After his citrus cooking demonstration, the Sicilian chef Corrado Assenza asked us, in a room of about 20 people, if there were any questions. I raised my hand in the lemony air. A young man near me didn’t: he just threw his question like a bullet, and it was the same question as mine. Corrado noticed it, but I turned my sharp arm into a wave “it’s okay”, so he responded to the man, ending with a thank you for a good question, before turning back to me. Acknowledging that my question had been answered would have been the right thing to do, but the little rage doesn’t make sense. Being sane also meant giving the usurper the upper hand, so I caught a thought, “What’s your comfort food?” translating it as it came out of my mouth (cos’e il tuo comfort cibo?).
Not only did the question sound wrong and tweaked, it was also a bad translation that made no sense. Even if I had understood correctly (qual Ã¨ il tuo cibo di conforto?), it doesn’t quite have the same meaning. The situation was even more confused when someone else asked me if I meant reassurance in terms of convenience, as in “practical” or “easy”. Fortunately, Corrado understood where I was going; it depended on when I asked him, he said, “Different times called for completely different types of comfort.” He also suggested that the reason why there might not be a need for the term comfort food in Italian is because the words are one and the same: food is comforting.
Maybe that’s because there was a time when it wasn’t. I often think of Corrado and the idea that âfood is comfortingâ. Especially with predictable things: mash or baked potatoes; pasta with sauce and cheese; baked fruit; tomatoes on bread; a watermelon moon eaten in the sea; arancine the size of a cricket ball stuffed with stew; Bechamel and peas that we buy at the bar near the port of Palermo, all a little homecoming.
But more than the predictable are the other things: the apple that I always eat when I pick up my son from school; the Polo mint that I suck on before any kind of interview; the hard-boiled egg I buy from M&S when I get to Gatwick, which often gives me heartburn, discomfort-comfort. Writing about the mysterious appetites of grief in his essay S is for Sad (in An Alphabet for Gourmets), American culinary writer MFK Fisher notes: encouragement and strengthâ¦ to eat. I don’t compare an interview to heartbreak, but at that point the little Polo creaking under my teeth like mint ceramic is encouragement and strength. It’s also familiar.
Food is a comfort to me when it is reliable; when I know what’s coming: apple, egg, donuts for breakfast on Saturday and fried potatoes and eggs on Monday. Today’s dish is not really a recipe; it’s more of a way with a pound of potatoes and four eggs, and one of my favorite things to eat with anyone, but especially just the three of us at this time of year.
I must end by noting that I debated quite seriously with my partner Vincenzo for 11 years about cooking potatoes, before admitting that his method – uncovered, covered then uncovered – is the best, giving our comfort sharp edges.
Fried potatoes and eggs
Preperation 10 minutes
to cook 30 minutes
1.2 kg of potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes of about 1 cm (no need to be too precise)
Leaves of 1 rosemary stalk
4 large eggs
Pour a little olive oil in a pan – seven tablespoons as a guide – then pour the potatoes with a good pinch of salt, and put on medium heat.
Cook for about three minutes, stirring the cubes until coated with oil, then reduce heat to low and cover with a lid. Let the potatoes cook gently, shaking the pan several times, for 15 minutes, during which time they will steam, braise and almost cook.
Uncover, add the rosemary and increase the heat. As the potatoes are almost done, this step is all about the crisp, so fry them for 10 minutes, stirring often to brown all sides.
Push the potatoes aside to create four small hollows, break the eggs into the hollows and fry until cooked through. Use immediately.