What Are Comfort Foods, and Why Do They Work?

Smell and taste are our most emotional senses, and really, it’s the smells of our childhood that have the most profound imprint on our lives. The aroma of your favorite childhood dish stirs fond memories. For instance, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies may bring to mind a cherished loved one baking in the kitchen. 

The term “comfort food” typically beckons imagery of being surrounded by loved ones in celebration of an event or holiday. It’s the time of year when the crunch of leaves and the crisp air invite cravings for warm, indulgent, and wholesome comfort meals. With each mouthful of rich flavors, our bellies and hearts warm with gratitude and an overall feeling of contentment. The comfort foods we indulge in evoke these feelings of satisfaction, but the meal’s intentions and memories also contribute to our future feelings of familiarity. 

Carbs, Cream, and Calories

When we eat pasta, cake, and other indulgent meals high in calories, we stimulate our brain’s reward system, which leads to feelings of instant gratification. 

Rich and creamy sauces, casseroles, mashed potatoes, and meatloaf are all foods that lift our spirits, encouraging us to turn to them for a sense of comfort and safety. We seek comfort foods because of how we feel while consuming them – secure, warm, and content. Even if just temporarily, we can hold back anxious thoughts and replace them with pleasure and joy. So, when we eat these meals, we begin to associate them with the security and comfort felt in that moment. Makes sense, right? 

Just one bite or a whiff of our favorite comfort foods can prompt an emotional reaction, where snippets of happy memories flood into our thoughts. These foods are always there for us and rarely disappoint. It’s not just the comfort food we crave, but the memories and emotions attached to it. 

Nostalgia in the Kitchen 

Because we often link comfort foods to a time or event when a home-cooked meal was a shared experience, the foods we associate with our childhood family memories are potent in our recall of them. We feel at home when eating certain comfort foods, even when we are far from any place we could call “home.” While physically apart, comfort food connects us to our loved ones like nothing else does.

The magic of comfort food is its ability to make us feel emotionally connected with the people and memories written in our hearts and minds, no matter the physical distance or the amount of time that has passed from the initial experience. 

Creating a Comforting Atmosphere 

What do you need to create the reminiscent, cozy atmosphere associated with comfort meals? Before digging in, recall how your past experiences indulging in home-cooked meals became some of your fondest memories. Whether it was a four-course meal or macaroni and cheese, eating these foods take you back to the aforementioned times. Even the simplest of appetizers and desserts remind you of previous positive experiences. 

Whether dining alone or hosting a large dinner party, the ambiance you create sets the mood for the evening. Dust off the silver cutlery and set out your most elegant candlesticks and napkin holders. Planning the perfect intimate dinner at home is a gift for all involved, including yourself, because it too may become a nostalgic memory one day. 

Looking for some perfect comfort food dishes, but would rather have all the benefits without the stress of cooking? We’ve got you covered. Our customized weekly meal service allows you to personalize your favorite comfort dishes for the whole family. Our menus, delivered right to your door, are created with your culinary preferences in mind, designed to provide you with a trip down memory lane or as a way to create new memories with your family. 

Consider our upcoming fall line-up, featuring Brown Sugar and Bourbon Glazed Meatloaf, Apple Braised Pork Cheeks, Coffee Rubbed Lamb Chops, and more! 

Let us help you create another reason to look forward to this holiday season, where you and your family get to enjoy your favorite comfort meals or even develop some new ones.

Autumn Vegetables to Delight Your Dinners

Autumn in Texas arrives with a tremendous welcome.  It brings the long-awaited respite from a heat-scorched summer, and a season filled with excitement for what’s ahead.  Football, cool mornings, turning leaves, and for me—anticipating the bounty of fall vegetables that The Austin Artisan uses in our meal delivery services: okra, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beets, patty pan squash, Brussels sprouts, and eggplant, to name a few.  

What’s On Your Fall Dinner Menu?


What fall produce do you like to indulge in? Have you experimented with turnips, squash or figs?  From butternut squash stew and pumpkin risotto to honey roasted carrots, fall vegetables are versatile and bursting with comforting flavors. When planning your fall dinners, incorporate in-season produce. It is fresher, tastier and more nutritious than food consumed out of season.

