Comfort food is mostly about two things: memories and context. So much of what we think of as comforting food are the meals we ate as kids – those warm bowls or plates that appeared, repeatedly and reassuringly, in front of us. As we get older, however, it’s more about context: about eating the right thing in the right place at the right time. And, for me, comfort food hits the sweet spot where memory and context collide. Although today’s recipes are my own particular sweet spot – the dishes that take me straight back to the sunny home of my youth, and that also work so well in these chilly, short-day months – I hope very much that they bring you some comfort, too.
Sabih hummus (pictured above)
If you have the time, soak and cook your own chickpeas, but if not, good-quality jarred ones will do. This is loosely based on sabih, the popular Israeli sandwich of hummus, aubergine, egg, chopped salad and amba, a mango-and-fenugreek sauce. Serve with warm pita to make it a complete meal.
Prep 20 min
Cook 50 min
Serves 4 as a light lunch
For the sauce
¾ tbsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp caster sugar
2½ tbsp lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
2½-3 tbsp (10g) finely chopped parsley
1½ green chillies, finely chopped
For the toppings
2 aubergines, cut in half lengthways (500g)
60ml olive oil
½ large cucumber, deseeded and chopped into 1½cm cubes (220g)
2 tomatoes, chopped into roughly 1½cm cubes (200g)
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced (90g)
2½-3 tbsp (10g) finely chopped parsley
1 tbsp lemon juice
For the hummus
650g cooked chickpeas, warmed through
3 tbsp lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
60g ice cubes
Heat the oven to 240C (220C fan)/475F/gas 9.
For the sauce, put the fenugreek and coriander seeds in a small frying pan on medium-high heat and toast for three minutes, until fragrant. Add the turmeric, toast for 20 seconds more, then transfer to a spice grinder and blitz to a fine powder. Tip into a bowl, add the sugar, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, the lemon juice and 75ml water, and whisk to combine. Set aside for 20 minutes, to thicken, then stir in the parsley and chilli.
Meanwhile, use a sharp knife to score a cross-hatch pattern on the cut side of each aubergine half. Put the aubergines halves on a medium oven tray lined with baking paper, scatter over three tablespoons of oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper, and toss to coat. Arrange the aubergines cut side up on the tray, roast for 35-40 minutes, until deeply golden and soft, then keep warm until ready to serve.
Put all the hummus ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, add three tablespoons of cold water and half a teaspoon of salt, then blitz for about two minutes, until smooth and the ice has broken down into the mix.
Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Carefully lower in the eggs, simmer for five minutes, then drain, run under cold water to cool and peel.
In a medium bowl, toss the cucumber, tomato, onion, parsley, lemon juice, the remaining tablespoon of oil, a third of a teaspoon of salt and some pepper.
Spread out the hummus on four medium plates, making a slight well in the centre. Drizzle with the fenugreek sauce, lightly mixing some of it into the hummus. Top each plate with some salad, an aubergine half and a soft-boiled egg, break the eggs open to expose the runny yolk, season the insides and serve.
Macaroni with yoghurt and spicy lamb
You might not associate pasta with Middle Eastern food, but this sort of bake is a firm feature on the table, particularly if kids are pulling up a chair. This is a lighter take on a traditional spicy macaroni pasta bake, but no less comforting for it.
Prep 25 min
Cook 50 min
Serves 4, generously
For the pasta
500g Greek-style yoghurt
2 large egg yolks
1½ tsp cornflour
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
350g sedanini or sedani pasta (or another tubular pasta such as penne)
For the lamb
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped (220g net weight)
1 large carrot, peeled and roughly chopped (160g)
6 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
5-6 tbsp (20g) roughly chopped parsley, roughly chopped
5-6 tbsp (20g) roughly chopped coriander
105ml olive oil
¾ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tbsp cumin seeds, roughly crushed in a mortar
300g lamb mince (20% fat)
Salt and black pepper
500g vine tomatoes, roughly grated and skins discarded (370g)
40g pine nuts, well toasted
Put the onion, carrot, garlic and half the herbs in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped but not pureed. Put four tablespoons of the oil in a large saute pan on a medium-high heat and, once hot, add the vegetables and cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes, until softened and lightly browned. Add the spices, lamb mince, three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper, and use a spoon to break apart the meat as much as possible. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes, until the meat is nicely browned. Add the tomato, cook for five minutes more, then turn the heat to low to keep the mix warm.
For the pasta, put the yoghurt, egg yolks, cornflour, garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Transfer to a large, nonstick saute pan and cook on a medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes, until the mixture is heated through and thickened.
While the yoghurt is cooking, boil the pasta in a medium saucepan of well-salted boiling water for about 13 minutes, until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 300ml of its cooking water. Stir half the reserved pasta water into the lamb mixture, to loosen. Stir the cooked pasta and the rest of the reserved water into the yoghurt pan and cook on a medium heat for about two minutes, just to heat through.
Transfer half the yoghurty pasta to a large plate with a lip and top with half the lamb. Repeat with the remaining pasta and lamb, stirring the meat into the pasta in places. In a small bowl, combine the pine nuts, remaining herbs and last three tablespoons of oil, spoon this all over the top and serve warm.
Tapioca, coconut and sweet potato bowl
There are all sorts of ways to cook tapioca, both sweet and savoury. A popular Malaysian version involves cassava and sweet potatoes, whereas in Mauritius they love it with coconut and raisins, and serve it with poppadoms. This mash-up of the two is made fragrant with pandan leaves and makes a very comforting winter dessert.
Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min
1.7 litres water
130g small tapioca pearls
100g caster sugar
140g coconut cream (from a tin, not a jar)
4 pandan leaves, folded in half lengthways, then again widthways and tied into a knot (or ½ tsp vanilla bean paste)
100g salted and roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
35g softened coconut oil
2 small sweet potatoes (200g), peeled
2 tbsp maple syrup
3 limes – 1 zested, to get 1 tsp, and juiced, to get 2 tbsp, the rest cut into wedges, to serve
Put a litre of the water in a large saucepan for which you have a lid, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the tapioca, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Drain through a fine sieve and rinse under running cold water.
Return the drained tapioca to the same pan with the remaining 700ml water, sugar, coconut cream, pandan leaves (or vanilla bean paste) and a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Cook on a medium-high heat for 20 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent clumping, then discard the pandan, cover the pan and set aside.
Meanwhile, put the peanuts and a tablespoon of coconut oil in a medium frying pan on a medium heat, and fry, stirring often, for five minutes, until evenly browned. Remove from the heat, stir in the lime zest and spoon into a small serving bowl.
Cut the sweet potatoes lengthways into quarters, then cut each quarter into four to six 1cm-thick wedges. Wipe clean the frying pan, set it on a medium-high heat and add the remaining 20g coconut oil. Once melted and hot, fry the wedges for seven minutes, turning them regularly so they brown evenly. When the sweet potatoes are coloured, add the maple syrup, lime juice and a quarter-teaspoon of flaked salt to the pan, cook, stirring, for two minutes, until the sweet potatoes are nicely glazed and the syrup has thickened.
Divide the warm tapioca between four bowls, and top with the sweet potatoes and their syrup. Sprinkle over a few nuts, and serve with the lime wedges and the rest of the nuts in their bowl alongside.