Comfort Food. We all know what that means. It’s a very personal thing, though most of us would agree that buttery mashed potato, a bar of chocolate, a steaming bowl of chicken soup or pizza from your favourite chain are perhaps the most obvious examples. Comfort food is what we turn to when we’re feeling ill, or beaten down; when only that certain food will restore us to a sense of well being or at least momentary serenity.
But there’s a level of comestibles above and beyond Comfort Food. I call it Security Food.
Security Food is not only a comfort, but also a necessity. It is the food we- or at least I- must have in the house at all times. The food without which my kitchen doesn’t feel quite complete, and my home doesn’t feel quite safe. It’s not the food I’d rush to the shops for in the event of a meteorological emergency, but rather the food I’d already be well stocked with. It’s also not just a matter of your basic kitchen staples, but rather a more personal stash. It’s the food with which I can face any extremity of happenstance, from a sudden dinner party to a long period of self imposed isolation. From Celebration to DefCon 5.
I can go through fads and fancies with different foods, and seasonality can be a big determining factor with regard to the contents of my larder. Every year I look forward to the asparagus of late spring and the peaches of high summer. Having found a foolproof way of cooking duck breasts, I can eat them several times a week for almost a month. But as the seasons pass and the peaches lose their nectar, so do I also tire of duck, and can then quite happily go without for more months to come. But bananas and shrimp I must always have in my kitchen, regardless of season or passing fancy.
Whilst I must hasten to add that I have never eaten either of the above together (Shrimp al a Banana lacks an appetizing ring to my culinary ear), I just don’t feel quite comfortable unless I know they’re there. Bananas kept well away from any other fruit on my windowsill (except avocados- they ripen wonderfully when left next to a banana for a day or two), and shrimp- usually cooked and peeled- nestling safely in my freezer. The bananas are there because I know that however rushed I may be in the mornings, or just disinclined to have a full meal, I have a nutrient-packed breakfast to hand. The shrimp are there because with I feel strongly that with shrimp in the freezer, I’m never far away from a delicious dinner or just snack. They defrost under running water in mere moments and can then be tossed with pasta(of which more anon), added to salad leaves, or chucked into a stir-fry.
Lemons and garlic are also a permanent presence in my kitchen. I’m a firm believer that when you have lemons, you have a sauce or a spritz for anything, and when you have garlic the same is true. For this reason I not only keep fresh garlic in my larder, but also garlic paste in my fridge. Too often have I turned to the fresh garlic only to find it dessicated and woody, and so the garlic paste serves as an almost entirely satisfactory fallback. Juice a lemon and whisk in a bit of garlic paste, salt and olive oil, and I have a delicious dressing for some spaghetti. To this end I of course always have olive oil in my larder. But then who doesn’t? And, incidentally, toss in some defrosted shrimp and you’ve added protein to your meal.
Speaking of spaghetti, I always have two kinds of pasta in my larder; spaghetti, and a chunkier type- like fusilli or penne. Spaghetti because it’s so versatile, and the chunkier type for when I’m eating spaghetti bolognese. This may sound contradictory, but really it’s because a chunkier pasta holds a meaty sauce like bolognese more efficiently and it also survives better in the fridge if you’ve made more than you can eat in one sitting, as often happens with me.
Which brings me to that bolognese sauce, or ragu, or what have you. It’s an absolute, non-negotiable necessity for me. It must be of my own making, and it must be made in huge batches, cooled and then frozen in individual serving containers, ready to feed me over the months to come. I must say that I really am never more at peace with the world than when I am nursing a huge vat of my sauce on the stove, then spooning it into its little plastic pots (I use those little Skippy peanut butter pots- and more of that in a moment), and packing the pots like a little army into my freezer. The entire process makes me feel like I’m loaded for bear, like I am truly self-sufficient and can face whatever life might throw at me. I don’t offer a recipe for my bolognese sauce here. Partially because there are more than enough recipes out there and I’m sure many would shriek at the liberties I take with mine, but mostly because it is mine. And that very individuality of my sauce is part of what makes me feel so secure; in the making, the storing, and the inevitable eating thereof. I’m happy to share the results, but not the process.
Now not all my Security Food is of such fresh or creative provenance. When I mentioned pasta earlier, I didn’t include the minimum of four boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese that reside in my cupboards at any one time. They’re not easy to come by here in London, so when I can find them I buy out the shop. For me, no home-made mac and cheese with artisan cheese (or for that matter any REAL cheese) has the same comforting effect. It speaks to and comforts the occasionally home-sick American side of me, as do A&W Root Beer and Hawaiian Punch, both of which take up an embarrassingly large amount of space in my fridge.
To go with my Hawaiian Punch, I must also have deeply sour pickles on hand at all times. I’m not one with a sweet tooth, and would almost always prefer to snack on something sour or salty. Green olives I like, but the really good ones never have a long fridge-life, and anyway there’s something about the utter commited sourness of a good pickled gherkin that speaks to my soul.
Milk, cinnamon, and vanilla I must also have always banked about me. Milk is not just there for tea or coffee (or the Kraft Mac&Cheese), but because I remain an inveterate milk-drinker. On the nights when I’m having trouble settling to sleep and can resist diving into that little pot of Skippy (see above) with just a spoon and a mug of milk, I nurture myself with a mug of warm milk, gently spiced with a tiny pinch of cinnamon and a shot of vanilla extract. A peaceful night is then ensured. In fact I sometimes just reach into the cupboard, open the bottle of vanilla extract, and take a good long whiff. I share with Nigella Lawson the instant feeling of serenity this brings forth.
And serenity can only happen for me when security is also in play. And that’s what I mean about Security Food. I may not eat it all the time, but I must know it’s there, at hand, just a whim or a need away from setting my world to rights. Without it I get twitchy and nervous, and cannot rest until it’s been found and brought home. Because once it’s home, then I’m home.
Safe and secure.