Bowled Over

Today is the day that seemed like a lifetime away. The day that was stubbornly dragging its feet like a sulky child and inflicting every ounce of displeasure it could on those that were willing it come around. The day of Marge’s last chemotherapy session.

Though the journey is by no means over and the next couple of weeks will undoubtedly be difficult as Marge struggles through the same cruel and monotonous side effect pattern, it is an optimistic benchmark, the beginning of the end. Just as the weather forecast is finally showing signs of the new season, of long bright days and sunshine and warmth, a new season is upon us too. We have spring cleaned our outlook and adopted a new and positive determinism. As Marge perfectly summed up, our reaction to the next stage now is “bring it on!”

With this fresh optimism comes fresh tastes, bright colours and zingy flavours. Meals are so often an extension of our personalities and moods. When we are sad or lonely we seek comfort in rich ingredients and dense textures, offering us the condolence – company almost – we crave, through their full-bodied and luxurious flavours. Yet when we have adopted a new lease of life, an increased vitality and happier state of mind, we seek out those lighter, vibrant meals which fill us with energy and reflect our renewed zeal.

A cheerful meal is, of course, not just reflected in its tastes and textures – in fact the first impression you get of a meal’s ‘mood’ is its appearance; the colours and tones of the ingredients and its appearance on the plate. The way food is presented has become so much more important to me since I have started cooking for Marge’s recovery. I have already written at length about her lack of taste and my attempt to combat this with bold flavour and unique texture combinations, but one other way to to fight the food fatigue is through aesthetics. Beautiful food is, without a doubt, a holistically satisfying experience. Though the often beige and dull-looking junk foods give us fleeting moments of pleasure, do they ever really tempt us with their aesthetic allure? Simply, no. They are a response to our cravings. Yet a vivd rainbow of fresh, healthy ingredients stimulates an appetite they may have not already exists; it awakens all the senses, way beyond the tastebuds.

When a plate of food is attractive to look at, it also shows a care and love that goes beyond that of simply the ingredient combinations themselves. It shows that thought is being given to the entire eating experience, that the cook has thought outside of the box (or the pan) and is taking into account all of the eaters’ needs and pleasures. This is even more important for Marge when one of her senses has been cruelly taken away and she is unable to share in the fundamental pillar of meal time. It allows her to jointly enjoy the beauty and aesthetic delight of dinnertime.
With the sun coming out and the comforting dark tones and deep flavours of the past season shrinking back with the winter shadows, we are now into the season of vibrancy.
The Lunson family’s new beginnings are ready to be reflected on the plate. Whenever I think of bright colours and bold flavours, I do tend to mentally migrate towards South America and, more specifically, Mexico. Ingredients such as limes, peppers, chillis, corn, and sweet potatoes simply light up a plate and completely encapsulate a sunny disposition. Perusing through food blogs and recipe websites, I came across a meal that would be a feast for the mouth and the eyes on the brilliant food blog, Cookie and Kate. Her Spicy Sweet Potato and Green Rice Bowl screams colour and vitality and would be the perfect way to celebrate entering a new phase in Marge’s treatment. Full of wholesome ingredients and contrasting textures, it would give Marge a thoroughly enjoyable eating experience even if her tastebuds have been clouded by her treatment.

I did alter the above recipe a bit, adding a few more spices and flavours to the black beans, and the toppings are completely down to preference. The beauty with bowl recipes is that they can be dictated by your day-to-day fancies, dietary requirements, or even simply what your fridge and cupboards allow. The list of ingredients may be long but please don’t panic! The method itself is gloriously easy and the end product is a delight to both eat and admire. The balanced meal which will also add a bit of colour to your life.

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Healing Ingredients

Chilli – Chilli’s volatile oils, particularly capsaicin, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and give chilli its cholesterol-lowering (‘unhealthy’ LDL cholesterol levels), blood-sugar balancing and appetite suppressing properties. Chillis are known to stimulate digestion and boost metabolism as well as encouraging the body’s natural detox process by promoting increased sweating. 

Avocado – Full of healthy monounsaturated oils and antioxidants, avocados can lower blood pressure and protect from heart disease and stroke as well as lubricate joints, as they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The fats in this fruit are unique and are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits, they are also thought to boost fertility.

Recipe: Spicy Sweet Potato, Black Bean and Green Rice Bowl

Serves 4.

Green rice:

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 300g brown rice
  • 750 ml vegetable stock
  • 3 large handfuls baby spinach
  • 1 small bunch coriander, leaves removed
  • 1-2 green chilli peppers, seeded, membranes removed and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, peeled, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Sweet potatoes:

  • 3 medium sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Seasoned black beans:

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cans black beans (or kidney beans, or both)
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp chilli powder
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar or lime juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Optional garnishes:

  • Pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 2 avocados, pitted and sliced
  • Chopped coriander
  • Crumbled feta
  • Chopped cherry/plum tomatoes or tomato salsa
  • Sweetcorn
  • Cooked chicken/beef

Method.

