When is a brownie kinder than a fruit salad?

Imagine you live in the stone age when wild animals were not just going through your dustbins of an evening but threatening to eat you and your children. The regime, we may surmise, was feast or famine. After a prolonged period of stress (how much fun do you think living off berries and roots and fending of the local bear actually was?) comes at last the day when the young bucks are successful and bring home meat for dinner. Party time. The big fire gets going, alcohol is unleashed, the resident shaman is warming up and at last there’s hot food, streaming with animal fat. General rejoicing. Nobody back then said ‘I only want a little’, ‘No meat for me’ or ‘I’m sorry I’m on the 5/2′. When there was food, everybody ate what they could get because who knew how long it would be before there was meat and fat again. Simple.

Now imagine you are a new baby, unused to being out of the womb, unused to being on your own, oh and you’ve never been hungry before. (The placenta used to deliver all of your needs before you knew you had them.) Suddenly you’re out in the world and hunger is pretty frightening. Warm sweet milk (our own animal fat), when it arrives, is an end to all suffering. Party time. Eat all you can get. This regime too is feast or famine because just a few moments’ hunger feels like a famine to the infant – witness the noise they make which rivals a fire alarm and produces just one desire in any nearby adult. Make It Stop. The milk almost invariably arrives with a caring person attached so you get company, physical pleasure and an end to some nasty feelings all in one hit. You feel great. Simple.

These two scenarios explain how it is second nature to cheer ourselves up and relax (or self-medicate as the psychs say) with ‘unhealthy’ food. It wasn’t unhealthy food back then (either in the cave or in infancy). It was just what we needed. Have you noticed that under stress the body effortlessly chooses high calorie foods? Bad morning? Before you can turn round the body will have hoovered up a bag of dried fruit and nuts from Pret. (Real food but high cal.) Adding insult to injury, it then tends to hang on to all the calories as long as possible, slowing down your metabolism, rather than burning them up efficiently. When the nervous system has been under threat and then that threat is removed the body wants to eat, eat, eat – and we’re not talking salads here. The body, in its wisdom, wants to restore its wellbeing by wolfing down the highest calorie food it can lay its hands on.

What was an intelligent response in the stone age isn’t so great today when the only threat has been a ticking off from the boss, a tube strike or a visit from your mother. Your nervous system does not distinguish between the agony of the working mother with a sick child and the heart-pounding flight from the sabre-toothed tiger. Your nervous system has all its alarm bells ringing (‘My office, now!’ ‘Can you come home?’ ‘It’s only me…’) just as if your life were in danger. When your break comes a doughnut or some chocolate or a Big Mac may feel like the very thing that will restore your sense of well-being because you feel as though you’ve run a marathon and it’s only 11am. But then comes the kick-back. The voice that makes you feel worthless.

That endless monologue about what you’ve ‘earned’, what you ‘deserve’ has no place in your food choices. What to do?

Back to basics. When we eat those high-fat, high-sugar things we are trying to restore our sense of well-being. They taste good in the mouth but they also signal to the body that the threat is past and the sympathetic nervous system (what a misnomer) can throw itself on the sofa and watch TV for a while. Chill, if you will. In a word, our evolutionary heritage is on the side of MacDonalds. Show it a burger, steak and chips, pancakes with maple syrup and butter and it rolls up its sleeves and digs in before you can say Weightwatchers. As so often, our evolution into human beings is in microcosm replicated by our journey from embryo to adult. If we call ‘bad’ the very foods that produce the sensations of physical safety and which mimic our earliest, sweetest experiences of love it is a short step to confusion, anger and eventual revolt. (The revolt will be high calorie, trust me).

So how can we drag our bodies out of the stone age, out of infancy and into the present where there is no shortage of food and where the ever-present danger is of ruining our health through over-eating? Here is a step by step guide.

  1. Abandon the notion of good and bad. This is not about being good. Reward and punishment have no place in our diet.
  2. Focus on what the food represents for our physiology – that loving attempt to restore our well-being.
  3. Feel into the kindness of that attempt – this is love for ourselves, a way of looking after ourselves.
  4. As you feel into the kindness bring in the knowledge you have of your own situation and what you know about food so that something can emerge which will respect exactly where you are.
  5. ‘Your own situation’ means your health, how much running about you’ve done today, what the rest of the day holds. If you’re in ill health, can’t run about and tonight you’re out to dinner somewhere fun, you need to choose your lunch and snacks with a kind and light hand. If you’ve already done a work out, you haven’t sat down all day and tonight will be a boiled egg and soldiers (my favourite supper when I’m on my own) you need some energy and your lunch should reflect that.
  6. Never again think of things you put in your mouth as ‘treats’. Inherent in the word is that good/bad splitting which keeps us rebelling and eating heavy.

