'We're the sandwich generation' - Susan Jane White on juggling kids and ageing parents
It's been a tough enough few years for Susan Jane White, but she's learnt a lot along the way about life and about the sandwich generation, who look after ageing parents on one hand and small children on the other. She tells Sarah Caden how all this lead to her new book
It's four years since Susan Jane White published her last book, The Virtuous Tart, a collection of recipes that were sweet treats, but also "free from wheat, dairy and cane sugar".
Four years is a long time in food. It's also a long time in a person's life. Food trends change and life throws curve balls that cause us to question that which once felt certain.
Nothing stays the same, Susan Jane has learned in recent years, but it's how you adapt to the change that counts.
"The plan wasn't to write this book at all," she says of her latest creation, Clever Batch. "I was working on a book of 15-minute meals and I'd written the whole book - it was done, but I felt so fake."
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"The recipes were lovely, but the idea wasn't the truth. I'm no longer able to cook every day. Certainly, I'm not shopping for ingredients every day. I had this great concept, but the reality at the time was that I was under severe pressure with small kids and sick parents and I wasn't in the kitchen every single evening."
So, despite having put the work in, Susan Jane ditched the book about cooking from scratch every single evening, and took a different tack. She took inspiration from her new, time-starved and somewhat financially constrained stage of life, and Clever Batch was born.
This book concentrates on creating meals that are for more than immediate consumption. It's about planning the week's eating, putting stuff in the freezer so you are never stuck for something nutritious. It's about being less chaotic and more organised, being well fed without feeling constantly under pressure. And it's not just for families, she says, it's for everyone. What Susan Jane has come to understand though her own travails, is that everyone is under pressure. So why should eating well become an extra headache?
Two years ago last summer, Susan Jane explains, her mother had open-heart surgery. It was a bolt from the blue and then the surgery became more complicated than anticipated, with the result that the recovery was more difficult and prolonged.
"By that stage," Susan Jane says, "my mother was my stepfather's full-time carer. He was in the very late stages of Parkinson's at the time and had dementia and it had become a very physical job of lifting him and putting him in his wheelchair and so on. She was very lucky she didn't have a heart attack."
Susan Jane's mother's illness meant that her stepfather could no longer stay at home, and this was heartbreaking. For a short period, she says, they were on the same ward while her mother convalesced, which was wonderfully bittersweet.
For quite some time, Susan Jane shuttled between the people who needed her. There was her mother, there was her stepfather, and there was her own family - her husband Trevor White, director of the Little Museum of Dublin and former magazine publisher, and their two sons, Benjamin and Marty. At the time, the boys were only seven and five, respectively, and they needed their overstretched mum.
Everyone needed her, however, and Susan Jane felt overwhelmed.
"I realised that I had been in a bubble for years before," she says. "I'd been in this bubble of me and my two bouncing babies and a job that meant I could stay at home with them and make a career out of cooking and providing nourishment for my family."
Her ability to work became seriously curtailed in this time. She kept up her weekly Eats Shoots and Leaves column in this magazine, but Susan Jane had to cut back drastically on client work, the demos and the appearances that made up the rest of her career. She had less time, less money, less of the characteristic pep in her step.
It was a shock, she says, but Susan Jane realised quickly that this is how a lot of people live a lot of the time.
"I met so many people in the sandwich years of life, looking after ill parents and small kids," she says. "Or people who work from 7am to 7pm, and get in exhausted to their children every evening. It really opened my eyes to the reality of a life that's really hard.
"And for me, as someone who really valued being able to put nutritious food on the table for my family, I decided that I wasn't going to cook anything anymore than didn't provide 12 portions."
One of the most intimate relationships in her life right now, Susan Jane says with a laugh, is with her freezer.
"I can see what I have at a glance," she says, "and this week, for example, I don't have to cook for the next four or five days."
Though she cannot discuss it for legal reasons, a further stress and pressure on Susan Jane has been a legal wrangle over the home she shares with Trevor and the boys. They have been involved in a High Court dispute with a financial fund relating to the house in Ranelagh, which is reported to be close to resolution, but on which Susan Jane cannot comment.
She can say that it has been a terribly stressful time, however.
"Stress has all eaten into our lives in an unexpected and unprecedented way," Susan Jane says. "All that lack of sleep and all the lack of clarity it creates. Your patience gnaws away and frays. All these insidious ways that stress holds on to you and affects others, unintentionally.
