Books about mental health vol. 1

Two things have helped me manage my anxiety and depression above all else. Being honest about it with other people, and learning more about it. I’ve found certain books to help with that more than anything. Here’s five that I think might just help you too:

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

This book will make you uncomfortable. The title itself brings forward the realities of struggling with suicide and mental health and throws it right in your face. Many people probably already know of it, and for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I strongly suggest you do. Matt gives a truly honest account of his struggles with mental health. The back and forth nature of him speaking to his past self brings optimism to even the darkest situations. It opens the doors into the depths of what the people’s darkest days might look like, without the glorification that fiction and films often give depression. The world needs more of this as it gives people with mental illness hope, and people without it understanding.

“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”
― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

The Brain: A User’s Manual – Marco Magrini

Ever since I started to understand mental health, the human brain has become more fascinating (and scary). While not specifically focused on mental health, this book gives a fairly technical yet humorous guide to the complexity contained within our craniums. Written in the guise of a user manual for a new product, it dives into the things we do and don’t know about how the brain works, why we react the way we do and the underlying reasons for it’s “malfunctions”. If you can get over the fact that reading this book is essentially your brain trying to learn more about itself, it makes for an excellent deep dive.

“Your brain is delivered to you pre-installed, so there is no need for complex connections or settings selections to make it work.”
― Marco Magrini, The Brain: A User’s Guide

Robin – Dave Itzkoff

There aren’t many celebrities that I can remember where I was when I found out they passed away. Gord Downie is one, David Bowie another, but Robin Williams will always stick out in my mind. Aladdin was one of the first films I saw as a young child, so Genie will forever be synonymous with Robin Williams for me. His ability to bring such joy to people through his work was superhuman. Reading this book and understanding the depth of what he was tormented by brings him back to earth a little while making all he achieved seem even more impressive. He wasn’t a perfect man but was driven by a want to bring happiness to others, not just on stage or on film. It’s a stark reminder to us all, that you never know what someone might be hiding beneath the surface.

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
― Robin Williams

The Little Book of Calm – Lucy Lane

This book may not have the depth of the ones above. It was gifted to me by another friend who struggles with mental health. I’ve found that while it certainly doesn’t offer answers, it serves as a really good anchor to bring you back from spiralling. For a while, during a particularly stressful and overwhelming part of my life, it was an anchor. I carried it in my backpack every day and used it as a means of settling back down. I would find somewhere quiet and read it from the beginning until I could feel my breathing return to normal. Even if that meant the toilet stall at work. Eventually, even just knowing it was there became helpful and although I don’t carry it everywhere anymore. It does, however, still have a spot on my bookshelf.

“After a storm, comes the calm”
― Proverb, the little book of calm

All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

I wouldn’t normally reach to fiction for anything mental health-related. It can often portray mental illnesses in a dangerous and glorified light. This book, however, is a short yet brilliant read. I’ve included it here not just because of the entirety of the book being great, but specifically for chapter five “the anxiety monster”. The author’s depiction of anxiety in a new situation, even a hopeful one, is so relatable. Even if you are just a lover of good fiction and beautifully descriptive writing, this book is worth a read.

“There are two ways to get rid of an anxiety monster, my friend – you either have a bath or a nap”
― Andrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes

Recipe: Cherry Maple Salmon

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a summers day in Spain, I start with a quick difficulty list. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 2/5
Equipment: 2/5
Method: 3/5

This recipe makes 2 portions

Ingredients:

  • 1 Lemon
  • 1 tbsp Soy Sauce
  • 2 tbsp Cherry Jam
  • 2 tbsp Maple Syrup
  • 2 Salmon fillets

Equipment:

  • Cutting board
  • Baking tray or oven-proof baking dish
  • Small sauce-pan
  • Tin-foil
  • Spatula