 

So here is the best brownie recipe I know of. It is also shamingly easy. Humour your body by making them and having a taste each day for a couple of days. Share them widely and you will be much loved and go straight to heaven.

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.

 

 

The Fish Market

pescheriaThe Fish Market at Rialto on Christmas Eve

It was great fun to struggle through the crowds to the pescheria like a Venetian on Christmas Eve. Traditionally only fish not meat passes their lips on La Vigilia but on the other hand there’s no way you could call it a fasting day! Italian housewives are out until the evening topping up their extensive provisions for the banquets to come.

Traditionally I offer a Lobster Supper (festive, nearly calorie-free and no cooking) on Christmas Eve but Venice seemed to be pretty much a lobster-free zone so we had a variety of other things instead. The recipe I think worth sharing is for a simplified Coquilles Saint Jacques which came after the garlic and chilli prawns and before the San Pietro (John Dory). You can see the scallops in the picture above but sadly we ate them too fast to offer you a photo of the finished dish. The local baker had for sale Panettone made on the premises and melting Lindt Intense dark orange chocolate and adding a little thin cream made a pudding worthy of the name. Let me know what you think!

Of course the great thing with fish is that you can eat your own weight in the stuff without putting on a pound so a little chocolate sauce is definitely allowed.

 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques for four

One scallop per person, ideally with its shell (but you can use a cocotte dish)

2 x leeks trimmed and very finely chopped

100g of Parmesan or another hard cheese finely grated

A glass of white wine

A small pot of single cream

A handful of white breadcrumbs per person

A tsp of olive oil

Make sure the scallops are really clean. This is a given if they’ve come from the supermarket but not, let me tell you, if the fish market has been involved. Get rid of any sand and trim them if they need the membrane removing.

Poach them in a little water for a couple of minutes and then fish them out and set them and the liquid aside while you make the sauce.

Sweat the finely minced leek in the olive oil until it has nearly melted. Then add all the breadcrumbs as if you were making a roux. Gradually add alternate tablespoons of white wine and cream to the leek and breadcrumbs until you have a sauce thick enough to spoon over the scallops. Now taste it and adjust the proportions (more cream?, more wine?) and the seasoning. If the sauce is too strong you can add a tablespoon of the scallop cooking water.

Arrange each scallop on its dish and spoon over a generous amount of thick sauce. Allow to cool. Cover with cling film and set in the fridge until you want to eat them. Allow them to come back to room temperature and grate some cheese over each before putting in a very hot oven for ten minutes or until the sauce bubbles slightly.

This isn’t as grand as the traditional version with piped Duchesse potatoes but it does taste as good and you have no piping bag to wash. (Result!)  It’s really useful as an impressive course in a special meal as it can be done the day before.

 

In Italy at Last

paviaBreakfast at Le Stanze del Cardinale, Pavia

This was our breakfast buffet at a wonderful B & B in Pavia called Le Stanze del Cardinale. where Martina and her colleagues make you feel so welcome. In addition to the delicious bread, jam and cakes they insisted on cooking us bacon and eggs – perhaps because they knew we were English. In any case it was a great start to the last day of our journey. Pavia was another beautiful Italian city that we had too little time to explore but we shall certainly be back. The B & B overlooks the Piazza del Duomo. Gorgeous.

In a hop skip and a short ferry ride we were in Venice.

venice-2View from the car ferry to the Lido

After all that traffic and all those different stops, I arrived with quite a lot to do to prepare Christmas for friends and family in Venice. Not surprisingly the old IBS started playing up and I could feel a bad throat coming on. But I have discovered turmeric milk with the help of another blog called Cooking Without Limits and this has had a powerful effect on my system such as I would never have believed. My new packet of ibuprofen remain unopened! I knew that turmeric is a healing Ayurvedic spice good for inflammation and but it had never occurred to me that you could enjoy it with hot milk, cinnamon and honey or put it on your porridge. I can’t say for sure that the cold has gone but certainly I feel heaps better. I shall sprinkle it wherever I can to fend off Christmas colds.

porridge-2Here is the rainbow porridge with toasted flaked almonds, cinnamon and turmeric as well as a spoonful of sugar. I could feel it doing me good! I would love to hear if you try it.

