Columns Food Lifestyle

The Country Kitchen: Home Comforts

This week I’ve been in a bit of a slump. I believe it started with the sorry news that Monty Don’s Golden Retriever Nigel died. While I may be a new and, to put it bluntly, fake fan of Gardener’s World, the announcement and subsequent tribute was enough to have the entire neighbourhood, including me, in tears. A feat not lightly achieved I might add. To further add to my misery, the weather at the start of the week was nothing short of crap, unlike the rest of the UK it seems. Heavy, grey skies and that constant is there/ is it not rain that I describe as measly demonstrated near-perfect pathetic fallacy.  

This was no week to be accomplishing new skills and tricky, technical bakes. In fact, it was while thinking “all I want is some beans and toast” that the idea for this theme approached: comfort food. Something to make you feel a little bit better, even if only for the fifteen minutes eating it. Perhaps comfort food is so powerful because it is one of the few times we are able to eat stodge without feeling guilty. For me, anything warm, soft and usually cheesy is a sure win. But that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t good food. My three favourite comfort foods are predictable, but that’s part of their charm.

Root Veg Toad in the Hole

The inspiration for this recipe came from the Feast cookery magazine in The Guardian. I have a stack much larger than any uni reading material sitting in the corner of my room, and could spend hours flicking through them, musing over what I would like to cook, how I ought to stick the degree out to have job prospects where saffron might be affordable, and seeing what wacky flavours Ottolenghi uses next. Trying to find all of the ingredients for one of his recipes, I imagine, would be like a treasure hunt, or that episode in The Apprentice where they run around a city trying to find god knows what for as cheap as possible. I guess I’m making it harder for myself by not living in London. Actually, since the lockdown I have noticed he has made a conscientious effort to “be resourceful” and make “delicious meals out of the humblest ingredients”, as he writes in the  9th of May instalment. Even he has had to swap his Aleppo chillies, black rice, congee, tahini and sumac for a more down-to earth chickpea recipe, even if I did notice a cheeky block of tamarind (parentheses, the Thai variety) sneak in at the end.

For this recipe, I am much more forgiving; you can use whatever root veg you have. Roughly chop half a butternut squash, a sweet potato and a carrot and place these in a well-oiled large dish. Add four red onions chopped into quarters alongside any seasoning you fancy and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and golden. While these are roasting you can make the batter. This is four eggs, 160g plain flour and 425ml of milk whisked in a jug until smooth. You can then add some mustard powder, poppy seeds and herbs for more flavour. Increase the heat to 210⁰C for five minutes to get the oil really hot before pouring the batter over the veg and leaving in the oven for a further 25 minutes to puff up and crisp.

An added bonus of a toad in the hole, and this veggie one in particular, is that it is almost a complete meal in itself. Served with a few peas, I had a higher daily veg intake than usual enveloped in a deliciously carby batter. My brother, a fierce carnivore, said he didn’t even miss the sausage. Now that’s a result.

Macaroni Cheese

I was told that one of the great things about moving away to University is the chance to meet all sorts of people totally different from yourself. This, I have definitely found to be true. Two of my close friends don’t like cheese. Heresy. To me, it is no less than one of the pillars of the earth.

This macaroni cheese is another of my uni staples because, as long as you have cheese, (given I eat a cheese toastie every. single. day. this is never an issue), and milk, everything else is store cupboard stuff. I usually make enough for four portions, as in this recipe, and freeze some for later days.

Start by grating as much cheese as you can spare. It goes without saying the more, the stringier. It also works to use a few different varieties. We had some cheddar and red Leicester lying around so I took around 120g for the cheese sauce and another 30g for the top. Then proceed to get your pasta on to boil. At the same time, melt butter and add flour in a 1:1 ratio-  I used around 60g of each. Beat these together to get a roux and then add 500ml in small instalments, whisking to get a smooth white sauce. Keep the sauce over a low heat until it thickens and then add the grated cheese and beat until melted. This can be mixed into the cooked macaroni, added into an ovenproof dish, topped with the remaining cheese and baked in an oven at 180⁰C for fifteen minutes until bubbling and the cheese on top has browned. You could add bacon, as I did, by cooking it in the oven while your pasta boils and chopping it into the pasta pre-baking. Sheer bliss.

Spiced Proper Rice Pudding

My dad is one of the few people I know not scarred by rice pudding. Whether it was a cold tub of Ambrosia or a lukewarm dollop served on a plastic tray in primary school, it definitely hasn’t got the best reputation. I would like to think this recipe restores faith in an old favourite. Homemade, creamy rice pudding just makes you feel better, and has the advantage of being very filling. Apparently, my parents used to eat it by the slice as a meal as recent graduates to save money, (how he managed to make it so solid I don’t know, or wish to). The fact that Dad has remained unscarred is a true testament to his love of this pudding.

Begin by melting 60g of butter and 50g of sugar (preferably molasses) in a pan, cooking for a few minutes until it dissolves. Then, add spices to your liking. Cinnamon (1/2 tsp), vanilla extract (1 tsp) and nutmeg (1/4 tsp) make a standard, subtly spiced pudding. However, you could experiment with more exotic flavours such as star anise or cardamom. Add 100g of pudding rice. This is a short grain rice that takes longer to cook, and it might happen to be one of the easier rices to get a hold of. Risotto rice such as arborio works well too. Once the rice has been mixed the butter, add a litre of milk, around 150ml of cream and allow to bring to a simmer, making sure to break up any clumps that may form. Transfer this to a dish and bake in the oven at 150⁰C for just under two hours until thicker but not dry. After the first hour, I checked on mine every twenty minutes to make sure it hadn’t dried up or burnt.

I like to think of this recipe as a foundation that can be dressed up in so many different ways. You could stir through some chocolate chunks, fruits and compotes, nuts, liquors or, if you’re boring like me, eat it how it is with an additional touch of cream that was definitely a want and not a need.