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C (400F)
  2. Mix the soy sauce, cherry jam, maple syrup into the small saucepan
  3. Squeeze the lemon into the mix and stir
  4. Bring the saucepan mixture to a boil, once bubbling turn off the heat
  5. Put the saucepan into the fridge or freezer until the glaze has cooled and has a thicker consistency (this is really important to stop burning during cooking)
  6. Cover baking tray or dish in tinfoil and place salmon fillets on the tray
  7. Spoon the glaze over the salmon generously
  8. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes
  9. Serve with basmati rice and roasted or stir-fried greens

10 reasons people with anxiety will survive the apocalypse

Let me start with this. Anxiety isn’t fun. For me, personally, it’s relatively mild compared to most people. It still affects my work, my relationships and my life in general on a regular basis. However, I’ve gotten better and better at dealing and coming to terms with it. Frankly one of the ways I cope is to try and look at the bright side wherever I can. In a time where it’s as high as it’s ever been, the idea to write this made me smile and laugh. Hopefully, it does for you as well.

Watching the news lately gives the feeling that the apocalypse has already begun. When one is already overthinking simple day to day things, it opens up a whole new realm of things to obsess about. Will it be slow as the climate continues to change? Slightly faster in the form of a pandemic? Or will the Cheeto in-charge of the worlds largest nuclear arsenal bring about the end swiftly over a Twitter re-tweet? Whichever way the end may come, there are more than a few reasons why I think the anxious will be right there beside the meek to inherit the Earth.

#1 – We’re already several steps ahead on the “what else could go wrong” train of thought.

In the normal world, this is not necessarily a good thing, but in the apocalypse, things will be different. We’ll be the ones avoiding the plot twists like Matt Damon in, well, all his films really. Food shortage? Psh, I’ve been stocking up food for weeks. People are re-animating as zombies from the pandemic? I’ve been worrying about that since patient zero, it’s like you don’t even read my blog!

go ahead, ask me one more time what I have to be anxious about.

#2 – We’re already suspicious that people don’t like us based on small things.

In a world where you’re forced to make alliances with strangers whom you don’t trust, we won’t be falling into the classic trap of being stabbed in the back. No betrayals can sneak up on us, we saw that slightly strange look you gave us that one time. There’s no way we’re giving you the chance to turn on us! Heck, we’re already probably a mile away, dissecting the look a rabid dog gave us to determine if we did something to make it angry.

seriously though, those zombies are definitely not your friends

#3 – Social anxiety will protect us.

Even in the recent escalation of the coronavirus, there’s some positive news I’m taking from this. I might actually be encouraged to stay inside, away from people and large social gatherings. You mean it’s become socially acceptable, even encouraged to sit at home and watch a film on a Friday night? I’ve been training for this moment for years. No getting stir crazy for us, because we’re in our element and you can call us when it’s over.

Actually, don’t. This is great.

#nonewfriendsintheapocalypse

#4 – We are not waiting to “see how that injury is in the morning”.

Pass me the disinfectant, the bandages and the anti-biotics right bloody now. I am not taking chances here. How on earth can I outrun the zombies when they appear if my leg is infected? Thankfully I also stocked up on real medical supplies at the pharmacy before it got bad, while everyone else was in a fistfight over hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

#5 – We already know where all the safest places would be.

Part of over-thinking every possible thing that could go wrong is coming up with how you’d deal with it. Climate crisis? Guess what, I’m already on Mars. Nuclear fallout? Not for me, because I’m still on Mars. You got me here, pretty much all my doomsday scenarios end up on Mars.

Oh hey, Matt Damon! Pass the potatoes, please.

but what happens if climate change happens on Mars?

#6 – We’ve already come to terms with it.

