We all have our own ways of dealing with the relentless misery that 2020 has inflicted on us. It’s during times like these that we all need to search out sources of succour and, for many, nothing quite comforts us like a favourite dish.
Comfort food can be the culinary equivalent of a warm blanket and a sofa on a miserable Sunday afternoon. It’s something familiar and reassuring; something that injects us with a palpable sense of wellbeing. It is often a dish that reminds us of the security and safety of childhood, the love of family or the importance of friendship. It can evoke memories of shared meals, loved ones and happy events all at once.
At times of uncertainty, worry and doubt, there is little appeal in the unfamiliar or the challenging. Few of us, for example, have an appetite for watching provocative, subtitled films with dystopian themes and allegorical subtexts. No, we just want to watch The Magnificent Seven on a loop, in our pants, while eating ice cream like a lovesick teenager. While Newsnight tries to pack us off to bed to have nightmares we’d all rather stick to Bake Off and Strictly, thank you very much. Even our music preferences can change; this morning I turned off King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and instead played Mel Tormé – and my mood brightened instantly.
Mind you, what’s comfort for one person can be misery for someone else. For years I couldn’t look a fishcake in the eye, thanks to a terrifying version I once had as a child round my friend Billy’s house.
So what would be the nation’s favourite comfort food? Surely roast chicken would be odds-on favourite for a place in the top three because not only is it great to eat, but the aroma of a roasting bird is surely a joy in itself.
Start by buying the best quality chicken you can afford, ideally an organic one – you really will be able to taste the difference in quality. Take it out of the fridge about an hour before you roast it so it’s at room temperature when it goes into the oven. Season it inside and out and smear it all over with butter – everything is better in butter. Tuck the wing tips under the shoulders and, if you’re handy with twine, then truss it up. Start on a high temperature to get a crisp skin and then lower it and remember to baste regularly. Finally, let it rest when it comes out of the oven – so that it retains and redistributes all those juices and makes it easier to carve.
Everyone has their own method; their own secrets. After squeezing a lemon over the top Simon Hopkinson thrusts the spent lemon halves in the cavity; or you could use preserved lemons like Yotam Ottolenghi. Tom Kerridge adds a rub of maple syrup, cumin and cayenne pepper, whereas Thomas Keller dry-roasts his without any additional fats. You can finish it with lots of basil like Nigel Slater or, stuff it with chickpeas like Gordon Ramsay. If you’re feeling more adventurous you could go full Heston Blumenthal by brining and blanching it first. But just remember one thing: as the cook, you get to have the ‘oysters’ for yourself.
While we reminisce about the restaurant meals we managed to enjoy over the past few months and start planning the ones we’ll have when all this is over, let’s all envelope ourselves in the comfort of food. And while we eat our chicken let’s raise a glass to all those in the hospitality industry who provide us with so much comfort and joy themselves.
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