Comfort food is delightfully anti-trend, but a few new tricks might be enough to inspire a comeback
Revamped winter warmers.
Winter welcomes hearty and coddling fare; those warming country dishes that grandmother used to make. I’ve written previously about tricking-up old favourite winter desserts, to some lukewarm applause, which made me think you might appreciate similar help with the savoury classics.
I’m here to help elevate the soulsatisfying, fortifying element of familiar comfort food with the easy trickery required of the modern-day cook. So here are a few ways to put a simple spin on those winter favourites.
Let’s start with the impossible. I know it’s hard to improve on roast chicken, which to my mind is almost the perfect meal. The only imaginable improvement is to reduce the amount of time it takes to cook, which is why I’ve turned to roasting “flat chooks” that have been spatchcocked and flattened as they cook far quicker.
Roast the bird over a bed of crushed, par-cooked potatoes so that the juices drip down into the spuds.
While I love the classic country flavours of lamb with herbs like rosemary or mint, for a change try this. Take a lamb shoulder, with the bone in if you can find it (ask your butcher to open up the shoulder too), and marinate in a mix made from blitzing red onion, turmeric, curry powder, lemon juice and a couple of spoonfuls of mango chutney or apricot jam.
Stir this into some Greek yoghurt and then smear the mixture all over the lamb. Leave to develop for a couple of hours before cooking. The onion and lemon juice tenderise the lamb, and give it a lovely flavour. Serve with mint jelly and couscous with toasted almonds, chopped dried apricot, finely chopped mint and parsley.
STEW WITH DUMPLINGS
Stew has so many attractions but beauty is not one them. That is, until you top it with fluffy dumplings made from chopped herbs and self-raising flour.
You can even give stew an Italian twist with extra garlic, tomatoes and loads of fresh oregano, and top it with polenta dumplings. I suspect this is going to be one of the most popular recipes in my upcoming book (more on that another time).
There are so many ways to change this classic that I’ve devoted a whole section of my new book to the myriad ways this dish can be more than just savoury lamb mince with a grilled mashed potato topping. One of the simplest is to use beef mince and carrots rather than lamb mince and peas and pour a can of baked beans on top of the mince before you top it with a cheesy mash. It’s a rather low-rent, Scottish idea, but it is also rather tasty.
BANGERS AND MASH
While the easiest thing here is to pimp up the mash, I think that is a subject for a column all of its own.
Let’s be a bit more creative and turn those bangers into curried sausages – one of the great Australian contributions to the ’70s kitchen. Classic dishes from that decade like chow mein, rissoles and vol au vents are surprisingly trendy at the moment.
With the likes of beef bourguignon from France or Hungarian goulash, the world is full of inspiring stews.
Another great Hungarian stew is porkolt. This is a super simple dish made from browning cubes of pork, mixing with bacon, onions, garlic, pepper and lots of paprika and then covering in a casserole with sliced red peppers, canned tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer gently for an hour-and-a-half. Just before serving, stir in a tub of sour cream. Serve with buttered noodles tossed in finely chopped continental parsley. That’s a real rib-sticker of a feed.
While we are on inspiration stolen from overseas, remember that country classics aren’t just made with things that bleat, cluck or moo. A simple fish bake can be just as comforting when paired with the flavours of Southern France or Italy – think capers, black olives, tomatoes and fennel.
For my fish puttanesca (pictured), trim bulbs of fennel, reserving fronds, then cut into thick slices. Roast fennel with sliced red onion and pitted black olives on an oiled oven tray until soft. Cover with canned tomatoes and nestle fillets of firm, white fish into them. Throw over a handful of capers and return to the oven until the fish is cooked. Serve drizzled with olive oil, parsley and the fennel fronds. This is great with boiled or steamed potatoes.
For a vegetarian version, omit the fish and finish with a gratinated top made from breadcrumbs, parmesan and finely chopped parsley tossed with a little butter or olive oil.