Why cooking is so important to my mental health

It's been six weeks since I have been furloughed from work and let me tell you, I'm all over the place. I always thought I enjoyed my own company and relished in being alone. But I have discovered that whilst I do like my own company, I just don't like to be alone with my own thoughts. I am complete over-thinker of situations and a worrier by nature. This current situation has made me into a complete bundle of nervous energy and I feel utterly exhausted in my day-to-day life. So I have, like so many other people, turned to my kitchen as a coping mechanism.

I've always been a keen cook and this seems to have intensified during the restrictions. I find pouring over a recipe for an hour or two can really help to clear my mind. My mind concentrates on what is in front of me rather than whirling away like a tornado and causing me to feel on edge. For a moment, after I've made something delicious, I feel normal again and not trapped in this 'new normal' everyone seems to be banging on about.

What I put inside my body each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner seems to be the only thing in my control at the minute. I can't control anything else in the world. This is something very difficult to comprehend for someone who is an obsessive planner and control freak. But if I want to have a lasagne for dinner then I can make that lasagne!

I am cooking and baking far too much than a two-person household needs. We try to eat it all but sometimes we just can't before it goes bad. So we are doing numerous drop-offs on our daily exercise during the week. We're lucky we live within walking distance of most of our friends so we haven't felt as isolated as some people. Dropping off a slice of banana bread or a loaf of sourdough is my way of letting friends and family know I'm thinking of them. That 5 minute wave from the top of their path does all the difference to my mental health.

So, I'm not going to stop cooking up a storm any time soon. Even when I have to load up the dishwasher for the fourth time that day. It's bringing me so much joy and I have never eaten so well in my life. Long may it continue!

Have you been cooking or baking as a coping mechanism too?


What I've been cooking #13: East by Meera Sodha

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Meera Sodha. I have all her cookbooks and religiously read her vegan column in the Guardian each week. I'm not sure why it took me so long to order her newest offering East but I finally did a week before the UK went into lockdown. What a great purchase it turned out to be! I'm lucky that I have a well-stocked larder so have most of the cupboard essentials listed in the book. I just need to order in fresh food. Thank the lord for veg box deliveries eh? The cookbook is all vegetarian or vegan with lots of recipes coming from her Guardian column. They aren't the most authentic recipes but rather a riff on recipes from all over East Asia. Meera just has a knack for writing recipes for the home cook. They always work so unbelievably well and she really does know what flavours go together. I know this is a cookbook I'm going to pull out time and time again. The pages are already well loved!

Honey, soy and ginger braised tofu
Up until we went to Malaysia last February I always avoided Tofu like the plague. I was convinced it wasn't for me. Then I had it fried and suddenly everything changed. Smother it in cornflour, fry it in batches and you'll be greeted with something incredibly addictive. I added the extra step of coating it in cornflour in this recipe and it made all the difference. The sauce was sweet and spicy thanks to addition of gochujang, fast becoming one of my favourite things to add to a dish. I served it with roasted purple sprouting broccoli and some brown rice. As soon as I took my first bite, I vowed to make it again.

Paneer, tomato and kale saag
Admittedly I kept things fairly traditional and used spinach instead of kale. I had loads in the freezer and didn't want to make an unnecessary trip to the shops to buy kale. I love cooking curry, eating curry and the smell of curry. It just feels so homely to me and proper comfort food. I'd have it everyday for dinner. I've only recently been cooking with paneer at home but I'm addicted to the cheese. I served this with some pilau rice and it was delicious. I halved the recipe for two people but kept the same qualities for four with the sauce. I like my curries to be very saucy! I'd love to try it with kale to see how it differs.

Sun House chilli eggs
Wow this had a kick to them! I love any type of baked eggs and as soon as I saw this recipe I knew I had to try it out. I loved the fact it wasn't as saucy as other baked egg dishes and the addition of cheddar cheese was a game changer.

Mushroom bao
I made bao. I can't quite believe it! Five years ago I didn't even know how to boil pasta, I started baking then moved into teaching myself to cook a few years later. It still blows my mind when I manage to create something edible and delicious! These turned out to be quite fat and in hindsight I should have rolled them a bit thinner and made the recommended 10 rather than eight. But I am so happy with out they turned out and it was fab to use the bamboo steamer I treated myself to in lockdown. I couldn't believe how simple these bao were to make. Meera's instructions were flawless!

