For all the common cold is a miserable ordeal – and it really is, she says in a pathetic rasp from deep within Tissue Mountain – you have to admit it does have some redeeming features.
For one thing, the right to cancel all plans, have a very hot bath and go to bed at 8pm. For another, the excuse to go to Boots and do a lurgy haul, throwing £20 at posh tissues and three different flavours of Strepsils.
And then there’s the food. Mmm, ill food. Call me perverse but when the first cold of the winter hits, there’s a small part of me that feels secretly excited – namely, my stomach. In a similar way to PMS or an extravagant hangover, a winter cold is a chance to suspend normal service, crawl beneath a duvet and lavish yourself with whatever weird sustenance your body demands.
But unlike PMS or hangovers, which are most likely to lead me headfirst into the nearest bag of chewy cookies, a cold leaves you craving simple nourishment along with the calories. You want comfort and convenience, but also the vague suggestion of vitamins. It’s nostalgic, back-to-basics food, food you dimly recall having something to do with “giving you your strength”. And everyone’s personal prescription is different.
For my mum, it’s always soft-boiled eggs and Marmite soldiers. My boyfriend’s is a chicken jalfrezi ready meal and a packet of chocolate Hobnobs. Samantha’s in Sex And The City, you may remember, was Fanta and cough syrup blended up with ice. The beloved books of my childhood always had sick children being given bowls of "hot bread and milk", a dish I might have thought I’d imagined or misread were it not for Nigella (who else?) and her blissful version.
My own list of perfect ill food is greedy and extensive. Baked beans on toast, under a blanket of cheese. Fish in butter sauce
My own list of perfect ill food is greedy and extensive. Baked beans on toast, under a blanket of cheese. Fish in butter sauce (the microwave kind), with mash and perilous quantities of mustard. Hot orange squash the way my parents used to make it, with lemon juice, honey and ginger. These days I also add whisky. There should be throat sweets – Halls Soothers Peach and Raspberry are the best; whether or not you have a sore throat is irrelevant. There ought to be satsumas, to chain-eat while wiping sticky fingers on your dressing gown. And there absolutely has to be soup.
Personally my definitive ill soup is Heinz Cream of Tomato. It’s preserved forever in my memory as the soup of school sick days: eaten with Jacob’s Cream Crackers, in front of Going For Gold. But of course, the official title of ‘get-better soup’ belongs to chicken. As a kid I was puzzled by the way people on American TV shows would rhapsodise about the curative power of chicken soup – something I only knew as the wobbly greyish tower of Campbell’s Condensed, which held its form even after you’d dolloped it out of the can. But real “Jewish penicillin” (as it’s nicknamed), whether clear broth with matzah balls and noodles or the creamier kind with celery, leeks, carrots and barley, is definitely worth the hours of patient simmering. Though if you have someone to do it for you, all the better.
Then there are southeast Asia’s many incredible slants on punchy, restorative broth. Thai hot and sour tom yum, fragrant, coconutty Malaysian laksa, umami-rich Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen with beads of pork fat shimmering on the surface... delicious any time, but with a head full of cold they take on near-magical healing powers. Soups like that demand to be slurped until your eyes stream, until your sinuses whistle clear, until your cheeks are flushed and shiny from the chilli-lemongrass facial sauna. If you can drag yourself from your sickbed, there are few better ways to self-medicate than to go to a ramen bar, tie on a bib and steam yourself back to life again.
But if that’s beyond the realms of possibility or Deliveroo, you can always improvise. A chicken stock cube, ginger, chilli flakes, garlic, a packet of instant noodles and an egg make a lunch fit for a mucus-addled queen. There’s science in it somewhere – ginger is an anti-inflammatory, garlic is antibacterial, chilli shifts congestion – but really the power lies in that temporary relief from your woolly, underwater bubble of a head. For as long as you’re spooning in each mouthful, you are both devoted nurse and grateful patient.
In a few days you’ll be better and there’ll be time for salad again then. But for now, that bowl of soup; that fishfinger sandwich; that tinned jam sponge with custard on a lap tray – they are the very best medicine in the world*.
*Except actual medicine.
OODLES OF NOODLES BY LEON HAPPY SOUPS
- 1 chicken, approx 1.5kg
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 leeks, outer leaves and green top discarded, roughly chopped
- 1 stick of celery, roughly chopped
- An onion, roughly chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, whole but bashed with the flat of a knife
- 10 black peppercorns
- 225g spaghetti, tagliatelle or linguine, broken into short lengths, or other short pasta
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
PREP TIME: 10 MINS, COOK TIME: 1 HOUR 10 MINS
- Place a pan with a lid, one big enough to hold the chicken and all the vegetables, over a medium heat. Place the whole chicken in the pan, then tuck half the carrot and leek, the celery, onion and garlic around it. Pour over enough boiling water to cover the chicken, then add the peppercorns and a good pinch of salt. Bring back to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cover.
- Poach the chicken for about an hour. (If any part of the chicken is poking out of the liquid, turn it over, using tongs, halfway through cooking.) Remove from the heat and let the chicken cool in the broth. When cool enough to handle, lift the chicken out of the broth, let it drain and then place on a board. Pull the meat from the bones and discard the skin and bones. Shred the meat into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
- Skim off any scum which has formed on the broth, and any fat which has collected on the surface, then strain the broth into a bowl, discarding all the now-mushy vegetables. Pour the broth back into the pan and add the chicken. Taste for seasoning – you will probably want to add another generous pinch of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
- Return the pan to the heat, bring to a simmer and add the broken spaghetti.
- Cook for seven minutes, or until al dente, adding the new carrot and leek halfway through. Serve straight away.
TIP: Throw in a handful of frozen sweetcorn for the last 5 minutes of cooking, or some chopped mushrooms which have been sautéd gently in butter. For a gluten-free version, try rice noodles.
Recipe taken from Leon Happy Soups by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent. Buy the book here.