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.

 

 

Home Comfort

Smoked Haddock

 

 

When you’re a bit stressed (I still have builders on the scene) you need something comforting to eat that is also going to nourish you and help your body cope with the stress.  Last night I found all I had in the fridge was smoked haddock and the person I was cooking for let it be known that smoked haddock with e.g. poached egg and spinach (which I love) was not acceptable (he doesn’t like haddock much and draws the line at spinach). Now this was the point at which it was tempting to walk to the pub, quite possibly on my own, but instead, taking a deep breath and a large drink, I turned to Diana Henry, one of my absolute favourite cooks, and her book A Change of Appetite. Smoked Haddock with Indian-Scented Lentils relies on a life-enhancing combination of carbohydrate : lentils, bulgur wheat and small chunks of potato flavoured delicately and moreishly with curry powder, ginger, turmeric and cardamom, not forgetting the haddock itself. The dish pictured above is a slightly less interesting adaptation, par force, because I had no lentils and on closer inspection no bulgur wheat or fresh coriander either.

So lacking only two of the crucial ingredients I ploughed on and made a version with couscous and potato and fish but with all the crucial spices. It looks heaps more interesting when you do have the lentils to hand (the photo below the recipe is what it should look like) but it was nevertheless delicious and proved to be a way of getting smoked haddock into someone whose favourite fish it is not. It also spared me the ordeal of trying to order reasonably healthily in the pub when I was fed up and tired, a combination which tends to lead straight to fried food and puddings not to mention that extra glass of wine and wouldn’t a small Armagnac be a brilliant idea after such a hard day?

So don’t wait until you’re fed up and tired. You might even try getting in some of the listed ingredients before you try it out, but I urge you to try it. It’s a winner. (If haddock is not on your list of edible foods you can make it with smoked tofu or hard boiled eggs but some flavour will be lacking so you might want to add a few finely chopped spring onions.)

Henry

 

Smoked Haddock with Indian-Scented Lentils (4-6)

2 large onions

15g butter

3 tsp curry powder

1/4 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

ground seeds of 10 cardamom pods

125g waxy potatoes peeled and cut into one inch chunks

100g bulgur wheat

1 litre home-made chicken stock (or, on planet earth, Marigold vegetable bouillon)

salt and pepper

150g Puy lentils (or a tin of cooked lentils if you have them)

bay leaf

50 ml double cream (or Elmlea substitute)

500g smoked haddock cut into large chunks

2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped (Improvise if you don’t have this. Tarragon does well. Parsley. Spring onions. Anything green and finely chopped will do.)

1 tbsp sunflower oil

1 tsp soft dark sugar (or, in my case, sugar)

juice of half lime plus lime wedges to serve (no I didn’t have these either)

 

The ideal pan for this dish is a large straight-sided frying pan with a lid.

  1. Finely chop one of the onions. Finely slice the other for garnish later
  2. Saute the chopped onion in the butter until soft and then add the spices
  3. Cook for two minutes then add the potatoes, bulgur and stock and bring to the boil
  4. Season, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are cooked (10 mins?)
  5. Meanwhile cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet but with a bay leaf and drain once they are tender (or open the tin!)
  6. Add the lentils and cream and most of the coriander to the ‘broth’ then add the fish and poach until cooked (5 mins?)
  7. While the fish is cooking fry the sliced onion in the oil and sugar until crispy
  8. Serve in large dishes with a squeeze of lime juice, caramelised onion and coriander on top.

authentic

 

Home

I have been silent for a little while now as I have been moving back into my house after nine months away during which the builders have refashioned it beautifully. It is a curious experience being here now, rather like a dream. The house is the same but not the same. This room is sunny that once was gloomy. Surely there was a door here where now there is a window? Here is the kitchen but that wall has moved. And what I have been in touch with vividly over the last year is all the things that home means to me and how uncomfortable I have felt without one. How reliant I am on all my stuff (lately in storage) for a sense of who I am. It feels it has taken some extra effort on my part to maintain my self without reference to my reflection in my house and my belongings. Now I am enjoying arranging pictures and furniture which greet me like old friends but also keeping myself company and not quite letting go of the me that knows how to live without them.

This is just a few words to herald more posts coming soon as I get back into the swing of my life. For now I will say just one thing. Next time you choose a work surface in your kitchen choose one with a yellow gold thread in it and you will never notice those tiny tea and coffee stains again. Result!

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.

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.