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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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.

Acts of Love

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“Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.” Alan D. Wolfelt.

It was, incidentally, Valentine’s weekend when I first came across this quote. Valentine’s day and the first weekend after Marge’s second chemo session. I had never really been in a believer in Valentine’s day (partly because I was always single, bitter and alone, partly because I never understood why we needed a specific day to demonstrate our love for others), but this quote seemed to puncture the heart of the weekend’s activities. I was spending my Valentine’s weekend in the kitchen, doing what I love for the people I love.

During the week Mum is at home by herself and is doing an amazing job of cooking for herself, despite being completely exhausted and suffering from worsening the side-effects of chemo: the treatment has completely robbed her of her energy; nausea has made its triumphant return; and the burning sensation in her stomach has reignited its flame. Yet, despite all of this, she is still managing to eat three good and (mostly) healthy meals a day and I even caught her making bircher muesli for my dad and sister one evening –  it seems even chemo cannot dampen a mother’s instinct to care for her family.

However, if I am at home then I can’t help but want to take care of her. For all of my 24 years, she has been the most incredibly doting and selfless mother, always putting us first and doing whatever is in her power to make us happy; I want to do the same. Though I am powerless against the physical effects of her treatment, I am powerful when it comes to improving her mood and making her feel looked after. Cooking and showing my love through food is my contribution to her well-being. So, despite not believing in Valentines day as such, the fact that this ‘day of love’ coincides with a weekend succeeding chemo has definitely given me an extra zeal. This weekend Marge is going to be filled with love, in the form of delicious food.

It is not often that I am in to make lunch, so I wanted to make sure I cooked something special. Yet, as I have already found out, when Marge is feeling her worst, the best approach is to listen to the demands of her stomach and cravings. Today, they commanded fishcakes (a pleasant surprise I have to say). With a simple meal such as this, so much of the love and care put into it is communicated by the aesthetic and finer touches of the dish, those little extras that scream immense affection. Presentation has such a significant affect on appetite – when a dish looks like love and care have been put it into it, the desire to eat it grows. So when the stomach ordered fishcakes, I answered with Tuna Fishcakes Topped with Spinach and Fried Egg, sprinkled with turmeric and chilli – to turn up the heat on Valentine’s weekend. The dish contains lots of protein to build Marge’s strength and is full anti-oxidant rich ingredients so her body is equipped to resist the nasty side-effects as best as it can.

Healthy Ingredients

Eggs are an excellent source of quality protein and are one of the few food sources of vitamin D – necessary for healthy bones and teeth. They also contain plenty of antioxidants that help prevent cancer and heart disease, choline and other B-vitamins that support healthy function of nerves and the brain and are thought to balance blood sugar levels.

Spinach is packed with vitamins and minerals and contains more than a dozen different antioxidant flavanoid compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties, protecting against heart disease and helping to neutralise the free radicals that weaken the immune system and are linked to cancer. High in vitamin K, it also helps to protect bones.

Recipe: Tuna Fishcakes Topped with Spinach and Fried Egg.

Serves 1.

  • 75-100g mashed potato (I had some left over)
  • 1/2 tin tuna
  • 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
  • tbsp flour (plain or gluten-free variety)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil plus extra, to drizzle
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 2 generous handfuls fresh spinach
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper, to season
  • turmeric, to sprinkle
  • chilli flakes, to sprinkle

Method.

  1. In a bowl, mix the mashed potato with the tuna and mustard and season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  2. Shape into two equally sized patties and coat each side in flour.
  3. In a frying pan, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil over a medium heat and fry the patties on each side for about 2-3 minutes until they are golden brown. Remove and set aside.
  4. Add 1 tbsp more of the oil and add the garlic slices. Fly until lightly golden before adding the spinach, cooking until wilted. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Whilst the spinach is wilting, in a separate frying pan add the final tbsp of oil and crack in the egg. Fry for about a minute before putting a lid on top, turning the heat right down and cooking for a further 1-2 minutes (depending on how you like your yolk). This will allow the egg to ‘steam’ cook and stop the underneath of the egg from getting too crispy.
  6. Serve the spinach on top of one of the fishcakes and the egg on top of the other. Sprinkle with a pinch of turmeric and chilli flakes, a grind of pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Eat the Rainbow

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The day of Marge’s chemo finally arrived. The start of the ‘those four months’. If anything, I found myself feeling almost relieved. Yes it was going to be difficult, probably at times unbearable, but at least something was being done. The waiting and the unknown had been tormenting our family for months now and this was the start of the next chapter.

