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Issue 48 - In the comfort zone

Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009

 

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In the comfort zone

Sue Lawrence gives us a couple of recipes that will warm the cockles of your heart.

Comfort food is timeless food.

Described as nursery fare, nostalgic food or “cuisine grand-mère”, it is warming, wholesome and sustaining food, food that appeals to our hearts as well as our bodies. Its taste evokes atavistic feelings of snuggling up in front of a roaring fire with tea and cake, even although your house never had a coal fire; of rushing in from a bracing country walk to bowls of steaming home-made soup, even although your mother only ever bought Heinz Tomato; of begging nanny to give you the skin on the rice pudding, even although you certainly never had a nanny.

Comfort food is at once nostalgic, familiar and soothing, whether it is a plate of steak and kidney pie like the one your granny used to make; or scrambled eggs on toast, which your mother used to bring when you were ill in bed.

Even those dishes which, in theory evoke memories of repulsive school dinner food, assume a new role as comforting link with the past. So, even although your school’s semolina and jam was the lumpiest imaginable and the hotpot the stringiest, nowadays these dishes, when well-executed, serve to annihilate all thoughts of everlasting revenge to be wreaked upon Miss Smith the School Dinner Cook.

Apart from the spiritual aspect of comfort food, the actual texture is also significant. You can forget your al dente vegetables or boldly dressed frisée. No, what we want is a soft, soothing texture that will assuage some innate craving to be spoon-fed. The softer texture of comfort food can still excite and thrill when it is well-cooked, rather than tooth-achingly crisp.

At other times of the year, the word stodgy is abhorrent. Imagine stodge in the middle of August when all you want is a dainty cucumber sandwich and a bowl of strawberries before you skip lightly off for a set or two of tennis. But start to contemplate stodge right now, in the middle of winter, and a smile will begin to play on your lips, for suet puddings only make sense when the wind is howling and the rain is lashing against the windows. Hot pies, meaty casseroles and thick chunky soups are only appropriate now, not when the smell of the barbecue is wafting over from your neighbour’s patio. Sticky toffee pudding, jam roly-poly and spotted dick – all with a generous flood of custard – are some of the most comforting of dishes. And just because they take a little longer than opening up a pot of yoghurt, this should not lessen their appeal.

For comfort food also suggests anticipation. It is all about the eager expectation of how some unpromisinglooking pieces of raw oxtail will be transformed into the most rich and delicious stew. Or how the reassuring rattle of the pudding bowl in the steamer will ensure that after a couple of hours, you will have a glorious coconut and jam sponge pudding vaguely reminiscent of school dinners, but tasting leagues better, because you have used butter instead of dubious margarine and home-made jam instead of mixed fruit spread. Your custard, unlike school’s, is also skin-free and lumpless!

My main course is a deeply satisfying dish of braised lamb shanks. Inexpensive to buy, they should be cooked very slowly until the meat is literally falling off the bone. It is served with the most comforting of all potato dishes, Mash.

The pudding is comfort in a bowl – sticky, dark, rich and sweet. I defy you to stop at just one portion!

Though sticky toffee pudding is most likely to have its roots in Newburgh, Aberdeenshrie at The Udny Arms, there is a very fine pudding sold online from Cartmel in Cumbria: www.stickytoffeepudding.co.uk

SLOW-BRAISED LAMB SHANKS
2 tbsp olive oil
4 large lamb shanks
3 garlic cloves, peeled, chopped
1 large onion, peeled, chopped
450g / 1 lb large carrots, peeled, cut into large chunks
400g / 14 oz can of chopped tomatoes
2 thick sprigs of rosemary
300ml / 10 fl oz lamb stock
2 level tbsp runny honey

Heat the oil in a large ovenproof casserole and brown the shanks all over, on the hob.

If they are really large, you might need to do this in two batches. Remove with a slotted spoon and add the garlic, onion and carrots. Gently fry for about 10 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes, rosemary, lamb stock, salt and pepper, bring to the boil then return the meat to the pan. Season the meat, then drizzle the honey over the shanks. Cover tightly and place in a preheated oven (150C/300F/Gas2) for 31/2 - 4 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone.

Check seasoning and serve with mashed potatoes.

STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING
175g / 6 oz stoned chopped dates
1 heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g / 2 3/4 oz butter, softened
75g / 2 3/4 oz Demerara sugar
75g / 2 3/4 oz dark muscovado sugar
1 tbsp black treacle
200g / 7 oz self raising flour, sifted
2 large eggs
sauce
100g / 3 1/2 oz butter
125g / 4 1/2 oz dark muscovado sugar
300 ml tub double cream

For the sponge, place the dates in a bowl and cover with 300ml / 10 fl oz boiling water. Stir in the bicarbonate then leave to cool .

Place the remaining ingredients in a food mixer and add the dates and liquid.

Process until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

Tip into a well buttered wide baking dish. (The dish must be no more than half-full.) Bake in a preheated oven (180C / 350F/Gas4) for about 30 minutes or until just firm to the touch.

While it is cooking, make the sauce by putting everything into a deep saucepan with a good pinch of salt and stir regularly until smooth. Bubble for a couple of minutes.

Once the pudding is done, pour about a third over the top of the pudding then place under a hot grill for a couple of minutes until it bubbles. Serve in bowls with extra sauce and cream.