Comfort food is something I spent a great deal of time studying and discussing when finishing my Master's in Food Studies at NYU. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes comfort food as "food prepared in a traditional style having nostalgic or sentimental appeal", which sums it up quite nicely, but I prefer this definition I found on the PBS website. "When sick, or tired, or far from home, everyone seems to yearn for the gastronomic equivalent of a warm sweater, a kiss on the forehead, a favorite blanket", and notes that comfort food can range from udon noodles to mac and cheese. Comfort food is different for everyone, depending on where and when you were raised, and who raised you. It's a definition that can be difficult to define - something that changes in the eye of the beholder. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the dished my grandma made that really make me feel like I'm home.
Chicken soup, something so simple, with little pastina or acini di pepe pasta pieces so my little mouth could fit them in. Fried meatballs, garlicy and soft on the inside, simmered in sauce for hours - never served on the pasta, but as a second course. Fried eggplant, little circles or crispy, crunchy brown exterior with melting, soft eggplant inside. The "twisty Christmas cookies", strips of dough cut long, twisted into knots and deep fried, coated with honey, sticky and sweet. Even something so simple as tomato salad, which I thought was a great secret recipe growing up - sliced tomatoes, oregano, basil, onion and a heavy splash of olive oil, making the juices of the salad the perfect bread-sopping sauce.
Comfort food is different for everyone, and I know that my comfort foods are perhaps very different from what they would be if I was raised in my little slice of Italy, in Liguria. Mine bely, perhaps, a New Jersey Italian-American upbringing, Southern Italian at that, and I'm fortunate that all of these things that I crave when I'm feeling a little sad can be easily found in my region of Italy.
Italian food is fiercely regional, and what you can find in the North isn't always what you can find in the South. Even with similar ingredients, recipes just don't exist. With leftover risotto one day, Manuel told me I could make a risotto cake, and I obliged, using leftover risotto the only way I knew - by rolling it into balls, snuggling a piece of cheese or salumi into the center, lightly breading it, and deep frying it. We both laughed, noting the idea of a risotto "cake", to an Italian-American girl with family from Calabria, means arancini (the fried risotto balls) but to a Ligurian, it means a cake similar to the vegetable pies of the region.
You can't pick a comfort food. You can't just look at a bowl of Vietnamese pho and say, "Yes, it's you", though I wish I could. In Liguria, I don't necessarily have a comfort food - I don't have a large Ligurian family pushing scampi down my throat, or an old nonna at the stove, simmering minestrone. I certainly have both of these in my proximity, but it's obviously not the same. For that, my "Ligurian comfort food" is something I figured out based on what I want when I'm away for a while. Something I can remember the first time I ate, the first meal Manuel cooked for me, and one of my favorite things to eat, almost nightly, at the Cantina.
I've seen this dish outside Liguria, a pasta sauce coating long, thin strands of linguine or spaghetti, but it's green colored, as it can be made without tomatoes. This dish is made with fresh anchovies, garlic, red pepper flakes, capers and pine nuts, sauteed in oil. Fresh tomatoes are squeezed in, allowed to simmer, and then the dish is finished with fresh parsley and pasta twirled in. I can eat plates and plates of it.
My Ligurian comfort food is filled with my favorite things, and makes me feel at home. The location of the region means that ingredients normally not used in Northern Italian cooking, like garlic, capers, peperoncini, are found here due to the Italian coastal cuisine. The food here reminds me very much of what my Southern Italian grandparents would cook, and even some of what I've eaten in Calabria, but a little lighter on the deep fried items, and less spicy. Dark leafy greens, sauteed in healthy splashes of olive oil, tomatoes simmering on the stove - it sometimes feels familiar. Acciugata is incredibly simple - it takes a matter of minutes to make, and can be made in one pan. It's a dish that is all Liguria, but has influences that feel like home to me.
Comfort food might change depending on who you are, but acciugata reminds me that it can change depending on where you are as well. You can't pick your comfort foods, but when you change where you feel comfortable, and where you can be comforted by food, foods that warm you, make you smile and remind you of something safe and happy can always find you.