Simply food


During times of stress, we need comfort food more than ever. I’ve re-discovered delicious duchess potatoes–mashed potatoes, butter, garlic, cheese. How good could that be?

Petites pommes de terre duchesse

One of the things we crave during extended periods of isolation—don’t mention the p-word—is comforting things and the easiest of these to get is comfort food. The trick is not to allow your craving to turn into the habit of over-eating. With far too many people being overweight, some of them morbidly obese, it seems silly to recommend eating foods that are high in all things bad for you—sugar, starches, fats, dairy—but that’s what makes them taste so good. Sorry.

For some of us, comfort foods are things we remember from childhood or a particular good time. Or something we ate at a moment that gave great contentment. For others, the memory is irrelevant: it’s all about the taste, flavour or smell. A bowl of chicken soup, thick with noodles, or a hearty tomato bisque or creamy seafood chowder, can equally be comfort food for some.

A North American survey* showed the top choices to be chips (which the Brits call crisps), ice cream, cookies (biscuits), pizza, pasta and hamburgers. Women mostly picked ice cream, chocolate and cookies, but men chose soup, pizza and pasta. Women also chose comfort food as an antidote to unhappiness or loneliness, whereas men chose it as a reward.

Foods high in sugar, fat or salt also tend to elevate one’s mood by stimulating the brain’s reward system. In the same manner, cooked turkey releases tryptophan, which helps to promote better sleep and relief from anxiety and depression.

Professor Wansink’s analysis by age shows that “people from 18-34 prefer ice cream (77%) and cookies (70%), while those from 35-54 prefer soup (68%) and pasta (67%) and those over 55 prefer soup (76%) and mashed potatoes (74%).”

I don’t need to spell out for faithful readers my own list of comfort foods. They only have to read my latest eBook — Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook subtitled “Comfort Food” — to know my preferences. Mashed potatoes, pasta and crusty pies, all served with succulent sauces or flavourful gravies, top my list. I even make salads into comfort food by mixing in a creamy Caesar dressing and topping with lashings of grated Parmesan, not the best diet choice, but at least I’m getting my greens.

Thinking of mashed potatoes brings me to duchess potatoes, or pommes de terre duchesse, long a staple of classic French cuisine, where à la duchesse also describes anything made with duchess potatoes, such as poached eggs duchess, or œufs pochés à la duchesse, another favourite, which I make below, with the addition of spinach to make it florentine. In German cooking Herzoginkartoffel are very similar, but the potato shapes are deep fried rather than baked, equally delicious.


Shopping list

  • 2 1/2 lb yellow potatoes (Yukon gold), peeled and quartered
  • 6 TBSP butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 3 – 4 TBSP 35% whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • 4 egg yolks
  • Salt and pepper


  • Fresh parsley, washed and chopped, stalks removed

Preparation and cooking

  1. Add potatoes to a large pot, cover with cold water and season with 1 TBSP salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer until very tender, about 15 – 20 mins. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.
  2. Melt 4 TBSP butter in a small pan, over medium heat, then add garlic and sauté until softened, no more than about 1 – 2 mins. Set aside.
  3. Mash potatoes, add grated Parmesan, garlic butter and half the cream and mix in well. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
  4. Let mixture cool a few minutes then quickly stir in egg yolks one at a time with a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the cream if the mixture is too thick.
  5. Preheat oven to 220°C/430°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  6. Transfer mixture to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe into 12 mounds spaced evenly apart, about 2 1/2-ins wide by 2 1/2-ins tall. Gently brush with remaining 2 TBSP butter, melted.
  7. Bake in preheated oven until golden brown, about 16 – 19 mins. Serve immediately garnished with parsley.


Shopping list

  • 3 cups mashed potatoes
  • Canola (rapeseed) oil or duck fat for deep frying
  • Salt

Preparation and cooking

  1. Transfer the mashed potato mixture to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe into 12 mounds spaced evenly apart on a rack, about 2 1/2-ins wide by 2 1/2-ins tall OR spread the mashed potato mix over a lightly floured board, about 1 in/2.5 cm thick, and cut into 2 ½ in/6.5 cm squares.
  2. In a deep fryer, filled with canola oil (rapeseed oil) or even better, duck fat, lower the portions, two or three at a time, depending on the size of your fryer basket, into the fat. Fry until golden brown and drain thoroughly on kitchen paper.
  3. Season generously with salt and plate with your favourite protein.


Shopping list

  • 8 large fresh eggs
  • 3 cups mashed potatoes
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • 3/4 cup béchamel sauce (see below)
  • 1 pkt 5 oz / 142 g baby spinach, organic


  • 2 TBSP chopped parsley

Preparation and cooking

  1. Transfer the mashed potato mixture to a lightly floured board, spread about 1/2 in/ 1.25 cm thick, and cut out 8 circles, using a 2 ¾ in / 7 cm cookie cutter.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C.
  3. Lift the potato circles onto parchment on a baking sheet and bake until golden, about 20 mins. Don’t overcook.
  4. Meanwhile, make the béchamel sauce: bring a pan of milk to just below boiling; melt butter over medium heat until it begins to foam; add flour and stir for about 3 min until the mixture becomes crumbly; add hot but not boiling milk to the butter and flour mixture and whisk in until all the lumps are gone. Season with nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
  5. Wash the baby spinach leaves and put them in a shallow pan, still damp. Heat until wilted. If necessary, add 2 TBSP water to create more steam. Drain thoroughly and squeeze dry in a sieve, then fluff up with a fork.
  6. Poach up to 8 large eggs in a poacher for 5 mins (allow 2 eggs per person). Drain and set aside on a plate.
  7. Remove the baking sheet with the potatoes from the oven, divide the spinach up among the potato rounds, set a poached egg on each, coat with a generous dollop of sauce and return to the oven for 5 mins, until the sauce begins to turn brown.
  8. Plate and garnish with chopped parsley.


This is one of the Mother sauces of French cooking, named for Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel, a wealthy tax collector. The actual creator of the creamy white sauce was the cook of another aristocrat, who named it after his patron to flatter him, or perhaps escape his taxes!

Shopping list

  • 2 cups / 500 ml whole milk OR 1 cup / 225 ml whole milk and 1 cup whipping (35%) cream
  • ¼ onion, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 blade mace OR ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 TBSP butter, unsalted
  • 3 TBSP white flour, fine
  • Salt
  • White pepper, ground

Preparation and cooking

  1. Gently heat the milk (or milk and cream mixture for a richer sauce) with a bay leaf and a thick slice of onion, plus a blade of mace (or a pinch of nutmeg). Just before it boils, set aside, covered, for at least 30 mins for the flavours to infuse.
  2. Make a roux with the butter and flour in the ratio 1:2. Cook for 2-3 mins until the mixture is bubbling.
  3. Reheat the milk if necessary, then strain into a jug. Discard the flavourings. Slowly pour the warm milk into the roux, whisking briskly to ensure smoothness, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, ground white pepper and another pinch of nutmeg. Simmer for a further 5 mins and use as needed.
  4. The balance of the sauce can be kept in the fridge, tightly covered, for 3 days.

* Wansink, Brian and Cynthia Sangerman (2000), “Engineering Comfort Foods,” American Demographics

Featured image: Garlic Parmesan Duchess Potatoes

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This is Nigel’s 300th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99 and available on AmazonApple Books, Barnes & NobleGoogleKobo and Scribd.

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