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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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!

Mother of Pearl

Spring has now officially sprung. The days are gradually getting longer, the sun seems to have woken up from its slumber and is more frequently casting down its beaming smile and the faint smell of blossom and budding leaves lingers quietly in the air.

For Marge, who has always loved spring and the cheeriness it brings, the change of season meant a change of drug and that itself shone a ray of hope down on our family. Having previously received FEC chemotherapy, known for having particularity unpleasant and sicky side effects, the course of treatment has now moved on to docetaxel. Although by no means a walk in the park, the chemo nurse explained that though this drug may increase fatigue and lack of strength, it should also not cause as much nausea as FEC. This news was a huge relief for all of us as sickness was the side effect that Marge was struggling with the most and that induced the most concern within the family. Basically we were all counting down the days until the nausea would FEC off!

Chemo treatment number 4 came round as quickly as the others. It was, of course, accompanied by the familiar flurry of nerves and angst, yet this time these feelings were accompanied by mild optimism, an inkling that perhaps this time things won’t be so bad. In reality, our hopes and expectations were wholly understated. On the evening following treatment, I came through the front door to be greeted by Marge, in true seasonal style, bouncing up to greet me like the Easter bunny, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Given that after the previous round she was confined to her bed and barely had the strength to lift her head off the pillow, the difference was almost implausible. Fantastic, but completely mind-boggling.

In fact, she was whizzing round the house like she was on steroids (which she was, and this had a lot to do with her amazing energy for the 36 hours or so following her treatment). I messaged her from work checking that she was feeling OK the following morning, only to be greeted by a long list of spring cleaning that she had completed – a list that included scrubbing the back of the fridge. It was 10.30am!

Unfortunately, this hyperactive state was only transient; as the effects of the steroids wore off, fatigue slowly draped itself over her and a persistent, dull ache swelled in her joints. Yet, as her nurse advised, the nausea remained absent. The meals following her chemo were not limited to childish comforts and plain, easily digestible dishes. Of course, this added another dimension to my glee, as it meant I could dive straight in with filling her up with minerals and goodness, rather than put my plans on hold for her stomach to stop its protest.

Although I adore spring, with its fresh optimism and cheerful tones, I do love the comfort and depth and colour and flavour of winter ingredients. So on one rainy weekday during chemo week, when it seemed weather appropriate, I took what was probably my final chance to use the best of the winter vegetables in a Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto. I came across the recipe on one of my favourite vegan/veggie blogs – The Veg Space – and not only is it exceptionally easy but it is wonderfully hearty and flavoursome. Using barley instead of rice really adds to the comfort-factor of this dish. The nutty little pearls greedily absorb the cooking liquid, soaking up an abundance of flavour and swelling to almost double their size. This results in a gorgeously gelatinous and chewy texture. It is a pure delight to both eat and to look at, with the vibrant orange of the squash and deep green of kale working in perfect harmony. A pearl of a dish for a pearl of a woman.

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Healthy Ingredients

Barley has a number of brilliant medicinal properties. Due to its high fibre content (one portion provides almost half the daily recommended amount), it is fantastic at improving digestion and removing excess fat and cholesterol from the bloodstream, lowering the risk of hypertension and hardening of the arteries, thus improving heart health. Its fibre also feeds the good bacteria in the gut and, in turn, helps maintain a healthy colon. As a slow-release carbohydrate, its low glycemic index helps to improve blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diabetes. 

Recipe: Butternut Squash and Kale Barlotto

Serves 4.

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 600g butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1cm chunks
  • 250g pearl barley
  • 150ml white wine
  • 750ml vegetable stock
  • 100g curly kale, stalks removed
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tbsp thyme leaves
  • zest of 1 lemon, juice of 1/2
  • handful pine nuts, toasted in a dry frying pan for a minute or two
  • Sprinkle of sumac (optional)

Method.

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and cook the onion  for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the butternut squash and cook for a further 2 minutes.
  2. Add the pearl barley and white wine to the pan, turn up the heat and cook for 3 minutes until most of the wine has cooked away.
  3. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
  4. Add the curly kale, and cook for a further 5 minutes until the pearl barley is tender, but still a little bit squidgy and chewy. Remove from the heat, stir through the thyme, lemon juice and lemon zest, then divide between bowls, scatter with the pine nuts and sprinkle with the sumac to serve.

