Don’t Lament… Ferment!

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At the start of the year I began an experiment. It started before this experiment of writing about Marge’s chemo culinary journey and, looking back, was probably the seed that blossomed into the blog as it stands today. As I’ve already mentioned, as Mum’s treatment tiptoed ever closer, I felt an innate urge to do my bit to both assist her recovery and aid her determined and positive mindset. I started to research healing foods, both in their natural state and how we can use and manipulate certain ingredients to enhance their powerful properties. And there was one thing that came springing up time and time again: fermented foods.

Fermented foods come in a number of forms – from yoghurt to kimchi to sauerkraut to kefir – and their list of health benefits is even longer. Fermentation is a metabolic process in which microorganisms, for example bacteria, yeast or fungi, convert organic compounds, normally in the form of carbohydrates, into alcohol or acids. Not only is fermentation as excellent preservative and can add a real tang and gutsy flavour to your meals, but it also adds microbes to the gut, giving us a healthy dose of ‘good’ bacteria, increases micro-nutrient levels, especially that of B-vitamins, and makes food more easily digestible. Added to this, fermentation is thought to eliminate anti-nutrients, those natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

So there was really no excuse – rather than moping around lamenting Marge’s diagnose, I needed to take action, ferment-action (sorry)! I decided to ease myself in gently and chose a recipe that was not only joyfully easy but also gave me the chance channel my inner German (those that know me are aware that I have a mild – or, if I’m being honest, extreme – obsession with all things Deutsch): Sauerkraut.

Pickling cabbage in a brine solution (also known as lacto-fermentation) promotes the growth of gut-friendly bacteria and homemade sauerkraut is is richer than its shop bought counterparts in the enzymes that support a healthy gut. Insufficient of unbalanced levels of ‘good’ microbes in the gut not only affects digestion, but has been linked with a number of health issues: intestinal and bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome; immune disorders including allergies and type 1 diabetes; and metabolic diseases, for example type 2 diabetes and obesity. There have also been indications from a number of studies that consumption of fermented foods can help to reduce the risk of cancer and improve emotional health, two side effects that are much needed at this time. Plus, of course, this preserving technique helps to maintain the health boosting properties of cabbage.

Marge always did enjoy getting pickled, but now (rather than on cava), she was going to experience a whole new meaning of the word…

Healing Ingredients

Cabbage is an incredibly balancing and grounding food. It has been shown to clear the blood, boost skin health due to its high levels of vitamins C and K, and is a remedy for ulcers thanks to its ample amounts of vitamin U. It also supports liver function as it stimulates the production of glutathione (which plays a role in liver detoxification), is anti-parasitic due to its high sulphur content and helps to promote bowel regularity.

 

Recipe: Sauerkraut

Makes 1.35kg.

  • 2.5-3kg hard white, red or green cabbage
  • Approx. 60g coarse sea or rock salt
  • 1 tbsp caraway seeds

Method.

  1. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, reserving them for later, slice the cabbage in half, remove the cores, quarter and shred finely using a food processor or sharp knife.
  2. Weigh the cabbage and calculate the amoutn of slat you need – approx. 60g of salt per 2.5kg of cabbage
  3. Place the cabbage in a large, clean bowl and sprinkle in the salt evenly. Massage the salt into the cabbage until it begins to feel wet. Leave for a few minutes for the salt to draw out the water and soften the cabbage.
  4. Pack into a large, sterilised jar. Add 5cm of the cabbage at a time and scatter with the caraway seeds, packing each layer down with the end of a rolling pin or large pestle. Leave 7.5cm at the top of the jar.
  5. Add any juices from the bowl and top up with cold brine (1 1/2 tsp salt to 1 litre boiled, cooled water) so that the cabbage is covered.
  6. Place a clean muslin over the cabbage and place one of the larger outer leaves of the cabbage over the surface. Place a large jar or sandwich bag filled with water on top.
  7. Leave in a well-ventilated place at room temperature (ideal temperature 20-22°C, below 13°C and fermentation will stop, above 24°C and it will spoil). Check everyday that the cabbage is submerged. Remove any scum and replace with a clean muslin.
  8. Leave for around 3-4 weeks – fermentation is complete when all the bubbling has ceased. Store in clean, sterilised jars in the fridge.