A big benefit of having the world end in your mind dozens and dozens of times is that if it did actually happen then, well it won’t quite come as much of a shock. Will we still worry about it? Sure, but while everyone else is in complete shock or have their heads stuck in the sand we’ll be gearing up for action. Having your worst fears realized like a deja vu at least gives you the dress rehearsal you need when it actually goes down. Just like watching House of Cards.

presented without comment

#7 – We’re not likely to “be a hero” foolishly

Look, I’m not saying anxious people aren’t going to help others out, but we’re going to be reasonable about it. Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland was the epitome of anxiety in the apocalypse and he made it by following a specific set of rules. In this case, anxiety is our superpower by making us just think about things a tiny bit longer. If we could pick our superpower we’d probably pick something else, but this is ours and damn it we’re going to make the most of it.

#8 – We’re already used to using coping mechanisms to manage fear

Anxiety makes every day fear feel like your life is in danger. Anxiety triggers biological responses that cause adrenaline to surge and other similar physiological responses same as they do when you’re in real danger. People with anxiety constantly work to develop coping mechanisms to still be able to function when it happens.

While sleep might be scarce in the apocalypse, running sure as f*ck won’t be.

you can also add making phone calls and answering the door

#9 – We’re meticulously detailed in planning and execution

In Pokemon, you are advised to take a pokemon with you into the wild because it’s dangerous out there. Well in the apocalypse my pokemon will be lists, plans and maps. What do we need, what’s the backup plan, how do we get there and what could possibly go wrong?

It’s a largely useless skill when nothing is actually likely to go wrong, but who’s going to be laughing when it saves our asses because we had a back-up route around the brand new shiny giant nuclear crater.

#10 – We’re excellent at functioning with little to no sleep

Some people stay up too late because they were reading a good book, or binging a great Netflix show. We regularly stay up watching the great classics of all time like “That time I accidentally called someone the wrong name in 5th grade” or “Dissecting meaningless sentences people said to me: A history”. Zero stars to both, I would not recommend.

In the real world, this means constantly being tired in a world where most other people are well-rested. In the apocalypse, we’ll all be tired and some of us will just be better at dealing with it. (This also applies to nightshift workers, new parents and anyone who has to deal with people in a retail setting.)

the real irony is sleeping less makes it worse

Sure, this may seem overblown and the world isn’t coming to an end immediately. You could even argue that things are still getting better, the last time we had a pandemic this big it killed half of Europe! Things aren’t ever as bad as they seem, but you try telling our anxiety that.

Our superpower is just waiting to be needed, and in the meantime maybe befriend an anxious person. We might be some work to deal with now, but when the end comes you’ll be thankful you did.

Recipe: Rum Old Fashioned

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a warm fire on an autumn afternoon. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 2/5
Equipment: 1/5
Method: 2/5

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Vanilla extract
  • 1 orange
  • Angostura Bitters
  • 60 ml rum (I use Mount Gay Extra Old or a similar cask rum)
  • Ice

Equipment:

  • 1 small saucepan
  • Slotted spoon
  • Cocktail peeler or regular peeler if you don’t have one
  • Small cocktail spoon

Method:

Making the Simple Syrup

  1. Cut the orange in half and peel
  2. Chop the peeled half into small pieces
  3. Add the sugar, water, orange pieces and a dash of vanilla extract to the saucepan and bring to a boil.
  4. Remove from heat and set aside until cooled. Remove the orange pieces using a slotted spoon
  5. Once cooled, you can store the simple syrup in a glass or plastic container in the fridge for up to a month

Making the cocktail

  1. Add a tbsp of simple syrup and two dashes of bitters to a rocks/lowball glass
  2. Add 3-4 large ice cubes to the glass
  3. Pour the rum over the ice and stir very briefly
  4. Garnish with an orange twist. This video is great for learning how

On incrementally improving your mental state

Caring for your mental health can be overwhelming, especially when anxiety, depression or other conditions are at their worst. Everywhere you read about exercising, eating well, sleeping well, drinking water, getting sunlight, meditating and the list goes on and on.

When you’re already down on yourself, it can be hard to stay motivated and even harder to keep going if you miss a goal or experience a setback. I have definitely found my mental health is at it’s best when I’m ticking off all the “wellness” boxes. However, getting back on track when things start to slip, or when life gets in the way is by far the hardest part.