The Austin Artisan loves to indulge in fall vegetables whether it involves a quick roast in the oven or sautéing with spices and olive oil. We are dedicated to making your meals as fresh as possible—which means emphasizing local foods and supporting nearby farmers and distributors. That’s why our menus constantly change to include fresh, seasonal ingredients originating 150 miles or closer to Austin, Texas. Preparing our meals with fall produce means you can enjoy a greater variety of foods (and maybe introduce some new favorites to your palate!)

Need Help with Fall Meal Planning?

Meal planning can seem a bit overwhelming, especially when you’re just starting a new routine, like back to school. That’s why we offer Personal Chef and Meal Delivery services—to eliminate the stress of planning and make it easier for you to have fresh, healthy meals on the table every night. Visit our Personal Chef page  for more information and to get started!

Here’s a quick list of fall vegetables:

Acorn Squash
Belgian Endive
Broccoli
Brussels Sprouts
Butter Lettuce
Butternut Squash
Cactus Pear
Cauliflower
Endive
Feijoa
Garlic
Ginger
Hearts of Palm
Mushrooms
Ong Choy Spinach
Pumpkin
Quince
Radicchio
Sweet Potatoes
Swiss Chard
Turnips

Cook Summer Family Dinners Everyone Will Love!

Eat What’s In Season!

In spite of some remaining chilly Texas weather forecasts, spring is just around the corner, and with it comes a whole new selection of colorful, in-season fruits and vegetables. Asparagus, avocado, greens of all kinds, red radishes and strawberries, purple carrots and tri-color beets will soon add a rainbow of color to the produce section of your favorite market.

But wait – hasn’t a lot of this stuff been in grocery stores for months?

Just because many of these fruits and veggies are available year ‘round, doesn’t mean they’re in season, which is when they’re most plentiful, most cost effective, and at peak texture and flavor.

Produce grown out of season, generally relies on the assistance of “modern agricultural practices” like pesticides, waxes and preservatives to not only allow them to grow in their off season, but maintain a fresh in-season appearance. For obvious reasons, these techniques don’t always line up with our efforts to eat clean.

Research shows that the nutritional content of a food can vary depending on the season in which it is grown and actually decrease the longer it sits after harvest. Long transport times across the country (or further) from in season locations to local markets can mean your healthy food choices may not be as nutrient dense as you think.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially when grown close to home, retain more of their nutrients and antioxidants making them the naturally healthier choice.

At Austin Artisan we believe that eating with nature’s cycles is not only healthier, better for the environment and more supportive of our local farmers, it allows us to offer our clients seasonal variety in their meals.

We pride ourselves on preparing and delivering healthy meals comprised of the freshest in-season produce available from local vendors who practice sustainable farming. In fact we strive to ensure our foods come from within 150 miles of Austin to bring you nutrient-dense produce harvested at the peak of freshness. We shop from many of the same Hill Country growers and farmers that supply our wonderful ATX farmers markets with sustainably grown fruits and vegetables and humanely raised meat options and dairy products.

If you would like to serve healthy meals made from locally grown, in season produce, but don’t have the time to shop, chop and cook, let Austin Artisan take the hassle out of weekday meal prep. Our delivery service can help you eat better, and save money and time. Contact us to get started.

Eat in Season this Spring

Spring 2018 officially kicks off on Tuesday, March 20th, and I couldn’t be more excited! In addition to more daylight and sunshine, I’m eagerly awaiting a new crop of produce. March signifies a transition from dense root vegetables to light, vibrant ones.

Following the seasons has such a positive impact on our health, our environment and our plates. As we progressively move toward warmer days, our fruit and vegetable bounties will adjust to provide us with the nutrients and flavors we crave this time of year. As a chef, I base my menus around these natural cycles. Here are just a few reasons why you should, too!

4 Reasons to Eat in Season:

  1. Better tasting: Local, season produce is fresh produce. It hasn’t traveled on planes or across oceans. It hasn’t been stored in a freezer and it’s not artificially grown. Seasonal produce is naturally harvested and picked at just the right time, producing exquisite flavors. Asparagus, for example, is available mostly year-round. But try it in spring, and you’ll discover an entirely different texture and taste.
  2. Easy to source: If I were to base a winter menu around rhubarb, I might have a difficult time finding enough (or any at all). When you plan menus that are seasonal, you’ll almost never have trouble sourcing ingredients. Seasonal produce is what’s most abundant in a given time of year. It’s also what will yield the best results.
  3. Less costly: Supply and demand affect cost, right? So let’s say, you’re looking for sorrel in the fall. If you find it, you may discover that it’s way more expensive than sorrel in the spring. Why? Because it’s a rarity in fall. When food is plentiful, it’s typically available at a lesser cost.
    Bonus Tip: Check out CSAs and farmers’ markets for the best deals on fresh, sustainable foods.
  4. Improved nutrition: Mother Nature is a smart cookie. She knows that in the winter we need warming, dense foods to protect us from the cold. In spring and summer, we require lighter fruits and vegetables to keep us active, cool and hydrated. If we continually eat in season, our bodies will get the nutrients we need all year long.

