By Lauren Taylor
Why is it that when we say ‘comfort food’, we think of ‘treats’ to indulge in every once in a while, or worse still, attach feelings of guilt or shame to comforting ourselves with food?
Some days, you might have the energy and inclination to prepare an elaborate or seriously nutritious dish, but others you might think the only thing that’s going to make you feel better is a stack of toast or a piece of cake – and that’s OK, says Jack Monroe.
“I’m writing my seventh cookbook now and I have days where all I eat are salt and vinegar crisps and buttered white bread. Sometimes even I don’t want to get in the kitchen,” Monroe admits.
It’s an admission you won’t hear much among chefs and cookbook authors, but it’s the reality for many of us. And for people living with a mental health issue, the relationship with cooking and nurturing ourselves with food can be especially complex.
“No one really tackles it, what to cook for yourself when you really don’t feel like cooking, or what to eat when you really don’t feel like eating,” says Monroe, 32.
Having been open about living with depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD for years, the food writer and poverty activist has used her own, very raw experience to put together her latest collection of recipes in Good Food For Bad Days.
She’s a real advocate for not beating yourself up about what you’re eating, and says sometimes the purpose of food is simply to make you feel good in that moment, or to get some fuel inside you – and we need to be OK with that. But for days when you can get into the kitchen, her new cookbook looks to be a real saviour.
It ranges from ‘finger foods’ – like orange and blueberry oat bars – and meals you can whip up in 15 minutes or less like anchovy butter pasta, to one pan meals like meatball and white bean stew, for days when you don’t have the head space for complex cooking (and a lot of washing up).
She includes a guide – a ‘bingo card’ she calls it – of foods that are helpful for maintaining healthy brain function to consider eating regularly, like bananas, nuts and oily fish. “But it comes with a massive caveat that eating your way through this list, even if it was exclusively all you ate, is not going to shield you from having a bluesy day or tragic life events or chemical imbalances – but it can give you something to start to deal with it.”
Cauliflower Cheese and White Bean Bake
1 large onion
1tbsp cooking oil, plus extra for greasing
1 x 400g tin of butter beans
1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans
500ml chicken stock, or water and 1 stock cube
1/2tsp mustard (any sort)
A pinch of grated nutmeg
1 large head of cauliflower
120g mature cheddar, or similar
2 slices of bread, blitzed or grated to crumbs, or 4tbsp dried breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste
First peel and finely slice your onion and add to a large nonstick pan. Add a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt and cook gently over low heat for five minutes to start to soften.
Drain and thoroughly rinse your beans and tip them into the pan. Cover with the stock, then add the mustard and nutmeg. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes.
Turn your oven on to 180C and make sure there is a shelf in the middle. Lightly grease a decent-sized ovenproof dish – mine is 20cm x 20cm.
Remove the outer leaves of your cauliflower. Cut the heavy stalk from the bottom and chop the cauli into small florets. Add the cauli to the pan and stir through. Cover to retain as much of the remaining liquid as possible, then cook for 15 minutes, or until the cauli is soft and a fork gently prodded into it goes through with little to no resistance.
Tip the contents of the pan into your prepared dish. Grate cheese over the veg and top with breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the crumbs and melt the cheese, then serve immediately with extra black pepper on top.
Jaffa Cake Mug Pudding
2tbsp marmalade, plus extra to finish
2tbsp Nutella or other chocolate spread, plus extra to finish
3tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp honey or sugar
4tbsp self-raising flour
Squeezy chocolate sauce, or more chocolate spread, to serve
First measure the marmalade and chocolate spread into your mug, and pop it into the microwave for 45 seconds to soften.
Remove carefully as the mug may be warm, and stir in the oil, then the milk. Leave to cool for a minute or two before cracking in the egg and beating it well. Mix in the honey, or sugar if using, and then the flour, to make your batter.
Place the mug back in the microwave for 90 seconds on high. It will rise quite a bit, but it deflates again a little afterwards.
Top with an extra smudge of marmalade and chocolate spread, then return to the microwave for 30 seconds more to melt them and finish cooking the pudding.
Remove, and allow to stand for a minute or two before tucking in as it will be hot!
Good Food For Bad Days by Jack Monroe is available now