Giving Cancer a Kick

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With the passing of time comes certain assurances, certain ‘definites’ that we know the seasons will bring. Now fully into May, the trees are turning lush and verdant, blossom petals open out gracefully to bask in warmth of the Spring sun, and birds’ gentle melodies gradually crescendo as the days roll on, welcoming the lighter mornings with glee and gratification. In fact, one of the most beautiful things about time ticking forward is its element of predictability; we know what gifts each season has to offer and we can look forward at the months to come in the safety of expectation.

In a similar and strange kind of way, the predictability of Marge’s reaction to chemotherapy brings with it a certain reassurance; we know her reactions and, in turn, how we need to respond. At first she is abound with energy as the steroids pulse through her body (cue Marge completing niggling DIY jobs and overdue spring cleaning), then after a few days her buoyancy begins to sink, her vitality is aggressively rung out and the colour drains from her cheeks dragging with it her zeal and vigour. By the weekend, a horizontal position is her default position and we all brace ourselves for the most difficult few days.

Far from a pleasant routine, but at least we are familiar with the pattern. The whole experience would be so much worse if these side effects were random and sporadic, giving us no time to prepare both mentally and physically. The monotony of the journey has become almost a comfort and no more so in this last round. Marge may be feeling at her worst, but her worst is a fleeting condition, a 4/5 day period that will hopefully soon be banished to memory. It is a weird concept to comprehend, feeling grateful for the regularity of ‘sickness’, yet it seems fitting given the whole idea of chemotherapy is incredibly paradoxical: that something that is supposed to be healing can cause so much anguish.

There is no denying that the systematic repetition of chemotherapy offers a strange solace, taking away some of the fear and uncertainty. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that life should be lived in the safety of routine, sometimes the most uplifting events are those that come as a surprise. On those days when leaving the house isn’t an option and you are confined to sedated activities, each second ticks by with painful tedium, as you wait in keen anticipation for the next stage. Unexpected events that pull you out of the uniform, almost slumber-like state are a saviour, a welcome distraction from chemo’s rigid timetable.

Last week, just as the side-effects were beginning to kick in, we decided to put that notion into practice and my younger brother made a trip home from University (in the middle of his finals no less) to surprise Marge. Despite her lack of energy, her feelings of joy instantly recharged her batteries, releasing the colour back into her cheeks and it was amazing to see her leap up off the sofa to give Lewis a big bear hug and a giant smacker on his cheek – the ‘welcome home’ every young man dreams of!

Given that the anticipation is particularly poignant in this last round, we were lucky that Lewis’s return home was not the only interruption over the last few days. Though not a sudden surprise – this one had been brewing for the last 9 months and just recently came to a head – the talking point of the family has been Leicester City winning the league. Though the only real football fans are the boys of the family, the excitement caused by this unforeseen event has ricocheted through the family and into our surrounding circles. Text after email and phone call came in congratulating my Dad on Leicester’s success (for all that effort he put in!) and, as Marge teased, her chemo was very much an after-thought with most messages reading something along the lines of: “Well done to Leicester, and I hope chemo goes OK!”

Again, we find ourselves in a strange position. Should Marge not feel slightly snubbed by the fact that she isn’t the main subject of these messages? Well, no. The fact that she isn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds is a relief. Life is slowly returning to how it was, with more trivial news and casual chat making up the majority of conversation. Cancer is now on the bench and football talk has, amazingly, given her a sense of pre-chemo normality in a period a exhausting abnormality and weirdness.

To celebrate both Leicester’s footballing success and ‘normality’ in all its bizarre manifestations, I wanted  to cook a meal with a real kick. A couple of weeks ago, my lovely boyfriend bought me Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana, the most beautifully written book full of simple yet vibrant and flavoursome recipes. With page after page of golden, warm colours, full-bodied ingredients, zingy garnishes and deep, earthy spices, it was a struggle to decide on the best recipe for the occasion. In the end, I opted for one that seemed to capture all those things: her Spiced Vegetable Soup. With a subtly sweet base of squash, onions and leeks, the soup is brought life by the acidic punch of vine tomatoes, the gentle heat of chilli and then a generous drizzle of the most beautifully intense herb oil, which not only lifts the soup’s flavour but is a splash vibrant colour on an otherwise earthy dish. Simple to make (you can add any combination of veg you fancy, I added kale as an extra) but a intriguing amalgamation of tastes and textures. As a dish, it quite simply hits the back of the net!

Healthy Ingredients

Winter Squashes – Winter squashes such as butternut and acorn squashes and pumpkins are good sources of complex carbohydrates making them anti-inflammatory and antioxidant as well as giving them insulin-regulating properties. Their wide range of nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene, vitamin C, magnesium and manganese improve cardiovascular health, as does their folate content. They are also a great digestive aid given their high fibre content.

Recipe: Spiced Vegetable Soup

Serves 4.

  • olive oil
  • butternut squash  peeled, deseeded and cut into 4cm chunks
  • onions 2 large or 3 small, diced; plus 1 cut in half and thinly sliced into half moons
  • 3 fat garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 3 potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 4cm rough chunks
  • 5 ripe vine tomatoes, roughly chopped into chunks
  • 4 heaped tsp ground cumin
  • 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
  • 3 tsp chilli paste (or 1 tsp chilli flakes plus 1 tbsp tomato puree)
  • sea salt
  • black pepper freshly ground
  • 2 x 400g cans chickpeas (reserve the liquid, plus a couple of handfuls of chickpeas to garnish)
  • 2 large courgettes, finely diced
  • 200g kale, stalks removed
  • feta cheese 100g (optional)

For the herb oil

  • 6 tbsp olive oil 6 tbsp
  • Good handful flat-leaf parsley
  • Good handful dill
  • Good handful coriander, plus extra, chopped, to garnish
  • Handful pistachio nuts
  • Squeeze lemon juice

Method.

  1. Preheat a large saucepan over a medium heat and put in enough olive oil to generously coat the base of the pan. Add the butternut squash, diced onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes and sauté, without browning, until the vegetables soften slightly.
  2. Add the tomatoes, spices and chilli paste (or chilli flakes and tomato puree) and give it all a good stir to ensure the spices are evenly coating the vegetables.
  3. Cover the vegetables completely with freshly boiled water, add a generous amount of sea salt and a good amount of black pepper, stir once more and cook for 30 minutes on a gentle boil.
  4. Insert a knife into the squash and, when it is soft, purée the mixture in a food processor or blender until you get a lovely even, smooth soup.
  5. Once smooth, add the chickpeas and their liquid and stir well. At this stage you can add some more water to achieve your desired soup consistency, and check the seasoning to see if more salt or pepper is needed.
  6. Cook for a further 20 minutes, then add the courgette and kale and cook for a final 15-20 minutes before serving.
  7. While the soup is simmering away, drizzle some olive oil into a large frying pan set on a high heat and fry the sliced onion until brown and crispy. Add the reserved chickpeas and brown them with the onions. Season, then using a slotted spoon, remove the onions and chickpeas from the pan and set aside.
  8. To make the herb oil, put the olive oil, parsley, dill and coriander in a small blender (or bowl) with the pistachios, lemon juice, sea salt and pepper. Blitz (with a hand blender) until finely chopped and with the consistency of pesto. If you need to slacken the mixture, add a bit more oil.
  9. Pour the soup into large bowls, then generously crumble in the feta (if using). Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the herb oil into each bowl over the feta. Finally, add the reserved crispy fried onions and chickpeas. Finish with a little freshly chopped coriander (if using). Serve with some nice crusty bread.
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