Whether beginner or seasoned chef, there’s often a kind of zen to be found in cooking, in chopping and measuring, stirring and swirling, in watching ingredients rise or brown or simmer into something transformed and delicious.
It’s a feeling writer, food stylist, recipe tester and chef Laoise Casey knows well. Realising she was at her happiest in the kitchen, she moved from Dublin to London in 2012, leaving a corporate career to pursue her love of food.
Here, Casey reveals how to cook for comfort with her favourite culinary techniques to calm the mind and restore balance.
“Four and twenty black thoughts baked in a pie.”
In his book, Pour me: A Life, AA Gill describes the therapeutic effect of cooking, and throughout my own life I have found solace in it. I have always used it as a kind of therapy to distract my mind during difficult times: when you cook you must focus on the physical process itself, and here is where you may find temporary relief. Eventually the pull of the kitchen became so strong I left my corporate job for one behind the stove.
For me, the actual action helps to ground and centre me. I believe it is also connected to a deeper need to satisfy an internal longing.
While working in Lisbon I came across the Portuguese phrase saudades. There is no direct translation for this in English. Saudades describes a feeling that is something like nostalgia or a desire for a person, place or time, that either exists in your memory or your dreams. It originated from the era of Portuguese explorers when they missed their loved ones, or were missed by them. With cooking you can relieve this by what they call matar saudades – killing that deep nostalgia.
When I cook I bring myself back to my childhood, to more recent adult memories and to occasions when I was happier, or it may remind me of certain people. In short, it realises an internal urge. I have tried to appease this yearning through other means over the years, but cooking is what does it for me. People may do this with music, sport, meditation or travelling. This is my way to matar saudades. As I stand at the stove and stir, I just feel like I am properly me.
Below are some of my favourite ways to calm the mind through cookery.
Cooking with spices
If you are going through an onerous emotional time you may find that food can taste beige and bland, and cooking may not be a priority. But it is now, more than ever, when you need to care for yourself and feed your soul with extra flavours. I like to spike dishes with hints of spices. The trick here is not to go overboard. Before, I tended to use spice with a heavy hand, but when you have a weighty heart, a light touch is key. Use spice to enhance food the same way you would by seasoning with salt and pepper: the aim is to make the food taste like a better version of itself.
A rub of turmeric for colour and warmth, with ginger and preserved lemon, to transform a roast chicken. Tangy sumac in a cauliflower cheese. Or try a sprinkle of paprika, with its smokiness and heat, to finish stews and soups. I’m a bit wary of cinnamon powder and find it can often be over powering; a cinnamon stick is a whole other delight. Infuse it in a lentil dahl, fishing it out before the end of cooking for a gentle effect. Even briefly let a cinnamon stick sit in a pasta tomato sauce for an extra savoury layer. There is something luxurious about putting a pinch of saffron into a curry. Don’t we all deserve a little extravagance?
For those times when you need a gentle jolt to your senses, try these spice recipes.
Making fluffy mashed potato
Start with a line of potatoes on a baking tray, roasting in a very hot oven. As they bake, I reduce double cream (or milk) in a pan, then infuse with a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, several black peppercorns and one smashed fat garlic clove. The kitchen becomes snug and fills with heady scents.
I take out the potatoes and while still piping hot, scoop the flesh out of their skins then mash it. Quickly, I beat the infused cream into the mash, closely followed by a knob, or three, of salted butter. With a sprinkle of cheese on top it is nearly, but not quite, ready. I finish it under the grill and it bubbles away sitting alongside two merguez sausages laden with fennel and spicy harissa. As I sit down and eat I feel like a more human version of myself.
Here are some mashed potato recipes for inspiration.
Cooking with eggs
Often when you get home from work with your head full of the stresses of the day, you may not immediately want to cook. Takeaways, ready meals, toast – anything can seem like a better, less time-consuming option. But once you begin it becomes easier. Start with a small step and everything becomes more straightforward, even though you may not feel like it at first.
For these days I always turn to eggs for a fall-back quick dinner. A frittata with leeks, mascarpone and aubergine can be rustled up in 10 or 15 minutes. Stir through an egg into hot chicken soup, scatter with flaked almonds and eat with quick-cook noodles. Softly scramble a couple of eggs, with a touch of fresh chilli, alongside confit tomatoes then pile high on thick wedges of toast.
Try some of these egg recipes.
Cooking with citrus
For when life gives you lemons, and oranges, and limes. The wonderful colour and aroma of citrus is why I love it. The old adage that we eat with our eyes could also be applied to the joy of cooking with radiant foods; looking down at your chopping board and seeing slices of crimson blood orange is quite a pleasing thing for your senses.
Use the juice of a blood orange, with olive oil and honey, to marinate chicken thighs, then pack slices of it around the chicken as it cooks. As they caramelise, the slices become sweet and tangy. Inhale the Earl Grey scent of a Bergamot lemon and it almost seems to revitalise you. I love to use the zest in a chicken curry, with sweet potatoes, a thumb of ginger, and a splash of coconut milk with toasted pistachios.
Regular lemons should not be overlooked either: finish a shakshuka with a squeeze of lemon juice just before eating or add the zest to bubble and squeak. Stir through a generous amount of zest with freshly chopped parsley, golden breadcrumbs and scatter on a courgette and sage brown butter soup.
Find some citrus recipes here.
With baking, precision and timing are vital. You need to focus on weighing out specific amounts and as your mind concentrates you may find relief from your worries and that it can quieten a jumbled mind.
Perhaps there is also something magical about transforming staples like butter, flour and eggs. Take for instance a simple sponge cake. Creaming together butter and sugar until fluffy and almost white, then beating in eggs and watching as the batter becomes thick and frothy. Enjoy the satisfaction as it rises as it cooks, before eating it, still warm, with a cup of tea and taking the time to relax by yourself. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing whisked egg whites form stiff peaks then baking them low and slow for them to become beautiful little meringues. There is also the tactile aspect – the soothing feeling of rubbing just soft butter with sifted flour between your fingers’ tips to make an apple crumble.
Try some baking recipes here.
Laoise Casey’s chef credits include The Dairy in Clapham and Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green. She writes a regular food column for Evening Standard, teaches at the renowned Leiths School of Food and Wine and recently launched a cookery tutorial video series, Kitchen Essentials.
Images: Laoise Casey