Are you laughing? This is not a parody, like that infamous episode of Saturday Night Live with Betty White. (If you’re looking for a naughty giggle, go ahead and click. Otherwise, keep reading with a clean mind.)
My mom is not as old as Betty White, but she did spend lots of time in the kitchen and so I always thought she was an expert cook. She made cookies, cakes, pies, and even cream puffs, in addition to all the savoury dishes she prepared. But she only ever made one kind of muffin – bran muffins. In her defense, this was before the days of coffee shops that sold muffins in multiple flavours right beside donuts, and certainly before the trendy “muffin top” was developed. Muffins were meant to be a healthy snack when I was a kid. Bran muffins may have been overkill, but served warm with butter I thought they were okay with the raisins or dates she made sure to include. (Now that I think of it, Mom may have liked muffins more as a vehicle for butter than for the muffin itself, but no matter.)
Perhaps it was a subconscious twinge of nostalgia amidst the grey days of early spring, or maybe just a craving for more fibre, but I found myself searching the grocery aisles for bran this past week. It took me 4 stores to find wheat bran – is this a backlash to the gluten-free trend? I didn’t want to use processed bran cereal, just the plain old bran.
I made them this afternoon, and I plan to warm one up for breakfast tomorrow. I will watch the butter melt, and maybe add a wee bit more for the last bite the way I remember my mom doing. There is something so very “homemade” about the taste of these little morsels… the bran is excessively healthy, but the moist chewy sweetness of the dates always made for the perfect contrast. It was that special juxtaposition that made me feel like my mom really loved us – she didn’t punish us with super-healthy, yucky-tasting stuff, she made it yummy. (Childhood logic can be so blunt.)
My mom’s bran muffin recipe is simple enough, and I’m sure you can find something similar if not identical on the web. But I am including it in my list nonetheless, since this is a taste from my childhood. I did add one small Rabbit Hollow touch this time, using dried greengage plums instead of dates. I think my mom would be proud.
We have all heard the phrase “comfort food” but it has become something that has guilt attached to it now. Despite many of us languishing in the biting cold of the latest winter storms, feeling like we need a little love 😉 we are now programmed to feel badly if we have stew AND biscuits for dinner, as that is overly hearty. For a while it was okay if you simply added a glass of red wine with the meal (you have to love that French paradox !) but now the wave has shifted and popular opinion generally says you should eat lighter. So, in the interest of responding to this trend, I suggest a new variation: comfortable food.
Since moderation is something that doesn’t often go out of style, I propose that portion size might be an integral part of converting rich comfort food favorites to our new, healthier comfortable food. Simply serving up a smaller amount of a rich dish and perhaps adding a salad as a side dish ( instead of biscuits) is a wonderful way to enjoy just enough of a good thing instead of too much. How about having salad for dinner on its own? Composed salads, containing a bit of protein in the form of nuts, cheese or fish, are a light dinner that can help you recover from the sins of yesterday or tomorrow.
Another idea is to look at new alternatives, and here is where we can really have some fun. I am not suggesting we need to go to slurping clear broth on its own, but if it’s flavorful then there is no punishment in that. Often spices can substitute for cream or butter when you want flavor intensified, so ethnic recipes can offer many options. Seasonal flavours also tend to be more intense – tomatoes in winter never taste nearly as glorious as they do in summer. Instead of chicken stew with dumplings how about Thai green curry with jasmine rice? You could change up fruit salsa on your fish for that buttery sauce (citrus salads as are fun in winter). Even desserts can be a bit lighter… How about an angel food cake with your fruit, and yogurt instead of custard for a shortcake? Having a sense of adventure can lead you down new paths and create new opportunities. This is a great way to enrich a child’s palate too, with new flavours and taste combinations.
Another healthful alternative and a great education for kids is to avoid processed foods. You can get more nutrients from foods without preservatives, and often you will save on sugar too. Even something as simple as making your own vinaigrette for salad can send you down a healthier path. Getting kids involved in the kitchen is the first step to a healthy and fun life of enjoying food.
When one of the popular TV chefs announces that they have diabetes it reminds everyone that none of us is immune. The good news is every little bit counts. A news report this week announced the obesity rate in the U.S. has dropped by half a percent to 26.1 percent of the population. That’s not a sweeping change but it’s a start. Hopefully Paula Deen will show us some of the lighter alternatives she chooses for her rich Southern recipes.
So, just because you put on your sweatpants this weekend, doesn’t mean you need to fill them out. Enjoy the taste, not the quantity, of the food, and think about how much extra comfort you really need.