Exercise For Your Mind, Not Your Body: vegan butternut squash pancakes with harrisa and pesto.

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It’s pancake day coming up, which means that once again, everyone embarks on another journey of self-improvement, vowing to finally conquer their demons over lent. It’s also about this time of year that many blogs and articles get quite preachy – ‘Give up Netflix and use your time to volunteer!’, ‘Give up eating chocolate to drop a dress size!’, ‘Stop having lie-ins and get your admin done in the morning!’. Don’t get me wrong, these are all reasonable goals that would be easily attainable if we were all perfect humans living in a world without temptation or idleness. But unfortunately we don’t, so meaningful change is not so simple.  The pressure to be a better version of yourself is higher than ever. But I’m going to try and suggest (in the non-preachiest way possible), something you can do over the lent for no-one but yourself – exercise. I’m not suggesting this for the purposes of weight loss, to tone your flabby bits or even to get physically fitter. I recommend exercise for one reason only, because the psychological effects are hugely beneficial. Honestly, I think exercise is one of the best things you can do, other than actual therapy, to help improve your mental state.

Being a food blog, most of the posts on The Thinking Kitchen revolve around cooking, eating disorders and our general attitudes to food. Although exercise and diet go hand-in-hand, I try to stay away from talking about fitness as I’m not really qualified to do so. This isn’t because I don’t have the right degree or training but because I’m an extremely lazy humanbeing who has spent the majority of my life happily lying around, with no want or need to exercise.

It’s taken me several failed attempts (and many elaborate excuses) to get into a proper fitness routine; first I spent a few days doing the ‘8-minute abs’ video, but announced that ‘the muscle pain was making it difficult to laugh, and laughter is way more important than having washboard abs’; next, I attempted to become a runner, but after a couple of weeks I convinced myself that I had developed an allergy to exercise because I was so unfit that I’d spend an hour coughing and spluttering post-run; after deciding that I couldn’t handle fresh-air, I tried swimming but quickly realised that this is the most boring form of exercise know to man and so I gave up three sessions in, when the monotony became too much. It’s safe to say that I’m a quitter. I envy those, like my marathon running sister and mother, who have the stamina of …well, a marathon runner. But I am simply not able to do things that I don’t enjoy. With perseverance levels of zero, I resigned myself to a horizontal life and vowed to exercise when I’m middle aged and really had to.

Sadly, this attitude to fitness in the norm. Half of all adults in the UK do absolutely no exercise at all. Two thirds of seven-year olds fail to meet the recommended amount of exercise, despite being at school where exercise is a legal requirement. Other than the fact that we’re an inherently lazy species, I think part of the reason is because exercise is branded as a negative experience, only performed in to counteract the effects of a poor diet. Although the new campaign to display the number of minutes required to burn off the food on the label might mean well, it really reinforces this negative perception of exercise. In reality, there are so many more benefits to exercise that extend way beyond simply burning calories.

I realised this myself after a year of seriously exercising when I became quite frustrated with my progress. Though my body shape had changed, I hadn’t lost any noticeable weight. No matter which type of exercise I tried or how many days in a row I got myself to the gym, my weight stayed the same. After some research, I found that exercise hasn’t proved to dramatically help with weight loss; instead diet is recognised as the key to success. Feeling slightly cheated and discouraged, I threw in the towel for a month and reverted back to a few weeks of sweat-free leisure. But weirdly, I missed it. Not because I felt unhealthy or guilty for stopping but because exercise had been keeping me sane. Without the outlet that exercise provided, my emotions had nowhere to go, leaving them to sit and fester.

Whatever the problem, there is a fitness tonic. On days when I feel low,  jumping around my room to an exercise video gives me a buzz that turns my mood on it’s head. One days when I have pent up anger, punching and kicking another person in a kickboxing class is a huge relief. On days when I feel anxious, an hour of focusing on nothing but my (lack of) flexibility in yoga is honestly the only time of the week when my thoughts switch off. And it’s not only beneficial for your negative emotions; there’s nothing that complement a good mood better then running around  playing Frisbee with your friends. In whatever form you enjoy the most, exercise is therapeutic. So don’t exercise for other people’s benefit or to ameliorate the guilt of eating, exercise for your mental health – because trust me, it can genuinely be a huge help.

On a final note, I’d like to emphasis that I’m definitely not suggesting that all your problems will go away if you just go for a jog.  I would always encourage seeking professional therapeutic help and completely understand that in the depths of a low period, exercise might be the last thing you want to do. But mental health is a life-long struggle; anything you can do to provide some relief is a powerful tool.

So, if you’re feeling up to it, have a go at exercising over lent. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, try different forms and figure out which works for you. Oh and have a happy pancake day! I think we’ve all got the sweet ones down by now so here’s a recipe for savoury pancakes. They’re made from butter-nut squash, making them vegan, dairy-free and sugar-free! This recipe is adapted from Go Stuff Yourself but made vegan (if you don’t add the feta).

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Ingredients

225g all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon coconut oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cumin

2 teaspoons harissa

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon tumeric

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tin chickpea water (or 2 eggs for non-vegan)

1 1/2 cups almond milk

1/2 red onion, diced and lightly caramelized

1/2 butter-nut squash, roasted and puréed

Toasted Harissa Seeds 

Cleaned seeds from 1 butternut squash

Cumin to taste

Harissa to taste

Salt to taste

Topping

1 tin chickpeas

3 tomatoes (roughly chopped)

2 cloves garlic

Handful coriander

1 lime

1 tablespoon tahini

Feta for crumbling

1 tablespoon pesto

  1. First cut the butternut squash in half and roast in the oven (skin side up) for about 30-40 mins, until soft
  2. Preserve the seeds and mix with olive oil, harrissa paste, paprika and cumin. Roast in the oven for 10 mins.
  3. While the squash is roasting, caramelise the onions in coconut oil.
  4. In a separate pan, lightly fry the chickpeas, chopped tomatoes, garlic, coriander, lime and tahini. Season well
  5. Once the squash is roasted, scoop out the flesh from one half and purée with the caramelised onions and a dash of almond milk in a food processor or blender.
  6. To make the batter, mix the purée with dry ingredients in a bowl, adding spices to taste and seasoning well.
  7. Add the wet ingredients and whisk until combined. The mixture should be quite thick, if it is too runny whisk in some more flour.
  8. Heat a pan with coconut oil. Once hot, pour batter into the pan – the batter is quite thick so you don’t need that much for each pancake. After 2-3 mins, flip to the other side with a spatula.
  9. Repeat until you’ve used all the mixture and have a nice stack of pancakes.
  10. To plate, pour the tomato/chickpea mixture over the top. Drizzle pesto and top with crumbled feta, coriander leaves and your toasted seeds.
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