Fall Comfort Food

By Randy Graham

Fall brings a yearning for cozy blankets, hot apple cider, and comfort foods here on California’s Central Coast. One of my go-to comfort foods is poutine with plenty of tangy gravy.

My riff features French fries, cheese curds, and gravy made with vegetable stock and rice vinegar. If you’re looking for comfort food for Halloween or Día de Los Muertos, give my quesofundido a try. It is good with a bowl of fresh tortilla chips or small handmade flour tortillas for dipping. If you need to provide comfort food to vegetarians visiting at Thanksgiving, we have you covered there too.

Try my veggie meatballs made with walnuts, onions, fresh sage, and mild longhorn cheese. Veg heads and meat lovers of all ages love this recipe. AnotherThanksgiving favorite of mine is my mom’s riced potatoes recipe, made with russet potatoes, butter, half-and-half, sour cream, and Parmesan cheese.

For a decadent and comforting dessert (any time of year), try my espresso-chocolate-rum balls of goodness.

Poutine Perfection Poutine is a dish of French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy. It has its roots in Quebec in the late 1950s and is junk food that soothes the soul with a measured overdose of carbs. Perfect for a late fall lunch on a blustery, rainy day — especially if you need to bulk up. As a teenager, I remember sitting at Capwell’s lunch counter in the Bay Area and ordering fries and gravy. It wasn’t poutine, but it was wonderful. I can still taste the warm, salty gravy ladled over the top of hot, deep-fried potatoes. This is my basic poutine recipe, kicked up a notch.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.


12 to 14 ounces frozen French fries

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 cups vegetable stock

1½ tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

salt to taste

12 ounces fresh white cheddar cheese curds (at room temperature and broken into bite-size pieces)

Directions: Cook fries according to package directions. Remove from the oven, salt lightly, and cover with a clean kitchen towel to keep warm.

While the fries are cooking, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until it begins to foam. Whisk in flour and cook, constantly stirring, for about 2 minutes.

 Gradually whisk in stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for another 10 to12 minutes. Add vinegar and season with salt to taste.

Set gravy aside.

Place fries in a shallow bowl or dish, top generously with curds, and spoon on gravy. Serve while the gravy is still hot.

Tip: I don’t have a local source for fresh curds, so I buy them online. If you can’t find fresh curds or don’t want to buy them online, substitute shredded mozzarella cheese. Also, I like Target’s House Cut Fries, but most other frozen fries will work.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Queso fundido (melted cheese) is a tasty Mexican comfort food dish typically served as an appetizer on a cold autumn night. It consists of pieces of chorizo, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and gooey, melted cheese. Use Soyrizo if you are vegetarian. My friend Myra gave me this queso fundido recipe her family makes for Día de Los Muertos. Myra says her name means “extraordinary one” in Spanish. I think you’ll find her recipe extraordinary as you dip your chips and smack your lips.

Makes 6 servings.


1 small tomato (chopped fine)

1 or 2 serrano chile peppers (seeded and chopped fine)

2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

8 ounces Oaxaca cheese (shredded)

8 ounces Manchego cheese (Myra recommends Mexican-style Manchego, shredded)

1 tablespoon flour

8 ounces chorizo sausage (casing removed)

½ cup white onion (chopped fine)

3/4 cup Dos Equis beerTortilla chips

directions: Mix tomato, chile, and oregano in a small bowl. Season with salt and set aside.

Toss cheeses with flour in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Cook chorizo in a large skillet over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add onion and continue cooking until the chorizo is cooked and the onion is soft and translucent — about 5 minutes.

Transfer this mixture to a small bowl and set aside. Return the skillet to the stove. Add Dos Equis and simmer, stirring occasionally and scraping up any browned bits of chorizo.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add Oaxaca and manchego cheeses a little at a time, and stir until you get a smooth consistency. Stir in chorizo. Add tomato mixture and stir to combine.

Transfer to a shallow bowl and serve with warm tortilla chips.

Vegetarian Meatballs

You might very well ask whether vegetarian meatballs are an oxymoron. I would answer yes to that. I would also add that most of my meat-eating friends prefer the hearty texture and rich taste over authentic meatballs. Fall comfort food, for sure. This recipe takes some planning, as the balls need to be frozen before they bake. Your efforts, however, will be well worth it. Serve these as a main course with rice or noodles. I also like them served over thin spaghetti. Serve as a vegetarian option for thanksgiving, to the delight of everyone.

Makes 6 servings.

Meatball Ingredients:

2½ cups cracker crumbs

2½ cups walnuts (chopped)

1 teaspoon season salt

3 teaspoons dried sage

1 large onion (chopped fine)

1½ cups longhorn cheese (grated)

6 tablespoons fresh parsley (minced)

8 large eggs (slightly beaten)

Pinch of garlic powder

Sauce Ingredients:

1 tablespoon butter

6 green onions (chopped)

1 clove of garlic (crushed)

2 cans mushroom soup

16 ounces sour cream

Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9×13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

Mix cracker crumbs, walnuts, seasonings, onion, cheese, parsley, eggs, and garlic powder. Form into balls approximately 1½ inches in diameter. Place balls on the baking sheet, cover, and freeze overnight. Or, make them in the morning, freeze them, and take out at dinnertime.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the green onions and garlic for about 1 minute. Add soup and sour cream. Set aside.

 Place frozen balls in the baking dish and pour in the sauce. Cover with foil and bake for45 minutes.

Serve bubbling hot.

Randy’s Mom’s Can’t-Wait-For-Thanksgiving Potatoes. It was a cold and stormy night (I know, corny — but it was). I was looking for comfort food and thought back to my childhood when my mom made her special potatoes for thanksgiving. Mom’s recipe is a rich combination of riced potatoes with milk, sour cream, and parmesan cheese. It is a fine complement to a perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey. As for me? I make it at the first hint of cold weather because I can’t wait for for thanksgiving.

Makes 2 to 3 servings. Double the recipe if you need more.




2 tablespoons salt

3 large russet potatoes (peeled and quartered)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup whole milk (or half-and-half)

½ cup sour cream

½ cup Parmesan cheese (divided)

Fresh ground black pepper

Directions: Add salt to a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and boil for 15 to 20 minutes or until soft (a knife should be able to go through the middle of the potatoes with little if any, resistance). Drain potatoes. Cover with a towel (to keep warm) and set aside.

Heat the butter and milk in a small saucepan until the butter melts completely. Set aside.

Rice (or mash) the potatoes into a large mixing bowl. Pour in the melted butter/milk mixture. Add the sour cream and Parmesan cheese, and stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon mashed potatoes into a large serving bowl with a pat of butter, cover, and keep warm until ready to serve.

Espresso-Chocolate-Rum Goodness

How about making a treat for adults this Halloween? Instead of dunking Oreo cookies in milk, think about dipping them in espresso before taking a bite. Then, think about following that with a sip of rum. With this recipe, you get it all — coffee, chocolate, and rum rolled up into bite-sized balls of goodness. Makes approximately 24 balls.


1 teaspoon instant espresso coffee crystals (Medaglia D’Oro brand is good)

¼ cup dark rum4 ounces cream cheese (room temperature)

1 cup fine baker’s sugar1 cup almonds (ground)

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate (melted)

12 Oreo cookies (remove the filling and crush the chocolate wafers)

Directions: Dissolve coffee crystals in the rum in a medium mixing bowl. Beat in cream cheese, sugar, and almonds. Stir in melted chocolate. Place mixture in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for one hour.

Remove mixture from the refrigerator and shape into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in crushed Oreos.

Place balls between layers of parchment paper and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.