The wintry weather we have been having in the last month makes me crave comfort food. When I was a child, “comfort” was a term that probably didn’t exist. Back in those days, food didn’t gain the emotional response that is attached to a lot of meals now. We either loved or hated our food, and to be sure we always cleaned up our plates every night regardless. However, when asked now what my favourite comfort foods are, they’re inevitably the dishes that I loved most as a kid.
Who doesn’t love homemade tomato soup, or fragrant roast chicken, or a crunchy toasted sandwich made with old fashioned white bread, oozing with melted cheese and ham? I love nostalgic meals and the winter meals that are best at making us feel better hark back to our childhood food memories.
This is the perfect time of year to make soup and stews – dishes that slowly simmer and fill the house with wonderful aromas. The best tasting soups and stews have a base of well-flavoured stock. So when out shopping, grab a bag of chicken bones, which are usually very inexpensive. Take a large stockpot or saucepan and simmer the bones for several hours with a few leftover bits and pieces from the fridge like a carrot, some celery, garlic cloves, ginger and some parsley, thyme or rosemary sprigs. After about three to four hours, strain the liquid into clean jars and refrigerate for up to four days, or pop the stock into ice tray cubes and freeze. Homemade stock is always wonderful to have on hand, and it’s not hard to imagine using all sorts of combinations of leftovers to make tasty soups or to really boost the flavour of stews and sauces. I find that adding one cube of homemade stock to the cooking water, really lifts the taste of any vegetable that is simmered gently.
Leftovers can be the most comforting of all. We’re now being constantly reminded to think about waste food, and in most households the most wasted items are either vegetables or bread. This tasty recipe is one that’s always good to have in your repertoire and just perfect for a cold wintry night. It will use up that half cauliflower that’s hanging about, the remains of the bag of spinach that didn’t get cooked and make use of any leeks, fennel or onions. It will be popular when you have a few people over for a casual supper, as you can double the quantities to feed a crowd of eight to 10. For a group this size, cook it in a much larger dish and serve with a green leafy salad.
The eggy custard that forms around the vegetables in this delicious dish puffs up in the oven and the crisp buttery top make it the ultimate comfort food. The vegetables can be prepared ahead and the custard ingredients measured out, but not beaten together until you are ready to bake the dish.
Cheesy cauliflower and leek bread pudding
1 large leek
200g baby spinach leaves, washed and sliced
½ cauliflower, cut into small florets
4 large eggs
75g grated tasty gouda cheese
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
2 tsp thyme leaves, finely chopped
pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 thick slices sourdough bread, crusts removed
Butter an oven-proof casserole or a 22cm soufflé dish. Preheat the oven to 170C. Slice the leek finely. Melt the butter in a wide saucepan over gentle heat, add the leek and cook for five minutes until it softens without browning. Add the spinach leaves and toss over the heat until they wilt. Continue to cook for a minute or two so any juices evaporate. Set this aside.
Meanwhile, bring salted water to the boil and blanch the cauliflower for two minutes. Drain well and add to the leeks and spinach. Place the eggs, milk and cream in a large bowl and whisk together. Add half the grated cheese, the feta, thyme, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste and mix well.
Cut the bread into large cubes and fold into the egg mixture with the reserved vegetables. Tip everything into the prepared dish, and scatter over the remaining cheese. Allow the dish to sit for about ten minutes so the bread absorbs some of the custard. Bake for about 45 minutes, until it is puffed and golden and still a little moist in the centre. Serve immediately with a green salad. Serves 4.