For more information on fermentation see: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/nutrition/superfoods/articles/fermented-foods

 

 

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Using my Loaf

There is nothing quite like the smell of baking bread. That nutty, wholesome scent that wafts warmth from room to room, lovingly stroking the senses and spreading feelings of comfort and content throughout a household. And there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of baking bread for those that you love, knowing that this small, straightforward action will cause so much happiness and please so many rumbling tummies.

Baking bread is a smell of my childhood. When I was about 10, Marge bought a miraculous new machine, one that soon had me springing out of bed on school mornings rather than reluctantly dragging myself, out from under the duvet, limb by limb: the bread maker. It was without a doubt the best alarm clock you could ever imagine. Being gently nuzzled by the smell of freshly baked bread was the gentlest and most lovely wake-up call a child could ever ask for and it soon caused a slow grumbling sound to rise from under the bed sheets before a stampede of hungry children raced down the stairs to wolf down the doughy, buttery goodness.

It is this kind of comfort that Marge needs right now, so baking bread seems like a natural thing for me to do. The beauty of it is that there are so many amazing and contrasting varieties that baking tow loaves over the course of two days didn’t seem in the least bit over-indulgent. The weekend started with a Wholemeal Soda Bread – that miraculously easy yet decadently wholesome loaf that, as Felicity Cloake eloquently states, “can be in the oven in less time than it takes to brew a pot of tea, and is ready to eat by the time you get out of the shower”. Despite being so simple, the moist, cakey texture of this bread means that it is incredibly dense and satisfying and will most certainly sooth even the most upset of tummies.

I have to say it was a triumph – not only did Marge enjoy a few slices alongside a warming, vitamin-packed Minestrone soup on Friday evening, but she helped herself to a couple of slices for breakfast the following morning too, topped with mashed avocado, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of chilli flakes (I am so proud)! Soda bread it absolutely delicious toasted – its nutty flavour further enhanced by the heat and the charred, crunchy exterior acts as the perfect contrast to the moist crumbly middle.

The second loaf I made I was more nervous about – both making it and of Marge’s reaction – as it was a bread of a more unusual variety: Quinoa Bread. I came across the recipe when perusing through the beautiful and innovative cookbook The Detox Kitchen Bible and was immediately intrigued. I am a huge fan of this nutrient-dense grain (it provides a source of all the essential amino acids) and so to have it in bread form and to be able to pile on delicious toppings such as avocado, hummus, nut butters and fruit seemed like a dream come true. Plus it is an excellent way to help ensure Marge is eating enough protein, even when all she can eat is plain grains and simple fare.

Yet again, the loaf came out extremely well and went down a treat. Very different from the soda bread, it obviously didn’t have the same doughy, homely texture but, as you eat it, you feel as though you are doing something good for your body and that is a comfort in itself. It also has a subtle, nutty flavour, lifted by a touch of lemon juice, and a lovely light texture, making it an absolute pleasure to eat.

I loved spending pretty much my entire weekend pottering around the kitchen – it was a joy to see spoil Marge and see her slowly regaining her strength, gradually overcoming the worst of her side-effects. I know that it may just be timing and coincidence, but I like to think that these loaves helped her spirits and energy rise and that they played a part, no matter how small, in her beginning to feel a lot less crumby (pun definitely intended)!

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Recipe: Wholemeal Soda Bread

Makes 1 loaf.

  • 450g coarse wholemeal flour
  • 50g rolled oats
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp treacle
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 450ml buttermilk (or sour milk, or milk with 1 tbsp lemon juice)

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas 6/180°C and grease a baking sheet.
  2. Put all the dry ingredient into a large mixing bowl and mix to combine.
  3. Make a well in the middle. Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed, then pour this into the well and, very quickly, stir together with your hands until you have a soft, sticky dough.
  4. Form this into a round on your baking sheet and cut a deep cross in the dough.
  5. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it, until the crust is golden and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
  6. Leave to cool before diving in. Eat as soon as possible, as it doesn’t keep very well.

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Recipe: Quinoa Bread

Makes 1 small loaf.

  • 30g chia seeds
  • 350g quinoa
  • 70ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • A pinch of flaked sea salt
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • A handful mixed seeds

Method.

