Retro comfort foods, those filling dishes that warmed our souls growing up, are cropping up on menus again. But unlike their original, sometimes complicated formulations, they're modernized. So what's old is not only new again but also becoming a hot trend in the culinary world.
"In the 1960s, Americans embraced French cuisine," said Kate Sutton, chef and vice president of culinary innovation for Denver-based Food and Drink Resources, which focuses on product and menu development for food service operations and publishes food trends to watch.
"Housewives served fricassees, gratins, aspics, chocolate mousse, and anything 'amandine' at chic dinner parties," Sutton said.
Back "in the day," fine dining restaurants featured salmon mousse, beef bourguignon, fondue and flambé dishes.
"Beef Wellington is back, baby," she said. "The showy, complicated dishes from the '60s never went away completely, but it's been some time since we've seen a flambé cart or old-school beef Wellington on the menu - until now."
But the beef Wellington she spotted online at williams-sonoma.com puts lobster in the starring role instead of beef.
Familiar dishes have been reinterpreted, often with a wink and a bit of fun as chefs give them an updated twist. For instance, at The Margarita at PineCreek, with 44-plus years in business, reaching to the past for familiar comfort food happens regularly.
Eric Viedt, executive chef and co-owner of the eatery, and pastry chef Cathy Werle teach monthly cooking classes, many times featuring recipes from the Margarita's early years. One is Coquilles St. Jacques, which was an appetizer for the December class.
The dish was the creation of Pati Burleson, who with her late husband Ken Davidson founded the Margarita in the 1970s. She taught her chefs how to make the dish.
"It sounds labor intensive," said Viedt, "but it's not. We love it because it has lots of heavy creamy goodness."
Coquilles (French for "shell") St. Jacques is seared scallops placed in a scallop shell, which is exactly how Viedt served his scallop dish. Back in the '60s, when the dish was considered chic at upscale eateries, the scallops were covered with white wine sauce and baked under a broiler to achieve a crispy crust.
Because Viedt likes to use a lot of the buttery, creamy wine sauce, he makes a border of mashed potatoes to hold the sauce in the shell.
"We roll mashed potatoes up in a sheet of plastic," he said, showing how to do it. "Then it's very easy to push the potatoes into a pastry bag to pipe them around the edge of the shell. The potatoes make a wall for the cream sauce to prevent it from spilling off the shell."
His updated twist for the dish is adding wild mushrooms to the wine sauce.
"I like the umami flavor the mushrooms give the wine sauce, and Pati liked the addition of apples for some acidity to balance the heavy cream," he said.
Much of the Margarita's original menu had the French flare. Once each year, Viedt offers his throwback menu featuring favorite dishes from the early days of the Margarita, with twists and turns of new edgy ingredients.
Remember Scotch eggs? They're hard-cooked eggs, wrapped in sausage, rolled in bread crumbs, and fried or baked. Over at the Wobbly Olive, this retro classic is the inspiration behind an appetizer called Scotch Olives. Chefs stuff olives with a mixture of cream cheese and blue cheese, wrap them in sausage, roll them in panko and fry them. It made for a tasty snack with a cocktail.
A retro approach proved helpful to Brother Luck, owner of Four by Brother Luck and a contestant on this season's "Top Chef" on Bravo. He wowed the judges with his version of the long familiar Denver omelet. His deconstructed omelet had smoked, soft-boiled duck egg with red pepper gastrique (French for "gastric," referring to a syrupy reduction of sugar and vinegar), cheddar and ham tempura, served alongside a pepper salad. The judges declared this showed an "impressive technique on the egg and truly unique take on the classic dish."
Visit tinyurl.com/ycwoo9g2 to see a video of Luck working his magic making the dish.
"I always study classic dishes and flavor profiles when writing my menus," Luck said. "Classics are classics for a reason: They are proven to be great combinations of ingredients and flavors with a solid technique." One of his favorites was a dish by Squeaky Bean in Denver that took the classic French Pot au Feu (Pot with Fire) and blended it with flavors of classic Vietnamese pho.
"They called it 'Pot au Pho,'" he said.
Leave it to creative chefs to use old-fashioned dishes as a springboard to something new and trendy. How comforting is that?