Comfort Food

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d been expecting to this last few weeks. I never quite got round to mentioning here that I’ve been doing nablopomo again this year, not that you’d notice if you only you only read this blog. (Due largely to the fact that I’ve actually been blogging regularly here this year, so I didn’t actually have a backlog of posts I’d been meaning to make to catch up with.)

What I have been thinking about a lot lately is comfort food. What constitutes it and why does it hold such an appeal for us. I spent the early part of this week fighting off a head cold and frankly all I wanted to eat was comfort food, preferably comfort food of my childhood. Food and health, or rather food and self-care have a rather straightforward relationship for me. I learned to cook – beyond the basics – when I was living in Bournemouth and doing my Masters, as an act purely and simply of self-care. I was constantly getting throat infections and generally showing the signs of student life having worn down my body. Taking the time to learn to cook well and to feed myself properly was a radical act of self-care for me; that was physically and psychologically healing. Good food became both the fuel for and the reward for hard work. Over the years, I have taught myself that whenever I feel a cold coming on, the most important act of defence is to make a big pot of soup, packed with as many vegetables and pulses as I can get into it. Because if I fend it off I’ll have tasty soup to help me fight it and if I end up coming down with the cold, it’s entirely possible to live off the soup while I’ve no energy to cook anything else.

One of the less fun aspects of being a vegetarian is that much of the comfort food of my childhood that I crave when I’m sickly is no longer available to me as it contains meat. Often now, when I find myself craving childhood comfort I end up just making mashed potatoes or a big jug of custard. However, on Monday night I found myself longing for potato and leek pie, and decided to make my own take on it. I could, theoretically have made it with quorn sausages to make closer to the original, but I knew I had both potatoes and leeks in the house and grabbing a wee pack of puff pastry from the chiller cabinet was about all the complexity I could cope with. I stuck the potatoes on to boil and gently cooked the leek in some butter while the oven heated. While my white sauce will never be a patch on my mum’s, I do make a decent mushroom sauce, and apparently this carries over to leeks too. By the time I had a good consistency of sauce the pastry was in the oven and I was able to mash the potatoes, combining sauce and mash into a soft but firm pie filling of pure comfort. Served with little wodges of puff pastry it both looked and tasted like comfort food straight out of my childhood.


I ended up with loads of filling so I kept the leftovers to use up with the remaining pastry on Wednesday night ahead of a long train journey. On that occasion I decided to attack my pastry with some little crimped circular pastry cutters I have and that added to the delightfully childish nature of the meal. My mum assures me that I’ve actually amalgamated two separate childhood meals into one here, but I agree with her that it hardly matters if I find it comforting.

Speaking of my mum and comfort food, we were both feeling the need for comfort food when I saw her the other day, so I gave her the excuse to have soup and pudding and call it a meal. (No matter how good I get at making soup, how happy I am with the soups that I make, no other soup, than my mum’s vegetable broth will ever taste as good when I’m sick.) Particularly I gave her an excuse to make semolina with tinned fruit, and I can think of no pudding more stick to the ribs filling and comforting, the true definition of a pudding that gives you a hug!

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Cooking the Book – October Edition

If my cooking in October had a theme, it was leftovers. I felt like I was constantly eating leftovers, that my ability to cook anything was being ham strung by endless little containers of ingredients and portions of previous meals. Normally this would be smashing but when you’re trying to cook up your cupboards, it is less than ideal. (I made curry last night – Keralan Quorn Curry – and didn’t bother cooking rice with it, as I’m still using up the polenta…)

Butter Chicken (well, Quorn ‘chicken’ pieces if we’re being accurate) because I love a curry. I’m sure none of you had the least suspicion that that was the case. Because the take away of choice for my childhood was Chinese food, I never really encountered the classics of British-Indian take away food until I was an adult. And while I’ve eaten a fair few regrettable Chicken Tikka Masalas over the years – when I still ate meat I was much more at the Korma/Pasanda end of the spice scale – I’ve never actually had Butter Chicken. I’ve no idea if what I made was remotely accurate, but I would certainly make it again. Although I would make sure I had plain yoghurt next time. I realised halfway through that I’d forgotten to get plain yoghurt, but courtesy of my yoghurt maker I had a big tub of mango yoghurt in the fridge. Lots of curries use amchoor, and I really like them, so I figured, what the heck, it was worth a shot. And it does work, it makes it a very fruity curry, but it works, though I don’t know that I’d recommend it unless you’re similarly caught short.

