A warm and happy winter



This story and plenty more can be found in the January-February edition of Austin Living Magazine, now out. 

The flavors and aromas filled the house. An Apple crisp cooled near jalapeño cornbread, and soon the smells of a hearty chili filled the house. It wasn’t long before the foods turned thoughts to home.

“You feel like you walked back in mom’s kitchen,” said Jen Haugen, a registered dietitian, kitchen and garden coach and blogger.

That’s one of the powers of comfort foods. Foods have a way of bringing us back home, but it’s only part of what makes food so powerful.

“You probably remember comfort meals,” Haugen said. “Things that make you remember different times of your life.”

A bowl of chili is perfect for those days where the chill is heavy in the air. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

A bowl of chili is perfect for those days where the chill is heavy in the air. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Ironically, it was an unseasonably warm day in November that Haugen was busy in her kitchen making comfort foods — those foods that are especially satisfying when the mercury falls. The sun was shining and the temperatures floated near 50 degrees, warm enough to make it a little strange to be talking about foods to warm you up.

But winter takes hold quickly in Minnesota, and comes a time each winter when a person has to grudgingly admit that winter may be getting the better of them. The hints are everywhere: The darkness comes earlier at night, the temperatures drop, you find yourself snow blowing the driveway at ridiculous times and ice is nearly always present.

These are things that seem to coat everybody in a chill this time of year, but there is one sure way to battle frostiness and it tastes a heck of a lot better that constantly draping blankets over yourself.


Few things during these winter months can break people out of a glacial state better than food. Those savory and sweet smells grab you as you walk through the door, entice you to the kitchen, where those foods — often ones we grew up with — are waiting to fill you with warmth and flavor.

At their base, comfort foods, especially during the winter have a simpleness to them. They have that power to give you the feeling of thawing out from the frigid temps.

“I’m looking for something that makes me feel warm,” Haugen said. “Something that has some spice to it — a soup, stew.”

Haugen is well acquainted with all aspects of eating, and like so many, knows what makes a good winter meal.

 The ease of the meal

For most, it’s the smells and tastes that hold power over diners, but there is generally an ease to creating these types of meals.

Often times it starts with a recipe mom made, but a lot of the time it can act as a base on which to build.

“I think comfort dishes make it easy to mix and match things,” Haugen said. “It’s easy to add things, like to a hotdish, to make it cheesy or creamy.”

Haugen used the example of her apple crisp, sitting on the stove next to the chili that was just beginning to simmer.

Apple crisp is a remarkably adaptive dish that can make use of several different kinds of ingredients to make something completely different and enticing, yet familiar at the same time. Haugen suggests that instead of using apples, a cook can substitute in pears or peaches.

“Really, it can be just using what you have at home,” she said. “You don’t want to keep going out so use what you have in the kitchen.”

In that same spirit, vegetables can often be exchanged to create a variety that can be appealing to everybody in the family.

Jen Haugen lays in a freshly cut apple to an apple and kale salad. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Jen Haugen lays in a freshly cut apple to an apple and kale salad. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

 Family time

As the chili continued cooking at a contented simmer, Haugen talked about other powerful aspect of comfort food: The ability to draw in the family. Haugen explained how chili is one of her family’s favorite foods during the winter. Like all food, though, it serves as an opportunity for quality family time.

“I really love that about winter,” Haugen said. “You’re stuck in the house and often times it opens up some more time.”

It’s also a chance to instill the love of food in the children, whether it’s getting them to help cook the meals or even the simple fact of remembering their time there.

“I really want my kids to remember the meals they have,” Haugen said. “Mom’s leave a legacy with their kitchen. It’s a great opportunity for moms to be instrumental on the legacy they leave with their kids.”

Haugen remembers her own time spent with her mom in the kitchen and understands the enjoyment of the time spent there.

“I have a lot of good memories like reading the cookbooks,” she said. “I always enjoyed that.”

 Comfort can equal time saved

In today’s society, time sometimes doesn’t afford the opportunity to make a big meal and that’s okay to people like Haugen. Even on nights where a long, intricately made meal isn’t possible, there is still opportunity to make something substantial and healthy.

“I tend to cook in a way that’s easy and quicker,” Haugen said. “We have a busy family, but I still want to be nourishing to my family.”

That starts with having a plan.

“My family loves chili,” Haugen explained. “Getting home, I have at least 30 minutes and I already have a plan. Try to be forward thinking. Planning is key and it doesn’t let me be chaotic.”

Having a plan can also help in extending that comfort through the colder days in the form of leftovers. On those nights where a meal is only being made for one or two, a large family meal earlier in the week provides the option of more meals down the line. Simply divide it up and put in the freezer. Now there is a quick and easy meal waiting for those off times where maybe the family can’t all come together.

The planning stage should extend to the store with the shopping as well.

“When I go to the grocery store I have an idea,” Haugen said. “Then I can open up the fridge, and I know what I can make that day.”

Things like chili and pasta are especially good for these kinds of meals. The versatility of chili is especially good for this as it can be used as another meal or used to top a baked potato or hotdog.

When making your favorite comfort meal, Haugen cautions not to forget that in an effort to save time don’t hedge on using frozen or canned vegetables. They are just as good as the fresh vegetables that can be a little more difficult to get during the winter.

The chili has come had come to an end in a matter of minutes the home was transformed from a relatively mild fall day to a rich night around around the table with family. Food once again creates the perfect setting to battle the brittle frost of the coldest time of year.



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