Lauren Taylor talks to activist and food writer Jack Monroe about the complexities of cooking with mental health issues
Why is it that when we say 'comfort food', we think of 'treats' to indulge in every once in a while, or worse still, attach feelings of guilt or shame to comforting ourselves with food?
Some days, you might have the energy and inclination to prepare an elaborate or seriously nutritious dish, but others you might think the only thing that's going to make you feel better is a stack of toast or a piece of cake - and that's okay, says Jack Monroe.
"I'm writing my seventh cookbook now and I have days where all I eat are salt and vinegar crisps and buttered white bread. Sometimes even I don't want to get in the kitchen," Monroe (right) admits.
It's an admission you won't hear much among chefs and cookbook authors, but it's the reality for many of us. And for people living with a mental health issue, the relationship with cooking and nurturing ourselves with food can be especially complex.
"No one really tackles it, what to cook for yourself when you really don't feel like cooking, or what to eat when you really don't feel like eating," says 32-year-old Monroe.
Having been open about living with depression, anxiety, PTSD and ADHD for years, the food writer and poverty activist has used her own, very raw experience to put together her latest collection of recipes in Good Food For Bad Days.
"The irony was halfway through writing this book, I suddenly fell into a massive depressive state. I stopped writing, I stopped wanting to look after myself, I ground to a halt," says Monroe. She wasn't cooking either. "But the people who know and love me the most know that when I stop posting pictures of my meals on Instagram to drop me a text."
While she knows it won't work for everybody, "one of the easiest ways for me to start to take steps back towards emerging from whatever dark hole I find myself in, is to get into the kitchen and to stir something or just to throw something together out of whatever's in the cupboard", Monroe adds.
She's a real advocate for not beating yourself up about what you're eating though, and says sometimes the purpose of food is simply to make you feel good in that moment, or to get some fuel inside you. But for days when you can get into the kitchen, her new cookbook looks to be a real saviour.
From 'finger foods' - like orange and blueberry oat bars - you can batch-cook on a good day (and pick at on a bad one), and meals you can whip up in 15 minutes or less like anchovy butter pasta, to one-pan meals like meatball and white bean stew, for days when you don't have the head space for complex cooking (and a lot of washing up).
There's a whole chapter on food and drinks in mugs - because what could be more comforting than that? Think honey nut milk or a 'Jaffa Cake' pudding in a mug.
It's wrapped up in nostalgia for Monroe. "During my childhood, whenever I was unwell, my mum would make this magic concoction of boiled eggs, mashed with a sweltering amount of butter and black pepper and salt, and the eggs would still be warm, the butter would still be melting."
It's about "cupping a mug full of something warm, feeling loved and nurtured again".
That's not to say nutrition isn't a factor, too. Anyone who knows Monroe's books will know she leads a largely plant-based diet: "80-90% vegan these days, (but) I've never felt the need to lecture people."
She includes a guide - a 'bingo card' she calls it - of foods that are helpful for maintaining healthy brain function to consider eating regularly, like bananas, nuts and oily fish. "But it comes with a massive caveat that eating your way through this list, even if it was exclusively all you ate, is not going to shield you from having a bluesy day or tragic life events or chemical imbalances - but it can give you something to start to deal with it."
Naturally, many of her recipes are packed with plant-based goodness: "It's always come from a place of budget and necessity, meat is expensive," she explains. While others are designed to really take your time over.
"Its about giving yourself permission to spend time on yourself," she says. "Getting in the kitchen and spending 20 or 30 minutes doing something nice can feel a bit uncomfortable for some people to start with.
"I use cooking as partly meditation, partly therapy, partly self care, partly an adventure - it's being able to acknowledge that you have the right to have that time to take care of yourself."
Good Food For Bad Days by Jack Monroe is published by Bluebird, priced £7.99
Jaffa Cake mug pudding
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
2tbsp marmalade, plus extra to finish
2tbsp Nutella or other chocolate spread, plus extra to finish
3tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp honey or sugar
4tbsp self-raising flour
Squeezy chocolate sauce, or more chocolate spread, to serve
1. First measure the marmalade and chocolate spread into your mug, and pop it into the microwave for 45 seconds to soften.
