The taste of home.

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I spent a couple of weeks in Crete rediscovering the tastes and smells from my early days there. It was surprising to find that the food which brought back the most memories was not the most memorable itself.

Sitting at a table by the sea, I looked at the myriad of plates and began to add this and that to my own. There was one dish, however, which I mistook for houmous until I tasted it. I dipped in some beautiful bread and suddenly I was four years old again. The taste was rich and comforting and so familiar. “What is this? I recognise the taste, but I don’t know it’s name”. It was fava.

The reason that I love fava so much is because it is a fantastic vehicle for olive oil. It’s very simple to make and there are very few ingredients. The main ingredient is yellow split lentils. When cooked down to a thick consistency, they carry the flavour of extra-virgin olive oil like few other foods can. If peasant food isn’t your thing, or you don’t care for the taste of good olive oil, this is perhaps your time to bail and return when there’s a pudding recipe (next week). If you are like me and crave the good stuff, then fava is a truly wonderful way to make use of that oil in your cupboard reserved for only your best dishes. Will fava wow your friends at a dinner party? Nope, but your tummy will love it!

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Fava

250g yellow split peas

2 onions (sliced)

1 garlic clove (chopped)

extra-virgin olive oil

juice of half a lemon

sea salt

Rinse the split peas in cold water and then put them into a pan of boiling water with the onions.  Bring back to the boil and simmer.  I usually put just enough water in to cover the peas and then add more as it is absorbed.  When the split peas are thick and mushy, I transfer them to a container that I can use my hand blender in without getting spattered.  I add the garlic, lemon juice and a lot of extra-virgin olive oil and blitz it.  The fava should be soft and full of the flavour of the oil.  Be careful not to add too much lemon juice and then season with a little salt until you’re happy with it.

I like eating fava on its own, but it’s also great served alongside fish and any Greek dishes.  Drizzle more oil onto it just before serving.  Fava refrigerates well and can be brought back to life in the microwave and the addition of (yet more) olive oil.  Serving it warm, rather than hot is the way to go.  So grab a chunk of your favourite bread and dive into my favourite comfort food!

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Laos, ‘Nam and jam.

Jam in Japan?  Loaves in Laos?  Well, yes, actually, it’s not all noodles and rice.  Western travellers can enjoy the delights of local cuisine the world over, but sooner or later, the comfort of home comes calling.

You can thank the French for bringing their beautiful bread to Laos.  After jungle treks, boat rides and back packs, believe me, you will.  In Vietnam, street snacks often take the form of small baguettes smothered in  La vache qui rit. I can almost smell the freshly baked, crispy baguettes!

It’s a very personal thing, so I guess that everyone will have their own image of that go-to comfort food.  For my wife, no matter where we go and what we eat, eventually, that yearning for something familiar comes calling.  When it does, there’s nothing I can do to dissuade her; only spaghetti in a rich tomato sauce will do.  Try ordering that in the Mekong Delta.

I’m easier to please.  When I’ve had my fill of local dishes, I think of bread.  Good, fresh bread with butter and jam.  Plenty of jam.  You don’t have to travel to appreciate good bread though.  Recently, a friend (who knows me very well) bought me a beautiful loaf tin filled with very tasty jams, spoons, ribbons, recipe cards and wax discs.  There’s everything needed to make jam and a simple bread recipe to make a loaf too.  Needless to say that I’ve been dying to give it all a try.  Yesterday I got stuck in and made a gorgeous loaf to slice up and pile jam onto.

I used the recipe card that came in the set, but adapted it (the dough was too wet to work with at first).  The loaf came out crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  I’m not a master bread maker, but I’m very happy with it.  Looks like I’ll be eating bread and jam every day this week.

Observe, if you will, the beauty of bread baked at night. Time to fetch the butter.

Honey bread

700g white flour

1 pint warm water

1 tblspoon honey

1 tspoon salt

1 tspoon dried yeast

Sift the flour, yeast and salt into a large bowl.  Stir the honey into the warm water until dissolved and pour into a small well in the middle of the flour.  Use one hand to hold the bowl and the other to mix until you have a dough that will come away from the sides.  If it is too wet, add more flour.

Tip the dough onto a floured surface and knead it gently.  Place into the large prepared loaf tin.  Cover with a damp tea towel and leave to prove for an hour or so.

After an hour, run a sharp knife down the length of the loaf and drizzle more olive oil on top.  Place in an oven at 180C for about half an hour.  To check if the loaf is done, tip it out carefully and tap the base.  It should have a hollow sound when ready.

Let the loaf cool on a wire rack for a little while.  Then, of course, it’s time to slice it thickly and let butter and jam do the rest.  If you’ll excuse me, I’ve left my loaf unattended and in my house, that’s what is known as a “schoolboy error”.

Deeply spiced, deeply missed.

I’ve spent all day wishing that I was back in bed.  I’m not well and all I’ve thought about at work is being snug in my cosy bed.  Arriving home, my wife told me to go straight to bed and get some rest.  Now I don’t want to go to bed.  It’s too early.  There’s only one thing that I want and I can’t have it, so I want it more than anything else!

