A Roast to Good Health!

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It’s been a while since I have done a post on this blog and, I have to say, it feels strange not to be documenting Marge’s journey as frequently as I once did. However, I feel it could be a good thing, a sign of my anxiety easing, that I have less of a need for an outlet to cope with the stress.

Things do seem to be getting a lot easier. The side-effects of the chemotherapy are definitely subsiding and, with every day that goes past, Marge has a bit more colour in her cheeks, her beautiful smile is getting wider and the blue of her eyes is glistening ever brighter. We all definitely feel that a corner has been turned and that we can start to look forward to this journey coming to an end.

I even managed to prise myself away from home and leave all worries and concerns at home (or at least attempt to) by going on holiday for a week. The timing was slightly unfortunate as it coincided with Marge’s second operation to get rid of some pre-cancerous cells that were found after her first op. But, good as gold as she is, I woke up in New York and was greeted to a detailed text assuring me that everything went well, that she was home safe and being looked after by the rest of the family. Being such a control freak, the fact that it wasn’t me looking after her and tending to her needs did make me feel slightly nervous, however I have learnt throughout this whole experience that I do have a habit of carrying the burden independently, like a stubborn donkey insisting on demonstrating its strength and merit. But it’s OK to relax and let other people help out, in fact it is beneficial for everyone and is conducive to a more content and less anxious environment.

Of course, this does not mean that I will be giving up my role as chef. I love how much cooking for Marge has helped her and me over the past months and have so enjoyed learning more about both nutrition and new and exciting flavour combinations. In fact, though I had the most amazing time in NYC and saw the most wonderful sights, sampled the most amazing food (I came back with a whole recipe book of ideas banked in my brain), a large part of me missed cooking. I have never experienced this when I have gone away before; I think it may be because I am cooking all the more frequently at the moment, but actually, more probably, because I have genuinely experienced the real and unparalleled joy of food since starting this blog, its healing and bonding powers.

And so, to the first meal after a brief interval – the Sunday roast. A Sunday without a roast is, quite frankly, not a true Sunday. It is missing a vital piece of the the relaxed and cosy puzzle. Yet in summer this often doesn’t feel like the appropriate meal, with its heavy meats and deep, rich gravies. The summer equinox is fast approaching and light evenings call for ever-lighter meals. However, I do not want to abandon the beloved roast completely, this would be a bit of a defeatist attitude. Instead, the roast needs its ‘summer wardrobe’.

IMG_0722Fish, to me, is such a summer staple, reminding me of warm evenings in beach-side restaurants, the sound of the waves gently floating through the air. Roasting is always a fool-proof and incredibly delicious way to cook a lot of fish. Salmon especially, lends itself really well to this method, as it’s meaty flesh means it can hold its shape and take on marinades and rubs really well. I came across the following recipe for Roast Salmon with Hasselback Potatoes and loved how it subtly twists two of the main ‘roast components’ to make this dinner both lighter and prettier (something very important in this Instagram age…). The earthy flavour of the salmon is brought to life by the light acidity of lemon and the freshness of bright, green herbs; paired with a simple salad, it was amazingly easy and perfect for those Sundays in a lazy, summer haze.

As a little extra note: hasselback potatoes have to be the most fun way to cook potatoes. Not only do they look like cute little hedgehogs, but they are the perfect mix of crispy chip-like texture and the fluffiness of jackets. Absolute winner.

Recipe: Roast Salmon with Hasselback Potatoes

Serves 8.

For the salmon:

  • 2 whole sides salmon, skin-on
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp juniper berries (optional)
  • handful fresh dill, finely chopped
  • handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 x 30g pack chives, snipped
  • 2 lemons, 1 zested, 1 sliced
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 100ml white wine or Pernod (optional)

For the potatoes:

  • 8 medium white potatoes
  • 50g (2oz) butter

For the salad:

  • 240g (8oz) watercress, spinach and rocket salad
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) pitted green olives, sliced
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) radishes, sliced
  • 1/2 x 285g jar sun-dried tomatoes in oil, roughly chopped

