When things aren't 100 per cent, and let's face it, they haven't been for the whole of 2020, there's nothing that soothes more than a bowl of something comforting.
A chicken soup for the soul, a curry that's been simmering all day, and, yes, baking dishes full of cheesy pasta. A meal to make us feel better.
Current research suggests our stomachs produce the "happiness chemicals" dopamine and serotonin. When we eat, these neurochemicals trigger feelings of well-being.
Just as glucose is released to our brains when we eat foods rich in sugar and high in carbohydrates, these foods promote feelings of happiness.
But the research I'm interested in revolves around the idea of comfort food being attached to social interaction and memory.
In Comfort Food: A review, Charles Spence suggests definitions of comfort food vary widely among individuals and cultures. And these foods are associated with positive social encounters in an individual's past.
He says comfort foods tend to be the favourite foods from one's childhood, or else linked to a specific person, place or time with which food has a positive association.
While many of us have been cooking up a story during lockdown - indeed Google Trends indicates that searches for recipes are at an all time high, and yes, we're still searching for sourdough and banana bread recipes - many of have turned to old favourites for solace.
My mother used to make the best lamb fritters the day after the Sunday roast, using up all the leftovers. I've been trying to duplicate this simple meal with whatever I can find in the fridge, a simple batter boosted by roast vegetables, whatever meat is on hand. Whenever I've made these I'm transported back to our simple kitchen.
She used to make us golden syrup dumplings too. I thought they were fine-dining and it wasn't until one cold Sunday night when I decided to make them myself that I realised how simple they are. This slow cooker recipe here is an easy option, using minimal ingredients.
Another meal here, the butter chicken, is a sure fire winner for the children. At daycare, too many years ago, they were introduced to chicken with the orange sauce, they used to call it.
I had no idea what it was so I asked the cook in their centre for the recipe. Ross Dobson's version is a healthy alternative. Butter chicken is a meal I know they'll eat every time.
And sometimes that's what makes food comforting as well. No stress, the guarantee of empty bowls, full tummies, happy days.
Our mac 'n' cheese with chunky garlic bread topping
2 golden shallots, finely chopped (yes, you could use that 1/2 red onion sitting forlornly in the fridge instead)
1 1/2 tbsp plain flour
100g coarsely grated vintage cheddar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g baby roma or grape tomatoes
180g cherry bocconcini, drained well
100g soy and linseed sourdough bread, cut into 1cm pieces
1/4 cup very finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 garlic cloves, crushed
60g butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan-forced.
2. Cook the macaroni in a saucepan of boiling salted water for two minutes less than it says on the packet or until just al dente. Drain and return to the pan.
3. While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, for three minutes or until soft. Stir in the flour for one minute or until the mixture bubbles. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually whisk in the milk until smooth. Return to medium heat and simmer, stirring, for two minutes or until the mixture boils and thickens. Stir in the cheddar until melted and combined, then season with salt and pepper.
4. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss together.
5. Cut six of the tomatoes in half and set aside. Add the remaining whole tomatoes to the pasta mixture and stir to combine. Spoon into a medium baking dish. Arrange the reserved halved tomatoes on top, cut-side down. Scatter over the cherry bocconcini and gently press them down.
6. To make the garlic breadcrumbs, combine all the ingredients in a bowl.
7. Scatter the breadcrumbs over the macaroni mixture, allowing some of the tomatoes and bocconcini to show through. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden and crisp.
Tip: I'm warming to the idea of a pasta bake with a garlic bread crust. Layer slices of bread on top, overlapping like potatoes on a Lancashire hotpot, then brush with garlic butter as it cooks.
Meaty addition: Toss six (about 150g) chopped rashers crispy bacon to the creamy pasta prior to baking.
Recipe from More, by Matt Preston. Plum, $39.99.
Light butter chicken
750g chicken thigh fillets
1 brown onion, chopped
3 cm piece ginger, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large green chilli, seeded and chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp sweet paprika
5 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp chicken stock powder
400g can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp cornflour
1 cup natural yoghurt
brown basmati rice, to serve
handful roughly chopped coriander
lemon wedges, to serve
1. Heat your slow cooker to high.
2. Trim off all the fat from the chicken thighs and discard. Cut each thigh in half, or into thirds if large, bearing in mind that they will shrink as they cook. Refrigerate until needed.
