Cracking Easter Treats

I love everything about Easter. It is a time for family, friends and frivolity. Spring has sprung and there is a lightness to the mood and atmosphere, a hopefulness for the coming seasons and a slight (rabbit-like) spring in everyone’s step. It is also a time for indulgent treats – decadent and decorative chocolate, dark and rich in both colour and flavour; squidgy, aromatic hot cross buns, bursting with plump sultanas and draped in golden butter which seems to twinkle with glee as it melts into the toasted buns; slow-cooked spring lamb with all the trimmings, the tender meat falling seductively off the bone and bathing in its juices.

Yet it is not just the taste buds that are in for a treat. The air is filled with the smell of fresh, evaporated raindrops and smiling spring blossom as their petals fan out and they sigh in appreciation of the sun on their faces. Then there are the smells from the kitchen – the homely scents of Easter cupcakes, dense Simnel cake and rich roasting meats floating out from the oven door and lulling the house into a state of comfort and contentment.

But it is chocolate that is always on everyone’s mind at Easter – without a doubt if you ask someone what they think of when they thing of Easter it will be at the top of their list. I have always loved chocolate – it is a trait I inherited from Marge who often has a hankering for the sweet stuff as a last piece of bedtime luxury. Chocolate has the ability to improve even the sourest of moods, it offers the kind of comfort second only to a hug from one of your closest family and friends, so it seems perfectly fitting to me that it is so closely associated to this seasonal celebration, when we spend quality and valuable time with our loved ones.

As I have got older, my taste for chocolate has developed, moving away from the saccharine delights of Cadbury’s and the velvety indulgence of Galaxy milk chocolates (although don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for ALL types of chocolate and I never say no to a bit of Fruit and Nut) towards the darker, more sophisticated treats, those with a high percentage of cacao. The brilliant thing about this taste-shift is that, whilst you are still eating an uplifting, soothing treat, you are also nourishing your body. Cacao – the purest and least processed form of chocolate you can consume – is one of the richest sources of antioxidant polyphenols of any food on the planet and contains many vital vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, calcium, sulfur, potassium, and manganese, as well as monounsaturated fats, cholesterol-free saturated fats, fibre, natural carbohydrates, and protein. This nutrient-dense food has a number of health benefits: it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve circulation, thus promoting cardiovascular function & health; it supports immunity by boosting the response of antibodies and protecting the body from a buildup of free radicals; and it can help improve digestion.

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It therefore seemed not only seasonal but also completely sensible to make Marge a delicious Easter treat with this superhero ingredient. Nothing is more satisfying and more indulgent than a sticky, gooey brownie – they are one of life’s simple pleasures. However, by making a variation of this decadent dessert and by replacing the chocolate/cocoa with raw cacao and the processed flour with black beans, you not only improve the nutritional value of this tea-time treat, but you can prove to everyone that you can treat yourself with delicious sweets whilst still feeling entirely virtuous.

There are a number of different recipes out there, but I opted for Hemsley + Hemsley’s Black Bean Brownies as it seemed to require minimal ingredients and effort. They turned out brilliantly and went down a storm with the entire family. The texture was fantastically fudgy and dense, almost truffle-like in its consistency, and though very moreish and rich they remained surprisingly light. But the best part: you don’t feel guilty about going back for seconds (or thirds…).

Recipe: Black Bean Brownies 

Ingredients.