  1. Put the chia seed sin a bowl with 100ml water, stir well and leave for 30 minutes to form into a gel.
  2. Preheat your oven to 200°C/gas 6/180°C. Line a small loaf tin (25.5 x 13.5 x 6cm) with baking parchment.
  3. Place the weighed quinoa in a saucepan and cover with three times its volume of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes – the quinoa will only be part cooked.
  4. Drain the quinoa in a sieve and rinse under running cold water until completely cooled. Leave to drain for a few minutes (this is important as if it is too wet, the bread will be stodgy).
  5. Combine the chia gel and quinoa in a food processor and blitz to combine. Add 150ml water, together with the olive oil, bicarbonate of soda, salt and lemon juice. Run the food processor for five minutes until the mixture becomes a similar wet texture to muffin batter.
  6. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin and sprinkle the seeds over the top. Bake for 1 hour until the bread is firm and slightly golden.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. Wrap in clingfilm and keep in the fridge until ready to slice.

 

Acts of Love

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“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.” Alan D. Wolfelt.

It was, incidentally, Valentine’s weekend when I first came across this quote. Valentine’s day and the first weekend after Marge’s second chemo session. I had never really been in a believer in Valentine’s day (partly because I was always single, bitter and alone, partly because I never understood why we needed a specific day to demonstrate our love for others), but this quote seemed to puncture the heart of the weekend’s activities. I was spending my Valentine’s weekend in the kitchen, doing what I love for the people I love.

During the week Mum is at home by herself and is doing an amazing job of cooking for herself, despite being completely exhausted and suffering from worsening the side-effects of chemo: the treatment has completely robbed her of her energy; nausea has made its triumphant return; and the burning sensation in her stomach has reignited its flame. Yet, despite all of this, she is still managing to eat three good and (mostly) healthy meals a day and I even caught her making bircher muesli for my dad and sister one evening –  it seems even chemo cannot dampen a mother’s instinct to care for her family.

However, if I am at home then I can’t help but want to take care of her. For all of my 24 years, she has been the most incredibly doting and selfless mother, always putting us first and doing whatever is in her power to make us happy; I want to do the same. Though I am powerless against the physical effects of her treatment, I am powerful when it comes to improving her mood and making her feel looked after. Cooking and showing my love through food is my contribution to her well-being. So, despite not believing in Valentines day as such, the fact that this ‘day of love’ coincides with a weekend succeeding chemo has definitely given me an extra zeal. This weekend Marge is going to be filled with love, in the form of delicious food.

It is not often that I am in to make lunch, so I wanted to make sure I cooked something special. Yet, as I have already found out, when Marge is feeling her worst, the best approach is to listen to the demands of her stomach and cravings. Today, they commanded fishcakes (a pleasant surprise I have to say). With a simple meal such as this, so much of the love and care put into it is communicated by the aesthetic and finer touches of the dish, those little extras that scream immense affection. Presentation has such a significant affect on appetite – when a dish looks like love and care have been put it into it, the desire to eat it grows. So when the stomach ordered fishcakes, I answered with Tuna Fishcakes Topped with Spinach and Fried Egg, sprinkled with turmeric and chilli – to turn up the heat on Valentine’s weekend. The dish contains lots of protein to build Marge’s strength and is full anti-oxidant rich ingredients so her body is equipped to resist the nasty side-effects as best as it can.

Healthy Ingredients

Eggs are an excellent source of quality protein and are one of the few food sources of vitamin D – necessary for healthy bones and teeth. They also contain plenty of antioxidants that help prevent cancer and heart disease, choline and other B-vitamins that support healthy function of nerves and the brain and are thought to balance blood sugar levels.

Spinach is packed with vitamins and minerals and contains more than a dozen different antioxidant flavanoid compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties, protecting against heart disease and helping to neutralise the free radicals that weaken the immune system and are linked to cancer. High in vitamin K, it also helps to protect bones.

Recipe: Tuna Fishcakes Topped with Spinach and Fried Egg.

Serves 1.

  • 75-100g mashed potato (I had some left over)
  • 1/2 tin tuna
  • 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
  • tbsp flour (plain or gluten-free variety)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil plus extra, to drizzle
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 2 generous handfuls fresh spinach
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper, to season
  • turmeric, to sprinkle
  • chilli flakes, to sprinkle

Method.

