Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Comfortably numb!

A couple of days ago I lost my voice. I thought I might have been shouting too much (not that I do that particularly) but as the loss was accompanied by an inability to swallow and a fever, I guess there was a medical reason. I endured the evil brew foisted on me by my chemist and very quickly my thoughts turned to food. Comfort food that is!
I think there are several categories of comfort food. There's the end of a relationship food when you convince yourself that all you want is Death by Chocolate or a tub of Häagen Daz or both. In fact you probably briefly think that you want to die and it might as well be at the hands of excessive chocolate consumption. Then there's the arrived home shivering after being caught in torrential rain, blizzard and/or up to your waist in icy water comfort food. On these occasions you need the culinary equivalent of a duvet. You want apple crumbles, bowls of warming soup, beef stews, steak and kidney pies, Cumberland sausages, mountains of mashed potato and the like. And then there’s the harking back to childhood, the tired and emotional days where you want to curl up into a ball and eat the stuff your mother used to make preferably served by your mother on tray in front of the TV (the height of decadence!). Maybe it was that light meal you always had when you were officially ‘on the mend’ after a bout of something or maybe it’s that signature dish that just conjures up a person, place or special occasion basically - a gastronomic hug. The dishes that evoke my childhood are soft boiled eggs and soldiers (classic illness recovery meal), my mother’s fish pie and cottage pie both topped with fabulously cheesy mashed potatoes. Chip butties made with thick white buttered bread with salt and malt vinegar - I’m showing my Northern roots here now! My granny made a fine Lancashire hotpot and the meat and potato pies from the local shop always did it for me. My other granny had a dubious repertoire when it came to cooking for her grandchild. I believe she had been an accomplished cook but in her later years had adopted a love of tinned vegetables (which made everything taste tinny) and packet foods like the dreaded Angel Delight. I still can’t abide tinned new potatoes and butterscotch Angel Delight from those days – about 30 years ago. But she did make a very fine egg custard tart and I do remember eating and developing a love of strawberry jam sandwiches. I know that she often fed me a Goblin meat suet pudding which I loved as a child but on revisiting many years later suspected that the flabby suet pastry was encasing small chunks of cat food. That one will have to remain a memory I think!
The problem with comfort food is that there is a fine line between comfort food and guilty pleasures – those strange foods you like but know that others could be surprised or maybe disturbed by such concoctions and you save those for solitary indulgences. I probably crave unusual sandwiches or maybe ‘sandwiches’ is too strong a word. I think my Northern tendencies emerge when I put odd ingredients between two slices of white bread (or even a barm cake or an oven-bottom – sorry that’s a bit of vernacular for my non-Northern readers!) And even though I don’t remember evolving this idea as a child I have been known to make quiche sandwiches much to the horror of many a gourmand! Though someone I know eats raw potatoes which I’ve always found very weird (you know who you are, D!)
On this particular occasion I had the craving for comfort food because I needed cosseting but also couldn’t swallow particularly well and therefore had to choose my diet to meet both these criteria. I plumped for cheesy mashed potatoes (naturally!), macaroni cheese, smoked salmon pate and soft floury rolls, leek and potato soup and very crucially Chocolate ice cream. Armed with my shopping bag I could batten down the hatches for a few days and recuperate. The only mistake was the soup – I thought this would be ultimately comforting as I adore cauliflower cheese soup which I make regularly in the winter months but somehow this Covent Garden Co soup didn’t hit the mark. Firstly I managed to burn my mouth trying to eat it and I found that after a few mouthfuls I was rather bored. Obviously Marcus Wareing’s stunning leek and potato soup and leek foam at Petrus had spoilt me for others. Maybe I should have decanted my Covent Garden soup and topped it with leek foam? Or maybe that was too cheffy?

My conclusion after trialling my selection of soothing foods is that really any dearth of comfort can be remedied by a dose of good mashed potato! It would have to be my definitive comfort food – with a good measure of Häagen Daz as backup (Belgium chocolate for my preference!).

Mmmm mash - the ultimate culinary hug!

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