It did also lead, as part of my cupboard cookup, to my making Curry Quesadillas. By means of toasting a couple of left-over tortilla wraps in the frying pan, filling them with left over curry, chucking in some paneer – to go with the theme – and some shredded mozzarella. It was actually really good. Not a fusion food combination I imagine showing up on a menu anywhere any time soon, but surprisingly good, quick easy food to make after a back shift.

Mini Chestnut, Apple and Spinach Wellingtons. Which are not, I would contest, particularly ‘mini’. I made them as a sort of test run, as a possible Christmas food dish. I think I’m more disappointed in them because I actually watched Lorraine cook these on the tele a couple of years ago. (While staying with a friend in Belfast almost exactly two years to the day before I made them.) They looked delicious at the time and when I saw them in this book I was really excited and I’ve been looking forward to making them ever since. They’re alright. Not horrible, not brilliant, just alright. I found them very dry, both in filing and entirety. I do wonder if they might be rather better made with puff pastry, if that might make them lighter in a way. However, because I ended up with too much filing – I was using up dried green lentils rather than canned ones, and I over estimated the conversion rate and ended up with cooked green lentils coming out of my ears – and I used it up by means of stirring it up with some passata and sticking it in a baked potato. Which was delicious – really, really good. So I’ll be trying this recipe again at some point but with added passata in the filling as I think that might solve the problem entirely.

Actually I ended up making a third recipe out of the book this month, as I made Shallot and mushroom gravy to go with my Wellingtons one day. Which was…fine. I tried to scale it down to just have enough for one person, but didn’t cut down the shallot enough – they were quite sizeable shallots which didn’t help, I suspect that if they’d been the little round ones it would have been fine – so it didn’t really break down enough during cooking so I ended up with a weird lumpy gravy – I should have stuck to my usual mushroom sauce, that’s considerably nicer.

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Dal Be Back…

Over a year ago, when I was attempting to cook up my cupboards ahead of moving house, I made a supplementary list of recipes that eventually was amalgamated with the ’30 Recipes’ list. Partly because certain recipe books were in the wrong cities and also because when I originally compiled the recipe I ate meat and these days I’m a vegetarian. I’ve talked before about my recipe book ‘problem’ that these lists were an attempt to curb.

Being back in Inverness, I once again had access to the Dal Cookbook that I obsessed about last year. (And despite my myriad plans made nothing from…) Since then I’ve made two recipes from the book – Lentil Kutu with Green Beans and Moong Dal with Cauliflower – so it seemed sensible to write about them together. They actually had a few things in common. For a start they both turned out to be different versions of recipes that I’d cooked before. In the case of the Lentil Kutu an inferior version and in the case of the Moong Dal with Cauliflower a far superior version. One of the disappointing aspects of the book was that many of the recipes followed essentially the same pattern. Cook lentils, cook vegetables, grind spice and fry them in oil, combine veg and lentil, pour spiced oil over the mixture and serve. I much prefer the lentils to be cooked together with the spices (even if that does sometimes involve counting in and out the cardamom pods), as I prefer the way the flavours disperse through the lentils. I feel it gives a richer and mellower flavour.

Lentil Kutu with Green Beans sounded like it would be amazing but ended up being really messy to cook and frankly a bit disappointing. Strangely, when I was eating it I thought, I’ve made something really similar to this before and it was much better. But having retrieved the book I thought it was in, I can find no dals involving green beans. (No green beans at all.) I can only presume that I made another similar dal that was meant to use another vegetable entirely, but I used green beans for it because that’s what I had to hand. Which doesn’t help me in the slightest to narrow it down and find the preferred recipe.


Moong Dal with Cauliflower, is clearly the dish that the Lentil and Cauliflower Curry, which I found in my mum’s Oxo cookbook, was based on. The flavours are much nicer (and obviously more authentic) though for reasons of preferred spice frying techniques, I may well cobble together a recipe that is a combination of them both for future use. Lentils and cauliflower make for such cheap and tasty bulk curry cooking.