  • 2 x 400g tins cooked black beans, drained
  • 230g (8oz) unsalted butter or coconut oil
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 85g (3oz) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 150ml (5fl oz) maple syrup
  • 1½ tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp coffee extract, or use extra vanilla extract
  • 130g (4¾oz) chopped walnuts or dried fruit, optional

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/330°F/160°C fan.
  2. Rinse the black beans and leave to drain. Melt the butter/cocnut oil in a saucepan over a gentle heat, then set it aside.
  3. Place the drained beans, eggs, cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla extract and coffee extract (if using) into a food processor with a large pinch of salt. Pulse a few times and then blend until smooth.
  4. Add the melted butter, very slowly so as not to cook the eggs, while the machine is running. Taste the batter – add more maple syrup if needs be – then stir in most of the chopped walnuts or dried fruit, reserving a handful (if using).
  5. Grease the inside of a 24 x 20cm (9¾ x 8in) china or glass baking-dish. Pour in the brownie batter and gently tap the baking-dish on to a kitchen counter to even out the batter.
  6. Sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the brownie feels firm and springy and its surface is cracked. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

 

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Mother of Pearl

Spring has now officially sprung. The days are gradually getting longer, the sun seems to have woken up from its slumber and is more frequently casting down its beaming smile and the faint smell of blossom and budding leaves lingers quietly in the air.

For Marge, who has always loved spring and the cheeriness it brings, the change of season meant a change of drug and that itself shone a ray of hope down on our family. Having previously received FEC chemotherapy, known for having particularity unpleasant and sicky side effects, the course of treatment has now moved on to docetaxel. Although by no means a walk in the park, the chemo nurse explained that though this drug may increase fatigue and lack of strength, it should also not cause as much nausea as FEC. This news was a huge relief for all of us as sickness was the side effect that Marge was struggling with the most and that induced the most concern within the family. Basically we were all counting down the days until the nausea would FEC off!

Chemo treatment number 4 came round as quickly as the others. It was, of course, accompanied by the familiar flurry of nerves and angst, yet this time these feelings were accompanied by mild optimism, an inkling that perhaps this time things won’t be so bad. In reality, our hopes and expectations were wholly understated. On the evening following treatment, I came through the front door to be greeted by Marge, in true seasonal style, bouncing up to greet me like the Easter bunny, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Given that after the previous round she was confined to her bed and barely had the strength to lift her head off the pillow, the difference was almost implausible. Fantastic, but completely mind-boggling.

In fact, she was whizzing round the house like she was on steroids (which she was, and this had a lot to do with her amazing energy for the 36 hours or so following her treatment). I messaged her from work checking that she was feeling OK the following morning, only to be greeted by a long list of spring cleaning that she had completed – a list that included scrubbing the back of the fridge. It was 10.30am!

Unfortunately, this hyperactive state was only transient; as the effects of the steroids wore off, fatigue slowly draped itself over her and a persistent, dull ache swelled in her joints. Yet, as her nurse advised, the nausea remained absent. The meals following her chemo were not limited to childish comforts and plain, easily digestible dishes. Of course, this added another dimension to my glee, as it meant I could dive straight in with filling her up with minerals and goodness, rather than put my plans on hold for her stomach to stop its protest.

Although I adore spring, with its fresh optimism and cheerful tones, I do love the comfort and depth and colour and flavour of winter ingredients. So on one rainy weekday during chemo week, when it seemed weather appropriate, I took what was probably my final chance to use the best of the winter vegetables in a Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto. I came across the recipe on one of my favourite vegan/veggie blogs – The Veg Space – and not only is it exceptionally easy but it is wonderfully hearty and flavoursome. Using barley instead of rice really adds to the comfort-factor of this dish. The nutty little pearls greedily absorb the cooking liquid, soaking up an abundance of flavour and swelling to almost double their size. This results in a gorgeously gelatinous and chewy texture. It is a pure delight to both eat and to look at, with the vibrant orange of the squash and deep green of kale working in perfect harmony. A pearl of a dish for a pearl of a woman.

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Healthy Ingredients

Barley has a number of brilliant medicinal properties. Due to its high fibre content (one portion provides almost half the daily recommended amount), it is fantastic at improving digestion and removing excess fat and cholesterol from the bloodstream, lowering the risk of hypertension and hardening of the arteries, thus improving heart health. Its fibre also feeds the good bacteria in the gut and, in turn, helps maintain a healthy colon. As a slow-release carbohydrate, its low glycemic index helps to improve blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diabetes. 

