Grace Dent: “I’m happiest at the supermarket, seeking Viennetta”

What have you learnt from recording Comfort Food?

Doing the podcast completely changed my attitude to casual foods. We put so much emphasis on the perfect posh dinner we once had, or the dinner party dish we cooked with 15 ingredients from a farmer’s market. But these aren’t the things that tell us who we are. You get straight to the heart of a person by getting them to reveal that thing they’d make for themselves, quietly at the end of the night. Baked beans sprinkled with Wotsits, three Creme Eggs… Certainly nothing they’d photograph and post on social media.

Recording the podcast at my home is so exposing for me. Ten minutes before Stephen Fry or whoever arrives I’m busy picking up knickers from the radiators, hiding gas bills. But in making myself vulnerable and opening my front door it transforms the experience. We begin to talk about life…

There is an incredible amount of joy in a hash brown at a Premier Inn buffet. My guests’ comfort foods are generally pasta, bread, cheese, potato or sweet. It’s about childhood, your first memories of your mother and father, or the bell going off at school after a horrible morning, and things are made better by a bowl of spotted dick with custard. That feeling of happiness stays with people for ever.

Chocolate puddings with custard
Who else has fond memories of school puddings with custard?

 

The comedian Jo Brand chose a fried bread sandwich for her comfort food. White bread fried in tons of butter, put between two more  pieces of white bread, and then dipped in brown sauce. It sounds disgusting – until you eat it. TV presenter Laura Whitmore – who is one of the most beautiful, elegant people to have walked the planet – brought raw mushrooms, skins still on and a bit soil-y, snapped off the stem and filled them with slightly warm Hellmann’s mayonnaise. She then pushed one into her mouth like a velociraptor. This takes her back to when she was a little girl, at home with her mother on a Friday night – it was their version of posh hors d’oeuvres.

What do you cook at home?

I went through a stage in my early 40s of getting into slow cooking. It’s a natural rite of passage… and by my late 40s I learnt the heady thrill of the pressure cooker. My mother used one for years – a terrifying 1970s one with a whistle and a constant threat of death. I realised there was a method to my mother’s madness – she could shove some corned beef, potatoes and carrot in, then get on with her life.

My ultimate autumn comfort food is my pressure-cooker pasta. Take a can of bog-standard tomatoes (the 24p ones), a full jar of olives from the minimart on the corner, a load of butter, any old herbs – the really dry ones, basically pot pourri – and a bit of salt and pepper. Pressure cook for 10 minutes, then hurl in dry penne and any cheese (Primula would do) and finish it off. Basically, Italian food that would make an Italian cry but makes me very happy.

Bowl of pasta
Pasta in a pressure cooker? It works! Try our creamy chicken version

 

Finally… What’s on your Christmas list?

I think homemade food gifts are the loveliest thing. If you have the time and gumption to make some beautiful fudge or a cake, that will go so much further than some tat you got running through Boots at the last minute. When someone brings you a Christmas cake, that was no small undertaking. It’s done with love.

Comfort Eating: What We Eat When Nobody’s Looking is out now, published by Faber (£20). Listen to Comfort Eating with Grace Dent wherever you get your podcasts.

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