We had a smattering of snow this week. Nothing significant, aside from the first hour when it fell with quiet monotony, moving the streets from damp and dull to white and startling. Outside my daughter, determined to make the most of it and hoping for a fall so huge that school would be cancelled in the morning, made a small snowman and a snow face complete with hair fashioned from kindling, now too wet for the fire. Not a moment of the brief wintry interlude was wasted. In a darker sense anxiety can come from feeling that we must make use of every second and, ironically, it is that very demand which often scuppers our attempts to feel peaceful.
These distractions from the predictable and slow trudge of January are like diamonds found in the rough. They are reminders that even amongst the greyest existence there can be something completely contrasting. Even in the midst of constant sameness change is always possible.
Anxiety is fast paced and unrelenting. There is a busyness of thought that, far from providing a distraction, is a distraction from an existence which feels peaceful and balanced. Perhaps there is no obvious connection between pottering about in the kitchen and the calming of an anxious mind, but it exists.
Often, my work as a therapist brings people to me who cannot tolerate silence because of the way that it accentuates the noise in their head. It is as if some external cacophony is needed to ignore the one which rages inside.
In the most challenging periods of my own life I have sought refuge in my kitchen. Over the years it has not been in the eating of food that I have found most comfort (as it is destructively for so many.) but in its preparation. There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that working with our hands is an antidote to anxiety.
Making food is a spectrum of experience much wider than either simply creating fuel for our bodies as quickly as possible or having to spend hours in dedicated meditation over a mountain of regimented recipe books. There is so much which exists in between. It is possible to make beautiful food with little effort and make ourselves feel more relaxed at the same time. As an antidote to anxiety a little gentle peeling, chopping and mixing can be quite magical.
At this time of the year we are drawn to something warming and comforting. I remember the chicken casserole that my mother used to make which calmed the stress and strain of the world outside with its heady aroma long before it was anywhere near ready to taste. The preparation, gentle cooking and sharing of a meal has a remarkable impact on us and those that we love. What follows is very much in that vein.
As the umpteenth snowball clattered into the kitchen doors I had time to go outside and look at the beauty of the snugly blanketed garden and feel its crunch under my feet. When the cold became too much we flung the back door open and were hit by a flood of warmth and heavenly savoury scent from the ham, tomato, garlic, olive and bay. I lit a fire and we sat down together to eat, from deep bowls, with the crustiest bread.
Ham Casserole with Butternut Squash.
The beauty of this recipe is that there is little in the way of required measurements or ingredients. Pretty much all of it is interchangeable depending on what you have lurking in the kitchen.
Try making this with the radio and TV off, with no noise, accepting the chaos which might rage in your head, and quietly establishing that the most enduring essence of peace comes from inside and not out.
Not only is the preparation stress and anxiety free, but you might just find that you’ve soothed the noise in your mind. It’s amazing what we can do for ourselves when we remove the demands.
Bacon or Ham joint (mine was 1.5kg but variance either way is fine.)
2 Carrots – peeled and cut into chunks the size you like
2 Celery sticks – cut as you wish
1 small Butternut Squash – peeled, seeded and cut into chunks the size you like
2 Leeks – sliced and rinsed well (there’s nothing worse than grit in your dinner)
Green Lentils (a handful) – You can leave these out if you don’t have any (why don’t you have any?!)
Olives – I had a few leftover from supper on Thursday. Leave them out if you had something else for supper on Thursday
Capers – See “Olives”
1 tin Chopped Tomatoes
2 Bay leaves
A sprig of thyme
Put your bacon/ham into a pan with a lid, one big enough to get everything else in as well.
Add all the other ingredients and then top up with water until the meat and vegetables are almost covered.
Bring to the simmer on the hob.
Put into a pre heated oven at around 160 fan/180/Gas 4 and leave it while you get on with whatever you want to get on with. I left mine for a couple of hours and the meat was sumptuous and falling apart but yours will take less or more time depending on how big your piece of meat is. The point is this, it won’t spoil if you leave it a bit longer than is necessary, so there is no stress.
When the meat is done, take it out of the broth and remove the skin and fat, then cut the meat into big chunks and add it back into the casserole.
Serve with a few lightly steamed greens and some crusty bread, or rice, or whatever you fancy.
Best eaten by the fire when its dark, with people you love (this includes yourself) and the curtains closed.