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.

Preserves

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.

Pasta 

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 

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 

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.

Bread 

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.

 

Embracing the art of hygge in rural Scandinavia

The Nordic concept of hygge (cosiness, warmth, conviviality, celebrating the simple things – in case you’ve been living under a rock) has been pretty well thrashed since being ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world a while back, but before you roll your eyes and stop reading, think of the Scandinavians: for them it’s not a lifestyle-section trend but a way of life. I’ve always had a problem sitting still, but found it a cinch to ease into a slow-it-all-down mindset during the Scandinavian leg of our epic camper-van trip, especially when there was little to ‘do’ but hunker down and happily do nothing much. The cities of Scandinavia are unquestionably cool (and I’ll write about them in another post), but when I look back on the month or so we spent driving around Denmark, Sweden and Norway, it’s the memories of our time spent in the countryside, sitting by a fire doing very little, that are the most enduring.

Bornholm is a Danish island that sits in the Baltic Sea, closer to both Sweden above and Germany and Poland below than to Denmark. It’s one of those out-of-the-way islands that sometimes get set in a little box in the corner of the country map. It’s far from obscure though – it enjoys more hours of sunshine than mainland Denmark and holds a special place in the hearts of holidaying Danes. A magazine article that put Bornholm on our radar before setting out on our trip focused on the culinary scene and painted the island as a hyper-fertile fruit basket of the north and summer idyll. We didn’t need much convincing.

Our first taste of the Scandinavian seaside, waiting for the night ferry from Ystad in Sweden to Bornholm.

Bornholm is known as both Solskinsøen (the Sunshine Island) because of its weather and Klippeøen (the Rock Island) because of its geology; apart from the white-sand southern beaches, it’s mostly granite. We visited at the end of the summer season, so frustratingly, many of the restaurants I’d read about had recently closed for the long off-season (one day we’ll go back and eat at Kadeau), but we still had mostly fine weather during our three days there.

After our ferry arrived in the very early hours of the morning we drove straight to Allinge and our Airbnb summer house, Bolle’s Minde. The summer house (sommerhus in Danish) is as ubiquitous in parts of Scandinavia as the bach is in New Zealand. Echoing the bach-building trends of this country, there was a big sommerhus building boom during the 1960s and 70s; the Danish economy was growing and people began to build a second residence close to the sea to holiday in. In a country with under 6 million people, there are a whopping 200,000 sommerhus.

Our Bornholm home was fairly basic, but had the essentials of solid relaxation: hammock beds outside for the daytime, and a fireplace inside for the cooler evenings. Determined to go full hygge, we stocked up on supplies and spent our first day cosied-up inside, unnecessarily stoking the fire early in the afternoon, and making the most of having a full kitchen after weeks in the camper van by cooking a pork roast (flæskesteg, one of Denmark’s national dishes – always, always, cooked with the crackling on). With the aroma still mingling with the smoke from the fireplace, we finished off the meal with apple cake (æblekage) served with sun-kissed figs from the tree in the garden (a local variety known as Bornholm’s Diamond) and blackberries picked from the laden bushes in the lanes around the house: a forager’s dream.

A backyard of apple trees opening onto the seaside, spied on one of our walks.

Dragging ourselves away from cosy hibernation for a tour of the island the next day, we stopped in at the ruins of Hammershus, the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe, and the small towns of Sandvig, Rø, Gudhjem, Svaneke and Nexø, where hand-blown glass and ceramic studios rub shoulders with fish-smoking warehouses and their pyramid-shaped chimneys. We climbed the vast sand dunes on the southern coast and stopped in Tejn for a meal of ‘shrimps on toast’ at Skipperkroen, an old-school fisherman’s restaurant run by the endearingly surly henna-haired Pippi and groaning with nautical knick-knacks. Before heading back to the summer house for another evening by the fire, we stopped in at seaside hotel and bar Nordlandet to take in the views back towards Sweden and try the excellent craft beer by Penyllan, a local boutique brewery recently started by a friendly Aussie girl and her Danish partner.