Moong dal with cauliflower

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Bake More Often: Baking in Unfamiliar Kitchens

Over the last year and a half, I’ve lived in three different places, which has meant three different kitchens. One of those was my parent’s kitchen, which is familiar but having been away seemed strange and new again last winter. I adored the kitchen in my old flat. It was big and between my flatmates and me we basically had everything culinary we could possibly need (and a few things we didn’t). One of my flatmates was as keen a cook as me and the kitchen became the main social space of our flat. The weekend that I moved in there were home made brownies and I never had a chance to get nervous about cooking in this kitchen because someone else was already experimenting. There were successes and disasters and not a little heckling.

My current kitchen is different. It’s small and perfectly formed but it’s not mine. I’m a lodger and however well that situation has worked out, I’m always aware that this is someone else’s kitchen. It’s exacerbated by the fact that my landlady isn’t much for cooking herself. She doesn’t bake at all. I already spent much more time in the kitchen than she does just making dinner and preparing packed lunches. So for months I chickened out of baking. After my excellent start to my Bake More Often challenge in the first three months of the year, I didn’t bake again for another three months.

Then June arrived and with it both my parents’ birthdays. And they came to visit. In our family birthdays are always marked with cake. Even when I was writing my dissertation in sunny Bournemouth and couldn’t come home for my birthday, my parents sent me a tiny box cake in the post. I couldn’t not provide cake and pride forbade the shop-bought variety. There were some obstacles. Due to the aforementioned small kitchen, most of my non-essential cookware is in storage at my parents’. I had no cake tin and it seemed foolish to buy one up here that I would use once or twice and not again after it. Equally it seemed foolish to buy flour and sugar and all the rest when I had no room to store them and would probably only bake once or twice. So I determined to get one of those packet mixes and make a cake that way. After all I’d got back into baking back in Bournemouth after I’d found a packet on special offer and had too much fun making butterfly cakes…

Flutterby Cake

Then I discovered that neither did my landlady. In fact the extent of her baking equipment is a large bowl, a whisk, a set of scales, some wooden spoons and a bun tray. Undeterred I bought packet mix and butter, and made red velvet cupcakes. Not quite as impressive as I’d hoped but baking nonetheless. The icing was a bit of a disaster but the buns were tasty and my parents were impressed that I’d actually produced cake in this strange new kitchen.

Red Velvet Cupcake

The oven has taken some getting used to. Its highest temperature is 200˚C (it’s a fan oven thankfully) and pretty much anything I ever bake in it takes at least 5 if not 10 minutes longer than the instructions say. It’s been an experience. However, I’ve persevered, as evidenced by the fact that I have another two Bake More Often posts planned for this month. (Pastry is a bit of a theme; it seems to be the most consistently successful substance to bake in this oven.) I made Banana and Peanut Butter muffins and they were…fine. Well the recipe needs a bit of refining which doesn’t help but in the end I established that giving them a wee zap in the microwave then letting them cool down again made them quite pleasant to eat for breakfast. Given how nice they looked and smelled they were just a bit underwhelming.

Banana peanut butter buns!

Back to the drawing board with those ones I fear…

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Simple but Satisfying

Sometimes when I’m cooking – or more often, when I’m planning what I’m going to cook – its easy to get caught up and make things overly complicated. Too many ingredients, too much fuss, when all I really want is something simple, filling and tasty to eat after work. Sometimes I want to cook something fancy as therapy and others I just want a full belly.

Monday was one of those nights, I’d made plans for what I was going to make and thanks to a lack of one vital ingredient they were scuppered and I needed to make something else. I got caught in a loop for ages, looking for and rejecting potential recipes based on different things I had in the cupboard and fridge. Round and round I went, back and forward, making no progress as time ticked away and I got steadily hungrier. Eventually I went raiding my cupboards for something quick and easy and came across a packet of couscous. Couscous is pretty much the definition of quick and easy, but what to have with it? I raided my cookbooks for inspiration and came away with assorted ideas. Feta is a popular choice and I had some in the fridge. I’d been half-heartedly preparing some spinach for the abandoned recipe so I had a small pile of that on hand. A quick dig in the salad box unearthed some spring onions and a small pepper.

