Food & Drink

Comfort Food Confessionals

Here’s what experts make at home

By Stefanie Ellis January 25, 2021


This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Seattle magazine.

Comfort food has always been important during uncertain times. It makes sense that the mac ‘n’ cheese, roasted chicken and soups of the world made encore performances at houses across the country in 2020. 

But because our homes have become our offices and virtual classrooms, with too much clutter and laundry and too many video calls, who has time for cooking? That’s where baking and cooking hacks come in handy. They’re shortcuts to home cooking that still feel immensely satisfying. 

Comfort means different things to different people, so we’re including comfort food confessionals from the Seattle-area food and beverage industry, getting the download on what experts make when they want to unwind without sacrificing taste.

Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw

Tyler Malek is part of an ice cream fairy tale. He and his cousin, Kim, had a vision for shaking things up in the frozen dessert world, starting with just a single ice cream cart in Portland, Oregon, in 2011. Ten years later, Salt & Straw operates locations in Washington, Oregon, Florida and California. 

Starting with just eight flavors, Tyler Malek has created more than 1,000 weird and wonderful treats, including pear & blue cheese, bone marrow and smoked cherry, and seasonal specials like the love-it-or-hate-it salted caramel Thanksgiving turkey, with roasted turkey skin and caramel basted in duck fat. There’s even a nod to the king of rock and roll: The Elvis, made with malted banana ice cream, marionberry jam and bacon-peanut butter cookie dough.

Sorbet Hack: The Salt & Straw team suggests a pint of seasonal or strawberry coconut water sorbet, scooped in a glass and topped with champagne. Also recommended: The cranberry juniper sorbet, featuring kettle-simmered organic cranberries spiked with juniper for a vibrant tanginess. Salt & Straw offers shipping and delivery.

Brittany Bardeleben, Metropolitan Market

As a teenager, Brittany Bardeleben got a job working at the counter of a small bakery/café. She remembers catching a glimpse of the kitchen one day, watching the pastry chef ice a cake.

“I couldn’t believe someone could get paid to do something so fun,” recalls Bardeleben, now the catering and production manager at Metropolitan Market. “I went home and told my parents I wanted to go to culinary school.”

Sure enough, she studied pastry and specialty baking at South Seattle College, and then had stints cooking brunch at the Green Cat Café, serving as pastry chef at both Betty and the now-defunct Crow Restaurant and Bar on Queen Anne. She also served as head pastry chef for Dahlia Bakery. Her hacks come from her own culinary experiences, coupled with early memories of watching her two grandmas making everything from fine dining to soups and pies and having parents who cooked as an expression of creativity and love. 

Breakfast for dinner hack: “Throw some smoked bacon in the oven,” Bardeleben says. “Place a few cups of grade A maple syrup in a small saucepan and add a half bag of frozen marionberries. Heat gently and prepare a batch of pancake/waffle mix. Gently fold in another cup or so of frozen berries to the pancake batter and cook in a pan or griddle. Add the zest of a lemon and sugar to ricotta and dollop on top of pancakes. Serve with the bacon & marionberry syrup. It’s seriously both fancy and comforting – and can be on the table within 30 minutes. If we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic, I would whip up mimosas and entertain with this meal.”

Erik Hakkinen, Roquette

When Erik Hakkinen was a teenager, he got a job bussing tables at the restaurant where his mom worked.

“I was allowed to go everywhere in the restaurant except the bar,” he says with a laugh. “The bartenders always looked like they were having the most fun. That was back in the ’90s when all the fancy, old-time cocktails hadn’t hit again yet. The Appletini was the big thing back then, and the Cosmo was huge. It was like they had discovered fire. Cosmos in Tacoma!”

Given that he only held one other job previous to starting his bussing gig — a paper route — it seems safe to say the restaurant life chose him. After being a host for a while, the route was either to become a server or an assistant manager, and he chose the bar. 

“I went to UW and got a bar-backing job downtown after I turned 21,” he recalls. “They told me, ‘You’re going to be working with Murr the Blur,’ and I had no idea who he was. I was with him [Murray Stenson] as a bar back, and then worked at Zig Zag with him for years.”