The island’s roads were lined with small honesty-box produce stalls, with blueberries, figs and apples apparently the main crops at this time of year. Every little town has at least one bakery where you can pick up supplies for fika (coffee and cake), a tradition embraced with varying enthusiasm all over Scandinavia. ‘Fika’ is used as both a noun and a verb, and it didn’t take us long to happily give in to regular fikasugen (fika cravings) and make the question ‘Shall we fika?’ part of our daily routine. As Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall point out in their book Fika: The art of the Swedish coffee break, it isn’t merely a coffee break, it’s a moment to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.

It was tempting to linger longer and slide further into the island way of life, but the road, and Sweden, was calling. Roxette serenaded us on the local radio as we drove north towards Stockholm, stopping in Kalmar for lunch. At a salad and sandwich bar, we ordered smørrebrød – an open sandwich of thinly sliced rye bread with various toppings, technically Danish but enjoyed more widely – and smörgåstårta – slices of bread layered with many fillings and garnishes, creating a creamy, salady layer cake. The idea of a savoury cake may not appeal to the uninitiated, but you’ve got to treat it like an elaborate club sandwich – it was delicious.

A little further north, after a detour to Örland island, we arrived in teeny-tiny Oknö. This really was a pick-a-random-spot-on-the-map location, a one-night stop chosen because it was in the excellently named Mönsterås region and because we liked the shape the finger-like shoots of land made on the map. It’s technically an island, one of many little dots of land covered in reeds and forest and connected by bridges and causeways. We arrived to a near-empty campsite and set up right by the water, enjoying an evening spent beside a bonfire on the beach. A morning sauna heightened the sense of retreat – exotic by New Zealand standards, but something we came across in a few of the campsites we stayed in.

(Curiously, the entry for Oknö on Wikipedia consists of only two lines, the second being a reference to Karolina Olsson, the ‘Sleeping Beauty of Oknö’, who apparently stayed asleep – or ‘hibernated’ – for 32 years.)

After a few days in Stockholm we drove west towards Norway, through vast swathes of sun-dappled pine and birch forest and small red-painted settlements. Dalarna County is the home of the hand-painted Dala horse, born in the region about 400 years ago when long winter nights by the fire would be whiled away carving wooden toys, and now a symbol of the whole of Sweden. It’s also home to the Mora knife, used all over Scandinavia and beyond in industry and outdoor pursuits, and by all of the region’s armies.

In Särna, we camped for a night at a lägerplats – a designated but very basic camping spot you pay a small fee to use (much like a DOC campsite in New Zealand). True wild camping is forbidden here, unlike the rest of Sweden, where the ‘freedom to roam’ policy is restricted only by the ‘do not disturb; do not destroy’ proviso. We cooked meatballs over the riverside fire, drank cups of tea with the addictive sötsak dammsugare we’d bought in the food market at Stockholm’s flagship IKEA store, and went to sleep early, only to be woken in the night by the unnerving sound of highway truckers using their horns to scare off wandering animals. Getting back behind the wheel in the morning, the reindeer sharing the road reminded us that this was the beginning of Sami country.

Knäckebröd and colourful cheese pastes (apparently very popular) displayed like art supplies in the supermarket.

A lagerplats in Särna, where we shared the campsite with reindeer.

After driving to the top of the nearby ski field (Salen hosts the start of Vasaloppet, the oldest, longest and largest cross-country ski race in the world) and deciding against a walk thanks to signs warning of roaming bears, we continued on route 66 into Norway. Some of the houses on this side of the border have grass and even pine trees on the roof and there are almost immediate differences in the landscape – the most obvious being the majestic fjords, which saw our journey punctuated by many short ferry rides and less-short tunnels (one, at 30km, is the longest road tunnel in the world and has a light show every 5km to ‘keep drivers awake and alert, avoid mental strain, and lift claustrophobia’ during the twenty-minute drive).

