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).

 

Eating in the Now

Have you all heard about the now? It’s kind of big at the moment, if you’ll excuse the tautology. It’s big because mindfulness has become so fashionable that even the government thinks it might be good for us and that’s usually about the time that a craze is o-ver. But let’s not hold that against the now. At the risk of being annoying I would just mention it is all we’ve got. Yesterday, you will have noticed, has popped off somewhere you can’t get at it any more and tomorrow, well we all know about tomorrow, that temptress who never delivers.

in-the-now

If you’ve been told you’re too fat since you were just a child you may be standing at the fridge eating just because you can! There’s no-one to look at you and make you feel uncomfortable. Overeating can be a way of having your own back on your past but because it’s not very kind to your body, it is a strategy that could do with some adjustment. Overeating can also be an unconscious behaviour. When there’s a serious derailment of our connection with our body we often behave unconsciously. Smokers who light two cigarettes at the same time are unconscious. Over-eaters on autopilot are unconscious as they wolf down a burger on their way home to a Weightwatchers dinner they spent their weekend making.

So what does eating in the now mean? It means not eating off other people’s plates, or straight from the fridge, or standing at the kitchen counter without getting a plate because those are ways we sort of pretend we’re not actually eating. You know that joke about food being calorie free if someone else ordered it? It is just a joke, sadly!

Eating in the now means being present as you eat, enjoying what you eat, noticing that you are eating, noticing what you are eating and how you feel when you start and how you feel when you stop. As I am writing this I realise that it means being grown up around food and if that feels scary take as much time as you need, as often as you need to look after the part that isn’t ready to grow up.

Let’s own up to eating! We’re allowed! Let’s make pizza and eat it in full consciousness and without apology. What is the right amount to eat if you’re not having your own back or pushing yourself but having a good time?

Pizza!

pizza

Bread Dough

500g strong white flour

1 x sachet easy bake yeast

0.75 pints of hand warm water

Salt to taste

  1. Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and bring together with a flat knife into a dough that you can eventually tip onto the counter.
  2. Knead briefly and scoop back into the bowl. Cover with oiled clingfilm and leave in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour.
  3. While the dough is proving make your passata by barely simmering some good chopped tinned tomatoes, or over-ripe chopped fresh tomatoes, or bottled passata with a garlic clove, a little salt and a good splash of olive oil.
  4. When the dough has grown and has visible air bubbles in it after about an hour put your oven on its highest setting and set a shelf half way down the oven.
  5. Tip the dough back onto the counter with some flour and knead it back and forth until it feels like a baby’s flesh, soft and springy. Roll it out as flat as you can and put it on a parchment lined baking tray. Use your hands to stretch it to the edges of the tray.
  6. By now your pasta should be thick and oily and you can spoon it onto the dough and spread it to the edges.
  7. Again leave for about half an hour – because it’s pizza not bread we don’t need the full rise.
  8. Now you can add your pizza toppings of choice, bake on high for 20 minutes and eat. More delicate toppings like mozzarella or prawns can be added half way through the cooking.

Toppings

sliced mushrooms

salami or ham

tuna or crab or prawns

basil or oregano

roasted peppers or aubergines

cheese : mozzarella, goats’ cheese, cheddar

cooked spinach

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

Comfort Eating

risotto

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

lemon zest

Rosemary finely chopped

4 handfuls of washed spinach

  1. Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
  2. Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
  3. Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
  4. 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.
  5. Stir in the spinach as soon as the rice is cooked.
  6. Turn off the heat and add the lemon zest, butter, rosemary and Parmesan
  7. Leave to ‘mantecare’ for 3 minutes and then serve with more cheese and rosemary.

Alternative versions

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!

Stuffed Peppers

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.

Loving Kindness in the shape of a melon

Loving Kindness in the shape of a melon

So here I am, a psychotherapist, why am I writing about food? Surely you’ve got enough to cope with on the food front without me weighing in? I guess it seems to me that there are some common ideas about eating that don’t help our health and happiness and I wanted to share with you what I have learned over the years from my clients.

I love food and I love my clients. I don’t like to see them unhappy and not uncommonly it’s food that’s making them unhappy. You don’t have to have an eating disorder to stand in front of the fridge mentally dividing the contents into ‘good’ (yoghurt) and ‘bad’ (ice cream). (You will have noticed that the food ads play into the same splitting with their ‘naughty but nice’). Listen to the conversation inside for a moment. Not only is the food you want either good or bad. You may find you are labelling parts of yourself good or bad according to what they want. Okay, let’s stop right here!  Splitting things into good and bad is the foundation of so much suffering and, like the man said, stuffed full of good intentions which lead straight to more suffering yet. Whenever we decide to be ‘good’ it is just a matter of time before the ‘naughty’ one within throws its toys out of the pram.

So instead of good and bad, I want to introduce you to the idea of kindness around your food. All food is good. All of you is good. Change begins with love. Love from you to you. Love from you to the planet. I’ll come back to this next time but for now, food time!

What better recipe could we turn to for our first experiment with love than Prosciutto Melone – a wonderful treat for all the senses that involves no cooking at all but a lot of love. You will see there is also a VEGETARIAN version and in this blog there always will be.

Prosciutto or Formaggio Melone. You can have this for lunch if you’re trying to lose weight or as part of a bigger meal. I have even been known to have it for breakfast. Make sure you cut the melon into reasonably thin slices because it looks prettier. Have as many as you like.

Ingredients

Small, sweet, ripe melon. Cantaloupe, Galia or Charentais. Salty, sexy ham. Traditionally cured like Parma ham (crudo) rather than cooked (cotto). If you don’t eat meat, turn to your favourite and saltiest cheese cut in wafer thin slices. Ricotta salata (ricotta with salt) is a hard cheese which you can get from Ocado and other places. Halloumi you can get everywhere. Choosing and arranging your ham or cheese and melon with love is part of respecting what you eat and respecting yourself. (In my book it is also an honouring of the people whose labour brought you the food and the animal who gave up its life.)  And that’s the happy discovery : respecting yourself turns out to mean that you respect the planet and its inhabitants. The two go together.

Would you like to feel more self-esteem? Start by treating yourself as though you are worth time and trouble. Wait for the melon to get ripe – you can smell melon when it is ripe. Go somewhere where they’ll cut the cheese or the prosciutto for you, if you have time. It’ll be fresher that way. Choose a lovely plate and lay the table. Is it getting dark? Light a candle.

Make yourself an Aperol Spritz and bask in the loveliness.