Cooking for the President

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Leah Chase and a healing bowl of Gumbo

“Meet 94 four year old Leah Chase. For seventy years she has led the kitchen at New Orleans famous Dooky Chase restaurant. During her time she’s hosted US Presidents, and civil rights activists, and music legends from Ray Charles to Michael Jackson. Her specialty is serving creole food specialties like gumbo, fried chicken and sweet potatoes. Dan Saladino sits down with Leah as she tells her story through the food she’s cooked and asks whether a restaurant can change the course of a country.
This post is another small tribute to Leah Chase, outstanding human being that she is, and also another tribute to BBC Radio Four’s The Food Programme.  The complex and intimate relationship between food and love and community and politics is explored in this interview with Leah Chase from New Orleans who has cooked through real live hurricanes and the humdrum hurricanes of political change. Her message is simple. We are all human, we all need feeding and we are all here to help each other. It’s is about ‘coming together‘, it is about integration. You can imagine how my psychotherapist’s ears pricked up at that. Integration and kindness are my favourite words and this lady embodies both. I am also a great believer in ‘the power of food to bring us together and help make sense of the world.’
Everybody has to eat’, she says, ‘ If you can feed them it makes them happy. It is a good life. One way of thanking is to do for others.‘ I once heard an extremely eminent consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist say much the same thing although it took longer. Working with extremely dysfunctional patients on the ward she found the best treatment building self-esteem and a sense of shared reality was to cause people to help each other. One way of thanking is to do for others. Yes, indeed and it reduces psychosis as well.
Leah was six in 1929 and she knows firsthand about discrimination, segregation and poverty. Maybe that is why coming together seems so important to her and why she has such a lot to teach us. She has had a hard life ‘but not a hungry one‘. Her people knew to plant things,  raise a few chickens ‘and your hog‘.
(A word here about our own hog, a stately Large Black pig called Porcia (sic) whose eight piglets will be running around for another few months to come before they go the great sausage machine in the sky and crackling is back on the menu.)
Leah went to work in a fancy restaurant before she had ever eaten in one and she loved it. In the New Orleans of the 1930s she was 16 and adored her job as a waitress. Why? ‘Because you make people happy. If I could walk good today I would wait tables because I loved it.’ At 94 her waitressing days are behind her but she is queen of Creole cooking and in any case, you get the feeling that Leah Chase would have found a way to love whatever she did. She is that kind of person.
She married a jazz musician and that meant that her restaurant, in due course, was full of musicians and music, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she began entertaining presidents. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, George Bush paid more than one visit. Her kitchen underwater Leah pulled out all the stops to create a full scale Creole feast worthy of a president and, not surprisingly, President Obama sought her out too. Famously he got off on the wrong foot with Leah by asking for the hot sauce to adulterate his bowl of gumbo. “You told him off good,” cackle Leah’s friends and the president enjoyed the smack on the wrist by all accounts or it didn’t stop him from returning whenever he could. Is Leah expecting President Trump to drop by? Her answer is full of wisdom. “I’m still trying to understand this man. I don’t know whether talking to him will matter. We don’t want walls… We want people to come together. We need one another… Or our whole world will be destroyed.’
Leah believes in always having a dream and focussing on the positive in life. Her advice is free and she has no axe to grind. You could do worse than take it. ‘We give up too soon. If we just hang in there and do whatever we have to do it’s going to be alright.
So I have nothing to add to that apart from this kitchen basic recipe for red cabbage which might fill a hungry spot. Worth mentioning perhaps that it costs peanuts, it’s low in calories and very tasty.
red-cabbage

Red Cabbage with Apple, Onion and Beetroot

Small red cabbage chopped
Large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Large onion, sliced
2 small beetroot (optional), chopped
salt and pepper
1 tblsp Olive oil
2 tbsp really good Balsamic vinegar
Put all the ingredients in a heavy pan with a lid and cook on a slow heat for half an hour. Eat immediately with anything that takes your fancy. A couple of slices of good ham and a dollop of fromage frais go well but grilled white fish or a slice of Cheddar or Dolcelatte would do just as well with some nice dark bread.

