The food writer and chef Olivia Potts knows a thing or two about the redemptive power of food. Following the tragic death of her mother, she left her job as a criminal barrister and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, writing about her life-changing experiences in her bestselling and critically acclaimed 2019 memoir A Half Baked Idea.
Here, she tells Town & Country why comfort food has the power to evoke our happiest memories. Plus, she shares her favourite winter recipe, which is guaranteed to cheer us up on a cold lockdown eve…
What is comfort food?
“For me, it is something that soothes, whether that it through the cooking process, or the eating of it, or just the personal associations a dish carries with it.”
How can cooking bring solace during lockdown?
“I find cooking gives me purpose and something to look forward to: it frames my day, makes me put my phone down and focus on what’s in front of me. I particularly find solace in cooking things that engage you physically – it can feel meditative standing over a pan of risotto, kneading a loaf of bread or preparing oranges for marmalade.”
Comfort food is often assumed to be unhealthy – what is your view on that?
“I’m not really interested in ascribing health values to individual foods, but I think dismissing comfort food as a whole represents a fundamental misunderstanding of food, comfort and nourishment, and the intersection of physical and mental health.”
What have you been making this winter?
“We’re a two-person household, so we spent early January just eating increasingly desperate Christmas leftovers. Alongside them, we’ve eaten a lot of curries, stews and steamed puddings: warming food, cooked slowly and eaten quickly.”
Are there any meals that conjure happy memories for you?
“Two of my biggest are dishes that my mother cooked for us: shepherd’s pie and minestrone soup. They’re both inherently comforting dishes, but it was the way she cooked them as an expression of love that turned them into true comfort food. I enjoyed them while she was alive, but it was only when she died that I really realised their importance; now I cook them to comfort those I love.”
What is the greatest baking smell in the world?
“If I had to pick just one, it would be the smell of butter browning in a pan, but lemon zest being rubbed into sugar comes a very close second.”
What is your favourite comfort food to eat?
“I know I’m not alone in finding a huge bowl of pasta endlessly comforting, but when all else fails, it has to be hot toast with lots of butter and a slick of marmite.
“When it comes to sweet stuff, I love a proper rice pudding or an excellent chocolate chip cookie – and I have a very soft spot for Quality Street fudges.”
What is your favourite comfort food to make?
“My absolute favourite is this sausage ragu: it requires a little bit of repetitive motion – slicing and stirring – which is good for switching off, but it mostly looks after itself. It can be cooked very slowly, but if you’re short of time, can be pulled together far more quickly, and like the best ragus and stews, it never comes out exactly the same each time.”
1 large onion
1 tablespoon of oil
1/2 teaspoon of thyme
1/2 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1/2 tablespoon of light brown sugar
100 ml of red wine
1 tin of plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons of tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon of rosemary
3 tablespoons of crème fraîche or plain yoghurt
250g of the fattest rigatoni you can find
Slice a large onion into the thinnest slivers you can manage. Place in a wide pan on the lowest heat possible with butter and oil and thyme and sugar and balsamic vinegar. Leave to cook gently for 40 minutes, if you can. If you’re pushed for time, the onion will be soft and delicious after 20 minutes. Occasionally stir the onion if you happen to be passing through the kitchen.
Set the cooked onion to one side on a plate and turn the heat up to medium high on the pan. Cut a slice up each sausage and remove the meat from the skin. Cook the sausage meat until slightly browned, breaking the meat up with your spoon or spatula as you go.
Deglaze the pan with a splash of port or red wine. Return the onions to the pan and introduce a tin of plum tomatoes, squashing each tomato with your hands (wear an apron! This will spray even the most careful of cooks), and add the tomato purée and the rosemary. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat; allow to stew for 30 minutes, if you have them, but 10 will do in a pinch.
Cook your pasta according to the packet instructions. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it roughly retaining a little of the pasta water, and return to the pan. Stir three tablespoons of crème fraîche through the sauce, and pour the sauce over the pasta, tossing gently to coat it thoroughly. Serve immediately, spooning out any sauce that clings to the bottom of the pan.