Having done little research on our route – preferring to find our way as we went – we were surprised to come across the serpentine Trollstigen (trolls’ ladder) road, whose eleven sharp hairpin bends follow a steep incline though the mountains. The Trollstigen viewing platforms are exceptionally well designed and built to blend in with the surroundings; some sections have been carved into the rock and others built onto sympathetically constructed stone walls. The dramatic viewpoints are well protected against the elements by steel and glass and from the top you enjoy a dizzying view all the way down the mountainside you’ve just climbed if coming from the east. (We came across examples of this superior public design all over Norway.) We spent that night in a campsite on the water’s edge in Geiranger, dwarfed by the emerald-green walls of the fjord and the huge, alien cruise ships lit by festoon lights.

Our log cabin in the woods in Tinn Austbygd in Telemark County provided the deepest sense of retreat. The settlement is about half an hour from Vemork, the site of the dramatic ‘heavy water sabotage’ – a series of actions undertaken by Norwegian saboteurs during World War II to prevent the occupying Germans from acquiring heavy water to produce nuclear weapons. We visited the museum at the imposing hydroelectric plant before driving north around Lake Tinn (Tinnsjå) to our cabin in the woods. The Airbnb listing describes it as a ‘fairytale place’, and it really does feel like something out of a Scandi children’s book: a log cabin with grass and small trees growing on the roof set in an untamed garden of blueberry and lingonberry bushes, with a white lavvu tent and an outdoor fire-heated bath tub beside the river at the far side of the property, all nestled so neatly in the surrounding forest that we drove right past it several times before finally spotting the roof peeking out among the trees.

There was an open fireplace inside and beside it a little stove, and a big fire pit outside. We alternated between the two, with it still warm enough in September to sit outside in the early evening. We baked cinnamon buns, picked berries and wild flowers, read books in the sun and took walks up river, across the moss-carpeted forest floor.

I didn’t know too much about Scandinavian food before our trip, having unfairly focused solely on cold pickled herring, which is in fact enjoyed all over Europe. But the Scandinavians certainly know how to bake, and their savoury dishes skilfully utilise quite subtle and unusual flavour combinations, especially when compared to more well-documented cuisines like Italian or French.

Seeking to emulate our Bornholm bliss, I made the Spiced Roast Pork Belly from Signe Johansen’s How to Hygge (not strictly a cookbook, but it has a great recipe section; it’s also endorsed by Nigel Slater so a guaranteed winner). A fairly straight-forward recipe in terms of cooking time and preparation, the special thing about it is the spice paste for marinating the meat: fennel seeds, allspice berries, star anise, coriander seeds, smoked sea salt and acacia honey (which I substituted with blue borage honey). It’s a thick, pungent paste, but mellows with cooking, and I ended up wishing I had used a bit more of it. To go with the pork, I made the Nordic Coleslaw, a fairly simple mix of shredded celeriac, white cabbage, fennel and carrots, with a complex and punchy green dressing of crème fraiche, lemon juice and zest, horseradish sauce, grainy mustard, cider vinegar, dill, coriander seeds, caraway seeds and spring onion. I added some thinly sliced radish for a colour pop. It was delicious – rich pork belly balanced with a crunchy fresh salad couldn’t be anything but – but we did miss the open fire and smugness of being on a little Danish island floating in the Baltic Sea.

A few days later, I made a buttery apple cake (æblekage in Danish; äppelkaka in Swedish) from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson. It needed almost an hour and a half in the oven rather than the 50 minutes the recipe called for, but it was a lovely golden buttery colour and rich without feeling too decadent. Next I’d like to try the cardamom and cinnamon buns, as well as some of the more unusual recipes.

