Comfort foods: They not only satisfy cravings, but their familiarity seems to magically soothe our nerves. These often simple but full-flavoured indulgences provide a sense of well-being. And what better time to give in to their temptation than during the chill of winter? Here’s a selection of our favourites – and the best way to eat them.
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OATMEAL: It’s warm, it’s thick and it’s creamy. And this is one comfort food that’s actually healthy (well, depending on your topping decadence). But it doesn’t end at breakfast. Oatmeal can be used in warm, chewy raisin cookies and is key for a crisp and steaming apple crumble. It can also offer a savoury side: Just top with a drizzle of sesame oil, or some cracked pepper and a poached egg. You can also try grating on some Parmesan or mixing in some caramelized shallots. Dinner just got cozy.
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POPCORN: Just seeing the words “fresh buttered popcorn” can make you smell it. You might imagine the warmth from the stove as the kernels pop; the roasted corn aroma with a tiny tinge of burn from the final few unpopped kernels you couldn’t bear to give up on. Toss with melted butter, pair with a couch and a movie, and you’re officially snug. You can take your fresh-sprung kernels to the next level by adding a little truffle oil, a variety of sea salts or spices such as paprika and lemon pepper. And, of course, you should always allocate a batch for caramel corn. For a killer twist that delivers a sweet-salty fix, add lightly crushed and salted popcorn to basic chocolate chip cookie dough. Just stir it in with the chips.
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BACON: It’s got it all — the crunch, the fat, the salty, even the sweet. You need to do almost nothing with bacon except eat strip after delicious strip. Make extra and keep it in the fridge so you can add some to sandwiches and salads. Use it to wrap your chicken before roasting. Or bake with it — just Google “bacon cupcakes” or “bacon chocolate chip cookies.” Cornbread should always be cooked in bacon grease (so should your fried eggs). And don’t forget bacon infusions: End the day with a bacon martini or bacon Caesar.
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BEER: Beyond the satisfaction of a cool beer, there is the feel-good factor – sitting in a pub with friends, out of the cold, holding a pint and enjoying heated, philosophical debates about whatever. But you can also use beer in your food – and there’s no better time for it than winter. Think beer-battered fish and chips, beer-braised ribs, mussels steamed with beer or slow-cooked stew made with beer. Best of all, the drink pairing is easy: Just reach into the fridge for a brewski.
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CHEDDAR CHEESE: It’s a classic and reliably delicious staple. Cheddar, with its creamy tang and smooth texture (not to mention its amazing melting qualities), is a winter no-brainer. Where to start? How about microwaved on Triscuits as an afternoon snack – the fastest way to get a melted cheese fix. Cheddar is also a must for cheese sauce, omelettes, apple pie, nachos, deep-fried cheddar fingers, cheese boards, cheese balls, cheese puffs (gourgères), cheese straws, anything to get yourself into a relaxing cheese coma. Or should I say hibernation?
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CINNAMON: Fragrant cinnamon can be comfort food as well as aromatherapy. You may already be adding it to hot drinks like cider, cocoa and chai. But you should start using it more to cook. Add some to your tried-and-true banana bread recipe and, from there, branch out into stews and braises. You can also sprinkle it on buttered root vegetables (like squash) before baking.
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CLEMENTINES: These are the little crated oranges we start to see in stores in October, that then peak in December and January. They’re sometimes called Christmas oranges, as they arrive just around the holidays. Whether or not you associate them with the festive season, you love them for their wholesome simplicity – the fragrant skin peels off effortlessly, and the seedless flesh is both sweet and tangy. They’re the tasty way to get your vitamin C – plus, if you close your eyes while you eat, it’s almost like slush never existed. Serve them as dessert dipped in chocolate or with chocolate fondue. Or add the juice to your baking. For an appetizer, serve them with roasted beets and goat cheese.
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CREAM: The silky feel of cream on the palate is lavish and luxurious. Add it to your morning coffee – before heading out to scrape snow off the car – and you’ll feel a teeny bit better about your frozen eyelashes. A small carton of cream in the fridge can elevate soups and sauces: You can drizzle it into mashed potatoes, make a killer Alfredo sauce or use it in place of butter for weekend scone baking. For dessert, pour it over some poached pears, use it in your bread pudding or let it shine in a simple, perfect panna cotta. And you’re already whipping it up for your hot chocolate, right?
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PASTA: Okay, you can file this one under obvious. King of the comfort carbs, pasta can be the chameleon of your winter menu. Gooey, rich lasagna can be stocked in the freezer or put out for family gatherings. If you’re eating solo, just toss with some good olive oil, garlic and black pepper. Mac and cheese can be simple (just add ketchup) or gourmet (break out the lobster), while classic dishes like spaghetti puttanesca (with salty capers and olives) and creamy carbonara will hit the spot for entertaining.
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POTATOES: Mashed, scalloped, baked, roasted. Potato skins, French fries, hash browns, potato pancakes. Served with sour cream, butter, gravy, jus. Served over shepherd's pie or under melted curds. Whatever your favourite preparation, potatoes won’t leave you disappointed. They can shine on their own – think fingerling and new baby potatoes – or act as the supporting player to a flavourful roast. For a classic French take, try potatoes duchess, a method where you pipe seasoned potato mash mixed with egg onto a cookie sheet, then bake until the exterior browns and crisps. Elegant and addictive.
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MAPLE SYRUP: If you’re Canadian, maple syrup says home. Surely at some point you’ve carted a large glass bottle in your suitcase to someone in Europe. Its complex, sweet flavour is instantly recognizable. Once the pancakes are eaten, you can drizzle it on fresh fruit; add it to baked beans; use it as a glaze for veggies, ham, pork or salmon; pour it on oatmeal; and, of course, mix it into a maple latte or maple whisky sour. But is there any more delicious memory from childhood winters than eating warm maple syrup drizzled over fresh, cold snow? I didn't think so.