If you’re excited about enjoying the season’s best this spring, check out this short list of some of my favorite produce coming in March, April and May.

Chef Michael’s Spring Produce Guide:

Asparagus (+ White Asparagus)
Fava Beans
Spinach
Ramps
Rhubarb
Peas
Sorrel
Fiddlehead Ferns
Artichokes
Morel Mushrooms

Not sure how to use sorrel or need a great rhubarb pie recipe? Contact us! Our Artisans are always happy to help you whip up something delicious!

Setting the Mood with Romantic Foods

Want to elevate your Valentine’s Day dinner with romantic foods?

It’s true, food can actually look, smell, and taste romantic. Whether you’re cooking your love a 5-course meal or thinking of preparing some nighttime nosh, there are several foods and recipes that can stimulate your love senses while impressing your sweetie. So, light the candles, put on some soft tunes, and serve-up a scrumptious dish.  These top romantic foods are sure to win the heart of someone special.

Chocolate: You guessed it, chocolate is usually the king of courtship, making it a must-have with your romantic meal. Chocolate is sensual, from its taste to its aroma, and it is versatile. From molten chocolate cake to strawberries dipped in chocolate to cocoa rubbed baby back ribs you can’t go wrong with chocolate.

Seafood: Oysters have been considered a natural aphrodisiac for centuries. Probably because they are one of the best sources of romance-boosting zinc. In addition, oily fish– like wild salmon and herring– contain omega-3 fatty acids, linked to spark romance. If you’re a lover of seafood dishes, here are my top three recommendations not to be missed for a truly romantic meal that will sure to impress.

Savory Cheeses: Sharing a fondue pot is a fun and romantic experience. Fondue is such an easy entree to prepare, as long as you keep stirring! Also, you and your sweetie can choose from different dippers—like exotic cheeses or dark chocolates. Did you know there’s a long-standing tradition that states anyone who loses a dipper in the fondue pot has to kiss his or her sweetie?

Chili Peppers: Consider turning up the heat with chilis.  This invigorating spice has an exotic reputation and a bright red color, which could be why it’s considered a symbol of love. Scientist say that chili peppers stimulate endorphins (the brain’s feel good chemicals). For some added spice, chop-up some chili peppers and toss them into stir-fries, soups or stews.

Fresh Citrus: Any member of this tropical fruit family is super-rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, and folic acid — all of which are essential to health—and romance. Enjoy a romantic salad that incorporates citrus, like pink grapefruit or mandarin oranges, or use a dressing made with lemon, lime or even kumquats.  Check out our Citrus 101 article for Austin Artisan chef tips.

 Avocados:  It could be the smooth texture, or the rich flavor of the fruit that gave avocadoes its aphrodisiac reputation as far back as the Aztecs.  They’re loaded with minerals, monounsaturated fats (the good kind that protect the heart and lower cholesterol), and vitamin B6—all of which help improve your energy. They are versatile and add tons of flavor and texture to any dish.

Wine: Wine is so romantic because it gives couples an excuse to set aside time for each other. Wine can enhance a romantic meal and sometimes, it doesn’t particularly matter what varietal you choose, just as long as it is one you both enjoy. Want to learn even more about this wonderful elixir? Check out our 5 fun facts about wine

At the Austin Artisan, we believe that food is an experience, it can set the tone, create the mood, and evoke an emotion. We are passionate about crafting customized menus, sourcing fresh and seasonal ingredients, and executing with meticulous detail to offer each client a truly unforgettable experience. Sounds good? Let’s get started!

 

 

11 Countdown to Christmas Party Planning Steps

Throw a Memorable Celebration without Losing Your Christmas Spirit!

Entertaining guests this holiday season? Need tips to pull-off a stress-free gathering?

