THE JOY OF COMFORT COOKING
Well. Well, well, well. What an exceedingly hot mess we have found ourselves in. In the poetic words of Aussie hip hop group Hilltop Hoods, 2020’s nothing but an unshaved ballbag. A-bloody-men.
People are very creative and I have seen lots of articles and stories about coping in this strange reality. Tales of love in lockdown, quarantine queens and isolation celebrations. I personally have found solace in yoga, reading, knitting, television and keeping regular contact with my friends – on Saturday night I got drunk in my kitchen dressed as a cat while on Zoom to fourteen of my closest friends and it didn’t even feel weird. But a true comfort to me in this (frankly insane) time has been cooking.
Comfort cooking is not the same as comfort eating. I’m a pretty big fan of that too when times call for it, but depending on your comfort food of choice it can sometimes leave you feeling worse than when you started. Turns out a dozen brownies baked at midnight and eaten while still mouth-burningly hot do not a night of sweet sleep make. Comfort cooking is about finding joy in the act of creation. It is not supposed to be stressful or difficult (and I’m aware cooking can easily be both of those things). It is about surrounded yourself with things that feel, smell and sound good, culminating in the feeling of ultimate satisfaction when you produce something that tastes good.
The day after the worst day of my life, which occurred just under three months ago, and I may or may not write about at a later date (I want this blog to be a warm and happy place, and this is a dark and twisty subject), I went to the kitchen. I pulled out all of the vegetables in the fridge and I turned them into a tagine. I read four different recipes, took the bits I liked from each of them, and focussed on the task completely.
I put some gentle music on (the new T Swift is good comfort cooking music if you don’t mind it a bit sad, otherwise a little Disney goes a long way). I peeled the root vegetables and chopped them, watching each slice of the knife. I diced the onions and poured them into the pot of heated oil, enjoying the sizzle and the fragrant smell. I stirred, poured in the stock and the wine (and yes, I had a glass of said wine, purely to prevent waste, you understand). I enjoyed watching bubbles form as the dish came to a simmer and then I heaved it into the oven with a satisfying thunk. I kneaded dough to make flatbread (recipe not included, I absolutely did not nail them and will not be telling you how to tackle yeast-based products until I’ve mastered the art. Don’t hold your breath). While everything was doing its thing in the oven, I washed the dishes in hot soapy water and thoroughly scrubbed the counter.
I’m pretty terrible at meditation and mindfulness. But I’m fairly sure that’s what I was practising when I set about making my tagine that day. And the best part was, at the end of the experience, I had a flavourful and warming dish to feed my grieving family. It didn’t fix anything, but it helped us hold ourselves together that night.
I know that cooking isn’t the same joyful or relaxing experience for everyone, it’s a very subjective and often divisive thing, like hot yoga or The Bachelor. But as we all spend more time in our homes, and have to eat (and perhaps have more time on our hands than we once did) it is my fervent hope that more and more people will find joy and comfort in the experience of preparing food.
So if you’re looking for a simple, delicious, wintry dish to share with your loved ones (or just enjoy yourself) here is the recipe for my Easy Veggie Tagine (please note, not made strictly traditionally at all – for a start I use an ordinary saucepan and not a conical tagine dish! But still delicious).
RECIPE – Easy Moroccan Tagine with Flatbreads and Grilled Greens
(serves 6) (probably with leftovers) (I’m bad at portions)
Big slug of olive oil (approx 2tbsp)
1 x large onion
1 x good chunk of pumpkin. (Maybe 1/8 of a pumpkin? I really should start weighing things. Should be the primary vegetable in the dish if that helps.)
2 x carrots
1 x large parsnip
1 x medium-sized sweet potato
2 x medium-sized potatoes
2 x large handfuls button mushrooms
1 x tin chickpeas
12 x dried apricots, chopped in halves (you can also use prunes or a mixture of both)
500ml chicken stock
250ml white wine
1 x tsp turmeric
2 x tsp cumin
3 x tsp moroccan seasoning
1/2 tsp x ginger
1/2 tsp x cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 x bunches broccolini
Handful slivered almonds
1 x tsp sumac OR squeeze of lemon juice
Flatbreads – absolutely happy for you to buy these. If you make your own and they’re successful and don’t in any way resemble the inner sole of a shoe, could you send me the recipe please? Ta.
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Pick your soothing Spotify playlist. I’m switching between Folklore when I want to have a little cry as I cook or the Hamilton soundtrack if I want to sing along at the top of my lungs.
2. Dice the onion and chop all the root vegetables (and the pumpkin. Is pumpkin a root vegetable? No. Can’t be. Ignore me) into pieces roughly the size of a large thumb. With the olive oil, toss them all into a large, oven-proof saucepan (cast iron is good). If you don’t have one, you can use an ordinary saucepan and tip into an oven proof dish a little later on. Let them sauté over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, while you quarter the mushrooms.
3. Add the mushrooms and spices. You might need a little more oil to stop things sticking. Enjoy the fragrances as they cook. Don’t forget to turn the overhead fan on or your relaxing cooking experience might be rudely interrupted by the smoke alarm. Let my mistakes prevent yours.
4. Add the dried fruit, stock and white wine. Turn up the heat a little and bring to the boil. We all know a watched pot never boils, though, so have a cheeky wine while you’re waiting.
5. Once it’s bubbling nicely, yank it off the stove and pop it in the oven with a lid on. If you’re using an oven dish that doesn’t have a lid, cover with a double layer of tin foil. It will need approx 40 mins in the oven, although you could turn the heat down to 150 and give it an extra twenty minutes for extra flavour!
6. 10 minutes before serving, chop the ends off your broccolini and put into the frying pan with a hearty slug of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and the sumac or lemon juice. Fry over a medium heat and once it’s been sizzling nicely for 5 minutes or so, throw in the almonds for the last 2-3 minutes. Test a piece to make sure it’s still got a little crunch but isn’t too hard and take off the heat.
7. If you want to heat your flatbreads (recommended) pop them in the oven for 5 mins before you serve everything.
8. Make sure your tagine is looking nice and soft. It’s quite a thin broth (you could thicken with a little cornflour but I’ve never bothered). The pumpkin should go nice and mushy and soak it up a bit though.
9. Enjoy! Take a breath. Savour the flavours. Remember that life is a series of moments, some are good and some are terrible and some are just nothing. Let this be a good one.