The Domino Effect

Comfort and kiddie foods are still on the cards and there is a definite sense of ‘when Anna’s away the stomach will play’. On Saturday morning, in my absense, Marge woke up with a huge urge to eat a bacon sandwich – a food which, according to recent headlines and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has been classified as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer. It is becoming almost ironic…

But I am not one to stand in the way of someone’s cravings. Plus, I cannot do anything about the food Marge eats when I am out. As I mentioned previously, I am just over the moon that she has managed to maintain a healthy appetite up until now. So, if the stomach’s going to play, then I am going to play it at its own game. It was Saturday night… what food is associated with a cosy night in, watching something crap on TV? Pizza seemed to be the obvious and only choice.

This plan also gave me the opportunity to feel rather ‘on-trend’ and have a go at something I had been eager to make for a while: Cauliflower Pizza. It would be the perfect way to make sure mum was getting a healthy dose of vitamins whilst still exuding the the tantalising aromas of oozing mozzarella and intense tomato. It would also mean that mum could have some input, choosing her own toppings so that her stomach wouldn’t rebel in defiance later.

I have to say it was a complete success. It may be because she was slowly recovering from her side-effects and returning to normality (however I like to think it was my world-class culinary skills…), but she managed pretty much the whole thing and said it was ‘delicious’. I can even make it again apparently. I never thought the humble pizza would make me feel so triumphant; I have genuinely never felt so delighted to receive a simple compliment about my cooking. Knowing that I am helping mum through this experience and giving her small moments of pleasure is indescribably touching and incredibly rewarding. Even if one meal in every 10, every 100, causes this reaction, that would be enough.

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Healthy Ingredients:

Cauliflower contains sulforaphane, a sulfur compound that has also been shown to kill cancer stem cells, thereby slowing tumor growth as well significantly improve blood pressure and kidney function. It is also rich in vitamins C and K, beta-carotene, magnesium, fibre, vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese.

Artichoke is among the top 10 highest antioxidant-rich foods. It is high in dietary fibre  so can help alleviate stomach upsets and promote bowel regulation. It is also known to ‘clean the blood’ by detoxifying the liver and gall bladder, balancing blood sugar and reducing cholesterol.

Recipe: Cauliflower Pizza

Makes 2 pizzas.

For the base:

  • Coconut oil, for greasing
  • 1 large cauliflower, washed, dried and blitzed in a blender into small ‘rice’
  • 1 large whole egg
  • 1 tbsp gluten-free flour
  • 30g grated parmesan
  • 2tsp Italian herb seasoning
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste

For the tomato sauce:

  • 100ml passata
  • 1tsp Italian herb seasoning
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste

Toppings:

  • Entirely your choice! We had roasted peppers, mushrooms, artichokes and mozzarella
  • I also like to put some dressed salad leaves and olives on top, for a bit of freshness

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4/fan 160°C.
  2. Grease two baking sheets with coconut oil, then live with with parchment paper and grease this too.
  3. Steam the cauliflower for 3-4 minutes. Don’t let it go mushy. Then put it in a tea towel and squeeze out any excess water.
  4. Put the cauliflower rice into a large bowl, add the egg, herbs, seasoning, flour and parmesan and mix well.
  5. Spoon the mixture – it should still be a little wet – over the lined baking sheets and spread it out evenly over the paper. Make sure there are no holes in the mixture.
  6. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until crisp and golden. Remove the baking sheet and leave to air for a few minutes.
  7. While the bases are cooking, make the tomato sauce by combining all the ingredients in a pan and heating through.
  8. Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza bases, top with your chosen toppings and then pop back in the oven for 10 minutes until the toppings are warmed through and the cheese (if using) is melted.
  9. Top with a dressed salad, if you like.

