Ella Risbridger: The precision and creativity of cooking has helped me with my anxiety
Debut cookery book writer Ella Risbridger talks to Ella Walker about her novelistic recipe collection and how cooking can be calming when it comes to mental health
ELLA Risbridger is many, many hours into waiting for her plumber to arrive. "I live in hope," she says wryly over the phone.
The food blogger-turned-cookbook writer, journalist and tweeter extraordinaire has many things on the go, in fact. Besides the interminable wait for the plumber, she is editing a poetry anthology, there's homemade chicken stock simmering on the stove, and she's halfway through a batch of her flaky sea salt-sprinkled chocolate cookies.
"If I dropped my copy of the book," she notes, "it would open on the cookies page. I make them so frequently."
The book in question is her debut recipe collection, Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For), and five years in the writing, it is no longer 'on the go'. Instead, as Risbridger (26) puts it: "This is it, it's finally here."
Midnight Chicken is not your usual cookbook. For starters, glossy food photography has been sacked off for bright, wobbly illustrations by Elisa Cunningham. The pages are strewn with drawings of creamy garlic cloves in their pink paper skins; knobbly, zingy green gherkins; and even a pheasant hopping away from Risbridger's Danny The Champion Of The Pie recipe.
The recipes themselves are less instructions for dinner, and more stories and moments, captured in a perfect "high and light and solid" cheese scone, or a blackberry pizza that is "a little bit sexier than nearly every pizza in the world". There are musings on fog and the necessity for pea soup, what to make if your anxiety has had you stuck in a bookshop for 40 minutes (salmon with sticky rice), and how to chill homemade hummus ("For as long as you can bear it").
It's also a book of love. Risbridger's partner, journalist John Underwood, and the 'Tall Man' found in her writings, who she credits with teaching her how to cook, died in 2018.
And while Midnight Chicken revels in food, it also shifts with, and navigates the demands of Risbridger's anxiety disorder. Cooking became a lifeline and a way to manage, she explains in the book, and that eponymous roast chicken recipe (ginger, she reckons, is its secret elixir) was the beginning. Writing it all down, first in her blog, Eating With My Fingers, and then in book form was simply "natural".
"What I try to achieve with everything that I write about mental illness is to say, 'OK, how can we live with this? How can we make a life worth living when things are really hard, when things feel really difficult, how can you find the good?" says Risbridger. "How can you find something to hang onto when you're in that dark place?
"What I wanted to do most was to help," she says of the driving force of the book. She wanted it to be useful, to make the kitchen accessible and "to make it clear that having anxiety or depression or any kind of mental illness, is a part of life".
For Risbridger, her mental health issues made "everything feel very chaotic", and cooking presented a "puzzle" that "fitted very perfectly into what I needed it to be. It combines this creative impulse, which I love, with this sense of inevitability: If you put these two things together, you'll get this result.
"There's a precision to it, a creativity, and, at the end of it, you've got something to eat – you've done something practical, you've taken a real step to help yourself. There's something really soothing about that."
Cooking offered a reliable kind of safety, rather than a fear of the unknown. "Without sounding horrible about it, I just had bigger problems. I was so nervous about everything, [I thought] 'Well, cooking – what's the worst that can happen?'"
Hence the book's list of: What to do when it all goes wrong – e.g. "Order a takeaway. Nobody will care."
"Cooking's great. It's essential for me, and everyone's got to do it at some point, you might as well try and have fun with it – but it is just food," Risbridger says.
"If it goes wrong, it's a pain – and I understand that's quite a privileged position in itself, as some people might not have the money to chuck away dinner, and I can understand that's a whole set of social and economic and financial realities that are really terrible – but I suspect, for most of the people reading and buying this book, they're probably in a position where if dinner goes wrong and they have to have toast, it's probably going to be OK."
:: Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger is published by Bloomsbury, priced £22. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
(Serves 2, with leftovers for soup and salad and stock and sandwiches)
Chicken, mine was 1.6kg
Garlic, about 8 cloves, or as many as you can muster
Fresh chillies, 2 (or 3 if you don't have chilli salt)
Mustard, the grainy sort
Chilli salt (or sea salt)
Olive oil (perhaps)
Ginger, a nub about the size of your thumb
Honey, about a spoonful
Take your chicken out of its packaging. Sit it in a baking tray; let it breathe. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Chop half of your garlic finely; put it in a cup. Chop the chillies and a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme; add them to the cup. Add a hefty teaspoon of mustard, some pepper and chilli salt (ordinary sea salt will do). Add a splash of olive oil, if you like.
Peel and grate the ginger. Add most of it to your cup with the garlic and herbs. Put the last pinch into a mug with the honey. Boil a kettle.
Cut the lemon in half. Juice, pouring most of the lemon juice into your cup of stuff. Stir. Pour the rest into the mug with the ginger and honey. Add hot water from the kettle. Stir. Drink. Steady yourself.
Go back to the chicken. Unloop the elastic string holding its legs together, and shove four of the garlic cloves and half the squeezed lemon in. Loop it up again, if you can, then rub the garlic-chilli-herbs-ginger-lemon mixture into the chicken skin, legs, thighs and wings.
Slide the chicken into the oven for about one hour and 20 minutes, if your chicken weighs the same as mine,. If your chicken is bigger or smaller than mine, give it about 30 minutes per 500g.
Have a glass of wine. When the timer rings, check the chicken by sticking a skewer into the meatiest bit of the leg. If the juice is still pink, send it back to the oven. If not, turn the oven off and let the chicken sit for five minutes. Dip some bread in the juices.
Carve the chicken. Tear the meat from the bones. Drink. Eat. Feel glad.
(NOT QUITE) CHAO XA GA
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
200ml chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock pot/cube dissolved in 200ml boiling water)
2tbsp fish sauce
2tbsp grated ginger (about 6cm)
1tbsp grated garlic (about 4 cloves)
1tsp brown sugar
2tsp white pepper
2 lemongrass stalks (fresh is better, dried is fine)
Bunch of coriander
Bunch of spring onions
2 red bird's eye chillies
200g jasmine rice
200g cooked and peeled prawns
Combine your coconut milk, chicken stock and fish sauce in a saucepan, and stir to dissolve any lumps. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar and pepper. Stir again. If using fresh lemongrass, chop it into the pan with scissors; if using dried, add the stalks whole. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer over the lowest possible heat while you zest and juice your limes. Reserve a pinch of lime zest, then add the rest to the broth, along with the juice.
Tip the kale and coriander into a colander, and rinse them vigorously. Use scissors to chop them as finely as you can manage, then set to one side.
Rinse and slice the spring onions, then add most to the broth, reserving a few green shreds for garnish. Rinse, slice and de-seed the chillies, and do the same.
Rinse the rice, then tip it directly into the broth. Cover the pan and cook for 18 minutes, stirring a couple of times to break up any clumps of rice.
Taste: The rice should be soft and sticky, with broth bubbling all around and over it. Stir through the kale and coriander and cook for two minutes more. Finally, add the prawns and cook for another two minutes.
Decant into bowls: A mound of tender rice, studded with pink prawns and flecks of vivid green, with a moat of richly scented broth. Scatter with the reserved lime zest, loops of red chilli and hoops of green onion. Serve straight away.