Winter. That time of darkness, cold, rain and gales, snow and hail, ice and shivers (depending where you live, of course!). For many of us, especially the food lovers, comfort food is firmly on the menu, and means something different to all of us. The temptation, of course, is to go for foods that are stodgy and rib-sticking, creamy and unctuous, or sugary and sweet. Mashed potatoes, steamed puddings, pies, and creamy supremes, all of these look awfully attractive on a chilly day! 

The danger of too many of these indulgences is leaving the winter with much more physical baggage than we had at the start, and feeling that spring needs to be a season of dieting to get ready for summer. As anyone who follows me knows, my standpoint is always one of eating properly all year round, and so never needing to ‘diet’. Diets don’t work – let’s be clear on that. So, how do we fight the urge to drown in a bowl of buttery mash while the hail lashes down outside? We have that mash, very occasionally, but find and learn to love more healthy dishes that tick the comfort boxes while delivering maximum flavour and minimum extra calories.

Far Eastern food does that in spades, at least for me. The spice, heat, and depth of flavour satisfy my taste buds and warm my cockles, while the options for adapting basic recipes to add fresh and nutritious veg like pak choi, different meats or fish, and prepare ahead to leave portions for when we want them, makes it a lovely, healthy type of cuisine to master. While it can look complex, actually it isn’t, especially when you have a core recipe to adapt. 

Indian food is another option, albeit more calorific potentially if full fat coconut milk, yogurt and cream are used – yes, definitely a fantastically comforting cuisine, rich with spices, and a notch below Far Eastern cuisine for lower calorie comfort. While low fat yogurt and coconut milk are available, fat is important, and so the best thing to do is just to develop a range of dishes, including both Indian and Far Eastern cooking. 

Breakfasts and lunches can include quinoa and nuts/seeds alongside oats in porridge (keep an eye on the recipe hub for quinoa porridge and more protein/health fat-based snack recipes), nourishing soups based on bone broth, and snacks can also incorporate spices to add a warming note – cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are ideal.

Portion control is the other comfort food elephant in the room, and one of the things to watch with all our meals – in general, we eat far too much! Eating more protein and healthy fat, more veg and broths, and less carbs (breads, rice, noodles), we can enjoy delicious, nourishing food without piling on the extra pounds through the winter.

This Pho recipe is not just a delicious base recipe, it can be turned into a creative therapy event by preparing in the traditional way below. Make whatever shortcuts you want to, making it quicker by using ready cooked chicken, organic bone broth or stocks, and quick-cook veg like pak choi, carrots slivered with a veg peeler, and sliced greens. Enjoy, and keep warm!

Chicken and Prawn Pho

1 onion, peeled, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, halved
20g/¾oz fresh root ginger, peeled, thinly sliced
2 long fresh red chillies, sliced (or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes)
1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
4 tbsp dark soy sauce, plus extra to serve
1kg-1.2kg/2lb 4oz-2lb 10oz whole chicken
a handful of king prawns (optional)
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
200g/7oz dried flat rice noodles

To serve
6 spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
100g/3½oz beansprouts, rinsed and drained
25g/1oz fresh coriander sprigs
1 long red chilli, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges

Place the vegetables in the slow-cooker. Stir in the five-spice powder, 1 litre/1¾ pints water and soy sauce until well combined. Cut any string from the chicken, remove the skin by pushing your fingers between the breast meat and the skin and easing off the skin. Do the same with the legs, snipping off any skin around the wings or leg tips with scissors. Place the chicken, breast-side up, in the slow-cooker, pushing it down among the vegetables. Season all over with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on high for 4½ hours, or until the chicken is completely cooked through and very tender. Drain the contents of the slow-cooker into a large bowl. Place the chicken on a chopping board and strip the meat from the carcass, thickly slice. Cover with foil. Skim off the fat from the stock collected in the bowl using a large metal spoon. Pour the stock into a clean saucepan, stir in the fish sauce and place on a gentle simmer. Half-fill a separate saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Add the noodles and cook until just tender, stirring regularly to separate them, and at the same time, add the prawns to the stock to cook through. Drain well. Divide the noodles equally among 4 deep serving bowls. Top each with chicken, prawns, spring onions, beansprouts and coriander. Ladle over the hot stock and season with soy. Garnish with the remaining sliced chilli and lime wedges.