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.

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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.

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.

My recipe for tackling low self-esteem and anxiety and depression is to pay closer attention to myself. Now this may seem counter-intuitive if your wisdom has always been to keep your chin up and keep busy but it does in fact work. 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.

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.

 

 

Instant Gratification Monkey

peppers-2Carluccio’s Stuffed Peppers. Recipe below.

Yes, I will be coming to the stuffed peppers but bear with me. I bring news. I recently discovered a wonderful blog site called Wait But Why and along with that a Ted talk on procrastination by the brilliantly funny Tim Urban. If you need a small pick-me-up this Sunday, do visit his talk. A gifted humorist, in explaining his own procrastinating Tim divides his brain into three : the Rational Decision Maker, the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster. I guess we all know those three and here’s how they work. The Instant Gratification Monkey overrules the Rational Decision Maker whenever there is fun stuff to do so that the hard but sensible stuff is for ever put off. That Monkey pushes us to a cliff edge of disaster and then the Panic Monster steps in to save us from public humiliation and catastrophe.

But when it comes to eating the Instant Gratification Monkey (which only likes easy and fun) is less amusing than when it is just getting in the way of boring but necessary tasks like filling out our tax forms. As Tim says towards the end of his talk, where there is no deadline involved the Panic Monster is never called upon to step in and save the day. In those situations procrastinating becomes truly self-destructive. Procrastination about things that need doing in favour of instant gratification can lead to a life wasted and full of regret and curiously devoid of gratification.

If you want to learn Greek or lose weight or save up enough money to travel to the other side of the world the Panic Monster is never going to come to your aid because there is no point at which achieving those things becomes a matter of life and death. (And in fact for some people even when their weight does become a question of life or death there still isn’t enough panic to kick start them into changing something.)

In psychotherapy we have a slightly different take on these three structures. The Instant Gratification Monkey is your internal two year old with no self-control, no vision of the future, no memory of the past. The Panic Monster is a great name for the super-ego which devotes itself to making sure we deliver when it’s really important and makes our lives a misery with its constant warning. Trouble is the Panic Monster is just that, a monster. It knows no perspective and blows up having a little pleasure into the Crime of the Century. In reality the super-ego is pretty constant in its criticism and that means we operate in a miasma of feeling bad.

So where’s the Rational Decision Maker in my picture? Well, I like to think that as we learn first to make contact with, then to cultivate and to trust our internal wise adult we can moderate the self-destruct button that the Monkey likes to play with AND we can stand down the Panic Monster. So if you recognise that Monkey and that Monster in your own behaviour it’s time to get in touch with that third part which can transform your life with wisdom and kindness. Think of it not as Being Sensible or Healthy or Good (these terms put the Monkey into overdrive). Think of it as giving yourself a present. Give yourself a present today of doing something kind for your body that you don’t usually do. Meanwhile, here is my present to you.

This recipe is for Stuffed Peppers which are great hot when you’ve just made them and only improve overnight. The recipe is adapted from Antonio Carlucci’s online recipe for the same.

 

Ingredients
4 large yellow or red peppers, or a mixture

250g fresh white breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon salted capers, desalted
1 tablespoon finely chopped pitted black olives
3 large tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 anchovy fillets in oil, drained and finely chopped *
125ml extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

You can add grated Parmesan cheese to the stuffing or as a topping or top with Mozzarella if you prefer.

Add some water to the breadcrumbs and then wring them out so they are just damp. Mix them with all the other stuffing ingredients including half the olive oil and spoon into the halved and deseeded peppers. Place in an oven-proof dish and sprinkle with the remaining olive oil before roasting in the oven until they are done to your liking. Serve with bread and salad or roast meats.

  • Vegetarians can omit the anchovies and add extra cheese.

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