  1. Preheat oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7.
  2. Place the spinach, coriander, chilli pepper, onion, garlic, seasoning and 150ml of the vegetable stock into a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the rice and stir to coat, frying until lightly browned.
  4. Add the green purée into the rice. Stir until the rice is evenly coated and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Add the rest of the vegetable broth to the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Cook the rice on a very low simmer until tender (35 to 40 minutes).
  5. Whilst the rice is cooking, toss the sweet potatoes in the olive oil, smoked paprika and salt until the sweet potatoes are evenly coated in oil. Arrange in a single layer on a prepared baking sheet. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, tossing halfway, until the sweet potatoes are tender and caramelising at the edges.
  6. In a separate pan, fry the onion for about 5 minutes until golden and softened. Add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes longer before adding the beans and their cooking liquid (don’t drain the beans) to the pan. Stir in the cumin, oregano, chilli powder, cayenne pepper tomato puree and warm over medium heat. Once the beans are simmering,reduce heat to a gentle simmer uncovered to reduce until you’re ready to serve.
  7. Once the rice is cooked, remove the pan from heat and place a clean tea towel over the pan (this will help absorb excess liquid as the rice continues to cook in its own steam) and let it sit for approx. 10 minutes.
  8. Fluff the rice with a fork and season with salt if necessary. Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and the beans from heat, stir in the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Now it’s time to assemble your bowls: First add green rice, then use a slotted spoon to transfer beans to the bowls and top with sweet potatoes and any other garnishes you are using. Let your imagination and artistic flair run wild!

Rooting for Other Causes

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It is so easy to become wrapped up in our own immediate problems. Personal worries are naturally the utmost priority and it seems the brain can only process a certain amount of stress and concern before its defenses come up and it barricades itself against any other incoming issues. Having had strong opinions on almost everything (to the annoyance of most of my friends and family), I am finding that political debate no longer awakens my argumentative appetite and my hunger for knowledge of contemporary issues is waning.

This reaction has been entirely subconscious. I have watched the evening news, willing myself to absorb the information, sat on the train on the way into work attempting to form opinions on the text in front of me, yet the processes are entirely superficial. Rather than penetrating my mind and stirring up strong feelings, they linger on the surface, simply making me aware of their presence, yet never really burrowing down deep enough to dig up beliefs and judgements.

It is not that I have become (entirely) apathetic, but, quite simply, I am fed up of worrying – it is both mentally and physically exhausting.What little energy I have left I want to use positively; Mum and Meal has allowed me to proactively contribute to Marge’s recovery, it has lifted her spirits (and her appetite) and has given her, me and the family the encouragement we need to remain strong. It has also prompted me to root for those causes I am truly passionate about and to focus my energies on making a difference on those areas of interest, no matter how small.

The blog has taught me a lot, not only at an emotional level but on a more practical level as well, specifically about the amazing properties of everyday ingredients and how we can best utilise them in order to maximise their benefits. Through my research and reading, it has become clear that we are often not cooking our ingredients in the most beneficial way, often wasting or draining away nutritional value through conventional cooking methods. My efforts to ensure Marge is getting the most amount of vitamins possible from the food she has eating has highlighted to me the creative ways you can cook with many ingredients. Yet it has also underlined a huge problem that we have not just in the UK, but all over the globe – food waste.

Food waste is an issue that has always been a concern of mine, yet experimenting with amazingly versatile and interesting foods for this blog has reignited my passion to make a positive change in this area. Though blame is often focused on supermarkets and their troops of regimented veg, almost 50% of the total amount of food thrown away in the UK comes from our homes. We throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year in the UK, and more than half of this is food and drink we could have eaten. Wasting food is not just throwing away money – it is throwing away taste, texture and nutritional value. So whilst many may hastily chop the tops of carrots, cast aside fennel tops, and turn their backs on the broccoli stalks, I have been embracing the whole of the vegetable, with all its lumps and bumps – from root to stem.

Every component of vegetables have their own unique tastes, textures and benefits so you are essentially getting multiple veggies in one clever package. Cauliflower, a favourite ingredient of mine, is the perfect example and when cooking my Black Bean, Quinoa and Cauliflower Bowl, not a scrap was wasted. When I cook cauliflower, I like cut off the florets and then I chop up the stem and cook it (in this case roasted) with the florets (they require the same amount of cooking time to become tender). With the leaves, I like to slice them fairly finely and stir fry – the middle of the leaves retains a delightful, refreshing crunch whilst the outside of the leaves gently wilt and take on a deeper, earthier, herbaceous flavour, adding a whole new dimension to an already brilliant Brassica. If we all used vegetables to their full potential, we would not only help with the huge food waste problem, but we would unlock a treasure trove of tastes, textures and nutritional benefits. Basically, we’ve struck gold!

Recipe: Black Bean, Quinoa and Cauliflower Bowl.

Serves 4.

For the quinoa:

  • 185g uncooked quinoa 
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • Handful fresh herbs (parsley or coriander work well), finely chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, julienned

For the dressing:

  • Juice of 3 limes, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoons pure maple syrup, or to taste
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

For the bowl:

  • 1 large cauliflower, florets separated, core chopped into chunks and leaves sliced
  • 2 sweet potatoes, cut into rounds
  • Olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Hummus
  • Hemp seeds

Method.

  1. Preheat the oven to 200˚C/gas 6/180˚C fan.
  2. Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh sieve. Add into saucepan and cover with 2 times its volume with water or vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low-medium, and then cover with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy.
  3. Remove from heat and steam with the lid on for 5 additional minutes. Fluff with fork and chill in the fridge for another 15 minutes.
  4. Whilst the quinoa is cooking, place the cauliflower florets and stalk and the sweet rounds on roasting trays. Toss in the olive oil and ground cumin and season to taste. Roast for approx. 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and golden.
  5. In a large bowl, toss the quinoa, drained and rinsed black beans, herbs, and carrots.
  6. Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl or jar, adjusting to taste. Pour onto the quinoa and toss to combine. Season to taste.
  7. Heat 1tbsp oilive oil in a frying pan and add the cauliflower leaves. Gently stir fry until the outer parts of the leaves have wilted but the inside remain crunchy. Season to taste.
  8. Now simply build your bowl out of the quinoa, roasted cauliflower and sweet potato and fried cauliflower leaves. Finish with a dollop of hummus and a sprinkling of hemp seeds for extra protein.

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.