Over time, I’ve realized what is more important than the others, and instead of trying to get back to doing everything all at once, I set myself smaller goals over a longer period of time and focus on the things that are most important. These priorities are going to be different for everyone, but I’ll use my example to explain how it works for me.

Where to start

The first thing is sleep. If I don’t sleep well over a long stretch of time, I become irritable and grumpy, am less likely to have the energy to exercise or cook a meal and things will quickly spiral down from there. Whenever I recognize myself as getting out of healthy habits, this is where I start. This may mean passing on social outings, turning off the TV early and reading a book, or meditating before I go to sleep. It’s the foundation that, without it, means I’ll just keep falling down again.

From there it’s about setting manageable and achievable goals for drinking water, eating well and exercising. Being hard on yourself for missing an unachievable goal you set yourself doesn’t help anything. It’s better to set a goal of working out 3 times this week and hit it, then it is to try and do it every day and miss the goal, especially when your inner voice is already being hard on you.

The issues with drinking socially

The balance of social activities is the thing I probably find the hardest. Being alone definitely doesn’t help matters, but also social situations in your mid-twenties are almost always centred around drinking. This is where surrounding yourself with people who genuinely understand mental health is so important. There is nothing worse than being peer-pressured by a friend into another night out when you know it’s going to send you downwards. The guilt of disappointing a friend and the effects if you do are a clear no-win situation. I’ve found several ways of dealing with this:

  1. Take charge and make plans to do something not centred around drinking
  2. Drink less. Go along, order sodas with lime and do your best to hold fast against peer pressure.
  3. Prepare and recover. Eat well, exercise and drink water the day of if you know you’re going out. Try to do the same the day after.

Above all else, your mental health is yours to protect and friends who are more interested in getting you wasted probably aren’t that good of friends after all, especially if you’ve explained why. That may mean that some people lose touch but friendship shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental health.

Keep track

No one knows how you’re feeling better than you. Strategies for keeping yourself healthy ultimately come down to what works best for you. It’s okay to take it one step at a time, in fact, it’s almost essential. One of the best tools for setting out a plan is the rise of journalling. I was sceptical at first but I’ve found by revisiting how I’m doing each day. I am able to re-adjust the goals I’ve set and kept myself honest. This isn’t just when I’m in a funk, but also to keep a healthy mental state resilient and less likely to be taken down by a bump in the road. There are dozens of curated journals you can buy online, I’ve used MindJournal before, but ultimately it’s about three things:

  1. Observing how you’re feeling and write it down.
  2. Set both little and big goals. Sometimes mine are just “workout tonight”, even if it’s a light one like yoga, a stretch or a jog.
  3. Reflect on why you did or didn’t hit those goals and hold yourself accountable.

I wouldn’t expect this to be a blueprint for anyone, as everyone’s mental health is different and their own. Sharing successes and failures give us all the strength to carry on. Take advantage of motivation when you have it and don’t try and force yourself better, it takes little steps.

You got this.

Recipe: Chicken and Mushroom Pie

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a summers day in Spain, I start with a quick difficulty list. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 3/5
Equipment: 3/5
Method: 3/5

This recipe makes 4 portions

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 finely chopped garlic clove
  • 2 cubed boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 200g button mushrooms chopped
  • 10g finely chopped tarragon
  • 10g finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 diced yellow onion
  • 250 ml chicken broth
  • 50 ml white wine
  • 150 ml double cream
  • 1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry
  • 1 egg
  • Flour (on hand incase)

Equipment:

  • 1 large frying pan or skillet
  • 1 deep roasting dish or pan
  • Sharp kitchen knife
  • Plastic Cutting board (for chicken)
  • Cutting board (for vegetables and herbs)
  • Pastry brush (optional)

