Cooking: Cutting through my anxiety

Cooking: Cutting through my anxiety

Lately I have found myself wanting to write things that are more meaningful to me while also sticking to what I love and talking about food. With this in mind I feel like it is a good time to talk about something quite close to my heart and I assume this may even surprise a few people that know me. Since a very young age I have had two constants in my life which are a love of food and a constant, crippling anxiety that can sometimes make my life incredibly difficult.

In recent years I have felt the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety slowly lift away and I have seen a certain amount of understanding starting to develop within our society. I think there is an element of people tweeting and sharing posts on ‘World mental health day’ without really considering what it means and how much of this is genuine I am not sure – but what it has done is allow people like myself to feel more comfortable in talking about it. Many people spend their nights hoping they wake up the following morning feeling less exposed and vulnerable than they went to sleep only to wake up in the same vacuum of dread, while not allowing themselves to talk to their closest friends and family for fear they will not understand. I have always been one of those people.

Mostly my anxiety is tied to a constant and unrelenting awareness of my own mortality which has more often than not manifested itself as health based anxiety. What this does is completely preoccupy you with thoughts of long term or life threatening illnesses and makes every day life almost impossible to deal with – I think that in isolation this would lead some people who haven’t suffered with a similar problem to think something along the lines of ‘Just get over it’ or ‘ Don’t worry about it’ but unfortunately the reality is this isn’t possible. Health anxiety alone often isn’t the culprit. Obsessive Compulsive disorder also likes to get involved and I am not talking about the cliché tropes of cleaning the house constantly or tapping my foot 3 times when I close a door – these problems do exist for some people however OCD very often comes in the way of obsessive and compulsive thought. To put it into context someone who functions in a very matter of fact way might watch the news and see something about a foreign country’s aggressive rhetoric towards another and take it at face value, maybe even ignore it completely and change the channel. However what someone with anxiety or compulsive thoughts may jump to are thoughts of world war 3, conscription and the idea of being sent against their will to fight a war and dying in some trench somewhere in the desert.. or worse yet nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. I know as that is something I myself had during the build up to our involvement in the Iraq war in 2003. I was 14 at the time.

Nowadays though my problems almost exclusively hit home due to the aforementioned health anxiety and to put that into context at a fairly young age I had a cancer scare. I had some discomfort in my groin for near enough 2 years and liked to put it down to a rollerblading injury externally while worrying and having panic attacks every single day during the year of my GCSE’s internally. I was worried about testicular cancer but in my naivety was too terrified to get it checked out, of course after a certain point I didn’t go for fear of being told I was terminally ill. I just couldn’t face it. Until one day when I actually found a lump. That was the day everything changed. I had always run on the logic that if I couldn’t find a lump then I was probably ok (Disclaimer: Do not adhere to this logic. It is the logic of a teenager too scared to face up to the possibility something may be wrong, If in doubt GET CHECKED) …But there it was. I was hysterical. I spent the next 4 days leading up to my doctors appointment unable to eat, sleep or even talk to people about how I felt. The panic attacks got worse and I felt like I was under water 90% of the time – my hearing came in and out, I went from cold flashes to hot sweats, involuntary muscle twitching and tremors to wave after wave of extremely painful headaches. It was the culmination of 2 years of utter panic, denial and an inability to deal with the cards I believed to have been dealt. I was checked out by the doctor who wasn’t particularly concerned but I refused to believe her and was booked in for an ultrasound. Long story short the scan came back fine and I have it checked every now and then to make sure everything is ok. The point is no matter what the ailment is I have at least 2 of these episodes a year about one thing or another. In 2017 It was an absolute fact I had MS, then Leukaemia and subsequently finished the year with Motor Neuron Disease, which in itself I find a dark humour in looking back on it as I must have felt really unlucky having all 3 at once.

2018 though was different. I find myself a lot more equipped to deal with this after many, many years of trying and failing. I feel like I am finally winning the war. A war that I know will never truly be over but nonetheless one that I have never felt more ready for. Every day when I wake up in bed, staring at the emptiness presented to me by the ceiling I try to conduct a certain level of mindfulness about my position in the world, what I am and what is around me. The tastes and smells of life and the joys to be found within them… it is within this that my personal cure is rooted. The first brief sip of coffee that alerts, hydrates and prepares us for the 12 hours to come, the heat and texture of the liquid. The finer details available to us in this world can make all the difference if we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to really appreciate and savour them. That is where my tonic comes from and my ability to shut out the unhealthy noise of my inner demons comes from the creation and consumption of food. I never really appreciated it during my time at school but I have an insatiable hunger to learn and create, which isn’t necessarily satisfied by my work life. I love my job I really do but I am a firm believer in having an escape from the pressure and the up’s and down’s of your 9 to 5, for me that is coming home and cooking a meal for myself and my family. It has been that way since I first started working.