The lack of news was the hardest thing about that day. I had not managed to see Mum before heading off to work in the morning and I knew that, once she was in that chair, I would probably not get an update until it was all over. The overriding message that I had got from the nurses, internet and anecdotal stories was that everyone deals with chemotherapy differently. Whilst some patients cope well (with both the chemo itself and the cold cap which mum was using to try and prevent hair loss), others do not. Chemo day was a waiting game and I was completely oblivious to the odds.

Finally at 4.30pm my phone screen sprang to life. A message from Marge:

“…Went well and managed to stick with the cold cap so very pleased about that.”

As I read, a wave of relief surged through my body, breaking in my mouth forcing me to let out a huge sigh. That was the best news possible.

Of course this was just the start. Chemotherapy is an incredibly aggressive treatment which attacks dividing cells in the body, both malignant and normal. So it can cause unpleasant side-effects such as severe nausea, extreme tiredness and mouth ulcers. Despite Marge saying she was currently feeling OK, her body was now under a lot of stress and I wanted to ensure it was in the best position to cope with what was to come.

Everyone knows there’s a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow… And by eating a rainbow you will end up glowing yourself, inside and out. By consuming a wide variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables, you will ensure that your body is getting the nutrients and phytochemicals it needs to be at its strongest, for every colour represents a different spectrum and these work together to promote health (to read more on this I would recommend Neal’s Yard Remedies: Healing Foods). So that was what was on the menu: colour! And it came in the form of Salmon, Beetroot and Greens Pilaf, a recipe packed with health-boosting, delicious ingredients.

Except, sadly, Marge missed out on all of them. Having taken a turn for the worst shortly after I began cooking, she was unable to stomach such vibrant colours, tastes and textures. Feeling nauseous and suffering from flu-like symptoms, all she managed to eat that evening was toast and biscuits, washed down with hot chocolate. I realised that had ran before I could walk, that the days immediately following a chemo session were the days when Marge was likely to feel at her sickest – such strong flavours would not sit well. So straight after chemo = plain, plain, plain.

Yet this was always going to be a learning curve and I just had to try and work out the best approach. The pilaf I cooked was absolutely delicious, full of nutrients and looked beautiful, the spiced turmeric quinoa and rice laced with the decadent darkness of the greens and beetroot yet lifted by the soft pink of the salmon. A meal ideally for once the sickness of the chemo has gone and you are looking to make up for lack of nutrition in the days immediately succeeding treatment.

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Healing Ingredients

Beetroots have a unique group of antioxidants called betacyanins. These give beetroots their deep colour and are the reason for their many medicinal benefits including supporting the liver, improving circulation and purifying the blood. Make sure you eat the leaves too, as these are even more nutrient packed than the root, being rich in vitamin K and beta-carotene.

Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which protect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. It is also uniquely rich in solenium, which together with these omega-3 fatty acids help to lower blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels in the blood and inflammation, reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Recipe: Salmon, Beetroot and Greens Pilaf

Serves 4.

  • 4 small beetroots, leaves and stalks reserved
  • 150g wholgrain rice
  • 75g quinoa
  • Fish stock (optional)
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 4 salmon fillets
  • 150g greens, shredded
  • Handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • Juice 1 lemon

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6/fan 180°C.
  2. Place the brown rice in a saucepan and cover with 450ml water or stock (so that there is about 3cm of water above the rice). Bring to the boil then put a lid on and simmer for 30 minutes, or until done to taste.
  3. Wrap each beetroot in foil and roast for 20-25 minutes, until tender.
  4. Place the quinoa in a separate pan and, again, cover with 300ml water or stock. Cook for 15 minutes until all the liquid has absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy but not mushy.
  5. Meanwhile heat 1 tbsp coconut oil in a wide-based pan and fry the onion until golden. Add the spices and fry for a further couple of minutes.
  6. Once the rice and the quinoa are cooked, drain any excess liquid and add to the pan with the onions; mix well.
  7. Heat the remaining coconut oil in a frying pan and fry skin-side down for three minutes. Turn over and cook for a further two minutes, or until cooked through. Transfer to a plate.
  8. In the same pan, add the greens and beetroot leaves along with a splash of water and cook until wilted.
  9. Peel the beetroot and cut into cubes and toss through the rice and quinoa mixture along with the greens. Flake in the salmon, then pour in the lemon juice and scatter over the parsley. Toss to combine.