When I say comfort food, the first thing I think of is a hot, steaming pot.
But how does a plate of tortellini in broth or, as in this case, a casserole of rice and vegetables, make us feel a sense of well-being similar to an enveloping embrace?
And what exactly does comfort food mean anyway?
First a definition.
The expression, which has taken shape thanks to the pioneering reflections of British and American food writers, refers to foods that, in addition to satiating, have to do with consolation and well-being; often they are foods reminiscent of childhood or home cooking; almost always, they are carbohydrates or dishes high in sugar.
When I think of the home cooking of my childhood, I find flavours that go far beyond mere nourishment, and often these are pasta dishes and desserts.
More pasta than desserts, to be honest.
I can say that I subscribe to the general definition of comfort food although, with the variety of diets that crowd our tables today, the idea of comfort food I imagine is different for each of us.
My ‘comfort food’ dishes are related to memories but also to ingredients and seasons.
It’s this mix of different elements that makes a dish a comfort.
To confirm what I have written, I would add that while my favourite comfort foods are almost all traditional Emilia-Romagna first courses, among the desserts, surprisingly, there is apple crumble. And that during the warm season, light and sunshine almost completely eliminate the need for comfort food.
The feeling of comfort I get from eating crumble, and certain biscuits, is explained by the ingredients.
The union of butter and sugar, and incidentally also flour, is at the origin of that sensation of comfort that starting from the inside radiates throughout my body giant endorphins able to make me feel good instantly.
I can therefore say that, in my case, comfort food concerns flavours that awaken memories and ingredients that my body likes so much that they trigger the comfort food effect.
Short life note: I started making crumble with the recipe Ann gave me when we were flatmates in Bologna. My friend, an American from Massachusetts, shared a nice memory of her family Thanksgiving here on the blog.
The flavors of the woods in a rice casserole.
During one of my weekly visits to Romagna, at my parents’ house, my mother gave me a little bag of fragrant porcini mushrooms.
They are porcini mushrooms gathered in the woods surrounding Castel del Rio, a village on the Romagna Apennines which, after a few bends and a handful of kilometres, becomes Tuscany and which I often talk about here on the blog because it is where half of my family comes from (and from that tradition I have shared a recipe for fried bread which I like very much and which is called ficattola; very soon I’ll write in English also that recipe).
But back to the rice casserole, I took the porcini covered with earth and, once home, opened the bag discovering a oak leaf among the mushrooms.
I enjoyed the mushrooms by preparing several recipes, such as an excellent frittata and grilled caps cooked with a drizzle of olive oil and salt, simple and perfect. There were still a handful of stems and a couple of whole mushrooms left.
The less precious stems were perfect for giving flavor to the rice casserole.
But if you don’t have fresh porcini, make the casserole using dried ones and fresh champignons.
Rice casserole is a vegetarian recipe for serving as a first course that works well also as one dish. Warm and comforting, tasty and creamy, it can be prepared one day in advance.
While cooking, I thought back and took inspiration from the superb tiella di riso, patate e cozze (rice casserole made with potato and mussels) prepared by a friend of mine from Brindisi. Here I have made a no-fish version of her recipe, using mushrooms instead of mussels. But the enveloping effect of comfort food is assured.
Buona cucina, Monica
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The ingredients are all added raw.
They cook together in the pan, which is why I recommend using a good stock, either vegetable or meat.
How much rice for each layer? Divide the rice – more or less – equally for each layer.
For each layer, add enough stock to cover the surface.
The casserole is made of layers: uncooked potatoes, uncooked rice, cleaned but uncooked mushrooms, grated Parmesan cheese, butter flakes, a pinch of salt. Like a lasagna!
The last layer is just potatoes and parmigiano cheese. If you like it, and if there are any leftovers, you can add mushrooms. Sprinkle generously with parmigiano, add a little more broth and some butter flakes. Cover and good cooking.
Rice Casserole With Potato And Porcini Recipe
rectangular baking tray 30cmx19cm
500 g yellow potatoes
150 g Carnaroli rice
80 g fresh porcini mushrooms or 20 g dried porcini mushrooms
150 g champignons
500 ml vegetable (or meat) broth
120 g grated Parmesan cheese + enough to dust the last layer
salt, oil, butter to taste
Peel the potatoes and cut into very thin slices. Set aside.
Clean and slice the mushrooms. Set aside.
If you also use dried porcini, soak them in a cup of hot water for a few minutes. Then drain the mushrooms from the water but do not throw it away, strain and set aside.
Grease the bottom of a baking dish with oil and butter, make a layer of potatoes covering the whole bottom, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt, distribute on the surface some mushrooms, some porcini crumbs here and there, a handful of rice, add a few ladles of broth and proceed with another layer of potatoes.
Repeat for each layer, until all the ingredients are used up, as indicated. Don’t forget a pinch of salt for each layer.
On the last layer pour what remains of the broth and the filtered water of the porcini mushrooms (be careful, the liquid must not come out of the pan and if you see that it is too much, keep it aside), sprinkle with plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano, add a few flakes of butter, seal the pan with a lid or an aluminum foil and bake in a preheated oven, 180C degrees not ventilated, for 20 minutes. Then remove the lid and return to the oven, raising the temperature to form a crust, cook for another 10-15 minutes.