It feels like summer slid into fall without much fanfare this year, didn’t it?
Maybe that’s because these days, our attention is turned elsewhere.
But cool and dreary weather is most definitely here, and chefs are weaving fall ingredients into dishes meant for warming both belly and soul. We’re talking soups and stews that simmer all day, slow-braised meats that fall off the bone, caramelized roasted vegetables, and piping hot bread made from scratch.
So pull on a cozy sweater and consider making the drive for these dishes. This is comfort food worth seeking out, and it’s just what we need right now.
Brisket cheesesteak, Vagabond BBQ, Frenchtown
Vagabond BBQ, an eclectic joint full of bright colors and a menu of barbecue dishes from around the world, is known for its twists on traditional barbecue. That take can be seen in all its glory in the restaurant’s $15 brisket cheesesteak, made from 12-hour, slow-smoked, fall-apart brisket on a toasted long roll, served true Philly style with cheese sauce and fried onions.
“Some BBQ purists might call it sacrilegious. We call it sacri-licious, and its popularity has proved us right,” said Chris Ventura, co-owner of Vagabond BBQ, who said he likes to have coleslaw with his brisket cheesesteak for a “nice, clean, crunchy contrast.”
Ventura’s personal favorite comfort dish is dumplings, especially crab soup dumplings.
“I could do a very happy jig every time I have dumplings. They’re just so perfect,” he said. “You get everything in these savory little guys — soup, crab or shrimp and pork wrapped in a beautiful dough.”
Go: 51 Bridge St., Frenchtown; 908-505-0232, vagabondbbq.com.
Cacio e pepe at Trama’s Trattoria, Long Branch
Leave it to the Italians to transform a handful of ingredients into a dish that is simple yet decadent.
Cacio e pepe, a Roman dish that translates to “cheese and pepper,” is a tangle of pasta made creamy with Pecorino cheese and starchy cooking water; no milk, cream or butter required. For bite, a few generous turns of freshly grated black pepper.
At Trama’s Trattoria, Chef Pat Trama uses twirlable bucatini and adds earthy black truffle butter ($26). The dish, he said, is one of his favorite comfort foods, along with the restaurant’s garlic bread ($12).
“The garlic bread is a focaccia bread baked in Brooklyn and was our top choice after sampling many different types of bread,” said Trama, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Laura. “We brush it with our garlic butter, which is seasoned with lemon, rosemary, sage, thyme, extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan Reggiano, then baked to perfection and served with our red sauce.”
Go: 115 Brighton Ave., Long Branch; 732-222-1121, tramastrattoria.com.
Camarones al ajillo, Barca City Cafe and Bar, New Brunswick
With fresh shrimp, oven-roasted potatoes rubbed in spices, white wine, fresh garlic, smoked paprika and extra-virgin olive oil, camarones al ajillo — or shrimp and potatoes — is warm, flavorful and even heartwarming, said Barca City Cafe and Bar owner Gus Sleiman.
The restaurant, known for its Spanish-style tapas, offers the comfort dish for $8.99.
For Sleiman, Spanish food, regardless of the region, is what means comfort to him.
“It always has that mom-and-pop feel and flavor to it,” he said of the cuisine. “For example, ropa vieja, which traditionally is a leftover of protein brought into a stew, is both creative, delicious and warming, especially on a brisk fall day.”
Go: 47 Easton Ave., New Brunswick; 732-640-1155, barcacity.com.
Chicken Pot Pie, Haddon Culinary, Collingswood
“Comfort food is a big part of what we are at Haddon Culinary,’’ says James Liuzza, co-owner of the Collingswood market and café.
The comfort food that stands out at Haddon Culinary is chicken pot pie, he says.
“Available year round, it is made starting with a rich golden chicken stock that is cooked for a minimum of 12 hours,’’ Liuzza says. “We add hearty root vegetables, potatoes, lots of chicken, and the flavors of savory herbs like sage. The best part of our pot pie is the handmade, all-butter crust that we spare no expense or cut any corner with. Each pot pie is two pounds and big enough to share or enjoy yourself if you are hungry enough.’’
Seasonal soups such as chicken pastina, or minestrone are also best sellers in November and December, as are ‘’silky bisques made from locally sourced vegetables, chillies, and many soups that are vegan, vegetarian, gluten free and dairy free.”
So, where does this chef turn when he’s in need of a little comfort himself?
