A healthy comfort meal for stormy days ahead

With the recent back-to-back storms of Dudley, Eunice and Franklin battering the UK with increasing force as they tried to outdo each other in what must be the ultimate battle of sibling rivalry, there haven’t been many opportunities to exercise safely outside. It’s all very well to be told by some hardened Scandinavian veteran that ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’ but how exactly do you dress for 80mph winds without losing an item or two? I fear for the owners of small dogs who must struggle to grip their leashes while praying that they don’t fly away as the tail of a dog-shaped kite. I thought the gym would be the obvious workout solution to escape the wintery elements. But the extreme gym air con set to ice age temperatures and incoming draught of polar winds from outdoors only gave me a bad cold. A rest day was definitely in order. Although, as I hunkered down indoors and tried to catch up on some culinary reading I was only more distracted by the sound of the wind whipping the windows. As the wind circled the garden and violently toppled over every piece of heavily anchored piece of furniture almost as an afterthought, my thoughts quickly turned to comfort. After all, it was getting close to dinnertime…  

When you are in the middle of a storm or two, most hungry people would reason that whatever you eat, it has got to be something comforting. Although if you ask anyone what they think of when they’re thinking of comfort food, you’ll find that it means very different things to different people. Though there are definitely some common themes among them. Primarily, a comfort meal is warm, easy to prepare, tends to be a 1-pot meal and is also likely to be pretty filling. But I wondered if comfort food was also mostly about umami.   

Earlier I had been reading about all things umami which is the 5th taste after salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Umami is actually a different, moreish savoury flavour that gives food a sense of deliciousness and produces a feeling of comfort. Identified in Japanese cuisine in the early 1900’s, umami was only recognised internationally as a distinct taste sensed through specific taste receptors as late as 1985. Foods that have a strong umami flavour include meat, especially if it is slow-cooked or cured; shellfish, sardines, anchovies and fish sauce; yeast extract and fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso and cheese; and some vegetables, mainly mushrooms, petit pois, sweetcorn, sweet cherry tomatoes and seaweed (e.g. nori and wakame). It is hardly surprising then that many people’s favourite comfort food contains some of these moreish ingredients. Think of spag Bol., cheeseburgers, stews, hot pots, pork ramen, lasagne, fish pie, pizza, toad in the hole…the list goes on.

Now although all of these dishes can potentially be made to be very nutritious and healthy, how many people prepare them this way when their main priority is to comfort? I think it is fair to say that most comfort meals are made to be a little on the stodgy and a lot on the energy dense side. But to be clear, I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong about knowingly eating a slightly unhealthier and stodgy meal on occasion because enjoying and sharing food is an essential part of life. However, thinking about where the healthy tipping point is in comfort meals sent me down a mental rabbit hole of sorts as I try to imagine where the healthy line lay between filling and stodgy. Of course this then set me up on another challenge. Could I come up with a umami-rich meal that was as comforting as it was healthy?

After some time delving into my research while continuing to shelter from the wind I very fortunately came across the ever reliable Observer Food Monthly’s top 50 list of ‘everything they love in the world of food right now’. And there it was, simply nestled among their list of the best of the best. Number 24 – Miso spaghetti. Wait, miso spaghetti?! As a daughter of an Italian, I instinctively knew this was very wrong. But it wasn’t a misprint. In fact, miso spaghetti was a ‘thing’ that had been shared by the social media masses and then taken over many people’s palates some years ago. Despite the New York Times kicking off another umami resurgence a year ago with the publication of their 5-ingredient miso spaghetti recipe, it seems to have taken until now to cross the pond.  

Described as serving up a triple hit of umami, the recipe contained miso paste, Parmesan cheese and was sprinkled with nori. Of course, I was forced to investigate what were the missing foodstuffs of the 5-ingredient miso spag. I can reveal that they are spaghetti (as expected) but also a hefty amount of butter. On further examination of the recipe it was clear that this comfort meal was indeed very heavy on the calorific side. Even more telling was the top comment written in the cooking notes section below the recipe from the reader, Vanessa, who gave the following verdict:

‘I absolutely cannot, in good conscience make this again. In the span of far less than 24 hours, the entire recipe was consumed. I am quarantining ALONE.’

To clarify, the recipe was for 4 servings. Another reader, Maddy, simply said:

 ‘Stop reading this and make the pasta…Divine. Divine, divine, divine.’

Clearly, this was a dish that was so incredibly irresistible that some people found it slightly addictive. But could I give it a healthy makeover and still make it just as comforting without it being problematic? For one thing, a glaring omission of the miso spag meal that I simply couldn’t ignore was the absence of any vegetables other than the miniscule amount of seaweed. Although I do not share the view, I realise that some people – including adults – do not like to eat vegetables. Insane, I know! But what if I added some veg that was especially rich in umami? It would mean creating a meal with quadruple umami. Could this defeat even the most fervent salad dodgers? Then again, what will happen if you consume too much umami? A food coma? Or eternal bliss? Time to find out as I tried to come up with the healthiest comfort meal.

I have to say that I definitely took one for the team as it was very messy work. For one thing, it took far too many pans at first to get the recipe down to a final 1-pot dish. I also discovered that miso paste is the wrong combination of slightly sticky and pasty goo that is most easily whisked into hot liquids that can then spit back at you if you’re not careful. White or red miso paste seems to be most readily available on supermarket shelves. But red miso is far saltier and as it turns out, really likes to stain, somewhat like Tiger Balm. Oh it was fun all around. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it was also pretty tasty work.  

After much comparison between trial versions and the tweaking of recipes here and there, I have come up with what may be my favourite healthy comfort meal. I realise that many Italians including my own relatives will say that the recipe is yet another needless crime against pasta. But on the other hand, no one can deny that it is isn’t a very moreish meal that’s absolutely brimming with umami. And I don’t know what better way there is than to enjoy a meal while waiting out the remains of the storms. As Franklin departs in another whirlwind, I can only hope that we will finally get a break in the bad weather before the arrival of the next one. Until the weather improves, it seems that I am only guaranteed a workout outdoors tidying up the growing mountain of garden debris. I’m beginning to think that I’ll have to take another look at sourcing some ‘good clothes’ options before the next storm, aka Gladys, makes her way here.

While you wait for her arrival, here is a chance to try out a healthier and I think more moreish version of the Miso spaghetti with mushrooms and spinach. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.