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to gas 6/200°C/fan 180°C. Line a roasting tin with a sheet each of kitchen foil and nonstick baking paper large enough to scrunch up around the salmon, but not cover it. Put a piece of salmon, skin-side down, in the tin.
  2. Using a pestle and mortar, finely grind the peppercorns, coriander seeds and juniper berries (if using) with 1 tsp salt. Set aside.
  3. In a bowl, combine the dill, parsley, 2/3 of the chives (reserving the remainder for the salad) and all but 1 tsp of the spice mixture. Add the lemon zest, then discard the remaining skin and pith and cut the flesh into small segments. Add to the herb mixture, squeezing out as much juice as you can with the back of a spoon. Stir in 1 tbsp of the oil.
  4. Spread the herb mixture over the salmon flesh, then top with the second piece of salmon, skin-side up. Tie the fish together with kitchen string, tucking a lemon slice under each piece. Scatter over the remaining spice mixture and drizzle with the remaining oil. Scrunch up the sides of the foil and nonstick paper to catch the juices.
  5. For the potatoes, slice each one at 3-4mm intervals, cutting just over halfway down. Put the butter in a roasting tin and melt in the oven. Add the potatoes to the tin and toss in the butter to ensure the cuts are well coated. Season.
  6. Roast the salmon and potatoes for 50 minutes. After 20 minutes, add the white wine or Pernod to the salmon (if using, otherwise add a little cold water), basting occasionally with the juices. Turn and baste the potatoes every so often in the butter. Remove the salmon after the cooking time and leave to rest in a warm place. Continue cooking the potatoes for 10-15 minutes, until tender and golden.
  7. Meanwhile, make the salad. Put all the ingredients in a serving bowl, along with the reserved chives, and toss to combine with a little oil from the jar of sun-dried tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon.
  8. Serve the roasted salmon in slices with the potatoes and the salad.
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Deconstructing the ‘Cancer Experience’

I am writing this blog post on the first Tuesday that would have been a ‘chemo day’. A day when my stomach would have spent each long, drawn-out hour tying itself in knots like a game of Cats Cradle, never able to come to a conclusion and finally detangle itself. It is the first Tuesday that I am able to peal my eyes away from my phone, to enjoy a leisurely walk back to the station in the late Spring sunshine, and to finally place a peaceful head on my pillow, happily conceding myself to an uninterrupted slumber rather than waiting in desperate anticipation for the worries to subside.

Though we have been celebrating the end of Marge’s chemotherapy since her final session, and the relief we all felt on that day cannot be underplayed, this feeling of elation and freedom is unique. It is amazing how much emotion gets poured into the mental preparation before a session, how both Marge as the ‘patient’ and the family as the ‘support network’ can so easily become disconnected with reality and ourselves as we mechanically go through the motions, clambering over each hurdle and doing our best to overcome every side-effect. Almost like a hamster in its wheel, we knew and were weary of the repetitious road in front of us but remained arduous in our efforts to reach the end. But it’s only once that whirlwind motion stops that your head can finally stop spinning, you can take a long, deep breath and get back to some kind of regularity.

It’s in these moments of stillness that you gain a certain clarity. You are finally able to to stop and reflect on your experience, for all of its highs and lows. I have learnt a tremendous amount over the past four months or so, about cancer, chemotherapy and its impact, nutrition, but also myself and how I deal with stress and loved ones going through difficulty. Although I am fully aware that cancer affects everyone differently, that treatments and reactions to those treatments vary enormously, I thought it could be useful, or at least reassuring, to write a quick list of my most important ‘lessons’.One of the main reasons I started to write this blog was to potentially be able to help: dealing with cancer is incredibly isolating, but there are others going through the same things, experiencing the same pain and difficulties; you are not alone.

Lesson 1: The importance of food for recovery 

Food is an incredibly powerful and potent force, both physically and mentally. Putting nutritious and wholesome food in your body, that assists the healing process and fills you with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, means that you will be in the best position possible to fight any ailment that you are confronted with. You don’t have to spend a fortune on the most fashionable superfoods either (although I am the first to admit I am a sucker for these foods trends), everyday ingredients and cupboard staples can be just a rich in their nutritional benefits. Healthy eating should concentrate on keeping things colourful and varied and on taking things back to basics. Humans evolved to eat whole foods that exist in nature, not ingredients made in labs. Quality, natural and minimal ingredients are the way forward, not just for cancer patients, but for everyone.

This wholesome approach will also impact mind-set as well. Knowing that you are filling your body with goodness makes you feel more positive and that you are better equipped to fight disease. Marge has told me many times how much it helps her stay determined, that she maintains these habits even when I am not there as she knows how much effort I am putting in and the beneficial effects this effort is having. Her body is as strong and prepared as it can be and this has a knock-on effect on her mental preparations as well.

Not only this but eating meals as a family has offered Marge an experience that she can share in when she feels like an ‘other’, like she is different from the rest of us. It brought the family closer together, it is a constant in a turbulent time that we can all rely on. Everything tastes better with company, so when your tastebuds are marred, social meals become increasingly important.

