Culinary therapy: how cooking can help alleviate anxiety

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.


Dumplings for perpetually hungry gannet-nieces

Today my visiting nieces requested dumplings for lunch and instead of going for the supermarket variety (Waiheke may be well-served when it comes to wineries but it is sadly lacking in cheap and cheerful Asian joints), we decided to make them ourselves. Of course that really meant me filling and pleating countless little parcels myself while they sheltered from the rain and watched a movie. It may take a little while to make up a decent number of them, but the other prep is quick and simple and I like the meditative quality of this kind of repetitive cooking task.

These dumplings are more like Japanese gyoza than the Chinese ones eaten in their dozens on the Balmoral dumpling strip. Half frying/half steaming them like this results in dumplings that are toothsomely crispy on one side and soft and chewy on the other; the best of both worlds.

Makes 30–40 with leftover filling



500g pork mince (free-range, of course)

2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped

1 spring onion, very finely chopped

2cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

5 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked to soften and finely chopped

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sesame oil, plus extra for frying

pinch of salt

30–40 dumpling wrappers (available at Asian food stores and some supermarkets)

neutral vegetable oil for shallow frying

Dipping sauce 

soy sauce

rice vinegar

chilli (fresh, oil, or sauce), optional

toasted sesame seeds

finely sliced spring onion, for colour


Put the pork mince in a large bowl. Fill a small bowl with warm water.

Add all other dumpling ingredients except the wrappers to the pork and use your hands to mix everything together well.

Clean and dry your hands thoroughly (so the wrappers don’t stick). Place a dumpling wrapper on one hand and put 1 teaspoon of filling in the centre of the wrapper. (Don’t be tempted to use more or the dumplings will bulge and burst when cooking.)

Dip your finger in the warm water and wet the entire circumference of the wrapper, around the filling. Fold the wrapper in half to form a semi-circle and pinch the edges to form crimped, fully sealed little dumplings. Make sure they are sealed well, or they’ll open when you’re cooking them. If making 30–40 dumplings, you will probably have filling left over. You can freeze it for next time you have a dumpling-making craving, or if you’re more organised than me, make up extra dumplings and freeze them for a super-easy future fix.

Place one very large or two medium-sized frying pans over a medium-high heat and add the sesame oil and enough of the other oil to shallow fry. (Depending on how big your pans are you may need to cook the dumplings in batches; you don’t want to overcrowd the pan or they won’t go crispy.) Once the oil is shimmering, add the dumplings and cook for 3–4 minutes, until golden and crispy on one side.

Add 3 tablespoons of water to the pan and immediately cover with a lid. Cook for 6–7 minutes, until the wrappers are translucent, the meat is cooked (cut into one to check) and no water is left in the pan. Remove the lid and cook for a further minute or so to ensure the bottoms are crispy.

Mix together the soy sauce, vinegar, chilli (if using), sesame seeds and spring onion. Taste and adjust the ingredients as desired. Serve the dipping sauce alongside the dumplings and try to resist burning your mouth in the rush to get some before your nieces devour them all.

Although I’d like to say I always make my own wrappers, I’ve only done it a couple of times. I figure dumplings are fiddly enough without adding another step to something that I see as a simple meal, and the wrappers you can buy, such as these ones, are pretty good.

Mushroom, bacon and leek pappardelle (homage to the ‘godfather’ of Italian gastronomy)

Tonight I made this quick and easy mushroom, bacon, leek and rocket pappardelle in honour of the ‘godfather’ of Italian cuisine and fungi fan, Antonio Carluccio, who died today. It’s pretty simple – taking all of about 15 minutes to make – but then all the best Italian food is.

In general I’m averse to chains, but while living in London I spent a fair amount of time at Carluccio’s – the food was good, and the restaurants avoided the tacky look and feel of so many of the city’s numerous chains. When I first started going, always with the same good friend, I don’t think I even realised it was a chain, and I probably wouldn’t have known who Antonio Carluccio was. My friend and I would walk down to Carluccio’s in Ealing Broadway, where she lived, and have long boozy lunches that almost always involved a bottle (okay, two) of rose and the sea bass with crispy potatoes. I had worked at an Italian food store for a couple of years before university, so probably thought I knew a thing or two about that country’s cuisine, and today it’s my favourite to cook and to eat out.

Carluccio wrote something like 18 cookbooks, including A Passion for Pasta, with its wonderfully cheesy cover featuring the godfather joyfully cradling an enormous wheel of cheese filled with pasta.

Serves 2 with leftovers


2 tbsp olive oil

1 leek, thinly sliced

5 rashers streaky bacon, chopped

300g pappardelle (use the fresh pasta recipe in Carluccio and Contaldo’s Two Greedy Italians, or use store-bought; the Countdown ‘Gold’ brand one is surprisingly good I think)

2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

couple of handfuls mushrooms (I used brown button, but you could definitely be more adventurous), sliced

1 zucchini, cut into ribbons with a peeler

large handful of rocket

salt and freshly ground black pepper

olive oil, to serve

parmesan, to serve

handful of Italian parsley leaves, to serve


Put a large pot of boiling water on to boil.

