I need comfort. In times like these, we all do. In the uncertainty of lockdowns, we crave reassurance. We need somehow to hold and be held — to be reminded of life’s love and security.
Food is comfort. It certainly is for me. All those sourdough starters bubbling on suburban benchtops across Melbourne suggest I’m not alone. Food is a like a blanket we pull around ourselves in the cold of winter. On my early morning trip to the Queen Vic market this week, masked and cautious, I wondered what it is about this weekly expedition that feels important. There is something about the ritual of gathering provisions for those we love that is deeply human and necessary in this moment. I suspect it always has been; now we sense it more urgently.
I’ve thought a bit about food and comfort the last few months; not just with this wretched virus in our lives, but more generally. As I’ve scanned the pages of my mother’s old recipe book, now a stained and sacred artefact of her memory, I’ve noticed recipes that feel like home. There’s mum’s roast leg of lamb, her boiled fruit cake, that tuna casserole with cheese melting over its crunchy top. There’s her chocolate pudding and that lamb shank and barley soup served with buttered toast. So what is it about such food that comforts me? Why is one food more comforting than another? And what do we mean by the term ‘comfort food’?
In surveys identifying foods most associated with comfort, typical responses fall into four categories. First, there are nostalgic foods, those reminiscent of mum or associated with childhood. Second, there are warming foods, those that cosset us when it’s cold. Then there are pampering foods, those associated with indulgence or foods we retreat to when we’re stressed. And finally, there are celebration foods, those identified with seasonal gatherings like Christmas and Easter.
So, to share the warmth in this bleak season of ours, I thought I might share some recipes from my own comfort repertoire. Each one is heartening for different reasons. The first fits snugly into category #2. It’s my simple seafood chowder. We often have it on Friday nights to mark the end of the working week. If warming food is meant to cosset us when we’re cold, then this one is like a crocheted blanket at grandma’s house. Though so much tastier. What’s more, it’s easy and relatively quick.
Here’s what you need:
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 rasher of streaky bacon, diced
- 1 large brown onion, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
- 1 generous tablespoon of plain flour
- 600 mils of fish, chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 large new potato, peeled and roughly diced
- A pinch of mace (it’s worth the effort of finding it)
- ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper and more if you like the heat
- 300 mils of milk
- Two generous fillets of fresh fish — salmon and rockling work well — cut into large cubes
- 250 grams of green prawns
- 250 grams of scallops
- 4 tablespoons of cream
- A large handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
Here’s what you do:
- Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over a medium heat.
- Add the onion, garlic and bacon and cook for 8-10 mins until the onion is soft and the smell of the bacon and garlic makes your beloved call out from the living room, “ooh, that smells so good!”
- Stir in the flour, then cook for a further few minutes. Don’t walk away. Stay close with your wooden spoon to be sure the roux cooks evenly and nothing burns.
- Pour in the stock and bring the whole concoction to a gentle simmer. Stirring with your spoon will ensure there are no lumps.
- Add the potatoes, cover, then simmer for 10 mins or so until the potatoes are cooked through.
- Stir in the milk and bring it back to a simmer. Add the mace, cayenne pepper and seasoning to taste and continue stirring over a low heat for a few minutes more.
- Add the fish and gently simmer for 4-5 mins.
- Add the prawns, scallops and cream and simmer for another minute or two. Don’t overdo it.
- Check the seasoning then sprinkle with the parsley.
- Ladle it into large bowls and serve with some crusty bread lavished with butter. Real butter.
Now, just sit back, feet up and bowl in hand, and be comforted. Oh, and bask in your beloved’s compliments.