I think it is important to mention at this point I am not talking about compulsive eating or gorging but rather the method and the principals of cooking that can take my out of my ‘bad place’. What it enables me to do is take me away from a place where the only thing I can consider is ‘Insert health concern here’ and take me to a place where I have to solve a problem. When done correctly, cooking is simply problem solving with incredibly enjoyable consequences and what I love about this is that it is so subjective and malleable. When looking at an open fridge I find myself doing equations, adding and subtracting items from a mental image of the prospective dish I want to create. Shopping is not something we simply have to do so we have food in our house it is an event of inspiration and promise for the week ahead. The fishmonger is my muse, The butcher my influence and the green grocer is my insight. This passion can be so much stronger than the darkness that dwells beyond logical thought and it allows me to cut through it and be myself, as we are never more ourselves than when we are doing something that we truly love.

The key thing for me is that I had to embrace who I was and what I loved doing to tread on the neck of my anxiety and not allow it to ruin my life. It inevitably still bubbles from time to time and there is no silver bullet for this ailment unfortunately, however this shouldn’t stop us from looking for answers. Whether it is exercise, cooking, playing an instrument or drawing there is sanctuary to be found there and within that sanctuary are the weapons and armour you need to fight the battle. For example when I had my rough patch in 2017 I got my pasta machine out and made at least 9 different types of pasta and copious amounts of it at that, but it was a physical and mental challenge that allowed me to escape the continuous loop of negativity and thoughts laden with impending doom.

My advice for anybody who struggles is to be mindful of the smaller joys in this life and don’t allow the demons to steal away your opportunity to enjoy this life we have been given. The world is an incredible place and we have the ability to do incredible things be it on a canvas, a plate or a stage. Never let it steal away from who you are. It will never truly go away but neither will a chronic physical injury – but yoga could help that…So make your passion your ‘mental yoga’ and keep yourself stretched and prepared to allow yourself to be yourself every day.

There’s nothing wrong with struggling and not being ok – but it is a fight you can win if you sharpen the right tools. It just so happened my tools are a smoker and a set of knives.

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Rainy day ribs-Smoke without fire

Rainy day ribs-Smoke without fire

Bank holidays in the UK tend to fall foul of a particularly unfortunate pattern. The weeks leading up to it will be scorching hot with an unrelenting heat and cloudless sky, then like a flash as soon as the bank holiday is within touching distance the rain starts like a switch has been flicked. Dampening picnic and BBQ plans alike and trapping us in our houses with ITV2 and it’s one thousandth play of Jurassic park 2 or Uncle Buck.

That being said it’s not all bad. Theres nothing wrong with rolling with the tide as it were, making lemonade from the lemons we should quite frankly expect by now! Get to the butcher and get something you have fancied cooking for a while, grab a Blu-ray you fancy watching and settle in for some extreme pre-winter comfort food. It’s a win-win situation.

For me it was a rib recipe I have wanted to try for such a long time it seems crazy that I haven’t got around to making it yet. I make no secret of being a passionate advocate of year round BBQ and rain or shine I don’t think you can beat biting through the bark of a rich, crispy piece of beef or chicken that is fresh off the coals. Sometimes however it is just not possible for everybody to get out there and fire up the grill, so this is my way of bringing that kind of experience indoors without setting your moms curtains on fire.

BBQ Ribs – serves one as a meal or 2 to share.Double amounts if needed.

What you will need: 

  • 6 individual meaty pork ribs. (You can use a rack you just need to cut them into sections of four)
  • 2 stock cubes
  • salt
  • A bottle of your favourite BBQ sauce. I usually make my own but for this I had a bottle of Jim Beam Cherry bourbon BBQ sauce that I wanted to try out.
  • Saucepan
  • A slow cooker

Method:

  1. Get a large saucepan full of salted water to a rolling boil and add the stock cubes. Stir until fully dissolved. Pre-heat the slow cooker on ‘low’.
  2. Add the ribs to the boiling water and leave for 3 minutes.
  3. The water should have a white to grey froth on top of it, this process stops that fatty residue tainting your sauce.
  4. Quickly pat dry with some kitchen roll and press the meaty side of the ribs into the ‘rub’.
  5. Lay them into the slow cooker and pour in the sauce. Making sure they are well covered.
  6. Leave for 4 hours and then half remove the lid for the final 5th hour.
  7. By now the sauce will have reduced a little, exposing the end pieces of the ribs and creating a bit of a bark while leaving the meat smokey,loose and almost desperate to slide straight off the bone.
  8. Serve with corn on the cob rolled in cayenne, sweet potato fries and plenty of french’s mustard.