 

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Going Against the Grain

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Marge’s cravings and my good intentions have come to blows. The unpleasant, flu-like side-effects of her chemo are now in full swing: her body aches, her stomach burns (!), nausea comes in waves and her energy levels are incredibly low. So, of course, what does she want? Comfort food, the food of her childhood. Those nostalgic dishes that she was given by her mum, the foods that, as a child, ‘fed her colds’ and ‘regained her strength’. Whilst her stomach pushed back against nutrient-rich ingredients and colourful meals, it welcomed with open arms my dad’s spaghetti bolognese and pulled her eagerly towards lunches such as egg and chips and cheese on toast.

Of course I completely understood. I know that when I am feeling grotty and vulnerable I want food that soothes, food that makes me feel looked after, that reminds me of feeling safe. Plus I know that the days following her chemo will always be tough, she may not be able to get down the kind of healthy ingredients I wish (and she wishes) she was eating. But the important thing is that she is eating something. Loss of appetite is such a common side-effect amongst chemo sufferers that I am just grateful she is managing three meals a day, no matter how small or unhealthy. Once she starts to feel a little better, we can make up for lost time.

One important piece of advice that I have picked up is to not be offended if the chemo patient can’t manage to eat what you have cooked. It is not your food; the body is an extremely unusual and stressed state and will, therefore, make demands that it doesn’t usually make. The last thing you would ever want to do is to make them feel guilty. Marge apologised a number of times for not being able to eat the meal that I had cooked and I replied every time that I do not want her to utter the word ‘sorry’. She should eat what she feels like, I am just over the moon that she is able to eat at all. Plus I know that, despite only having managed a couple of mouthfuls, her gratitude for the care and thought I put in comes by the tonne.

Knowing that Marge was after comfort and not big, bold flavours and textures, I thought that a tray bake might be a good option. Baked food always has a nostalic and calming effect on me. Appetising aromas fill all corners of the house, slowly creeping their way towards you, playfully tickling your nostrils as you as you wait in anticipation. Yet I still wanted to make sure that mum was getting nutritional benefits from this comfort food, so I opted for a Butter Bean and Tomato Gratin accompanied by a Bean, Barley and Watercress Salad (both recipes courtesy of Tesco). I was not sure how much of the latter she would manage – it turned out not a lot apart from the watercress- but at least the plate looked pretty. Overall though, Marge did a lot better with this meal; although not able to completely clear her plate (she had eaten quite a bit throughout the day apparently) she managed considerably more than the last meal I cooked and about the same as the spaghetti bolognese (if we ignore the salad). So steps in the right direction.

Healthy Ingredients

Butter Beans, as with other pulses, help maintain digestive health, lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels and are brilliant sources of protein and soluble fibre. They also contain lots of iron, potassium, manganese, and copper – all essential for a healthy cardiovascular system. Butter beans promote liver health and contain the amino acid typtophan, necessary for building and repairing muscle tissue.

Watercress is a great source of the antioxidants vitamin C and beta-carotene and has numerous health benefits, including reducing the risk of certain cancers, aiding digestion, maintaining the body’s water balance, and acting as a natural antibiotic to boost immunity.

Recipe: Butter Bean and Tomato Gratin with a Bean, Barley and Watercress Salad

Serves 4.

For the butter bean and tomato gratin:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil (or coconut oil)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 15g fresh dill, chopped (or 1 tsp dried)
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 500ml vegetable stock
  • 2 x 400g tins butter beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 slices sourdough or rye bread, diced
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 50g feta, crumbled

For the bean, barley and watercress salad:

  • 100g barley
  • 200g frozen baby broad beans
  • 200g fresh or frozen green beans, trimmed
  • 100g fresh or frozen peas
  • 100g watercress
  • 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • handful fresh parsley or mint, finely chopped