To help you make your holiday gatherings extra-special, the Austin Artisan is brimming with festive ideas to help you prepare a grand, celebratory meal. Whether throwing an elegant holiday get-together or intimate cocktail party, these countdown to party planning steps will help you enjoy your party–just as much as your guests.

Plan for these eleven think-ahead steps to help host a flawless and memorable gathering:

1. Plan the menu
Begin planning your holiday gathering by reviewing recipes and menu ideas. Once you’ve decided on the number of courses, the format, and the theme, you’re ready to plan the menu. Consider what’s in season, what you can source locally, and what you feel comfortable preparing. If cooking on your own, start your shopping early to find specialty items.

The Austin Artisan can cater a magical Christmas gathering and help you plan the perfect menu for your event!   Check out our blog for some recipe ideas.

2.Get organized

Plan your table settings, serving dishes, and other holiday decorations. Our Boutique Catering Service will help you handle (almost) everything. Our Artisans are a professional team of servers, bartenders, chefs, and support staff. We can even help you source the right china, barware, glassware, and linens.

3. Consider dietary restrictions
Try to mix up gluten free options as well as salads and other meatless dishes for vegetarians.

4.  Select your appetizers
Plan for a few mouth-watering starters that warm up the palette for what’s to come: a main course that leaves your guests wanting seconds.

5. Set up beverage station
Create a beverage station near the kitchen so it will be convenient for guests to replenish ice, pour wine, and gather glassware. When it comes to the perfect Christmas gathering, our clients enlist our boutique catering services to help pair the best wines with the variety of foods you are serving. You’re sure to learn something new and find your favorite wine and food combination.

6.  Make a timeline for party day
Decide when you’ll be feasting, then count backward to determine when to put the turkey, ham or roast in the oven and what else needs to be cooked beforehand so you can relax and enjoy your time when guests arrive.

7. Prepare before guests arrive
Make it easy on yourself and serve as many room temperature dishes as possible. The Austin Artisan has been catering festive Christmas dinner parties for several years and has developed a step-by-step process to create a super organized, hassle-free dinner party for our clients.

8. Make the most of space.
To keep guests from crowding your kitchen while you are doing last minute preparations, put appetizers in other rooms around your home and if weather permits, encourage guests to gather on the back patio before the main course.

9. Select music
A few days before your holiday gathering, make a play list of that will set the mood.

10. Indulge your guests with sweets
You can never have too many sweets. Consider simple items like store-bought cookies or pies, and offer one decadent homemade dessert. The Austin Artisan can help plan for the perfect mix from freshly sliced fruit, to an assortment of pies and pastries.

11. Debrief
After the party, note successes and shortfalls that will guide your next event.

Host the ultimate holiday party — and forget the stress when you enlist the Austin Artisans to cater your Christmas celebration.  Spread the joy this season with neighbors, friends and family, and treat them to the best Christmas and holiday party they’ve been to all year! Nothing brings people together like the holidays!

 

How to Preserve Your Hatch Green Chiles

There are a ton of vegetables in-season right now: eggplant, green beans, okra… but our favorite by far is Hatch green chiles. Named for the region of New Mexico that they’re grown in, these peppers lend their signature heat-meets-sweet flavor to summertime meals.

 

Here at The Austin Artisan, we love using Hatch chiles in all kinds of dishes. Have you tried them in your grilled cheese? Incorporated them into lasagna? Or grilled up some spicy burgers? There are so many options, it feels wrong to only enjoy them for a few months every year.

 

If you love kicking up your dishes, or just want to have the option of enjoying good-quality ingredients all year round, then you should be preserving your Hatch chiles.

 

Heres how:

 

  1. Order a case of Hatch chiles—most grocery stores will take your order. Alternatively, look to warehouse stores, like Costco or Sam’s Club.
  2. Heat up the grill. In small batches, roast the chiles until the skin starts to blister and char. Charring is GOOD!
  3. Immediately upon removal from the grill, place the charred chiles in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Transfer the cooled batch into half-gallon freezer bags. (If you have a vacuum sealer, even better! It’s a favorite gadget of mine. )
  5. Freeze in small batches. (Use your judgment and freeze in amounts you would use in a meal. You don’t want to freeze a large block; because once you defrost the chiles you have a limited amount of time to use them.)
  6. When you’re ready to get cooking, place the frozen bag in a bowl in the sink. Run COLD water over the chiles until they are thawed. This should take about 30 minutes, depending on size of batch.
  7. Once completely thawed, peel the charred skin and remove the seeds. Toss or compost.

