My last few blogs have explored a few of the emotional issues that surround the simple act of eating. Food guilt, eating as a way to reward or punish your body and the positive control that cooking can afford us. So, now I want to steer my writing towards the application of these thought processes, pairing more food-positive musings with recipes that will hopefully demonstrate my words in a practical and delicious way.
Cooking is incredibly rewarding when you share the food you make. I adore cooking for my boyfriend, because he is so grateful that I take the time to make good food for us. When I visit home, I like to bake a cake or cook a meal for my family, to say thank you for letting me come and stay/drink their wine/that they haven't turned my room into a gym yet. I recently made a huge Indian meal for Calum's sister and her boyfriend, and knowing that we were all going to eat the food I was making over some drinks and good conversation meant that the day of preparation was almost as enjoyable as the evening itself. Similarly, when I visited my friend Lauren recently I made her and her boyfriend dinner in their kitchen, because I had a recipe I wanted to cook specifically for her (sweet potato mac'n'cheese, it's unreal) as well as to say thank you for letting me come and drool all over her cat. Hell, if I have kids I'll probably love cooking for them too. Not because I want to fit into some dated, gendered 'Mum' role, but because I view food as a tangible means through which I can pass on my love to people. Cooking is a process as rewarding to me as it is to those who (I hope) enjoy my food and the intimacy of creating something which I tailor to nourish a particular person lets me know them, and myself, better.
However, I have in the past found this love of cooking for others to be dangerous. It is a very easy way to give up responsibility for yourself, in that once you have finished cooking that can signal the end of your involvement with the food. I find it easy to let others enjoy what I create, but sometimes don't take as much joy in the eating as I should, full up as it were on the satisfaction that I made someone happy. When my mind was still wrapped up in a warped view of eating, cooking tricked me into thinking I was nourishing myself through feeding other people, while I let myself starve. This is why now, when I feel myself slipping down the slope towards self-punishment again, I make sure I take the time to cook a meal just for me, alone.
Recently, my Mum bought me Ruby Tandoh's new cookbook, Flavour. A GBBO runner up, I didn't at first warm to Ruby's quiet but fiery personality when she was on TV, but always respected that she didn't change herself for the camera. Yet after reading her articles across various platforms, seeing her food-positive and life affirming views on Twitter and now reading her beautiful book, I find her to be someone I increasingly admire and relate to. I think her love of food stems very much from the same issues mine does, and in the introduction to Flavour she hits on several points that resonate strongly with me. To conclude the introduction, she says the following:
Learning to cook helped me to enjoy food again, it connected me with the people I care about and, most importantly, it taught me how to care for, love and nourish myself. Be your own best friend, cook yourself something special and eat what you want today.
This mantra that Tandoh describes is what I strive for when I cook for myself. When you're in the kitchen on your own, facing a night of your own company, it's easy to be lazy. While there is nothing wrong with a baked potato or getting a takeaway, I find that sometimes if my focus on food is directed inwardly, I can be overly scrutinising of calorie content or 'healthiness', or I neglect to care about eating good food together. That's why, selfish as it may seem, I now tend to make more of an effort to cook lovely food for myself than I do for anyone else. I set the table, light a candle and I want my food to be beautiful, delicious and something I am indulging my body and mind in. The process of cooking gives me the mental stimulation I need, but if the eating isn't as big a part of that joy then the experience is not complete. When I cook myself lunch I do it properly, listening to what my body needs and taking time to prepare it so I know it's as tasty as it can possibly be. It was the same when living alone: getting in the kitchen and sitting down to eat created a sense of community between my body and mind. Knowing that you can sustain and make yourself happy on your own is a powerful and important feeling, and nourishment is a big part of that. Now, when I have an evening to myself I am sure I don't revert to bad habits. I plan my meals, take time to buy ingredients and really enjoy them. Cooking for yourself should be as fun as cooking for others, if not more, because what is more indulgent than treating yourself? If we can't enjoy things as much on our own as we do with others I believe that speaks to a lack of self-love. I cook to reflect and sustain my personality and I am not less of a person on my own. Teaching myself to enjoy what I cook as much as I expect others to has done wonders for my self esteem and confidence and I don't think you're ever truly lonely if you enjoy your own company. One can be the loveliest number.
So, in this vein I wanted to end with a simple recipe that I love to cook for myself. As Calum doesn't eat fish, I take the chance to make it for myself when he isn't here, and my recipe for sweet chilli salmon noodles ticks all the boxes. It's easy, quick, beautiful, has fairly basic ingredients, is full of flavour and really delicious: a perfect dish to enjoy on your own soon.
- 1 salmon fillet
- 5 tbsp of sweet chilli sauce
- 3 tbsp of dark soy sauce
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp of freshly grated ginger
- 1 spring onion, sliced
- A drizzle of vegetable oil, or chilli oil if you have it
- A squeeze of lemon or orange juice
- 1 finely chopped chilli (add as much as you like, depending on spice tolerance)
- A handful of spinach leaves
- 1 egg
- A nest of egg noodles, or enough for one portion
- A tbsp of chopped fresh coriander
- A sachet of miso soup (optional)
Preheat oven to 180 fan
- This recipe works best if you marinade the salmon in advance, so a few hours before you eat it, put the raw salmon fillet in a ziploc bag with 2 tbsps of the sweet chilli sauce, the soy sauce, garlic, chilli, ginger and lemon juice. Leave in the fridge to marinade for as long as you can before you cook the salmon.
- When it comes to cooking time, tip the salmon and all it's marinade on to a double sheet of tin foil. Splash it with a drizzle of oil, then crimp the edges of the foil together so you have a sealed salmon package. Put on a baking tray and then bake in the oven for 13-15 minutes, or until the fish is flaky and cooked through.
- Towards the end of the salmon cooking time, maybe 5 minutes until it is done, boil a pan of water for the noodles. You will also need to put the egg in a pan of cold water and get it boiling. Egg noodles only take a few minutes to cook, so time it so that they will be done around the same time as the salmon. Similarly, you want to egg to be slightly soft boiled, and this will take a minute when the water is at a rolling boil. Once it is done run it under cold water to stop further cooking.
- Once the noodles are cooked, drain the water leaving about a tablespoon in with them. Keep them on the heat, and add the spinach, blanching it until it has wilted. Drain now if there is any excess liquid. To the noodles and the spinach, add the rest of the chilli sauce until the noodles are coated, as well as the spring onion. When the salmon is done, flake it away from the skin using a fork. Stir the fish as well as the chilli, ginger, garlic and any sauce left from the marinade through the noodles.
- If you want to turn your noodles into a ramen bowl, now is the time to make the miso soup (by adding hot water to the sachet). Serve the noodles in a large bowl, garnishing with the chopped coriander, and pour the soup over, although they are just as delicious without it. Peel the cooked egg and half, serving on the side of the dish.
While this dish can obviously be cooked for more than one, it brings me happiness when I am on my own, and I hope it can do the same for you.