Last week in my "Cookbooks, a Love Story" edition I hinted at how the smell of a freshly baked cake or Sunday roast can evoke a particular moment of childhood, a distant past, in short, nostalgia. Nostalgic foods seem to affect us more in unsettled economic times as we tend to rediscover comfort eating, you know the sort, that old macaroni & cheese treat, the retro 1960s foods such as fondue, sheperd pies, clafoutis, and...gasp, the toad-in-a-hole among other such delicacies.
NOSTALGIA - the elusive word nostalgia is formed from two Greek roots: nostos (return home) and algia (pain). The Oxford English Dictionary defines nostalgia as "an emotion that can vary from happiness to sorrow to severe homesickness." It is thought the word was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, to identify the homesickness of Swiss soldiers who were pining for their landscape and the eating of rustic soups while on missions away from home.
There are numerous autobiographies and memoirs that are redolent of scents, taste, memories of Christmas feasts, family reunions et cetera; all of these communicate a yearning for the past, a momentary return to the "good old days" which never fails to infuse us with a tinge of melancholia.
In his wonderful testament to his native Provence, "My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood", Marcel Pagnol (you might have seen his Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources & Marius films) recreated his childhood through the eyes of a middle-aged and successful filmmaker. One of the most memorable passage occurs after the Christmas Eve meal in which the family feasted on crystallized fruits & whipped cream, exotic dates filled with marzipan, and the famous marrons glacés that his uncle had brought from Marseille. Seeing his father and uncle greet each other, Pagnol experienced a strong new emotion, an epiphany if you like, and as a child recognized the importance of family unity for the first time while savoring the marrons glacés (pic below)
The smell of sausages and mushrooms grilled over dried thyme brings back my own culinary memories, when as a young lad I would set off early to go to the nearby forest and gather mushrooms with my great grandmother. I'd bring a little packet of pork & lamb sausages, a solid loaf of rye bread, some salt & pepper and for lunch we'd clear a spot, collect a few dead branches, pick up some dried thyme and make a small fire. We'd cook the sausages on skewers made out of rosemary sticks. Field mushrooms would make a superb accompaniment, done in the same manner. Another smell that transport me back to my youth - instantly - is that of freshly made polenta laced with butter, a simple dish that my great grandmother would do once a week during winter, and which would accompany a hearty stew of hare or mutton. To this day I have never been able to replicate her polenta recipe whose soft texture and faint scent of lemon sent me into bouts of ecstasy.
Which brings me to that most reliable of comfort sauce, the ever so versatile sauce béchamel. Don't buy it. Make it yourself, it's dead easy and you know exactly what's in it. Béchamel sauce is basically a sauce made from equal quantities of butter and flour to which warm milk is added and cooked until it thickens (though the amount of flour varies with the thickness that is desired for example, 10 grams is a light sauce, 20 grams is medium while 30 or 40 grams will make it thicker and give it more consistency). Once you have made it you can use it in a variety of dishes such as macaroni cheese, Lasagna (both meat & vegetarian), Greek Moussaka and you can also use it as the basis for soups, croquettes, potato dishes et cetera. You can serve it on its own with poached fish, egg and gratin dishes and/or you can add other ingredients like mushroom purée, Fontina or Gruyère cheese, and whatever else takes your fancy to accompany seafood, meat or vegetables entrées.
Here's the quickest way to make it: use leftovers for experimentation!
50 grams (2 oz or 4 tablespoons) soft butter, 50 grams (2 oz or 1/2 cup of plain flour), 600ml (1 pint or 2 and 1/2 cup) of warm milk, 2 or 3 bay leaves, a couple of pinches of grated nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste. In a skillet or saucepan gently melt the butter but don't let it sizzle, use a wooden spoon. Add the flour (as I said above, it's up to you to determine the amount), salt & pepper. With your wooden spoon mix well for a few minutes to let the flour cook and to amalgamate everything. Make sure you cook it long enough or the sauce will taste, well, floury. Add a small amount of the warm milk to the flour and butter mix and keep using the wooden spoon. When it is well amalgamated, add a little more milk and so on until you have a thickish, creamy sauce. Add the bay leaves and cook the sauce for a further 5 minutes stirring at all times to stop it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. If you get lumps, use a whisk and mix well till all smooth. Lastly add the nutmeg and taste for seasoning. At this stage if you want to make it even richer, you can add a couple of egg yolks, and whisk them in slowly till cooked.
So, what are you going to do with that béchamel? How about clearing the refrigerator and make a shepherd pie? What I like about making a shepherd pie is that you can use all the leftover meat cuts and vegetables to make a splendid dish that won't cost you an arm and a leg. All you have to do is to chop all your ingredients to size (except frozen peas of course), fry them in a little olive oil, add some tomato sauce or passata and it's ready. Boil a kilo of potatoes, drain, peel and mash and set aside. Take a large glass or terracotta baking dish, line it with your leftover mix, add a generous layer of béchamel sauce on top and arrange your potato mash evenly on top. If you wish you can add a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs to make it crunchier. Bake into a medium hot oven for 20 minutes and serve. Or eat it the next day cold. It's all good.
Here's the vegetarian version of my shepherd pie, using a freshly made ratatouille as its base. I have done another version in the past using ratatouille, béchamel and instead of topping it up with potato mash I used a mixture of mashed garbanzo beans and Pinto beans in equal measures, flavored with lots of flat parsley and smoked paprika. It's a fun dish that can be served cold at parties (prepared the day before) and a crowd pleaser to boot. First make a good ratatouille: 2 eggplants; 2 onions; 2 red peppers; 2 green peppers; 2 zucchinis; 8 large ripe tomatoes; 4 tbsp olive oil; 6 cloves garlic; 2 sprigs fresh oregano; 2 sprigs of rosemary, 1 large handful fresh basil leaves; salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste (you can double up ingredients if you're making this for 8 to 10 people).
Chop up the onions, dice the eggplants, zucchinis and peppers, mince the garlic. In a large frying pan heat 2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil. Add the onions, garlic and aubergines. Cook on quite a high heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the peppers, and cook another 2 minutes. Then add the zucchinis and cook another 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, the fresh oregano, the basil and the rosemary. Cover the pan and let it stew gently for 10-15 minutes (note that in the olden days this recipe called for celery as well, as it was then the emblem of Provence)
Proceed in the same manner as above, ratatouille first, béchamel then potato mash (or a variance of your choice) and bake for 20 minutes.
Next week I will write about comfort desserts, like clafoutis (see the pic below, as a teaser), flans and one of my favorites, pear and apple tart. I'm not sure which day it will be published, I'll shoot for Wednesday.