So as Mother Tongue is the comfortable language (which maybe makes us think of Mother), comfort food is that which inspires comfort in the individual.
Which means it’s hard to categorize a culture’s comfort foods. But I’m going to try, with a short list of foods that give me comfort and, I’ve observed, give my French friends comfort too:
Oysters on the half shell. Served on a woolly winter eve, in front of a roaring fire. They remind us of summer, the outdoors, stresslessness, good times.
Potage. A blend of seasonal vegetables that includes at least one potato, cooked with thyme and bay leaf, then pureed and served drizzled with olive oil or anointed with a spoonful of crème fraiche. Potage reminds us of Grandmère. She made it every day.
Quiche. A dish of the seventies? Not here. There is nothing like a quiche to warm the cockles of the heart because it is rich, creamy, crisp from the pastry.
Stuffed Tomatoes. A summer dish, these are made and served at large family gatherings, the way mom, grandmère, and generations before them did. Everyone makes them; everyone here loves them.
Grilled lamb chops. Grilled over the coals in the fireplace, these are delicious “fast food” that are tender and elegant, quick to prepare easy to serve, and they hit the heart as much as the stomach.
Grilled Steak and Frites. This may be the ultimate comfort dish. Less served at home than enjoyed in the corner café, this dish brings warmth to the soul when things are troubled.
Cheese. Any cheese. The enzymes in it are known to help with digestion but no one cares about that. What they care about is its appearance at the end of the meal, to revive and…comfort!
This selection includes iconic French comfort foods and is not an exhaustive list. What are your comfort foods? As you consider your response, try the recipe below.
Iconic, heart-warming, the beginning of most winter meals in the French family home, potage is nourishing, comforting, economical. Use the vegetables YOU have on hand. The French cooks makes this fresh every day; if you’re making it for the week, avoid brassicas and roots like turnips and rutabaga because they turn bitter over time.
4 leeks, trimmed, cleaned, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, diced
1 medium starchy potato, peeled, diced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, diced
3 Jerusalem artichokes, peeled, diced
1 small onion, peeled, diced
3 fresh or dried, imported bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, peeled, green germ removed
10 sprigs fresh thyme
10 black peppercorns
Coarse sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil or crème fraîche
1. Place all the vegetables, herbs, and peppercorns in a large saucepan and cover by 2-inches with water. Add 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, stir, and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat so the water is simmering, partially cover and cook until the vegetables are tender through, about 25 minutes.
2. Remove the bay leaves, and purée the vegetables using a wand blender. If the potage is too thick, add water to get the consistency you prefer. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve, drizzled with olive oil or with a dollop of crème fraiche.
6 to 8 servings
Photos primarily by Francis Hammond