Gourmet Style: Classic American Comfort Food

8 Easy Recipes from Hale Aina Award-winning Chefs

Photo: Monte Costa

The world seems a little tense right now. There’s an uneasiness about where and how we’ll get our energy; who will be the next U.S. president; in which direction the economy will go. If you are what you eat, perhaps we need to consume a little stress relief. The prescription? Nourish ourselves with classic, home-cooked American comfort food. When you’re making these recipes, savor the process. When the food is ready, slow down a moment and cherish the time spent with friends and family around that most comforting of places—our dining tables.


Recipe from Chef Ed Kenney

“The Elvis”: Grilled Almond Butter, Apple Banana and Candied-Bacon Sandwich

2    slices multigrain bread (chef Ed Kenney used Watanabe Bakery bread)       
¼  cup almond butter   
1     ripe, local apple banana   
3    slices applewood smoked bacon       
3    tsp. honey (Kenney used Nalo Meli brand)
3    tsp. brown sugar   
      Cracked pepper
      Salt, to taste       

1. Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay out bacon on a baking sheet. Combine honey with 1 teaspoon warm water to thin it slightly, then brush one side of the bacon with the honey/water mixture. Sprinkle each strip of bacon with brown sugar and generously season with cracked pepper. Bake the bacon for 15 minutes or until crisp and shiny. Slice the banana lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices. Spread bread with the almond butter and season with salt. Top the almond butter with bananas, bacon and bread. Grill the sandwich in a panini press, or on a griddle as you would a grilled cheese sandwich.

Chef Ed Kenney with his son, Duke.  Duke prefers his dad’s Classic PB&J.

Photo:  Monte Costa

Town won a Hale Aina, bronze, for Best Bistro/New American Cuisine in our 2008 awards. 3435 Waialae Ave., 735-5900. www.townkaimuki.com. Its sibling restaurant, Downtown @the HiSAM, has been causing a stir at the Hawaii State Art Museum. It’s on the ground floor, 250 S. Hotel Street; 536-5900.

Ed Kenney is the owner/chef of Town and Downtown. His favorite comfort foods? “I’m from here, so anything with rice, or saimin, or oxtail soup. One of our most popular dishes at the restaurant is risotto with oxtail soup.” This champion of locally produced food gets his beef for the risotto from the North Shore and the Big Island.


Recipe from Chef Ed Kenney 

Classic PB&J

“PB&J is the ultimate American comfort food,” says chef Ed Kenney. The classic version is beloved by his son, Duke. Like many peanut-butter aficionados, Duke prefers white bread, with the crusts cut off.

Photo: Monte Costa

Sure, you can use store-bought jam, but why not try something that uses locally grown, Kula strawberries? Here’s Kenney’s recipe.

2 ½  lbs. Kula strawberries
(6 cups stemmed and crushed)
4 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 package pectin
3 Tb. lemon juice
4 Tb. balsamic vinegar

Combine the pectin and ½ cup of sugar. Set aside. Combine the strawberries and remaining sugar and allow to macerate for one hour. Next, add the lemon juice, vinegar and pectin-sugar mix, and stir well. Heat the mixture in a heavy pot and bring to a boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Periodically stir and skim off the foam. Use a chilled plate to test how well the jam is gelling. This jam can be canned using standard canning technique or you can simply store it in an airtight container for up to a month.




"The cheese soup/tomato sandwich idea is a twist on the classic tomato soup/grilled cheese combo."—Chef Ed Kenney

Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Ed Kenney

Grilled Tomato Sandwich and Cheese Soup

For the Sandwich

4   slices rustic country bread       
2   ripe tomatoes
1    garlic clove, peeled           
     Extra virgin olive oil
     Salt and pepper
For garnish, basil.       

For the Soup (Bacon-Parmesan Broth)

2    tsp. olive oil
6    slices bacon, chopped
1     onion, chopped
1     carrot, chopped
1     outer rib of celery
3    Tb. all-purpose flour
3    cups water
3    cups dry white wine
2    cloves garlic, smashed
1     bay leaf
8    oz. Parmigiano Reggiano rinds
      (or hunk of Parmigiano cheese)



“Tomatoes are so delicious through August and September that I thought they deserved respect, and not to be turned into soup. The beautiful heirloom tomatoes used were from Jeanne Vana at Big Wave Tomato Farm in Waialua. She is at the KCC Farmers’ Market every Saturday.” –Chef Ed Kenney

To finish the soup:

1     cup cream
8    oz. grated fontina cheese
1     tsp. Marsala
1     tsp. chili pepper water
      Salt and pepper to taste

