Dining and food culture in Chicago

Comfort Me: Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q

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Lee Ann Whippen on the line

By David Hammond

I write about food, so I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

An impossible question to answer.

Owing to a number of factors that change daily or even hourly, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a favorite restaurant. For instance, my favorite place for breakfast will almost certainly be different than my favorite place for lunch or dinner; one of my favorite places for lunch is Johnnie’s Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, but on a hot summer afternoon, no way I’m going to hunker into a mound of steaming beef.

A person’s comfort foods are also subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one comfort food.

“I have a lot of comfort foods,” said Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q (1160 North Dearborn). “Each of these foods has their own quality that comforts me for whatever reason. Comfort food is not only for when you’re feeling bad. Sometimes you just want to feel good all over. You just want to feel… comfortable.”

Starch, fat, soft texture, non-aggressive seasonings and warmth seem to be qualities of many comestibles we refer to as “comfort food.” Whippen mentions mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese as two comforting foods from her mother’s kitchen.

“My sister and I were involved in the same sports, like skiing,” remembers Whippen. “When you’re on the hill skiing for three or four hours, you come home, and you want something warm. My mom made the best mashed potatoes. That was our go-to comfort food.

Lee Ann Whippen“We also ate a lot of homemade macaroni and cheese. My mom had a huge casserole dish. She used whatever pasta and cheese we had. Now at Chicago q, our mac n’ cheese has multiple cheeses in it, but we’ve stepped it up with panko crumbs, and we make individual portions in a cast-iron skillet with Southern barbecue to order.”

Mashed potatoes and mac n’ cheese are classic comfort foods. I pressed Whippen to think about other comfort foods, things she might have eaten as a child that maybe didn’t fit quite so neatly into the starch-fat-soft-non-aggressive-spicing-warmth paradigm.

“Well,” said Whippen, starting to laugh at the memory. “When I was growing up, if I were to get ill, my mother always made me warm tapioca pudding. Even today, if I tell my mother I’m not feeling well, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I wish I was there to make you warm tapioca pudding.’ I have Minute Tapioca pudding sitting in my pantry right now. I don’t know if it’s psychological or what, but it makes me feel better. And I think everyone has their own comfort food based on their history, and the way they were raised, and what makes them feel better. And I tend to love the flavor of vanilla so my mom would always add a little vanilla extract into it. That made it perfect for whatever ailed me; that was our family penicillin.”

Mothers are traditionally the primary cooks in a house; many times, they’re also the primary providers of comfort food to their children. Whippen remembers, however, that her father also contributed foods that she found comforting.

“My dad would make chocolate malted milkshakes. It was a whole big scientific thing. You needed Breyers ice cream, Hershey’s’ chocolate syrup, powdered malt, and whole milk. Everything would have to be in the right proportion. I’d sit there by the blender and watch him make it. And we’d taste it and taste it until it was perfect. Then we’d serve it in this bowl-shaped frosted mug that we kept in the freezer. We drank it together.”

It may not matter if comfort food is starchy or fatty or whatever. It may be that comfort food is something your parents made for you, something that said “I care about you. I want you to feel good. Here, eat this.”

Whippen reflected that one comfort food in-the-making is a dish she prepares for her daughters—and only for her daughters.

“I have two girls. When they’re not feeling good, I make them scrambled eggs in what we call the Egg Smoosh Sandwich. My young one will ask ‘Mom, can you make me an Egg Smoosh Sandwich? I’m not feeling that great today.’ An Egg Smoosh Sandwich is basically a fried egg in a kind of grilled cheese sandwich, but without cheese, so you’re frying an egg and putting it between buttered bread and smooshing it into a fry pan. So we call it an Egg Smoosh Sandwich. It helps both of my daughters if they’re off to a bad start.”

With all of Whippen’s comfort foods, it was challenging to pick one representative recipe. What follows is a recipe for mac n’ cheese; the panko crumbs are a beautiful addition, adding crunch… a sensation that others may also associate with comfort food, but which no one has mentioned yet.

Panko-crusted mac n' cheeseTriple Macaroni and Cheese

Serves: 10
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon white pepper
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preparation

• Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring water to a boil and cook macaroni according to package directions, al dente.
• Grease 9”x13”x2” pan with butter. Transfer drained pasta to baking dish.
• In heavy large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Continue to whisk for two to three minutes and gradually add milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. Add cayenne, white pepper, salt and pepper.
• Remove from heat and add cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan cheese. Stir until cheese is incorporated and sauce is glossy.
• Combine panko breadcrumbs with parsley and set aside.
• Pour cheese mixture over pasta and bake for approximately thirty-to-forty minutes until bubbly.
• Top with breadcrumb mixture and place five-to-seven inches below broiler and broil until golden brown.

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