Giving Life Flavour

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Eating is one of life’s most simple and yet most enjoyable and gratifying pleasures. Not only for the sensory experiences it gives you, delighting the eyes, the nose, the mouth and even the ears (I can’t be the only one who squeals with delight at the ‘pop’ of a newly opened a jar of pickled onions or subtle ‘crack’ as you break through the glistening, caramelised crust of a creme brûlée), but also for the pleasure of company. Eating is (or should be) a social tradition. It is a shared joy, bringing people together as they add flavour to their mouths and lives.

So imagine what it must be like to have an element of this joy altered or taken away. To not be able share in the delights experienced by those around you, remaining excluded and unfairly cast out from common pleasure. This is exactly what happens to many going through chemotherapy (about 50% apparently), Marge included. Sense of taste is altered by the chemicals, causing varied meals to be marred by an indistinguishable and unpleasant bitterness, to have an unpalatable hallmark stamped on all ingredients, irrespective of flavour.

This blog has brought so much ‘flavour’ to my life; it has given me a new sense of purpose and an outlet to help cope with this difficult time. So it seems only fair and natural that I try and do the same for my favourite lady. I want to make Marge’s eating experience as pleasurable as possible in the given circumstances. To combat a blanket, rancid taste, I cannot go in all soft and cosy. Quite the opposite – I need to blow her away with an explosion of taste, awaken her mouth with the intrigue of texture. I am talking bold flavours, interesting and new food combinations, and fresh ingredients.

Unintentionally this has taken me back to Ottolenghi― not only is he the master of the vegetable but, in my eyes, he is the king of flavour. Middle-eastern food has always been a favourite of mine, bold and brash both in colour and taste. Middle-eastern cuisine, which makes up the majority of Ottolenghi’s unique and, quite frankly, fantastic recipes, perfectly partners different ingredients that have complimenting and yet contrasting tastes. For example, the earthy nuttiness of tahini interlaced with the subtle, sweetness of squash or, in the case of his Chicken Drumsticks with Pomegranate and Oregano, the deep saltiness of soy sauce gets gently lifted by honey but then simultaneously intensified by the tangy, sticky sweetness of pomegranate seeds and molasses.

When I cooked this recipe as ‘something different to a Sunday roast’ Marge not only cleared her plate but the rich flavours meant she could savour the flavours and be part of the shared enjoyment. Yet the true beauty of this recipe is the pool of intense, syrupy juices lingering seductively at the bottom of the tray – great use was made of this dunking opportunity. This is flavour to knock that acrid taste on its… bottom!

Other things you can do to manage taste changes:

  • Maintain good oral hygiene – brush your teeth before and after each meal.
  • Choose and prepare foods that look and smell good to you.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Do not eat 1-2 hours before chemotherapy and up to 3 hours after therapy.
  • Use plastic utensils if food tastes like metal.
  • Eat mints (or sugar-free mints), chew gum (or sugar-free gum) or chew ice to mask the bitter or metallic taste.
  • Substitute poultry, eggs, fish, peanut butter, beans and dairy products for red meats.
  • Marinate meats in sweet fruit juices, wines, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, or sweet and sour sauces.
  • Flavour foods with herbs, spices, sugar, lemon, and tasty sauces.
  • Chilled or frozen food may be more acceptable than warm or hot food.
  • Try tart foods such as oranges or lemonade (this may be painful if mouth sores are present).
  • Avoid cigarette smoking.
  • Eliminate bad odours.
  • Eat in pleasant surroundings to better manage taste changes.
  • Increase your fluid intake.
  • Ask another person to cook for you, or rely on prepared foods from a store if you can’t stand the smell of food (Marge has this one covered).
  • Importantly, don’t force yourself to eat foods that taste bad to you. Find substitutes that you can tolerate.

Recipe: Chicken Drumsticks with Pomegranate and Oregano

Serves four.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 8 chicken drumsticks
  • Flaky sea salt
  • 500g banana shallots (or red onions), peeled and trimmed
  • 1 garlic head, cloves separated and peeled
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 3 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 4cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 10g oregano sprigs (or 1 tsp dried), plus 1 tsp finely chopped leaves, to serve (or handful of chopped parsley)
  • Seeds from ½ small pomegranate

Method.

  1. Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Heat the oil in a large frying pan on a medium-high flame, then place the drumsticks in the pan, sprinkle over half a teaspoon of salt and fry, turning regularly, for 10 minutes, until golden-brown all over. Transfer to a large bowl and leave the pan on the heat.
  2. Fry the shallots for four minutes, shaking the pan a few times. Add the garlic, fry for another minute, until golden, add to the chicken bowl, then combine with the molasses, soy sauce, maple syrup, ginger, oregano sprigs and 50ml water.
  3. Pour everythings onto a baking tray and cover tightly with aluminium foil. Roast for 20 minutes, then take off the foil, give it a stir and roast for 10 minutes more, until the chicken is cooked through and the shallots and garlic are soft.
  4. Remove from the oven, stir in the chopped oregano (or parsley) leaves and pomegranate seeds, and serve.