Recipe: Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto

Serves 4.

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 600g butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1cm chunks
  • 250g pearl barley
  • 150ml white wine
  • 750ml vegetable stock
  • 100g curly kale, stalks removed
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tbsp thyme leaves
  • zest of 1 lemon, juice of 1/2
  • handful pine nuts, toasted in a dry frying pan for a minute or two
  • Sprinkle of sumac (optional)

Method.

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and cook the onion  for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the butternut squash and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  2. Add the pearl barley and white wine to the pan, turn up the heat and cook for 3 minutes until most of the wine has cooked away.
  3. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
  4. Add the curly kale, and cook for a further 5 minutes until the pearl barley is tender, but still a little bit squidgy and chewy. Remove from the heat, stir through the thyme, lemon juice and lemon zest, then divide between bowls, scatter with the pine nuts and sprinkle with the sumac to serve.

Rooting for Other Causes

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It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own immediate problems. Personal worries are naturally the utmost priority and it seems the brain can only process a certain amount of stress and concern before its defenses come up and it barricades itself against any other incoming issues. Having had strong opinions on almost everything (to the annoyance of most of my friends and family), I am finding that political debate no longer awakens my argumentative appetite and my hunger for knowledge of contemporary issues is waning.

This reaction has been entirely subconscious. I have watched the evening news, willing myself to absorb the information, sat on the train on the way into work attempting to form opinions on the text in front of me, yet the processes are entirely superficial. Rather than penetrating my mind and stirring up strong feelings, they linger on the surface, simply making me aware of their presence, yet never really burrowing down deep enough to dig up beliefs and judgements.

It is not that I have become (entirely) apathetic, but, quite simply, I am fed up of worrying – it is both mentally and physically exhausting.What little energy I have left I want to use positively; Mum and Meal has allowed me to proactively contribute to Marge’s recovery, it has lifted her spirits (and her appetite) and has given her, me and the family the encouragement we need to remain strong. It has also prompted me to root for those causes I am truly passionate about and to focus my energies on making a difference on those areas of interest, no matter how small.

The blog has taught me a lot, not only at an emotional level but on a more practical level as well, specifically about the amazing properties of everyday ingredients and how we can best utilise them in order to maximise their benefits. Through my research and reading, it has become clear that we are often not cooking our ingredients in the most beneficial way, often wasting or draining away nutritional value through conventional cooking methods. My efforts to ensure Marge is getting the most amount of vitamins possible from the food she has eating has highlighted to me the creative ways you can cook with many ingredients. Yet it has also underlined a huge problem that we have not just in the UK, but all over the globe – food waste.

Food waste is an issue that has always been a concern of mine, yet experimenting with amazingly versatile and interesting foods for this blog has reignited my passion to make a positive change in this area. Though blame is often focused on supermarkets and their troops of regimented veg, almost 50% of the total amount of food thrown away in the UK comes from our homes. We throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten. Wasting food is not just throwing away money – it is throwing away taste, texture and nutritional value. So whilst many may hastily chop the tops of carrots, cast aside fennel tops, and turn their backs on the broccoli stalks, I have been embracing the whole of the vegetable, with all its lumps and bumps – from root to stem.

Every component of vegetables have their own unique tastes, textures and benefits so you are essentially getting multiple veggies in one clever package. Cauliflower, a favourite ingredient of mine, is the perfect example and when cooking my Black Bean, Quinoa and Cauliflower Bowl, not a scrap was wasted. When I cook cauliflower, I like cut off the florets and then I chop up the stem and cook it (in this case roasted) with the florets (they require the same amount of cooking time to become tender). With the leaves, I like to slice them fairly finely and stir fry – the middle of the leaves retains a delightful, refreshing crunch whilst the outside of the leaves gently wilt and take on a deeper, earthier, herbaceous flavour, adding a whole new dimension to an already brilliant Brassica. If we all used vegetables to their full potential, we would not only help with the huge food waste problem, but we would unlock a treasure trove of tastes, textures and nutritional benefits. Basically, we’ve struck gold!

