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.
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
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
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C.
- Pierce the sweet potatoes a few times with the end of a sharp knife and put in the oven for about 45 minutes.
- 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).
- Add the celery and carrot. Turn the heat down and cook for 15 minutes until softened.
- Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Season and bring to the boil.
- 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).
- 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.
- Using your hands, firmly massage the kale with the dressing until the kale begins to wilt and soften.
- 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.