2. Remove carefully as the mug may be warm, and stir in the oil, then the milk. Leave to cool for a minute or two before cracking in the egg and beating it well. Mix in the honey, or sugar if using, and then the flour, to make your batter.
3. Place the mug back in the microwave for 90 seconds on high. It will rise quite a bit, but it deflates again a little afterwards.
4. Top with an extra smudge of marmalade and chocolate spread, then return to the microwave for 30 seconds more to melt them and finish cooking the pudding.
5. Remove, and allow to stand for a minute or two before tucking in as it will be hot! I like to top mine with squeezy chocolate sauce as well, because I don't know when enough is enough, really.
It doesn't keep particularly brilliantly, so it's best to eat it soon after making it.
Cauliflower cheese and white bean bake
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
1 large onion, or 120g frozen diced onions
1tbsp cooking oil, plus extra for greasing
1 x 400g tin of butter beans
1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans
500ml chicken stock, or water and 1 stock cube
1/2tsp mustard (any sort)
A pinch of grated nutmeg
1 large head of cauliflower, or 450g frozen cauli florets
120g mature cheddar, or similar
2 slices of bread, blitzed or grated to crumbs, or 4tbsp dried breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. First peel and finely slice your onion and add to a large nonstick pan, or shake in the frozen onions if using those instead. Add a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt and cook gently over low heat for five minutes to start to soften.
2. Drain and thoroughly rinse your beans and tip them into the pan. Cover with the stock (or water and a stock cube), then add the mustard and nutmeg. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Turn your oven on to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4 and make sure there is a shelf in the middle (I often forget to check this and then have to try to manoeuvre it when it's hotter than Hades, so just a gentle reminder here, and I hope that it isn't instruction overkill). Lightly grease a decent-sized ovenproof dish - mine is 20cm x 20cm, so anything around this size, or a medium cake tin or pie dish, will do.
4. Remove the outer leaves of your cauliflower. Cut the heavy stalk from the bottom and chop the cauli into small florets - as a rough guide, the top should be no bigger than a 50p piece so they cook evenly. It makes it easier to eat as well! Add the cauli to the pan and stir through. Cover to retain as much of the remaining liquid as possible, then cook for 15 minutes, or until the cauli is soft and a fork gently prodded into it goes through with little to no resistance.
5. Tip the contents of the pan into your prepared dish. Grate cheese over the veg and top with breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the crumbs and melt the cheese, then serve immediately with extra black pepper on top.
Will keep in the fridge for up to three days, covered or stored in an airtight container. Reheat to piping hot to serve. Not recommended for freezing due to the high dairy content - you can, but it doesn't show it at its best.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
2 large onions, or 240g frozen sliced onions
6 fat cloves of garlic, or 2tbsp garlic paste
1 large leek, or 140g frozen sliced leeks
1 large carrot, or 1 x tin sliced or baby carrots
Oil, for frying
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans
400ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1tbsp wine or cider vinegar
200g kale, spinach or other dark leafy greens, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. First peel and finely slice your onions or measure out the frozen onions. Add the onion - in whatever guise - to a large nonstick pan. Peel your garlic and halve it lengthways, then add to the pan, or add the paste. Thinly slice your leek and carrot and add those too, or chuck in the ready sliced veg.
2. Drizzle over a little oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for five to six minutes to start to soften. Drain and thoroughly rinse the beans and tip into the pan. Pour over the stock and bring to the boil.
4. Reduce to a simmer, then stir in the tomatoes and vinegar. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, until thick and glossy.
5. Toss in the greens and wilt for 30 seconds (spinach) to a few minutes (kale and spring greens). Serve warm with bread and butter,.
Keeps well in the fridge for up to three days. Can be frozen for up to three months. Defrost completely and reheat through before serving.