By David Hammond
We started the “Comfort Me” series in hopes of locating what might be the universal constants of comfort food, the characteristics shared by all consumables that we feel give us comfort. As we’ve talked to Chicago chefs, however, it became clear that, predictably, personal life experiences have a lot to do with our individual definitions of comfort foods, and comfort foods clearly vary by ethnicity.
Nonetheless, there are some recurring themes in comfort food. It seems, for many Westerners, comfort food is frequently characterized by high-fat/high-carb creations that are not aggressively spiced and are easy to eat: they’re soft, yield to an effortless bite, and don’t seem to require a lot of chewing. That’s certainly true for the primary comfort food of Nicole Pederson of Found (1631 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, foundkitchen.com).
“My comfort foods,” Pederson confesses, “are kind of strange. It’s not like I had a meal that was all comfort food. It was little things, like lefse, which is a thin, potato pancake thing. Norwegian. You eat it like a tortilla, except you put butter on it. We’re Norwegian, so we put butter on everything. We even eat raw butter. Lefse is like a big round circular pancake that you cook on a kind of crepe griddle. It’s made from potato and flour, almost like a gnocchi batter. You roll it out really thin with a textured rolling pin, and then you griddle it on both sides. It lasts a long time in the refrigerator, and then you eat it with butter, alongside dinner. As a snack, you can eat lefse with sugar…but my grandpa said only Swedes eat lefse with sugar.”
Our comfort foods seem, many times, to be linked to specific experiences we’ve had growing up. For Erick Williams of County Barbeque (1352 West Taylor), his comfort food memories revolve around sitting alone in the kitchen after high-school football practice eating his mom’s stew. For Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters (multiple locations), she remembers eating pho, traditional Vietnamese soup, with her dad and other family members in Laos after they left their homeland following the Vietnam War. For Pederson, many of her comfort foods are linked to cooking and eating experiences with her grandparents.
“I remember Christmas, going to my grandparent’s house in Barrett, Minnesota. It was a two-hour trip up north. My parents were separated, so my mom would drive us halfway, and my dad would pick us up and take us the rest of the way. It was freezing cold. When we got to grandma’s house, it was always lefse we had as a snack. That scenario hasn’t changed. It’s still that way when I go to my grandma’s house.”
The enduring influence of these early childhood eating experiences can be read in Pederson’s menu at Found.
“We also used to eat pickles and cheese in many different combinations. We liked gherkins and sweet pickles, and my grandmother used to make pickled beets. I used to eat pickles in all varieties, and I liked that. Then we started eating pickles and cheese, like pickles and cheddar on rye bread. One of my favorite after-school snacks was pickles and cream cheese wrapped in salami; it’s a combination of the fat, salty, creamy and sour. I always think about those flavors now. When I’m cooking, I’ll be asking myself ‘Is there enough acid, is it bright enough, is it salty enough and is there a richness and roundness in your mouth?’ And now at Found, on the chef’s board, we have pickles and cheese.
“These foods remind me of home, my grandma and my mom, and my grandpa. I can’t think about sardines and pickled herring without thinking of my grandpa. And I didn’t like pickled herring as a kid, but I eat it now and I love it. When I was at C-House, I had it on the menu constantly.”
Those early years in her grandmother’s kitchen left a powerful impression upon Pederson.
“Elma, my mom’s mom, did lots of canning and baking, and she had the biggest garden ever. She would always make homemade caramel rolls, and we’d eat those in the morning and then we’d spend the afternoon running around the garden picking things. And I’d help grandma clean green beans and shuck peas. That was my first kitchen experience, with Grandma Elma.
“My overall sensibility comes from that upbringing. My mom grew up on a farm and food was always cooked from scratch. There were no shortcuts. You made everything with your hands. My entire thought process about cooking—the very core of me—comes from that experience.”
Nicole Pederson’s Recipe for Lefse
- 5 large Idaho russet potatoes
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 Tbsp. softened butter
- 1 cup flour
Preheat oven to 325º and roast potatoes until they are fork tender. Remove potatoes from the oven and rice them (yields about 4 cups). Mix in salt, heavy cream and butter. Place in refrigerator and chill for a couple of hours or overnight.
Preheat griddle to 425º. Use a pastry blender to cut flour into chilled potatoes. Pinch off pieces of dough the size of a biscuit. Using a corrugated rolling pin or one with a well-floured sleeve and a floured pastry cloth or board, roll out each piece into a twelve-inch circle. Carefully lift the circle with a lefse stick* and transfer quickly to the griddle. Bake until brown spots begin to appear; flip and bake the other side. Cool between clean cloths and serve with butter (and perhaps sugar).
* Lefse stick is a food-specific utensil, basically a long stick for turning the lefse. A thin ruler will probably do.