Recipe: Black Bean, Quinoa and Cauliflower Bowl.

Serves 4.

For the quinoa:

  • 185g uncooked quinoa 
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • Handful fresh herbs (parsley or coriander work well), finely chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, julienned

For the dressing:

  • Juice of 3 limes, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoons pure maple syrup, or to taste
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

For the bowl:

  • 1 large cauliflower, florets separated, core chopped into chunks and leaves sliced
  • 2 sweet potatoes, cut into rounds
  • Olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Hummus
  • Hemp seeds

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C/gas 6/180˚C fan.
  2. Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve. Add into saucepan and cover with 2 times its volume with water or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low-medium, and then cover with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy.
  3. Remove from heat and steam with the lid on for 5 additional minutes. Fluff with fork and chill in the fridge for another 15 minutes.
  4. Whilst the quinoa is cooking, place the cauliflower florets and stalk and the sweet rounds on roasting trays. Toss in the olive oil and ground cumin and season to taste. Roast for approx. 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and golden.
  5. In a large bowl, toss the quinoa, drained and rinsed black beans, herbs, and carrots.
  6. Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl or jar, adjusting to taste. Pour onto the quinoa and toss to combine. Season to taste.
  7. Heat 1tbsp oilive oil in a frying pan and add the cauliflower leaves. Gently stir fry until the outer parts of the leaves have wilted but the inside remain crunchy. Season to taste.
  8. Now simply build your bowl out of the quinoa, roasted cauliflower and sweet potato and fried cauliflower leaves. Finish with a dollop of hummus and a sprinkling of hemp seeds for extra protein.

Mum in a Million

Mother’s Day carried particular significance this year, for obvious reasons. Although I have always known how special Marge is, and this knowledge and my admiration for her has deepened since her diagnosis, we all wanted to make that extra effort this Mothering Sunday to show Marge our gratitude for her past sacrifices, appreciation for her guidance and care and love for positive, warm disposition.

However, we were faced with a challenge. Mothering Sunday had fallen on the week following Marge’s chemo, and this time round recovery was definitely sluggishly dragging its feet. The nausea and fatigue were still obnoxiously making their presence felt so whilst many other Mums were being treated to champagne, afternoon tea, winter strolls and meals out, we could simply offer Marge an afternoon activity of cups of green tea in front of the tennis (thanks Andy Murray for giving us such entertaining viewing… much appreciated)!

Aside from the usual presents and cards, I knew that the best gift I could give Marge for Mother’s Day was a delicious meal that she could enjoy. Strangely (and thankfully), eating seems to dampen her nausea and so meals tend to be the highlight of her day, whatever she is eating. But today was a special day and called for a special recipe and the Guardian seemed to have the answer. Whilst chatting over newspapers and steaming fresh coffee on Saturday morning, we spotted what looked like the perfect recipe for a chilly Mothering Sunday – Thomasina Miers’ Slow-Braised Duck Legs with Seville Oranges, Star Anise and Savoy Cabbage.

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Duck is not something we cook often in our family and that, combined with it’s rich, meaty flavour, make it seem like a rather grand and special treat, elevating the meal above the normal midweek meals. The combinations of flavours in this recipe – the rich fruitiness of the Madeira, dark, soft meat of the duck, sharpness of the orange and fiery heat of the ginger – work in complete harmony. This along with the occasional burst of subtle sweetness from the braised shallots, result in the most delightful, warming dish.

I served this, as Miers suggests, alongside a potato and celeriac mash. Deciding to combine the two vegetables into one side and one process did not go entirely to plan (in case you didn’t know celeriac will stubbornly refuse to make its way through a potato ricer) so if you were to do the same I would recommend using a masher to pummel the veg. You also need to add less milk/cream, as the celeriac carries more water than simply potato. But the final outcome was thoroughly enjoyable, as there is an added intrigue to a multi-textured mash, the chunks of celeriac offering a welcome break to the smooth, silky texture of the potato.