Black-eyed bean and chickpea usal
I added extra broth to this so that I had more to dip my bread into. This didn't wow me at all and I think it's the recipe I enjoyed the least. It just didn't spark any joy and I didn't immediately think I wanted to make it again after I had finished. To me, that is always a good sign of any recipe.  It's great to use up those tins at the back of your cupboard and it does make a quick, simple lunch.

Sodha family masala omelette
I made this for lunch to eat alongside a simple mixed, green salad. As always I do the full recipe and we eat it over two days.  I subbed in Kasmiri chili powder for the green finger chilli and dried coriander leaf for fresh as that is what I had in the house. We've got to work with what we've got! I preferred the Sun House chilli eggs and would suggest you make that one instead.

Kimchi fried rice
Kimchi is one of those ingredients that I always pick up if I see it in our local Asian supermarket. It's such a great store cupboard essential and you can make so many different types of dishes with it. I love the tang of the fermented cabbage. Fried rice is pure comfort food isn't it? This version lives up the expectations I gave it. I loved it! I imagine it'll be even better as leftovers the next day. Definitely do not skip the fried egg on top!

Five tips I have found helpful when baking sourdough bread for the first time

So I did it! I have come the ultimate lockdown cliche. I have kept a starter and am now utterly obsessed with making sourdough. Bread, pancakes, crumpets, brownies. You name it! But it hasn't been easy getting to this stage. I killed my first starter and realised it really is an art. Yes, it is time consuming but it's 100% worth all the effort. I could have cried when I pulled that first successful sourdough loaf out of the oven. Special thanks to my friend Hannah who has been extremely patient talking me through the process and always answering my frantic Whatapp messages. At the minute I have only used the method suggested by The Boy Who Bakes but it's working pretty well so far so I am going to carry on for a while before I start experimenting. Here are five tips which I feel have really helped me get to grips with the process. Hopefully they help you out too!

1. Feed it at the same time every day
I find getting into a routine with your starter is exactly what it needs if it is kept at room temperature. It helps it to thrive. As your starter matures, it will crave 'feeding' and this helps it to keep it nice and bubbly. I tend to feed mine between 10-11am and around 10pm if it needs two feeds. A good starter will double in size every eight hours or so. So feeding it in the morning was a great way to test if your starter is healthy. You will then have time to feed it a second time if needed. If you aren't intending to use your starter every day then keep it in the fridge, It will only need feeding around twice a week. But I tend to give it a big stir every day even if I don't feed it.

2. Set timers as reminders 
There's no denying sourdough is a time-consuming process so you have to keep on top of things before each hour just blends into another. The build up before it goes into the fridge to prove is important. I tend to tuck and turn the dough every half hour for four hours. I always set a timer on my phone to remind me when the 30 minutes is up. I often get caught up in doing other things around the house and before I now it I am in bed at midnight thinking about the dough I forgot about!

3. Get into the habit of using discard
Every time you feed your starter you have to take half out and leave in a 'discard' jar. Before you know it, after a few days that jar is overflowing and you're fast running out of other storage jars. Don't through the discard away as it is such a waste. I've used it so far to make pancakes, crumpets, brownies and banana muffins. It adds such a unique flavour to everything. Next on my list to try are crackers!

4. Try lots of different places around the house to prove
Everyone's house differs when it comes to finding the best proving spot. I usually prove my dough in my microwave with the door shut but for some reason this didn't quite work for my sourdough. Now I turn my oven on for 15-20 minutes at 75 degrees. I then turn it off before placing my dough in there with a tea towel draped over the bowl. I know people who place the dough in their airing cupboard or by the radiator. Try a few different places to work out the best one for you. It really is trail and error!

5. Don't panic if the dough feels too wet
When I pour the salt in the dough and add the remaining warm water, the dough looks almost too wet to function. I did panic a bit and debated adding more flour but resisted in the end. The resistance paid off! Trust the recipe you are following as it will all come together in the end. It takes me about two hours of the first prove before the dough looks less sloppy.

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