3. Put the onion, ginger, garlic and chilli into a food processor and process until you have a chunky paste.
4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the paste and cook for eight to 10 minutes, until the liquid from the onion has evaporated and the paste looks dry. Stir through the butter and cook for a minute until the butter has melted. Stir in the chilli powder, cumin, coriander, garam masala, paprika and cardamom pods. Add two tablespoons cold water and stir to incorporate any stuck-on bits. Stir in the tomato paste and stock powder, then scrape the contents of the frying pan into the bowl of the slow cooker. Add the crushed tomatoes, cornflour, yoghurt and chicken. Give everything a good stir, nudging the chicken into the sauce, then cover and cook for 2 hours.
5. Give it a stir, then quickly cover again to avoid losing too much heat. Cook for a further 2 hours, until the chicken is very tender and the sauce is thick.
6. Serve the butter chicken on brown basmati rice, garnished with chopped coriander and with lemon wedges on the side.
From The Healthy Slow Cooker, by Ross Dobson. Murdoch Books. $35.
Madras fish pilaf
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely sliced
3cm piece of ginger, finely chopped
3 tbsp Madras curry paste
1 x 400g can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
1 x 400ml can coconut milk
250g frozen spinach, thawed
300g basmati rice
2 cardamom pods, crushed
1 fresh bay leaf
700g blue-eye trevalla fillets (or kingfish, swordfish, blue grenadier or salmon), skin removed and pin-boned, cut into 5cm chunks
20g crispy fried shallots
mango chutney, to serve
1. Heat the oil in a 3 litre flameproof casserole dish over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes to soften and caramelise before adding the ginger. Stir regularly for 2 minutes, then add the curry paste and cook for a minute until fragrant. Tip in the tomatoes and break up with a wooden spoon, then pour in the coconut milk. Increase the heat to high and bring to the boil. Cook, stirring regularly so the sauce doesn't catch, for 10 minutes until thickened. Add the spinach and cook for a further 5 minutes until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and cool for 10-15 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C.
3. Rinse the rice three or four times in cold water until the water runs clear. Pour 1 litre of water into a large saucepan, add the cardamom and bay leaf and bring to the boil. Add the rice and a pinch of salt and cook for 5-8 minutes until al dente. Drain, reserving the cardamom and bay leaf to flavour the rice while it cooks in the oven.
4. Place the fish in the sauce and fold through. Top with the rice, spread out evenly with the back of a spoon and sprinkle on 3 tablespoons of water to ensure the rice steams and stays moist. Cover with foil and a tight-fitting lid and bake for 40 minutes until the rice is cooked. Scatter over the crispy fried shallots and serve with some mango chutney on the side.
Notes: Crispy fried shallots can be found in the Asian aisle of your supermarket. Another lovely alternative for a slight textural contrast is lightly toasted desiccated coconut.
Mango chutney can be found in the Asian and Indian section of the supermarket.
If you feel like a change from fish fillets, fish cutlets are a great option. This cut is like a fish steak with the centre bone still attached. I like to use cutlets when my fishmonger has them, as the bone keeps the fish incredibly moist.
The madras curry paste can be swapped for goan, tikka masala or korma curry paste if you like.
Recipe from The Weeknight Cookbook: Create 100+ delicious new meals using pantry staples, by Justine Schofield, Plum, $34.99.
Golden syrup dumplings
1 medium lemon
3/4 cup caster sugar
2/3 cup golden syrup
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
1. Preheat slow cooker on HIGH.
2. Remove half the rind from the lemon with a zesting tool. Remove remaining rind in wide strips and cut off any white pith. Coarsely chop butter.
3. Place 1 1/2 cups water in slow cooker; add 40g of the butter, half the lemon rind, the sugar and 1/2 cup of the golden syrup. Stir until sugar dissolves; bring to a simmer. Add wide strips of rind.
4. Sift flour into a bowl. Add remaining butter; rub into flour using your fingertips until it resembles fine bread crumbs. Make a well in the centre. Whisk eggs and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl. Add egg mixture to flour mixture; stir using a flat-bladed knife to form a soft dough. Divide dough into 12 balls. Arrange dumplings on top of sauce mixture. Cover slow cooker insert with a clean tea towel, then replace cooker lid; cook for 50 minutes.
5. Top dumplings and sauce with remaining lemon rind; drizzle with remaining golden syrup. Serve immediately.
6. Serve with thick cream.
Store it: Dumplings are best eaten straight away. This recipe is not suitable to freeze.
Recipe from 5 Ingredient Slow Cooker, by the Australian Women's Weekly. $34.95.