My first exposure to comfort food came about by way of a basement cafeteria. Way back when, I lived in a brutally cold dorm with a mandatory meal plan. The kicker? Outside those dorm walls was the glorious city of Montreal with it's fantastic poutine and bagels. Oh the bagels! But within the four walls of the dorm's bustling cafeteria, we were served a steady diet of ketchup covered meatloaf, sloppy lasagna, and slightly soggy chicken pot pies. In hindsight, it was such a terrible introduction to comfort food but I didn't know any better and it planted in me a life long love of slow-cooked, belly-warming food.
See, I grew up in a house where my mom made real Pakistani meals. I use the term "real" to distinguish her fantastic cooking from my quick-to-the table, Pakistani "inspired" food. I'm talking about hearty curries and fragrant pilaus and fresh naans. Don't get me wrong, my mom was a modern, global woman who mixed it up by making a chow mein every now and then but by large, we ate Pakistani food. Except Saturday afternoons. By that point, my mom must have been so exhausted from cooking for a kid who refused to eat dark meat (me) to a kid who refused any sort of flavoring (my brother), she would let us pick out a microwave or boxed meal. Gosh, how I loved Saturday afternoons where I discovered the world of frozen pot pies and toaster-oven pizza bites. And even with all the options, nine times out of ten, my cheat meal was Hamburger Helper Stroganoff.
There was something about those curly egg noodles, rattling around in the cardboard box, and that powdered flavor packet that magically transformed in to sauce. It sounds a bit nuts now but back then, surrounded by amazing, homemade, and real food, my favorite meal came from a box with a plastic bag of dried pasta and a paper sachet of sodium. So when I saw Hamburger Helper's cousin, chicken stroganoff, on the dorm's buffet line, I was sold. Pretty much every shred of homesickness vanished as soon as I spotted that steaming, gloppy pile of noodles and sauce. To this day, I attribute my Freshman Fifty (yup, not fifteen, fifty) to that darn chicken stroganoff. While others were burning their meal credits on ice cream, I was eating pasta. And I'd do it all again in a second (as soon as I accepted I'd need to buy a couple of new pairs of pants, the next few sizes up).
I recently bought a box of Hamburger Helper Stroganoff and was a bit horrified to find it didn't taste as great as I remembered. In fact, it tasted kinda terrible. And then I remembered the chicken stroganoff of my undergraduate days. The nemesis of of my favorite jeans, the fuel of frantic cramming for finals, and the best meal ever. And so, on a surprisingly cold San Francisco Saturday, from a pantry devoid of egg noodles, and a fridge housing the very last remnants of the sour cream, I recreated that nostalgically perfect chicken stroganoff for my family. I used spaghetti because that's what we happened to have, the last of the button mushrooms and sour cream, and a few forgotten, grilled chicken breasts. You should feel free to use any kind of pasta and veggies because this is definitely a meal that comes together quickly and is easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand. And as soon as I saw that sauce come together in the pan, I was transported back to that dorm cafeteria where the lunch ladies spoke in a gruff French accent and the hefty portion sizes where definitely not French.
Even though I now prefer that my stroganoff not come from a cardboard box, I will still down a giant plate of soggy, cafeteria-style, crinkle cut fries with no hesitation. For old time's sake.
16 oz. spaghetti
2 tbs. butter
2 tbs. oil
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
3 grilled chicken breasts, sliced (or shredded, rotisserie chicken)
2 tbs. flour
1 cup chicken stock
3/4 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper
Boil spaghetti in a large pot of salted water.
In a separate pan, melt butter and oil. Cook onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add mushrooms and cook on low heat until mushrooms are browned. Add chicken. Sprinkle with flour and stir until flour is mixed thoroughly. At this point, I like to break up some of the chicken pieces to a more shredded chicken consistency but the hubster prefers giant chicken chunks. Either option works! Add the chicken broth, stir to mix, and cook until sauce thickens. Remove from heat. Add sour cream and mix. Season with salt and pepper.
Find a big bowl. The bigger, the better. If you do not have any clean bowls, a large measuring cup will do. Fill it with noodles. Top with the stroganoff mixture and freshly cracked pepper. Eat while wearing your favorite comfy pants.