Not many New Zealanders travel to Scandinavia, mainly I think because it’s seen as just too expensive. Admittedly we ate out in restaurants very little and drank out even less (those shrimps on toast in Bornholm were on par price-wise with a fine-dining restaurant in New Zealand, two small beers at one very beautiful bar we went to in Stockholm was a scandalous $50 and coffee was also pricey at upwards of NZ$8 for a small espresso), but more casual dining was not too eye-watering, and it is well worth scrimping a bit in order to admire the fjords of Norway, share a road with reindeer in Sweden’s Sami country and bask in the sun on a white-sand beach in Bornholm. In fact, the expense and need to budget for a trip there could encourage you to practise the hygge of 2017: ‘lagom’, or the perfect balance of not too little, not too much. And if you’ve brought a little hygge into your world already (or naturally embrace the cosy things in life and don’t need to be told how to do it, thank you very much), you’ll love hanging out in a region where it’s almost mandatory.

How to Hygge : the secrets of Nordic living by Signe Johansen (PanMacmillan, 2016); The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, 2015).

La agrodolce vita in Sicily

The Sicilian countryside is not as obviously scenic as say, the Amalfi Coast, and in places the island feels distinctly Wild West with its parched, barren landscape and the fast-and-loose driving style. Yet there’s abundant beauty in its grittiness, and a lot of that colour and sparkle comes from the vibrant food culture.

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A house in Scopello, Trapani Provence, on the north-western coast.

That apparently barren landscape actually hosts many different microclimates that provide fertile soil for plentiful crops ripened in the hot sun. Prickly pear cactuses (or fico d’India/Indian fig, as they’re known in Sicily) thrive in the desert-like areas, the mountains are home to nuts and mushrooms as well as game animals that produce quality meat and dairy products, fragrant lemon trees thrive on the balmy southern coast, and the surrounding sea provides much of Italy with the freshest sardines, anchovies, tuna, octopus and swordfish.

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Cacti, including prickly pear – or Indian fig – coexist with citrus in a lush Scopello garden.

Sicily has a complex past with invasions by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish. These have all left their mark on the cuisine in the form of usually quite elaborate dishes, such as timbale tummala – baked rice with layers of meat, eggs and cheese – and cassata siciliana – ricotta cake with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel-coloured icing and decorative candied fruit. The island has also known extreme poverty, and this influenced the Sicilians to make the most of easily grown, punchy ingredients like wild fennel, lemon, capers and mint to flavour simple and inexpensive dishes of grains and vegetables. The focus here is on fresco – fresh – and seasonal.

Typical Sicilian flavours at Palermo’s Mercato del Capo.

By the time we got to Sicily, arriving by car ferry into Messina from Reggio Calabri at the end of a long road trip around the UK, Scandinavia and Europe (more posts to come on these locales) we were a bit over ‘sights’, so we spent a good amount of time in Palermo just wandering the streets and eating. As well as sampling fresh foods and not-so-virtuous arancini and deep-fried seafood and veges at the bustling street markets (which felt much like I imagine an Arab souk would), over several nights we enjoyed feast-like and amazingly affordable meals of zuppa di pesce (seafood soup), suino nero (black swine), pesce all’acqua pazza (literally ‘fish in crazy water’), caponata (aubergine stew), raw shrimps with spaghetti, octopus and panzerotti di ricotta (ricotta pastries), washed down with nero d’avolo, the local vino rosso.

Turquoise seas and the old Tonnara di Scopello (tuna fishery) at Scopello on the northwestern coast.
The amazingly intact Doric temple on Monte Bàrbaro at Segesta, which was built around 420BC.
The amphitheatre at Segesta, which overlooks the surrounding valleys.