I measured out the couscous and stuck it in a pot with some vegetable stock, leaving it to do its thing while I gently softened the spring onions and pepper in a little olive oil. When they were nice and soft I chucked in the spinach with a little more oil and wilted that down. Once the couscous had drunk up the stock, I crumbled in some feta into it and stuck some heat under it. I gave it a few minutes – stirring regularly – then added in the veggies and a wee twirl of lime juice. And tada. 200g of couscous, half a pack of feta (it goes lovely and melty in the couscous) and some oddments from the fridge made a filling dinner one night and the leftovers made a tasty lunch another twice. So easy and effortless.

(Though if I make it again, more spinach and a full sized pepper would be preferable. And I’d add the lime juice at the soaking stage. But otherwise…)

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Like the Internet reached out and hugged me.

I’ve known my friend Sarah for the best part of a decade now: since the days when we both lived on the south coast of England. We share an abiding love of horror movies, but food has always been our favoured method of communication. Despite having left home with a good grasp of the basics, I was a very unadventurous cook. More importantly, despite my love of planning and organisation, I’m fundamentally not a very organised person. (Most jobs I’ve ever had have involved either high levels of organisation or working to deadlines, so all my energy goes into those, leaving my personal life with a sort of Douglas Adams approach to deadlines…) So when I was living down by the sea, working on my masters’ dissertation, my organisational energies for anything that wasn’t research or writing was utterly minimal. I would get up eat breakfast, start working and get caught up, forget to have lunch and suddenly it would be dark and I’d be feeling light-headed, because it was 8 at night and I hadn’t eaten since 10 in the morning. And at the point when you’re already ravenous, that’s a really bad time to try and make sensible and healthy choices about food and what you want to eat. I ate a lot of pasta with sauce that was made from chicken soup, generally with either sausages or bell peppers. That or chicken in a cook-in sauce with rice. Unsurprisingly I got sick a lot. (I eat a lot of fruit – I suspect it’s the only reason I didn’t get scurvy as a student.) My blog from back then talks a lot about poor health and poor diet and learning to cook to combat that. At some point I borrowed one of my mum’s OXO cookbooks and diligently worked my way through that to varying degrees of success. Along the way, as I started feeling the benefits of cooking properly, I started to branch out into ingredients I wasn’t familiar with. Sarah started gently nudging me towards new and interesting foodstuffs, sharing quick and easy recipes that were tasty and simple, but felt grown-up and adventurous. (She mothered me a little, but far from home and determined I could make it on my own, I kind of needed it.) The distance between pasta and sausage and peppers in a chicken soup sauce and gnocchi and chorizo, with cherry tomatoes, in pesto is not that far, but it feels a thousand miles away. Pancetta and Parmesan and spinach and ricotta, all rolled into my repertoire and stayed there. Mostly she taught me how something a little different (that squeeze of lime juice or sprinkle of parmesan) could turn an ordinary meal into something special. Reassuring instructions and tips in the IM window as I cooked, encouraging me to be adventurous in the kitchen and somehow it was easier to be brave.

I was a long way from home those days, and it was years ago, but gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and pesto is still comfort food. I’m older and wiser – I hope! – now, a vegetarian even, but I’m a long way from home again.

I’ve recently discovered Instagram (I keep a food blog, no one should be surprised that I would gravitate towards a social media format stereotypically known for people photographing their food) and have been vicariously enjoying other people’s food. One of those people being Sarah. The other week she made a particularly tasty looking soup. Mussaman chicken soup. She reckoned it would be dead easy to make it veggie with lentils instead of chicken. It sounded pretty darn good and I told her so, and she responded with the recipe.

I’d not been…good about cooking during September (or August really); in fact the only thing I’d been consistently making was soup. I’ve eaten a lot of broccoli and blue cheese soup but otherwise if I did a decent cook once a week I was doing well. I make grand plans about what I’m going to make, but I don’t actually make very much. If food is self-care for me, then I wasn’t doing a very good job of looking after myself. I needed to break the spell. Soup I could do, I bought the ingredients I didn’t already have – the list nestled safely on my phone as a reminder both of what I needed and that Sarah would be expecting to learn how I got on with it.

