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Mood & Stress

Cook Your Anxiety Away

Rachel Levin and Tara Duggan, authors of Steamed: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on Your Table, help readers find emotional release in the kitchen.

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Still queasy from quarantine and tired of turning to cheesecake for solace? Say hello to stress eating’s more productive kitchen-savvy cousin: anxiety cooking. Authors Rachel Levin and Tara Duggan serve up 50 recipes that will help you chop, beat, grate, and pound your way to emotional release—all while whipping up tasty meals like Whacked Lemongrass Chicken Coconut Curry—in Steamed: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on Your Table.

“We actually sold the proposal for Steamed in late 2019—before the pandemic,” says Levin. “We were anxious and upset about the world in its normal, non-Covid state, about the relentless news cycle and the 2020 election and the wildfires and, you know, all the inequities and injustice in the world—as well as life’s little annoyances, of course.”

“During the early months of the pandemic,” adds Duggan, “when our fears were most acute, I learned how anxiety cooking, just focusing on the tiny steps that go into making sourdough bread—the more high-maintenance the recipe, the better!—helped relieve those fears and gave me a new thing to nurture. And making batches of soups and stews like the Softened Korean Tofu Soup or the Tune-it-Out Chicken Tinga made me feel like I was taking care of my family even as the whole world was on fire.”

The duo’s cheeky, chuckle-inducing prose and easy-to-follow recipes are designed to make even the heaviest of days easier to swallow. “Cooking has always been talked about as being therapeutic,” says Levin, “but rarely has that been explained with wit and humor and recipes in a real-life way.” Rarely, that is, until now.

BN: Which recipes and kitchen weapons have helped you hammer out your feelings through anxiety cooking?

RL: Pounded Chicken Parm was my first idea— I make it every February for my husband’s birthday—that requires the mallet. Sounds silly but pounding chicken or pork or beef feels good. Like the mini-punching bag of the kitchen. It’s an easy exertion that feels like a little release. And, of course, it helps a chicken breast cook more quickly and evenly too.

TD: A mortar and pestle is a tool that I highly recommend, and one my family and I really got into during the pandemic. We smashed pine nuts and basil in it for the Mortared Basil Pesto With Trofie Pasta. We took turns smashing away our angst until we got a slightly rustic sauce that’s far superior in flavor to the kind you make in a food processor. I also got a new appreciation for my mallet. It takes some muscle to pound chicken thighs into thin, even cutlets, and you can really let it all loose as you go.

BN: How does your recipe Spatchcocked Grilled Chicken offer a particularly strenuous and cathartic culinary workout?

TD: This one calls on several cathartic activities. Cutting through the spine of a chicken to spatchcock it is a level of butchery most of us don’t reach on a regular basis, and it takes a sharp pair of kitchen shears and some strenuous cutting. But it is deeply satisfying—and it makes the chicken cook evenly and stay juicy on the grill. The recipe also gives you another chance to pull out that mortar and pestle to smash garlic and rosemary for my favorite new marinade. As you smash, all the herbal perfume hits you like aromatherapy.

BN: How can preparing your recipe Snapped Asparagus with Chermoula be both meditative and muscle-making?

TD: Snapping the ends off asparagus is something you can think of as a tedious chore, or as a frustration- reducing release like popping bubble wrap or rolling your spine on a back roller. It might not be enough of a snap to build actual muscles unless you worked at a restaurant specializing in asparagus soup, but you can use some arm strength when you chop a bunch of cilantro for the chermoula, a tangy sauce to accompany it.

BN: Which dishes can help vegans vent their pent-up emotions through anxiety cooking?

TD: There’s a fantastic recipe for Ember-Roasted Butternut Squash with Black Garlic Dressing that calls for stabbing a butternut squash right through the thickest part with a sharp knife, a wonderful tension reliever. Softened Korean Tofu Soup with Chile is also vegan. It’s in our chapter of Chill the F Out dishes that are designed to help you recover from anything that might be bothering you.

BN: For those looking to release a few tears, how are your Wailing Wasabi Tuna Bowls weep-worthy?

RL: Wasabi has real powers! Like its equally pungent cousin, horseradish, wasabi wakes you—and this sashimi-grade dish—up! Clears your nose and mind and brings tears to your eyes, in a good way. You can buy a tube of wasabi, but if you really want to feel it, grate your own.

BN: What are your favorite ways to “whisk like a wild woman?”

TD: I love whipping cream by hand. When you start off, it feels like you’ll never get there, but as you keep going you see the cream start to thicken just a tad. Then I really go to town with the whisking, to a point where it does work your triceps, so much so that you need to hold the bowl tight so it doesn’t fly off the counter.

BN: Any tips for cooking ahead—and mindlessly—to give yourself a mental-health day off from cooking for family?

RL: Oh, the joy of not cooking for a couple of nights! We included a section of recipes inspired during the depths of lockdown, when all we wanted was a vat of soothing leftovers to make and eat—like Slow-Cook Jook and Peace Out Pot o’ Beans. Satisfying, nourishing dishes that keep on giving.

BN: What’s the best anxiety cooking dessert to soothe a stressful summer day?

RL: “The Naptime Lemon Chamomile Tea Cake, for sure—for a lazy picnic lunch somewhere pretty, or a backyard summer night. I’m obsessed with all of Tara’s recipes in our book, but this one I’m really into. It’s so fitting for the Chill the F Out section, too. I mean, come on. It is like chamomile in cake form. The Chill Chocolate Chip cookies are rather calming, too.”