Courtesy of Anissa Helou
We asked food experts from various lands to tell their comfort food tales, then created lighter—but still deeply comforting—recipes inspired by their stories.
When London-based chef, cookbook author, and cooking instructor Anissa Helou talks expansively about comfort food, it comes as no surprise that she's been a Sotheby's rep, antiques shop owner, and art consultant to the Kuwaiti ruling family. Food has to be appealing, of course, and have a generous look, but that doesn't mean it should lack refinement. Lebanese-born Helou likes Middle Eastern cuisine for this balance. "It can be very refined in the way that it's prepared, but it's not very aesthetic, like Japanese food or French," she explains.
Helou's recollections of childhood are tinged with images, sounds, and smells of Lebanese street vendors and the galettes, shawarma, and falafel they sold. Family is another important element. She remembers the women of her family gathered in the kitchen stuffing vegetables like zucchini or peppers for their meals.
There are meat-stuffed veggies and meatless versions, but Helou prefers the soft texture of vegetables stuffed with meat and rice. Because they simmer in flavorful broth until the grains and meats are fully tender, the entire dish takes on a soft, soothing, and supple texture. The Lebanese often use ground lamb, but our version calls for ground beef, and the grains are precooked to ensure there are no crunchy bits in the flavorful meat mixture.