Unfortunately, our local supermarket did not stock Seville oranges, so I used the regular variety and completely cut out the sugar in the recipe – I don’t like my dishes too sweet and the oranges I used were already deliciously ripe and saccharine. However this is down to personal preference, although I (and Miers) recommend reducing the sugar if you aren’t able to get hold of the sharper Sevilles.

Healthy Ingredients

Duck, and waterfowl generally, are particularly good for fueling metabolic processes. They are rich in iron and B vitamins (duck can contain up to three times more iron than chicken). despite what many think, duck and goose have a similar fat profile to chicken and are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are also a good source of selenium, supporting a healthy immune system.

It is worth noting that, where possible, it is preferable to eat outdoor-bred, pasture-fed, organic meat as they contain lower levels of total fat and higher levels of healthy fats such as omega-3. They are also less prone to contamination with E.coli and other bacteria. This is particularly important for those going through chemotherapy, as the treatment weakens the immune system. Healthy animals = healthy meat.

Recipe: Slow-Braised Duck Legs with (Seville) Oranges, Star Anise and Savoy Cabbage

Serves 4.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 duck legs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 baby shallots, peeled
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
  • 2 Seville oranges (or regular oranges), cut into slices, rind on
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 250ml dry oloroso sherry
  • 2 star anise
  • 3 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 thumb fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • ½ chicken stock cube dissolved in 300ml boiling water
  • 1 savoy cabbage, cut in half, cored and cut into 12 wedges

Method.

  1. Heat the oven to 170˚C/gas 3/fan 160˚C. Heat the oil in a large casserole on a medium flame. Season the duck, lay it skin side down in the hot oil and brown well on both sides. Transfer the legs to a plate, then pour off most of the fat in the pan, leaving just a couple of tablespoons.
  2. Return the pot to the heat, add the shallots and garlic, and fry gently for five minutes, until golden.
  3. Lay the orange slices on top of the shallots, then throw in the herbs and sit the duck legs on top. Add the sherry, star anise, sugar and ginger, then enough stock to come two-thirds of the way up the meat. Season generously, bring up to a simmer, cover and transfer to the oven for 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the lid, tuck the cabbage under the legs, so it’s submerged in stock with the duck sitting on top, then return, uncovered, to the oven for a further 45 minutes, until the duck is golden and falling off the bone and the cabbage is very tender.
  5. Lift out and discard the orange slices. Serve the legs astride a spoonful of mash (potato and/or celeriac) with a pile of cabbage and spoonfuls of the fragrant sauce.

Stirring Some Emotion

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Chemo is a wrecking ball. It swings in all directions, crashing into everyone and everything it comes across. As the session number creeps up, its momentum continues to grow. It moves harder and faster, becoming increasingly brutal and unforgiving.

This swing has truly knocked the wind out of Marge; her strength has been demolished and her energy shattered. On the evening of her chemo session, she could barely lift her head, let alone manage to eat a full meal. A small bowl of soup was attempted and swiftly abandoned; dunked pieces of wholemeal bread were left to swell then disintegrate, an almost mocking physical representation of my emotional reactions – hope that perhaps this time won’t be so bad followed by the crushing realisation that it’s only going to get worse.

When going through such a stressful and draining period, it is so easy to fall into a state of self-pity, to become angry at the way life is playing out and to withdraw from the things that bring you joy. Throughout this journey, I have found myself succumbing to this mind-set many times, allowing my resentment and apathy towards life and happiness to build. Thankfully, despite the anguish she is going through, Marge has remained a stoic role model, her courage and strength never diminishing, her brave face never subsiding. She remains, as she has been for my entire life, the pillar of the family, leading by example and keeping the family going throughout the most difficult times.

