Comfort food can mean a lot of things

By / Food / January 26th, 2018 / 2

On blustery Monday, November 6, 1882, my great-grandfather, his wife, and their four siblings left Glasgow to begin an often-harrowing voyage on the sailing ship Oamaru, which three months later would deposit them in faraway New Zealand.

I know about this departure and most everything else that happened along the way, because great-uncle Robert, then just ten and one of the siblings, kept a daily diary. Latitude-longitude, weather, life, death — yes, a baby died during the voyage and was “dropped into the great deep” — it was all there. Carefully recorded in pencil in a little black book, which I still treasure.

While there were plenty of other details about shipboard life, Robert’s entries, as might be expected of a hungry kid between bouts of seasickness, were mostly about food. And while he wrote of the animals and birds on board that were slaughtered and cobbled into meals; about fish, and the occasional albatross; his gastronomic entries were mostly about porridge. That’s right. Day after day after day and nautical mile after mile. About tummy filling, always satisfying porridge.

Robert never mentioned whether the porridge or anything else on board was food to be fondly remembered. But I know from family records and my own experience that rolled oats cooked into porridge — albeit these days with brown sugar and cream — remains three generations later a reminder of comfort from far-away Scotland and a journey beyond its shores. It is a staple that has stuck for more than a century.

Our memories of why we eat certain foods from far-away places may not involve sailing ships, but many of us have special corners in our palates for tastes from somewhere else and other times. They may come from our childhood roots, or they are foods that we associate with good times and well-remembered happenings along the way. And having re-established ourselves, we either make our own “porridge,” or leave it to aging rellies to duplicate “old country” magic in the kitchens of the new lands.

The world has shrunk considerably since sailing-ship days; we tend to move around a lot more than we once did and food roots are more difficult to define. We’ve been introduced to more and more foreign flavours and we like them. Example? At two or three, my grandson was wolfing down sushi loaded with wasabi, enjoying fiery foods in other lands. Will these become his “porridge” memories? Or will Big Macs and their endless cousins, become part of a melting pot of international taste?

I talked to three re-established people about all of this. Friend Stephanie Yuen is the maven of Asian food in Vancouver and if you ever have her over for dinner — or for any reason — it’s totally predictable that she will bring along a chicken, the beginnings of a pot of congee comfortably remembered from her native Hong Kong and now a Yuen staple on this side of the Pacific.

Steph says congee can be thick or thin, creamy or clear, but made with rice it is always more filling than clear soup. It can be plain, or include vegetables and/or meat. It is easy to digest, often enjoyed by Steph and her family for breakfast, lunch or a late-night snack. More? It’s big for weekend family brunches, paired with home-cooked wok-fried noodles, a variety of other side dishes and dim sum.

“Congee is much like mom or grandma’s chicken soup,” says Steph, “it’s cooked for a long time with TLC to become a soothing meal substitute when you’re under the weather — for an exhausted stomach or a tired body. It’s also a yummy hang-over food, with a perfect ying-yang-balance. Even more, it has all of the protein and vitamins you need.”

Jack Evrensel spawned, nurtured and later sold four of the most successful and best-loved restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler. His Top Table Group included Blue Water Café, Cin Cin, West, and in Whistler, Araxi. Excelling with his leadership, they won awards year after year.

Jack is Armenian-Canadian, noting that for the last four thousand years, the “knot” that is Armenia, was the land between the Black, Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. With Mount Ararat as the centre, Armenians have been referred to as the children of Noah.

While he has access to the best food anywhere, real comfort for him comes with anoush abour, an Armenian pudding that means sweet soup. The dish is traditionally prepared during Christmas and Easter, but can be enjoyed throughout the year.

Fellow Quench scribe and wine guy Tim Pawsey offered a cornucopia of rich memories of food that was all part of family life in his native England.

“My dear mum cooked well, but with reluctance,” said Tim, “which explains why she’d happily turn over the kitchen to my dad. His specialty was kippers — eventually banned because they stank up the house.

“Unbeknownst to me, he introduced me to foraging in various ways, from early morning forays to spin for fresh mackerel, to more frequent crack-of-dawn mushroom-hunting sorties. We’d walk for miles on the moors to find the freshest mushrooms that had popped up overnight, whip them into a mixed grill of thick rashers of bacon, an abundance of lamb kidneys, fresh pork sausages and garden tomatoes. The kidneys grilled and the rest fried up in one pan — which we joyously consumed and looked forward to as the best meal of the week.