For more info on taste change during chemotherapy see:

University of Michigan Health System Comprehensive Cancer Center

Chemcare.com

Cancer.net

Breastcancer.org

Broadening the Repertoire

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As we are now coming to the end of Marge’s chemo treatment (5 down, 1 to go) I have been looking back and reflecting over the recipes I have cooked over the last 15 weeks or so. All of them Marge has enjoyed, all I would make or have already made again (whether my ‘meat and two veg’ Farge would say the same I’m not so sure…) and all of them have taught me something. Aside from the vast amount I have learnt about the nutritional qualities of the ingredients I am using, I feel that my cooking itself has benefited from my blogging journey too. In some cases, I stumbled across new and exciting flavour or texture combinations, in others I found out different techniques or ways to cook ingredients to get the most out of their nutritional qualities (see Rooting for Other Causes), and sometimes it was as simple as discovering a fantastic new food writer or blogger, who now firmly has a place in my recipe repertoire.

However, by far the biggest and most surprising revelation has been how incredibly versatile the humble vegetable is and how satisfying, varied and extraordinarily delicious vegetarian and vegan cooking can be. This is by no means to say that I have turned the whole family off meat and fish (I am not sure I am ready to wave goodbye to steak just yet, be it in beef or tuna form) but a lot of the recipes I have gravitated towards when trying to ensure Marge maintains a healthy and nutritionally varied diet throughout her treatment have just so happened to be either vegan or vegetarian.

I am sure that part of this is down to taste; Marge has always been a big fan of the green stuff, a trait which has been passed down and adopted (admittedly slightly over-enthusiastically) by me. Yet I am also certain that a lot of it comes down to learning, to knowing just how many different flavours can be created by one ingredient, how you can manipulate one single food to create glorious, contrasting textures that excite and delight the eater. Take cauliflower for example, a vegetable once condemned to soggy Sunday roasts or masked by the heavy, salty charm of a cheese sauce. In recent years there has been an astounding U-turn in this unassuming brassica’s fortunes and it has made somewhat of a cauli-comeback. This is simply down to increasing knowledge of what can be done with it: roasting, ricing, stir frying the leaves, barbecuing the whole head and drizzling with tahini… (those who have not yet gone to Berber & Q please sort this, you will be in fluffy, cauliflower cloud heaven). I am convinced that this is why I seem to be cooking so many meatless dishes – the veg are simply the stars of the show.

One chef who I have always admired for the magic he creates and the attention he gives the honest vegetable is Yotam Ottolenghi. Perhaps one of my all-time favourite things to eat is his Roast Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar. Made for me for the first time by a friend a few years back, it is a dish that never left my memory. The subtle nuttiness of the tahini gently lifts and exaggerates the sweetness of the squash and the onions, and the floral, herby notes from the za’atar then follow, dancing across your taste buds to create the most delightful and multi-faceted culinary experience. It is simple, natural ingredients cooked in an exceptional way. In my opinion, this is what great cooking is about.

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Ottolenghi is also very knowledgeable on how he can use vegetables to ‘replicate’ the properties of meat and fish that we are looking for in our dishes. One of the meals I cooked this week, his Saffron and Broad Bean Paella, demonstrates just that. Underneath a tougher, peppery skin, the inner broad bean is a sweet and juicy delicacy that ‘mirrors’ (albeit with its own unique flair) the sought after texture and flavour of prawns. This dish is soul food – wholly satisfying and completely delicious. Though I am not going to delve into the long list of reasons why both us and the world would be more healthy if we ate less meat, the fact that vegetables can be just as enjoyable and perhaps more versatile than their carne counterparts gives us one less excuse to always look to meat as being the main element of our meals. Expanding your repertoire and basing dishes around vegetables will force you out of your comfort zone. Experiments lead to revelations and if you just research a few new techniques and recipes, you will soon be (veget)able to create nutritional but also show-stopping meals.

Healthy Ingredients

Saffron is a potent antioxidant, containing crocin, safranal and picrocrocin, which can help prevent age-related loss of vision, hardening of the arteries and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. It may also help treat insomnia and lift depression. As a stimulant, it can help improve circulation and its anti-inflammatory properties may be useful in treating asthma and allergies.

Recipe: Saffron and Broad Bean Paella

Serves 4.

  • 450g podded broad beans (fresh or frozen)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 3 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 300g paella rice
  • 150ml dry sherry
  • 750ml vegetable stock
  • 300g cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 5 strips finely shaved lemon skin, plus 2 tsp lemon juice
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Handful of flatleaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Method.

