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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Comfort food: five dishes in the UAE to try this winter

We round up the best dishes to warm you up from the inside out this season

Free-range chicken and artichoke paella from El Sur. Courtesy El Sur
Free-range chicken and artichoke paella from El Sur. Courtesy El Sur

Hearty stews and meat accompanied by rib-­sticking jus, curries that warm from the inside out, mashed potatoes glistening with ­butter, ­pastry-topped pies (both sweet and savoury) and proper puddings that demand to be drenched in custard. With the winter months in the UAE comes the opportunity to indulge in some proper cool weather eating.

Now, veg-and-grain packed salads, bone broths and raw desserts are all well and good – and innovative cooking techniques and culinary experimentation certainly has its place – but when you’re having a bad day, are in need to a pick-me-up or are simply feeling chilly, it’s soothing sustenance in the form of winter warmers made with everyday ingredients that do the job time and time again.

This is true even for the professionals. “My childhood memories are synonymous with home cooked food,” says Juan Carlos Gonzalez, the head chef at El Sur, the modern Spanish restaurant at the Westin Mina Seyahi in Dubai. “In Spain, during the winter months, our mothers prepare huge pans filled with delicious, hot paella for the whole family to share, so for me comfort food and paella are one and the same.”

If paella is a meal that brings Spanish families together, then the British equivalent is surely the Sunday roast. Tom Aikens, the much-decorated British chef known for his contemporary cooking and artful presentation agrees. “It’s one of the most simple pleasures in life. A roast is a great sharing dish that everyone really loves – it’s comforting having something so simple to taste,” he says. If polls of the nation’s favourite dish are anything to go by, many Brits feel the same, yet thanks to all the different elements involved, preparing a roast from scratch can be a daunting task.

To really master the meal, Aikens, whose Dubai restaurant Pots, Pans & Boards offers a weekly Best of British roast suggets brining your chosen joint of meat in water and aromatics to impart flavour and ensures that the end result is moist and tender, while removing the meat from the fridge an hour or so before it needs to go in the oven helps it to roast evenly.

The raclette toi from Publique. Courtesy Publique
The raclette toi from Publique. Courtesy Publique

Potatoes cooked in duck fat or beef dripping turn out wonderfully crunchy and golden on the outside and fluffy in the centre, and carrots roasted with butter, thyme and honey will up your side dish game to no end, as will fine beans tossed with shallots and garlic. Don’t bypass on the condiments either; offer different types of mustard, horseradish cream or crème fraîche with roast beef, bread sauce with chicken and a homemade mint sauce with a leg or shoulder of lamb.

Of course it’s not just savoury dishes that soothe and sustain – puddings have that power too. This is no time for a light sorbet or fruit salad; comfort food puds should be gooey and sweet, a little bit stodgy, rich without being sickly and pleasingly familiar. As a rule of thumb, Aikens advises utilising seasonal ingredients where possible, and serving warm desserts when the weather is cool and vice versa. His winter favourites include classic British dishes such as sticky toffee pudding, steamed jam roly- poly and apple pie with custard.

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Peter Green, the head of food development for Jones the Grocer in the UAE, is of a similar mindset: “An absolute favourite dessert of mine is a freshly cooked apple crumble, with the warming flavours of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. When baked together with the apple, these spices evoke a warm wintry feeling along with many happy memories,” he says. “Second to that, anything with indulgent chocolate will never go amiss.”

It might be straying into the realm of cliché to say that chocolate is a problem solver in edible form, but let’s face it, sometimes it really does help. Should you wish to test that theory, the recipe for Jones the Grocer’s warm chocolate brownie comes highly recommended from Green, and tastes like a hug in pudding form, albeit with a generous swirl of sauce on top.

If you’d prefer to let someone else do the cooking and are keen to really embrace that winter feeling, pull on your wooliest jumper and head to North 28 in Mall of the Emirates to take in the views of the snowcapped slopes of Ski Dubai. While you’re there, sip on their signature hot chocolate and order yourself a Fireside Toastie. Something of a cross between a gourmet s’more and a sweet take on the traditional toasted sandwich, this treat is made with cracker biscuits, marshmallows and caramel and chocolate sauce, all finished off with a dusting of caramel popcorn. Let’s just say it should be enough to banish the winter blues and give you a bit of a (sugar-induced) glow.