“From those pre-cholesterol panic times, it remains etched in my memory as one of the simplest and most satisfying treats — involving a true neighbourhood butcher, and cherished time with my dad.”

oatmeal porridge

Serves 3 to 4

I don’t know what they did for milk or cream on 19th century sailing ships, and great-uncle Robert made no mention of how he dressed his porridge. But we have access to milk or cream, and it makes a bowl of porridge a mid-winter or anytime great breakfast.

4 cups water
1 cup rolled or steel-cut oats
1/4 tsp salt
Brown sugar and cream

In a medium saucepan, boil the water.

Add the oatmeal, stirring to prevent sticking. Add the salt, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve with brown or white sugar and rich milk or cream.

stephanie yuen’s congee

More than enough for 6

2 1/2-3 lb chicken (Rub inside and out with 1 tbsp sea salt. Do not remove skin.)
1 1/2 cup long grain rice (Add or reduce the amount of rice depending on how thick you like your congee)
3 pieces dried scallops (Available in Asian supermarkets. Rinse and soak in hot water for an hour.)
8 slices skin-on ginger
Cold tap water to fill 2/3 of a 12-qt stock pot
1 cup thinly-sliced green onion
1 cup coarsely-chopped cilantro
Mixture: 1 tbsp sesame oil and 2 tbsp light soy sauce in a small bowl
Salt to taste

Place chicken, rice, dried scallops with soaking water, ginger slices and cold water in the stock pot, cover and bring to a boil on high. Remove cover and let it boil for 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium high and cook semi-covered for 45 minutes to an hour, making sure rice is rolling in the pot.

Stir occasionally to prevent from sticking to the bottom. Rice should start to break down and liquid will turn into a thicker and milky-like texture. Reduce to low heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a dish and let cool for a few minutes. Using two soup spoons; remove skin and debone, discard both. With the spoons; shred chicken meat into thinner strands. Return meat to pot and stir well. You can add more hot water to the pot here if you prefer a less-dense congee.

Bring the congee back to a boil on high and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes.

To serve add 1/2 tsp each of green onion and cilantro into the bowl, ladle in congee and drizzle on sesame oil and soy mixture.  Allow to simmer even during serving to keep the congee hot.

jack evrensel’s armenian pudding

An elegant dessert for four. I’d choose a Port.

1 cup skinless whole grain wheat, soaked overnight
1 1/2 cups dried apricots — they are natives of Armenia — quartered and soaked overnight
1 1/2 cups raisins, soaked overnight
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup walnuts
1/3 cup almonds
1/5 cup pistachios

Wash wheat, boil until open. Let it cool down. Boil again, then lower heat and simmer, add warm water as required until grains are tender and water absorbed.

Add sugar, raisin, apricots and pine nuts, mix well and continue to cook for approximately half an hour. Remove from heat, pour into glasses or deep dish.

While still warm, top with walnuts, almonds and pistachios. Refrigerate. Dust with cinnamon before serving.

steak and kidney pie

Serves 6

I am sure that Tim Pawsey’s dad had no need of a recipe when he filled and cooked his weekend pan of foraged and other goodies. It was simply a gathering of great tastes and textures. Steak and kidney pie was another likely staple in Tim’s Blighty background, as it was in mine. I went through some awful recipes that called for beef kidneys. My choice has always been lamb. And sliced mushrooms.

1 1/2 lb top round or steak of your choice
4 or 5 lamb kidneys
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
2 cups beef stock
1 cup red wine

Cut steak into 1/2-inch pieces; wash kidneys, remove the membrane, cut in half, core, and thinly slice; melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and add the kidneys, onion and mushrooms; cook, stirring for about five minutes.

Toss the beef pieces in flour mixed with salt, pepper and other seasonings you may choose. Add the beef to the pan and brown. Add the beef stock and wine.

Bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour. Cool, and then transfer to a baking dish and cover with pastry dough, below.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown, in a pre-heated 425˚F oven. For a shiny top, brush with beaten egg.

pastry dough

Cut 1 cup lard into 2 cups flour and beat until the mixture has the appearance of corn meal. Mix together an egg, tbsp of vinegar and 2 tbsp cold water. Add to the flour mixture and bring together as dough. Rest for an hour or so in the fridge, then roll. Cover the (cooled) beef mixture and bake as above.


Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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