 

What happens when things go wrong

halibutHalibut at the Restaurant Pierre, Macon

The second night in France was in Macon where the hotel had a plumbing failure and there was no water. That’s right. Not just no hot water. No water at all. After a day’s driving, needing a shower and all the usual conveniences, this put me effortlessly in touch with my default strategy when things go wrong. I have a tantrum. Adult tantrums are not the kind you see children having as they drum their heels on the supermarket floor – they are much quieter than that and more deadly. When I am in the grip of one such my mind rejects what is happening over and over again. I bang my head against the wall of reality as (if my preferences were of any interest to God or True Nature or whatever it is that unfolds around us and keeps dashing our fondest hopes on the rocks of what actually is). Noticing my tantrum I felt about three years old and faintly ridiculous but I kept this internal wailing up for at least an hour or so. I didn’t know what else to do.

What else can we do when we can’t bear what has happened, when our plans are spoiled or our hearts broken? Eventually I remembered what has helped in the past. It can really help to humour that three year old full of rage rather than shaming or scolding her. She needs to learn that she is valuable even though she cannot control things around her. We need to bear with her discomfort and allow her to climb down from that high horse into loving arms. Until then let her throw things and blame people and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself or anyone else.

Eventually I accepted the inevitable and we went off, unwashed, to the Restaurant Pierre which is a small Michelin one star establishment with lovely staff and delicious food. The halibut if always my fish of choice since it doesn’t seem possible to eat it except in restaurants. This one did not die in vain. It was moist and flavoursome and beautifully set off, as you can see, by delicate vegetables.

img_0102

The pre-dessert plate was almost good enough to eat.

However we saved ourselves for the Grand Marnier souffle, again on the grounds that this is not a dish I often knock out at home.  The photo does not do it justice but it was excellent especially with the tiny iced sorbet side dish.souffle

Whilst this is not the kind of food I want to eat very often it was extremely skilfully prepared and gorgeously presented. Next stop Italy where everything will be quite different.

Eating What You Are

Over the disconcertingly long time that I have been giving this some thought, I have come to realise that our lives are all about eating in different dimensions. For physical growth we need food. For psychological growth we need food and the food we eat is our selves. What do I mean by that? I mean that in order to grow our work is to digest the defences that we put in place during our formative years. With support we gradually allow ourselves to feel things which were too big or conflicted for us to feel as small children. We allow those parts of ourselves which we abandoned to come back to life, to thaw out. We feel into what caused those defences to form in the first place. In my work I encourage sensing into the body which is where all those experiences are stored.

And what has this to do with food? Two things. Firstly the process of digesting our psychic structures is remarkably similar to our physical digestion. When emotional work allows insights to arise and awareness to increase it can feel as though you are digesting the old ways of seeing. With practice you can actually feel it happening. Secondly addictive behaviours around food are like every other addiction. They are strategies, albeit misguided, of delivering pleasure to the brain when it is in emotional distress. Usually they are accompanied by self-punishment AND THE PUNISHING FEELINGS RESULT IN MORE OF THE ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOUR. You will notice that I am shouting and with reason. The first step away from addictive behaviour is to challenge the self-punishing and bullying thoughts and acts and replacing them with love from you to you.

Clients often ask ‘How do I do that?’ and the answer is very simple. Your own internal bully is much the same as a bully in the external world and the same techniques work.

How to Deal with Bullying

There are more than two parts of you (the bully and the victim) there is also a wiser, more adult part that can step in. Make use of this. Treat that bullying voice which belittles you and goads you in just the same way as you would handle a bully in real life. Treat the cowering part as you would a frightened child. (There is excellent advice about overcoming bullying here.)

These conversations can take place in your head or somewhere you can shout if you need to. (If you run it can be a great time to have this out!) They need to become a second-nature routine whenever the voice starts up. Here are your strategies. Rotate them.

  1. Ignore – don’t listen. (Mentally) walk away and keep walking. Don’t play the victim and don’t reason or argue with the bully.
  2. Stand up for yourself – really get angry with that bullying part so that it isn’t the only part of you with any energy. Remind the bully that bullying arises out of fear and weakness not strength. Tell the bully where to get off.
  3. Tell someone who can help – locate that third, authoritative and wiser part of you that can mediate.

These are the internal processes, boringly simple, which can bring the bullying to a less damaging level. Don’t be put off by the simplicity. With practice this works.

And now for todays recipe which also works.

