Going Against the Grain


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


  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.

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