Food: Bedside manna

Sloppy food is deeply soothing when you're ill - but just as welcome when you're not. Photograph by Jason Lowe
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When I was about seven years old, I had my tonsils removed. I understand that, these days, it is frowned upon to simply whip them out, along with appendixes, adenoids and the odd ailing tooth, as they are not seen as the threat they once were. But I didn't mind much, as it was time off school and I have always enjoyed being looked after by starched and kindly professionals: a strange sort of room service with ether and a bowl of sloppy mince it may be, but it's still nice to have things brought to one in bed.

The ensuing sore throat, of course, was pretty bloody - in both senses - and continued after I had been taken home by a clucking mother. But I will particularly remember that period of recovery for one thing in particular: a dish of fried egg and mashed potato. Well, it had to be food, didn't it. In hospital I'd had the lurid strawberry ice-cream that had slipped down a treat, but this simple slurry of forked together eggy-potato-mess, in my favourite Peter Rabbit oval bowl, was truly inspired infant gastronomy. Intentionally tender on the throat too.

This small, though vivid, memory is a preamble into the delights of sloppy food - whether ailing or no. Fish pie fits into this category, as does mince, whether in shepherd's pie, with neeps and tatties or in curry; this latter mince of judiciously spiced lamb, the keema, is one of my favourite Indian dishes, and may also be used as an alternative filling to the more usual vegetable-stuffed pastry known as a samosa.

Kedgeree, fluffed by rice and stained by turmeric or the more luxurious saffron, possesses that similar degree of spooned flow when discharged from a big dish at a late weekend brunch. A richly baked cauliflower cheese; a gratin of salt cod, cream, sliced potatoes and garlic; a risotto; and our very own rice pudding all perform well as historic plates of slop. Knives are outlawed here; the only necessary implements are a spoon and fork - or even a "pusher". Perhaps the real reason we will always feel happy with this sort of food is because it reminds us of being spoon-fed ... lukewarm, comforting food, eaten in a very small bed.

Fish pie, serves 6

One of the most important things to remember when making a fine fish pie is to ensure that the wet-sauced-fish-parsley-egg mixture has set firm enough in its dish, so that you can weave the raft of creamed potato over its surface without fear of submersion. It never fails to amaze me that decently gifted cooks are floored by this simple culinary manoeuvre. Frankly, I blame their customary impatience, together with a surprising ignorance when dealing with the delicate balance of this two-tiered, semi- suspended, fish-and-mash-layer-bake.

350g cooked whole prawns, in shell

700ml milk

1 medium onion, chopped

1 bay leaf

salt and pepper

500g cod fillet

500g smoked haddock fillet

3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and coarsely chopped

leaves from a large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

75g butter

75g flour

for the mash

1.8kg floury potatoes

100g butter

salt and pepper

Remove the shells from the prawns and place in a pan with the milk, onion, bay leaf and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and leave for 15 minutes.

Lay out the fish, skin side down, in a single layer in a shallow pan or heatproof dish. Strain over the milk and simmer, turning the fish after 5 minutes, and cook until it is lightly but not completely cooked. Lift on to a plate. When cool enough to handle, ease the fish off the skin in chunks, taking care to remove any bones, and place in a large bowl with the shelled prawns, eggs and chopped parsley.

Make a sauce for the fish by melting 75g butter in a small pan. Stir in the flour, adding the fishy milk, whisking as you pour, to make a smooth thick sauce. Simmer very gently for 15 minutes, using a heat diffuser pad if you have one. Season with salt and plenty of white pepper. Pour the sauce over the fish. Carefully mix everything together, transfer the mixture to a pie dish and put to cool in the fridge.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/ gas mark 4. Cook the potatoes in salted water, drain well and mash with the butter. When the fish mixture is good and firm, spoon over the mash and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the top is puffed and golden.

Keema curry, serves 4

A dish of mince and peas is a delicious slop in its own right. The addition of curry spices transforms it into this friendly keema curry, oily and richly fragrant (a fine ragu alla Bolognese has the same effect on me). The only slightly worrisome thing is that I really want to eat mashed potato with it, rather than the more usual rice. Mind you, I have always been very fond of curry and chips, too. Be that as it may, one of the nicest curry slurries I remember eating was one served at The Red Fort restaurant in London's Soho some years ago. Made most delicately from minced lamb's brains, it excited the very furthest extremities of my fascination for all things culinary curious. Heinz should put it in small jars: it would silence the noisiest baby.

The following recipe comes from a cookery-story-book written by one of my favourite authors, Jennifer Brennan. It is called Curries and Bugles - A Cookbook of the British Raj (Viking, first published 1990). The name of the dish appears here as Keema mutter (in pittas), which, she suggests, might well have been served as a railway station snack. I hope it still is. Rather a damp pocket of spiced mince any time, than a freshly microwaved croissant at Crewe. Incidentally, and in my humble opinion, Jennifer Brennan also wrote the definitive book on Thai cookery (Thai Cooking, Jill Norman and Hobhouse, first published 1981).

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

a pinch of ground cardamom

3 whole cloves

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

500g minced lamb

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

150g fresh or frozen peas

1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the ginger, garlic and onion and fry briskly until a light golden brown. Add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, stir and cook gently for 2 minutes. Add the meat, turmeric, salt and cayenne. Fry, stirring, for another 5 minutes. Tip in the peas, cook through, then stir in the chopped coriander.

At this point in Brennan's recipe, the mince is ready to be packed inside the pitta pocket. But to achieve the desired spiced sloppy mince, pour in 200mls of water before adding the coriander and allow to stew very gently for 40 minutes. Top up with more water if it becomes too dry. When ready, stir in the coriander. I also stir in some freshly chopped mint, and sometimes a tiny splash of vinegar. Tasty tiffin, to be sure.

Tagliolini gratinati al prosciutto `Harry's Bar', serves 4 as a main course

Now, I have never actually eaten the original of this gorgeous-looking dish, all bubbling and golden as it is deftly spooned out of its well burnished oval dish, day in day out, in Signor Cipriani's Venetian instituzione. The next time I go - and I promise myself this every time - I will have only the gratinati. But, of course, I don't. I have watched others eat it, oh yes. And stared, transfixed, as it is decanted from its deceptively diminutive dish: the creamy bechamel, the ham, the cheese, all dripping lazily from the strands of pale pasta as it curls up on the plate. This is super slop, the best there is, famously fluid the world over. You simply have to forgo anything else to eat, that's all. And, as I always want to leave room for my custard pancakes, I regretfully veer away and once again request the fegato. l know my place.

50g butter

50-60g sliced prosciutto, cut into julienne strips

350g dried egg pasta (tagliolini or tagliatelle); the Cipriani brand, naturally, is very good for this

65g freshly grated Parmesan

125ml bechamel sauce (use a recipe you are familiar and happy with, but don't make it too thick)

Pre-heat the grill. Bring plenty of salted water to the boil. Melt one third of the butter in a large frying pan and add the ham. Cook gently for a minute or two, stirring constantly. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for a couple of minutes, or until al dente. Drain well in a colander, add to the ham and toss together briskly with a further third of the butter and half the Parmesan.

Spread the pasta evenly into an oval, shallow, oven-proof dish. Spoon the sauce over the surface and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Cut the remaining butter into small bits and scatter over the top. Place under the grill for a couple of minutes or so, until golden and bubbling. Serve at once, with more of the Parmesan handed separately.

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