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.

Maize the Force be with You

It seems so paradoxical that time can simultaneously be tortuously dragging its feet whilst also sprinting away at irretrievable speed. Although it feels like an age since Marge’s chemo began, and those moments she is suffering lethargically linger over the family like a heavy smog, I appear to have blinked and suddenly it is that time again: the evening before chemo session three.

Given the cumulative side-effects and Marge’s reaction to the last lot of treatment, there is definitely a poignant and almost tangible feeling of nervousness in the house. Nothing anyone can say or do is of much comfort. There is no get out of jail card (if there was I would be throwing money at it left, right and centre). The side-effects just have to be dealt with, by Marge and also by us.

Yet what we can do is prepare as best we can – on Mum’s side, this means coming up with a timetable of when is best to eat based on her diary recording her nausea and other side-effects or packing her bag with snacks, crossword puzzles and books to keep her entertained through the long day ahead. On my side, this means giving her a dinner to both fill her body with nutrients and fill her heart with warmth.

The wonderful thing about writing a blog, as well as the comfort it has given me going through such a difficult time, is it has encouraged me to try recipes outside of my routine, to think outside the box (or the store cupboard) and get a bit adventurous. Polenta is a dish I often see cooked and written about but it has never really been part of my ‘standard repertoire’ – normally because it is not something we have at home. Yet the other day, as I was rooting around the no-mans-land at the back of the cupboard, I stumbled across what could only be described as a sack of the stuff – and at the perfect time. Polenta, or corn maize flour, when cooked in its soft form, has the most decadently creamy and comfortingly smooth texture and is the perfect warming dish to help Marge physically and mentally prepare for what was to come.

Given the wintry, blustery feel of the last couple of days, I thought I would make the most of the produce this harsh season has to offer and cook Polenta with Roasted Root Vegetables. Hearty, sturdy ingredients such as parsnips, carrots and turnips are truly at there best throughout winter and their delicate sweetness and earthy undertones take on a whole new nutty dimension when charred in a hot oven. This is comfort food at its best.

Although I would happily let root vegetables hog the limelight at this time of year, I do like to enhance and highlight their natural flavour with a touch of salt; I find that, alongside the creamy polenta, cheese is an ideal option here. For me, a ripe and mature British stilton is a majestic ingredient and would always be my go-to choice for a dish like this – its piquant tanginess and crumbly, smooth texture being exactly the flavour and texture additions I am after. However, the Marsden and many other cancer charities advise that those going through chemotherapy should avoid blue and soft-ripened cheeses, due to a higher risk of getting food poisoning. Therefore, for Marge, we experimented with topping the dish with pasturised goats cheese, which was also completely delicious.

Filling, hearty, comforting – this dish was as close to a cuddle in a bowl as you can get (and given that a knife and fork aren’t really the best cutlery choices for this dish – you can even say that you were spooning)… what more could you want for a cold, bleak, winter’s evening?

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Healthy Ingredients

Carrots are, as their name suggests, rich in beta-carotene, which is associated with significant decreases in the incidence of certain cancers. They also help healthy digestion and aid weight control. In addition, their high content of beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein help promote eye, skin and nail health and help lower cholesterol levels. Raw carrots are a source of ‘falcarinol’ that have been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells.

Brussell Sprouts contain many valuable nutrients – they are a superb source of vitamin C and vitamin K, boosting skin health, and contain high levels of folate, manganese, vitamin B6, dietary fiber, potassium, phosphorus, and omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain high levels of anti-cancer glucosinolates, more so even than the other cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale).

Recipe: Polenta with Roasted Vegetables

  • 3 parsnips, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 2 turnips, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cubed (approx. 1cm)
  • 500g sprouts, washed and any tough leaves removed
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 150g polenta
  • 25g butter
  • Small bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 125g blue or goats cheese
  • 2 tbsp hemp seeds, to garnish (optional)

Method.

  • Preheat oven to 200˚C/gas 6/180˚C fan. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil and some seasoning and spread out into a thin layer in a large roasting tin. Roast for 40 minutes until all vegetables are tender.
  • While vegetables roast, bring the a litre of water to a boil with the 1 tsp of sea salt. In a steady stream, pour the polenta in the water while whisking. Continue to whisk the polenta until thick.
  • Once thick, let the polenta cook for 25 minutes with a lid on, stirring every five minutes to ensure polenta isn’t stuck to the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and stir in butter and parsley and season to taste.
  • Once done, pile the vegetables on top of the polenta in a bowl and sprinkle over your cheese of choice. Finally, garnish with hemp seeds, if liked.

