Every fall, there is inevitably and collectively a moment when we realize winter is upon us. Maybe it’s that one day when the darkening morning is suddenly noticed, or the first snowflakes and iced-over puddles appear.
Or maybe it’s the undeniable urge to consume mass amounts of comfort food.
How to describe comfort food? I imagine winter meals of childhood, often involving casseroles containing canned cream-of-something soup topped with melted cheese, or stews and gravy served over breads and meats.
One foodie friend defined comfort foods as “hearty, probably baked, with rich, heavy sauces,” but beyond ingredients, said comfort food is really “anything that takes you to a place of safety and a warm memory.” Another also gave an experiential answer: “Comfort food is anything that takes me back to childhood.”
Well, children of Alaska, September is an excellent time to embrace the advancing nip in the air and avoid dirtying your own kitchen by trusting the professionals to deliver comforting nibbles and plates. Here are some favorites:
Macaroni and cheese
Perhaps the granddaddy of comfort food, among the first cuisines children crave, an obtainable treat through financially lean years (thank you, Kraft) and now offered with an upscale twist by trendy eateries, macaroni and cheese is loved by nearly all.
Here in Anchorage, look to many restaurants for this creamy pasta, including Spenard Roadhouse (simple cheddar sauce, with the option of add-ons like broccoli and bacon), Crush (a dainty, ramekin-sized serving with nice crust and a savory tomato flavor), or Ginger (garlicky, white sauce, topped with seared scallops).
I’m a fan of the version served by Rustic Goat; their mac and cheese includes a smooth, rich sauce, roasted red onions, bacon, garlic, and a topping of sourdough crumble, served in a whimsical iron skillet.
Spaghetti and meatballs
There’s something about tomato sauce: The hearty, rustic aroma of it conjures visuals of a bubbling vat simmering on the stove, seasoned with Italian herbs like oregano and basil. Served with pasta alone, a platter of spaghetti is a hug on a plate. Add meatballs, and you’re in for a real snuggle. Fletcher’s serves up an excellent meatballs dish, with the appreciated option of a still-substantial half portion. Don’t miss chef Guy Conley’s meatballs at Fat Ptarmigan, a family recipe dating generations back to Italy.
French onion soup
Some shrink at the idea of soup alone as a substantial meal, but it can be done, and is done quite well by many restaurants in the area. Pho is a great example of filling, pleasurable soup. And French onion soup is a personal favorite. A bubbly layer of melty cheese, broiled atop a broth-soaked crouton, capping a pool of beef-based broth laced with sweet caramelized onions is about the most comforting version of soup that comes to mind. Simon and Seafort’s serves a fine version, and I love what they serve at F Street Station, where you can devour it by the bowl-full or scale back to a perfectly pleasing cup size.
McGuinley’s Pub. Irish stew, made with Guinness. Bam.
Chicken pot pie
With tender chunks of chicken floating in a creamy broth loaded with chunks of vegetables, topped with flaky pastry or dough, this is a classic. Find it on the menu at Muse, or enjoy City Diner’s excellent version, loaded with mushrooms, root vegetables and cream gravy.
There sure is a lot of cheese on this list, but we couldn’t leave off grilled cheese. Even when it’s melty American sandwiched between buttered-and-grilled white bread, it’s great. But for inventive turns on the classic sandwich, try the three-cheese squeeze at Midnight Sun Brewing. With cheddar, provolone and mozzarella on sourdough, you can add smoked ham, bacon or roma tomatoes.
And then, there’s pie. You could argue dessert, generally, is a comforting treat. But it’s hard to beat a good old slice of pie. While many places in the region knock pies out of the park, Peggy’s on Fifth Avenue for years has delivered this treat as a soothing, sugary end to an all-American meal. Peggy’s pies are also sold at the Willow Trading Post if travels take you north on the Parks Highway.