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C.
  2. In a large pan, heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook, over a medium heat, for 10 minutes or until softened and golden.
  3. Stir in the tomato puree, dill, vinegar, stock and beans. Bring to the boil and leave to bubble away for about 5 minutes before pouring into a roasting dish.
  4. In a bowl, mix the bread with the remaining oil, lemon zest and feta. Scatter it over the bean mixture and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden.
  5. To make the salad, cook the barley in a pan of salted water for 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain well and return to the pan.
  6. Meanwhile, put the vinegar, oil, mustard and half the chopped herbs into a screw-top jar. Season, screw on the lid and shake well.
  7. Bring another pan of water to the boil. Cook the broad beans for 2-3 minutes (until the water has just returned to the boil), then remove with a slotted spoon and rinse with cold water.
  8. Cook the green beans and peas in the boiling water, again for 2-3 minutes, then drain and rinse in cold water.
  9. Add both beans and the peas to the barley with the watercress and pour over the dressing and season; toss to combine before sprinkling over the remaining herbs.

Eat the Rainbow

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The day of Marge’s chemo finally arrived. The start of the ‘those four months’. If anything, I found myself feeling almost relieved. Yes it was going to be difficult, probably at times unbearable, but at least something was being done. The waiting and the unknown had been tormenting our family for months now and this was the start of the next chapter.

The lack of news was the hardest thing about that day. I had not managed to see Mum before heading off to work in the morning and I knew that, once she was in that chair, I would probably not get an update until it was all over. The overriding message that I had got from the nurses, internet and anecdotal stories was that everyone deals with chemotherapy differently. Whilst some patients cope well (with both the chemo itself and the cold cap which mum was using to try and prevent hair loss), others do not. Chemo day was a waiting game and I was completely oblivious to the odds.

Finally at 4.30pm my phone screen sprang to life. A message from Marge:

“…Went well and managed to stick with the cold cap so very pleased about that.”

As I read, a wave of relief surged through my body, breaking in my mouth forcing me to let out a huge sigh. That was the best news possible.

Of course this was just the start. Chemotherapy is an incredibly aggressive treatment which attacks dividing cells in the body, both malignant and normal. So it can cause unpleasant side-effects such as severe nausea, extreme tiredness and mouth ulcers. Despite Marge saying she was currently feeling OK, her body was now under a lot of stress and I wanted to ensure it was in the best position to cope with what was to come.

Everyone knows there’s a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow… And by eating a rainbow you will end up glowing yourself, inside and out. By consuming a wide variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables, you will ensure that your body is getting the nutrients and phytochemicals it needs to be at its strongest, for every colour represents a different spectrum and these work together to promote health (to read more on this I would recommend Neal’s Yard Remedies: Healing Foods). So that was what was on the menu: colour! And it came in the form of Salmon, Beetroot and Greens Pilaf, a recipe packed with health-boosting, delicious ingredients.

Except, sadly, Marge missed out on all of them. Having taken a turn for the worst shortly after I began cooking, she was unable to stomach such vibrant colours, tastes and textures. Feeling nauseous and suffering from flu-like symptoms, all she managed to eat that evening was toast and biscuits, washed down with hot chocolate. I realised that had ran before I could walk, that the days immediately following a chemo session were the days when Marge was likely to feel at her sickest – such strong flavours would not sit well. So straight after chemo = plain, plain, plain.

Yet this was always going to be a learning curve and I just had to try and work out the best approach. The pilaf I cooked was absolutely delicious, full of nutrients and looked beautiful, the spiced turmeric quinoa and rice laced with the decadent darkness of the greens and beetroot yet lifted by the soft pink of the salmon. A meal ideally for once the sickness of the chemo has gone and you are looking to make up for lack of nutrition in the days immediately succeeding treatment.

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Healing Ingredients

Beetroots have a unique group of antioxidants called betacyanins. These give beetroots their deep colour and are the reason for their many medicinal benefits including supporting the liver, improving circulation and purifying the blood. Make sure you eat the leaves too, as these are even more nutrient packed than the root, being rich in vitamin K and beta-carotene.

Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which protect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. It is also uniquely rich in solenium, which together with these omega-3 fatty acids help to lower blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels in the blood and inflammation, reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Recipe: Salmon, Beetroot and Greens Pilaf

Serves 4.

