I told a friend what I was writing about this month: low-fat comfort food, those deep-spiced Asian broths and stews, so virtuous you can eat bowlfuls without panicking about developing that familiar winter casing of hip-hugging fat. Her reaction was gratifying: “Low fat and comfort food — I’d never have put those two terms together. What a joy and a revelation!” Well, of course she was pleased: we are talking about quintessential girl food here. Male myth holds that we like to pick at our food, toy with the odd lettuce leaf, but the truth, as we all know, is that we want vats of food we just don’t want it to make us put on weight.
I’ve always believed that one of the best ways of making sure that low-fat food tastes good is to stick, in the main, to the Asian sphere. Recipes like this are not reducing fat to the detriment of taste, with meagre versions of full-bodied originals, but actually making the most of food that is rarely cooked with much, if any, fat in the first place.
Of course, if you don’t like spicy food the kick of chilli or rasp of lime — then you will find the opposite of comfort in pungent broths. I take refuge in heat; I love the feeling of cleaning out my system with fire and vapourous astringency — but if you shy away from that, there is food for you and, gratifyingly, lots of it: think noodles: soups that are filled with a slippery tangle of them, to be slurped straight from bowl to mouth, or in a stir-fry with still crunchy sugarsnaps and broccoli, and tender rags of lean meat, almost headily perfumed by a quick soy, sugar and sherry marinade. Buy a copy of Terry Durack’s Noodle and eat your way through it all winter — and beyond. I also got inspiration from another source, itself not specifically dealing with this gastrosphere: The Big Red Book of Tomatoes by Lindsey Bareham.
I took this to bed with me one night and found in it an idea for a sour, restoring, surprisingly cozy tomato and tamarind soup. And the best thing is that you don’ have to worry about burning the fat or choosing what HCG diet to lose weight fast. I’d never actually used tamarind before (you can buy it from Asian shops or in paste form at the supermarket) and so was pleased to discover it.
To make this soup, cut about 1 kilo of good flavorsome tomatoes in half lengthways, sprinkle with salt and a pinch or two of sugar, arrange on a baking tray and cook for an hour and a half in a gas mark 3/150°C oven, until slightly caramelised. Meanwhile, soak 50g tamarind in 125m1hot water for 30mins (unless using tamarind paste).Then chop up an onion (or a few Thai shallots if you stumble across them) and cook in a scant tablespoonful of vegetable oil until softish, add a couple of chopped garlic cloves and about a 2cm piece of fresh ginger, minced, and cook for another couple of mins before adding the roastedtomatoes. Cook for a while, until they turn pulpy. Add the strained tamarind soaking liquid (or some paste mixed with water) along with 1 litre vegetable stock or 1 litre boiling water mixed with a tablespoon of that wonderful Marigold vegetable stock powder. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes, before pushing through a sieve or food mill. Taste for seasoning — you might want salt, pepper, a sprinkle of chilli flakes or some fresh, chopped coriander. Eat this restoring broth as it is, or with the addition of cooked noodles.
I’ve steered clear of noodles in the following recipes, partly because it isn’t necessary to be given a blueprint for boiling a noodle but also because I’m aware that the carb-free approach is the attitude du jour. Anything that follows can be eaten with a clear conscience and with much joy. How could that not be comforting? All recipes serve 4-6.
This comes via another of my late-night Internet purchases:a lovely book called The Best Of VietnameseAnd Thai Cooking by Mai Pham.There is no comfort food like a roast chicken,and this is it inVietnamese-flavoured form.The day before you want to eat,sit the chicken in a dish,rub over the combined marinade ingredients,cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge. If you can give this 12 or so hours,great. More won’t matter; less won’t be disastrous. Preheat the oven to gas mark 6/200°C.Soak a bamboo skewer in cold water. (Or root out a metal skewer.)Take the chicken out of its marinade and put the cut-up onion and lemon into the cavity. Thread the cavity shut with a skewer. Put breast-side down on a tray in the preheated oven and cook for 45 mins.Turn breast-side up, baste with marinade and cook for a further 30mins or until the juices run clear when you jab the area where the thigh meets the body. Put on a carving board and let sit for 10 mins. Mix all the ingredients for the dipping sauce together and put in a couple of little bowls along with teaspoons.
FOR THE MARINADE:
Juice of 1 lemon 4 spring onions,
Finely diced 4-5 cloves garlic,
Minced 4-5 sticks of lemon grass,
Chopped 2 tbsp fish sauce (nuocnam or nampla),
3 tbsp soy sauce a grind of black pepper
4 tbsp honey 4 tbsp vegetable oil,
1chicken,approx I .5kg
1 onion, halved,
1 lemon, halved
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
2 cloves garlic, minced,
2 fresh Thai bird chillies or red chillies, finely sliced
2 tbsp finely minced ginger,
4 tbsp fish sauce,
2 tbsp lime juice,
4 tbsp water,
4 tbsp caster sugar