"I imagine a lot of people can empathise with that," she adds. "While it's been a very tough time, it's been an amazing awakening to understanding where most people in Ireland are. Stress is normal. Lack of time and finances are normal. It's given me an opportunity to understand where my writing and my cooking need to go."
Where Susan Jane has gone with her writing and cooking is down the path of Clever Batch, which will be fundamentally familiar to fans of her tongue-in-cheek writing style, as well as her focus on superfoods, fresh vegetables and ramped-up nutritive value.
She remains dedicated to her style of eating, which is neither rigidly vegetarian nor vegan, but avoids the processed foods and sugars and flours that she believes made her ill in her 20s.
There is, however, what you might call a more relaxed attitude to eating than what users of her first book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen, may expect. There's a more open attitude to meat, for example, and she includes notes to indicate the cost of each recipe, and tips on how some dishes can be made less expensive. She also includes helpful tips on the best use of your freezer and your frazzled brain's ability to plan.
Certainly one senses her awareness in the book of how there has been something of a clean-living backlash in recent years, though Susan Jane says she never felt it directed at her.
"I didn't see myself as part of that movement or the backlash," Susan Jane says. "I escaped that. I didn't get any trolls but I think it's because I'm not po-faced or singing from a higher moral compass.
"The likes of Deliciously Ella was pummelled, but it seems to be more of an industry for her, whereas for me it's a fun way of life and that's harder for people to criticise. It's easier to criticise people who are too serious about it. I'm not extreme."
The era of niche ingredients is over for Susan Jane, she says, not only for fear of alienating ordinary people.
"I will wholeheartedly put my hand up to succumbing to trends," she says with a laugh, "but the esoteric ingredients don't serve me any more. Once, I found it all very exciting. It appealed to the scientist in me to try lots of new ingredients, see how do they work, how do I make them their very best. These days, what I value instead is my sanity. Having easy-to-make dinners in the freezer, made with easy-to-get ingredients.
Among the ingredients she has fallen out of love with are lucuma, maca and spirulina. "They are beyond my budget now, but also beyond my patience," she says. "I have less time to play with them and less money."
Susan Jane turns 40 on October 2, the same night as the book launch for Clever Batch. Years ago, she always thought that she'd celebrate her 40th by getting Botox or some other cosmetic procedure, but now that this age is upon her, Susan Jane has no interest. She found a clump of grey hairs recently and thought they looked really pretty, much to her surprise.
"It's probably no coincidence that as I turn 40, and in my 10th year of family life, I'm looking to saving more time," she says. "Ten years ago, I was in this bubble of a new role: home-maker, cook, mother. I'm in a different place now. My poor stepfather passed away in spring, but my mother is much better and my stress is much less.
"Now, it's, like, I want to go surfing more, do more yoga. I want to finish reading a book. I'm starting to learn the drums. Instead of a 40th birthday party or a holiday, I want to try the drums. Maybe this is a mid-life crisis," says Susan Jane with a throaty laugh.
Maybe it is, but, as usual, she's making it look pretty appealing.
'Clever Batch: Brilliant Wholefood Batch Cooking Recipes to Save you Time, Money and Patience' by Susan Jane White is available to pre-order now and is in shops from September 27, Gill Books, €22.99
Three-Bean Chilli with Sour Cream and Corn Tortillas
10 garlic cloves
2 red peppers, deseeded
1 teaspoon good-quality sea salt
Good run of extra virgin olive oil
3 white onions, diced
2 teaspoons smoked chipotle chilli powder
5 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika.
2 x 400g tins of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 x 400g tins of kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 x 400g tin of white beans, such as butter or cannellini
2 x 400g tins of whole plum tomatoes.
1 mugful of vegetable or chicken stock.
Just over 1 tablespoon maple or date syrup
100g cooking chorizo (optional for carnivores), chopped
150g hard sheep's cheese, to serve (optional)
Fresh coriander leaves, to serve
Organic corn tortillas, to serve
Sour cream, to serve
Method I'm surviving on meals that rely on the combined forces of heat and time to do all the work. No fiddling around with spiralisers. No timer beside the frying pan. No last-minute dashes to the corner store for fresh veg. These days our pantry is the midwife for recipes, because who has the time to get fresh food every single evening? We're going big on flavour with minimum effort. This bowl of chilli comes from superstar staples in the cupboard. You can switch out the aubergine for whatever veg you find loitering in your fridge.
