Fill yourself with stick-to-your-ribs foods while it’s still cold outside

February 22, 2013

Stick-to-your-ribs foods are the culinary version of a Fair Isle sweater. And if that meal does its job well, it’s probably worth wearing one while you eat, since the thick knits will be forgiving to a belly full of satisfying food. But just as those sweaters get packed away in mothballs for the spring, there are only a few more wintry weeks to dig into these hearty comfort foods that take a backseat to lighter fare in warmer months.

What gives food that stick to your ribs quality? It’s not just how filling it is — a Five Guys burger will fill you up, but you wouldn't put it in the same category as, say, poutine. Rather, it’s the state of mind it invokes: Fireplaces. Cold, rainy nights. A blanket and a hot toddy. Or, in the case of the first stop on this rib-sticking tour, “The Sound of Music.”

After all, if a food is wintry enough to bear mention in a holiday song, it’s probably going to stick to your ribs. After the doorbells and sleighbells, you’re left with Lyon Hall’s schnitzel with noodles — crisply breaded and fried pork, with kale, wild mushroom fricassee, and buttery, buttery spaetzle. The brasserie’s other hearty options also include a bacon-and-bean duck cassoulet, and boeuf Burgundy, red wine-braised short ribs tender enough to cut with a butter knife, paired with winter root vegetables and, once again, warm, buttery noodles.

Pelmeni, courtesy of Mari Vanna.
Pelmeni, courtesy of Mari Vanna.

While a food can stick to your ribs for that warm feeling it gives you, there’s also a physical reason some meals have taken on the designation: To put it plainly, we digest these foods more slowly.

“It’s something that stays with you, that’s lasting, satisfying,” said Rebecca Scritchfield, a Chevy Chase dietitian. “If you look at it from the comfort food standpoint, comfort foods are high in carbs and fat ...That’s related to your body’s release of serotonin.”

Serotonin, of course, is the chemical in our brains that makes us happy. That’s why there’s nothing more satisfying than tucking into a hot bowl of stew (like the veal stew at Serbian restaurant Ambar, served in a petite dish that won’t fill you up too quickly) or chili (which will come to you, if you catch the Tops food truck and its spicy, cheesy chili bowls).

Cuisines that do rib-sticking the best are the ones with cold, harsh winters — like Russia. On Tuesdays at Mari Vanna, you can fill up on pelmeni, tiny, traditional dumplings that originated in Siberia. They’re filled with beef and pork or veal, and served in a shallow broth with sour cream on the side. Vareniki, tiny Russian pierogi, are also on the Tuesday menu — potato-filled, they’re heartily covered in sauteed onions and chopped mushrooms.

Also on the menu at Mari Vanna: Borscht, the Ukranian soup colored red by beet juice. Its humble ingredients include tomatoes, beef, vinegar and onion. Swirl your daub of sour cream into the soup to watch it turn pink, and sop up the the last drops in the bowl with some rye bread. You’ll also find borscht at Shaw’s Bistro Bohem, where Eastern European comfort foods anchor the menu. Their pierogi are stuffed with kale instead of the traditional potato, and smothered in a cheesy cream sauce that makes them more akin to ravioli.

Goulash, courtesy of Bistro Bohem.
Goulash, courtesy of Bistro Bohem.

Foods from peasant culture are likely stick-to-your-ribs classics for obvious reasons: They needed to be filling to replace calories lost after a long day in the fields, and they had to come from cheap ingredients that were readily available, like potatoes, root vegetables and beans. Goulash is true peasant food — it was eaten by Hungarian shepherds who cooked it over an open fire. Not quite stew but more than soup, the recipe varies but always has these ingredients in common: beef, paprika, onions and tomato. At Bohem, the dish comes with two floating, pillowy islands of playing card-sized dumplings.

Necessary for rib-stickiness: plenty of starch. A serving of mashed potatoes — like the “everything” mashed potatoes at Range, with a sprinkling of all the ingredients that top an “everything” bagel — is comforting solo, or in another dish, like shepherd’s pie. At the Limerick Pub, it's the fluffy topping for ground lamb, veggies and spices. The meal is enhanced by the cozy atmosphere: A crackling fireplace in one corner, and a group of fiddlers playing Celtic tunes in another. Shepherd’s pie isn’t even the heartiest fare on the menu: That designation goes to the Guinness beef stew, with a high meat-to-root-vegetables ratio.

Borscht, courtesy of Mari Vanna.
Borscht, courtesy of Mari Vanna.

Though many of these comfort foods rely on heavy servings of meat, vegetarians need not feel shut out. At Satellite Room, there’s no chicken in the pot pie — just warm peas, carrots and potatoes that ooze pleasingly out of a flaky crust. Vegetarians can also catch the Basil Thyme lasagna food truck when it’s parked nearby for hearty layers of sauce and cheese that sub out the noodles for slices of eggplant (but for meat lovers, the beef lasagna will satisfy — or the lobster with cream sauce, if you’re looking for something fancier). The side salad that comes with every lasagna lightens up the heavy meal.

It’s hard to save room for dessert. But there’s no end to a meal more comforting than bread pudding. At the Limerick Pub, it’s drizzled in vanilla cream, and big enough for three people to share. At Range, the brioche bread pudding is chocolate and banana flavored, and it comes with a daub of chocolate stout ice cream. But if that’s all too much, surely there’s room for a dessert drink, like the hot buttered rum at Drafting Table. It could be better — you could be drinking it at home, wrapped in your favorite quilt.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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Maura Judkis · February 22, 2013