 

 

 

The hog-mornay

For the first real recipe post of 2016 I thought I might as well do something I am known for and share a seasonally appropriate burger recipe with you all, starting as I mean to go on with something a little different while also keeping it totally achievable for cooks of any level.

As the title suggests I cooked this recipe on new years eve as a final seasonal blow out before the dark cloud of January rolled in from afar to rain on our festive parade. I am not a fan of January. I just find it comes across as the killjoy of all 12 months, hitting you faster than a speeding train it takes you from the festivities of Christmas and the week that follows and shoves you straight back into the harsh light of reality. A month long Monday. The seemingly eternal dark until the post Christmas payday! It’s not all bad but I love Christmas and all the build up that comes with it so when January takes that away from us I get a bit of a grump on the first week or so.

All this considered though, I do enjoy getting together with family and celebrating new year with good food while watching the Jools Holland Hootenanny until Big Ben chimes. As I have stated previously we have just bought a new house so we were determined to have people round as much as possible as we love entertaining and cooking for people, so I developed this recipe specifically for new years eve and it was a great success.

What is it? 

Pork – three ways. A burger with a giant pig in a blanket, topped with a rich Mornay sauce on a wholemeal bun with a touch of rocket.

What do I need?

  • 500g pork mince
  • 200g diced sweet potato
  • 1 heaped tbsp. Cajun seasoning
  • 1 grated apple
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 red onions, finely diced
  • Rocket
  • salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 4 Wholemeal rolls

For the giant pigs in blankets

  • 4 97% pork sausages. I used Heck.
  • 4 large rashers of Smoked back bacon

For the Mornay sauce

  • 2 1/2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. white flour
  • 2 cups of warmed milk
  • 2 big handfuls grated Gruyere cheese
  • Salt and pepper

What do I do?

  1. To start with you need to bring a saucepan of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the sweet potato for 10-15 minutes, or until soft enough to slide off a skewer or fork. Then drain them and put them aside to cool, then mash them thoroughly.
  2. In a hot pan with a little oil, lightly fry the onions until soft then put aside to cool fully (Do this alongside cooking the sweet potatoes).
  3. In a bowl add the pork, apple, garlic, Cajun seasoning, onion, mash potato and season generously with the salt and pepper. Bring together well and split into 4 evenly loaded patty shapes. (If you have any left over they make great little meatballs for a pizza!) Cover in cling film and place in the fridge to chill.
  4. In a small saucepan on a low heat add the butter and wait for it to start to melt, then pop in the flour and stir until it comes together into a lumpy texture. Slowly add a little milk at a time while continuously mixing to bring together and thicken. Repeat until all the milk is used up then add the cheese and keep stirring until you get a thick cheese sauce, then season well. Add more cheese if you want it to thicken up a bit more.
  5. Heat up a grill, griddle pan or in my case I used a George Forman health grill. Butterfly the sausage and wrap it in the bacon. Place it on the hot griddle and weigh it down, either with another pan or close the lid of the health grill to avoid any major curling when the sausage starts to cook. Cook for 4-5 minutes on a medium heat and then turn over and repeat until crispy.
  6. In another hot pan, fry the burgers for 4-5 minutes a side until browned off and cooked all the way through. Serve immediately on the wholemeal rolls, on a small bed of the rocket, followed by the burger, then the pig in blanket, topped with a good helping of the sauce. Cap it with the top half of the roll and get them served before you go at them yourself!

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The Hungry buck’s ultimate 12 hour lasagne

As you might guess from the title this one is a big recipe for me as it takes one of my favourite dishes and elevates it to a whole new level. A level in which a simple lasagne becomes an experience that warms the soul and soothes whatever worries you may well have… sounds dramatic right? wait until you try it! Beef that melts away from the fork in a rich tomato sauce paired with enough cheese to give a cartoon mouse a migraine and a silky bechamel sauce to glue it all together.

The problem is it all sounds a little run of the mill in terms of lasagne as lets be fair, that’s what they all have going for them and it is the reason everybody tends to love it. The thing that differentiates this lasagne from any old chucked together pasta dish is the ragu… a 12 hour labour of love that makes all the difference!

