These recipes from Ella Risbridger’s new cookbook, Midnight Chicken, are a balm to all of life’s problems…
As the old adage goes, cooking is good for the soul.
There is certainly something meditative in sourcing the ingredients for a recipe, following the instructions (although not necessarily to the letter) and then presenting yourself, and possibly your loved ones, with a nourishing home-cooked meal.
And in January, which is quite possibly the darkest, coldest, bleakest month of them all, what could be a better remedy for stress than cocooning yourself in a warm kitchen and creating something delicious?
Even science is in agreement about the mind-boosting power of cooking. One study found that people who participate in creative activities such as cooking feel “happier, calmer and more energetic the next day”, while another found that taking part in small creative pursuits everyday could produce feelings of enthusiasm and flourishing - “a mental health term describing happiness and meaning”.
Some mental health clinics have even adopted cooking as a form of behavioral therapy.
If you’re on the hunt for warming, soothing recipes to add to your kitchen repertoire, look no further than the Ella Risbridger’s new cookbook, Midnight Chicken. The book is a gorgeous collection of recipes that speak to the healing power of cooking, having been inspired by the sanity-saving joy of a simple, roasted chicken.
Here, Stylist shares three of our favourite recipes from the book, all guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a flutter to your heart. This is cooking as a balm, and there couldn’t be a more fitting time to give the recipes a try. Enjoy!
Saturday Afternoon Charred Leek Lasagne
Lasagne, I think, is the truest weekend food: the Saturday dinner, the Sunday lunch. You can make it in a rush on a weeknight, but it’s not nearly as good, and scrambling to get it ready takes all the fun out of it.
You want half a day to devote to it really. Say Saturday afternoon some time in autumn, or maybe spring, and the kitchen to yourself, with some music on, and a glass of wine in your hand all the time you’re cooking – a leisurely half-day of stirring and grating, assembling and baking, and dipping a lazy forefinger into the sauce.
Lasagne can be party food, picnic food or leftovers, but most of all it is proper comfort food. Done well, it’s both a joy to eat and a joy to cook. It’s not like a Sunday roast, to which stress can attach itself like a remora; endlessly flexible, this is lazy, lovely, weekend cooking.
This version is vegetarian, which I prefer. Both lighter and more grown-up than its meaty counterpart, it’s also beautiful: the deep umber of sweet squash, green-and-gold slivers of charred leek to temper the sweet with the bitter, punchy green kale for vitamins and to cut the fat a little, all layered with rich, melty, nutmeg-y béchamel (or something like it, anyway) infused with Parmesan rind, peppercorns and a bay leaf.
I make this in my trusty old tin with the measurements written on it: 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 2 inches deep – that’s about 30cm x 20cm x 5cm. Once it’s assembled, the lasagna can be kept in the fridge, covered, until you’re ready to cook it. With a sharp side salad (think chicory, rocket, fennel, lemon) and a little glass of white wine, this is a perfect meal.
Recipe: For 6
- About 300g no-cook lasagna sheets, depending on the dimensions of your dish
- 1 x 125g ball of mozzarella
- 25g Parmesan
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Black pepper
- Salad or garlic bread, to serve
- For the vegetable filling
- 800g squash, such as butternut (but any is fine)
- 1 garlic bulb
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- 50g butter
- Small handful of thyme
- 2 tbsp white wine
- 3 large leeks
- 400g kale
- For the cheese sauce
- 60g Parmesan
- 60g strong Cheddar
- 40g butter
- 40g plain flour
- 600ml milk
- 200ml double cream
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Parmesan rind
Pre-heat your oven to 180°C.
First, make the filling. Peel your butternut squash – a big knife works much better than a standard peeler for this. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds, then chop into dice. Tip the dice into a large roasting tin. Take your garlic bulb, and slice the top off to expose just the very tips of the cloves. Wrap in foil, like a parcel, leaving it
slightly open at the top. Drizzle the tops of the garlic cloves with olive oil, then seal the parcel and tuck in the tin with the squash. (I sometimes do a second bulb of garlic in this way too, because roasted garlic is so useful to have in the fridge during the week.)
Cut half of the butter into tiny cubes and dot among the squash. Grind over some pepper, then strip the thyme leaves from their stalks and scatter them in, then pour over the white wine. Put in the oven to roast for 40 minutes or until the squash is good and caramel-y.
Meanwhile, turn your attention to the leeks. Split them lengthways and rinse thoroughly under the tap (leeks are great at hiding grit and mud). Chop roughly, then muddle with your hands to separate the leeks into their constituent layers. In a large frying pan over a medium-low heat, melt the remaining 25g butter and allow it to brown slightly. Give the leeks a last shake dry, and tip them in. Stir to coat in the brown butter, then leave them to lightly char (maybe 20 minutes), giving them a stir every so often – this adds a lovely rich bitterness to balance the sweetness of the squash.