Five comfort food dishes to try

1. Raclette toi at Publique, Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Imagine a wheel of cheese heated until it is melting, molten and dripping, and then placed in the middle of the table for sharing in the most convivial fashion. Add piping hot carbs in the form of potatoes, a pile of charcuterie and a specially designed utensil for scraping pools of said cheese onto your plate. If you’re not familiar with raclette, the French alpine speciality originally enjoyed by mountain shepherds, that’s pretty much the gist of it. The dish is often served with extra bread to really put paid to hunger pangs, as well as cornichons and salad to cut through all that richness. At Publique in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, you can enjoy raclette in a wintry ski-lodge setting complete with log fire flickering in the background.

2. French Toast at La Petite Maison, The Galleria, Al Maryah Island

Call it French toast, pain perdu or eggy bread, this is pure, unadulterated comfort food. The ingredients are thrifty and reassuringly recognisable; the dish was invented to use up bread that had gone past its best, and at its most basic, the recipe calls for just a stale loaf, milk and eggs. What a combination that makes though: soft, yielding milk-and-egg soaked bread that’s fried in butter (sometimes with sugar, too), until crisp and golden on the outside.

Granted when you think of La Petite Maison, it’s the pretty-looking Niçoise dishes executed with a deft touch that come to mind rather than hearty tummy fillers, but their French toast is one of the best in the UAE. Head chef Rory Duncan’s take on the dessert is clever in that he manages to elevate it (hello, brioche bathed in cream, milk and vanilla) while still staying true to its traditional roots.

3. Paella at El Sur, The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi

Soothing, easy to eat, full of Spanish flavours and best enjoyed surrounded by friends and family – we could of course only be talking about paella. Even if you don’t hail from Spain, when there’s a seemingly bottomless pile of saffron-hued rice studded with slivers of squid, perhaps a few mussels, chunks of poultry and majestic-looking prawns in front of you, all suddenly seems right with the world. Whether you sample it at home or in a restaurant, this is a celebratory meal made for communal eating.

El Sur’s version of the classic Valencian rice dish is pure comfort in a pan and combines perfectly cooked rice with slightly smoky succulent chicken (paella is traditionally cooked over an open fire) and tender vegetables. Go hungry and savour the much sought-after socarrat – the caramelised crust or layer of crunchy browned rice that forms on the bottom of the pan and is the sign of a proper paella.

Black truffle poutine. Courtesy Butcher & Still
Black truffle poutine. Courtesy Butcher & Still

4. Poutine at Butcher&Still, Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi

Not that we’re inclined to generalise, but ask almost any Canadian to name the dish they turn to when in need of a comfort food fix, and poutine is likely to be the answer. It is hardly surprising why; the combination of chips, gravy and squeaky cheese curds is homely, filling and downright satisfying.

Recently, it is having a culinary moment, and the dish, once regarded as a late night snack, is being reinvented with all manner of ingredients and add-ons. It is enough to make purists shudder, but if you’re happy to swerve tradition, the poutine at Butcher & Still is memorable, thanks to the thick potato wedges topped with melted white cheddar cheese, crispy crumbled veal bacon, rosemary-infused gravy and truffle.

5. Hot chocolate at North 28, Mall of the Emirates

Even if you’re a confirmed ginger tea drinker, a single origin Columbian coffee bean connoisseur, or a devotee of freshly blended green juice, there are times in life when only a hot chocolate will do. Perhaps it’s the connection with childhood – with snowy days, teatime treats and midnight feasts, but there’s something about smooth, velvety chocolate in shimmering liquid form that just feels special.

The decadent Snowman Muffin hot chocolate at North 28 at Mall of the Emirates is well-worth the considerable calories. The drink is made with top-quality Valrhona chocolate, chocolate milk, whipped cream and edible snowdrops, and is served with a snowman-topped muffin on the side. What more could you ask for?

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