There are two categories for comfort food: one that makes you comfortably numb, and another that simply makes you numbly comfortable. I am sharing a recipe for each type as this time of year requires all the comfort we can create.
There are few things better at taking the edge off than an aperitivo and when it comes to aperitivi, I find it is really hard to beat a Negroni. Many times, I have felt very comfortable on the terrace outside Bar Caffè Signorelli as I watch the people pass. A Negroni punches you comfortably with its strong flavours and boozy kick. And its brick red tones make a striking impression against the sparkling ice.
Many variations of the classic Negroni are possible; all you need to do is find a suitable substitute for the vermouth or the gin. One great substitution is to make a Dutch Negroni by using jenever instead of gin. Jenever is the original gin first distilled in the Low Countries. It comes in young and old versions and adds an interesting dimension to a negroni.
To make a negroni, stir equal parts of gin, red vermouth and Campari with ice. Serve on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass with a garnish of orange. I prefer to include an equal part of water in the mix, as I appreciate the dilution up front. The magic happens when you find a gin and a vermouth that complement each other. My favourite jenever, Levwater, has a subtle hint of lavender that combines perfectly with Del Capitano vermouth. This of course is a personal preference and you may enjoy a combination such as Sabbatini with Starlino.
I think that there are three criteria that a dish needs to meet in order to qualify as the second type of comfort food, and the quintessentially Dutch pea soup or erwtensoep or snert meets all three criteria. This is good fare with peasant roots that, much like ribollita, is always worth more than the sum of its constituent parts. This vegan adaptation is nutritious and despite its richness, is not calorie dense. However, as with most peasant soups, it is not exactly photogenic.
The first criterion for great comfort food is to give a gentle hug from within; simply soothing away the cold bite of winter. With its thick and creamy consistency that is oh so incredibly satisfying, this soup should do the trick. When I say thick, you should know that traditionally, the spoon is supposed to be able to stand vertically in the soup. This is achievable, but so is throwing your spaghetti onto the wall to see if it is cooked. Neither of these practices are going to make you a better cook. Simply use a timer for your pasta and make your soup as thick as you like. Just leave enough time after cooking for the flavours to blend. And yes, it tastes even better the following day.
Cooking increased quantities for the same effort levels dovetails beautifully with the second aspect of comfort food: nobody should be slaving away in the kitchen! Yes, it should cook for ages to get that comforting consistency, but the cooking process is largely passive and there is no need for endless hours in the kitchen. Just give it a nonchalant stir each time you come to the kitchen to top up your wine.
The third association with great comfort food is nostalgia. This is best explained by once again comparing snert to ribollita. As much as I love ribollita, it is just not the same as snert because I have a Dutch gran, not a Tuscan one. I am sure that if she had been Tuscan, I would be sitting here writing about ribollita instead. I loved how this muted green soup contrasted against her bright orange pots. I would get really excited when she made erwtensoep because it was like nothing I ever got to eat anywhere else. I believe it to be a decidedly child friendly recipe as I always wanted seconds. And these fond childhood memories have been extended with more recent ones. I now also associate it with pale blue wintry skies while skating across frozen canals and also with cosy evenings indoors with friends as it howls and storms outside. This soup is traditionally served with Frisian rye bread (fries roggebrood), however any other type of rye bread would work too.
250 g split peas (green, not yellow)
1 litre vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 winter carrot, cubed or sliced
1 floury potato, e.g. Russet, cubed
1 leek or 2 shallots, halved lengthways and sliced in rings
¼ celeriac, cubed, or 3 sticks celery, sliced
200 gram vegan rookworst sausage or smoked tofu, sliced
30 ml (low sodium) soya sauce
5ml liquid smoke (or a pinch of sweet smoked paprika)
Salt & pepper, to taste
1. Add the stock and peas to the pot and bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.
2. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The temperature should not be too high or it will stick to the bottom. Towards the end, the peas should start falling apart.
3. Skim off any foam that develops on the surface.
4. Rinse and cut the vegetables and sausage.
5. After the 45 minutes have passed, add the vegetables and stir.
6. Cover and continue to cook for about 15 -20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the peas have fallen apart, stirring occasionally.
7. When vegetables are tender, remove the bay leaf. Optionally, use an immersion blender on half the volume.
8. Add the sliced sausage or tofu and soya sauce. Stir and cook for a final five minutes.
9. Add the liquid smoke and season to taste.
10. Remove from heat and let stand for a while to thicken and to let the flavours develop.
11. Serve with hearty rye bread.
These quantities make a satisfying meal for two.
Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco on the table can add great flavours.