Now Erik owns his own bar, Roquette, so it’s safe to assume he likes the work. “It turned out the guys at my first job 25 years ago were having a really good time at the bar because it was a fun job.” 

No Stir, No Shake Martini: A martini might not sound like a comfort hack at first, but most everyone has vodka or gin in their pantry, and this drink doesn’t require any fancy liqueurs or mixers. Plus, it’s all in one bottle and will last you awhile, with no need to keep making single drinks. “Ideally, you’ll take a fresh, standard 750 ml-size bottle of gin or vodka and pour off 200 ml (roughly 7 ounces) into a few gin/vodka tonics to consume while you wait for your martinis to cool.,” Hakkinen says. “With about 550 ml of gin/vodka left in the original bottle, add 100 ml each of dry vermouth and spring water, and, if you have it, five dashes of orange bitters. Seal the bottle and put it in the coldest part of your freezer, and in an hour or two you’ll have an ice-cold batched martini that can be poured directly into the glass without stirring or shaking. Garnish with an olive or lemon peel, or both, and enjoy.”

Anna Berman, @SnackingKitchen

Anna Berman’s personal motto is, “always here to inspire and make you hungry,” which she fully delivers on with every post on her Instagram account, @snackingkitchen. She has a long history of professional snacking that makes her amply qualified. Between leaving her job in economic research at the Federal Reserve Bank and attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she assisted with cooking classes at Sur La Table, took cooking classes at the local college in Dallas and taught at Whole Foods. For her culinary school externship, she had stints at Cuisine at Home magazine in Iowa, where she developed and wrote her own recipes, and Southern Living magazine in Alabama, where she did writing and recipe testing. She also observed photo shoots, which is how she became interested in food styling and food photography.

Later, she worked at Allrecipes as a video producer and stylist for hundreds of instructional recipe videos, writing scripts and doing the cooking for videos as well as styling for still photography. Today, as a project manager for the Amazon Kitchen brand, she’s still finding ways to tie her professional career to the culinary world. 

Clean Out the Fridge Fried Rice: “When I get Indian takeout orders, they give you so much rice, it would feed a family of 10,” Berman says. “I usually get a lamb curry and a vegetarian curry, and always have a container of leftover rice. It’s always so perfectly cooked, and all the grains are glossy from the ghee. I make a fusion fried rice, and usually end up adding kimchi and frozen peas, if I have any on hand. I cook it in a cast iron pan on super-high heat so the rice gets crispy and charred. I put sriracha on top for extra heat. This dish is perfect for a late lunch or dinner. It’s so comforting, and is a good use of everything in the fridge or the freezer.”

Rachel Belle, ‘Your Last Meal’ Podcast

Rachel Belle knows as much about comfort food hacks as she does just about every other kind of food there is, both from being an avid food lover with zero fear of experimentation and from talking to celebrities like Valerie Bertinelli, Betsey Johnson, Isaac Mizrahi and Moby on her James Beard Award-nominated podcast, Your Last Meal.

While learning about what famous people would like to eat before they die, she also learns from food historians and culinary experts about the origin of those foods, and it’s a wild ride. She has traveled all over the world, eating everything from grilled guinea pig to live fish plucked from a bowl of water with chopsticks, and loves the outlandish as much as the nostalgic.  

Lemony Yogurt Mac ‘n’ Cheese: “My dad is Eastern European, born in Romania, so my love for sour cream runs through my veins,” Belle says. “When I die, I want to be embalmed in sour cream. My ultimate, lifelong comfort food is pasta with butter, salt and parmesan, and when I was a kid, my dad sometimes mixed in sour cream.

“Today, I make it with whatever pasta I have, big scoops of plain Greek yogurt or sour cream, fresh lemon juice (the tang cuts through all the fat), a lot of freshly grated parmesan, and, if I have another cheese, like gouda, I’ll melt it in so it’s like mac ‘n’ cheese. I like to add a tiny bit of soy sauce, a tip from a friend. If you just drip in a little bit, you can’t taste it, but you get the umami, which gives it roundness and body. I also add a little bit of nutmeg, which sounds weird with the soy sauce, but it reminds me of a bechamel sauce. 

