I am one of those annoying people that hardly ever gets sick. Like my father (who never spent a night in hospital in his life until the fall that broke his hip and ultimately led to his demise), the worst that happens to me is the occasional 24-hour tummy bug, or maybe the sniffles. All around me, people may be coming down with all sorts of things, but I trudge resolutely on with my supersize immune system. And then, once every 5 years or so, I come down with a humdinger. I remember, shortly after Nick and I moved in together in 1998, catching the flu and lying in bed for days feeling like death warmed up. For some reason, fever and illness makes me weepy and for some even more inexplicable reason my mind fixated on a joke about a penguin in the Arizona desert who misses home so much that he buys an ice-cream cone and in desperation messily eats it with his flippers. My overheated brain felt so much empathy with the homesick penguin that Nick came home on more than one occasion that week to find me feverishly sobbing about the poor bird. He was convinced that he had moved in with a mentally unbalanced penguin fanatic. Suffice it to say that when I do get sick, it is an Oscar-award-winning production.
Two weeks ago I left work with a tickling throat and a bit of a temparature and within 12 hours my throat felt like I had swallowed razor blades and I could hear my racing heart pounding in my ears as I sweated through my fever. Every day I’d think “oh I’m sure I will be able to go to work today” and then I would get up and Nick would take one look at me and order me back to bed. The dead giveaways that I was really not well were the fact that I was taking 3-hour naps in the middle of the day (something I never do otherwise); and the fact that I had no appetite (catastrophe!). But that does not mean that I was not spending a large chunk of my naptime dozing and fantasizing about comfort food.
Comfort foods are what we eat when we are feeling down, to lift our spirits and banish misery. Although humans must have been doing this for centuries, the term was only officially recognised in the late 1970s and it has been the subject of a surprising amount of research. One study divided comfort food into four categories: nostalgic foods, indulgence foods, convenience foods, and physical comfort foods – and sugested that each category is used to cure a different sort of misery. For example, if you are feeling ill you might crave a thick, nourishing soup; but after a bad day at work you might crave a big bag of crisps! Even more interestingly, studies show that men tend to prefer preferred warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods (such as steak, casseroles, and soup); while women preferred comfort foods that were more snack related (such as chocolate and ice cream). And even more interestingly, research suggests that men are prompted to consume comfort food by positive emotions, while negative emotions are more likely to make women comfort-eat. And unsurprisingly, studies also reveal strong connections between consumption of comfort foods and feelings of guilt. Ahem!
If you ask a hundred people what their definition of comfort food is, you will probably get 100 different answers. Cottage pie, apple pie, laksa, baked beans on toast, dim sum, pumpkin pie, kartoffelsalat (German potato salad), curry, sausages & mash, bibimbab, chocolate mousse, bobotie, risotto, mac & cheese, bouillebaisse and chilli con carne – from north to south and east to west, we all have the foods that remind us of home, remind us of people, or have the ability to wrap us in a warm, comforting culinary hug. For me, comfort food is always savoury and usually starchy: think crisps, creamed sweetcorn, creamy potatoes or rice. And of course a large side order of Hellman’s mayonnaise!!
While I was on my sickbed last week and the week before, one of the dishes that my mind kept returning to was kedgeree. Kedgeree is a rice based dish containing smoked fish, parsley, butter, eggs and spices. According to Wikipedia, kedgeree is thought to have its roots in an Indian rice-and-bean/lentil dish called khichri, which can be traced back to the early 1300s. The most common theory is that British colonials who had lived in India enjoyed the dish so much that they brought it back to the UK on their return and introduced it as a breakfast dish in Victorian times, when Anglo-Indian cuisine was very fashionable. Apart from being delicious, it has the added advantage of converting last night’s leftovers into a hearty and appealing breakfast dish! But what I love most about it is its nursery-food appeal. It’s not too colourful, requires very little chewing, and has just enough spice to be flavourful without being challenging. Comfort personified.
What do you turn to when you need comfort food?
KEDGEREE (serves 4)
500g smoked haddock
115g long-grain rice
30ml lemon juice
150ml single cream
pinch of grated nutmeg
pinch of cayenne pepper (or add to taste)
2 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and cut into wedges
50g butter, cubed
30ml fresh chopped parsley
salt & pepper
butter for greasing
Poach the haddock by placing the fillets in a large pan and just barely covering with water. Bring to a GENTLE simmer, cover and allow to cook for 6-8 minutes until the flesh flakes easily with a fork. Remove from the liquid with slotted spoon. In a large bowl, flake the fish and remove all skin and bones.
Pour the fish cooking liquid into a measuring jug and top it up wth water to make 1 cup of water. Bring this liquid to the boil, then add the rice, stir, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes until the rice is tender and all the liquid absorbed. In the meantime, butter an ovenproof casserole dish and preheat oven to 180C.
Remove the rice from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, cream, fish, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Add the egg wedges and mix gently so that they do not break up. Spoon the rice mix into the greased casserole dish, dot the rice with butter, cover with foil or a lid and bake for about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir in the parsley and serve (it’s also great served cold at a picnic).
And in other news… in case you missed it yesterday, there is still time to catch my interview on London Confidential.
And with only 23 days to go until the next Plate to Page workshop kicks off in Tuscany, we are thrilled to introduce our Tuscany sponsors! Do go and have a look at the wonderful companies who will be supporting us and making sure our goodie bags are bulging!