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 OK, 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 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 Monroe (32).
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 and ask if I'm OK, because I've obviously stepped out of the kitchen."
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.
"It's that first step towards acknowledging you matter, and nurturing yourself matters, and taking a moment to just look after yourself."
She's a real advocate of 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 – and we need to be OK with that. 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. "There's something really transgressive about it," she says – plus "you can hold it with one hand, eat it with the other, it's literally ideal."
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 – even if I have to do it myself [as an adult]."
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 per cent vegan these days, [but] I've never felt the need to lecture people about their eating choices."
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.
:: Good Food For Bad Days by Jack Monroe is published by Bluebird, priced £7.99. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
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 300g 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
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.
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.
Reduce to a simmer, then stir in the tomatoes and vinegar. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, until thick and glossy.
Toss in the greens and wilt for 30 seconds (spinach) to a few minutes (kale and spring greens). Serve warm with bread and butter, torn up and dunked.
Keeps well in the fridge for up to three days. Can be frozen for up to three months.
CAULIFLOWER CHEESE AND WHITE BEAN BAKE
(serves 4, generously)
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
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.
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.
Turn your oven on to 180C/160C fan 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.
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.
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