  1. In a bowl, mix the mashed potato with the tuna and mustard and season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  2. Shape into two equally sized patties and coat each side in flour.
  3. In a frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil over a medium heat and fry the patties on each side for about 2-3 minutes until they are golden brown. Remove and set aside.
  4. Add 1 tbsp more of the oil and add the garlic slices. Fly until lightly golden before adding the spinach, cooking until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Whilst the spinach is wilting, in a separate frying pan add the final tbsp of oil and crack in the egg. Fry for about a minute before putting a lid on top, turning the heat right down and cooking for a further 1-2 minutes (depending on how you like your yolk). This will allow the egg to ‘steam’ cook and stop the underneath of the egg from getting too crispy.
  6. Serve the spinach on top of one of the fishcakes and the egg on top of the other. Sprinkle with a pinch of turmeric and chilli flakes, a grind of pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

A Touch of Warmth

Time sure flies when living with chemo. It only seems like yesterday that it was Blue Monday and I was nervously anticipating the next day, butterflies tickling my stomach lining, their gentle strokes continually reminding me that soon Marge’s period of treatment would officially begin.

I guess now you can say we are starting to get into the swing of it. After the first week, Marge felt progressively better and was back to her strong and lively self after about a week or so. Life got back to normal, or as normal as it can do when someone you love is going through cancer treatment. But of course all of this was leading up to session number two and playing in the back of everyone’s mind was the worry and fear about how ill Marge would feel next time round.

We have been warned by numerous people that the side-effects tend to get worse with each session, the chemicals inside her body building, and her body’s strength waning as the treatment continues. This was a worry, but at least it replaced and didn’t combine with the worry of the unknown. We now (mostly) know what to expect and how we can counter any malicious side-effects that will try and spoil Marge’s strength, both physical and mental.

Small things, like ensuring her bed has nice, fresh bedding and purchasing silk pillows, will make days when she feels drained of strength and is confined under her duvet much more bearable. She can lie in luxury rather than sprawl in sorrow. The meals planned for the next few days have also taken her post-chemo cravings into account. Soft, comforting food (made healthy where possible) is in; strong, punchy flavours are out.

With this mind, I wanted to give Marge one last flavour fiesta before we rewound the culinary timeline. A curry seemed like the perfect option and when browsing the brilliant blog Naturally Ella, I came across a recipe for African Curry with Cauliflower. I, nor my Mum, had ever made an African curry before so I thought this was the perfect way to spice up her diet before the monotony of chemo began again. It also gave me the opportunity to add some additional veg that needed using up in my fridge, although the recipe was already packed full of delicious and nutrient-rich ingredients.

One final, significant reason that I chose to cook this recipe was because, towards the end of week three, Marge had started noticeably shedding her hair. Her beautiful mane of golden locks has always been such a core, defining part of her identity – so much so that my siblings and I used to look out for her hair in the school playground when we were trying to spot her amongst the sea of smiling parents. Losing this unique attribute was a harsh reminder of the fact that Marge, at the moment, was not her ‘normal’ self; life was not ‘normal’ life. It would make it all the more difficult to continue daily routines as before. So this recipe contains lots of delicious ingredients that are thought to help promote hair and scalp health, such as brown rice, chickpeas, peppers and cauliflower. There was never any doubt that she would lose some hair – but if I could help her body maintain one thread of normality there was no doubt that I would try it.

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Healing Ingredients

Turmeric’s main healthy constituent is curcumin, which not only gives turmeric its vibrant colour but is a well-known as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, helping fight free-radical damage and prevent and cure arthritis, cardiovascular health, diabetes and even neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin is also thought to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Chickpeas are not only high in fibre, helping to reduce levels of ‘unhealthy’ cholesterol, but are rich in manganese, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, which are all vital bone-healthy minerals. They also contain zinc, poor levels of which have been associated with health loss.

Recipe: African Curry with Cauliflower

Serves 4.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 150g mushrooms
  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • 2 medium clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp table currypowder
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp ground clove
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 75g dried apricots, roughly chopped
  • 500ml vegetable stock
  • 300g brown rice, quinoa, or millet, to serve
  • Handful of choppped, fresh coriander, to garnish

Method.

