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.

 

 

Cooking for the President

unknown-2
unknown-1

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.

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.