The notion of comfort is a bit of a fuzzy one, but you definitely know it when you meet it. Comfort comes with a particular reaction: an involuntary smile, a sense of deep contentment… Nostalgia, of course, plays a huge part in what brings each of us solace, and for me melted cheese does that. As do sharp bursts of lemon, the earthiness of herbs and the sweetness of slow-cooked onions. If you happen to have a similar sense of longing, you’ll surely recognise the undeniable symptoms of comfort.
Lemony chicken with bread dumplings
This take on a classic chicken dish is spruced up with lemon and a vibrant herb oil. The wonderfully pillowy dumplings are a great way to use up leftover bread. Choose whichever herbs you have to hand here, using more or less of each, as you prefer.
Prep 35 min
Cook 1 hr 15 min
500g boneless skinless chicken thighs
2½ tbsp plain flour
Salt and black pepper
90ml olive oil
25g unsalted butter
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped (220g net weight)
2-3 carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthways and then into 1cm-thick half-moons (230g net weight)
3 celery sticks, trimmed and cut into 1cm-thick slices (180g net weight)
7 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
4 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 litre chicken stock
15g (about 5 tbsp) chives, finely chopped
15g (about 4 tbsp) parsley leaves, roughly chopped
15g (about 5 tbsp) dill leaves, roughly chopped
2 lemons – zest of 1 finely grated, to get 1 tbsp, the other juiced, to get 1½ tbsp
For the dumplings
70g buttermilk, plus 2 tbsp extra to serve
1 large egg
½ tsp baking powder
45g unsalted butter, melted
150g crustless soft white bread, blitzed to fine crumbs
In a bowl, toss the chicken thighs in a tablespoon of flour, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan for which you have a lid and, once hot, fry the chicken in two batches for two to three minutes a batch, until lightly golden all over. Transfer to a plate and leave the saucepan to cool down for a few minutes.
Return the saucepan to a medium-high heat, add the butter and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about four minutes, until softened and lightly coloured. Add the carrots, celery and six of the crushed garlic cloves, cook, stirring, for two minutes, until fragrant, then stir in another tablespoon of flour, the bay leaves, thyme, mustard and nutmeg. Pour in the stock, return the chicken to the pan and add half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat to medium and cook for 30 minutes, until the meat is tender and the vegetables soft. Use tongs to transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl, then roughly shred with a couple of forks. Return the chicken to the pan and turn down the heat to a bare simmer.
About 10 minutes before the chicken is ready, make the dumplings. In a large bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg, baking powder, butter, a third of each of the herbs, the lemon zest, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Add the breadcrumbs and remaining half-tablespoon of flour, and mix again until just combined (don’t overwork it). Use your hands to shape the mixture into 12 round dumplings of roughly 25-30g each. Gently lower the dumplings into the low-simmering broth, cover the pot and leave to cook on low heat for 12 minutes, until the dumplings have puffed up and are cooked through. Remove the lid and add the lemon juice to the pot.
Meanwhile, make the herb oil. Put the remaining 10g of each of the herbs, the last crushed garlic clove, four tablespoons of oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper in a food processor, blitz smooth, then pour into a bowl.
With a small knife, top and tail the zested lemon, then cut around its contours to remove the skin and pith. Cut in between the membranes to release the individual segments, then roughly chop and add to the herb oil.
To serve, divide the chicken and dumpling mixture between four bowls, spoon the herb oil all over the top, drizzle with the extra buttermilk and serve warm.
Curried cauliflower cheese filo pie
This dish was born out of a fridge raid: a head of cauliflower that really needed using up and a family of four who really needed cheering up. The result: a pie described as “molten cheese lava” and happy bellies all around.
Prep 20 min
Cook 1 hr 45 min
Serves 4, generously
1 large head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into bite-sized florets (700g net weight)
2 tsp mild curry powder
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
100g unsalted butter, half cut into roughly 3cm cubes, the other half melted
75g plain flour
675ml whole milk
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1½ tbsp English mustard
150g mature cheddar, roughly grated
6 sheets feuilles de filo
1 tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
1½ tsp lemon zest
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Line the base and sides of a 23cm spring-form cake tin with greaseproof paper.