1. Method for the sandwich:

Prepare a barbecue grill or cast-iron grill pan. Place bread on the grill and after one minute flip the bread. Brush the grilled side of the bread with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. After another minute, remove the bread from the grill and rub the oiled side with the raw garlic clove. Top each slice of bread with slices of tomato and torn basil leaves. Drizzle each “sandwich” with more olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

2. Method for the soup:

Render the bacon in a pot over medium-high heat with the olive oil. After five minutes, add the vegetables and sauté for five more minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook for 2 minutes, stirring the whole time. Add the water, wine, garlic, Parmesan rinds and bay leaf, and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the broth from the heat and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Purée the broth in a blender or with an immersion blender for one minute. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean pot. Add the cream to the broth and return to a simmer over medium heat. Turn the heat down slightly and add the fontina little by little, stirring all the while, until the cheese has melted and the soup has become creamy. Do not simmer or boil, as the soup may separate. Remove from the heat, add the Marsala and season with chili pepper water, salt and pepper. Strain again if needed. Serve in a cup with the sandwich.



Recipe from Chef Dennis Franks

Traditional Mashed Potatoes

3     pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed
1     cup heavy cream
½   cup butter (1 stick)
1½ tsp. salt
¼   tsp. white pepper

1.  Method:

1. Place the potatoes in a pot, cover with water and cook for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender, then drain well and set potatoes aside. If time allows, chef Dennis Franks recommends substituting the boiled potatoes with baked potatoes (with or without skin). Then proceed to step 2.

2. In pot, heat cream, butter, salt and pepper. Once the mixture is hot, and the butter is melted, add the potatoes and mash together.




Roasted chicken—a true classic—from the kitchen of chef Dennis Franks.

Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Dennis Franks

Herb Roasted Half Chicken with Gravy

1     whole chicken (fryer size)
¼  cup olive oil
1     tsp. chopped parsley
1     tsp. chopped rosemary
1     tsp. chopped sage
1     tsp. chopped thyme
½  tsp. salt
¼  tsp. ground black pepper

For gravy, flour and chicken broth


1. Method for Chicken:

Cut chicken in half by cutting along one side of the backbone, and then repeat along the other side to remove. Lay chicken flat, breast side up and cut through down the center. Combine olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper, then rub this mixture all over the chicken pieces. Place chicken and backbone on roasting pan and cook at 325 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.

2. Method for Gravy:

Remove chicken from pan and place pan on burner on medium heat. While scraping up all bits, add flour to drippings to form a paste. Add chicken broth until desired consistency.

Photo: Monte Costa

This year, HONOLULU readers awarded a bronze Hale Aina Award for “Best Kid-Friendly Restaurant” to Big City Diner. Big City Diner has five locations, including Kailua, Kaimuki, Pearlridge Center, Waipio and Ward Entertainment Center. For details, see www.bigcitydinerhawaii.com

Chef Dennis Franks has been with Big City Diner for six years. He says the most popular dishes at Big City Diner are fried rice, ribs, meatloaf and hamburger steak.


"Each person can choose the amount of apple filling they like.  It’s a little diffrent."—Chef Dennis Franks

Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Dennis Franks

Big City Diner’s Rustic Apple Pie

Note: Mindful of our busy lives, chef Dennis Franks modified this recipe from the original, making it super simple for home cooks. 

1     can apple filling (chef Franks recommends Comstock)
½  ounce raisins
¼  tsp. ground cinnamon
¼  tsp. vanilla extract
4    pieces frozen puff pastry, such as Pillsbury


1. Method: 

Combine apple filling, raisins, cinnamon and vanilla. In a deep dish, bake mixture, uncovered, at 350 degrees, for 30 minutes. Stir halfway through. Meanwhile, cut pastry into 3-inch squares and bake according to package directions. Once baked, tear prepared pastry crust in half, creating an upper and lower section. Place lower section on plate, top with filling and cap off with upper section of pastry. (Or let family members choose how much filling they want, constructing their own). Optional: drizzle with caramel sauce and chopped nuts, or top with ice cream.

“He’s always very eager to learn new things to cook, and loves to cook for his mom, Judy,” says Franks.

Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Dennis Franks

Chocolate-Chip Mac-Nut Cookies

Chef Dennis Franks and his 9-year-old son, Caleb, enjoy making this recipe together.

2     cups    flour
½   tsp. baking powder
½   tsp. baking soda
½   tsp. salt
½   cup ground pecans
1     cup unsalted butter
¾  cup granulated sugar
¾  cup brown sugar
1    tsp. vanilla extract
2    large eggs
2    cups chocolate chips
1    cup roasted macadamia nuts



1.    Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ground pecans.
2.    Cream together butter, sugars, vanilla and eggs.
3.    Add flour mixture to creamed mixture and combine well.
4.    Fold in chocolate chips and macadamia nuts.
5.    Drop spoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees for 9 to 11 minutes. Yields 50 to 60 cookies.


