Comfort foods…those simple dishes that are usually made of few and inexpensive ingredients that remind us of happier, simpler and easier times in our lives…often from our childhood and frequently passed from one generation to another, these foods are what we fall back on when we’re worried, scared, nervous, financially stressed, or…just lonesome. Some of them are good for us, some of them could be a bit better in terms of nutritional benefits. They vary as much as the people that make them, and their recipes are often shared between cooks too. Whole books have been devoted to the concept of comfort food, which typically are high carbohydrate foods because of their low cost association too.
In addition to our comfort foods, we have something called a secret guilty pleasure. These may not be a comfort food, they may be incredibly expensive, such as a fondness for fine truffle candies or it can be a forbidden food, such as an occasional hamburger for the vegetarian. (I know some vegetarians that DO exactly that a few times a year…even if they feel terrible afterwards!) Often, our families may suspect we have a guilty pleasure that we’re secretly indulging in on occasion…but we don’t share it with them, choosing to indulge in solitary pleasure that fades into a guilty conscience.
We all have our secret guilty pleasures, and we all know that they are probably not good for us. That’s why we feel GUILTY about enjoying them, even if it is something seldom indulged in. Sometimes, they might even be regarded as “weird” by our peers.
I have one of those. I love them…and rarely indulge. I probably haven’t averaged over two per year for the last 30+ years. I don’t even know if my own daughter knows about how much I love them, or if I ever have even made one for her in her entire life.
I did share my guilty secret with GM, during our early months of living together.
What is this horrible secret?
Grilled peanut butter and bacon sandwiches.
Okay before you make that face (I can see it from here building up, you know.) I want you to think about it. Peanut butter is one of those really adaptable foods, it goes well as a salty OR as a sweet. Bacon…well bacon shows up these days in everything from ice cream to breakfast. It’s even dipped in chocolate.
Peanut butter, when its heated, changes textures completely. It goes from this sticky stuff that gets everywhere to this oozy, gooey, wonderfully soft stuff while its hot, then solidifies more like the interior of a peanut butter cup after it cools again. The bacon inside of it is smoky, a bit salty, a bit crunchy…and oh, so delicious. The buttered and fried bread is salty, buttery, crunchy, soft, and…perfect with the other flavors.
Now logic tells me that its got way too much of that stuff we’re supposed to avoid called “fat.” With the bacon and butter, it’s undoubtedly loaded with cholesterol. All of that salty goodness? Hello, hypertension! That white bread its usually made on? Can we say nutritional void, children?
But, its still one of those ultimate comfort foods, a delicious guilty pleasure that even I have ultimately found a way to cut SOME of the fat out of it…keep all the flavor…and enjoy maybe THREE times a year now.
- The bacon: Frying bacon is one of my least favorite things. It makes a mess. I often get spatter burns. It’s a pain. Hormel has a cure, too. Real bacon bits are perfect. Easy to add to everything from omelets to my guilty pleasure of grilled peanut butter and bacon, it also is less greasy and fat-filled than the traditional bacon we cook ourselves, and yet it has all the flavor.
- The butter: Not only for this sandwich, but for any grilled sandwich, I opt for the spray on non-stick stuff with butter flavor. Less oil per sandwich, less weight on my hips, right? It works, and there is little loss of flavor or texture. If you are wanting to stay more “natural” than the aerosol version, try a refillable pump sprayer with olive oil. It works pretty well too!
- The bread: Opt for 100% whole grain bread. It adds flavor, and has nutritional value too! Grilled sandwiches of all kinds taste better on really great whole grain bread, and while it costs more, it also offers whole grain goodness not found in cheap white bread.
- The peanut butter: I have discovered that most peanut butters contain a whole lot more than merely peanuts ground into butter. To avoid all of the added additives, sugars, and fats, opt for natural peanut butter with 100% ground up peanuts as the ingredients. It’s got really awesome flavor, and will also need refrigeration after opening. We buy smaller jars, so we use it within thirty days. (GM is a huge peanut butter fan, and often that’s our breakfast, lunch or dinner when we’re feeling lazy!)