  1. Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil, blanch the beans for a minute, then drain, refresh and remove the papery skins (I know this is a lot of effort but it will be worth it!).
  2. Heat the oil in a large saute pan (or paella pan) on a medium-high flame. Fry the onion for seven to eight minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and caramelised, then add the garlic and fry for a minute.
  3. Add the paprika, saffron, thyme and rice, stir for a minute, to coat all the rice, then add the sherry and reduce for 30 seconds.
  4. Stir in the stock, 150ml water, the tomatoes, lemon skin, a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium.
  5. Simmer for 20-25 minutes – don’t stir! This gives it that gnarly, crisp bottom (the bits everyone wants) – until the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked. Lift out and discard the lemon strips, spoon the broad beans on top of the rice, scatter on the parsley, drizzle with lemon juice and serve immediately.

She’s Got Balls… (and Great Friends)!

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Chemo is a long and arduous journey; not one consisting of gentle rolling hills and manageable pathways but of steep downwards slopes and treacherous jagged edges, a journey of hostile storms. Every so often it seems the sun manages to crack its way through the grey and impending clouds, bringing with it energy and health, but it is soon muffled again and any vitality and hope accompanying the light is dulled by the overbearing darkness.

Yet, like any strenuous journey or task, it is often the small things that keep you going, little actions or words that light your path when the sunlight can’t quite reach you. Without a doubt, throughout the entirety of Marge’s treatment her friends have been her fireflies, her Chinese lanterns floating beauty and joy into the gloom. Each week I am amazed by their kindness, attentiveness and generosity, not just in terms of gifts but in terms of their time and emotional commitment. Not a day goes by when Marge doesn’t receive a letter, a phone call, a bunch of flowers, some homemade treats or even a full blown chemo ‘survival kit’ to boost her spirits (the latter was a gift from my best friend and her mum – I also can’t overstate how phenomenal my friends have been throughout this whole thing).

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There is only so much a family can do to support a loved one through hard times; to know that your support network casts itself far wider than those you live with does so much for strength and perseverance. I am incredibly grateful that Marge has such an amazing circle of people around her, both locally and from further afield, who I know will always be there to aid and strengthen her throughout her journey.

In fact, it was down to her close friends that I didn’t spend every hour of my recent holiday worrying about how she was doing. Unfortunately, Marge took a real turn for the worst just before I left and so pulling myself away from her felt like pulling out a stubborn tooth – I just didn’t want to let go. Yet her regular updates, full of assurances of rest and recovery, soon started to be littered with stories of social occasions and lively meet ups – the best evidence to sooth my concerns (as I know what mums are like, they will do anything to shield their children from distress and fear…).

Of course, as soon as I got home I wanted to cook something to celebrate her braveness for pulling through such an exhausting and difficult time (and without my cooking, who would have thought it?!). What better way than a dish with balls? Something rich and comforting yet also healthy and flavoursome. I had recently come across a recipe on Naturally Sassy which, as it was full of garlic, tomatoes and herbs, seemed to hit the back of the net – Spaghetti/Courgetti with Black Bean Balls. I adapted her marinana recipe slightly to use a one passed down from Marge herself, adding a hint of chilli to give it that extra zing, and served it with courgetti as Marge had a smaller appetite than normally after grazing on large quantities of her friend’s brownies! A really delicious and comforting yet fresh weekday meal that Marge really enjoyed… she really is one ballsy woman.

Healing Ingredients

Garlic’s main beneficial elements are allicin and diallyl sulphides-sulphorous compounds that are antibacterial and antifungal. It is.universally recognised for its health-promoting benefits: detoxifying, aiding the circulatory and digestive systems, boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, and fighting heart disease. A regular consumption of garlic lowers the amino acid homocysteine, a risk factor in heart disease and diabetes and it is well recognised for helping prevent numerous types of cancer, including breast cancer.

Recipe: Spaghetti/Courgetti and Black Bean Balls

Serves 4.

  • 4 servings of spaghetti (any type of your choosing) and/or courgetti (4 courgettes if only using courgetti)

Black bean balls:

  • 2 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 100 brown rice flour
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed

Mariana sauce:

  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • splash of red wine/red wine vinegar/balsamic vinegar, to taste
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • A handful of chopped coriander

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/gas 4/fan 170˚C.
  2. Start by making the black bean balls. Put the drained black beans in a food processor and blend until smooth before adding the remaining ingredients and blending again. If the mixture looks to dry, add a splash of water.
  3. With your hands form the mixture into balls. Heat up a frying pan with a drizzle of olive/coconut oil and cook the black bean balls for roughly 4 minutes, turning them so all sides crisp. Put them on a  baking tray tray and bake for a further 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile prepare the sauce. In a saucepan fry the onions in a little olive until they are soft and lightly golden, about 5 minnutes. Add the garlic and fry for a couple more minutes before adding the rest of the sauce ingredients, holding back some of the fresh coriander. Simmer until the sauce has reduced and has a thick, rich consistency.
  5. Prepare your pasta according to packet instructions, holding back a bit of of the cooking water or spiralise your courgettes.
  6. To compile, gently toss the pasta/courgetti in the marinana  (adding the reserved pasta water if using) before stirring in the meatballs. Sprinkle with the remaining coriander.