COMFORT FOOD

The term Comfort Food is rapidly becoming a 21st Century cliché, the last sacred vestige of unmarried 30 or 40 somethings; huge bars of milk chocolate being consumed by the kilo, offering a quick fix for the temporarily depressed, jilted girlfriends scoffing huge boxes of biscuits without any discernment: pink wafers, coconut flavoured compacted sawdust, digestives covered with a chalky coating that reminds one of American chocolate bars; beleaguered, near-mutinous office workers decimating dried out, wrinkled pieces of meat of origin(s) unknown, kept warm in huge, greasy metal trays on supermarket deli counters, potato wedges no longer edible but a real candidate for replacing the rubber bullet...proof that reconstituted food can serve a very definite purpose in this age of hyper-food awareness. We all know the pleasure derived from eating a sugar-saturated snack or a grease-laden titbit, but there can be more to Comfort Food than just empty calories and the lure of clogged arteries later in life. My own particular weakness is for tea and biscuits, which I have for breakfast, lunch, dinner, evening snack, mid-afternoon snack, post-hangover snack (never whilst drinking alcohol though, the sweetness doesn’t taste right in the mouth with the acridity of spirits) whenever. This was probably the first ‘dish’ that I learned how to ‘cook’ and has stayed with me for many years. There is always a specific biscuit, more often than not Bourbon or Chocolate Digestive, (sometimes just plain Digestives) or Malted Milk. Whilst there is no excuse for this as a snack, there is something almost religious about the dunking of the biscuit into the holy golden liquid, freshly brewed tea, the quick transportation from drinking vessel to mouth and then the all-to-quick savouring as the mushy biscuit dissolves into nothing; as do the day’s worries: temporary ascension.
If like me, you find cooking to be a relaxing escape from the working weekday madness, then preparing a creamy, soul-consoling risotto can be more therapeutic than a muscle-contorting bout of yoga or a tedious manicure. You cannot extol enough the joys of a well-made Risotto. It is the culinary equivalent of freshly washed linen or a hot, lavender scented bath. Not only this but Risotto is nutritious, it is extremely versatile. Traditionally it is to be served with nothing more than freshly grated Parmesan, but if I feel that we need some additional vitamins, I will stir through some broad beans (removed from their little papery skins if not early in the season), a scorched red or yellow pepper chopped into small slices, sautéed courgette, grilled or pan fried salmon (my husband seasons his salmon with Old Bay Seasoning, an American seasoning made with, amongst other closely guarded ingredients, celery salt, pimento, cloves, cardamom, mace, paprika and ground black pepper), flaked and stirred through the Risotto with some fresh or mushy peas, lightly poached prawns work well, their succulent pinkness against the creamy, pale yellow rice...the thing to remember with Risotto is that it is supposed to be delicate, it does not need to be overly seasoned nor over-powered by strong flavours. Traditionally the Risotto gets it’s first hint of flavour from a good, homemade chicken, beef or veal, however not everyone has the time nor the inclination to prepare stock. In which case, use good quality chicken or vegetable stock cubes or buy some ready prepared stock from the supermarket. I recently read in an posthumously released Elizabeth David book, Is There A Nutmeg In The House? that a certain well-known brand of stock cubes contain, amongst other flavouring horrors, MSG and Purines. We are all aware of the risks from MSG, including its charming carcinogenic properties but Purines are what give Gout sufferers their agonising attacks (and my husband is one of those people). Interestingly pigs don’t suffer from gout although if my husband eats pork sausages and/or lots of chemically enhanced pork products, he does.
Whilst, I have a tendency to attack recipes from cookery books with an abecedarian zeal I always return to a handful of old favourites that require nothing more than a half functioning brain and one spoon stirring hand. Risotto is one of them. I first approached the recipe with trepidation after hearing dreadful stories about the complexity of this dish. In fact it is quite simple:
RISOTTO
2 finely chopped shallots or 1 finely chopped onion
3 finely chopped cloves garlic (add more or less as your taste dictates, sometimes I leave it out altogether)
Good slug of olive oil
150ml White Wine
1½ pints very hot stock (chicken, veal, vegetable, cubes)
Risotto Rice (Arborio etc.)
Parmesan Cheese
Unsalted Butter
Salt and Pepper

Gently soften the onion or shallot in the olive, add the Risotto rice to the pan and stir well until the rice is coated and slick. Season with salt. The grains of rice will start to squeak slightly and this is your sign to add the white wine. The pan should be hot enough that the wine will ‘whoosh’ in the pan when you pour it in. It should then bubble rapidly. Stir the rice grains frequently. Once it has been absorbed, the rice should start to go creamy. Add a ladleful of stock. Once this too has been absorbed add another ladleful. This process is fairly quick, about 20 minutes and whilst you are waiting for the stock to all be absorbed you can leave the pan to prepare vegetables or fish. The rules of making a Risotto are strict but the process itself is not.
Once you have used up your stock, the Risotto should be thick but slightly soupy and very creamy. The grains should be slightly al dente but even if they are cooked beyond this point the Risotto is still good. Add a knob of butter and beat in furiously with a wooden spoon. Add a handful of freshly grated Parmesan and taste for seasoning. I like to add lots of black pepper. That’s a basic Risotto. You can then personalise it. You could serve it with any of the above or even with fish fingers if you want. Risotto is not a snooty restaurant dish. It is the savoury equivalent of that other classic comfort food, rice pudding. In fact, you can prepare a sweet risotto in much the same way, exchanging the stock for milk or cream and adding sugar instead of onion. Some raisins or other dried fruit soaked in brandy would make it a bit fancier but still comforting. Sprinkle some brown sugar on the top and put under a hot grill for a Brulee finish. Nursery Food. Perfect.

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