Having fallen in love with the rough gem, on our return to New Zealand I went looking for a Sicilian cookbook so I could continue to explore the cuisine and culture, and found two that looked like they might satisfy my aesthete requirements as well as my culinary interest: Sicily: Recipes from an Italian island, by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi and Sicily, an unattributed publication produced by Phaidon.

img_1299Sicily, published in 2013 and the older of the two cookbooks, states on the imprint page that it originates from Il cucchiaio d’argento Cucina Regionale, which is an Italian-language cookbook published by The Silver Spoon. (I’ve been looking for an Italian cookbook to use as a language-learning aid so maybe this is it.) The cover design ties in with the other books in this Italian series from Phaidon, Tuscany and Puglia, and the watercolour style extends to a map at the front that shows the different regions and what they are known for: cassata from Palermo, sardines from Agrigento, etc. The contents list is then separated into corresponding chapters. Each chapter has an introduction that gives more detail on that region’s specialty dishes, and then scattered through the recipes there are profiles of the ingredients that region is known for: the first section, Trapani, which is on the west coast, includes salt, capers, couscous, olive oil, tuna and marsala.

Because I love the piquant sour-sweet combination known as agrodolce, I decided to make the Caponata Classica (from the Catania section) using some plump aubergines from the local market. In Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, Matthew Fort writes that Sicilian cooking ‘embraces contrast, discord, counterpoint, counterpunching, variance and the absence of delicacy’, and speaking of caponata in particular, Anna del Conte says ‘a simple local ingredient, in this case the aubergine, is taken as the basis of the dish, and is then embellished and enriched until the end result is an opulent and almost baroque achievement’. Caponata could be said to sum up the Sicilian cuisine perfectly in one dish.

The agrodolce flavour comes from tomato, white wine vinegar, capers, olives, raisins and a fair whack of sugar. The recipe is fairly involved compared to a ratatouille (which is the most similar dish I can think of) – you have to blanch both the celery and the olives before adding them to the pan and as the recipe instructs you to cook the different elements separately rather than in one big pan, you’d end up with quite a collection of used pots and pans to wash if you followed the recipe to a T. I served the tangy and delicious caponata cool with grilled North African-spiced fish and a lightly creamy chermoula sauce to tie it back to its Arab origins and freshen up a rather wintery dish for a balmy summer evening.

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For dessert, I made the Almond Milk Puddings from the Caldesis’ take on Sicily. This book fullsizerender-6features an ultra-modern cover (interesting that both books avoid the classic food-photo look), and highly graphic chapter openers. I love the bold and colourful illustrations used on these, and the font, which is also used for the recipe names, does a good job of representing the punchy flavours of Sicilian cuisine (though is at times a little difficult to read). The first chapter, Palermo and its Street Food (followed by Antipasti, Soups, Contorni, Pasta, Rice & Couscous, Meat & Poultry, Fish, Dolci & Cocktails), does what it says on the box and includes recipes for eat-on-the-go classics such as arancini, chickpea fritters and sfincione. Like the Phaidon book, this collection also includes text on individual ingredients – rice, couscous, alfullsizerender-4monds, etc. – and gives you a history of some common Sicilian food types, such as how arancini came to be made.

The recipe for the Almond Milk Puddings is a fairly basic recipe consisting of cornflour, whole milk or almond milk, lemon zest, caster sugar, amaretto or rosewater and crushed savoiardi (Ladyfinger) biscuits to garnish. I used amaretto because that’s what I had on hand but I imagine rosewater would lend a more refreshing and less indulgent taste, so will try that next time. It was lovely and cooling eaten straight out of the glass on a humid late February evening. The recipe makes four small puddings and so it also made a refreshing lunchtime treat the next day. Mine definitely didn’t hold its firm shape like the one in the recipe photograph but the texture and flavour was great and I’d definitely make these again.

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So which book would I recommend if you had to choose just one? I couldn’t choose between them in terms of how many of the recipes I wanted to make from each. If you love Italian and in particular Sicilian cuisine, these are two cookbooks that won’t just sit on the shelf looking pretty and are different enough that you could (if you’re greedy like me) justify buying them both.

Sicily: Recipes from an Italian islandby Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi (Hardie Grant, 2016); Sicily (Phaidon, 2013).

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Palermo Cathedral, or Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary (Cattedrale metropolitana della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta!), is characterised by the presence of different building styles introduced through additions over time, reflecting the many cultural influences on Sicily.