Monday, November 14, 2011

In praise of comfort food

Picture the scene. It’s a dull/grey/damp/cold day (delete as appropriate) and you’re not at your brightest. Or it’s any kind of weather, but you’re tired or stressed or just plain fed-up. A meal-time is approaching and you just know you have to have something that will make you feel better and be blowed to whether it’s good for you. Calories are out, comfort is in. What do you choose?

Chocolate (dark, of course) would be one of my first choices, but sadly it isn’t generally considered a staple foodstuff, so the search goes on. Growing up as I did in a fairly large working-class family in industrial east Lancashire, high on my list of comforting dishes come the faithful old standbys of soups and stews. Warm, filling, meal-in-a-pot recipes, which can be made from very basic and inexpensive ingredients and can be relied upon to satisfy the appetites of growing girls.

I’m thinking here of Lancashire hotpot, or ham and pea soup, or a big pan of meat and vegetable broth with dumplings. Dishes like these were the background to my childhood, and though my culinary repertoire is very much wider and more adventurous nowadays, when the chips are down (with or without fish) I still instinctively turn to them for comfort, especially in the cold, dark days of winter. And that’s before I even think about puddings, which, given my current waistline, are probably best avoided.

Fruit crumble, with custard naturally - cream was only for birthdays and Christmas. Or bread-and-butter pudding with lots of raisins, or my mother’s unforgettable rice pudding, with the crispy bits round the edge we girls would squabble over. I could go on, but you get the picture.

So now you know how I try to insulate myself, at least at mealtimes, from life’s ups and downs, do let me into the secret of your particular comfort foods.  Who knows?  There might be a cookbook in it. J

Image via Wylio


  1. Hello Perpetua:
    Nursery puddings are something we really miss when not in England. There just seems to be nothing quite like them here in The Motherland and nothing works for us in quite the same way as those staples from our childhoods, served with custard, of course. Apple Cobbler, Spotted Dick, Jam Roly Poly......perfect!!!

  2. Hello Jane and Lance. You're quite right, the puddings of childhood don't seem to be found elsewhere and not very often even in the UK nowadays. We're probably all too health and weight conscious to think of eating anything more substantial than yoghurt. :-)

  3. When the weather is cold and wet I love stews and for Sunday lunch Pot roast! Also meat pies -- both British and American. My husband's favourite is definitely Shepherd's pie. As for 'puddings' I'm not keen on the heavy British type of puddings as I don't like dried fruit and warm custard leaves me 'cold'!!! (Yesterday I made pot roast and it was perfect!)

  4. I too love stews, but only indulge in the very coldest of weather.
    Since I don't eat meat, mine are all based on pulses, my favourites being butter beans and lentils.
    After that the list is endless. Every vegetable in the house goes in as does at least one apple, a few raisins and my secret ingredient - a tablespoonful of Black Treacle.

  5. Hi, Broad. Let's hear it for stews - obviously high on the list of favourite comfort foods and so easy to make. Pot roast to me sounds quintessentially American - something eaten in Little Women or The Little House on the Prairie. :-)

    I think you probably have to be brought up from childhood in the UK really to appreciate our traditional puddings. Jane and Lance's description of them as nursery food hits the nail on the head.

  6. Welcome to the Stew Appreciation Society, Ray. Your vegetarian ones sound great. We're not big meat eaters and use a lot of pulses nowadays, particularly in soups which are my ultimate comfort food. It has never occurred to me to add treacle to stews, though I use it a lot in baking. Must try some next time.

  7. Dear Perpetua,
    I have two comfort foods--that is, food that always come to my mind when I'm feeling a little blue: porridge and milk toast.

    I like my porridge with milk, raisins or cranberries, walnuts, and flax meal.

    I like with milk toast with butter toast and buttered milk with salt and pepper.

    For supper, during winter time, I want a vegetarian soup with broth that wafts heat into my face.

    Ah. So delicious.

  8. Hello Dee. It's so interesting having comments from people all over the world as I learn so much. :-) Porridge I know and love and have for breakfast most mornings, though only with milk and a little sugar, but I had to google milk toast, before I was sure what it is. In the past British children were often given bread and warm milk in a bowl for supper and I'm guessing milk toast has a similar origin.

    As for your hot soup, absolutely agree!

  9. Soup - homemade with at least onions, carrots, squash, courgettes and peppers. And anything else that comes to hand but those things definitely. Plus a couple of chillis. To be eat with the very best wholemeal bread with lots of seeds and 'bits' in!
    That's the healthy version.
    I also crave chips when the weather is cold. And cake - homemade - just out of the oven. And porridge with raisins and honey. Stew - yes, good. Baked potatoes with lots of butter; baked apples; well, I could go on. Perhaps living in a warmer climate is part of the reason I've lost almost a stone without really trying in the past twelve months! :-)

  10. Aha, another soup fan, Annie! The rest of your list is looking pretty good too, though I usually go easy on the chillies. Good bread is really important which is why I make my own (with a machine), but in an effort not to expand indefinitely we never have chips at home. :-( Oh, for a warmer climate and effortless weight loss....

  11. Hi again, Broad. I've just thought of a possible reason for the British tradition of heavy puddings. In a country where central heating was unknown for most people until relatively recently, all that starch made excellent fuel for keeping warm. When I was young we never had a fire in the bedroom unless we were ill, however cold it was outside....

