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.

 

 

Detox Cooking

detoxThe Detox Kitchen has put its recipes into print.

This cookbook was on my Christmas list and I have tried out a good few of the recipes and whilst they are not quite as delicious as the food they sell in the Detox Kitchen in London that may be because they are even healthier! However what I have really got to grips with through cooking with this comprehensive book is that the use of fresh herbs and lemon juice is really underrated – at least by me to date.

What are the toxins I am trying to get rid of? My belief is that my body mostly expels things it finds toxic all on its own and that my job is to keep my body healthy enough to take care of itself. So I got curious. The toxin I identified with the help of this cookbook was the toxin of two double binds I hadn’t spotted previously.

  1. I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to use fresh herbs and lemon (unless other people were coming of course) because I hate buying those little packets of fresh herbs in the supermarket. For why? Because I feel I ‘ought’ to be growing them.  It won’t come as a big surprise that many of them grow best in hotter and drier places than an Oxfordshire garden so, to be clear, I was doing without because I had an idea that they should be perfectly sourced. Madness.
  2. The second thing that stood between me and cooking with finely chopped greenery  was a laziness I wasn’t conscious of. An aversion to the labour of chopping properly, a resistance to tracking down the lemon squeezer and and washing it up afterwards meant I was depriving myself of deliciousness and some health benefits too. Letting go of the notion that I had to grow the herbs myself means I can cook with herbs! Letting go of the notion that it is too much trouble to wash the lemon squeezer means I can cook with fresh lemon juice!

Just doing the things that seemed ‘too much trouble’ has sidestepped the double bind and this seems a radical detox to me. Try it because, as that woman on the TV says, you’re worth it.

In the consulting room I am always listening out for the toxin of undermining ourselves and punishing ourselves in the name of being better people. If there were one magic wand I would like to wave for my clients it is the magic wand that would dispel all these forms of self-hatred (because, yes, that’s what it actually is). Not thinking I’m worth taking trouble for is a form of self-hatred. Likewise there is no kindness in improving your diet out of a desire to be good. If you want to be a better person, start by weeding out the self-hatred which lurks behind some ‘good intentions’ and imposes a regime of self-chastisement which breeds rebellion.

Meanwhile back to the herbs. You won’t believe how great it is to have a beautiful pile of finely chopped parsley or coriander and garlic to strow over your simple sautéed chicken breast.

Here is the chicken with herbs and lemon juice shown with either lentils (I’m afraid they were tinned as I was in a hurry) or saute potatoes. The Spring cabbage is done in the microwave for four minutes with a knob of butter and a little salt.

Of course if you don’t eat chicken you can do the self-same thing with courgettes or carrots or roasted squash (when it comes out of the oven).

 

A Quick Supper

I am taking a sabbatical from seeing my lovely clients in the flesh just now because quite soon we will be moving house and it will be difficult to find a nice tidy room for a while. So we’re skyping instead and although I’ve done this before, I am always surprised by how well it works. Using the mindfulness approach to being present in my body and taking the same care I would usually do to light the candle and ground myself, it feels as though genuine, caring contact can be made. Seems to me really crucial to learn to combine being embodied with the amazing technology we have available. So much of our lives involves a screen and in front of a screen it is easy to become just a head with hands and miss out on most of our physical experience. I have heard tell that even artificial intelligence fundamentally alters its scope when it is provided with a firsthand embodied experience of itself.

Our bodies are our allies until they fail and then they can become en enemy we fight with but whether they are supporting us or challenging us, my experience is that it is worth inhabiting them. It really changes our moment to moment experience for the better. Anxiety and depression find it difficult to thrive when we remember to be embodied.

