Soothe operators

December 7, 2011

With the cold snap now upon us, it’s finally time to reveal the results of my not very scientific survey on top comfort foods. After several months of asking friends, both real and on facebook, colleagues, family and in some cases, just random people I meet, I can can reveal what we all like to eat when we need more than just fuel.

There were a few surprises, such as only one person choosing chocolate. And knowing my sister as I do, we’re not talking 70% cocoa solids here, it’s Giant Buttons all the way. Another relation chose “good wine and cheese” which was the most high-brow answer I got.

There were a few patterns – comfort food seems often to hark back to our childhood and many of the foods were almost retro. And despite the array of dishes chosen, there was a recurring theme of mince, cheese and salt.

Macaroni cheese was by far the most popular choice, the stodgier the better most people said. Various mince dishes, from mince and tatties to cottage pie to cheesy mince (don’t scoff, it’s a sublime mix of mince, cheese and pasta – what’s not to like?). There was one request for spag bol.

Soup also scored highly, either ‘mum’s ham’ or Heinz tomato, which I know is what a lot of people take when they are ill.

Surprisingly, there were no takers for anything sweet – although a crumble with custard features high on my list. I also expected to see bacon, chicken soup and toast on the lists but they never appeared.

When it comes to savoury comfort food, my choice would nearly always be medium boiled eggs mashed up in a cup with lots of salt and pepper and butter and some thing toast. It’s what my mum used to make if I was ill and even the smell makes me feel a bit better.

Another choice would be this week’s recipe. Comfort food is something I associate with eating alone but in this case, I would probably only make it for two or more. Even making a risotto is soothing and the end results is hot, creamy but not sickly, salty and filling. The northern Italians have a fantastic homely dish you never see on menus because it’s considered such a basic dish – risi e bisi, basically risotto with ham and peas. It ticks all the boxes when it comes to comfort food and is almost just the rice version of pea and ham soup. If you have foodie pals, don’t be shy in asking them for some home-made chicken stock – I always have loads and am happy to donate a bag to a good cause such as making risotto. Otherwise, the liquid concentrates you buy in supermarkets are your best bet.

Making too much risotto is a good idea because the following day you can make arancini – little risotto balls to have as a snack. Just take the leftover risotto from the fridge and, with wet hands, form into balls just small than a golf ball. You can do the whole milk-egg-breadcrumb thing or, if like me you think life’s too short for that, just roll them in a little wholemeal flour or polenta and fry gently until browned all over. If you’re feeling very adventurous, stick a cube of cheese or a piece of fried mushroom or pepper in the middle.

My only other tip for risotto is a Jamie Oliver one – when you think it’s almost ready, take it off the heat, add a knob of butter and put the lid on for five minutes until it ‘settles’. This really makes a huge difference.

Leek, lemon and rocket risotto

Serves two generously with leftovers

One leek, finely chopped

Two cloves of garlic, smashed

About 250g risotto rice

Grated zest of one lemon and the juice

About a tsp of fresh chopped rosemary

Two pints of chicken stock, which you should have simmering on the hob before you start

2-3oz fresh parmesan, grated

Knob of butter and salt and pepper

Small bag of rocket

In a large saute pan or the heaviest pan you have that has a lid, heat about 2tbsp olive oil and add a tsp of butter. Add the leeks and garlic and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring often. The leeks should not brown. Add salt and pepper.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until it begins to ‘sigh’  – it makes a slightly high-pitched noise. Stir in half the zest and juice and the rosemary.

Add the stock, two ladlefuls at a time, stirring all the time until each portion of stock has been absorbed. Continue for about 20 minutes. Try to always stir in the one direction – this isn’t an old wives’ tale it really does make the risotto creamier.

If you run out of stock, pour some water from the kettle into your stock pan and add that towards the end.

After the 20 or so minutes, the rice should have doubled in size and be creamy. It should still be firm to the bit though. Add ost of the parmesan and stir in well. Taste for seasoning. Take off the heat, add a knob of butter and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Emtpy the bag of rocket in – it will look like there is a mountain of it but, like spinach, once the heat hits it the leaves will reduce down to nothing. Stir in well and serve.

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