Alumni Spotlight: Thoughts on “comfort food”

Who couldn’t use a little comfort right now?

In a normal year, the cooling weather and shorter days ring in the season for “comfort food”. But I think you’ll agree, 2020 is nothing close to normal and, if you are like me, the need for comfort has never been higher than it is right now. With that in mind, I approached some Foster alumni in the food industry for their input on the idea of comfort food, and what they are putting on the table right now.

Annie Cheng (BA ’07) is the founder and CEO of The Table Less Traveled, a Sammamish-based small-group travel company focused on intimate food experiences. While travel is on hold, the company has pivoted to online cooking classes and virtual events, sharing the proceeds with their network of chefs and hosts from around the world. Here’s Annie on her favorite comfort food, risotto:

…I spend about a quarter of the year in Italy where I’m able to eat my fill in comforting pastas (when there isn’t a global pandemic, of course). In or out of Italy, one of my go-to, comfort-food favorites is a creamy Italian risotto. Simple to make, but impressive (and delicious) enough to serve to guests, it’s a great recipe to have on repeat for any day of the week. Moreover, as seasonal eating is such an ingrained part of the Italian culture, risotto can easily be modified to offer an endless variety of comforting flavors all year round. Our Florentine tour-guide-turned-virtual-chef, Gaia, has been teaching our live risotto cooking classes right out of her Tuscan kitchen since the pandemic hit in March. Her latest seasonal version — and my latest obsession — is a butternut squash risotto: roasted squash with cozy complimenting flavors of sweet paprika and sage that I’ll be making all fall and winter long.

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Annie Cheng in Italy

Annie Cheng in Italy

Is the idea of “comfort food” a global concept? Steve Sperelakis (MBA ’95) would say yes. Steve owns a company in Poland that makes cookies, granola and brownies that are local, organic, and veg(etarian), leading to their name, LOV Food. When I asked Steve about his definition of comfort food, here’s what he said:

Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value, and is often characterized by its high caloric nature or simple preparation. Comfort food is associated with feelings of pleasure during eating, but often yielding to feelings of guilt afterward. The good news is that modern-day comfort food can provide guilt-free pleasure and nostalgia. When I need a little comfort, I go for one of my “no sugar added” cookies that is made with whole wheat flour, rolled oats, and sweetened with apple juice, with a steaming cup of herbal tea…or our oatmeal cookies, full of rolled oats and sweetened with honey and unrefined sugar…or my “Power Break” cookies, packed with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.

Steve Sperelakis, LOV food

Steve Sperelakis, owner of LOV Food

Kirsten Helle Sandoval (Ascend ’19) turned a desire to make healthier foods into a career as a chef, and ultimately her quick, nutritious blender sauces led to her company, Mesa de Vida. Kirsten recently covered the same subject on her website in a series called “The Comfort of Fall,” done in partnership with Whole Foods Market (where her sauces are also available). I asked Kirsten about a favorite recipe from this series, and she selected her Caribbean Pepper Pot Stew recipe:

Kirsten Helle Sandoval

Kirsten Helle Sandoval, owner of Mesa de Vida
Photo credit: Audra Mulkern

I love this recipe because I love to globetrot from my kitchen! Instead of making a traditional beef stew, I can have my tastebuds transported to the Caribbean with this easy, healthy, and incredibly delicious stew.

Personally, when the weather turns, I start to look for warm and comforting things to make in my dutch oven. There’s no recipe for my traditional family comfort dish, but it does have a great story. The dish itself is essentially pot roast, but it’s always – mysteriously – been called “Beano.” I quizzed a few relatives about the source of this name, and it seems to be a child’s interpretation of the French pronunciation of “buillon,” or possibly of the French/Cree term for the same ingredient. Regardless, there’s general agreement that it’s a beef bottom roast, accompanied by potatoes, carrots, and onion, with some bay leaf, of course beef buillon, and a sprinkling of Grandma magic.

Whatever you put in the dutch oven, in the slow cooker, on a cookie tray or in a wok this season, I hope you find comfort and good company, at home or on Zoom.

Interested in Foster alumni thoughts on wine for the holidays? See our blog post on wine from last November here, with still-relevant suggestions for your holiday table.

Guest post by Krista Peterson, Associate Director of Alumni Engagement

Krista Peterson is part of the Alumni Team, working to connect Foster’s 54,000+ alumni locally, regionally and internationally, as well as a Husky that enjoys exploring the many food and wine offerings available across Washington State (pictured here at WineGirl Wines in Manson, WA).