Sunday, October 25, 2009

Food for comfort

Perhaps it’s a case of “great minds think alike,” but I suspect that is has more to do with cold and flu season. Whatever the case, both Julochka and I had chicken soup on our minds and stovetops this week.

For the past couple of weeks, someone in my family has been coughing, snorting, wheezing, not sleeping well and feeling downright low and lethargic. Although English small-talk usually revolves around the weather, at the moment that perennial topic seems to have been replaced by dissecting the symptoms of what may or may not be swine flu. The problem is that the symptoms are so nonspecific, and resemble every other bad cold: aches, congestion, a streaming nose, a fever, a sharp sinus headache. My workaholic husband rarely gets sick, but on Friday he was home, in his bathrobe, pale and sweaty and downright miserable. Since he can’t abide the dubious saccharine flavored promises of Lemsip, (and doesn’t believe in them, anyway), I had to resort to that oldest and truest of remedies: homemade chicken soup.

In truth, chicken broth is something that I make every week – but I tend to use it for something else: a risotto, or the basis of a soup like Minestrone. Although I’m not the most efficient housewife, I regularly practice one recycling economy: I make a roast chicken, and then I make a broth from its carcass. It’s not a recipe exactly, but more of a method. I have a close friend who always just boiled up the bones with water, but I like to add more flavor and nutrients to my broth.

This is my method:

Remove any skin or fat, and then cover the bones of a chicken with cold water - approximately 3 quarts or 3 litres is usually about right.
Then add a large white onion, cut in half; two or three carrots and the same of celery, also cut into pieces. (I always save the frilly bits of the celery for broth.)
Very importantly, add about a tablespoon of good sea salt and in between 10-20 peppercorns. (I like a lot of pepper.)
If I want the broth for a Mexican soup of some kind, I might also add a clove or two of garlic and a bunch of cilantro.
(I like fresh parsley in a chicken broth, but I always add it at the end – so it retains its flavor and doesn’t get slimy.)
Bring the contents of your soup pot to a boil, and then simmer for at least an hour . . . or as long as you like. The longer you cook it down, the more concentrated the flavor will be – although you will, of course, lose some volume in the process.

After I’ve strained the broth, I tend to add more carrots and celery – cut into small coins and crescents – some chicken, if I have it, and noodles or rice. Let the broth boil, gently, until everything is soft.

The problem with persistent colds it that they tend to make a person feel really low and listless. Although chicken soup does help clear the sinuses, sometimes other comfort food is needed for those feelings of exhaustion and low-grade depression.

Once, when I was a child, my mother made me a homemade vanilla pudding when I had been ill for days and was just regaining my appetite. It was somehow rich and bland, soft and soothing, all at the same time. When I am feeling utterly worn-down, I still crave foods that fall into this category – and for several years now, my favorite has been a rice pudding made like a risotto.

A lot of English people have negative feelings about rice pudding because they associate it with “school food” – and have a horror of its watery lumpiness and the “skin” that forms on the top. A risotto inspired rice pudding is nothing like this, however; it is creamy and luscious. Another advantage it has over traditional rice pudding is its cooking method: instead of taking hours to cook in the oven, you can produce it in about half an hour’s stirring time. The only caveat is that you have to actually stand at the stove and stir it. Unlike a usual risotto, made with a clear broth, this one is made with milk – and milk burns easily. I recommend reading a light paperback while you stir; alternatively, you can have a long phone conversation with someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with for a while.

I got the inspiration for this recipe from my beloved Nigella – in her How to Eat cookbook.

Risotto-Inspired Rice Pudding

700 ml (or about 24 fluid ounces) of “full-fat” milk*
1 ounce butter
2 heaping tablespoons of sugar**
75 grams (or four heaping tablespoons) of Arborio rice

Heat the milk to boiling in the microwave. (You can also heat it in a pan on the stovetop, but be vigilant because milk scorches easily and can leave you with horribly burnt pan to clean up.)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, and stir the sugar into it. When it is bubbling away, add the Arborio rice and stir for a minute or two until the grains are evenly coated.

Slowly, one ladle at a time, add the milk until is all incorporated. Then you need to slowly and methodically stir until all of the milk has transformed your rice into a lovely, creamy pudding.

After 20 minutes you can start tasting it. The rice should be soft, but still have some “shape” to it. (It shouldn’t be hard or grainy, though.)

When it is the right texture, I finish it off in one of several ways:
A handful of raisins
A few shavings of fresh nutmeg
A dab of butter and a tablespoon of cinnamon sugar

Nigella likes to add several tablespoons of double cream at the end, but I don’t like it to be this creamy.