What you’ll need:

  • 1kg beef brisket/ roasting joint
  • 500ml vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 jar of red pesto
  • 3 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large red onion, diced
  • 4 smoked streaky bacon rashers, diced
  • Large handful of basil, roughly chopped or torn
  • 2 mozzarella balls, diced
  • 100g grated red Leicester
  • 100g grated strong cheddar
  • 16 lasagne sheets (I use wholemeal but not essential!)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

and for the white sauce:

  • 25g butter
  • 30g tbsp plain flour
  • 1 pint milk
  • Salt and pepper

Method:

  1. First of all prep the beef by removing any string or packaging and preheating your slow cooker on low. (You can use your oven on a low equivalent temperature but a slow cooker uses less energy and is so much easier to monitor)
  2. Put the beef in the slow cooker and add the stock and dried oregano… walk away and leave it for 12 hours.
  3. After 12 hours remove the beef. In a tray or bowl, gently tear the meat apart with two forks until it is all shredded. Leave to stand for a minute.
  4. Preheat a pan on a medium/low heat with the olive oil and add the bacon. Fry until browned then add the garlic, celery and onion and keep on a low heat until softened.
  5. Add the beef to the pan with the tomatoes, tomato puree and 2-3 ladles of the cooking broth from the slow cooker, making sure the ragu doesn’t get too loose then stir to combine, turn the heat up slightly and simmer for 10 minutes. If the mixture starts to dry up add more cooking broth.
  6. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees or gas mark 4 and in your chosen lasagne dish spread your pesto evenly across the bottom and layer your first four lasagne sheets across the bottom of the dish.
  7. Put another saucepan on the hob on a low/medium heat and add the butter, when it just starts to melt shake in the flour and whisk well until it comes together completely (it will look a bit lumpy but don’t worry) then slowly start to add the milk, about a quarter at a time until it thickens then add more. Once it has all combined season to taste but I would recommend plenty of pepper!
  8. Take the now bubbling molten ragu and put a thin layer all the way across the pasta. Sprinkle a few little bits of the red Leicester and cheddar across it and drizzle the bechamel evenly to create a thin quilting across the meat. Repeat this to create four even layers and finish off with the last of the white sauce and scatter all of the cheese across the top of the lasagne. Put into the oven for 45 minutes or until the cheese has browned and the pasta has cooked through.
  9. Eat it and forget about any kind of calorie counting for the duration of the meal! I recommend serving with a glass of red wine, a few slices of garlic bread or like I did with some baked stuffed gnocchi and a salad.

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Serving suggestion: Lots of garlic bread, some baked filled gnocchi and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Goblin ghoul-ash

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are falling and the fresh food that has spent the summer slowly maturing to its full and gloriously ripe potential is rolling onto the shelves. It is honestly my favourite time of year but lets be fair, as a person who is obsessed with food why wouldn’t it be? It’s a time when we start to consume warming stews and soul caressing roasted meats that are packed with the fruits of the British summer time, providing flora and fauna with ripening nourishment.

However once a year a dark cloud looms heavily over the land as the date wheel strikes 31, the spirit of Halloween creeps across the woodland and the flicker of a thousand pumpkin lanterns twisted smirk’s illuminate the night sky… on October 31st the season of mischief is in full swing and to celebrate this epic arrival I have put together a recipe using the finest ale that the UK has to offer. The unofficial king of Halloween, Wychwood’s Hobgoblin provides the ruby nectar that lifts this dish to new levels.

  • 2 tbsp Olive oil
  • 500g stewing steak
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 large Onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 clove Garlic, diced
  • 1 yellow pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 red pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
  • 1/2 a butternut squash, peeled and diced
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 tbsp Paprika
  • 4 large Tomatoes, diced finely
  • 1 bottle Hobgoblin (Ruby)
  • 300ml beef stock, prepared in advance if your using stock cubes.
  • 1 handful flat leaf Parsley, chopped
  • black pepper and salt
  • 150ml thick soured cream

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  1. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large casserole dish or oven proof saucepan on the hob.
  3. Put the beef and flour into a bag and shake/ work well so all the beef is well coated.
  4. Add the meat to the pan and brown well all over, then remove and set aside.
  5. Add the remaining oil to the pan and throw in the onion, celery, squash, garlic, both peppers and fry until softened and the squash starts to brown.
  6. Add the beef back to the pan with the tomato puree and paprika and give it a good stir.
  7. Now is the time for the most vital part of this wicked recipe… crack open the bottle and add the Hobgoblin, stock and chopped tomatoes. Stir while on the heat for a minute or so then cover and bake in the oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and stir in the parsley and the sour cream, season well and continue to stir until well combined.
  9. Serve with fresh bread and brown rice for a truly wholesome Halloween inspired autumnal treat!

