Read: Irish Examiner | Comfort cooking for cold nights
An edited version of this feature was first published in the Irish Examiner on 15 September 2021.
As the weather gets colder, our thoughts turn towards hearty meals but does comfort food need to weigh you down? Comfort food favourites and five quick fixes for healthier weeknight options.
What does comfort food mean to you? Ask that question on Twitter and the answers come quick and fast. Homemade soups of every description. Cheese toasties. Dal and rice. Macaroni cheese. Fish pie. Miso soup. Everything and anything involving mince meat – lasagne, chilli, cottage pie, shepherd’s pie. A Hungarian soup called Gulyásleves. Hot apple crumble and apple tart. Chicken stew or beef stew or lamb stew. Noodles, ramen.
Comfort food is a force for good in the world and much of it is associated with what we ate in childhood, tied up with memories of love and being taken care of. It’s the cosy food, the bowl food, the only-use-a-spoon food that we ate when we were under the weather or that we associate with parents or family who cooked for us. A mainstay of comfort food is that it’s homemade: creamy mashed potatoes rate highly, alongside the anticipation of a stew or coddle or soup from the big pot in mam’s kitchen.
The Oxford Directory of English defines comfort food as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically having a high sugar or carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.” But that’s not always correct. Food that provides a feeling of well being doesn’t always need to be super cheesy or creamy or carby or sweet. It can be a spinach-packed saag paneer, toast with good peanut butter or marmite, the perfect scrambled eggs.
No matter whether our comfort food dates from childhood kitchens or is a relatively recent acquisition, the same thing happens every year when the thermostat heads downwards: we want the food that makes us feel cosy and safe. It’s not just fuel for the body; it’s care for the soul.
A few comfort food favourites
- Food writer Clare Anne O’Keefe picks a combination of creamy and crunchy and fresh and punchy: homemade hummus with a topping of “red onions, mint, toasted almonds and preserved lemon. Eat with a spoon or pile onto brown bread crackers.”
- Comforting with apples is a theme from many kitchens – apple crumble, apple sponge and glory of all, a good apple tart. Keith Brennan of Hawthorn Hill Farm still dreams about it: “My mother’s apple tart. Sweet. Tart. Plentiful. We would finish it. HB vanilla ice cream on the side. Sunday afternoon. Hot tea too. Roast chicken before it, boiled potatoes, YR sauce, a glass of milk. Corn or peas. Butter. Back when my mother could cook still.”
- One of wine writer Aoife Carrigy’s favourites is very much associated with her childhood: “Egg in a cup with toast soldiers is my top comfort food because my granny would make it when we stayed with her, and we’d eat it tucked up in her bed: safe and loved.”
- Author and chef Brian McDermott, whose book Donegal Table is packed full of Irish comfort foods like hot pots and boxty and soda breads, votes for his mother’s big hearty veggie broth, full of veg, potatoes and barley: “She reared 14 of us on it. God bless her. I feel safe and nourished when I eat it all these years later.”
- It might not be a food, but a cup of tea features prominently alongside many people’s comfort food choices. Lucy Lambe of the Green Sheep in Thurles takes it to another level with “sweet milky chai,” a warming spiced tea that oozes cosyness.
- Norwegian cook and author Signe Johansen put in a vote for “good chocolate cake” and when the weather is cold, there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of turning on the oven for a baking session. Her book Solo has a recipe for easy double chocolate loaf cake: for balance, she recommends that you have a slice alongside a cup of green tea or glass of cold milk.
- GIY founder and GROW COOK EAT presenter Mick Kelly – who undoubtedly knows his onions – is a fan of French onion soup, a dish that takes the simplest, humblest ingredient and elevates it, through time and carmelisation, into something sublime. Don’t forget the sourdough and melted cheese topping.
Don’t let comfort weigh you down: five quick fixes for healthier weeknight options
- Chicken noodle soup: go heavy on the broth, light on the noodles and pack it with vegetables like purple sprouting broccoli or pak choi.
- Rice: make the switch to brown. While it’s the same rice, just unrefined, the brown option contains more nutrients, fibre and slightly more protein. If you can get your hands on brown basmati, you’ll still have that wonderful aroma in the kitchen while it simmers. It takes slightly longer to cook, however, so factor that into your dinnertime plans.
- Lentils and pulses: thicken stews and ragu with protein-rich lentils, use chickpeas and butter beans to bulk out curries, make chilli with twice as much beans as usual or go meatless with chilli non carne.
- Macaroni cheese: I’ve always seen pasta – specifically wholemeal pasta – as a vehicle for including as much vegetables in a meal as possible. My standard macaroni cheese involves using at least twice as much broccoli or cauliflower as pasta, while still maintaining its comfort food classic status.
- Lasagne: mix it up – for many years, my girls believed that lasagne was the speedy spinach and ricotta version that I made regularly and were very surprised when everyone else’s lasagna turned out to include meat. Faster to make and just as tasty.