Lay the cauliflower on a large oven tray lined with baking paper, scatter over the curry powder, half the oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper, and toss to coat. Roast for about 20 minutes, until cooked through and lightly coloured, then remove and set aside. Turn down the oven to 190C (170C fan)/375F/gas 5.
Meanwhile, make the bechamel. Put the cubed butter in a medium saucepan on a medium-high heat and, once melted, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two, until it starts to smell nutty, like popcorn. Turn down the heat to medium and add the milk a little at a time, whisking to prevent lumps, until all the milk has been incorporated and the sauce is smooth. Cook, whisking often, for about seven minutes, until thickened slightly, then turn off the heat and add the garlic, mustard, cheese and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and stir until the cheese has melted.
Cover the filo sheets with a sheet of damp kitchen towel, so they don’t dry out. In a bowl, combine the melted butter and remaining tablespoon and a half of oil. Working with one filo sheet at a time, lay the pastry on a board, brush the top all over with the melted butter mixture, then drape the filo buttered side up into the lined tin, pushing it down gently to fit and leaving an overhang. Repeat with the remaining filo sheets, each time rotating the tin slightly so the overhang drapes over the sides at a different angle.
Spoon half the bechamel into the filo case and top with the cauliflower florets, spreading them out evenly. Spoon over the remaining bechamel, then scrunch up the pastry overhang so it creates a messy border around the edges while leaving some of the filling exposed. Brush the top of the filo with the remaining butter mixture, lift the tin on to an oven tray and bake for 30 minutes.
Using a tea towel to help you, carefully release the outer circle of the spring-form tin and return the pie to the oven for another 25 minutes, until the sides are nicely coloured and everything is golden and bubbling. Leave to rest and set for at least 15 minutes, top with the parsley and lemon zest, and serve warm.
(All the) herb dumplings with caramelised onions
The abundance of herbs in this dish give it an incredible freshness. Play around with the herbs you use,depending on what you have to hand. To turn this into a complete meal, serve it with a summery salad and some crusty bread.
Prep 25 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
4 onions, peeled, halved and cut into ½cm-thick slices (720g net weight)
8 cardamom pods, roughly bashed open in a mortar
60ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
100g coriander, roughly chopped
100g parsley, roughly chopped
70g dill, roughly chopped
30g tarragon leaves, roughly chopped
7 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1½ tsp cumin seeds, roughly crushed in a mortar
¾ tsp turmeric
100g Greek feta, roughly crumbled
60g parmesan, finely grated
1 large egg
70g plain flour
⅓ tsp saffron threads, roughly crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. Put the onions, cardamom, half the oil, 30g butter and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt in a medium baking dish and toss to combine. Roast for about an hour, stirring twice throughout, until the onions have softened and are nicely caramelised.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil in a large, nonstick saute pan on a medium heat. Once hot, add the herbs and spring onions, and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the cumin and turmeric, cook for 10 minutes more, until the herbs are deeply green and fragrant, then turn off the heat and leave to cool for about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, beat the ricotta, feta, 50g grated parmesan, the egg, a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper, until well combined. Add the flour and the cooled herb mixture, and mix again. Refrigerate for about 20 minutes, until the mix has set, then divide into 12 and roll into compact, 45-50g dumplings. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, turn down the heat to a bare simmer, then drop in the dumplings and poach for 10-12 minutes, or until the dumplings rise to the surface and are cooked through. Use a slotted spoon gently to transfer the cooked dumplings to a tray lined with kitchen paper, to dry.
When the onions are ready and hot from the oven, stir in the remaining 70g butter, the saffron and the lemon juice, and turn up the oven to 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7.
Top the onions with the dumplings, spacing them a little apart, then sprinkle all over with the remaining 10g grated parmesan. Return to the oven for eight to 10 minutes, until everything is bubbling and warmed through, then remove, leave to settle for a couple of minutes, and serve.