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

Mum in a Million

Mother’s Day carried particular significance this year, for obvious reasons. Although I have always known how special Marge is, and this knowledge and my admiration for her has deepened since her diagnosis, we all wanted to make that extra effort this Mothering Sunday to show Marge our gratitude for her past sacrifices, appreciation for her guidance and care and love for positive, warm disposition.

However, we were faced with a challenge. Mothering Sunday had fallen on the week following Marge’s chemo, and this time round recovery was definitely sluggishly dragging its feet. The nausea and fatigue were still obnoxiously making their presence felt so whilst many other Mums were being treated to champagne, afternoon tea, winter strolls and meals out, we could simply offer Marge an afternoon activity of cups of green tea in front of the tennis (thanks Andy Murray for giving us such entertaining viewing… much appreciated)!

Aside from the usual presents and cards, I knew that the best gift I could give Marge for Mother’s Day was a delicious meal that she could enjoy. Strangely (and thankfully), eating seems to dampen her nausea and so meals tend to be the highlight of her day, whatever she is eating. But today was a special day and called for a special recipe and the Guardian seemed to have the answer. Whilst chatting over newspapers and steaming fresh coffee on Saturday morning, we spotted what looked like the perfect recipe for a chilly Mothering Sunday – Thomasina Miers’ Slow-Braised Duck Legs with Seville Oranges, Star Anise and Savoy Cabbage.

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Duck is not something we cook often in our family and that, combined with it’s rich, meaty flavour, make it seem like a rather grand and special treat, elevating the meal above the normal midweek meals. The combinations of flavours in this recipe – the rich fruitiness of the Madeira, dark, soft meat of the duck, sharpness of the orange and fiery heat of the ginger – work in complete harmony. This along with the occasional burst of subtle sweetness from the braised shallots, result in the most delightful, warming dish.

I served this, as Miers suggests, alongside a potato and celeriac mash. Deciding to combine the two vegetables into one side and one process did not go entirely to plan (in case you didn’t know celeriac will stubbornly refuse to make its way through a potato ricer) so if you were to do the same I would recommend using a masher to pummel the veg. You also need to add less milk/cream, as the celeriac carries more water than simply potato. But the final outcome was thoroughly enjoyable, as there is an added intrigue to a multi-textured mash, the chunks of celeriac offering a welcome break to the smooth, silky texture of the potato.

Unfortunately, our local supermarket did not stock Seville oranges, so I used the regular variety and completely cut out the sugar in the recipe – I don’t like my dishes too sweet and the oranges I used were already deliciously ripe and saccharine. However this is down to personal preference, although I (and Miers) recommend reducing the sugar if you aren’t able to get hold of the sharper Sevilles.

Healthy Ingredients

Duck, and waterfowl generally, are particularly good for fueling metabolic processes. They are rich in iron and B vitamins (duck can contain up to three times more iron than chicken). despite what many think, duck and goose have a similar fat profile to chicken and are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are also a good source of selenium, supporting a healthy immune system.

It is worth noting that, where possible, it is preferable to eat outdoor-bred, pasture-fed, organic meat as they contain lower levels of total fat and higher levels of healthy fats such as omega-3. They are also less prone to contamination with E.coli and other bacteria. This is particularly important for those going through chemotherapy, as the treatment weakens the immune system. Healthy animals = healthy meat.

Recipe: Slow-Braised Duck Legs with (Seville) Oranges, Star Anise and Savoy Cabbage

Serves 4.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 duck legs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 baby shallots, peeled
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
  • 2 Seville oranges (or regular oranges), cut into slices, rind on
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 250ml dry oloroso sherry
  • 2 star anise
  • 3 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 thumb fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • ½ chicken stock cube dissolved in 300ml boiling water
  • 1 savoy cabbage, cut in half, cored and cut into 12 wedges

Method.

  1. Heat the oven to 170˚C/gas 3/fan 160˚C. Heat the oil in a large casserole on a medium flame. Season the duck, lay it skin side down in the hot oil and brown well on both sides. Transfer the legs to a plate, then pour off most of the fat in the pan, leaving just a couple of tablespoons.
  2. Return the pot to the heat, add the shallots and garlic, and fry gently for five minutes, until golden.
  3. Lay the orange slices on top of the shallots, then throw in the herbs and sit the duck legs on top. Add the sherry, star anise, sugar and ginger, then enough stock to come two-thirds of the way up the meat. Season generously, bring up to a simmer, cover and transfer to the oven for 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the lid, tuck the cabbage under the legs, so it’s submerged in stock with the duck sitting on top, then return, uncovered, to the oven for a further 45 minutes, until the duck is golden and falling off the bone and the cabbage is very tender.
  5. Lift out and discard the orange slices. Serve the legs astride a spoonful of mash (potato and/or celeriac) with a pile of cabbage and spoonfuls of the fragrant sauce.