Fire up your oven to 200°C, 390°F, Gas 6. You want to roast the vegetables first, so you'll need two large roasting trays.
Keep the garlic cloves whole and unpeeled in their papery shells. Dice the aubergines and peppers into postage stamp sized pieces. Tumble the garlic and veg into your roasting tray(s), toss with the salt and give them a good lick of olive oil. Roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until sweet and almost collapsing. If your tray is too packed, the veg will go soggy instead of caramelising - you won't like this! Better to roast the veg across two or three trays if in any doubt.
Sweat your onions with another lick of olive oil in a large heavy-based pot for 12-15 minutes, until translucent. Shake over your dried spices halfway through. Once the onions are sweet and soft, add your platoon of drained beans and cook over a high heat for a further three minutes. Turn down the heat to a simmer, add the tinned tomatoes and stock and let the sauce thicken over 30 minutes. Add in a dash of maple syrup - this is needed to counter the acidity that tinned tomatoes introduce. If you fancy bowing to the carnivores in your house, you could also add some chopped cooking chorizo at this point. Irish Gubbeen is perfect.
When the tray of veg is ready, remove it from the oven. Carefully squeeze out the softened garlic cloves from within their papery pods. It should be almost creamy. Discard the paper and add the roasted garlic to your simmering pot of beans. Tumble in the cooked veg.
To serve, spoon into bowls and grate sheep's cheese on top (if using). Parachute some fresh coriander and crisp tortillas on top, with a side of sour cream.
Instant Salted Caramel
Makes 1 massive jar
200g regular pitted dates
140g roasted cashew nut butter
1 tablespoon unscented coconut oil or melted cacao butter
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or seeds from 1 vanilla pod
Flaky sea salt, to taste
Takes 20 minutes.
Can be frozen in ice-cube trays.
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Cover the dates with a little water and boil for 15 minutes, until they collapse.
Then belt them into a high-speed blender with the cashew nut butter, coconut oil or cacao butter, vanilla and a generous pinch of sea salt. Blitz until seductively smooth. At this stage it won’t taste or smell like caramel, so chill before you judge!
Rogan Squash with Sour Cream and Almonds
Makes 6-8 servings (double the recipe to serve 12)
2 butternut squash
4 tablespoons coconut oil or ghee
3 red onions, roughly chopped
25g rogan josh spice blend
1 fat finger-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
250g natural yogurt
1 tablespoon maple syrup
3 garlic cloves, crushed.
1 lime, cut into wedges, to serve
Sour cream, to serve
80g toasted flaked almonds, to serve.
On a budget
Will happily hang out in the freezer until beckoned
Raw garlic woofs. But golly whizzbang, I love the stuff. That sulphur honk on your breath contains a compound called allicin. The thing is, allicin is not actually found in garlic. Allicin is the prodigal child of two other special compounds in garlic, alliin and alliinase. When these hot-diggity compounds meet (say, when we crush garlic), the mighty allicin is born. Oh Allicin!
This dish is immensely flavourful. We add the garlic just before serving to maximise on allicin’s dance moves. Tastes great with quinoa, poppadoms, naan bread or wholegrain sticky rice.
Clock your oven to 200°C, 390°F, Gas 6.
Dice the flesh of your butternut into 1.4kg of bite-sized pieces,leaving the skin on if it’s thin and organic. Compost the seeds and stringy insides. Roast your butternut pieces in the oven with two tablespoons of your coconut oil or ghee on two rimmed baking trays for 45 minutes, until slightly charred and/or soft.
Meanwhile, heat your largest and heaviest saucepan over a low heat. Add the onions and remaining two tablespoons of coconut oil or ghee, whichever you are using, and sweat for a few minutes. Tip in your spices and grated ginger and stir for one minute.
Time to tumble in your chopped tomatoes, yogurt and maple syrup. Leave to putter on your lowest setting, with the lid on, until the squash is ready from the oven.
Once the squash is cooked, add it to the pan. Stir through your raw garlic and serve immediately. A squeeze of lime is all that is needed. We love this with sour cream and toasted almonds, or loads of coriander and naan bread, or crowned with a plump poached egg and extra yogurt. But all the same, it’s savage on its own — earthing and warm, like a mother’s hug.
To toast the flaked almonds, pour a handful of them on to a roasting tray without any oil. Pop the tray into a preheated oven at 200°C, 390°F, Gas 6. Toast for 4-5 minutes, watching them very carefully. You want to catch the flakes before they brown!
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