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C (400F).
  2. Bring the saucepan to medium heat and add olive oil and chopped garlic. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the chicken and cook until browned.
  3. Take the chicken out and put aside.
  4. Add a small amount of olive oil back into the pan and add the onion.
  5. Cook the onion until starting to soften (1-2 minutes) and then add the white wine and parsley. Cook until the wine has evaporated from the pan.
  6. Add the mushrooms and tarragon and cook until browned (usually 3-4 minutes).
  7. Add the chicken stock and reduce to a simmer.
  8. Add the cooked chicken back into the pan and stir regularly. After 2-3 minutes add the double cream and continue to stir on simmer.
  9. If after a few minutes the filling is still a runny liquid, slowly spoon a teaspoon of flour at a time until the liquid thickens. Stir well and repeat until the filling is thickened.
  10. Spoon the filling into the baking dish.
  11. Put the puff pastry over the dish and cut the edges to the correct size. You can also decorate the pie with the trimmings (I usually opt for the mathematical pi symbol but it’s up to you).
  12. Beat the egg in a small dish and then coat the pastry in a light layer of the egg (brush is preferable but delicately using a knife or spoon can also work).
  13. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.
  14. Serve with mashed potatoes, gravy and roast Brussel sprouts.

A beginner’s guide to Whisk(e)y

You see it in glass decanters and crystal glasses on shows like Mad Men, The Crown and in Harvey Spector’s office on Suits. Whisky is everywhere, and often a symbol of high class, powerful people.

It doesn’t have to be.

Ever since my grandfather first introduced me to a whisky when I was a teenager, I’ve learned a lot about it. I by no means profess to be an expert, and ultimately it all comes down to preference. Some of my favourite bottles are not expensive but are the region or flavours I enjoy most.  If you are looking have a dram as your next drink of choice, hopefully, this can help you figure out what you might like best!

Much like math, when it comes to learning about whisk(e)y, the brackets are important. Whisky is Scottish and whiskey is Irish. The e followed Irish settlers to the United States, while just about every other producer worldwide doesn’t use it. The major other producers include Canada, Japan, India. While small in terms of volume, Australia’s whiskies have won numerous awards. Each region has some distinctive processes and ingredients that they use to get different flavours.

Whiskies are made from different combinations of malted barley, corn, rye and wheat. The different mixes determine what the whisky is called. The famous “Single Malt” refers to only one type of mashed malt from a single distillery being used.

The distilled alcohol is then aged in burnt oak barrels, usually previously used to store sherry, wine or even rum. Each region has different requirements and standards for how long to be aged, and which mix of grains to use and each produces a different flavour. The type of barrel and length of ageing typically has the most effect on the flavour.

Scotland

In Scotland, whisky, Scotch Whisky or Scotch is made in five different regions. Scotland is the largest producer of whisky globally and there is a seemingly endless variety to sample. I recommend this guide to dive into the details further if you’re interested.

If you are new to whisky I’d recommend trying Speyside first, from a distillery like Aberlour. They age in Sherry barrels which gives the whisky an easier to drink, sweeter flavour and a deeper red colour. Other Speyside single malts are the readily available Glenlivet or Glenfiddich brands. For a Highland whisky, far and away my favourite is Dalmore, which is also a sherry cask variety with a deep ruby red colour. If you really want to go for it, however, Islay produces the smoky or peaty flavours that are famously attributed to whiskies such as Lagavulin and Bowmore. Islay whiskies are usually the most acquired tastes.

Ireland

Generally speaking, the main difference with Irish whiskies is that they are distilled three times instead of two. Irish whiskey was once the most popular but is only recently undergoing a renaissance. Jameson is probably the most famous worldwide and although the bottom shelf bottle is a bit harsh, some of the other vintages are easier drinking. My personal favourite of the Irish whiskies is Writer’s Tears, partially for the taste and partially for the irony.

