“Comfort Food.” “Food of Love.” “Fat Bomb.” Isn’t it always the case? Whenever we think about those dishes that have meaning to us—whether it’s Mom’s specialty, that first date dish, or that snowy day favorite—we rarely default to a light salad or a whole grain pilaf. But there are verifiable reasons why certain foods spark nostalgia or warm feelings inside. There exists a science behind food choices, and that science influences our preferences and our perceived emotional attachment to certain foods.
On a very basic level, memories associated with food can be a catalyst for a particular preference. The smell of Grandma’s beef stew doesn’t usually remind us of how nutritious Grandma’s cooking was; rather, it reminds us of Grandma and her warm hugs and kind smile. That fried chicken Auntie used to make, with its crispy skin and deep brown crust, was the highlight of the family picnic…well, the chicken and the good times with cousins and friends. So many of our seminal memories—from holidays to weddings to the birth of our children–are served up with a side of comfort food.
That said, it’s interesting to note that despite the myriad influences that affect our personal tastes, the scientific community theorizes that babies are born with only two innate taste biases: a preference for sweetness (evolutionarily attributed to “safe” foods) and a rejection of bitter taste (regarded as an indication of poisonous compounds). But science has also proven that innate preferences can be overridden by experience and cultural mores; that’s why we see, for example, Asian palates developing an appreciation for the bitter flavors (despite its evolutionary consequences) present in their cuisine. Also, a desire for certain food traits, whether it be starchy carbs for quick energy, fat consumption to boost stored energy, or sodium to maintain balanced electrolytes, is important in determining our preferences. Simply put, if your lifestyle requires it, the body seems to be capable of letting you know. These nutritional cues, consistently heeded over time, can also affect our general food predilections.
But here in America, it seems, we’ve managed to exaggerate all evolutionary predispositions and actual physical requirements. Our current obesity epidemic is the proof, as are the heart disease rate, the diabetes stats, and other diseases consequent to overindulgence. So how do we reconcile those comfort food desires with a healthy lifestyle?
Almost all diets have room for fat, calories, sodium, and all those big bad elements your doctor warns you to avoid. We just can’t have all of them all of the time. I’m no nutritionist, but it’s hard to deny that accommodating Auntie’s fried chicken by eating light the day before and/or the day after (or better yet, in general) makes sense. Remember too that one piece of Auntie’s fried chicken is capable of evoking the same fond memories of picnics as three pieces do. It’s worth the tiny bit of forethought, afterthought, or just plain self-control to ensure that comfort food and the emotions it evokes remain an important part of your life.
Think of the elements that are most important to the enjoyment of your personal favorites and try adjusting a recipe. Strategize ways to play up your preferred texture or flavor and think of small changes you can make to reduce the negative aspects of a dish. Try low-fat cheeses—I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference. Cut the salt in half in a recipe—it’s often plenty. Bump up flavor by replacing the ubiquitous dried spices with their fresh versions. You may find that your version rivals or is even superior to the original. And keeping in mind that most of us are not going to head out and hunt a wooly mammoth or turn fifteen acres with an ox and plow, it’s easier to keep some perspective on what’s adequate.
This is my comfort food. Sure, it starts with boneless skinless chicken breasts and that’s great. Then you coat it in white flour, whole eggs, bread it, fry it, and top it with sauce and a ton of cheese. Well, as much as I love it, it does not love me back. So, challenged by Guiding Stars to come up with a star-rated comfort food dish, I tweaked things around to highlight my favorite parts: the crunchy texture of the chicken coating and the toasty cheesy flavor.
Panko, a Japanese bread crumb, is the perfect tool for low-fat crunch. Generally found in the Asian section of most grocers, it’s already super crispy, but it’s pale and tasteless. So intent on achieving the browning necessary for flavor (and almost always impossible to perfect without frying), I decided to toss the crumbs with oil and Parmesan and brown them in the oven before coating the chicken. The Parmesan takes on that toasted cheese flavor without much added fat, meaning I can top my final product with less mozzarella. Capped with a few spoonfuls of my Oven Roasted Tomato Sauce, and tossed under the broiler to melt the cheese, mission accomplished. With garlicky whole wheat flour standing in for white for dredging, egg whites instead of whole for the wash, and fresh herbs nestled beneath the crispy coating for bright flavor, I shocked myself (and apparently the entire Guiding Stars team) by producing a two star recipe.
As with all cooking–but especially with low-fat recipes–the key to rich flavor is to ensure that every step of the recipe is seasoned properly and cooked perfectly. Cooking is all about balancing flavor and texture. So stay intent on using the freshest ingredients and with careful preparation. You’ll find, like me, that your favorite dish can nourish our bodies appropriately, evoke the attached memories, and keep us around long enough to make new ones.
Chicken parmesan is a classic dish, a favorite comfort food, and surprisingly easy to adapt for a nutritious eating plan. Cooking the chicken in the oven, aside from being the easiest method for home cooks, also lets you get a crispy cutlet without the oil involved in deep frying.
Servings: 8 (429 g )
Prep Time: 1 hour
- 2 cups panko
- ⅓ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
- 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
- 2 egg whites
- ¼ cup skim milk
- 2 tsp. chopped garlic
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¾ cup whole wheat flour
- Pepper to taste
- 4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Cooking spray
- 1 recipe Oven Roasted Tomato Sauce
- 1 cup low-fat mozzarella
- 1 lb. whole wheat spaghetti, cooked
- Preheat oven to 400ºF.
- In a 9″ x 13” baking dish, stir together the panko, Parmesan, and olive oil. Bake until golden brown (6-8 minutes). Set aside to cool, leaving oven on.
- Whisk together eggs, herbs, and milk in a shallow dish. Set aside.
- Using a fork, combine garlic, salt, flour, and pepper in a shallow dish.
- Slice each chicken breast horizontally to create two thin cutlets per breast. Dip chicken into the flour mixture then the egg wash, and finally the panko mixture. At each step, be sure cutlet is fully coated and excess has been shaken off.
- Place coated cutlets onto a rack on a baking pan or cookie sheet. Lightly spray each cutlet with cooking spray. Bake chicken until the internal temperature reaches 165ºF (12-15 minutes).
- While chicken is cooking, heat tomato sauce in a saucepan and cook spaghetti according to package directions.
- When chicken is done, turn broiler to high. Spoon tomato sauce over the cutlet and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and browned (1-2 minutes).
- Serve with pasta and remaining tomato sauce.
About the Expert Chef
Erin Dow balances three food worlds. As a mother of three young children, she’s fighting the battle every parent faces: how to keep her kids interested in the foods that keep them healthy.
As the chef and owner of her catering company Eatswell Farm, she utilizes original recipes and techniques–focused on enhancing the enjoyment of locally-sourced ingredients–to best interpret the client’s vision. And as Consulting Executive Chef for Falmouth-based Professional Catering Services, a business specializing in production and backstage catering for concerts, she develops and executes menus that accommodate the strict nutritional requirements of the music industry elite.
Erin and her family raise their own chicken for meat and eggs, have dabbled in pastured Narragansett turkeys, and have a very weedy but very large and productive garden.