Don’t Lament… Ferment!

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At the start of the year I began an experiment. It started before this experiment of writing about Marge’s chemo culinary journey and, looking back, was probably the seed that blossomed into the blog as it stands today. As I’ve already mentioned, as Mum’s treatment tiptoed ever closer, I felt an innate urge to do my bit to both assist her recovery and aid her determined and positive mindset. I started to research healing foods, both in their natural state and how we can use and manipulate certain ingredients to enhance their powerful properties. And there was one thing that came springing up time and time again: fermented foods.

Fermented foods come in a number of forms – from yoghurt to kimchi to sauerkraut to kefir – and their list of health benefits is even longer. Fermentation is a metabolic process in which microorganisms, for example bacteria, yeast or fungi, convert organic compounds, normally in the form of carbohydrates, into alcohol or acids. Not only is fermentation as excellent preservative and can add a real tang and gutsy flavour to your meals, but it also adds microbes to the gut, giving us a healthy dose of ‘good’ bacteria, increases micro-nutrient levels, especially that of B-vitamins, and makes food more easily digestible. Added to this, fermentation is thought to eliminate anti-nutrients, those natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

So there was really no excuse – rather than moping around lamenting Marge’s diagnose, I needed to take action, ferment-action (sorry)! I decided to ease myself in gently and chose a recipe that was not only joyfully easy but also gave me the chance channel my inner German (those that know me are aware that I have a mild – or, if I’m being honest, extreme – obsession with all things Deutsch): Sauerkraut.

Pickling cabbage in a brine solution (also known as lacto-fermentation) promotes the growth of gut-friendly bacteria and homemade sauerkraut is is richer than its shop bought counterparts in the enzymes that support a healthy gut. Insufficient of unbalanced levels of ‘good’ microbes in the gut not only affects digestion, but has been linked with a number of health issues: intestinal and bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome; immune disorders including allergies and type 1 diabetes; and metabolic diseases, for example type 2 diabetes and obesity. There have also been indications from a number of studies that consumption of fermented foods can help to reduce the risk of cancer and improve emotional health, two side effects that are much needed at this time. Plus, of course, this preserving technique helps to maintain the health boosting properties of cabbage.

Marge always did enjoy getting pickled, but now (rather than on cava), she was going to experience a whole new meaning of the word…

Healing Ingredients

Cabbage is an incredibly balancing and grounding food. It has been shown to clear the blood, boost skin health due to its high levels of vitamins C and K, and is a remedy for ulcers thanks to its ample amounts of vitamin U. It also supports liver function as it stimulates the production of glutathione (which plays a role in liver detoxification), is anti-parasitic due to its high sulphur content and helps to promote bowel regularity.

 

Recipe: Sauerkraut

Makes 1.35kg.

  • 2.5-3kg hard white, red or green cabbage
  • Approx. 60g coarse sea or rock salt
  • 1 tbsp caraway seeds

Method.

  1. Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, reserving them for later, slice the cabbage in half, remove the cores, quarter and shred finely using a food processor or sharp knife.
  2. Weigh the cabbage and calculate the amoutn of slat you need – approx. 60g of salt per 2.5kg of cabbage
  3. Place the cabbage in a large, clean bowl and sprinkle in the salt evenly. Massage the salt into the cabbage until it begins to feel wet. Leave for a few minutes for the salt to draw out the water and soften the cabbage.
  4. Pack into a large, sterilised jar. Add 5cm of the cabbage at a time and scatter with the caraway seeds, packing each layer down with the end of a rolling pin or large pestle. Leave 7.5cm at the top of the jar.
  5. Add any juices from the bowl and top up with cold brine (1 1/2 tsp salt to 1 litre boiled, cooled water) so that the cabbage is covered.
  6. Place a clean muslin over the cabbage and place one of the larger outer leaves of the cabbage over the surface. Place a large jar or sandwich bag filled with water on top.
  7. Leave in a well-ventilated place at room temperature (ideal temperature 20-22°C, below 13°C and fermentation will stop, above 24°C and it will spoil). Check everyday that the cabbage is submerged. Remove any scum and replace with a clean muslin.
  8. Leave for around 3-4 weeks – fermentation is complete when all the bubbling has ceased. Store in clean, sterilised jars in the fridge.