North America

In North America, whiskies are commonly known as Bourbon or Rye, although other less common wheat, corn and malt whiskies are also made. In Canada, whisky or rye must be aged for at least three years in barrels and must be entirely produced and aged in Canada. Outside of the common ones like Crown Royal, I thoroughly enjoy Pike Creek’s 10-year-old rum barrel whisky. It’s cheap and has really nice vanilla, caramel and spice flavours. Rye is made in the US, with similar rules to Canada. Bourbon whiskey is made with at least 51% corn maize and a special distinction is made for Tennessee whiskey which must be filtered using sugar maple charcoal. This most famous of these is, of course, Jack Daniels.

Japan

Most people who are unfamiliar with whisky would be surprised by the next fact. Japan is the fourth-largest producer of whisky in the world. Japan’s whisky is heavily influenced by Scotland and produces a similar style of Single Malts. Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest distillery and was founded in 1924, while it’s two most internationally well known are Nikka and Suntory. I find Japanese whiskies to be a little more acquired tastes and a bit harsher at first so I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

In terms of an introduction to regions, let’s stop here, not because whiskies from other countries aren’t great, but because this is an introduction and let’s be honest, you’re already overwhelmed.

To ice, or not to ice

One final, important question to answer. How should you drink your whisky? Single Malt purists will gasp at the thought of on the rocks for a nice scotch. How dare you. They insist that a “few drops of spring water” is all that’s needed to activate the flavours. I not only think that’s pretentious but also for the average whisky drinker, you’re not having top-shelf stuff very often. Also, to be honest, I can’t say spring water is often at hand and you wouldn’t catch me dead saying that at a restaurant or bar.

The exception to this rule is if you are drinking a Scotch in Scotland. Using ice, having a whisky cocktail or anything other than scotch, neat should probably be listed as a travel advisory. Especially smaller towns and rural distillery towns.

Ultimately most drinkers, experts and even distillers will tell you it comes down to preference. My personal preference is generally to have it neat when trying a whisky for the first time, or for really smooth bottles. After a lot of acquired taste, more often than not I will drink a single malt neat because I genuinely enjoy it that way. When I first started though I almost always had a small cube of ice. For cheap whiskies, I still tend to use a little ice as chilling it can cut down on the harshness of the alcohol.

Recommendations

Finally, here’s a shortlist of whiskies for each region I think are good starting points for people looking to get into it:

Aberlour 12-year-old, Speyside, Scotland – matured in both sherry and oak casks, smooth drinking and has fruity notes

Laphroaig 10-year-old, Islay, Scotland – A peaty Islay classic whisky with a rare sweetness to it for an Islay

Dalmore 12-year-old, Highlands, Scotland – Double barrel-aged in both bourbon and sherry casks. My all-time favourite.

Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky, Japan – Spicy with a bit of fruity taste from one of Japan’s most well-known distilleries.

Pike Creek 10-year-old, Canada – Going a bit off the board with this one as it’s not one of the biggest Canadian distilleries, however, it’s a great starter one as it’s cheap and aged in rum barrels giving it a sweet vanilla taste.

Maker’s Mark Bourbon, USA – The classic bourbon for making Manhattan cocktails is also great on its own.

Writer’s Tears Copper Pot, Ireland – A traditional copper pot Irish whisky that’s easy to drink with honey notes.

Recipe: Chilli

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a summers day in Spain, I start with a quick difficulty list. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 1/5
Equipment: 2/5
Method: 2/5

This recipe makes 8-10 portions

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • Chopped garlic (approx 3 cloves)
  • 1 white onion, diced (here’s a great video for learning how to do this well)
  • 2 yellow, orange, red or green peppers, diced
  • 1.2-1.5kg lean ground beef
  • 3 cans of diced tomatoes
  • 2 cans of kidney beans
  • 2 cans tomato soup
  • 1 tsp hot chilli powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • Dash of paprika, cumin and dried oregano
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Soured cream

Equipment:

  • 1 large, hob-safe cooking pot (3.5L at minimum)
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Cheese grater
  • Wooden Spoon

Method:

