Despite the fact that, for me at least, all food brings comfort, comfort food is an entirely different way of eating. It often seems that the things that define comfort food are those things that evoke nostalgia, most often from childhood. Personally, the things I find most comforting are the things I’ve been eating for years, that were cooked for me by my Mum and Dad. It may well be that I cook them differently myself now and have adapted the recipes slightly as my tastes have changed, but the relationship I have with the food remains the same.
I think it’s almost implicit in the term ‘comfort food’ that the food isn’t going to be healthy. Think of comfort food and you think of stews with dumplings, steamed puddings, rice pudding, cakes… these things might not be good for your waistline but I definitely think they make you feel that bit better about the long winter ahead. And above all, comfort food needs to be soft, easy to eat, nothing that’s too hard to chew or too crispy; everything should just melt together and be embracing, as opposed to an effort. It’s not just comfort food but comfort eating. And this brings me round to the first recipe of Comfort Food Week: Cauliflower cheese.
One of my absolute favourite things that my Mum would cook for me is cauliflower cheese. Cauliflower is probably my favourite vegetable, and I remember eating it with Sunday roasts from a pretty young age. My Mum taught me how to make cauliflower cheese, and I still use the same recipe now. Every time we go to my parents’ house for a roast dinner, she always cooks a cauliflower cheese for me because she knows I love it so much. Isn’t that the best thing about Mums?
This cauliflower cheese has a little kick to the sauce and, when topped with breadcrumbs and grated cheese, gets a nice crispy top under the grill which is perfect against the tender cauliflower and creamy sauce. Total comfort food. Obviously you could use a mixture of cauliflower and broccoli, or use all broccoli, but I just love the pale serenity of the white cauliflower with the pale yellow sauce. It feels less intrusive than a burst of vibrant green.
1 small cauliflower
25g butter (a large knob)
25g flour (a few tablespoons)
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
Handful grated cheddar cheese
More cheese and breadcrumbs for the topping
Steam or boil the cauliflower for around 10 minutes until tender. Drain in a colander but don’t shake it or you’ll break the florets up. Just leave them in the colander to dry in their own steam for a minute or two.
Meanwhile, you can make the sauce. Melt the butter in a pan and add the flour, cayenne and mustard. Mix to a paste (this is the roux) and cook for a few minutes. Gradually add the milk and whisk into the roux until you’ve got a thick, silky sauce. You may need more or less milk, it depends how much butter and flour you use, the particular flour you used etc and I never weigh it! Once it’s the right consistency (and I really think it should be quite thick, otherwise you won’t be able to eat it very well!), season with salt and pepper and, with the pan off the heat, whisk in the grated cheese.
Put the cauliflower into a baking dish and pour over the cheese sauce. Top with breadcrumbs and some more grated cheese and place under a hot grill until bubbling, blistered and golden brown. Enjoy with a nice piece of crusty bread!