*On the subject of full-fat dairy products, I will confess that I always make this pudding with semi-skimmed or even skimmed milk. Julochka and I differ when it comes to dairy products. I don’t like the overly creamy taste (or fat content) of whole milk; she and Nigella do.

**I always use vanilla sugar when I make this pudding. If you don’t have any, you might want to do some good vanilla essence to the hot milk.

On Friday, I made this lunch for my ailing husband: chicken soup, followed by rice pudding. It was delicious and comforting, and l would like to think that it made both of us feel a little bit better. Of course, you don’t have to be sick or depressed to enjoy this meal . . . but sometime this flu season you will probably have the need of it.   Of course, it would be extra extra-nice if someone would make it FOR you . . . but we can't everything in this life.


julochka said...

being all achey and going down with a flu myself here, i just might have to have this rice pudding...and i'll have to post our recipe for one--danish risengrød, when it gets a bit closer to christmas. :-) it's similar, but always takes much longer than 20 minutes. and we always put it to bed for 20 minutes after it's cooked, wrapped up in the feather dyne, to finish cooking on its own. :-) mmmm.

and i still say whole milk is the only way to go in rice pud. :-)


Bee said...

J - I'm so sorry that you are getting sick. It is horrible. The only good thing about it is the excuse for a nap.

I would LOVE to have the recipe for your danish rice pudding. I do like a cultural variation. Feather dyne?

And I bow with respect to your worship of whole milk . . .

Magpie said...

I think I may need to make some rice pudding right now.

Tiny quibble, though, on your use of the word "scald" - to scald your milk is to heat it to below boiling. The word you want is "scorch".

Char said...

love chicken soup made this lovely. i never liked rice pudding though, but sounds very comforting.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

I will share the rice pudding recipe with my mom. Any time she has rice left over from a meal she will make pudding. The chicken soup sounds good to me!
I do hope your husband is feeling better--a lot of sickness in my part of the world.

Tracy :)

kristina said...

Oh no. I hope your husband is feeling better very soon. I'm flying to America on Thursday and getting very nervous about swine flu here, there, and in between on the plane.

I only discovered rice pudding a year or two ago and absolutely love it. So lovely and comforting. But you're right that all my British friends have been avoiding it since school. Such a shame.

K x

Anne said...

Lucky for Sigmund that he has such a capable and thoughtful cook to make comfort food for him! I hope he feels better soon--and you too, Julochka! The soup looks delicious. There's nothing like a good, clear, savory broth when you're feeling under the weather.

An arborio rice pudding that I made recently called for a bay leaf (!) to be included while the pudding cooks, and a dash of almond extract at the very end. I give it two thumbs up. Nutmeg sounds cozy, too.

We don't get strepsils where I am, but I think they're the best for sore throats.

Bee said...

Magpie - You are absolutely right about scorching and scalding. What you want is scalded milk; or hot milk, even. I prefer to use the microwave for this as a minute's inattention can take you from scalding to scorching on the stovetop.

Char - Unless you have a deep hatred of creamy puddings, I urge you to give this rice pudding a try.

Tracy - Yes, it does seem like it's going be a world-wide bad cold/flu season. WE need to eat well and keep up our health!

Kristina - You may have to wear a Michael Jackson style mask. Hope you don't catch any bad germs. (Lucky you to be in the U.S. over Halloween.)

Anne - That bay leaf/almond extract combo sounds interesting. I have two little bay leaf trees -- so am amply supplied in that area.

I have to be careful with sore throat lozenges. I tend to eat them like sweets!

Sandra said...

I had H1N1 a couple of weeks ago. I had to make my own soup, but it was worth it. I will be making this rice pudding, perhaps it will make my husband like rice pudding. I have become a fan of your blog.

Nimble said...

My mother taught me to put a scattering of peppercorns into chicken broth -- yum. And I like throwing the celery leaves in too. I would like to be as regular as you are about doing a roast chicken and then broth. What good things to be able to rely on.

I made tortilla soup last week with my homemade broth and felt very smug.

Bee said...

Sandra - I can't imagine that anyway could resist rice pudding in this form, but there's no accounting for some people's taste in food. (We're pretty sure that we've had that H1N1 virus, too. Yucky.) So glad to have you join us . . .

Nimble - I am STILL looking for the ultimate tortilla soup recipe. I definitely like one that is chicken-broth based. What was your recipe?


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