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The Meat of the Matter 

by DOUG NADVORNICK and ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & DOUG: My wife Missy and I were talking about comfort food the other day, and off the top of her head she listed the foods that she ate all the time as a kid: shepherd's pie, hamburger and mashed potatoes, fried chicken and pot roast. They were the foods she and her mom and brother lived on because they were inexpensive and the family was dirt poor. Missy has an emotional attachment to them and, consequently, she thinks comfort food almost always tastes better at home than in a restaurant.





So, we sought out a "homey" place not far from our house: the WALL STREET DINER. It's an 1930s-style cafe with richly colored walls, roomy booths and a counter. Missy ordered chicken fried steak and I got pot roast, the Blue Plate special. My lunch had all the requisite pieces: pot roast that was easy to cut, potatoes that were smashed, rather than whipped -- I loved their chunkiness -- and gravy that tasted like it came from a package. Missy's lunch featured a nice-sized hunk of batter-fried steak with white gravy. It was good, but she was right: not as good as home.





ANN: It's tough to beat homemade meat with gravy. There's something about it that satisfies all the standard definitions of comfort food: It's warm, it's richly flavored, it has lots of protein and fat to help you feel sated and nourished, and it smacks of childhood. When I was growing up, Sunday dinner wasn't dinner without some kind of roasted meat served with gravy made from the pan drippings.





Another dish with great home-cooking credentials is chicken pot pie. My Auntie Millie -- who was known for memorable kitchen failures but made a few dishes remarkably well -- used to make pot pie from the Thanksgiving leftovers. It wasn't fancy, but it filled her kitchen with the aromas and flavors of that holiday meal one more time.





The one downside to the traditional version is the bottom crust, which usually ends up soggy or scorched or both. (Perhaps I'm simply recalling Auntie Millie's cooking too vividly.) At MERITAGE, they've done away with the crust in their version, a dish that partner Rhonda Rey calls "comfort in a bowl." A white stoneware bowl gets heaped with chunks of chicken, carrots, celery, onions and peas in a thick, buttery cream-rich sauce, then the whole thing is topped with a scratch-made biscuit, split in half and grilled till golden brown and crunchy.





DOUG: Like the pot pie, my favorite comfort foods are usually made in one dish. Missy makes an oven-baked cornbread-on-top casserole with hamburger, corn and salsa that I love, and I do a lot of experimenting with stovetop casserole dishes. As it gets colder, I make more soups. It's probably in my genes: I remember my dad making a lot of potato soup on Saturday nights while he watched Wide World of Sports on TV. It had potatoes, onions, celery and bacon -- that was the key ingredient.





My specialty is chili. The cool thing about chili is that almost everyone uses the same core of ingredients, but they have their own twists to make it unique.





Last week I went to LONGHORN BARBECUE for a "Bowl of Red." They use steak, beans and onions, and there isn't much liquid. They top it with grated cheese and onion. It's really chunky and not overly spicy, which I like. Contrast that with WENDY'S, which is soupier, uses hamburger instead of steak and has more of a tomato flavor. Both are good and I feel satisfied when I'm done.





ANN: I love a good chili, too -- like the one at Chaps (see photo page 3) -- but sometimes I want to take meat-and-sauce uptown, and pork osso buco does that. Cookbooks say that "osso buco" translates to "bone with a hole," and traditionally the dish is made with veal shanks braised in white wine with citrus, garlic and anchovy flavors until the meat is fork-tender and the marrow literally melts into the sauce. At LATAH BISTRO, Chef David Blaine makes it with pork shanks rather than veal, and his braising liquid includes pureed Kalamata olives and hints of orange. The pork absorbs the inherent saltiness of the olives, and the result is moist meat that falls off the bone and into the puddle of dark brown sauce surrounding it. He serves it with an onion-y risotto, which soaks up any extra sauce. n

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