the Menu: Taking Comfort

As the days get shorter and colder, it’s always nice to snuggle up with delicious, homey comfort food and a glass of wine or hot chocolate.

A long day of back-to-back meetings at work. Incessant calls from an annoying telemarketer (seriously, how many ways can I say that “I don’t need your duct cleaning services!”). Piles of laundry, beckoning. These days, it’s always go, go, go, with little room for a break. But when I need a break from my endless to-do list, I turn to a good meal and all is well again with the world, even if it’s just for a few moments.

“Food is the most primitive form of comfort.” — Sheilah Graham

When something is familiar, it feels reliable, comforting. I know that when I eat, I feel better. Perfectly soft-boiled, runny eggs with toast. A plate of fresh, crispy potato paranthas (Punjabi stuffed flatbread) with a dollop of butter and a bowl of silky plain yogurt. Savoury aloo tikkis (Punjabi potato cakes), topped with shaved red cabbage and coriander leaves, dripping with tamarind chutney. Piles of french fries, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, great on their own or with a side of good ol’ ketchup. Golden-brown gulab jamans, covered in coconut flakes and swimming in a simple syrup. A cup of frothy, fragrant cardamom chai.

Wikipedia describes “comfort food” as food prepared traditionally and often holding sentimental or nostalgic appeal and having positive mood-altering effects. Good, indulgent comfort food means home to me. Each meal feels like a warm embrace of my parents, two foodies from whom I learned to tease my tastebuds on a daily basis.

When it’s cold outside, as the season changes from cold to colder, I turn to my favourite comfort foods to bring back warmth to the soul. It’s also the time of year when you find your calendar filled with invitations to celebrate the holidays with family, friends and colleagues.

One of my favourite food memories is of my mom’s lasagna dinners. They were a regular event in our house. As my siblings and I got older, daily family dinners became rare. But, we tried at least once a week to break bread together and that was usually Friday nights and lasagna was often on the menu — our go-to “English” dish for when we wanted a break from traditional Punjabi fare.

My mom made the best lasagna and the days dragged when I knew there would be lasagna waiting at home for dinner; hours separated me from digging into a cheesy, saucy wonderland of noodles and rich bolognese sauce. On the side there would be big helpings of Caesar salad and crispy garlic bread to sop up leftover sauce. (Also on the dinner table, an array of Punjabi pickles, chutneys and green chillies on hand for my parents — they added chillies to everything). My sister, brother and I would also fight over the corner pieces in the casserole dish as they were the crunchiest, having crisped up from the cheesy breadcrumb topping. It was perfect.

This recipe is adapted from my mom’s improvised lasagna dinners. Since she never followed a recipe, each dish was different yet the taste was always deliciously familiar. I could feel her warmth in each bite.

What’s so great about making lasagna is that it’s so versatile. It’s basically four simple components — noodles, cheese, filling and topping — but those four components can really be any ingredients you desire. While lasagna is traditionally an Italian or Greek dish — you can infuse any mix of flavours in between those noodles. This recipe incorporates some classic Punjabi spices of garam masala and ground coriander powder. You can make this dish ahead of time, which makes it great for entertaining.

9 lasagna noodles, par-boiled
1 lb ground, lean beef
1 8 oz package of brown mushrooms, sliced
1 medium white onion, sliced
1 medium red onion, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced
10 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
3 tbsp of tomato paste
3 cups of prepared tomato sauce
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried ground coriander powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 to 3 cups of shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cups of grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cups of Italian breadcrumbs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

On medium heat, add a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. Add the cumin seeds and stir rapidly (don’t let the seeds burn). Once fragrant, add the beef and keep stirring in the oil, breaking down the meat with your wooden spoon.

Once browned, add the tomato paste and stir everything together. Add the onions and garlic, sprinkle in a pinch of salt and pepper and cook for three to four minutes. The onions will start to soften. Then add the zucchini, green pepper, spices, another pinch of salt and pepper and mix together. Keep everything moving around and don’t let anything burn. If the mixture feels like it’s sticking to the bottom of the pot, add a little bit of olive oil. Cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the mushrooms and cook for about 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 C degrees. Cook pasta noodles until they’re almost cooked. You want the noodles undercooked as they will finish cooking in the oven. Drain (do not rinse!), drizzle lightly with olive oil and set aside laying the noodles flat on a cookie sheet.

Add the tomato sauce to the meat, stir the mix together and reduce the heat to low so the sauce cooks gently, for about seven to ten minutes. Then turn off the heat and set aside. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Now you can assemble your lasagna. In a non-stick casserole dish, lightly grease the pan with cooking spray or olive oil. Add a thin layer of sauce to the bottom of the pan, and then a layer of noodles, side by side, slightly overlapping. Ladle a layer of meat sauce. Top with a layer of cheddar cheese. Repeat this two more times so you have 3 layers.

Top the dish with the breadcrumbs and cheeses. Place in the oven on the middle rack and cook for 25 minutes. Then place the dish on the top rack of the oven and set the oven to broil on high. Broil the top of the lasagna (watching it very carefully) until the cheese browns nicely.