Over the years in the Deli, we’ve tried to develop our hot foods menus around various cuisines from throughout the world. We’ve tried Peruvian, Senegalese, Japanese, French, Italian, and a host of other international themes. We’ve also done a variety of regional American cuisines such as southwestern, Cajun, and southern. The one we always come back to, due to its unwavering popularity at all times of the year, is one I don’t have any other name for other than comfort food. While all cuisines have their version of comfort foods (various ethnic stews, roasts, and casseroles) there seems to be a sub-genre of foods that cross a number of boundaries and have a popularity that goes beyond regional cooking to become a part of our collective memory of better times, of home, and childhood.

It’s a popular misconception that people fall back on comfort foods and develop cravings for them when they are stressed out or sad. The reality is that you’re just as likely to have that craving when you’re feeling especially good about things. These foods recall specific memories and specific moods. So, if you associate the smell of corn on the cob with summer vacation then that may be your idea of a comfort food. Conversely, if at a particularly rough time you found solace in chocolate chip cookies you’ll probably reach for them again.

The dish that comes most quickly to my mind when thinking of comfort food is potpie. It is also far and away our most requested hot dish and one of our top requested recipes, even though our version is usually vegan. Why is it so popular? Maybe it’s because everyone’s had at least some version of it during their life (those Swanson ones were ubiquitous when I was little). Maybe it’s because it doesn’t contain exotic ingredients, so picky kids aren’t afraid to try it (and then grow into adults that remember it from their childhood). Another suggestion is more scientific—that it usually contains a combination of carbohydrates that act to soothe the brain. My theory used to be to carry it only when it was cold outside—it’s hearty and warming so everyone wants it. But, over the years I’ve found that it is just as popular in July as it is in January. So perhaps it’s a combination of all of those things—and the fact that it tastes so darn good. For whatever reason, you love it.

Vegan Potpie

For the crust you’ll need:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled margarine or Earth Balance, diced into 1/2-inch cubes (best to chill cubes in the freezer for at least 15 minutes before using)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
  • 3 to 4 Tbs. ice water
  • For the filling:
  • 1 cup margarine or Earth Balance
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 4 cups veggie broth
  • 1 to 2 lbs. of extra firm tofu, frozen, thawed, then squeezed of water
  • 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 to 5 carrots, diced (I always add extra)
  • 1 package frozen peas
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbs. parsley, minced
  • 1tsp. each of sage, thyme, salt, and black pepper

Directions: Melt the Earth Balance in a skillet, sauté onions until translucent. Add carrots, garlic, and mushrooms. Slowly add flour, stirring constantly to coat the veggies. Again slowly, add the broth stirring constantly until the flour dissolves. Add parsley, tofu, and seasonings. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until broth thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the peas. Then give it a little taste to make sure the seasonings are all good, and put it in a baking dish and refrigerate.

Now I’ve always been intimidated by crusts, but although the instructions are lengthy, it’s a pretty easy process (if in doubt, look up Molly Katzen’s recipe­—it’s very good.)

Prepare the crust by combining the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the chilled Earth Balance cubes and pulse five times to combine. Add the shortening and pulse a few more times, until the dough resembles a coarse cornmeal, with some pea-sized pieces of Earth Balance. Slowly stream in ice water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until the dough sticks together when you press some between your fingers. Empty the food processor, placing the dough on a clean surface. You can do this all by hand if you desire, but it’s the one item that I’ve found that makes a food processor worth the money. Use your hands to mold into a ball, and then flatten the ball into a disk. Sprinkle with a little flour, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to two days, before rolling.

When you’re ready, roll the dough out flat and cover the filling in the baking dish. It’s perfectly okay if you don’t cover it all the way. Bake at 350º about 45 minutes to an hour or until the crust is golden brown.

All told the preparation for this should only take you a half an hour or so, but the house will smell fabulous as soon as you start sautéing the onions, and if you cook like I do just a little flour in any recipe will have you looking like you worked all day (I’m usually covered in it).