  1. Bring the cooking pot to medium heat on the hob and add the olive oil and garlic.
  2. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the onions and cook until they are browned and softened (2-3 minutes).
  3. Add the ground beef and cook until browned.
  4. Drain the beef and add the tomato soup. Stir regularly.
  5. Rinse the kidney beans until cold water and add, stirring regularly
  6. Add the chopped tomatoes. Stir regularly
  7. Add the spices and stir
  8. Bring the pot to a boil, before reducing down to a gentle simmer
  9. Simmer on the stove for 2-3 hours. The minimum is 30 minutes or so but will be better the longer it sits. Stir regularly and taste, add additional spices to achieve desired heat and flavour. Beware that chilli powder will get stronger over time as it simmers.
  10. Serve with rice or elbow pasta, garnish with a dollop of soured cream and shredded cheese.
  11. Leftover chilli can be frozen and reheated in a saucepan.

An adventure in songwriting; take one

As Keith Richards put it, songwriting is a weird game. Coming from someone who has been a rockstar through the ’60s and ’70s, I’m sure he could write a book on weird games and with this one, he’s certainly right.

I’ve played the guitar for nearly fifteen years and I have a pretty substantial repertoire of songs I can confidently cover. What always eluded me was an original song that I was proud of. I’m not exactly musically gifted, and only know the basics of music theory from a few brief stints with a clarinet in grade school. Early attempts in my teenage years mostly yielded lame love songs, nearly all ended up crumpled up in the trash bin thankfully sparing the world from having their ears made bloody.

I’d largely given up on it for a long time and just continued on learning other people’s songs. That is, until one Sunday sometime last year when I was wandering through the Waterstone’s in Greenwich. A book by Frank Turner called Try This at Home caught my eye. I’d never really been into his music, but he often toured with one of my favourite bands, the Arkells, so I gave it a shot.

Not only did the book get me into his music, it sort of simplified the songwriting process for me. The book is a collection of anecdotes and stories as to how Frank wrote 30+ of his songs. I strongly recommend having a read for anyone attempting to write their first song, it taught me not to overthink the lyric writing process and to start with what I know.

Finding the lyrics

Around the time I found the book, I was in the middle of a bit of a rough patch. I was in the midst of job hunting as my job at the time was causing me a lot of stress, and several of my best friends had just recently moved overseas or otherwise abroad and a lot of that was on my mind. So I started writing it down. Some of it wasn’t rhyming or lyrical at all to start, just sentences on a page, but I found it got me started. Rather than having to write a verse, bridge, chorus or whatever, I pieced together a story one or two lines at a time and continuously re-arranged and re-wrote until it told the story the way I wanted it to.

What I got out of it was an honest biographical set of lyrics, much in Frank Turner’s style. Lyrics don’t need to be hopelessly cryptic or nuanced for people to relate, they just need to be real. This is what I came up with:

We were young and living in Brixton,
Nights spent out at Happy Dumplings,
Smoking joints in Brockwell park,
and cheap cigars when it got dark.


Life chats with the Killers,
Cause she’s just another girl,
Drinking ciders until dawn,
Or until the whole case was gone.

One day we’ll be grey and old,
And spread all across the world,
Thinking of those memories made,
In our South London days.

We’d stumble all the way,
Going to the bar and back,
But we’d never even leave,
The front door of our flat
.

Not exactly poetry in motion there, however, it gave me enough to start with. Even the more cryptic sounding things are really specific references to stuff we used to do when we lived in Brixton. For example, in the last verse, going to the bar and back without leaving the flat was in reference to a card game/drinking game my housemate and I used to play called Bar and Back and often resulted in us getting too drunk to make it out to the bar.

