At just over five feet tall, my mother often irreverently referenced the expression “quality, not quantity.” This turn of phrase came up in a different and serious context when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, just three weeks after my husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia. From the outset, she amazed me with her dignified acceptance of the hand she had been dealt and her utter determination to fight, fight, fight. But the odds of her beating the cancer, even with treatment, weren’t good, and she made the decision to go with “quality, not quantity.”
That didn't mean that she was going to sit back and do nothing. Hours of reading, trawling the net, and researching set Mum (and the rest of us too) on a new path; it was time to give her pantry and fridge a facelift. As the practice manager of a medical center in Scotland, she'd always had a pretty healthy diet, but now my parents were exploring the true superpowers of food. Cutting out all refined foods and eating clean gave them a newfound love of cooking, as well as a slight obsession with spice. No meal was exempt, and any dish that had an opportunity for spice got spicier.
Mum had the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere—we used to joke that she could find a conversation in an empty room—and once the Australian time difference became a factor, I was even more thankful for her enthusiasm to talk at all hours, to calm me down and make me smile. But I was especially thrilled when she was feeling good—better than she had for a long time—and booked flights to Australia for Dad and herself, to soak up some Aussie Vitamin D with us. I visited the Indian grocery store to restock my kitchen cupboards and started researching recipes that fit their new way of eating.
Since Mum no longer ate meat, we created lots of vegetable deliciousness together during their visit. One evening when we were prepping dinner, I was chief veggie chopper, and Mum was on washing-up duties. We were running a slick operation, and I only had to put my knife down for a second before it was washed, dried, and put away in the drawer. All well and good, except I realized that in her eagerness to clean the chopping board, Mum had scraped my neat little pile of garlic, painstakingly chopped, into the bin along with vegetable peelings.
Working side by side in the kitchen, we laughed a lot, and did not altogether avoid tears, but never really spoke about the future without Mum in it. Perhaps I should have said more, but there was an understanding that her wisdom and grace had been imparted throughout my life, that we knew how we felt about each other, and that everything we needed to say had been said. Mum was very much living in the moment, and if she did think about what was around the corner, she did so privately.
My mother put up an awesome fight, far exceeding the doctor’s prognosis. She maintained her healthy eating right to the end, and we attribute the extra time we had together to the care she took about the food she ate. As I cook for my daughters, I continue along the path Mum set us on. I am rather partial to a bit of spice, and I will always think of Mum when curry is on the menu.
Jennifer Leckey is a British/Australian teacher, mother of two young girls (with another little one on the way), and co-author of two cookbooks with healthy recipes for children: There’s a Beetroot in my Cake and There’s a Carrot in my Piñata. She can be found at www.beetrootinmycake.com.au and @hearttoplate.
1 T. coconut oil
2 onions, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 t. garam marsala
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. cumin
1 t. ground coriander
2 1/3 c. diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
2 c. coconut milk
1 1/2 c. chickpeas
5 c. spinach
2 large tomatoes, quartered
2 c. cauliflower florets, steamed
1 handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Heat the oil in a large pan, and cook onions until soft.
Add garlic and spices, stir to combine, and cook for 2 minutes.
Add diced tomatoes, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add coconut milk, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes or until sauce has thickened.
Add chickpeas, spinach, steamed cauliflower, and tomato quarters, and heat through.
Garnish with fresh coriander.