Menu Innovations | October 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Creating New Menu Classics

Sauce and spice flourishes give a new spin to comfort foods.

It’s the type of food that makes us think of home, mom’s cooking, and simpler times. To many, the tastes and smells evoke warmth, good memories, and inner peace.

In short, comfort.

Every nation and culture seems to have its own version of comfort food, from Mexican enchiladas to Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and eggs to French coq au vin.

In the U.S., however, we think more along the lines of meatloaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate brownies.

The term comfort food entered the vernacular in the 1970s, and gained traction again over the past decade in the wake of disconcerting times—economic, political, and global.

“After 9/11, restaurants took quite a hit,” says Ray Camillo, the vice president of Washington, D.C.–based restaurant consulting firm Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group. “People were unsettled, unsure.”

Many Americans retreated into cocooning, which included comforting home-cooked meals, grocer-prepared items, or home-meal replacements. This lifestyle reoccurred after the severe recession struck in 2008.

The number of take-away and microwavable items skyrocketed as daily home cooking from scratch continued to decline. But consumers also had become more quality and value conscious, and eventually discovered comfort foods at restaurants.

“People found they could eat out for less than eating at home,” Camillo says. “When you figure in the cost of food, the time to prepare the food and find the ingredients in the grocery store, you can get fresh-cooked, comforting meals at many restaurants for less.”

Not surprisingly, all types of limited-service restaurants have developed flavors and twists on comfort food that are hard to duplicate at home.

“This has been a really interesting trend,” says Dawn Voss, chief administrative officer at Noodles & Co., based in Broomfield, Colorado. The company, which has more than 250 units in 18 states, has been looking to build on the trend, Voss says.

The chain is known for its international menu that focuses on comfort-type food. This includes its American-style mac and cheese, stroganoff, and spaghetti and meatballs, and also dishes such as Asian Pad Thai and Mediterranean wine-tinged pasta.

“Comfort food ties very closely to the economy,” Voss says. “We saw that when we entered the recession, and that economic uncertainty continues. With all that is going on in what seems like a chaotic world, we’re looking for that moment of peace.”

Since the company’s inception, Noodles & Co. has looked at “taking your mom’s cooking up a notch,” with spices, sauces, and other ingredients, she says.

That continues with new and limited-time items, including three new macaroni and cheese entrées introduced this year. The full-time addition is bacon mac and cheese, while the LTOs were truffle mac with baby portabellas and Southwestern chili mac.

The bacon mac and cheese is a deconstructed version of what some view as a newer American comfort food, the bacon cheeseburger. The dish mixes crumbled roasted meatballs, bacon, tomatoes, and onions with the mac and cheese, and it is topped with cheddar Jack.

“This is comfort food, doubled,” Voss says.

Meanwhile, the limited-time truffle mac mixes macaroni with Noodles’ cheese sauce and white truffle oil and sautéed baby portabella mushrooms. The other LTO took mac and cheese and spiked it with red chili and added crumbled meatballs and diced green onions.

The prices range from $6.95 to $7.95.

Mac and cheese and another comfort favorite, grilled cheese sandwiches, have been given new life in food trucks across the country.

At the Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles, the Cheesy Mac and Rib Melt has Southern-style mac and cheese with sharp cheese, slow-cooked pork barbecue, and caramelized onions on fried French bread for $7.50.

“I worked on the recipe for years,” says truck owner and operator Dave Danhi.

The truck also has a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches, ranging from $3 for a simple American Cheese sandwich to $7.75 for the Brie Melt, which includes Brie, homemade fig paste, almonds, and smoked turkey or bacon on black peppercorn potato bread.

Across the country, in Miami, restaurant veteran Brian Mullins makes grilled cheese hip with his truck, Ms. Cheezious, which is adorned with a cartoon bikini-clad blonde.

“Right from the start, we wanted to do grilled cheese,” he says. “It’s the ultimate comfort food. Whatever mood you’re in, grilled cheese doesn’t hurt.”

Mullins searched for great grilled cheese recipes and used a “guinea-pig group of 20 friends” to narrow the number of signature sandwiches to a half dozen. The ingredients for those sandwiches are also available for build-your-own versions.

Prices range from $4 for a plain cheese sandwich to $8 for several of the specialty sandwiches, including one with goat cheese, prosciutto, tomato, and arugula on marble rye bread and another with sharp cheddar cheese and crab salad on sourdough bread.

The Sweet Meldown sandwich has ricotta cheese and orange marmalade blend on Texas toast and a chocolate dipping sauce.

For those who really want the comfort-food experience, there’s tomato soup.

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