With a good squoosh of lime, a dash of dark sugar, a handful of torn basil, some chillies and Thai soy sauce, ordinary ingredients become a delectable stir-fry - in the time it takes to collect a (quite probably salty, fatty) takeaway.
Over my many, many years of cooking - longer than some of you have been alive - I have made a seemingly innocuous but, I feel, important discovery: cooking is good for my brain. Not just in the sense that I am occasionally learning something new - although that too, of course - but rather my breathing slows, anxiety is soothed, and I just feel better. I'm sure you know what I mean.
This may seem obvious to many of you: if you enjoy cooking it probably does take you out of yourself, and immerses you in a constructive and productive activity. You mix up a batter, pour it in a pan, whack it into he oven and, et voila, a cake. Of course that's good for your brain - if not your waistline.
But I think it is more than that.
Cooking as Meditation
Being a bit of a geeky person, someone fond of diving into studies and trying to wrap my normal-sized brain around the experimental outcomes of those with massive, sciencey brains, I have read up on how certain activities affect the brain. More specifically, how rhythm affects our mood, blood pressure and brain waves.
It is fairly well-documented that patterned, repetitive, rhythmic multi-sensory activities help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. These days enlightened doctors encourage those with depressive or anxiety disorders to get out and walk, try mediation, run, dance, sing, learn about breathing techniques - all activities that lower stress hormones, raise "feel good"hormones and lower heart rate. If the doctor doesn't recommend this, then he/she certainly should. Pills have their place, but so does activity.
While some of us will have clinically identified mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, there are also many, many of us who can identity at least in some ways with the life-altering and distressing symptoms of some mental illnesses. Occasionally feeling that heart-pounding, flight-or-flight moment (that seems to last forever), where brain and body feel "stuck"; having days and weeks when every thought and action is conducted through an invisible river of treacle.
I've noticed - and so have others when I've talked about it - that cooking helps. Cooking heals. At work I see a number of people really struggling with the mental and emotional side of living with cancer. I won't go into it here, but even the sunniest person cannot help but have down days.
One thing that seems to help, at least a bit, is cooking. The actions of taking the time and thought to gather ingredients, organise them, chop them, stir, mix, taste, and smell is its own rhythmic meditation. Even if, like me, you can't get your head around some of the basics of meditation (I am rubbish at sitting still for a start), taking the time to cook for yourself can have a very similar effect. And it doesn't have to be expensive or take much skill: a thoughtfully prepared and unrushed beans on toast - adding a dash of Worcestershire, or a sprinkle of paprika - can be quite meditative.
Taking walks and doing tai chi and yoga are great too, but cooking is something else. Not only does cooking help clear your mind of intruding thoughts and worries, slow the heart rate and stress levels with the rhythmic activities of chopping, mixing and stirring, but you get a cake, a casserole, a risotto to nourish yourself, and possibly to share with others - making a connection with yourself and potentially others.
Anyway, here is my best way to meditate - making a juicy, crunchy, colourful stir fry. As soon as the ingredients hit the hot wok, hear that "sssss", and get that first warm waft of aroma, the stresses and worries vanish.
Until I turn around and see the pile of washing up.... Ah, another meditative practise. This time for my husband...
Veggie Thai (ish) Stir fry
This recipe has slightly Thai overtones, using as it does lime juice, muscovado sugar (instead of Thai palm sugar), basil and soy/tamari sauce.
What You Need:
1 -2 firm aubergine(s), sliced into 1 cm wide batons (amount doesn't matter unless they are both huge)
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 x 200g packet basil tofu, sliced in scant 1 cm strips OR marinated tofu* OR smoked tofu
150g sugarsnap peas, de-stringed if necessary
1 small courgette, sliced into even-sized batons or rounds
juice of 1 large lime (about 3 tbsp) + lime to serve
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 rounded tbsp muscovado sugar or other unrefined dark brown sugar (for flavour rather than nutrients)
approx 2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce (it depends on how much juice is in the lime)
freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ tsp arrowroot or cornflour/cornstarch
handful fresh basil leaves (sweet kind if you can get them)
2-3 fresh or frozen lime leaves, optional (you can usually find these in Chinese and some Asisan grocers - I buy a tub of frozen ones)
1-2 red or green chillies, sliced (optional)
What You Do:
1. Toss the aubergine batons in the oil then lay them onto a baking tray; bake at 200C/400F for between 15 and 20 minutes: you want it to soften and take on a little colour in places. Set aside while you make up the sauce. You may also sauté these in a large sauté/frying pan.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, minced garlic, sugar, soy sauce or tamari, and the ground pepper; add in the sliced chilli and lime leaves if using.
3. When the aubergine is ready, heat a wok or large sauté pan and add the courgette batons sliced tofu, cooked aubergines and beans; stir fry for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle over the arrowroot or cornflour and mix through the ingredients, then pour over the lime juice mixture, tossing to coat. Continue to stir fry for a further minute before tearing in the basil leaves.
Serve with jasmine or basmati rice, brown rice noodles or soba noodles, and scatter with chopped cashew nuts. A side of steamed pak choi or spring greens is great too.
* To marinate plain tofu, wrap the tofu in several sheets of paper towel and squeeze between two cutting boards, or between your palms - keep it in its square shape. Squeeze the juice of ½ a lime into a bowl and whisk in 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of tamari or soy sauce. Slice the tofu into cubes and toss in the mixture, lightly pressing the tofu to help it soak up the flavours. Leave to marinate for at least 20 minutes before adding to the dish. Overnight is ideal.
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