  1. Heat a large pan over medium heat, add 1 olive oil.
  2. Add onions, sautéing until onions are soft, about five minutes.
  3. Add cauliflower, peppers, mushrooms and courgettes and continue to cook until cauliflower starts to brown. Add in the garlic and cook for one minute more.
  4. Next add all the spices to the pot with cauliflower. Stir and let toast for a minute.
  5. Finally, add in the chickpeas, apricots, and the vegetable stock.
  6. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring and tasting occasionally – the sauce will thicken as it cooks.
  7. Taste and season to taste. Serve over desired grain with a sprinkling of fresh coriander.

Full of Beans

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All in all it took five days. Five days and mum felt pretty much back to normal. Although we know that with each round of chemo the side-effects tend to get progressively worse, there is an air of optimism floating around our household. Five or six days of feeling lousy followed by a fortnight or so of feeling well doesn’t seem like too bad a deal (if there is such a thing of a ‘good deal’ in this situation).

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see mum feeling and looking her normal self – the sense of despondency a child feels when a parent, who is normally the pinnacle of strength, guidance and protection, is taken ill is significant to say the least, even with more ‘common’ illnesses such as colds and flus. It is difficult to describe the emotions felt when someone you admire so much is suffering from such a sinister disease.

Yet the sense of hope when the colour returns to their cheeks and they start hauling heavy bags of food shopping home (!) is equally, if not more, substantial. And with her regained strength, comes a regained taste for healthy meals. Her cravings for comfort have been replaced with cravings for fresh, nutrient-rich food; when my phone flashes up at work now, it brings messages and pictures of vibrant colours, varied ingredients and vitality.

It seemed only fitting to cook Marge a bean-filled meal to match her new sprightly disposition, and Ella Woodward’s Roasted Aubergine and Tahini Bowl from her new book Deliciously Ella Every Day was the ideal choice. Aubergine is one of Mum’s favourite vegetables but not one that we have that often, so it seemed like the perfect healthy treat to celebrate normality. Baked in the oven, the meaty, charred aubergine slices worked in harmony with nuttiness of the tahini and the salty tang of the tamari – the dish was delicious. Served with brown rice and kale (which I had substituted in for the spinach in the recipe), it was a brilliant hearty but healthy winter meal.

One side note – we had this meal on the evening that Dad was taken down by the winter illness currently doing the rounds. A bit of a ‘meat and two veg’ man anyway, vegetarian and vegan meals are never a preference of his. This was the first meal in all my 24 years of life that I have ever seen him not finish. He blamed the flu, but I am not so sure. Oh well, you win some you lose some…

Healthy Ingredients

Aubergines contain plenty of antioxidants which have a variety of benefits, including protecting the heart from oxidative stress caused by the free radicals in the body and balancing blood sugar levels. They contain beneficial amounts of potassium, folate, magnesium, beta-carotene and fibre and boost gut health, water balance and bowel regularity.

Black beans are abundant in iron, essential for carrying oxygen to our red blood cells and for the production of haemoglobin , and the trace element molybdenum, essential for liver function. They are also a great source of fibre to help cleanse and protect the colon.

Recipe: Roasted Aubergine and Tahini Bowl

Serves 4.

  • 300g brown rice
  • 6 teaspoons tamari (or soy sauce)
  • 3 large aubergines
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Big bag of kale (approx. 250g)
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 6 tablespoons tahini, plus more to serve
  • 2 x 400g tins of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • 2 handfuls of mixed seeds

Method.

  1. Place the brown rice in a saucepan with enough water to cover the rice by about 3cm and 4 teaspoons of tamari. Simmer for about 30 minutes until cooked – keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t run out of water.
  2. Once the rice has been cooking for 15 minutes or so, preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C Then cut the aubergine into thin slices (a couple of millimetres thick).
  3. Oil a baking tray with olive oil and place the aubergine slices on to it, before drizzling a little more oil over the slices, along with some salt and pepper. Put into the oven for 15-20 minutes until they are starting to go crispy.
  4. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan before adding the kale, garlic, salt, pepper and half the tahini. Cook for a few minuted until wilted.
  5. Once the kale is cooked, ass the beans and saute for a few more minutes until warmed through.
  6. Once the rice is finished cooking, stir in the rest of the tamari and tahini and the lemon juice.
  7. Toast the seeds in a dry frying pan for a minute or so.
  8. Place the rice, aubergines and kale and black beans in a bowl, sprinkle over the seeds and drizzle with extra tahini to serve.