Chilli con carne.  No wait, come back!  I’m not talking about any old chilli con carne.  I’m not talking about the minced-up slop that gets dolloped onto baked potatoes, or the stuff that comes in tins and might as well be dog food.  What my ailing physical shell is crying out for is some deeply spiced, meaty chilli with plenty of satisfying mouthfuls of flavour and comfort.  What I want is my beloved chunky chilli con carne, and sadly, there’s no chance of me having that wish fulfilled.

I made the chilli last week and thoroughly enjoyed it because I don’t make it often.  There are some things that I can make quickly, but chilli con carne is not one of them.  I really take my time, slow things right down to snail pace.  We’re talking seriously slow food.

The night before I make it, I cover the beef in spices and garlic and put it in the fridge.  The next day, I pile up the flavour and give the chilli lots of depth and a long, slow cook.  By the time it’s ready to eat, the meat is tender, full of flavour and so good that it can be served alone.  As it is, my preference is to pair it with some beautifully buttery mashed potato.  This is by no means a traditional partner to chilli con carne, but it’s something I remember from my childhood and it’s such a perfect way to make sure that every last drop of chilli is mopped up.  The chilli and mash combo is so comforting and hearty that it’s no wonder my immune system is calling out for it.  A shame then, that all I have is the memory of last week and a recipe for my ultimate chilli con carne that may just knock your socks off.

My ultimate chunky chilli con carne

400g stewing beef (roughly chopped)

1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)

1 tin red kidney bins (400g)

1 red onion (sliced)

1 Spanish onion (sliced)

3 cloves garlic

4 tblspoons dried oregano

2 tblspoons chilli flakes

2 chipotle chillis

1 red chilli (sliced)

2 tblspoons coriander seeds

2 tblspoons cumin seeds

2 tblspoons cumin powder

1 bunch fresh coriander

1 tblspoon tomato puree

1 tspoon cinnamon

olive oil

sea salt

Put the beef into a plastic container ready to go into the fridge.  Add the cinnamon, two tablespoons of oregano, two tablespoons of dried chilli flakes, two roughly chopped garlic cloves and a teaspoon of cumin powder.  Mix thoroughly and then seal the container.  Leave in the fridge overnight if possible.  A few hours will do if you don’t have the time.

The next day, let the meat come back to room temperature before cooking it.  Dry fry the cumin and coriander seeds in a hot pan, but don’t allow them to burn.  Toasting them will release their flavour.  Grind them to a powder and set aside.

Brown the beef in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and then add both of the onions.  Tip the ground coriander and cumin seeds into the pot, add another clove of garlic and stir.  Allow the onions to soften and cook through without burning.  Add another couple of tablespoons of oregano and the red chilli.

Next tip the tomatoes in and stir.  Allow to cook for five or six minutes and then stir in the kidney beans and the tomato puree.  Add another teaspoon of cumin powder.  Finally, pour in just enough water to cover the beef and add the chipotles.  Make sure that everything is well mixed together.  Cover and cook on a low heat for an hour or so, stirring every now and again so that nothing sticks or burns.

The beef needs to cook slowly and become soft.  Once it is tender, take the lid off the pan and cook the chilli for another hour to allow the sauce to reduce and thicken.  If you’re into coriander like I am, chop a bunch and stir it into the chilli just before serving.  Don’t forget to remove the chipotles before tucking in.

I’m so glad that my little brother hated vegetables.

Comfort food can take just about any form and who am I to try to narrow that category?  Whatever food makes you feel good and safe and happy is comfort food.  There are a few obvious examples of comfort food and my favourite has to be mashed potato.

Being a soft and fluffy food, mashed potato does all of the comforting as soon as you place it in your mouth.  Partnered with some good butter and a little milk, mashed potatoes will practically anaesthetise me and I guess you can’t ask anything more of a comfort food.

Why do I need comforting?  I don’t, but a good pile of mash on the plate next to sausages will put pay to any winter blues quicker than you can say “onion gravy”.  Lucky for me and the other members of my little, greedy family, winter is still doing a sound check and we probably won’t hear the opening bars for a few weeks yet.  That said, when N asked for mashed potatoes with our meal, I got a surge of joy at the prospect of seeing my old buttery friend again.

My mum used to mash up carrots with the potatoes in a bid to get another vegetable down the throat of my veggie-hating little brother.  We’ve loved carrot and potato mash ever since and I decided to make some (to please my inner child).  At the last minute, I realised that we had some coriander that needed to be used up.  Before I knew it, I was chopping fresh leaves (and stalks) and mixing them into the creamy mashed potatoes and carrots.  Carrot and coriander is a tried and tested combo, so I knew it was a safe bet.

We were delighted with the result and while I don’t think a whole recipe is necessary, I did want to share this mash with you.  Coriander is packed full of vitamin C and this was a fantastic opportunity to get some.  Go on, give your immune system (and your loved ones) a treat!