Thursday, 22 October 2009

Guilty pleasures: comfort food

The concepts of ‘guilty pleasures’ and of ‘comfort food’ have become so popular that they now denote things to be proud of rather than guilty about, as retro, nostalgic, post-modern, ironic statements. Listening to cheesy disco music for example with just the right degree of archness (think Mamma Mia!) or even (God forbid) enjoying wide shoulderpads and electro-pop as the 80s return, is actually very hip. (I’m dreading the time, which must come soon, when fashions I was already too old to be part of are reclaimed as 'retro'.) Cookbooks celebrate the supposedly guilty pleasures of comfort food. The Domestic Goddess herself devotes a whole chapter in Nigella Bites. Nigel Slater’s recent book Eating for England is one long paean to comfort food – with entries for Dairylea Triangles, Fray Bentos pies and Kitkats. There’s even a restaurant in Edinburgh, the wonderfully named Monster Mash (how 1970s can you get?), with a menu based entirely around ‘british classics’– pride of place given to humble bangers and mash of course, but featuring other old faves such as shepherd’s pie and macaroni cheese.

But what about the comfort foods that are too dull, too downmarket for a gastro-rennaissance? These are the truly guilty pleasures. The pleasures that you don’t admit to and certainly don’t serve to dinner guests as retro chic. Is it just me or does everyone have a selection of favourite foodstuffs (‘dishes’ is far too sophisticated a term for the things I have in mind), mostly drawn from childhood it must be said, and therefore fuelled by a degree of nostalgia rather than just taste, that are so ordinary, so plebeian, but so fantastically yummy that in the privacy of your home you eat them with shameless relish?

I was reflecting on this yesterday evening when, just back from work and turning my mind to cooking, I discovered that there was nothing in the fridge and that everything in the freezer would take too long to defrost. I stared despondently at the pantry shelves, thoughts of takeaways beginning to form, when my gaze alighted on a tin of corned beef. Oh joy – I knew exactly what I wanted – Corned Beef Hash. God, I love corned beef hash. It’s quick and easy to make. It requires only store-cupboard ingredients. It’s cheap. And it has that stodginess that I find is essential to true comfort food. It’s like an internal duvet – soft, warm, wrapping you up from the inside. Comfort food should be a bit heavy. After eating it, physical movement should become slightly difficult, thereby confining you to the ‘comfort’ zones of sofa or bed.

What would Masterchef make of these ingredients?

The ‘recipe’ (ahem!) is delightfully simple: boil some small chunks of potato. Meanwhile, in a frying pan, sweat some chopped onion in butter, or even, as a sop to the world post 1978, some olive oil. Dice the corned beef and add to the pan. Add 1 tsp tomato puree and ½ tsp dried mixed herbs. You must use dried herbs. You want a dusty, bass note, not zingy green freshness. Then, the piece de resistance: the ingredient that makes this meal off limits to anything other than private, family dining (as if the tinned corned beef and dried mixed herbs hadn’t already done this!) - add one small tin of baked beans. I confess, I sometimes add a small tin of chopped tomatoes as well – which is verging on an acceptable foodstuff for the noughties. Drain the cooked potatoes and add them to the hash and then cover and leave to simmer gently for 10 mins or so. I sometimes add a dash of tomato ketchup as well – just to reinforce the déclassé credentials of the dish. Under no circumstances serve it with anything green, to try and rescue it from the culinary fourth division – for example a mixed salad or watercress or pak choi. You could possibly justify serving it with some Marrowfat peas (see below). Otherwise just pile it on the plates and eat it with a fork, preferably whilst slumped on the sofa, watching rubbish on tv. Add extra tomato sauce to taste ….

This should probably be followed by something like a wagon wheel biscuit (do they still make them?)  just to recreate the full 1970s home-cooking experience.

