There's a reason I'm writing about food right now, and there's a reason you're reading about it. And it's the same reason that so many of us turn to food to celebrate being happy, or to help make us happy, or to bring a little happiness to someone else. And that's love, man, loooove. Food can communicate love like nothing short of a kiss. (I think it starts at mama's breast, but maybe that's for another post.) We all have those dishes that we pull on like the left-behind shirt of someone we miss, that just make us feel better, remind us that we are loved. We all have dishes that we share when we want to draw someone closer, show them something maybe we're not ready to say, or can't say loudly enough. And we all have dishes that shoot laugh-drink-tell-a-secret signals to our brains. It's food that's the flip side to a vending machine sandwich or a quick, utilitarian chicken-breast-and-veg supper, and it's the subject of British food phenomenon Jamie Oliver's 16th (count 'em) cookbook, Jamie Oliver's Comfort Food: The Ultimate Weekend Cookbook, going on sale tomorrow.
This is a cookbook to turn to when you're looking to make some new memories. By and large, the recipes take time, forethought, and a toll on your waistband. They are extravagant, but that's okay, because they're special. Oliver categorizes the comfort foods by what heart string they tug, with chapters like Nostalgia, Pick Me Ups, and Sweet Indulgences. The flavors are global, but with a decidedly British bent—appropriate given this is food he takes personally; there are recipes for Vietnamese pho, Indian daal, Brazilian feijoada, Greek moussaka, and oh-so-English beans on toast. There are plenty of recipes from his personal, and considerable, repertoire, but he also reached out to close friends for inspiration, and to social media to find out what foods comfort his fans. Many of these suggestions he ran with, amping up flavors or cooking from scratch what might usually be store-bought. It's a huge and varied collection, tied together with Oliver's irresistible enthusiasm (try, just try to resist it) and knack for refined rusticity. There's bound to be something for everyone, and just flipping through it makes you feel good (the dessert chapter speaks to my soul).
For the last several years, much of Oliver's focus has been on promoting healthy eating, particularly in children, and enacting policy reform in the U.K. and U.S. to overhaul school lunch programs. Rather than seeing this book of indulgences as contrary to what he's been preaching, I'd say it's right in line; he's never preached austerity. The idea is to eat healthfully most of the time, which leaves room for the occasional decadence. And whatever you choose to blow your calories on better be worth it, like the recipes in this book. In fact, at the back of the book (so you can ignore it if you just don't want to know—not a bad decision), is the nutritional content of each recipe, giving you the tools to fit it more conscientiously into your diet.
I have to say, I love how Oliver writes his recipes. They are unmistakeable, full of his voice and exuberance. He trusts us as cooks to make our own decisions about how much seasoning to add (everything is 'to perfection'), and what constitutes a 'glug' of oil. They're written as if he's over our shoulder talking us through the process, warm and reassuring. For a novice cook, the vagueness could be frustrating, and there were moments when his laid-back tone didn't communicate the points of challenge or effort within a recipe. But if it's not your first rodeo, then you'll know what to do, and it's nice to have some room for ownership. The photographs from David Loftus are dreamy and covered in drool (at least, the ones in my copy are), and do a great job inviting you into the recipes. It's a feel-good book of feel-good food, and I'm thinking my husband might be right. Maybe Jamie Oliver and I should get a room.
I took the hit for you this week, folks, and tested these recipes that are meant to be occasional treats one right after the other. Don't worry, it was my pleasure. First, we'll share his nostalgic twofer recipe for Mushroom Soup & Pasta Bake, which turns the former into the latter, both delicious. From the chapter 'Good Mood Food,' we'll try his Insanity Burger, aptly named because it's crazy good and it's nuts how many napkins you'll need to keep your forearms clean. We'll end on a more delicate, elegant note, with the 'Guilty Pleasures' chapter's Butter & Sage Gnudi, which are so lovely, I don't feel guilty about them at all.
Thanks to the wonderful people at Ecco, we have 5 copies of Jamie Oliver's Comfort Food to give away this week. For your chance, tell us your best-loved comfort food in the comments below.