“My most vivid memory of comfort food growing up are my mother’s meatballs. It wasn’t just the meatballs, it was everything involved with it. It was coming inside the house after hockey was over and the smell of meatballs frying hitting you in the face. It was getting chased out of the kitchen for trying to steal one from the batch that was cooling on some sheets of cheap paper towels. It was the ‘oohs and ahhs’ when they finally hit the center of the table with so much other food that you had to find room for your dinner plate to sit flat. It was the Monday and Tuesday night meatball sandwiches when my mom was too busy to cook.
“My dad would from time to time commit to vegan diets, and my mom would deliberately make a batch of meatballs,’’ Liuzza recalls. “Needless to say, the diet was over very quickly and he would be getting chased out of the kitchen with the rest of us.
Go: 741 Haddon Ave, Collingswood. (856) 559-0440; https://www.haddonculinary.com/
Clam chowder at Country Kettle Chowda, Beach Haven
Nothing says cozy like a bowl of clam chowder, and the Maschal family’s Long Beach Island soup shop is a local favorite.
Country Kettle Chowda opened more than 20 years ago when John Maschal Sr. and his family, who also own longtime Island sweet shop Country Kettle Fudge, were left with gallons of chowder following a rained-out Chowderfest (an annual fall event on Long Beach Island). They decided to sell the chowder – which through the years has taken top honors at the fest Maschal Sr. helped create – out of the sweet shop, and it was so popular, they decided the chowder needed a shop of its own.
Country Kettle use local clams in their New England clam chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, and Rhode Island Chowder, which is the red and white in one cup. Lobster bisque and chicken noodle soup round out the tiny menu, and the sourdough bread bowl is a must (prices start around $6).
Go: 830 Bay Village, Beach Haven; 609-492-2858, facebook.com/countrykettlechowda.
Mac n’ Cheese Grilled Cheese, The Pop Shop, Collingswood and Medford
This sandwich, which is called the “Arlington”, is a creation of deliciousness and is a classic at the Pop Shop.
The ingredients include macaroni and cheese, butter, thick-sliced sourdough bread, cheddar cheese and crumbled bacon for a little extra “something, something.”
Prep time is about 20 minutes.
“Yummy, easy, comforting and the kids love it!,” said Pop Shop chef and GM Jessica O’Donnell. “ ‘The ‘Arlington’ will absolutely make you melt.”
She said Pop Shoppers know that few things are simpler or more satisfying to make –and eat – than a grilled cheese.
GO: 729 Haddon Avenue, Collingswood; 856-869-0111, 1 S. Main Street, Medford; 609-975-6888, thepopshopusa.com/
Soul Food Cupcakes, Ms. SweeTea’s Comfort Food Café and Southern Bakery, Pine Hill
Ms. SweeTea’s Comfort Food Cafe and Southern Bakery chef and owner Telisha Rhem enjoys creating extra savory items that people are drawn to.
Her personal favorite is her creation called the Soul Food cupcake, only it’s not dessert.
“It reminds me of the best of Sunday dinner all composed in three bites or less,” she said. “It consists of a sweet moist cornbread muffin baked with mac and cheese, topped with mashed potatoes, a perfectly fried piece of chicken and drizzled with cajun gravy. It’s a family favorite!”
She’s also known for her chicken and red velvet waffles, sweet potato cheesecake, bread pudding and more.
But one of her personal favorite comfort food desserts is another wonderful creation.
“I also love the peach cobber pound cake,” she says. “It’s the perfect combination of sweet peach pie alongside a moist, rich pound cake. Our family also loves eggnog cheesecake.”
Sounds very rich, and oh so comforting.
GO: 706 Blackwood Clementon Road; 856-258-5020, facebook.com/MsSweeTeas/
Penne vodka with shrimp, Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar, Raritan
Ever since day one at Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar more than 30 years ago, the same recipe has been used to make its finger-licking tomato sauce in-house, fresh every day. The sauce is the base of the popular Italian-style seafood restaurant’s penne vodka with shrimp, which costs $21.50.
“The warmth, the smoky bacon, the fresh shrimp, the touch of cream … that dish just checks all the boxes for me when it comes to comfort,” said Lois Malenchek, general manager and the daughter of owner Lou Malenchek.
For Lois, it’s these types of dishes that mean comfort to her — or, “anything I can dip Italian bread into,” she said. “I will order a dish just because I know there will be leftover broth.”
The same seems to go for Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar customers when it comes time to clear the table. “I have had customers almost bite me because they’re still dunking,” she laughed.
Go: 5 E Somerset St., Raritan; 908-526-9887, unclevinniesclambar.com.