Comfort Food – turning to one’s roots


Back to Your Roots
Back to Your Roots

What a week! Politically I mean. Are you as exhausted by politics as I am? Theresa May calls a snap General Election in the UK, leaving many people not knowing who they will vote for. And by the time this post is published, the French will be going to the polls to vote for their next President. There doesn’t seem to be a clear winner from any of their parties, so the French are in for a cliff hanger until May 7th. Anyway, with this political and meteorological chill in the air on both sides of the Channel, my thoughts turn to comfort food and going back to my roots.

The humble potato of my childhood was indeed humble, plain boiled, roasted on Sundays, and mashed for the tops of Shepherds and Fish pies. They even had their own pie, mixed with bits of leftover sausage, bacon, or vegetables, then sprinkled with a thick layer of cheddar and baked in the oven for 20 mins. I fought over the thick golden crust with my brother and usually lost – it was the skin on the rice pudding all over again, but that’s another story.  Even as a child I found plain boiled and baked potatoes bland unless swimming in butter or cheese, but excess of that nature wasn’t allowed by my grandmother who had lived through too many years of rationing. Potatoes therefore remained on my plate in a pile of hostile mash whilst I tried to outlast the dictat of eating everything you were given. We spent a spell living outside Dublin in the coastal town of Greystones, my lasting memory of which is of grey seas, grey pebble beaches, and my English mother sighing whenever the words “Potato Famine” was brought up in her presence. In my child’s mind, the thought of no potatoes seemed a great idea, as did Marie Antoinette’s proclamation “Let them eat cake.” No potatoes and only cake seemed the perfect diet to me.

Many years later, around the start of the Millennium, I went to work in northern California and under the influence of a personal trainer took up the ‘Holy Grail’ of the Glycaemic Index(GI). There were certainly no medical reasons for me to adopt this diet – I wasn’t overweight, I exercised and cooked mostly from scratch, but, when in California, you do as the Californians do, or at least as your personal trainer says. The first thing to go was potatoes, the marginally higher GI index being considered ‘bad’. In California, the replacement became sweet potatoes, mashed, baked and of course in wonderful crispy orange chips. Coconut oil wasn’t around in those days, so the chips were oven roasted in olive oil. Now I use coconut oil as I love the flavour it imparts. The GI index, although useful for diabetics, is no longer part of my reason for rarely eating potatoes. I find them boring, most of the time lacking taste and just generally stodgy. The two exceptions are excellent chips and excellent roast potatoes, with the emphasis on the ‘excellent’. Great chips with a salad is my go to pub lunch after a long walk, and I’ll walk a long way for great chips.

In 2010 I moved to Leipzig in East Germany for five years following Man and his job. The vegetable selection wasn’t great, but root crops abounded. So, with the help of ‘Heston Blumenthal at home’ I discovered a way to puree celeriac that has now become my standard replacement for potatoes in any dish requiring mash. It works brilliantly with fish pie. It’s lighter, tastier, and comforting without leaving you with that heavy feeling in your stomach.

I have simple comfort dishes for different types of weather.  Bowl foods to consume in front of the fire, or heaven forbid, television. Creamy, parmesan rich polenta topped with devilled kidneys for bone-chilling wintry days, prawn and bok choy rice noodle soup for summer days. And for those days somewhere in between, a Dutch version of Colcannon – Stamppot (Mashpot), an unformatted Bubble and Squeak, which I make with, guess what, Celeriac.

Mashpot – nearly Dutch Style. Feeds a healthy two. Preparation and Cooking Time 30 mins

1 small to medium sized peeled and diced Celeriac
1 medium brown onion
1 prepared bag or a large bunch of spring greens/cavolo nero or kale, with large stalks removed and then the leaves cut into inch/2-3 cms wide strips.
1 heaped tablespoon of coconut oil
150 grams of pancetta or chorizo, or bacon lardons cut into small pieces.
100 grams unsalted butter
200 grams/20cls whole milk
Rock salt and ground white pepper to taste

“For Stamppot the Dutch use greens called Andijve, which is a cross between lettuce and cabbage. Endive and chicory suffer from the fact they are known as one thing in some parts of the world and the reverse elsewhere. In the UK Endive maybe known as Batavian Endive(Escarole). I grow my own from seed  as I haven’t yet found it on London supermarket shelves.” – Judi


Make the celeriac puree first. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the celeriac. Toss to cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring regularly. It should take on a light brown colour. Add the milk and cook for about 15 minutes – until the celeriac feels soft enough to be mashed by hand. I’m deviating from Heston here as I want a slightly lumpier mash than a fine puree, which would taste too gloopy (technical term).

Strain off all the liquid into a small dish/jug. Then mash roughly by hand or with a hand blender. Season with salt and white pepper. (My grandmother always used ready ground white pepper in potatoes and white sauces as she didn’t want little black specks in her dishes. I buy white pepper corns to grind).

How long greens take to cook is up to you, depending on how ‘well done’ you like them. I’m an al dente person, but realise that the tougher cavolo nero will take a little longer. Bring a  large pan of salted water to the boil, add the greens and boil, occasionally stirring, for about 3-4 minutes. Then drain them well, pressing out the water and set aside.

In the same pan, so as not to give too much washing up to your partner, melt the coconut oil and fry on a medium heat the onions and pancetta or chorizo for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly so they don’t stick, and if using chorizo, so it releases its unctuous orange fat. Toss in the drained greens and mix well. Finally add the celeriac and stir until it’s blended.

Serve. Eat slowly and enjoy. We tend to eat this on our non-alcohol days, being of an age we need to watch our alcohol intake, but it would go well with our everyday red wine of the moment an Arabella Cabernet Sauvignon from Naked Wines.



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