Lesson 2: There is no ‘right approach’ when it comes to chemo and cancer treatment 

No matter how much research and reading you do, how thoroughly you trawl through leaflets and books and websites, every cancer patient is different. Yes, you can prepare yourself for the various side-effects, make things as comfortable as possible, and equip yourself with the knowledge with how to best cope, but this will most likely all go out the window. Where needed and necessary, you should approach the whole experience as you should and approach your food: organically. Everyone will experience a different combination of effects, will respond differently to the physical and mental burden of chemotherapy and will require a different approach. React as best you can to each moment and don’t panic if you feel useless. This is inevitable. Just remember you are not useless, and you should never underestimate the impact even the smallest of actions will make.

Lesson 3: Understanding senses beyond taste and how vital they are to the eating experience

Taste is generally the first thing you think of when it comes to eating. If you cook a meal for someone, of course you want their response to be that it’s “delicious”, “flavoursome” or (if they’re feeling particularly excitable) “a delight on the palate”. For so many, this is their single focus, their be-all and end-all; it is a luxury that many of us take for granted. Yet when this luxury is taken away and taste is no longer the heavy-weight of the senses, you realise how much joy its close cousins, mouthfeel, smell and sight are. A meal that provides contrast with enjoyable and interesting textures, alluring aromas and beautiful, vibrant colours adds intrigue and pleasure where taste may be lacking. In fact, these elements also play a vital role in delivering that all important flavour; the senses work in unison, so if you concentrate in creating an impact with the textures, smells and appearances of your meals, you will undoubtedly bolster the flavour.

Lesson 4: Cooking is great therapy

I have always loved to cook and find the actual physicality of actions such as stirring, slicing, chopping, and kneading incredibly therapeutic. But its sanative properties go far beyond that. Cooking Marge delicious, healing meals is giving me a purpose, a motivation and an aim. I have been able to maintain an element of control when I am completely out of my depth, drowning under the weight of new, uncharted concerns. I can feel like I am making a difference, no matter how small, when so much is out of my hands.

Yet it is not just therapy for me. Safe in the comfort that she is being supported in an all-round, holistic way, Marge has no doubt remained calmer than she would have without this subtle support. Of course, this does not have to come in the form of cooking, but alleviating everyday responsibilities and mundane concerns, no matter how tiny, has a huge impact and will make the whole experience so much less overwhelming. To use a common metaphor – the pebble of responsibility may be small, but the ripples will be both wide and long-lasting.

Lesson 5: How supportive and lovely other people are

The support Marge has received so far has been absolutely phenomenal. It has completely blown me away. Aside from the many bunches of flowers and gifts and baked goods she has received, it is also the diamonds of wisdom, gems of humour and coins of condolence that have made such a difference to Marge’s experience. Friends are precious and so many of Marge’s friends have shown themselves to be absolute treasures. I know she has probably thanked all of them personally, but I also want to say the biggest thank you to all of Mum’s wonderful friends (in case they are reading) for their continued support. x

Given I have just deconstructed the past four months, I thought it fitting to ‘toast’ this with a recipe for a deconstructed sushi bowl. Simple, vibrant and light ingredients – a perfect reflection of my new mood and a fresh approach to the next stage. Bring it on.

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Recipe: Deconstructed Sushi Bowl (served on a plate…)

Serves 4.

  • 2 tbsp Japanese rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 200g mixed radishes, finely sliced
  • 200g white crab meat
  • 2 tsp wasabi paste
  • 2 tbsp crème fraîche
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 200g mango, finely diced
  • 4 tbsp finely diced red onion
  • Large handful finely chopped coriander leaves
  • 200g quinoa
  • 2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • Large handful pea shoots
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

Method.

  1. Toast the quinoa in a dry saucepan until it turns a darker golden brown and begins to pop. Slowly add double the volume of water and let it come to the boil. Cover and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 mins until all the water is absorbed.
  2. Whisk the vinegar, honey and a pinch of salt in a bowl; toss in the radishes and set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the crab, wasabi, crème fraîche and lime zest and juice, then stir through the mango, onion and coriander; season to taste.
  4. Toss with the cooked quinoa with the tamari or soy sauce and marinating liquid from the radishes; divide between bowls.
  5. Arrange the crab mixture, avocado, radishes and cress on top. Sprinkle over the seeds and serve alongside some steamed/stir-fried veg, if liked.

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.