Even when our guilty pleasures and comfort foods don’t quite meet our standards for foods we’re going to serve our families today, we can often modify the recipes to make them fit the modern diet. Sometimes, it does change the flavor or texture some, and whether its an improvement or takes away from the dish is something only experience will tell you for certain, but you may discover that you like the new-and-improved version even more than the traditional one!
- Fats: Often we can substantially reduce the fats without changing the flavor much or we can substitute fats with less cholesterol than the original ones contained (lard and butter are two huge cholesterol worries.) Cookies, cakes, biscuits, and pie crusts are some places that are difficult to cut fats in without losing texture or flavor, and baking in general is “touchier” about the fat content than other foods. In addition, many comfort (and guilty pleasure) foods are fried. Often, a close approximation can be obtained by baking instead, reducing the fat content a great deal. I now bake my “fried pies” and “empanadas” normally, and to be honest, I prefer the less greasy baked versions too! There are even pans to bake donuts! (Much less messy than frying donuts!)
- Sodium: Almost every recipe has “wiggle room” in terms of cutting the added sodium. Don’t forget that some ingredients have their own sodium, even when there is no added sodium though! Read labels, and always remember…salt on the surface is “saltier” tasting than salt in the food, that’s why pretzels taste salty…and are a relatively low-sodium salty snack. (How is that for an anachronism?) Cutting ALL of the salt out of things such as breads, cakes, and other baked goods may not be a good idea, as these foods taste “flat” and often will not rise properly without that salt. Typically, I’ll not cut more than half of the salt out of these baked goods.
- Whole grains: whole grain versions of various goods will greatly enhance their nutritional value without causing much change in the overall dish. I absolutely LOVE rice pilafs made with whole grain rices, such as black japonica, wild rice (which isn’t rice at all) etc. Lundberg has some excellent blends too. I especially like their Wild Rice Blend. It has a nutty, chewy flavor & texture that stands alone as well as has the character to take the additional ingredients with grace and character. Whole grain cereals, pastas, breads, and flours are also readily available. There are also versions of “white” bread with claims they have double the fiber–I’ve tried them. I’m reasonably well on my way to being convinced that the extra fiber is obtained by recycling cardboard into flour…I thought they were horrible. I’d recommend sticking to natural whole grain goodness! These whole grain products do cost a bit more, but they deliver a huge nutritional punch too.
- Portion size: Face it, Americans have been Super Sizing a long time, but with our average age advancing right alongside with our own, we’re needing fewer calories. Reducing the portion size is an easy way to eat traditional guilty pleasure and comfort foods without changing a thing. It doesn’t matter if a 2 cup serving has 10,000 calories if you eat a half cup! (Well, it matters some, but not as much as if you’d eaten the whole thing!) Those smaller portions are probably the least painful way to indulge guilt-free, but it does require will power or sizing the prepared recipe down to reduce temptation. One idea is to divide the prepared recipe into portions, packaging “leftovers” and getting them out of sight even before you have your portion! That second double chocolate cream cheese filled fudge frosted brownie isn’t nearly as tempting when it has been wrapped and put in the freezer as it would be sitting on the counter, guaranteed! (Allowed to sit on the counter, it has a song more lethal to self control than that of a sea siren to a sailor, it will keep calling your name, promising you the world…until in sheer desperation, your guilt multiplies as you gobble it down…)
Enjoy your secret guilty pleasures and comfort foods, learn how to make them a bit more modern, and to control the portion size to make them a bit less guilt ridden. Share the recipes with your friends, there’s nothing like bonding when you’ve made a batch of those double chocolate, cream cheese filled brownies with fudge frosting anyhow…and you don’t have to tell them you used whole grain flours, cholesterol free oils, fat free cream cheese, and cholesterol free margarine for the frosting, now do you?