  • 4 small beetroots, leaves and stalks reserved
  • 150g wholgrain rice
  • 75g quinoa
  • Fish stock (optional)
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 4 salmon fillets
  • 150g greens, shredded
  • Handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • Juice 1 lemon

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C.
  2. Place the brown rice in a saucepan and cover with 450ml water or stock (so that there is about 3cm of water above the rice). Bring to the boil then put a lid on and simmer for 30 minutes, or until done to taste.
  3. Wrap each beetroot in foil and roast for 20-25 minutes, until tender.
  4. Place the quinoa in a separate pan and, again, cover with 300ml water or stock. Cook for 15 minutes until all the liquid has absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy but not mushy.
  5. Meanwhile heat 1 tbsp coconut oil in a wide-based pan and fry the onion until golden. Add the spices and fry for a further couple of minutes.
  6. Once the rice and the quinoa are cooked, drain any excess liquid and add to the pan with the onions; mix well.
  7. Heat the remaining coconut oil in a frying pan and fry skin-side down for three minutes. Turn over and cook for a further two minutes, or until cooked through. Transfer to a plate.
  8. In the same pan, add the greens and beetroot leaves along with a splash of water and cook until wilted.
  9. Peel the beetroot and cut into cubes and toss through the rice and quinoa mixture along with the greens. Flake in the salmon, then pour in the lemon juice and scatter over the parsley. Toss to combine.

Blue Monday

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Blue Monday. Allegedly the most depressing day of the whole year. I have never quite bought into this media-born phenomenon but this year the third Monday of January seemed to fall at exactly the right time. Rather than be the cause of doom and gloom, the nickname instead rather aptly described the mood in my household. Blue Monday was the day before the start of Marge’s chemo and we all felt incredibly tense, apprehensive of how tomorrow and the next three months would play out.

Work was hectic but I found myself on auto-pilot, lacking motivation and unable to fully concentrate on the tasks in front of me. Emails pinged into my inbox, conversation hummed continuously in the background but all I can recall from that day are the different (worst-case) scenarios that were floating around in my head.

If I was feeling like this, how on earth must Marge be feeling? As always she had on her brave face, selflessly trying to spare us from anguish, but she must have been feeling ‘blue’. Apprehension is often harder to deal with than reality.

Dinner that night was going to be the last home-cooked meal she would have before heading in for her first chemotherapy session so I knew that it would need to be something tasty, homely and nutritious. Although food can’t cure us completely, a healthy diet of nutritious food can, at the very least, alleviate some of our depressive symptoms and encourage vitality and well-being.

After doing a bit of research, I found that certain foods, such as poultry, oily fish, pulses and eggs, contain high levels of tryptophan. This amino acid is converted in the brain into serotonin – the ‘happy hormone’ – which helps to relieve stress and encourage sleep, something that would benefit the whole family that evening. Given that tryptophan uptake requires carbohydrate, it seemed to me that the perfect meal for Blue Monday was my take on childhood staple: jacket (sweet) potato with homemade baked beans. Paired with a raw kale salad (recipe courtesy of Deliciously Ella) this was not only a nutrient powerhouse but gave Marge the comfort and warmth she needed.

Healing ingredients

Sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene and vitamin C, regular consumption of which can help strengthen the immune system and protect against infection. They may also provide anti-cancer benefits.

Kale is an amazing sauce of chlorophyll and its calcium and iron content are easily absorbed. It is also rich in beta-carotene, vitamins C and K and folate and contains multiple antioxidants. Kale helps to balance hormones and is thought to protect against and arrest the development of oestrogen-dependent cancers – including breast cancer.

Haricot beans, as well as their mood-enhancing benefits, are a brilliant way to maintain digestive health, regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol as they are sources of both protein and fibre. They also contain folic acid, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium and vitamin B6.

