When we return home after a trip away that has inevitably involved lots of local eating, no matter which part of the planet we are living on or what the season, I take to the kitchen and make our favourite home-cooked comfort food recipes.
It’s been a crazy year. We honestly don’t know where it’s gone. It’s July, but it seems like it was January yesterday. The months have flown by at a dizzying speed. Things started to get a little mad in March when I had to go to Vietnam on a photography assignment for a travel magazine to do a country-long shoot in less than two weeks.
Lara took on what turned out to be the guidebook project from hell. As most of you know, we worked as guidebook authors for many years so we rarely update guides these days unless it’s a book on a place we love. The project seemed straightforward, but of course the easy-looking ones never are.
After two months on the road in Northern Thailand and Myanmar, we returned to Siem Reap and raced against the clock to complete the work before we had to lead our culinary travel writing and photography tour with Backyard Travel. Once that was done, Lara worked frantically to get other assignments out of the way before an old friend arrived for a visit.
Before they’d even gone I was on a plane to Bangkok, and Lara was on another a day later, to spend time in the kitchen at Nahm shooting the Noma team for the Gelinaz! Shuffle. After a week of eating wonderful Thai and ‘trashy’ Chinese food at several new restaurants (more on those soon), we’re home in Siem Reap and… we’re craving home-cooked comfort food classics.
Whenever we return home after a trip that’s inevitably involved lots of local eating — even when we’ve been eating food we’ve absolutely loved, like the myriad cuisines of Myanmar, which we’re going to be writing a lot more about — we still find ourselves craving a few staple comfort food classics that I like to make.
They’re homely, they make for great aromas in our apartment, and they’re versatile — we can often get two or three meals out of the one batch of cooking, which is perfect for us as we’re usually busy working on the stories or books we’d gone away to research and are busy trying to meet several deadlines.
Here are our favourite home-cooked comfort food recipes — along with some of the challenges we have making them here in Cambodia.
Our Favourite Home-Cooked Comfort Food Recipes
My slow-cooked ragù Bolognese is a Northern Italian classic that takes a good four to five hours to make but while it’s on the stove it produces some of the best aromas you can fill a kitchen with. For many years, I have alway used the same recipe, Chef Mario Batali’s Ragù Bolognese. While I don’t really care for some of his recipes, this one is a gem.
The first night we’ll have tagliatelle al ragù (whenever I see ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ in a cookbook or on a menu I steer clear) and while serving it up I’ll have to force myself to limit how much ragù I put on each plate, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, because it looks, smells and tastes so good.
While I always used to make my own tagliatelle, I can’t seem to find the perfect flour here in Siem Reap to make my own so I’ve mostly been using shop-bought dried pasta. Luckily, we can get some decent Parmigiano Reggiano here, although I have to force myself to limit how much I eat before grating it! It truly is the king of cheeses for me.
On the second night we’ll make lasagne alla Bolognese using the rest of the ragù. It’s a tradition that I make a good béchamel sauce before Lara painstakingly assembles the lasagne. The next day we have to force ourselves to limit how big a slice we have each for lunch to avoid a food coma.
Chille con Carne
A big old bowl of chilli con carne is another favourite comfort food when we’re at home and has been for more years than we care to remember. Like the ragù, it’s a four to five hour process to make, but again the spices I use in the chilli fills the apartment with amazing aromas while it’s simmering on the stove.
Unlike the ragù, I don’t stick to a set recipe for the chilli. Once past the base set of ingredients I’ll wing it by tasting it every half an hour or so and adjusting the heat level as I go. Unlike the recipe we’re linking to — which is fantastic — we always put beans in our chilli, because we ain’t in Texas, and we like the extra body and texture that it gives to the dish.
It’s difficult to get decent sour cream in Siem Reap, so if I’m making a batch of chilli, I’ve already made a batch of sour cream to go with it. Corn chips, oddly enough, are fantastic here, as there’s a local company that makes them for restaurants and we can get an enormous catering sized bag for US$10 that lasts us weeks.
After our big old bowl of chilli con carne, the next day we’ll use the chilli to make another Tex-Mex comfort food classic: nachos. It’s one of our guilty pleasures and something Lara likes to make, despite the fact that she prepared thousands of plates of nachos at one of the many cafes she worked at during her university years.
Lara would actually prefer to make authentic Mexican chilaquiles of the sort she used to love to eat in Mexico City if she had a choice, however, it’s impossible to get genuine Mexican queso blanco (white cheese) here and feta is no substitute, despite what the recipes say.
For us, a good nachos has to have the cheese melted all the way through, a good scoop of the chilli on top, and plenty of sliced jalapeños, black Spanish olives, spring onions, home-made fresh salsa, guacamole if avocados are available, and a good dollop of sour cream.
If following bowls of chilli con carne with nachos is a bit too heavy, we’ll make American-style Tex-Mex tacos instead — and once again, only because it’s impossible to find authentic Mexican corn tortillas here (for obvious reasons). If there’s any chilli left after that, I’ll make some quick quesadillas for lunch using the soft Tex-Mex tortillas the following day. Those few meals usually satisfy our cravings for a while.
Another favourite comfort food recipe that fills the apartment with mouthwatering smells is a classic roast chicken with mash or potatoes.
I used to believe in the saying that a restaurant diner who can’t decide what they want to eat will always go for the chicken dish. Until we ate at Bistro Guillaume in Melbourne a few years ago and chef Guillaume Brahimi insisted we try his roast chicken with Paris mash and chicken jus.
It was so good, it was like trying chicken for the first time: a good crispy golden skin, perfectly-cooked juicy chicken meat, and the most divine creamy mash and flavourful chicken jus we’ve ever tasted. It was out of this world.
I’ve tried many different recipes over the years, but the most important thing is to have the bird dry inside and out, seasoned with salt inside and out, and at room temperature. I have to have my crappy oven pre-heated to as hot it can go, but if you have a great oven that’s probably too hot.
Sometimes I place butter and thyme under the skin, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I stuff the cavity, sometimes I don’t. It all depends on what we’re serving it with and what we’re in the mood for. The one thing that never changes is the cooking method. And I never make it without making chicken jus — it’s magic.
The next day we’ll make the best chicken sandwiches in the world — if we’ve managed to track down a bottle of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, which is sometimes hard to find here.
If there’s any chicken left after that we’ll make some toasted sandwiches with chicken and melted cheese — perfect for a rainy monsoon day. Our cat, Pepper, also loves the leftovers that we feed her before the bones go into the stock pot to make some chicken stock that I’ll freeze — perfect for the next time I make chicken jus.
What are you favourite home-cooked comfort food recipes that you make when you return home after a trip abroad eating local food?