Yet this blog has also played a part in perseverance. Planning nutritious meals has given me something to control at a time when I (and the rest of the family) feel lost and I feel a sense of duty that I cannot allow to fall by the wayside. This duty is not just to ensure Marge’s body is best equipped to deal with the blows of chemotherapy but to keep writing, to keep sharing my experiences (even if the only people who read this blog are family and friends). As someone who is often tempted to withdraw from others at times of stress, Mum and Meal is encouraging me to open up and confront my feelings and I do not want to allow this to stop.

Cooking itself is also fantastic therapy and I find nothing more so than risotto – the motion of slowly massaging the stock into rice grains, gently encouraging them to bloat in appreciative delight, is hypnotically calming. Each stir folds in care and it feels like an obvious physical of expression of the love put into the meal. Risotto’s delightfully creamy, oozing texture also makes it a brilliant comfort food and Marge was sure that it was something she would be able to digest. However, I was conscious of not making the risotto too rich, so, when deciding to cook it the day following chemo, I opted for a fish-based version, omitting the cheese and adding little bursts of green freshness in a Salmon and Pea Risotto.

I did feel slightly nervous with my choice as, although risotto can slip down easily, I had bad memories of Marge attempting to eat salmon straight after round 1 of chemo. Yet she insisted she would be able to manage it… and manage it she did. She managed seconds in fact! Seconds on the day following a chemo session was unheard of. To say I was chuffed is a huge understatement. It is these small moments of pleasure that keep you sane when it feels like everything around you is spiraling out of control; they remind you that, with zeal and positivity, not every blow will cause you to fall.

Healing Ingredients

Peas are rich in vitamin K, manganese and vitamin C (a single serving of peas supplies half your daily intake of vitamin C), helping to fight infection and boosting immunity and bone health. Their soluble fibre content makes them good for maintaining a healthy digestive tract and gut and also helps reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. Moreover, the carotenoid pigment in green peas is lutein, which is known to improve eye health.

Recipe: Salmon and Pea Risotto

  • Approx. 1 litre fish stock
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 knobs butter
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250g risotto rice
  • 1 1/2 wine glasses white wine
  • 150g frozen peas
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 salmon fillets
  • 25g pack fresh chives, chopped (optional)

Method.

  1. Heat the stock in a saucepan. In a separate pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 knob of butter.
  2. Add the onions, celery and garlic and fry slowly for 15 minutes without colouring. When the vegetables have softened, add the rice and turn up the heat.
  3. Lightly fry the rice, stirring it continuously. After a minute, when the rice looks slightly translucent, add the wine and keep stirring.
  4. Once the wine has evaporated and cooked into the rice, add a ladle of hot stock and a good pinch of salt. Turn the heat down to a simmer and keep adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring and massaging the starch out of the rice, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding another. It will take about 15 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile season your salmon fillets and rub with the other tbsp of olive oil. Place on a piece of foil and grill on each side until cooked through but still slightly pink in the middle. Flake into chunks.
  6. When the rice is almost done (it is done when it  is soft but with a slight bite) stir in the peas and leave to cook and warm through for a few minutes longer. Check the seasoning, remove from the heat and stir in another knob of butter. Leave to sit for a few minutes, allowing it to become deliciously oozy and creamy.
  7. Fold in the salmon flakes and garnish with the chives, if using.

Maize the Force be with You

It seems so paradoxical that time can simultaneously be tortuously dragging its feet whilst also sprinting away at irretrievable speed. Although it feels like an age since Marge’s chemo began, and those moments she is suffering lethargically linger over the family like a heavy smog, I appear to have blinked and suddenly it is that time again: the evening before chemo session three.

Given the cumulative side-effects and Marge’s reaction to the last lot of treatment, there is definitely a poignant and almost tangible feeling of nervousness in the house. Nothing anyone can say or do is of much comfort. There is no get out of jail card (if there was I would be throwing money at it left, right and centre). The side-effects just have to be dealt with, by Marge and also by us.