One Sunday I made the soup. I even remembered to buy a nice crunchy loaf to eat it with. It was warm and aromatic. Spicy without a chilli kick of doom. I mentally made notes for future cooking, an extra five minutes for the lentils and sweet potato, perhaps a little seasonal squash (if pre-cooked) would work well in the mix, debating whether blending it would improve or weaken the soup. It was tasty and comforting and a bit different from anything else I’d made recently. Almost as though my friend had reached out through the Internet and given me a hug. It was, in fact, exactly what I needed.

Mussaman Sweet Potato and Lentil Soup

It did in fact break the spell, setting me off on all sorts of cooking adventures. Sausage rolls and pesto puffs, various curries and several different ways with apples. I made spanakopita from her instructions too, despite never having eaten feta cheese before, stepping into the unfamiliar territory of Greek cuisine with only an old friends reassurances that they were simple and tasty – correct in both cases. (Exploded a little but I’ll get the hang of them eventually.) I’m on a downswing again from my cooking kick of the last month or so. I feel all scatty and disorganised. But when I was searching through my cupboards and fridge for inspiration this evening, I came across the left over feta from the spanakopita and remembered to be brave. Made something simple and filling, but a little bit different. Spanikoptika for dinner

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Nablopomo Approaches!

November is almost upon us and as such, Nablopomo has rolled around again. I started last year’s challenge, late but with good intentions, but only managed four posts in the end. As I’ve not been writing very much over the last six months, it would be great if this challenge got me back into writing regularly, but honestly as long as I write more than four posts this month I’ll consider it a victory. To make things hopefully go better, I’ll be dividing my posts for the challenge between here and my film blog. The idea being that when I don’t want to make posts about films I’ll write about food and visa versa.

I am slightly more confident about my chances of success this year, due to having actually made a plan this year. Last year I just had some vague ideas of some themes that might work but this year, I’ve made a list of the posts I’ve been thinking about writing lately with titles and wee descriptions. (14 of them! That’s nearly half the days accounted for.) So my real target will be to get them all written by the end of the month. Anything more than that will be a bonus.

I’ve got a plan: let’s do this.

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Mugs of Seasonal Cheer

Here’s a thing. I’m not a massive fan of xmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to buy and make things for my friends and family and also to generally eat, drink and be merry. But the day itself has no particular religious or emotional significance to me – if the choice is working Xmas or New Year there’s no doubt what my choice would always be.

However, the thing I do love about the whole idealised winter stuff that comes along with the Xmas obsession is the sudden onslaught of amazing hot drinks. When Winter arrives I like to be cosy, fluffy jumpers and fluffier socks, thick tights and winter boots, earmuffs, mittens and giant scarfs. Coming in from the cold to a big steaming mug of hot chocolate? Bliss!

Christmas for coffee shops means seasonal drinks, special blends, extra cream, unusual syrups and silly names. I have a couple of friends who are obsessed with Christmas and I enforce the rule with them that the season hasn’t begun until the red cups appear– if I have to deal with all this seasonal silliness I want a Gingerbread Latte or a Black-forest hot chocolate in hand to get me through. But beyond the usual suspects there are a myriad of hot drinks from smaller places that are no less charming or warming. The indie coffee shops in Stirling to a good line in spiced winter warmers (spiced winter apple at the bottom of the hill, mulled spice chai tea at the top) served in odd shaped mugs that only come out at this time of year.

And of course you can always make your own hot drinks at home, to your own exact specifications, whether that means extra syrup, less cream or whether or not your mulled wine is actually alcoholic. Personally, I have a marked preference for homemade blackcurrant wine – though the kind that I like, that will forever be the true taste of Christmas, is not remotely alcoholic and arguably has never seen an actual blackcurrant. Instead it is made from a strange syrup called yuleade, that, as far as I know, can be purchased only from the co-op and even then probably only in Scotland, combined with hot water and a frankly obscene amount of sugar and should rightfully be served in really tiny glasses. I made some myself a couple of winters ago and the sugar high I got from drinking an entire mug in one go – so decadent!! – explained just why the glasses I was given as a child were so very, very small.

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