“This is something I have never, ever made for somebody else. It’s my secret, alone, pantry staple meal. I’ve never even told anyone everything I put into this dish because the combination sounds so gross. If I have the ingredients on hand, I love to make this with orzo and add caramelized onions. It’s super creamy, almost like mac ‘n’ cheese, and must be eaten with a spoon.”

Chef Matthew Lewis, Where Ya At Matt & Chef Box Live

Born and raised in New Orleans, Matthew Lewis took a lot of his best lessons from watching his mom and grandma in the kitchen. He learned to love traditional Creole dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée, which he refined and built upon through working with a variety of notable chefs in Alabama, who saw his passion for the cuisine.

While at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he got to attend the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, where he assisted famed New Orleans chef John Besh. When he found his way to Seattle, he worked at The Four Seasons, Restaurant Zoe, Toulouse Petit and Canlis, before starting his own southern-inspired food truck, Where Ya At Matt.

When the pandemic hit and food businesses every where were pivoting, Lewis teamed up with Cassie Hendrickson and Sam Minkoff, who own food event company Sound Excursions. The trio met eight years ago when they were producing an Amazon event that was New Orleans themed.

“When Covid hit, Sam contacted me and asked if I wanted to partner with them and try out a new idea called Chef Box Live,” he says. “It started out where I was doing recipes and cooking, and they were doing the production. As it grew, we decided to reach out to local chefs and add them to the platform. The chefs come to the studio kitchen in my house, which was designed as an experiential kitchen.”

Participants in this live-stream cooking class get all the ingredients they need prepped and ready for them, delivered to their door or picked up from the company’s kitchen. Though Lewis is used to dealing with customers, he has definitely been flexing new muscles.

“I’ve always loved to entertain, but hosting is a whole beast in and of itself,” he admits. “It’s something I really enjoy doing, to keep the show on track while being entertaining and make our chef partners as comfortable as possible.” 

Southern-Style Black-Eyed Peas: “One of my favorite things around this time of year is black-eyed peas,” Lewis says. “To make from dry beans takes some planning because you have to soak the beans overnight, then go through the cooking process, which can take hours. I like to use canned black-eyed peas, but to make them my own, I will sweat down my favorite andouille sausage, caramelize my trinity [onions, celery, bell peppers] with the addition of carrots and garlic, and deglaze with a little white wine (save some for yourself ). I will add the peas at the end to incorporate the ingredients, and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and Creole spice. You can adjust the consistency with a little stock or water if necessary, and I like to add some fresh herbs.” 

Jennifer Shea, Trophy Cupcakes

Jennifer Shea found cupcakes after a circuitous path that started out with dreams of becoming a marine biologist. But it was a career fair that piqued her interest in nutrition, which led her to Bastyr University in Kenmore, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. After touring with her boyfriend’s band across the U.S. and Europe, and becoming their merchandise manager in 2000, she learned about inventory and branding. But something was still missing.

“I went to my first cupcake shop in New York, and had an aha moment,” she says. “I started researching bakeries in every city I went to for the next several years. I never thought of baking as a career, but a friend convinced me to write a business plan, and later became my angel investor.”

Shea started Trophy Cupcakes in February 2007 in Wallingford Center, and sold 300 cupcakes on the first day. In 2008, after she was invited to make her cupcakes with Martha Stewart, lines snaked outside the building for two weeks straight. People called from all over the country to place orders.

Now, four shops and a cookbook later, she brings whimsy to Seattle. And, with her DIY cupcakes or her quick cake hack, creating your own whimsy is easier than ever. 

Cupcake hack: “There isn’t an easier hack then a decorate your own cupcake kit,” Shea says. “I mean – so easy – just order up already baked cupcakes, which includes all the buttercream, sprinkles, pastry bags, etc., that you need to have a fun activity with friends or the kiddos. There are lots of themed options on our website.” 

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