I’ve had to slightly rethink the word ‘comfort’, though. Perhaps it’s because I was brought up in an era when creamy, buttery mash was the very definition of cosy. If you’re from Northern Ireland, as I am, you’ll know about champ, a dish of potatoes mashed with milk – in which chopped spring onions have been cooked – and copious amounts of butter.
This is eaten on its own, there are no healthy greens on the side, and it is a dish my children just don’t get. They’re the same, sadly, about gratin dauphinois. They don’t get cream.
They whine, ‘Oh Mum, so much cream,’ as I dig a serving spoon into its tender layers. They don’t even get potatoes. As I split my baked potato open, they’ll be cooking bulgar wheat and slicing roasted peppers. I suppose they’ve been brought up with Mediterranean vegetables and olive oil, even though we live in England.
Pies are one of the few old-fashioned cosy foods I can get past them, the only dish, other than lasagne, in which they think a flour-thickened sauce is acceptable. Otherwise, for them, cosiness is delivered in pasta and baked rice dishes and even sloppy bowlfuls of polenta. You wouldn’t think their mother was Irish; you might conclude, just on what they eat, that they’d been brought up by an Italian who had spent a lengthy sojourn in the Middle East.
They like assertive flavours, the heat of chilli and cayenne, salty feta cheese, the earthy, sweaty whiff of cumin, and the pulses – lentils and chickpeas – that Mediterranean cooking has made popular. I have come to love polenta too. It provides a medium-weight blanket on which other, stronger flavours can play. Baked rice dishes have been on the go since I worked out that 200g rice and 650ml stock cook to perfection in 40 minutes in a 30cm pan.
My idea of cosy food is expanding and the dishes I’m sharing here prove it. I’m not giving up the creamy gratins, though.
Three comfort food recipes for winter mealtimes
A cobbler is often sweet but it’s a versatile dish that works well with savoury ingredients, too.