Rinse the kale, and chop roughly with scissors. That’s all you’re going to do to the kale. Leave it be.
When your squash has been in the oven for about 20 minutes, check on it: it should be happily doing its thing: if it looks like it’s burning, spoon over some of the juices from the bottom of the tin and loosely cover with foil, before returning it to the oven for the remaining 20 minutes.
Next up, the cheese sauce. Grate both the cheeses – you can mix them together; it’s fine.
(Give your leeks a stir.)
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, and when it’s foaming, add the flour, stirring to form a golden-coloured paste (breathe in – it smells amazing). Cook your roux for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from the heat.
(Stir your leeks again – they should be softened and starting to catch by now.)
Gently and slowly introduce the milk to your roux, stirring the whole time. You want to pour with one hand, and stir with the other, to avoid lumps. Keep pouring. Keep stirring – you can get any lumps out by stirring. When your sauce is smooth, stir in the cream. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, Parmesan rind and a good grating of nutmeg. Bring up to a simmer, stirring constantly, then cook for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and fish out the peppercorns, bay leaf and Parmesan rind. Add the grated cheese, stirring until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth.
Taste – you might want salt.
Check your squash, which should be very soft with caramelized edges by now; your garlic too should be soft, like butter left out on a warm day. Remove, but leave the oven on.
Squeeze the soft garlic into your cheese sauce and stir well to fully incorporate. Decant the squash into a bowl and take the leeks off the heat.
Dig out a tin or baking dish about 30cm x 20cm, and 5cm deep: it’s time to assemble your lasagne. Squash in first, a thin layer; next, a handful of kale, then lasagne sheets in a single layer, followed by cheese sauce, then leeks and more kale. Another layer of squash, lasagne sheets, cheese sauce, leeks and kale; then a final of squash and lasagne sheets, followed by the end of the cheese sauce, spreading it right to the corners of the tin.
Tear the mozzarella and scatter over the top, then grate over the last 25g of Parmesan, some nutmeg and a twist of black pepper.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the pasta is soft and the cheese is golden-brown and bubbling.
Serve with a sharp side salad (or garlic bread) and cold white wine.
Trashy Ginger Beer Chicken
The heart wants what the heart wants, and sometimes what my heart wants is this: sticky, trashy, salty-sweet chicken drumsticks, eaten with the hands, covering everything they touch with their gloriously unpretentious sauce. This is miracle chicken, and it tastes as if you couldn’t possibly have made it from scratch: it tastes like you got it from some food truck, or some old man barbecuing on an American street corner, or somewhere else dirty and delicious and real.
This is for all the people who find themselves drawn to dubiously cheap burgers, and late-night kebab shops; those who dive into the kind of curry house where everything is the deep red of batch-cooked tomato, and the kind of Chinese restaurant where everything is smattered with day-glo orange. This is proper grubby food, only made with ingredients that (whisper it) aren’t really terribly bad for you. This tastes like it ought to be a guilty pleasure, if I believed in those (I don’t); it tastes like an absolute scandal.
Serve this with a very crisp green salad dressed, if at all, with just bright lemon and flaky sea salt. Maybe a bit of bread to dredge the plates. Nothing else, except hundreds of napkins. Paper napkins. Paper plates. Don’t try and gussy this up. This is what it is: the kind of chicken that makes you want to lick the plate.
Recipe: For 4
- 60ml ginger beer
- 30ml light soy sauce
- 2 tsp chilli flakes
- 1/2 tbsp miso paste
- 100g fresh ginger
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1kg chicken thighs or drumsticks (drumsticks are easier to eat, thighs have better flavour)
- 1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
- Flaky sea salt (optional)
In your biggest bowl, whisk together the ginger beer, soy sauce, chilli flakes and miso paste. Peel the ginger (rubbing it vigorously with the back of a teaspoon should do it) and grate it finely, straight into the bowl; do the same with the garlic (don’t rub it with the back of the spoon, though). The gnarly end bits from the grating can go in too. Stir everything together.
Chuck the chicken into the bowl, and stir well, turning the chicken over and over in the marinade to make sure it’s properly coated. Cover and leave in the fridge for about an hour, maybe a couple if you can. I do this mostly as a weeknight dinner and usually only have an hour, or even half an hour, to let it marinate: that’s okay, too.
About an hour before you want to eat, pre-heat your oven to 200°C.
Pack the marinated chicken into a roasting tin, skin side down, and pour over a tablespoon of the marinade – I like to get plenty of the grated ginger and garlic in there as well.