Use a small, spring-loaded cookie or ice cream scooper.




Steak is so simple, it’s hard to screw it up.  That’s why it’s a classic comfort food.

Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Leighton Miyakawa

Cowboy Rib Eye with Creamed Spinach

1    stick butter            
¼ cup all purpose flour        
2   cups milk (or, for an even richer dish,     half and half)       
2   Tb. chopped onion           
1    bay leaf
¼ tsp. salt   
1    pound of well-cleaned and stemmed fresh spinach.           


1. To make Bechamel Sauce:

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it becomes foamy, add flour and stir until light brown in color. Add the onion and seasonings, and whisk in the milk, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Reduce the heat and cook for five minutes. Pass through a fine strainer and reserve. The sauce will be very thick.

2. To cook spinach: 

Cook spinach immersed in boiling water for one minute. Remove and refresh in ice water to cool it off. Squeeze until it’s very dry, then purée spinach in a food processor. Set aside.

3. Method:

Just before serving, combine the sauce with the puréed spinach and cook on low heat, stirring often, for about five minutes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finish by stirring in 2 tablespoons of soft butter.

Photo: Monte Costa

This year, Ruth’s Chris at Restaurant Row won a silver Hale Aina Award for Best Oahu Restaurant. The Mauna Lani location, on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island, took home a bronze Hale Aina Award for Best New Neighbor Island Restaurant. Ruth’s Chris also has locations in
Waikiki, Lahaina and WaiLea.

Chef Leighton Miyakawa works his magic at Ruth’s Chris Waikiki, at the Waikiki Beach Walk. 226 Lewers St., 440-7910. www.ruthschris.com.


“I think steaks are a comfort food for the majority of people,” says chef Leighton Miyakawa. “It’s worldwide. Japan is starting to eat more steak, China is eating more steak. As the world becomes westernized, it becomes a comfort food all over. For Americans, it’s been in the American diet, starting with cowboys. It’s nice fond memories of family barbecues; it’s in our tradition, basically.”


Steak for Dinner

At Ruth’s Chris, the Cowboy Rib Eye is a bone-in, two-inch-thick, 22-ounce steak. “It’s aged four to five weeks and is U.S. prime, which only 2 percent of all beef in the U.S. is rated,” says chef Leighton Miyakawa. He says it’s difficult to buy that kind of meat at retail, so for home cooking purposes, Miyakawa suggests selecting the best meat you can afford, and getting a thick cut, one inch or more.

For seasoning, “all we do is salt the meat, using Hawaiian sea salt, and black pepper,” says Miyakawa. Don’t put the salt on too early, or it will start to draw the juices out of the meat; do it just prior to cooking. Miyakawa broils the steak, a high-heat process that sears the juices in and caramelizes the meat so it has a sweetness. For home cooks, he suggests using an outdoor grill. “You’ll get the smoky taste from the charcoal.”

Once the steak is done, let it sit 10 to 15 minutes. “The juice continues to circulate. Just let it settle. Then we put a dab of salted butter on the steak while it’s hot, the butter starts mixing in with the juices of the steak. It creates a natural sauce.”

But how do you know if the steak is done? Don’t cut into it, says Miyakawa, as that will let the juices run off. And save the meat thermometer for a roast. Instead, he says, “I do it by feel. If the steak’s soft, it’s on the rare side. It gets firmer and firmer as it’s getting more and more cooked. My personal preference is medium-rare; you loose all the flavor of the meat otherwise. But you can always throw it back on the grill if you think it’s too pink.”




Photo: Monte Costa

Recipe from Chef Leighton Miyakawa

Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet Potato Mixture

3    cups mashed sweet potatoes            
1     cup granulated sugar       
½  tsp. salt       
1     tsp. vanilla            
2    eggs, well beaten
1    stick (½ cup) butter           

Crust Mixture

1    cup light brown sugar
1/3     cup flour
1     cup chopped nuts (pecans are preferable, but you can swap in other nuts if you wish)
1/3     stick butter, melted 

1. To make the crust:

Combine crust mixture ingredients in a mixing bowl and set aside.

2. To make sweet potato mixture:

Combine sweet potato mixture ingredients into a mixing bowl in the order listed above. Combine thoroughly.

3. Method:

Pour sweet potato mixture into buttered baking dish, then sprinkle the surface of it evenly with the crust mixture.  Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow the dish to set for at least 30 minutes before serving.


You want fries with that? When buying sweet potatoes for this sweet-potato casserole, purchase a few extra so that you can make sweet-potato fries. Baked sweet-potato wedges, sprinkled with your choice of seasonings (try sea salt, pepper, chopped garlic or rosemary), make for a healthy version of fast-food fries.