For more information on fermentation see: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/nutrition/superfoods/articles/fermented-foods

 

 

A Touch of Warmth

Time sure flies when living with chemo. It only seems like yesterday that it was Blue Monday and I was nervously anticipating the next day, butterflies tickling my stomach lining, their gentle strokes continually reminding me that soon Marge’s period of treatment would officially begin.

I guess now you can say we are starting to get into the swing of it. After the first week, Marge felt progressively better and was back to her strong and lively self after about a week or so. Life got back to normal, or as normal as it can do when someone you love is going through cancer treatment. But of course all of this was leading up to session number two and playing in the back of everyone’s mind was the worry and fear about how ill Marge would feel next time round.

We have been warned by numerous people that the side-effects tend to get worse with each session, the chemicals inside her body building, and her body’s strength waning as the treatment continues. This was a worry, but at least it replaced and didn’t combine with the worry of the unknown. We now (mostly) know what to expect and how we can counter any malicious side-effects that will try and spoil Marge’s strength, both physical and mental.

Small things, like ensuring her bed has nice, fresh bedding and purchasing silk pillows, will make days when she feels drained of strength and is confined under her duvet much more bearable. She can lie in luxury rather than sprawl in sorrow. The meals planned for the next few days have also taken her post-chemo cravings into account. Soft, comforting food (made healthy where possible) is in; strong, punchy flavours are out.

With this mind, I wanted to give Marge one last flavour fiesta before we rewound the culinary timeline. A curry seemed like the perfect option and when browsing the brilliant blog Naturally Ella, I came across a recipe for African Curry with Cauliflower. I, nor my Mum, had ever made an African curry before so I thought this was the perfect way to spice up her diet before the monotony of chemo began again. It also gave me the opportunity to add some additional veg that needed using up in my fridge, although the recipe was already packed full of delicious and nutrient-rich ingredients.

One final, significant reason that I chose to cook this recipe was because, towards the end of week three, Marge had started noticeably shedding her hair. Her beautiful mane of golden locks has always been such a core, defining part of her identity – so much so that my siblings and I used to look out for her hair in the school playground when we were trying to spot her amongst the sea of smiling parents. Losing this unique attribute was a harsh reminder of the fact that Marge, at the moment, was not her ‘normal’ self; life was not ‘normal’ life. It would make it all the more difficult to continue daily routines as before. So this recipe contains lots of delicious ingredients that are thought to help promote hair and scalp health, such as brown rice, chickpeas, peppers and cauliflower. There was never any doubt that she would lose some hair – but if I could help her body maintain one thread of normality there was no doubt that I would try it.

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Healing Ingredients

Turmeric’s main healthy constituent is curcumin, which not only gives turmeric its vibrant colour but is a well-known as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, helping fight free-radical damage and prevent and cure arthritis, cardiovascular health, diabetes and even neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin is also thought to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Chickpeas are not only high in fibre, helping to reduce levels of ‘unhealthy’ cholesterol, but are rich in manganese, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, which are all vital bone-healthy minerals. They also contain zinc, poor levels of which have been associated with health loss.

Recipe: African Curry with Cauliflower

Serves 4.

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 courgette, diced
  • 150g mushrooms
  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • 2 medium clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp table currypowder
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp ground clove
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 x 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 75g dried apricots, roughly chopped
  • 500ml vegetable stock
  • 300g brown rice, quinoa, or millet, to serve
  • Handful of choppped, fresh coriander, to garnish

Method.

  1. Heat a large pan over medium heat, add 1 olive oil.
  2. Add onions, sautéing until onions are soft, about five minutes.
  3. Add cauliflower, peppers, mushrooms and courgettes and continue to cook until cauliflower starts to brown. Add in the garlic and cook for one minute more.
  4. Next add all the spices to the pot with cauliflower. Stir and let toast for a minute.
  5. Finally, add in the chickpeas, apricots, and the vegetable stock.
  6. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring and tasting occasionally – the sauce will thicken as it cooks.
  7. Taste and season to taste. Serve over desired grain with a sprinkling of fresh coriander.