Blackberry and Apple Cheese

blackberry-apple-cheese-2

Just a quickie to make you feel that even if you live in a city centre you can participate in making lovely things in jars. I made a couple of jars of this one morning when I had some left over stewed apple and some supermarket blackberries and blueberries in my fridge which were going to go off if they weren’t used pronto. It is a good way of making very expensive berries go a long way.

1. If you need to start by making your stewed apple peel some Bramleys and core and slice. Put in a microwave dish with lid and cook on medium to high power for 10 minutes until blitzed.
2. Now see what berries you have to hand. Blackberries, blueberries or raspberries, red or black currants. Fresh or frozen will do well.
3. Weigh the total fruit you will use and put it in a large heavy pan.
4. Add the same weight in sugar.
5. Heat gently  until the sugar is dissolved and then bring to the boil.
6. Stir often and simmer as high as you can without it boiling over for 10-15 minutes.
7. Start testing for setting. If a droplet hangs down instead of falling off a clean wooden spoon, it is nearly ready for potting. If a droplet on a cold saucer forms a skin after a few minutes which wrinkles to the touch, it is likewise ready.
8. Sterilise your jars in the oven, the dishwasher or rinsing out with gin or vodka.
9.For a true cheese you should really sieve the jam before potting but it’s really just as nice with all the lumps and bumps.
10. Eat in cake, on scones, on toast or alongside some sharp cheese.
blackberry-and-apple-cheese

My Italian Cook

 

marika

Of course Marika Seguso, pictured here in her Venetian kitchen, is not my Italian cook (I wish!) but my Italian neighbour. She is, however, the Italian cook who has taught me and so many others something about basic Italian cooking. Marika is a chef who now teaches the lucky few in her Venetian cookery school Aquolina.

It was at Marika’s exceptional B & B, Villa Ines,  that I used to stay before buying my own flat on the Venetian Lido and she is indeed the real deal, Venetian herself and married into one of the oldest Venetian families, Seguso, who have their own factory on Murano still making extraordinary glass.

The Italian Meal

A word here about the Italian meal which is so defeating to visitors. If you’re not in a pizzeria then you see four courses offered on the menu – likely more than you want to eat or pay for. Over some years I have observed how Italians allow the menu to serve them and how they are feeling, never the other way around. Most commonly they close the menu straight away and ask ‘What’s good tonight?’ The ‘special’ is usually just that – what was best in the market that morning. In my suspicious, English way I used to think it would be something they had made too much of! I was completely wrong.

In Venice at least, the cold fish antipasto is a must. The next course is the pasta/risotto/soup i.e. it is the carbohydrate course. Don’t be afraid to share this or to miss it out altogether if you’re not so hungry. You can move straight from the antipasto to the main course if you are so minded, but equally you can have an antipasto and a pasta and stop there with honour satisfied. One of the best tips I can give you is to order the first two courses, sharing if you will, and then to ask the waiter to come back and see how you are feeling. Unlike many English kitchens, Italian chefs are happy to take orders as you go. See what you feel like once you’ve had some food. You can then share a main course, have your own or do without. No-one will think ill of you for this and it means you can go to a smart restaurant without feeling you have to eat a good deal more than you enjoy. The horrible dynamic that many of us grew up with is completely absent in Italy. You don’t need to impress the waiters!

Typically a couple will order like this. Two antipasti. One pasta (largely eaten by the man). One or two main courses (meat or fish). One pudding. Not too overwhelming on the purse or the digestion.

Spend a day with Marika in her kitchen and you will learn to make gnocchi, risotto and an authentic tomato sauce. If you have longer she will take you to Rialto, to the fish market and you can learn something about food shopping the Venetian way. She is a very busy, professional person and a mother, but she always makes time to be kind to her visitors and to share her enthusiasm for Venice and for food. Last summer I saw the catering she provided for summer weddings in her garden and if you need a place to get married you could not do better. Let me leave you this morning with her recipe for gnocchi, a typically cheap, Italian dish, a labour of love for the ingredients and the guests.

Gnocchetti di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico

Gnocchetti :

1 kg potatoes boiled and finely mashed – a ricer is good for this but if not available be thorough with a fork.