Finding the sound

Right, so now I had lyrics. Trying to add chords and the vocal melody was a BAD start. When I sent the first rough version to my dad, bless him, he came back with something along the lines of, “Great start, vocals could use some work though”. My advice here is definitely to keep it simple, stupid. Ultimately what ended up working was this:

  1. Make a list of all the songs you know how to cover.
  2. Write down what Key each of those songs is written in (you can usually find out just by googling the songs).
  3. Highlight which ones you find easiest to sing.
  4. Pick one of those keys. I picked the key of G.
  5. Identify the chords which sit in that key. For G, this was G(i), Am(ii), Bm (iii), C (iv), D(v), Em(vi).
  6. Start experimenting with common chord progressions and singing the lyrics over top. I originally started with I-V-VI-IV (G, D, Em, C) but found that the Am sounded better and ended up with G, D, Am, C

Once I came up with the chord progression, I essentially just kept playing and singing the song all the way through adding little flourishes and changes in volume and vocal pitch until I liked the way it sounded. It can be hard to separate the chords from vocals and create a melody at first but over time I found a natural place to separate them.

Don’t be afraid to fail

My last piece of advice, probably the most important one, is don’t be too hard on yourself. I think that was my biggest barrier for years, if a song wasn’t great right off the bat I’d drop it and get discouraged. You’re not setting out to be the Beatles, you’re writing a song because you want to learn how. In Macklemore’s song 10,000 Hours, the lyric goes
“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great because they paint a lot”

Even now, the “final product” of my first song is not something spectacular but I’m proud of it because I wrote it. It’ll never be more than something I play when I’m messing about or playing with my uncle, but it’s still something I did.

One piece of this I didn’t touch on, and will in a future post is how to begin recording vocals/guitar so you can play it back to yourself and hear in good quality how it is done.

Songwriting is indeed a weird game and we can’t all be Keith Richards, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

“Final” recording of the song “London Days”.

Recipe: Easy Breakfast Hash

Instead of a long story about how my recipe reminds me of a summers day in Spain, I start with a quick difficulty list. This means you can easily decide if you’re up to it or if you’d rather toss a pizza in the oven.

For ingredients, 1 means you may already have all of them at home and 5 means you may need to special order an ingredient.
For equipment, 1 means the most very basic of tools need and 5 means needing to buy a special piece of equipment you may not use often.
For method, 1 means as easy as prepping and tossing in the oven and 5 means you’ll feel like you’re juggling flaming knives.

Ingredients: 2/5
Equipment: 2/5
Method: 3/5

This recipe makes 2-3 portions

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • Chopped garlic (approx 1 clove)
  • 3-4 medium-sized potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 white onion, diced (here’s a great video for learning how to do this well)
  • 1 yellow, orange, red or green pepper, diced
  • 1 handful cherry or plum tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1 cup diced chorizo (can substitute with cooked bacon or pancetta)
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  • 2-3 eggs
  • Salt, pepper, paprika
  • Freshly chopped chives (or parsley)
  • Broccoli, chopped into small pieces (optional)

Equipment:

  • 1 large frying pan or skillet (oven proof preferable)
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Cheese grater
  • Spatula

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C (400F) (only if you have an oven-safe skillet or frying pan. If not, follow stove-top instructions)
  2. Bring the saucepan to medium heat and add the olive oil and chopped garlic. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the potatoes. Toss or stir regularly to prevent burning
  3. Fry the potatoes until a fork can easily break apart a piece. If potatoes begin to burn, add more olive oil sparingly. Add salt as desired
  4. Once potatoes are cooked, add onions, peppers and broccoli (if using).
  5. After 2 minutes or so, add tomatoes and bacon, pancetta or chorizo (pre-cooked only)
  6. Toss regularly until vegetables are soft, usually about 2-3 minutes. Season generously with salt, pepper and paprika
  7. Crack eggs on top of the hash, and sprinkle the shredded cheese on top (Stove Top only: push hash to edges of pan clearing a small circle in the middle. Add a small amount of oil and crack eggs in the middle. Sprinkle cheese on top)
  8. Bake in the oven for 5-6 minutes or until eggs are cooked and yolks remain runny (Stove Top only: fry eggs until cooked sunny side up and yolks remain runny)
  9. Garnish with freshly chopped chives or parsley and serve