Recipe: Jacket Sweet Potato with Homemade Baked Beans and Raw Kale Salad

Serves 4.

For the jacket sweet potato with homemade baked beans:

  • 4 large sweet potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato puree
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2 x 400g tins haricot beans (or any other type of beans)
  • 200ml vegetable stock
  • Salt & pepper
  • 100g feta, crumbled (optional)

For the raw kale salad:

  • Big bag of kale (approx. 250g)
  • 2 limes (I actually used 1 lime and 1 lemon and it worked well)
  • 4 tablespoons tahini
  • 3 tablespoons tamari (or soy sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • mixed seeds, to garnish

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C.
  2. Pierce the sweet potatoes a few times with the end of a sharp knife and put in the oven for about 45 minutes.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a moderate heat before briefly frying the garlic, stirring until fragrant (careful that it doesn’t burn).
  4. Add the celery and carrot. Turn the heat down and cook for 15 minutes until softened.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Season and bring to the boil.
  6. Turn the heat down to a simmer and allow the beans to bubble away for about half an hour until the liquid has reduced by about a third (you may which to cook them longer if you prefer a thicker, richer sauce).
  7. Meanwhile, place the kale into a large bowl. Juice the limes and add the juice to the bowl along with the tahini, tamari and olive oil.
  8. Using your hands, firmly massage the kale with the dressing until the kale begins to wilt and soften.
  9. Serve the beans on top of the deliciously soft baked sweet potatoes and the kale salad on the side. Sprinkle the mixed seeds on the kale and the feta on the beans (if using) for both protein-rich crunch and a creaminess.

 

The Basic Recipe

January is always a depressing month. Christmas is over, everyone is tired, cold, hungry and sober. Long nights turn into grey days and positive energy seems to drain from our bodies, running out alongside our streaming noses and bleary eyes. Yet for me, the thought of January this year was that much harder to stomach. In October 2015 my mum (or Marge as she is known to me) was diagnosed  with breast cancer. Doctors remained positive, it was contained to one breast and hadn’t reached the lymph nodes, but a gruelling itinerary of chemotherapy,  radiotherapy and herceptin now lay ahead. Starting in January.

January dread now had a whole new dimension and as the month started I found myself drowning in my fears and frustrations yet was unable to vocalise it. Talks led to tears and I have never been one to show my emotions in public. Yet as the day of Marge’s first chemo session drew closer, I realised that self-isolation was not a constructive coping mechanism. I could be using my energy for something positive. That’s when it clicked: positive energy is what Marge will be needing most throughout her treatment and what is the key to energy? Food.

I have always loved to cater for other people, to share foods and nourish those closest to me. Cooking for someone is a universal act of love, it brings people together and lifts people’s moods. So I decided to try and find ‘the recipe for recovery’, to show care outside of medicines and hospital treatments. I would ensure Marge is eating the right foods to make her body and her immune system as fit as they can be, to give her energy and strength, to make her feel better – physically, emotionally and mentally, and to help her body cope with side-effects of aggressive treatment.

Having always had a keen interest in nutrition and healthy eating, I already had an idea as to the kind of things I needed to make sure mum was eating. Nutritionally dense food, those ingredients that provide a wide variety of nutrients in vast amounts, were to be at the forefront of all meal ideas. I would need a variety of fresh and colourful ingredients, choosing lots of fruit and veg, less meat of better quality and always selecting whole foods, avoiding those that are heavily processed. Balance will be key.

This is the intention anyway. From doing my research I can see that the journey is not going to be easy or straightforward. Cancer patients have small appetites and treatment can limit what patients can and want to eat, with tastes changing frequently. So I think my approach, or ‘basic recipe’, will have to be this: always cook fresh, always try to make it look appetising (taste may be affected but other senses aren’t) but, most importantly, let Marge take the lead; the approach may have to change according to how she feels. At the end of the day this is to make her feel better – enjoying food with others will give her a taste of normality and pleasure – and this is the most vital ingredient of all.