Which brings me to the humble scallop whose body is a bit of a non-event and for whom mindfulness is not an option. Last time I mentioned Coquilles Saint-Jacques as a starter but today scallops are the main attraction, providing a main course all on their own. what a fabulous, boneless gift to the fish-eaters among us. Grill them with asparagus and radicchio. A few new potatoes might sneak their way in because it’s hungry weather. Flecks of parsley and or thyme are all to the good if you have them to hand.

scallops

This is a one grill pan recipe. Put the asparagus and radicchio under a hot grill for a few minutes before adding the scallops. The scallops need a minute or two either side.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Begging Bowl

Picture a little girl at the centre of a circle of people. She wears a pretty dress, a winning smile and she holds out a bowl, inviting gifts as she goes around the circle. What is not pretty in this picture is what you cannot see. The child is starving. She is not begging for sweets or treats but for her life. She may smile but these people mean nothing to her but the food without which she will die. Starvation robs her of her humanity. (The antique among you may remember the film  They Shoot Horses Don’t They? ) 

What is the food this ruthless child needs? What will relieve the pain of her starving? It is not food in the usual sense. It is admiration, to be made to feel special, kind words which connote value. Lacking any sense of her own value, she seizes upon those who might briefly make her feel of worth. People who do not find her charming are dead to her, in fact they are barely people. Perhaps you have a mother like this, or a boss, or a sister or even a best friend? Someone who drains you of all good will and leaves you feeling used? We read a good deal these days about narcissism in terms of others but not much about what is it like to be so needy, so deficient in self-esteem, so uncertain of one’s human worth that we put all our efforts into the facade of self we want others to see. The facade may be to do with what you look like or it may be looking like a certain kind of person – clever, generous, imaginative, creative, self-sacrificing – fill in your own adjective. One thing is for sure. It is not about thinking how great you are. It is the opposite.

We call the food the little girl is seeking with her begging bowl ‘narcissistic supplies’. Blaming and shaming her cannot prevent her from doing her rounds. She wants to stay alive! Relieving this suffering in the consulting room or in ourselves is slow work because it is about standing our idea of reality on its head. We must begin to entertain the idea that we are valuable human beings independently of that facade we painstakingly tend to. We must loosen the compulsion to interfere with how we actually are, begin to accept that we are human.

It is easy to see how this suffering plays out in what we eat and how we feel about our bodies. Here too we must discover that our worth is not related to what shape we are or what we eat or don’t eat. There’s a new year coming up in which we have another opportunity to listen to our bodies and open our hearts. You could do worse than start with this wholesome dish below.

Mirepoix is the underlying flavouring of some of my Italian Christmas cooking : ox cheek, osso buco, pasta in brodo. (Recipes to follow.) Every culture has its own version of the mirepoix or soffrito but  they include substantially the same basic ingredients known as aromatics.

 

mirepoixMirepoix

Dice finely at least 2 each of carrots, sticks of celery, onions and any other vegetables you may want to use up (leeks, fennel, parsnips, swede, celeriac) and put them in a heavy pan with some olive oil. Chop some garlic and any fresh herbs you can get your hands on and add these too. Saute over an extremely low heat for half an hour to an hour so that they all but melt.

This will give you enough of a flavour base for a casserole of soup for 4-6 people. If you make more you can freeze the extra until you need it.

Lentils with Burrata or Cotechino from the Polpo cookbook.

You can use this mirepoix as an addition to cooked or tinned lentils. Heat the lentils gently with the mirepoix and heap a serving into each large pasta bowl. Now add to each a few slices of some very good sausage (cotechino made from pigs trotters is traditional in Venice) or burrata cheese (or buffalo mozzarella if you can’t get burrata) or ). The burrata will melt into the hot lentils. The sausage is good with mustard or mostarda (fruits preserved in mustard syrup) if you can get 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.

Creating Value in Calais

unnamed-3The beach at Bleriot-Plage

It was last summer that I realised we could begin our drive to Italy with a nice easy afternoon crossing the Channel by tunnel and then stay the night at Bleriot-Plage, Calais,  under the auspices of the venerable Les Dunes Hotel and Restaurant. Instead of a crack of dawn start and the worry that you left the oven on/front door open/passport on the kitchen table (or is that just me?) you get to potter off after lunch and arrive in time for dinner. There is no reason to make life harder than it already is.