Here are some of my other favourites from the comfort food hall of shame:

Mince and Potatoes (or Mince and Tatties – to translate for my Scottish husband).
Beef mince, chopped onions, browned then simmered with salt and pepper and probably an oxo cube, or similar. You may add some diced carrots, or even frozen garden peas. But nothing else. Serve with plain boiled potatoes. What’s not to like? When I used to come back home for the holidays from university, this was what my Mum always cooked for me on my first night home, because she knew I loved it so much. Aw. I’m easily pleased.

Pilchards on Toast
Even I think this is pretty weird if I’m honest. Take a small tin of pilchards in tomato sauce. It is important that they are in tomato sauce. You aren’t going to incorporate the tomato sauce into the meal, because it’s too sloppy and bland. However the fish will have steeped in the sauce and taken on some of that innate tomato-iness. With a fork, slide the fish out of the tin and put them in a small bowl. Mash them coarsely with the fork and add a dash of tomato ketchup (again!). Meanwhile toast two slices of bread. Butter the toast and spread the pilchard/ketchup mixture on the bread. Pop the fish covered toast under a medium grill for a few minutes, to warm the fish through. I confess, reading this, it sounds pretty disgusting even to me, but it is strangely delicious - trust me.

Fish Finger Sandwich
More ketchup with this one. Doesn’t really need any explanation. Almost health food – well, it’s fish, and you could use wholemeal bread.

Eggy Bread
Ok – I could call this ‘french toast’ and feel quite sophisticated – but is it still ‘french toast’ when accompanied by tomato ketchup? Actually, this is one of C’s comfort foods, which I never ate as a child, but I have learned to love as an adult. To serve 2, beat 3 large eggs, with about 2 tablespoons of milk. Add a bit of salt. Put the egg-milk mixture in a shallow bowl or rimmed plate– big enough to lay a slice of bread in. Plonk a slice of bread in the mixture, so that it soaks it up, then turn the bread over to soak up some more. Fry on a medium heat, on both sides, until it is nicely golden brown. Repeat with more bread until the mixture is used up. Serve with – yes, you’ve guessed it, tomato ketchup. Although C is also partial to brown sauce with this.

Tinned Marrowfat Peas
Have to be tinned. Have to be marrowfat. NOT mushy. Best eaten with something like a warm Cornish pasty or a meat pie. By the way, don’t make the mistake of uniting marrowfat peas with any other foodstuff during the cooking process (not that you would!). One of my more memorable meals as a student was preparing a haddock and haricot bean casserole. As I didn’t have any haricot beans - I was a student! It was 1983! - I used marrowfat peas, ‘fresh’ from the tin. After half an hour in the oven, the fish had turned luminous green. Presumably a result of the dye in the peas. Not an appetising look for fish. I think it’s the only time my flatmates actually refused to eat what I’d cooked for them.

In all the above dishes, note the lack of fresh vegetables, the high proportion of starchy foods, red meat - and ketchup. Turns out tomato ketchup is one of my comfort foods. All of these dishes could appear in some kind of postwar, austerity cookbook written by Marguerite Patten on behalf of the Ministry of Food.

Mmm. Don’t think I can open a restaurant with this kind of fare. However fashionable the 1970s are. And don’t get me started on sweets.  Sherbert Dib Dab anyone?


  1. An absolute feast! I adore corned beef hash too, and another huge favourite of mine is a good old fashioned roast dinner...and shepherd's pie...I could go on and on.

  2. Ruth and I sometimes have a shared corned beef hash or corned beef and chips lunch as Brian hates the stuff, but I enjoy the pleasure without the guilt!! horrid pilchards and horrid marrofat peas, but I do like a fish finger sandwich. My own favourite comfort thing when I have taken on the mood of a pissed off teenager is spaghetti hoops on toast with grated cheese on and it has to be grated orange Scottish 'cheddar' for preference.

  3. ps love the description of the dusty bass note of dried herbs, they have to be at least 2 years past their sell by date :-)

    want me to put a to link here?

  4. or even a link to here- brain going faster than typing finger again