However tough life feels at times, there is no question at all that there are certain cosy recipes that bring comfort and somehow make everything seem a little bit brighter. Everyone has their own comfort go-to, and whether your own idea of feel-better food is Marmite toast or minestrone, there is no question that most people seek out simple moments of consolation when the going gets tough.
These three cosy recipes by Valentina Harris provide the kind of comfort that only something unfailingly familiar and softly warming can bring. It’s like a culinary version of a warm bath or a hot water bottle. Not glamorous, just honest, real food that delivers succour in times of need.
Baked pasta with ham and cheese
This is a very simple and easy dish that I remember very fondly from my childhood in Tuscany. I really prefer to use penne when I make this as it fits the memory much better, but conchiglie works, too. You can of course add other things to the dish such as grilled bacon, cooked peas, mushrooms or cauliflower florets, or even crumbled blue cheese for a much stronger flavour.
- 380g short pasta (penne or conchiglie)
- Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
- 500ml béchamel sauce
- 200g grated parmesan
- 200g cooked or cured ham, chopped
- 50g unsalted butter
FOR THE BECHAMEL SAUCE
Makes around 1 litre
- 4 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 1/2 tbsp plain white flour
- 1 litre ml cold milk
- A pinch each of salt, freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, or more to taste
- Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente. Meanwhile, make the béchamel sauce, by melting butter in a small saucepan on medium/low heat until it just starts to bubble.
- Add the flour and cook, stirring until smooth, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking continuously, cooking until thick and there is no residual flavour of flour in the sauce – about 15 minutes.
- Remove from heat. Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add cheese if using. Set aside until required, covered with greaseproof paper laid on the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin forming.
- Drain the pasta and pour it back into the pot. Add three quarters of the sauce and the ham and mix together.
- Grease a large ovenproof dish with half the butter. Pour in the dressed pasta and push it out evenly. Pour over the remaining sauce and dot with the remaining butter. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 200 degrees/ Gas Mark 6 for about 15 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Remove from the oven, rest for 5 minutes, and then serve.
Comforting beef stew
Be sure to give the meat sufficient time to cook so that it becomes really tender. As with all slow cooked stews, make sure the meat you start with is of good quality and full of flavour, and keep the heat really low so that the liquid around the meat barely moves.
- 1.2 kg boned beef shin
- 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 leaves fresh sage
- 2 or 3 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 4 tbsp concentrated tomato puree, diluted in a teacup of warm water
- 1 x 400g can cherry tomatoes
- 400g canned butter beans, drained and rinsed
- 300g shelled fresh or frozen (defrosted) peas
- 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
- Sea salt and freshly milled black pepper
- 500ml beef stock
- Trim the meat and cut it all into even sized cubes. Heat the oil in a casserole with the herbs for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the meat and seal it all over until browned on all sides.
- Lower the heat and pour in the diluted tomato puree and the canned cherry tomatoes. Pour in enough stock to just cover the meat, cover and simmer very gently for about 45 minutes or until the meat is tender.
- Stir occasionally. Add the butter beans, the peas and the carrots. Cover and continue to cook for a further 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through.
- Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly, then transfer to a deep platter and serve at once with garlic mash or with mashed sweet potato.
- 750g floury potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
- 150 ml milk 3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- Sea salt
- Freshly milled black pepper
- 4 tbsp double cream
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
- Boil the potatoes with the milk, the garlic, and just enough water to cover them all thoroughly. Simmer gently until tender.
- Drain the potatoes, then return the potatoes to the hot saucepan and allow them to steam very thoroughly, until really dry, but still very hot. Then press them with the garlic through the ricer – twice or even three times.
- Whip with a strong fork or balloon whisk, blending in salt to taste, the cream, oil and the Parmesan.
- Season to taste with freshly milled black pepper. Serve as soon as possible to be sure they remain light, fluffy and creamy
Serves 6 to 8
For best results, use half Bramley’s (cooking apples), which collapse into a wonderful fluffy mass to form the base, and half Cox’s (dessert apples to add texture. You can swap out the candied peel for sultanas or currants instead and the pine nuts can be swapped for toasted almonds or hazelnuts.
- 1kg dessert apples – or half Bramley’s and half dessert apples
- 400g sliced white bread, thinly buttered on each side
- 1 litre custard
- 100 g granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 tbsp pine kernels
- 2 tbsp chopped candied fruit
- Butter for greasing
- Pre heat the oven to 180C/ Gas Mark 4. Peel, core and slice all the apples thinly, then grease a deep ovenproof dish very thoroughly – big enough to take all the ingredients comfortably.
- Arrange a layer of buttered bread across the bottom, sprinkle the bread with sugar, then add layer of apples, then a sprinkling each of cinnamon, pine kernels and candied fruit, cover with custard and repeat until the ingredients have all been used.
- Finish off with a few dots of butter across the top. Bake for about 30 minutes or until browned and set.
- Serve warm, with whipped sweetened mascarpone or single cream.