 

What is left will surely make any dish a knockout!
Some ideas:

  • Super Bowl chili with Hatch chiles
  • Thanksgiving stuffing with Hatch chiles
  • Anytime scrambled eggs with a little Hatch chile heat

 

Your turn: Let us know your favorite way to incorporate them into your meals, or better yet, tag us in a picture on Facebook! We’re waiting to hear from you…

The Secret to Perfect Spring Lamb for Easter Brunch

Did you know that lamb is a seasonal food item, much like watermelon or sugar snap peas?

This tender meat is most abundant in spring. That’s because lambs are usually born in winter and sold in spring. As they graze on the new shoots of grass in March and April, their meat becomes sweeter. Roasted with garlic and herbs, spring lamb makes a mouthwatering centerpiece for Easter brunch.

Not sure how to prepare spring lamb, or what kinds of flavorings to use with it? We’ve got you covered!

Select Your Cut

For Easter brunch, you’ll probably want to choose a large cut of lamb meat like the leg. Selecting a leg with the bone and outer fat layer still intact will ensure you preserve as much flavor as possible. For other occasions, we prefer lamb chops, racks or shanks.

Season Wisely

There’s really no need to marinate lamb–in fact, marinating it can make the meat tougher. Just cover the outside of the leg with a very light layer of oil and a healthy dose of homemade seasoning, but don’t go overboard with different spices. Think simple: rosemary, salt and garlic is the perfect trifecta.

Low and Slow Is the Way to Go

Most cuts of lamb, including that well-seasoned leg you just prepared, cook best under low heat for a long period of time. This recipe from The Kitchn recommends broiling both sides of the leg first, then covering it with foil and cooking it for an hour at 325° F (for medium-rare). A meat thermometer is helpful in determining doneness. Keep in mind that the meat will continue to cook a little after you’ve removed it from the oven.

For cuts like shanks, braising them in the slow cooker for several hours produces rich, savory meat that falls right off the bone.

Still Feeling Sheepish About Spring Lamb?

Let us handle Easter brunch with our Boutique Catering Services. Whether you want to serve spring lamb or prefer glazed ham, we can tailor the menu to make this year’s brunch an experience to remember. Contact us for more information.

3 Seafood Dishes to Eat This Spring

Outdoor dining season has begun here in Austin, Texas, and there’s nothing I like better than sitting outside with my wife after dinner, listening to music and watching my daughter play.

What we eat on these nights tends to vary, but seafood dishes are among my favorites in the spring. They’re light, fresh and pair well with the delicate fruits and vegetables in season this time of year. The non-negotiable is a loaf of crusty bread for sopping up all the broth and seasonings in your dish.

Besides complementing the abundant spring produce, seafood is the perfect al fresco meal to serve family style. Enjoy it on the patio with your favorite ale or seasonal fruit sangria, and share the love with friends.

If you’re planning to serve seafood dishes this spring, here are my top three recommendations not to be missed.

Paella

This is a Spanish rice and seafood dish using mussels, shrimp, and other shellfish in a tomato base with paprika and saffron. It’s easy to use different kinds of shellfish in this one, but any variation is filling and makes for plentiful serving sizes. I prefer a shallow carbon steel pan for cooking perfect paella.

Bouillabaisse

Everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown into a pot of this hearty French seafood soup (pronounced boo-yah-bess). Whitefish and shellfish are the stars of the show, and the broth practically sings with bay leaf, fennel, tomatoes and potatoes. It’s traditionally served with croutons and rouille sauce (they say bouillabaisse without rouille is like Marseille without sunshine).

Mussels in White Wine and Garlic

This sophisticated trifecta is like a seaside vacation in your mouth. The flavors are aromatic, complex and never disappoint. And it’s easy to cook! Just bring a dry white wine and garlic to a simmer, then add mussels and cook until the mussels have opened. Add a dash of herbs, butter and a lemon wedge, and you’ve got yourself a meal.

These must-try seafood dishes, and many more, make regular appearances on menus for our personal chef clients. Contact us to have us make your meals perfect for al fresco dining season.

Do we already cook for you? Let us know if you have a special seafood request.