For more reasons than I care to name here, I have been cooking a lot of ‘comfort food’ of late. I am sure that ‘comfort food’ has always been with us but I suspect that it is only the modern luxury of food choice and the self-awareness of our times the has made it a culinary feature. As a child, I never remember hearing the term, though of course there was nothing so absolutely essential as a couple of slices of hot, buttered toast and marmalade when I got home from school. I knew that any horrid event could be improved by a plate of steaming, mashed potato, topped off with a knob of butter but I don’t think we had a name for that particular kind of solace back then.
It seems that the year zero for of the identification of comfort food is 1979 – that particularly oddball year of massive political changes and conflict – the Winter of Discontent, the election of Mrs Thatcher, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Musically, it combined the dying days of Rock, the hiatus of Punk and the onset of the New Romantics. In the year that gave us ‘The Wall’ and ‘I hate Mondays,’ the food writer Judith Olney published ‘Comforting Food ‘.
A reviewer at the time commented that her recipes had ‘a general air of having been designed to promote human well-being’, and to be honest, what else do we want food to do? In the intervening three decades comfort food has come into the mainstream and, like a sort of edible cuddle, it’s the food we turn to when life isn’t doing us any favours. Of course comfort food is not only very personal, it also has national guidelines; it is not just about taste or ingredients, it’s also about familiarity and nostalgia. It is the food we remember from our childhood – food we don’t have to struggle with. It is easy to eat and unpretentious. It is that best friend who doesn’t mind seeing us in our scruffy clothes. It is, above all, comfortable .
In England nearly every list includes shepherds pie, fish and chips and roast dinners; despite our obvious hankering for traditional protein and potatoes, we now also find happiness in chicken curry and ‘spag bol’. Our ‘colonial cousins’ seem to have fairly similar requirements and the lists for Australia, Canada and New Zealand are made up of stews, soups and (I’m glad to say) mashed potato. Other nations look for comfort elsewhere.
The Polish list is topped with a glamorous sounding beetroot soup with wild mushroom tortellini. For the Russians, bliny and caviar seem to be the foodie equivalent of a fluffy blanket. The Indian sub-continent finds its ‘get better kiss’ in a lovely looking dish of rice and lentils called khichdi – incidentally, the forbear of our kedgeree.
As I have spent more of my life connected to Greece than not, on examining all of this, I find that my own list of comfort foods has also acquired two passports. So what about Greece…. ?
On a bad day there is nothing that lifts my spirits quite like a bowl of spanakórizo (spinach rice), it’s tasty and savoury and has a good combination of tangy, tomato sauce, rice and and silky spinach. Personally, a topping of crumbled feta makes it one of my favourite comfort foods. In the gloomiest depths of winter I get a real craving for casseroled pork with leeks (accompanied with mashed potato of course). Generally, I am a sucker for any kind of pita – all that crispy pastry with some delectable filing; a tirópita (cheese pie) is a particularly effective ‘pick me up’.
Then there’s roast lamb – the kind that’s been cooked slowly for hours; the kind that melts in the mouth, with soft lemony potatoes and a big dollop of tzatzíki on the side. That misery and hunger can be conquered with souvláki, is a fact known to all Greeks. Pastítsio is also a definite on on the Greek list.
Pastítsio, if you haven’t come across it, is a souped up version of lasagne, or maybe it’s a pasta version of moussaka.Anyway, it has all the ingredients for a comfort food; carbs, protein, creaminess and cheese. Moussaká, of course, is also guaranteed to bring a smile to your face but both those dishes are a little fiddly, so they can only be truly comforting when cooked (and cooked well) by someone else. There are so many candidates for this list; I am open to suggestions, as I am sure I have missed some obvious ones. And then, of course, there are youvarlákia.
As a young child, my son, mis-hearing the name, used to call them ‘ballakia’ – little balls – and he was not wrong. Youvárlákia, if you have to describe them, are poached meatballs, which does them a great disservice, and they wouldn’t get anywhere in a food fashion parade. Despite that, in a plate of youvarlákia you have everything required of comfort food – ground minced beef, tender grains of rice, tasty herbs, all in a beautiful creamy, lemon sauce. Where they come out on the top of my list is that they are so easy and quick to make – a one-pot dish that fills the kitchen with fragrance and the tummy with good food in well under an hour. What more do you want for comfort?
Tricky times require comforting food- I think I’ll be needing the list for a while yet.
For the meatballs
400gm minced beef
150gm uncooked long grain rice (raw) – I use the ‘Easy Cook’ variety available in most supermarkets.
1 onion, grated or finely chopped
2 tabs chopped parsley
2 tabs chopped dill
1-2 tsp salt, according to taste
A few turns of freshly ground black pepper
1 small tomato,
1 egg, the white only – but keep the yolk for the sauce
For the sauce
750ml vegetable stock – ‘Marigold’ vegetable bouillon works well.
A splash of tomato juice – see the list of ingredients for the meatballs.
2 tsp of cornflour
1 whole egg and 1 additional yolk – see the list of ingredients for meatballs.
Juice of half a lemon.
Take a medium sized mixing bowl and put in the mince, the rice, the chopped/grated onion, the chopped herbs and the seasoning.
Using a coarse grater, gently grate the outer flesh of the tomato and add it to the mince and rice mix. Hang on to the remaining core and juice of the tomato.
Separate the white from the yolk of the egg. Add the white to the mix. Again, hang on to the yolk, you will need it for the sauce.
With your hands knead the mince, rice, herb mixture, making sure all the ingredients are well incorporated.
Now, shape the mince into smallish balls about the size of a large walnut. Cover them with cling film and put them in the fridge or a cool place while you prepare the poaching liquid.
Put the vegetable stock into a medium sized pan add the remains of the grated tomato and bring it to the boil. Turn the heat down so that it is simmering.
Now take the meatballs – the youvarlákia – and gently drop them, one at a time, into the simmering stock. Put the lid on the pan and allow the youvarlákia to cook for about 35 to 40 minutes, making sure that they don’t boil to vigorously, so they don’t fall apart. If necessary, add a little water.
When they are cooked, dilute the cornflour with a few teaspoons of water and add it to the cooking liquid. Stir it in gently, you don’t want the youvarlákia to break. Heat it again for a minute or two, so that the liquid thickens slightly.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool a little.
Take a medium sized bowl (it needs to be big enough to take all the poaching liquid) and break into it the the next egg and the retained egg yolk. Give this a good mix with a whisk.
Gradually add the lemon juice, a few drops at a time, beating it all the time with the whisk.
Now, take a ladleful of the hot poaching liquid and add this very gradually, a splash at a time, to the egg and lemon mixture. You must beat each addition of hot stock very well, so that the sauce doesn’t curdle.
Do this until you have added most of the liquid and you are left with just the meatballs in the pan.
Now, put the egg, lemon, stock mixture back into the pan and carefully mix it with the meatballs.
Return the pan to a very moderate heat and warm it again carefully. If it boils it will curdle.
Check the seasoning and also add a little more lemon juice if required.
Serve the youvarlákia with good crusty bread. A slice of feta on the side goes nicely too.