about 1 minute. Add carrot and onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Stir in stock or water, along with contents of roasting pan and reserved tomato juice.

Turn heat to high and bring soup to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until vegetables are very tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Ina Garten’s Ultimate Grilled Cheese

6 servings

12 slices thick-cut bacon

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf (12 slices) sourdough bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick

6 tablespoons butter, softened

6 ounces aged Gruyere or Comte cheese

6 ounces extra sharp Cheddar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange bacon slices on a baking rack set over a sheet pan in a single layer and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until nicely browned. Drain on plate lines with paper towels and cut bacon into 1-inch strips.

Combine mayonnaise, mustard, Parmesan, salt and pepper into a small bowl.

Lay bread out on a board and lightly coat one side with butter. Flip bread and spread other side with mayonnaise mixture.

Grate cheeses in a food processor fitted with the largest grating disk and mix to combine.

Distribute bacon evenly on six slices of bread. Pile 1/3 cup grated cheese evenly on top of the bacon and top with the remaining bred slices, sauce side down.

In batches, toast the sandwiches in a large hot frying pan or griddle for 3 to 5 minutes until cheese is melted and bread is toasted. Allow to cool for 2 minutes, serve warm.

Vegan Grilled Cheese Sandwich

6 servings

for the extra sharp raw vegan cheddar cheese:

2 cups purified water

1 1/2 cups raw cashews

2 packed tablespoons dry-pack sun dried tomatoes, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup nutritional yeast

1 tablespoon dry sherry (optional)

1 heaped tablespoon mellow white miso (or chickpea miso)

1 tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon dry ground mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon tumeric

dash cayenne

1/2 cup organic refined coconut oil

for the sandwiches:

1 loaf vegan bread of your choice

vegan butter or coconut oil for grilling sandwiches

In a bowl, combine purified water, cashews and sun-dried tomatoes. Cover and soak 4-6 hours.

Pour the soaking water off the cashews and sun-dried tomatoes and rinse with fresh purified water, drain well.

Place cashews and tomatoes in food processor and pulse until a paste begins to form, scraping down the sides of the processor as necessary.

Add yeast, sherry, miso, vinegar, salt, onion powder, mustard powder, smoked paprika, tumeric and cayenne. Pulse to combine. Add coconut oil and blend or process until mixture is completely smooth, scraping down sides as necessary, about 10 minutes.

Scrape soft cheese unto a container, cover and refrigerate 4-6 hours until cheese is quite firm.

Lay out 12 slices of bread, brushing one side with vegan butter or coconut oil. Flip bread over and spread with vegan cheese. Grill on preheated pan or griddle on medium heat, about 1 minute. Serve warm.

Reader’s favorites

We asked readers to list their favorite comfort foods. Here are some of the responses:

▪ Pancakes

▪ Vegetable soup and cornbread

▪ Milk toast (toast soaked in warm milk, butter, salt and pepper) with a poached egg on top

▪ Grits with butter, salt and pepper and a bit of cream

▪ Chili with avocado, sour cream and cheese

Columbia’s Cooking: Cooking for Optimal Health series

This 12-week course will teach you how to prevent and reduce certain medications, improve sleep, achieve weight-loss without counting calories or portion control, increase energy, improve digestion and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. The classes will feature cooking lessons, guest lectures with local chefs and scientific advisers, a one-on-one consultation with a nutritionist, recipe booklet and more. Upon course completion, you also are invited to participate in 9 free pot-luck meals, one a month, to provide additional social support and membership into Columbia’s Cooking private Facebook group.

Classes: $499 per person before Jan. 7, $599 after. Meet 5:30-7 p.m. every Wednesday beginning Jan. 27 at USC’s CPCP Discovery 1 Building, 915 Greene St.,;; (803) 576-5636

Something more: Sign up for the Columbia’s Cooking newsletter and get five free recipes, healthy and tasty versions of classic Southern dishes.