When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. Instinctively we are able to nourish ourselves in all the ways we need. If you’ve seen a newborn turn its head towards the breast before it’s seen its mother you cannot ever again underestimate how important food is to us and how bound up with relationship. Comfort and eating are for that infant synonymous, as they are for most of us.
Using high calorie foods to comfort ourselves because we are miserable in ways too complicated to address easily is an attempt to be kind to ourselves. When warmth, holding, love are missing we can at least do this and for brief moments that fabulous high we associate with being held and being fed are there. We need those feelings. However, as we all know, grown adults don’t need that many high calorie foods in a day and the crunch of an apple (a much more grown up food that needs teeth) does not produce anything like the same feelings. My understanding is not very sophisticated in this area but I’m reasonably sure this is to do with the chemistry of our brains. Apples are very little like breast milk.
When I have worked with people whose overeating has come to dominate their lives they also have something else in common : shame. Now imagine the cruel cycle that even the moderate eaters amongst us may recognise : we feel a bit down, we follow our most basic cellular memory and head for the kitchen to try and cheer ourselves up with something tasty in the mouth. It works momentarily but soon comes the black shame attack within. So our inadequate efforts to cheer ourselves up lead straight to feeling worthless. (I exaggerate to illustrate.) The cycle gets worse when we then try to blank our the shame attack with more food. The pleasure of the food is hardly tasted. The self-loathing and shame reach epic proportions. If you would like to read more about the psychology of shame look up Dr Phil Mollon on Amazon. (And needless to say this also goes for our other addictions such as smoking, drinking, drugs and spending money we don’t have.)
What to do instead, I am frequently asked? Tricky but it can be done. It’s about building self-worth. Catch the low mood as soon as it starts. Maybe catch what kicked it off. It can be as insignificant as the way the bus conductor looked at you. Something about that made you feel not so good. Or maybe you have money worries and a big bill has come in so you don’t feel safe. Catching the not-so-good feeling is a kindness in itself. You are paying attention to yourself. Kindness is all here. Start by not shaming yourself for feeling miserable. Notice what kind of miserable. Get curious as to what will make you feel better not for the next five minutes but later today as well. It might be a walk, a radio programme, a phone call, a swim.
This is a big subject but we will stop here today and squeeze in some real comfort food, risotto. If you want food that leaves you feeling loved I recommend risotto. It is cheap. It is an act of love to cook it as it takes time and it is the creamiest dish in the world with no cream in it. The creaminess is all down to the unfathomable mantecare process. In fact mantecare means to cream as in to beat or to whip but the magical thing here is no intervention is needed. Risotto achieves it all on its own, off the heat with the lid on at the end of cooking.
I find it helps to put a small and tidy mound in a large white dish. If you want a more slimming version replace half the rice with finely diced vegetables. Have a small helping with a large salad and if there is some left don’t worry! It will disappear next day or thereafter as it heats up successfully in the microwave and makes an excellent filling for stuffed peppers. The quantities are for 4-6 people.
Rosemary and Lemon Risotto with Spinach
500 g risotto rice
50 g butter
50 g olive oil
1 onion or leek finely chopped
80 g grated Parmesan
2 litres of beef or Marigold vegetable stock (hot)
2 glasses of white wine
Rosemary finely chopped
4 handfuls of washed spinach
- Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
- Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
- Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
- Add the stock one ladleful at a time until it is all absorbed. This should take 20 minutes but I find it takes longer so be patient.
- Stir in the spinach as soon as the rice is cooked.
- Turn off the heat and add the lemon zest, butter, rosemary and Parmesan
- Leave to ‘mantecare’ for 3 minutes and then serve with more cheese and rosemary.
Fish or Meat
Leaving out the lemon and rosemary and use fish or vegetable stock instead of beef. Add cooked seafood during the ‘mantecare‘ process so that it gets warm. Alternatively you can fry some good raw prawns or chicken livers in chilli oil and garnish each serving with a few. Venetians do not add Parmesan to fish dishes but it is very good with chicken livers.
Low carb risotto
Replace half the rice with a mixture of extremely finely diced vegetables : celery, carrot, leek, broccoli (or what you have). You can only retain the authentic feel and look of risotto by dicing the vegetables so finely that they are practically indistinguishable from the grains of rice. Not a task to do in a hurry but a lovely meditative thing to do for yourself. Taking care of yourself in a wise way adds value – to you!
If you have risotto left simply halve the peppers, removing the seeds and soften 10 minutes in a medium oven. Fill with risotto and then turn up the heat for half an hour until the peppers are crispy around the edges. If you don’t mind a few extra calories, add mozzarella or Parmesan in the last ten minutes.