eat what you love

"Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings."

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Food is good.

Think about the catharsis of kneading dough or mashing a pan of potatoes – of being messy, tactile and free. The daydreams you slip into while peeling carrots, and all the places your mind has drifted to while you’ve been standing at the stove. The clarity of a recipe can be soothing, being told what to do and when, how to cook and why, and having some of life’s ambiguity lifted from you for an hour or two. At other times you might find comfort in the uncertainty of cooking: when the idea of giving up control fills you with dread, the most liberating thing can be to do just that, accepting that sometimes a loaf will rise and sometimes it won’t, but trying your luck all the same. Waiting for a pan of water to come to a boil is a kind of therapy – being forced to slow down, chill out and be patient while you watch a shimmer of movement creep across the water, as the heat brings it to life.

And that’s before you’ve even started eating. What is more calming than the first spoonful of ice cream after a frantic day, or the smell of cinnamon in hot milk, or a bite of butter-rich garlic bread? A chunk of Dairy Milk is enough to turn around even the foulest mood. There’s the buzz of salty fries eaten on the night bus home, and the curative fry-up the next morning. These things feed my soul. Taking a bite of your heritage, whether that’s jollof rice or Irn Bru, will help you grow strong. Eating a meal – even if it’s collapsed, scrambled, over-salted or under-done – that was made especially for you by someone who loves you, is the best feeling in the world. When the food you eat is made with care (even if it’s just from you, for you), you thrive. And returning the favour, making treats to feed your friends and family, will nourish you in turn. All this is what makes food good for you: giving and healing, taking a break, learning and self-care.

What really makes food soar clear of mere nutrition, though, and detaches it from the language of calories, wellness, sugar and fat, is flavour. Flavour makes food a pleasure. It is taste, then – not presentation or prestige, health or fashion – that shapes the recipes in this book. Each ingredient in every dish contributes flavour and/or texture, nothing is just for show; each flavour combination has been imagined, balanced and tested to excite your palate and encourage you to try something new. I’ve paired banana and thyme in a soft teatime cake, coffee deepens a sticky rib glaze and cinnamon adds fragrant sweetness to a comforting couscous dinner. Old friends like apple and pork, or tomato and basil, are given a fresh twist in some recipes, while in other dishes less orthodox combinations take the stage – try pineapple curd in a camomile cake, or orange zest to lift a spicy prawn curry.

There are some ingredients – onions, salt and pepper, milk, tomatoes – that we use so much, and so often in a supporting role, that we barely notice the flavour they bring to a dish. Flashier ingredients steal the show, and our kitchen staples go uncredited. In writing Flavour I forced myself to use these ingredients more thoughtfully and more discerningly, and I began to find even the most mundane storecupboard stock exciting: cans of chickpeas and forgotten jars of spice suddenly became meal inspiration rather than midweek supper resignation. It’s my hope that as you work through the recipes here you’ll find new life in your familiar old ingredients, and learn a few ways to bring out the best in them in your cooking.

Flavour is ultimately a matter of taste, and there’s no right or wrong. If you love my sticky drumstick recipe, I’m delighted; if your loyalties lie with KFC, that’s no bad thing. As long as you enjoy the food you eat I’m happy. We need to ignore food snobs and the categories – good and bad taste, slow cooking versus fast food – that are used to shame us for liking the food we like. My job is to give you a few hints and tips to help you to broaden your repertoire, perfect a favourite family meal or see an ingredient in a new light.

A return to flavour is particularly important, I think, considering the obsession with wellness in food culture right now. The problem with ‘wellness’ is that it’s as arbitrary as it is expensive: gluten is public enemy no.1 at the moment, but it could just as easily be olive oil, wine or carrots. The things that save us today could tomorrow be a scourge. The pursuit of good health is fine if that’s what you’re interested in, but when health becomes all you think about, that’s not healthy. I want you to eat without paranoia, or shame, or fear. Eat what you want. Think of the Hungry Caterpillar, who emerged a butterfly precisely because it ate what it wanted to, with gusto.

This book is for everyone who likes to eat, whether you’re a new cook or a devoted foodie, a fast food queen or a restaurant critic, old or young. I hope you’ll find meals to suit you, whether you’re cooking for yourself, a hungry brood or your best friends. It’s for people with dream kitchens and for those still using a wine bottle as a rolling pin, for fussy eaters and happy gluttons and everyone in between. In a way, though, I wrote this for myself. Learning to cook helped me to enjoy food again, it connected me with the people I care about and, most importantly, it taught me how to care for, love and nourish myself. Be your own best friend, cook yourself something special and eat what you want today.