There’s a growing body of research to suggest that cooking (and I’d say repetitive or slow cooking processes in particular) can function as a form of mindfulness meditation and improve mental well-being. I’m particularly interested in how cooking can help to calm an anxiety-frazzled mind.
Carrying out a step-by-step process forces you to focus on the task at hand, keeping you in the present rather than allowing your mind to wander into ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.
Following a recipe successfully also provides a sense of control (often sorely lacking in the anxious) and of achievement at a time when you might be feeling as though nothing is going right. And while half an hour’s meditation may have the same benefits, with cooking you have a very tangible — and hopefully delicious — reward at the end. It is also a way to nurture and show love to those close to you, which in turn makes you feel good yourself.
And while anxiety can numb your senses, cooking brings them to life: it’s a multi-sensory experience stimulating sight, sound, taste and smell. Try cutting open a pomegranate without marvelling at the jewel-like colour of the seeds, or baking cheese scones without feeling comforted by the homely aroma filling the kitchen.
Some recipes are more therapeutic than others. I think the trick is to avoid anything too complicated so you don’t get disheartened, while challenging yourself enough to feel a sense of satisfaction with and pride in the result.
Here are my favourite kitchen calmers.
Squirreling away food for a later date gives you a satisfying sense of virtue that lasts well beyond the time you spend in the kitchen. Look up preserving ideas for whatever you happen to have an abundance of; you could make jam with a glut of plums or preserved lemons with a backyard bounty. Preserving by Ginette Mathiot is a great book to get you started.
Homemade pasta is my ultimate comfort food. My favourites forgo the fiddly pasta maker — think thick rustic ribbons of pasta, which are just rolled-out pasta dough cut into strips. If you want to get a bit fancier (and therefore more meditative, in my book) you can make filled pasta with a veg, meat or cheese filling. My pici carbonara recipe is here.
Dumplings seem to be universally adored, and so many cultures have their own version of them — probably because they’re comfort food at its best. The repetitive process of filling and sealing a pile of dumplings might seem tedious, but if you let yourself get into a little rhythm you might find it becomes a pleasurable exercise. You can find my recipe for very simple pork, shiitake and ginger dumplings here. Afghan mantu are stuffed with a beef and onion mixture and served with yoghurt and a tomatoey sauce and are totally delicious.
Risotto requires your full attention for the entire cooking time, with frequent liquid additions and stirring (again, quite meditative), and it’s so satisfying to see it come together and become creamy, while retaining an ever-so-slight bite. My favourite risotto is of the spring veg variety, bright with peas, mint and asparagus. There’s a good recipe here.
There’s nothing quite like the aroma of baking bread, and making it from scratch is a calming and satisfying process. You can get pretty technical with bread, but there are also very simple recipes for no-knead breads. I’ll be making this potato and rosemary focaccia this weekend (to serve with a glass of nero d’avola, as suggested, because a glass of wine can also help with anxiety . . .).
Cake and other baking
Baking soothes the soul. There’s something deeply ritualistic and therapeutic about weighing out ingredients and getting the proportions, consistency and cooking times just right. My go-to cake at the moment is this pear, dark chocolate and pistachio cake from Gourmet Traveller, which I usually make with almonds.
I realise that none of these foods would be described as health foods, and I’m not suggesting that any of them contain ingredients that help ease anxiety — it’s the process I’ve focused on here. There’s lots of information online about foods that are said to help with anxiety, as well as information about anxiety itself. I’m also not suggesting that cooking provides a cure for anxiety, just that, alongside other positive practices, finding recipes that you enjoy making may help you to achieve a more content and relaxed state of mind.