3 Comfort Food Recipes You Need to Spice up Your Cookbook

Local chefs share their favorite comfort foods

Home cooking … it inspires memories of happy times with family, brings us comfort, instills in us a sense of being cared for and offers the rich flavors of tradition. And no matter how humble or seemingly simple the dish, the complexities of the emotions evoked with each bite of a favorite home-cooked dish track personal journeys on a plate, telling tales of our histories as flavors dance across our tongues.

So what are some home cooked meals you’ll always remember? Over the next few pages, three renowned local restaurateurs offer a few of their own favorites and spill the secrets behind how to create these marvelous dishes.

Chef Al Massa, Executive Chef at Marina Café, Destin
Born and bred in New Jersey, this former military man honed his culinary skills working for some of the country’s most famous chefs. Growing up in an Italian family, robust food (and red sauce) runs in his veins, and one of the dishes that still makes his heart dance is his mother’s Spaghetti Aglio e Olio.

“As with all comfort foods, it’s tied up with a sense of place and family,” says Chef Al. “This dish always reminds me of so many traditional Sunday dinners spent with extended family. … Those Sunday dinners helped anchor us as a family and gave me a great appreciation for family closeness. … My mom would make this as a special treat, because it was one of my father’s favorites, and I learned to love it from him.”

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio 
(Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil) Serves 4–6

  • 1 lb. dried spaghetti or linguine
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • Kosher salt

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package time, stirring after 1 minute. When only a few minutes remain on cooking time, remove pasta from water, reserving pasta water for later use.

While noodles cook, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add red pepper flakes and garlic and cook until garlic begins to turn golden brown. Add parsley. Add a ladle of reserved pasta water to stop cooking process and allow flavors to combine.

Add drained pasta to saute pan. Add more pasta water as necessary to finish cooking pasta, letting liquid reduce as pasta finishes and forming a thicker sauce. Season with salt, if necessary, and transfer to a large serving dish. Drizzle with more olive oil and add additional red pepper, if desired.

Chef George Lazi, Chef/Owner of George Artisan Bakery & Bistro, Pensacola
Originally from the Republic of Georgia, Chef George has cooked and tasted his way around Europe; but when he moved to America, he fell deeply in love with the flavors of traditional Southern cooking. Even as he finds inspiration in the South, he never forgets his ties to his home country and the memories he has of eating his grandmother’s chicken satsivi.

“This is one of my favorite dishes,” he says, “because my grandmother and mother used to make it for me. … Every time I make it now, it reminds me of my country and my roots.”

Chicken Satsivi
(Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce) Serves 6–8


  • 3 cups toasted walnuts, whole or pieces, + ½ cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • 1 ½ cups cilantro, roughly chopped and divided
  • 10 cloves garlic, finely chopped and divided
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped and divided
  • 1 red chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into
  • ½-inch pieces
  • 3 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp. hot paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. ground fenugreek
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt (to taste)
  • Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

In a food processor, combine 3 cups walnuts and 1⁄2 cup stock and puree until very smooth. Add chili, salt and pepper to puree and half each of the cilantro, garlic, and onions. Puree until very smooth and set sauce aside.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper and add to pan. Cook, turning as needed, until browned (about 8 minutes). Add remaining garlic and onions to pan, stirring occasionally until golden (about 4 minutes). Add paprikas, coriander, fenugreek and cinnamon and cook until fragrant (1 minute). Add walnut sauce (reserving one ladleful) and remaining stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender and sauce is reduced by a third (30-35 minutes).

While chicken and sauce simmer, whisk together egg yolks and one ladleful of walnut sauce in a bowl until fully combined. When chicken is tender and sauce is reduced by a third (see previous paragraph), pour egg mixture into pan with chicken and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar, salt and pepper, then ladle into serving bowls and garnish with chopped walnuts and remaining cilantro.

Chef Mike Meek, Chef/Owner of Liza’s Kitchen, Panama City Beach
Pensacola native Chef Mike grew up watching his mother and grandmother cook delicious meals and bake addictive desserts in the kitchen. As he matured into adulthood, he never forgot the way that great food that was cooked with love made him feel: safe and comforted.

“There’s something about time spent as a family sharing meals that’s so important, and it’s a huge part of the comfort experience of food for me,” says Chef Mike. “In particular, I remember how creative my mother was. When she came up with her pizza casserole, she blended two things that we all loved — pizza and pasta — and invented this wonderful meal that still makes me smile.”

Pizza Casserole
Serves 6–8


  • 2 lbs. ground beef
  • ½ cup green pepper, chopped
  • 1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 can pizza sauce
  • 1 can sliced mushrooms, with liquid
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp. oregano
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 16 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1 pkg. pepperoni, sliced
  • 8 oz. pkg. wide noodles

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook noodles according to package directions, then strain.
As pasta cooks, brown beef in a large skillet on medium heat, then remove pan from stove and drain excess fat. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except mozzarella cheese and pour into a
2 ½-quart casserole dish. Top with an even layer of mozzarella cheese and bake at 350 degrees
for 30 minutes.

Categories: Recipes