1 egg yolk

up to 300g flour

parmesan cheese to taste

s and p

For the Sauce :

a good bottled tomato pasta such as Biona

garlic clove

sugar

basil

s and p

  1. saute the garlic clove whole in the oil for a minute and then add the passata, more salt and sugar than you would think necessary and some of the basil.
  2. Allow to cook uncovered and very slowly, the sauce barely bubbling for an hour or more and it will thicken. Remove the garlic and basil.
  3. Meanwhile make a dough with the mashed potato, some of the flour, the egg yolk and the parmesan. (Start with 100g and then taste as you go.)
  4. Roll the dough in long thin sausages and cut into half inch gnocchi.
  5. Toss with flour and keep dry and cool until cooking
  6. Lower into boiling salted water and strain as soon as they come to the top
  7. Toss with olive oil and either keep to reheat later or serve immediately with the sauce and Parmesan. Strow more torn fresh basil.

Butter and sage sauce can be used instead of the tomato. For this saute garlic, sage leaves and butter until slightly brown. Remove the garlic and sage and serve the butter with the gnocchi.

Not Hungry

 

cookies-2

Today, I want to talk about the temptation not to eat but to close the mouth and turn the head away. Are you one of those people whose strategy when things got difficult was to refuse things that came your way. The big ‘NO’. ‘No! I won’t open my mouth, swallow, let you hug me, receive the good things life has to offer.’ Perhaps your life is full of things you don’t allow yourself to enjoy?

The Big ‘No’

Have you seen a child do that in a highchair, spit the food out, turn the head away? Maybe you have seen your child do this. But what if mother doesn’t take the hint? She’s desperate to do the right thing. The spoon keeps coming. There are tears and tantrums on both sides and everyone feels bad. What does the child learn but that her needs are secondary to mother’s need to feed her that food at that moment. How, as we therapists say, does that make you feel? It makes me pretty angry to be in any position where I cannot influence what happens to me. Maybe you too. How does it make you feel as a mother when the organically grown, expensively purchased or lovingly made puree end up on the walls. Yep, pretty angry too. Two angry, helpless people. Ouch.

I believe each of us has chosen a turn in the road here. When things did not go well we learned either to comfort ourselves with the sweetness of a full mouth or to excite ourselves with the power of refusing. The mouth is the organ with which we first explore the world and a treacherous organ it can be, always ready to deny its connection to the rest of the body. If love (in any of its many forms) has been offered in an intrusive, unattuned way or if parents have attempted to override our will, we may just close our lips and lose touch with what we need to take in to keep ourselves alive, be it love or food. Our need to have some say in what happens has been set at odds with our need to survive. Often punishment complicates the picture still further.

Maybe you have no eating problem as such but you recognise in yourself a tendency to withhold things from yourself, to deny yourself, to write off the great pleasures of being human as indulgent and certainly not for you. This is a complex area but a common factor in saying ‘no’ is often a false feeling of power. Soon the longed for independence is no longer about other people. What is sought is independence from one’s own bodily needs and therein lies the danger.

What to do if you can feel the seductive pull of rejecting things your body needs or if your child is refusing to eat? What to do if the little one within has forgotten what it is to feel hungry and food frightens you? What to do if this is your child? The same love and compassion come into play as for overeating. Start by taking care of that starving little one within just as you would if s/he were sitting at your kitchen table. Make it safe to say ‘no’ and perhaps it will be safe to say ‘yes’. Safe enough to eat. And if you get as far as eating, be patient. The person eating needs to be in control of how much and what speed and how often. The parenting part (or the parent) needs to be in service of the little one.

NB If you are suffering from a serious disorder you may need medical help to reach a stable place from which to recover, so this article is not an alternative to counselling, therapy or medical help but a way to work kindly with yourself in addition to outside support. My concern here is to address the very earliest distortion of the tendency to say ‘no’ and to address it with kindness and wisdom.   If your problem is threatening your health you will find more dedicated help here and a whole community of individuals who will understand your dilemma online. So for someone who needs to be coaxed into eating, here is a recipe for the thinnest, most delicious, wheat-free cookie. It comes courtesy of Otto Lenghi via my friend, Mary, who first cooked them for me. (The method has been adapted slightly.)

cookies

Almond Florentines

260g flaked almonds

2 x egg whites

100g icing sugar

grated zest of an orange

vegetable oil and baking parchment

Method

  1. heat the oven to 150 degrees
  2. line a large baking tray with baking parchment* and brush with oil (use a paper towel or your fingers if you don’t own a pastry brush)
  3. gently mix together the other ingredients
  4. put teaspoons of the mixture onto the lined tray
  5. take a fork and flatten the blobs into any old cookie shape – the thinner the better
  6. bake for 12 minutes and cool before removing from the paper
  • a word about baking parchment – it is a revelation, no comparison with greaseproof paper or other things. Use it whenever things might stick (meringues, bread, cakes etc). Accept no substitutes!