Put the chicken in the oven and cook it for about 45 minutes in total. After 10 minutes, pour over another tablespoon of the marinade. After another 10 minutes, do the same, turning the chicken over, so it’s skin side up. Tongs are useful here. Sprinkle over a tablespoon of sesame seeds, if liked (my favourite cookery book directive), and perhaps a few flakes of sea salt. Be careful, though, because of the saltiness of the soy sauce and the miso. Cook the chicken for a final 25 minutes. Don’t be tempted to baste the chicken with any more marinade after this, as it has been in contact with raw chicken and so needs at least 20 minutes in a hot oven.
Either use a meat thermometer to check if the chicken is cooked (which is what I always do, because I’m an anxious person) or pierce the thickest bit with a skewer – if the juices that bubble up are clear (not pink), you’re good to go.
(Not Quite) Chao Xa Ga
I should make clear at once that this probably has very little to do with authentic chao xa ga, a kind of Vietnamese lemongrass rice porridge (this sounds terrible in English, which is why it isn’t the title of this recipe), but it does share most of the same flavours, and some of the same techniques.
Of course, it is really a kind of hearty chicken soup, and an actual doctor once told me that chicken soup has real benefits. That’s why I make this: infinitely adaptable and infinitely delicious, it seethes and bubbles and fills the house with soft steam. It’s more than the sum of its parts, it’s absurdly comforting and clean-tasting, and you feel better and more lively for having eaten it.
Recipe: For 2
- 1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
- 200ml chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock pot/cube dissolved in 200ml boiling water)
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp grated ginger (about 6cm)
- 1 tbsp grated garlic (about 4 cloves)
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp white pepper
- 2 lemongrass stalks (fresh is better, dried is fine)
- 2 limes
- 200g kale
- Bunch of coriander
- Bunch of spring onions
- 2 red bird’s eye chillies
- 200g jasmine rice
- 200g cooked and peeled prawns
Combine your coconut milk, chicken stock and fish sauce in a saucepan, and stir to dissolve any lumps. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar and pepper. Stir again. If using fresh lemongrass, chop it into the pan with scissors; if using dried, add the stalks whole. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer over the lowest possible heat while you zest and juice your limes. Reserve a pinch of lime zest, then add the rest to the broth, along with the juice. Inhale deeply. Feel better.
Tip the kale and coriander into a colander, and rinse them vigorously (both are horribly good at hiding grit). Use scissors to chop them as finely as you can manage, then set to one side.
Rinse and slice the spring onions, then add most to the broth, reserving a few green shreds for garnish. Rinse, slice and de-seed the chillies, and do the same.
This should all take about 10 minutes, and by this time the house will smell beautiful and bright and green. Rinse the rice, then tip it directly into the broth. Cover the pan and cook for 18 minutes, stirring a couple of times to break up any clumps of rice.
Taste: the rice should be soft and sticky, with broth bubbling all around and over it. Stir through the kale and coriander and cook for 2 minutes more. Finally, add the prawns and cook for another 2 minutes.
Decant into bowls: a mound of tender rice, studded with pink prawns and flecks of vivid green, with a moat of richly scented broth. Scatter with the reserved lime zest, loops of red chilli and hoops of green onion. Serve straight away.
And if your cooking goes wrong…
Things go wrong. They do – things go wrong for every cook, no matter how talented or dedicated, or how expensive their ingredients. When this happens to you, as it undoubtedly will, do not panic. Things can almost always be saved… You’re not alone, and this is not ruined, and the evening can be saved.
Can you salvage it with some more fat, like butter, cream, olive oil, grated Parmesan? Can you salvage it with some more flavour, like lime juice, lemon juice, chilli? Salt and pepper – you would be amazed at how much difference these can make to a bland sort of dinner.
Another tin of tomatoes, or a couple of chopped potatoes, will help to absorb excess salt.
An egg yolk, whisked with a tablespoon of whatever sauce/stock you were using as a base, and then whisked slowly into the rest of it, will generally save a split sauce.
Chuck it in the bin. Nobody you like enough to have to your house will judge you a whisker: these things happen…
You can always go out to a café with your coat over your nightie, like at the end of The Tiger Who Came to Tea (one of the finest books about eating that’s ever been written). Or you can order a takeaway. Nobody will care. You’ll laugh a lot, and drink another bottle of wine, and it’ll all be okay.
Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger (Bloomsbury, £22) is out now
Food photography by Liz & Max Hararla Hamilton
Portrait photography by Gavin Day
Watercolour by Elisa Cunnigham
Other images: Unsplash
The evidence of stress in our lives is everywhere, from bad sleep to increased anxiety. So in January 2019, stylist.co.uk is dedicated to creating a life less frazzled. We’ll be focusing on uplifting news, feelgood features and recommendations for fun things to do, with the goal of making you feel calmer and more positive about the coming year.