Les Dunes is just around the corner from where M. Bleriot won the Daily Mail’s £1000 bet by building an aircraft and being the first man to cross the Channel in it in 1909. It is not grand but it is run with love and the very nice food is supplemented by wine curated with skill and adoration by  M. Philippe Mene, patron. He has some great wines of great age and some good half bottles (what happened to half bottles?). It would be positively churlish not to try them! Given half a chance M. Philippe will lead you astray with clarets from the 70’s and a glass of Sauternes (on the house if you’re having the foie gras).

philippeM. Philippe Mene, patron

 

foie-gras The foie grascreme-bruleeThe creme brûlée

When I was a child it was France we looked to for all things sophisticated and refined and on their day the French still lead the world in certain aspects of their special cuisine. What perhaps has been lost – and for which we now look to Italy – is the value that they used to afford mealtimes. I’m sure there are fewer proper lunches and lingering dinners in France than there used to be. Maybe they are valuing their productivity or their health more than they used to, I don’t know. Value and self-esteem are big things in therapy and I thought I might shoe-horn them into this tribute to Les Dunes if you’re feeling patient.

Self-Esteem : a recipe

Once upon a time low self-esteem was the neurosis of choice in England. It seems now to have ceded its position to anxiety and depression, two sides of the same coin if ever there were one. I wonder whether much has changed, however, beyond the way we relate to those unpleasant feelings of meaningless and dread, feelings which often bring us into therapy and invariably accompany a lack of self-worth. There is a very simple treatment for that lack of value that we feel and, in my experience, it may shift the meaninglessness and dread as well. The treatment may sound too ridiculously simple to work but work it does. Give it a whirl. You can do it right where you are sitting.

But just a cotton-picking minute, I hear you say, I don’t want to pay attention to myself when I’m full of horrible scary feelings. The feelings may come and eat me up. The secret is that they don’t. Try it and see. Curiously, as I pay attention to my body and even to the feelings themselves they often metamorphose into less troubling experiences or open up into something entirely different. We pay attention to those things we value and the more I pay attention to myself, to what is actually happening in this location that I call me, the more I accrue internal value. This paying of attention, we can call it mindfulness or not, in fact gives the whole organism the message that it is valuable.

So take a deep breath and have a go. You can start with the soles of your feet. Close your eyes (if it’s not too scary) and see if you can locate yourself in the soles of your feet. Spend a few moments feeling them and what they feel. It may take practice before you can feel anything at all. That’s fine.  Meanwhile just notice what it’s like not being able to feel them. Notice sensations, thoughts, ideas, judgments, memories that arise and let it all be just as it is. Commune a while with the internal landscape of your feet. What harm can it do?

Clients often abandon this pretty much straight away because it is a challenge but it isn’t the sort of challenge they were expecting. It’s not complicated or expensive. There’s no equipment involved. You don’t need a book or a therapist to do it for you. In a word it’s not glamorous. It’s free. It’s available every waking minute of your day and only you will know you’re doing it. That is the whole point! You are paying attention to you, treating yourself as something of value. Bear with me. Have a go. Start by locating your consciousness in your feet and after a few minutes move on to sensing your ankles, your lower legs, your thighs. Then start again. Flood your finger tips with your awareness and work your way up to your shoulders. Now see if you can feel both arms and both legs at the same time. As you open your eyes and begin to function again see if you can stay deeply rooted in yourself. See what that’s like and whether it impacts your mood. How often should you do this? Until it’s second nature. In hardened cases like me, this can take a long time but it’s worth it.

When you’ve done your homework you can treat yourself to the recipe below for the most amazing egg custard I have ever eaten or made. It’s not creme brûlée but it’s wholesome and delicious and tastes as though you have used cream. (La Casella is a delightful agriturismo near Orvieto.)

Maria’s Egg Custard from La Casella

4 whole eggs

8 egg yolks

250g caster sugar

1 litre whole milk

vanilla

Scald the milk with the vanilla and cool until it won’t cause the eggs to cook. Work the eggs with the sugar until they are as one and add hot milk. Pour into an oven proof dish in a bain marie for one hour at 180 degrees. Makes 12 generous small pots.