Embrace Winter With This Comfort Food Menu

Photo: James Ross/Getty Images

Warm things up with these earthy comfort food recipes – perfect for serving a hungry hoard.

Cooking did not come naturally for Matthew Ravenscroft. Given that he’s the catering chef for one of Toronto’s most popular restaurants, that might seem surprising.

At the same time, it’s reassuring for those of us who love to cook but aren’t quite up to improvising, even after a couple of decades of trying. Ravenscroft has cashed in a philosophy degree for a top position at Parts & Labour, the Parkdale restaurant-slash-club that puts the fun in fine dining. Their urban down home cooking is heavy on shareable comfort food and light on pretension. He chalks up his success to hard work, a lot of cookbook reading and a willingness to make mistakes.

“I love my mom’s cooking, but it’s very ‘mom.’ No salt, steamed vegetables, that sort of thing,” he says.

“My dad loves great food and loves interesting, strange food. When I was five or six, I’d make this soup of frozen corn, cooked bacon, milk, water and chili flakes. And my dad would eat it and say, ‘This is really good.’ And it was disgusting. I fear the day that I’ll have to try my child’s cooking,” he says, laughing.

“And yeah, my mom might not be the most profound cook, but she always tried to include you. That social aspect is so much more, it’s the tie that binds.”

It’s the social aspect, too, that makes catering so much fun for Ravenscroft, cooking big and flavourful dishes that stand out in a crowd. He encourages home chefs to experiment with combinations they know will work. “A great little book that I used is called The Flavour Bible. So in trying to create a soup or a dish, I would rely heavily on actual proven theory about what kinds of flavours complement each other.

Which brings us to winter. He loves wood smoke, root veg and sweet spices – the smells of sugar shacks, ski chalets and long braises. “I simply love spices. So … winter it up!” he enthuses.

His recipes for squash soup and root vegetable tartlet featured here do just that. These complementary dishes use similar ingredients in different ways, so you can utilize everything you have. They’re earthy and warm, big and bold, and perfect for serving a hungry hoard.

It’s frugal too, always a good kitchen fundamental – especially when there are leftovers. “[I love] taking scraps and making something new and delicious. You just take the scrap from the soup and mix everything together [for the tart].”


For the soup, the chipotle and squash are “a great combination,” taken to new heights and a Mexican sensibility with the addition of chocolate. (Any dark chocolate will do, he says.)

For the veggie tartlet, a sage gastrique adds a hint of acid, giving the earthy dish some zing. “And it gives the veg a little bit of shine, too, making it a bit more welcoming.”

To wit, he encourages at-home chefs to play around: “If you want it nice and clean, you can lay out little rounds [of sliced vegetables], and it looks very beautiful. Or it looks just as beautiful to have a nice big pile.”


Chipotle Squash Soup served with Pine Nuts, Sage, Crème FraÎche and Chocolate

“While this seems like a strange combination, each flavour involved works to complement one another to make a robust, hearty soup that will wow guests and provide a unique twist to a classic. It includes similar elements that make mole (a Mexican sauce containing tomatoes, chilies, cinnamon and chocolate) but uses hearty winter vegetables to warm you up on cold winter nights.”


2  cinnamon sticks

1   sprig rosemary

1 tbsp toasted allspice berries (optional)

1  bunch sage (½ kept whole; ½ finely chiffinade)

1  chipotle chili (canned or dehydrated; if using dried, rehydrate in warm water)

Zest of 1 orange

¼ lb butter

½  head fennel, sliced

1  onion, sliced

3  cloves garlic, sliced


½  butternut squash, chopped

1 L  chicken stock or water

2 cups 35% cream



Crème fraîche

Shaved dark chocolate

Pine nuts

In a square of cheesecloth, place cinnamon, rosemary, allspice (if using), whole sage, chili and zest. Tie up tightly.

In soup pot over medium heat, melt half the butter until it is done foaming. Add fennel, onions and garlic; season with salt. Add spice bag.

Add squash and caramelize over medium-high heat. Pour in stock, bring to boil and reduce by a quarter. When squash is tender, remove sachet. Purée soup in blender, adding small amount of butter and cream until smooth. Adjust seasoning.

Garnish with a spoonful of crème fraîche and shaved chocolate, then top with pine nuts and sage chiffinade.

Root Vegetable Tartlet

“This is a hearty recipe that uses up whatever bits and pieces you may have in the pantry or fridge. Be adventurous but more importantly – be resourceful!

Don’t be bound just to the vegetables provided here – mix it up and use what’s available and in season. The optional add-ons are a great way to not only enhance the look and taste of the meal itself but it helps use up whatever you may have laying around in the fridge – few people keep frisée on hand but may have arugula, radicchio or another green. I say add it in and include something complementary like a sweet apple to contrast a bitter green with a squeeze of lemon.”


½  butternut squash, cubed

½ lb  Jerusalem artichoke, chopped

½ lb parsnip, chopped

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

½  head fennel, sliced

1 cup  Sage Gastrique (recipe follows)

Butter or oil

6  tartlettes or 1 pie shell, baked (for a Pâte Brisée recipe, go here.)

1   bunch sage (roughly chopped)

Optional Add-Ons

1 cup  crème fraîche, sour cream or yogurt

2  heads frisée

2  oranges

Toss squash, artichoke and parsnips with oil, salt and pepper. Spread on parchment paper-lined baking sheet and roast in 400 F oven for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat some oil in skillet and cook fennel over medium-low heat, adding a bit of salt to help pull any excess moisture, until soft. Feel free to deglaze pan with some wine to pull up any flavour that’s stuck to the bottom.

Toss roasted vegetables with a knob of butter and Sage Gastrique until evenly coated. In the bottom of each tart, place a scoop of caramelized fennel; spoon in roasted veggies. Sprinkle with chopped sage to garnish.

Serves 6

Sage Gastrique

“I’m of the opinion that gastrique of any kind is a great addition to the kitchen – it’s sweet, it’s acidic and it just brightens up a dish when it needs that something extra. Not only that, gastrique lasts forever and is infinite in combinations. But be careful: a little goes a long way! I prefer mine a bit more acidic than sweet, but if you’re the other way, just add equal parts sugar to vinegar.”


1 cup  cider vinegar

¾ cup  white sugar

1  bunch sage (rub it in your hands first to release oils)

In a pot over medium-low heat, combine vinegar, sugar and sage. Bring to slow boil and reduce until gastrique is thick enough to coat back of spoon.