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  • * 2 large Tomatoes, diced
  • * 75ml dry White wine
  • * 300ml beef stock, home-made or shop-bought
  • * 2 tbsp flat leaf Parsley, chopped
  • * black pepper
  • * 150ml Soured cream

The Hungry Buck Cuban sandwich

A little while ago I watched a film called ‘Chef’ on Netflix starring John Favreau where he plays Carl Casper, a head chef at a major restaurant in California. He hits a snag when the owner of the restaurant tries to shackle his creativity and tie him down to cooking ‘classic’ proven dishes instead of being free to innovate and create something edgy and special. A high flying blogger and critic Ramsey Michel is heavily critical of Carl’s menu which starts a Twitter war between the two, Carl unfortunately being quite aggressive in his retaliation, not realising that Twitter is a very public forum to start a war of words. Ultimately this triggers a sequence of events that ruin his credibility and essentially ruins his career.

This gives Carl the opportunity to strip everything back and make something beautifully simple, tasty and fun. Traveling the country in a food truck making a huge impact with his iteration of the Cuban sandwich, he tries to rebuild his career and rebuild his fractured relationships with his family along the way. Its a brilliant film and I would recommend anybody watch it whether you are a food lover or not its a great ‘Feel good’ movie to watch on a Sunday night to help battle those lurking Monday blues.

Naturally I have spent a lot of time since watching the film researching the Cuban sandwich in its different iterations and disputed guises in and around the USA, making notes on equivalent ingredients to substitute the less available items on UK shores. Traditionally a Cuban sandwich is made from ‘Cuban’ bread which is baked in long, baguette style shapes with a crisp outer crust and a soft flaky middle, Ham, roasted pork, yellow mustard, Swiss cheese and pickles which is then pressed in a sandwich press called a Plancha. The bread being the main sticking point over here in the UK if you don’t have time to make it yourself.

In terms of the roast pork I wanted to give the sandwich a quick and easy alternative so slow roasting for hours for the sake of making one sandwich was never really a viable option for me! So I switched it up for some pork loin steaks and made a quick spice rub from salt, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and lime juice. So as blasphemous as this may be to the purists this is my homage to the iconic Cuban sandwich.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 Panini roll
  • Honey roast ham
  • 1 Pork loin steak
  • Large pickles, thinly
  • 4 slices of Swiss or Emmental cheese
  • Half a lime

Sprinkle 1/2 a teaspoon of each of the following onto a plate

  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Garlic powder
  • salt

Method:

  1. Preheat a griddle pan on a medium heat, cut the bread and lay the cheese onto the bottom half.
  2. Place to pork loin steak onto the plate and press into the spice mix, flip over and rub into the meat. Repeat for both sides.
  3. Add the pork to the pan, squeeze the juice of the lime directly onto the meat and cook for around 4 minutes each side. Remove and rest. Keep the pan on a low heat.
  4. Add the pork loin to the sandwich (you can slice it if you want) and layer the ham, pickles and any remaining cheese onto the sandwich. Add a good spread of the mustard onto the remaining bread and place on the top of the sandwich, Lightly butter the top and bottom of the bread.
  5. Turn the heat up on the griddle and add the sandwich to the pan, press down with a spare frying pan or plate to keep it compressed and on the heat. Keep it like this until browned and then flip it over to repeat.
  6. Remove your crispy Cuban from the pan and enjoy! Cut diagonally for really authentic detailing!

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Hungry buck cookies

Happy Friday everyone! The weekend is just around the corner, bake off is in full swing and it looks like we are due some good weather this weekend.

This week the BBC’s popular show ‘The Great British bake off’ held their biscuit week, showing off the bakers skills in three specific challenges that incorporate a wide range of biscuit making techniques to show that they deserve another week on the show. My fiancé adores the program and as she is a Teacher, she has time off around the time that the show airs for her summer break, so she likes to bake on ‘Bake off’ day something that relates to the corresponding week on the show.

This week I was treated to a chunky, oat biscuit that was sweet, nutty and filling. Great with a coffee first thing at work!

Heres the recipe for you to try making our new favourite biscuit at home…

Ingredients:

125g butter, Softened, plus extra to grease
100 g soft light brown sugar
50 g golden syrup
140 g plain flour
1 medium egg
100g large rolled oats
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75 g pecan halves, roughly chopped to decorate
40 g Dark chocolate, melted

Method:

Preheat oven to 170°C (150°C fan) mark 3. Lightly grease two large baking sheets. In a large bowl, mix together the cookie ingredients until well combined. Put large tablespoonfuls of the mixture on to the prepared baking sheets, spacing them well apart. Bake for 12-15min until golden. Leave to cool for 10min on the baking sheet, then drizzle with melted chocolate. Serve immediately, or leave to set first.

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And that is how easy it is! Seriously! Enjoy you weekends all.