  12. It has to be good quality butcher's sausages and puy lentils cooked by the Curate. It looks like grey sludge!!!You have to be in real need of comfort but, if you are not put off by the appearance, it is superb, spicy and filling.

  13. Aha, another site for soup obsessives! :D
    Your litany of comfort food had me salivating. Over the weekend I had a house full, and quite enjoyed cooking a full-on traditional Sunday lunch: pot roast followed by blackberry & apple crumble with custard. Pot roast is something I think of as traditionally English: it's a lovely way of preparing a cheap cut of meat, in this case some brisket, browned with onion and garlic and then slow-cooked in a covered casserole dish with carrots, stock and a pinch of this and that.

    A vegetarian dish with similar comfort levels to pot roast is one I sort of made up as a penniless graduate: a slow-cooked casserole of root veg, kidney beans, a tin of chopped tomatoes, seasoning, a bit of stock and a handful of porridge oats. The oats thicken the 'gravy' and you get a wonderful rich stew.

    Oh, and my favourite winter puds - when I am trying to avoid pies and crumbles - are spiced fruit. Pears or plums gently cooked in red wine, brown sugar and lots of ground cinnamon. Yum.

    Feeling hungry now, funnily enough!

  14. Hi Harriet. What you describe is something I've only encountered in France as saucisses et lentilles and it's delicious! As you say, you have to avert your eyes when you first try it, but once that initial mouthful has been savoured, the rest goes down extraordinarily well.

  15. You've said it, DB! You just can't go wrong with soup. There are a million ways to make it, often inventing as you go along, and I've yet to be given one I couldn't eat.

    How interesting that you think of pot roast as traditionally English. I think I must never have come across the term in my childhood, though my mother would make what she called braised beef which was basically the same thing. Now I know that pot roast spans the Atlantic.

    Your vegetarian stew is just the kind of thing we enjoy, so I've made a note for future use. As for spiced fruit.... yearn!!

  16. PS for DB and Ray. You might well like an invention of mine which I rather grandly named my Mediterranean Butter bean Casserole. Just butter beans, onions, red peppers, garlic, herbs and tinned tomatoes, simmered slowly. Gorgeous with boiled rice and a side salad.

  17. Dear Perpetua,
    Thanks so much for your comment on my splotch and spot posting. Humor is so important in life. I truly don't understand how someone without a sense of humor could make it through life. So many hurdles to jump and so much sorrow to live through. And yet laughter makes the heart light even in dark times.

    And yes, many nuns I know have the ability to tell funny stories and laugh at themselves.


  18. Nursery food hits the nail on the head for the puds...sheer nostalgia. I make a pud for Sunday, or when friends come over and
    I've found they really like bread and butter pudding, queen of puddings, and the range of suet puds too, from spotted dick to treacle pud, though my butcher is truly puzzled by our consumption of suet which he uses for treating leather and I have to rely on the stall at British Embassy events to top up supplies of golden syrup.

    Stews are unbeatable...easy to make and not fussy as to timing. Our current favourite is pork stew with onions, celery and sweet peppers, flavoured with bay and paprika, served with yoghurt and parsley.

    And as for a warmer climate and effortless weight loss....let's just say that it has not yet worked!

  19. Doesn't it just, Fly. I'm fascinated to hear that even in a hot climate traditional suet puddings are so appreciated by your friends. You obviously have the same problem getting suet and golden syrup as do friends in France. Yet another reason for us to be considered as those odd British!

    Your pork stew recipe has been duly noted, thanks. DH is going to bless this post! As for Annie's effortless weight loss, I think having 3 active children probably has more to do with that than a warm climate....

  20. I came in last night very cold and hungry, my husband had cooked shepherd's pie, mince and rich gravy with onions, mushrooms and carrots cooked in it. It was lovely and filling and warming!
    I adore syrup pudding with lots of custard but try not to eat too much of that sort of thing nowadays!

  21. As far as comfort food lovers go they can are generally divided into two camps Savoury or Sweet. There perhaps is however a third camp, perhaps me among them, who are only truly comforted by both – a stew with dumplings followed by crumble and lots of custard (with seconds of pud)!

    When selecting comfort food supplies for a wintry, dark, cold ‘desert island’ however I would have to plump for Puds – lots of them and an unlimited supply of custard.

    Not far from us a pub in the Cotswolds has a famous ‘Pudding Club’ where devotees gather to eat there way through a succession of traditional puds – Spotty Dick, Jam Sponge, Apple Crumble with some modern variants (eg Sticky Toffee Pudding) with unlimited large jugs of custard.

    Anyone wondering about an ideal Christmas present for Polkadot should consider a year’s subscription!

  22. Hi, Sue. Aren't you the lucky one to come home to a ready-made shepherd's pie? Another very comforting meal on an autumn evening. I know what you man about steamed puddings and would always endorse the lots of custard bit. Comfort on a spoon, but unless I were suddenly to be as active as I was as a child, probably best kept for a special treat.

  23. Hi PolkaDot. I hadn't thought about the savoury versus sweet divide, but you're right. If I had to choose I would always plump for the savoury, whereas DH's mother would be firmly in the sweet camp. I would probably have been in your third camp in the past, but simply daren't be nowadays. :-)

    I've just googled to find out about the Pudding Club. Mrs Beeton would be delighted!


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