Now that there’s a chill in the air and it’s getting dark at 4pm, it’s time to turn to those comforting winter staples that get us through the bleaker months of the year. And with lockdown 2.0 in full swing, we have never needed these satisfying dishes more:
Potatoes boulangères is often cruelly overlooked as a side dish. Its better known cousin, the potatoes dauphinoise, tends to steal the limelight. It’s easy to understand why: creamy oozy cheesiness can be hard to get past. But potatoes boulangères deserves greater renown. It’s a more understated side dish than the dauphinoise, sure, but it’s still a stand-out dish in its own right, crunchy and golden on top, soft and fragrant underneath. It’s a layered dish of potatoes and onions, that have cooked gently in a mix of vegetable stock and milk, which are often perfumed by herbs: in this recipe, for instance, I use fresh thyme.
It’s comforting without being heavy; where the dauphinoise can be impossibly rich, the boulangères is fresher, cleaner. It’s a hugely versatile side, a welcome addition to any roast, and an elegant alternative to roast potatoes. Pair your herbs or seasonings with whatever you’re cooking: try rosemary with lamb, or sage if you’re roasting pork.
When you’re craving comfort food, because you’re ailing or stressed, the time it takes to make the dish also contributes to the comfort: the gentle stirring of a risotto, or the slow simmer of a soffrito, the achingly long low bake of a really good rice pudding with taut, golden skin is its own type of therapy.
The cottage pie is a good example of this: its dark, deeply savoury mince base needs at least an hour on the stove, over the lowest possible heat, as well as almost half an hour in the oven, once the buttery mash has been added. It requires chopping and peeling and browning and boiling and stirring and mashing. But all of those elements, building the dish, make the eventual eating of it even more satisfying, more joyful.
Chicken forestiére is chicken poached alongside mushrooms in a cream-based sauce: it’s a simple dish, but one that punches above its weight. It’s rich and satisfying, and deeply autumnal. Like many stews and casseroles it is profoundly unphotogenic, showing off between one and four shades of brown, but in real life it is lustrous and inviting.
Unlike loads of my other favoured stews, this one doesn’t take hours on the stove or in the oven. We can’t pretend it’s a ten minute start-to-finish dish, but it is one you can start after work and comfortably finish in time for dinner – and after the initial time investment, you can leave it to do its thing.
Rice pudding is a global delicacy. The Greeks add richness with egg yolks, the French fragrant vanilla, the Spanish inject a boozy hit of sherry. The Danish version, risalamande, eaten at Christmas, is flavoured with almond and served with a warm cherry sauce. The Lebanese flavour their rice pudding with a rose or orange blossom-scented syrup and top it with chopped pistachios. The Turkish serve their cinnamon-laden rice pudding cold, in tiny tea-glasses.
But my favourite is the plain old common-or-garden English variety, baked in a single large dish and served, family-style, in the centre of the table. It should be cooked low and slow until the rice is tender, and the milk thick and creamy and pooling. Its charm is in its simplicity. But it feels appropriate for such a global dish to add a little spice; I like bay and fresh nutmeg. Meanwhile, light brown sugar adds a welcome caramel depth over caster.
French onion soup is the king of caramelised onion recipes: so much of the flavour comes from those slow-cooked onions. French onion soup should be deep and rich, and – although it’s tempting to think of it as a vehicle for generously cheesed, stringy toasts, that are just the right amount of soggy – it’s the sweet-savoury onions that are the star.
To make a French onion soup properly, you need to cook the onions for two-three hours. I know, it’s a horribly long time. And although you don’t need to hover over the stove for every moment, you do need to be in the vicinity, ready to stir and shove every 10 minutes or so. This isn’t a hands-off dish. If you’re clockwatching, this probably isn’t the soup for you; come back to it when you have a lazy Saturday morning and some telly to catch up on.
There’s no substitute for patience; there are no shortcuts for French onion soup.
Spotted dick is ridiculously easy to bring together, needing only a quick stir from a wooden spoon, before being piled into a pudding basin. No creaming, no curdling, no melting or liaising. And it is, truly, a treat of a dish: the currants, far from being sad and coarse swell to plump and fruity, boozy from the sherry; the pudding itself is light, thanks to the suet which has a high melting point, so the pudding sets around it, creating an unexpectedly airy pud.
Lacking the sauce of a sticky toffee, or gooey exterior of a treacle pudding, it is even more important – integral – to the proper disposal of the pudding, that you drown it in really thick, really cold custard.
Tartiflette tastes like a dish that is as old as the mountains in the Savoie from which reblochon hails, and, to be fair, its inspiration is found in a properly traditional recipe called péla. But the origins of the modern version are actually – delightfully – pedestrian. It was, along with the hummingbird cake, a marketing ploy: the Union Interprofessional Reblochon developed the recipe in the 1980’s to promote the sales of reblochon, and printed it on the back of the cheese boxes. It clearly worked: reblochon is now the cheese of choice for tartiflette and tartiflette is probably better known than it’s fire-cooked cousin, péla.
For me, there’s only one way to eat this: with a simple green salad, dressed with a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette, alongside a glass of punchy white wine.
Given its supporting cast, it’s surprising perhaps that the broccoli is the star of the show. I’ve only relatively recently fallen in love with broccoli, steadfastly believing for years and years that it could only be steamed or boiled and, invariably, slightly soggy. But broccoli, roasted at a high temperature, is a joy. So simple to prepare: no par-boiling needed, just popped into a roasting tray with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and left to do its own thing for twenty or so minutes.
Slightly charred broccoli is one of my favourite things: crunchy and complicated, and completely compulsive. With the right accompaniment it is vibrant: I like it with a creamy, parmesan-loaded dressing, maybe whisked with an egg yolk, like a cheat’s caesar dressing, or just liberally drizzled with lemon juice.
I’m not sure what it is about proper sticky toffee pudding that sends everyone, including my family, so comprehensively mad for it, but it holds some kind of sugary, damp magic. I’m not talking about the tasteless, rubbery sponge you find in certain pub chains, or restaurants who view their dessert list as an upsell rather than a menu in its own right, with a sauce thin in flavour as well as texture. I’m talking about a pudding heavy with dates, laced with soft muscovado sugars, and maybe a little spice. For my money, it should be drenched – drenched – in a dark toffee sauce, thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. This recipe produces a lot of toffee sauce, but that’s borne of experience, where too soon only sad dribbles of toffee sauce are left in the jug, and at least one face at the table is aghast. If your pudding guests are less toffee greedy than mine, please feel free to scale back.
I know that the classic choice for serving sticky toffee pudding is ice cream, and that’s fine, but you’ll take the thick, fridge-cold custard from my cold, dead hands.