On wet wintry days comfort food helps to keep you warm from the inside. Comfort food means different things to different people. Typically it is the kind of food that comes with nostalgia and good childhood memories. It takes you back “home” wherever and whenever that “home” was. Comfort food can evolve into something current, from food you received to food that you cook to give comfort to someone in contemporary time.
My own comfort food has been a Thai version of rice soup. My mother made it whenever any of her children were unwell. It is savoury soft boiled rice with ginger, garlic, celery bits of chicken or fish or egg. I crave it as I am writing this.
The only common feature about comfort food from various people I have talked to is warmth. Other descriptions include savoury, sweet, hearty and light. Typically comfort food is something easy to digest and therefore we think carbohydrate. More people prefer savoury comfort food to sweet but a piece of cake or biscuit with a cup of tea get a mention.
When my son was living at home his favourite food was macaroni and cheese. Whenever he came home for holidays from university, I would make this dish for him. While I visited my son in February, my four year old granddaughter asked me to show her how to make macaroni and cheese. We made it together from scratch only once and she practiced making it by herself every day for a week and perfected it each time. She now makes it for her two year old brother whenever he feels sad or upset. Macaroni and cheese is serendipitously comfort food for this family for two generations.
In my discussion with other friends who love to cook, comfort food has evolved into something we make with a lot of care and thought - the kind we don’t mind giving a lot of time to - slow food, some may call it. The cook takes comfort in making comfort food as it turns out. But perhaps this is not new. My mother might have taken comfort making rice soup for her children to be comforted too.
One Polish family I know takes comfort in making traditional Pierogi together. It takes them two full days to make this from start to finish. They allocate the unhurried time to be together uninterrupted in the kitchen, telling stories about ‘babcia’, talking, singing, having lively discussions and enjoying each other’s company. They make what they call ‘a mountain of pierogi’. What I love the most is when they all dress up in their Polish clothes and return to the kitchen and relishing their mountain of pierogi together. After the feast they dance to Polish music. This is the ultimate family comfort food which is a vital part of their family traditions and it will pass on to the next generation and the next.
When I make comfort food, it is an exception I give myself from my usual healthy ‘seasonal’ cooking. I just cook what I crave and pay no attention to calorie intake. Comfort food is special and I only need it once in a long while. The warmth from within lingers…
Here is how I make Macaroni and cheese.
250 g macaroni
15 g butter
1 small onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic minced
60 g butter
¼ cup flour
3 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheese mix (gruyere, cheddar, Colby or any good tasting cheese)
1 cup shredded mozzarella
Pinch of salt
⅔ cup panko or fine breadcrumbs
30 grams butter, melted
Dash of salt
½ cup grated Parmesan
Dash ground paprika (optional)
Cook macaroni according to package minus one minute
Drain completely and toss with 15 g butter
(This not only stops the cooked macaroni from sticking together in clumps but also stops macaroni from absorbing too much of the white sauce and becoming gluggy.)
The white sauce: Melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Once melted, cook onion and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add flour and stir in well. Pour in half the milk and whip in the pan until smooth, add the rest of the milk and bring to almost boiling. Add shredded cheeses and mix until all melted. Add in the cooked macaroni and coat thoroughly with the cheese sauce. Put this mixture into an oven proof dish.
Mix panko or breadcrumbs with Parmesan and butter. Use fingers to mix well and to make sure butter and Parmesan are well distributed.
Spread this crumbs evenly on the macaroni. Bake uncovered in a preheated 180c oven for about 20-30 minutes or until the top is brown. Serve with a small salad.
The following is my mother’s rice soup (Serves 2-4 people):
2 tbsp cooking oil
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, cut lengthwise in two strips and chop fine
About 30mm piece ginger finely chopped
2 cups of low or no salt broth
½ cup to 1 cup of protein of choice in pieces, often leftovers (fish, pork, chicken, tofu or cooked egg)
2-3 cups cooked rice
Soy sauce to taste
1-2 green onions, finely chopped
Coriander (chopped and optional)
Heat oil in a pan until hot, add garlic, ginger, celery and cook until soft and aromatic. Add broth and bring to a boil, add protein and cook well. Add cooked rice, add salt and soy sauce to taste. Serve in a soup bowl with green onions and coriander on top and serve hot.
(I will leave it up to you to decide which of these dishes suits your taste.)