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.
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