Yet what we can do is prepare as best we can – on Mum’s side, this means coming up with a timetable of when is best to eat based on her diary recording her nausea and other side-effects or packing her bag with snacks, crossword puzzles and books to keep her entertained through the long day ahead. On my side, this means giving her a dinner to both fill her body with nutrients and fill her heart with warmth.

The wonderful thing about writing a blog, as well as the comfort it has given me going through such a difficult time, is it has encouraged me to try recipes outside of my routine, to think outside the box (or the store cupboard) and get a bit adventurous. Polenta is a dish I often see cooked and written about but it has never really been part of my ‘standard repertoire’ – normally because it is not something we have at home. Yet the other day, as I was rooting around the no-mans-land at the back of the cupboard, I stumbled across what could only be described as a sack of the stuff – and at the perfect time. Polenta, or corn maize flour, when cooked in its soft form, has the most decadently creamy and comfortingly smooth texture and is the perfect warming dish to help Marge physically and mentally prepare for what was to come.

Given the wintry, blustery feel of the last couple of days, I thought I would make the most of the produce this harsh season has to offer and cook Polenta with Roasted Root Vegetables. Hearty, sturdy ingredients such as parsnips, carrots and turnips are truly at there best throughout winter and their delicate sweetness and earthy undertones take on a whole new nutty dimension when charred in a hot oven. This is comfort food at its best.

Although I would happily let root vegetables hog the limelight at this time of year, I do like to enhance and highlight their natural flavour with a touch of salt; I find that, alongside the creamy polenta, cheese is an ideal option here. For me, a ripe and mature British stilton is a majestic ingredient and would always be my go-to choice for a dish like this – its piquant tanginess and crumbly, smooth texture being exactly the flavour and texture additions I am after. However, the Marsden and many other cancer charities advise that those going through chemotherapy should avoid blue and soft-ripened cheeses, due to a higher risk of getting food poisoning. Therefore, for Marge, we experimented with topping the dish with pasturised goats cheese, which was also completely delicious.

Filling, hearty, comforting – this dish was as close to a cuddle in a bowl as you can get (and given that a knife and fork aren’t really the best cutlery choices for this dish – you can even say that you were spooning)… what more could you want for a cold, bleak, winter’s evening?

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Healthy Ingredients

Carrots are, as their name suggests, rich in beta-carotene, which is associated with significant decreases in the incidence of certain cancers. They also help healthy digestion and aid weight control. In addition, their high content of beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein help promote eye, skin and nail health and help lower cholesterol levels. Raw carrots are a source of ‘falcarinol’ that have been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells.

Brussell Sprouts contain many valuable nutrients – they are a superb source of vitamin C and vitamin K, boosting skin health, and contain high levels of folate, manganese, vitamin B6, dietary fiber, potassium, phosphorus, and omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain high levels of anti-cancer glucosinolates, more so even than the other cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale).

Recipe: Polenta with Roasted Vegetables

  • 3 parsnips, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 2 turnips, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 500g sprouts, washed and any tough leaves removed
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g polenta
  • 25g butter
  • Small bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 125g blue or goats cheese
  • 2 tbsp hemp seeds, to garnish (optional)

Method.

  • Preheat oven to 200˚C/gas 6/180˚C fan. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil and some seasoning and spread out into a thin layer in a large roasting tin. Roast for 40 minutes until all vegetables are tender.
  • While vegetables roast, bring the a litre of water to a boil with the 1 tsp of sea salt. In a steady stream, pour the polenta in the water while whisking. Continue to whisk the polenta until thick.
  • Once thick, let the polenta cook for 25 minutes with a lid on, stirring every five minutes to ensure polenta isn’t stuck to the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and stir in butter and parsley and season to taste.
  • Once done, pile the vegetables on top of the polenta in a bowl and sprinkle over your cheese of choice. Finally, garnish with hemp seeds, if liked.