While it heats, put the olive oil in a frying pan and when it’s glistening, add the leek and bacon. Cook, stirring, for 5-6 minutes until the leek has softened and the bacon is golden.

When the water is boiling, add a pinch of salt and pappardelle. Cook for approximately 3-4 minutes for fresh pasta (this will depend on thickness though so keep testing it) or according to packet instructions. Drain and reserve about an eighth of a cup of the cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot.

Add the garlic and mushrooms to the frying pan and cook for 2-3 minutes until the garlic is cooked but not browned and the mushrooms have softened slightly. Add the mushroom mixture to the pasta along with the cooking water, zucchini ribbons, rocket and salt and pepper, and stir through.

Serve with lashings of olive oil, grated parmesan and Italian parsley.

Pici carbonara

Yesterday I saw a post on Instagram that brought back vivid memories of two of my favourite meals in Italy. It was handmade pasta (tonneralli) with a really simple carbonara sauce. The tonneralli made me reminisce about the handmade pasta we had enjoyed all over Italy, but in particular Siena and Capri: rustic, thick, not-quite spaghetti. The woman who posted it described the meal as close to a religious experience, and I can relate to that; some of the meals we enjoyed in Italy will stick with me for the rest of the life.

In Siena we had a dish of toothsome pasta ribbons with a simple tomato sauce and finely chopped boiled egg. Apparently the egg addition is typical of Italian ‘peasant’ food – an affordable source of protein. In Ana Capri, the smaller, ‘top’ town on the island of Capri, we had thick worms of pasta that were deliciously chewy and served with a seafood sauce.

I’ve tried making pici pasta since, and it was a little overwhelming – the texture wasn’t quite right. That Insta photo set off a mad fresh pasta craving though, so I decided to try it again last night with the addition of a little olive oil, hoping it would add a little chewiness. Traditional Sienese pici is made with just flour and water so I can’t claim this is authentic, but it’s damn good.

I am firmly in the no-cream camp when it comes to carbonara.

Serves 2


2 cups high-grade flour

½ tbsp olive oil

pinch of salt


2 tbsp olive oil

100g pancetta (or guanciale, if you want to be traditional and can get it)

3 egg yolks, beaten

freshly ground black pepper

grated parmesan or other hard cheese

Put all the pici ingredients in a large bowl.

Start with about three-quarters of a cup of warm water and stir with a spoon to combine. Keep adding a little more water and stirring until you have a loose but not wet dough.

Tip the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and bring it together into a ball. Knead the dough, using the heels of your palms, for about 5 minutes, until smooth and slightly elastic. It should spring back when you push it with your fingertip.

Shape the dough into a disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Rest for at least two hours. (I left mine out of the fridge.)

Separate the dough into two pieces and rewrap one piece so it doesn’t dry out while you work with the other. Use a rolling pin (or bottle of wine . . .) to roll the dough out into a rough rectangle about half a centimetre thick. Cut into strips a centimetre wide. Don’t worry if they are different lengths or slightly different widths – this is rustic pasta.

Use your hands to roll each strip of pasta into a thick worm. As you work, place each worm onto a lightly floured clean tea towel.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.

Add pici to the boiling water. Add pancetta to the sizzling oil and stir until crispy then turn off the heat.

The pasta should take about 5 minutes to cook, but this will depend on the thickness so check it regularly. I like it al dente and slightly chewy.

Drain the pici and add to the pan with the pancetta. Take the pan off the element and add the egg yolks, stirring immediately to coat the pasta evenly and avoid the egg scrambling. Add more olive oil if needed. Season generously with pepper and taste before adding sea salt if required.

Before serving, sprinkle generously with parmesan.

I served the pici carbonara with baby peas on the side, which I admit I stirred through the pasta before eating it.

‘Peasant’ pasta at Osteria Nonna Gina’s in Siena. Part of a three-course lunch including rabbit and finished off with amaretto and espresso.
Lunch on the terrace in Ana Capri.
My pici carbonara.





Why I love what I do

I love that my job requires me to be open-minded. Sometimes a project introduces me to a subject that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out on my own and I become, for the duration of the project at least, expert in something quite niche or simply outside of my own daily experience; other times I get to indulge in well-established interests like cooking or design. Or cats.

If we’re lucky, us freelancers are sent copies of the books we work on. (Thank you, publishers! I really appreciate seeing, and owning, the finished product.) I’ve had a few arrive on my doorstep over the past couple of weeks and this lot represents the range of jobs I do quite well: copy-editing, proofreading, writing, research, project management (plus a fair bit of voluntary recipe testing!). These are all books that I’m honoured and happy to have played a part in.

Recently a publisher commissioned me to co-write a memoir of sorts. Helping someone tell their story is a fascinating and satisfying process. Assuming all subjects are as gracious, kind and easy to work with as this one, I’d love to do more of this kind of work, and I’m looking forward to sharing details of this book in due course. In the meantime, here are the new additions to my bookshelf, all available now (or very soon) in good bookshops or online: