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The cancer-surviving chefs making recipes for cancer patients

Chef Sam Mannering and writer Karen McMillan. Photo / Sally Greer

Chef Sam Mannering and writer Karen McMillan – both cancer survivors – have joined forces to create a collection of delicious, nutritionally sound recipes for cancer patients.

The phrase “food for invalids” conjures in the mind an unappetising array of Victorian-era dishes: broth, bland boiled arrowroot, jelly – all to be endured with a stiff upper lip.

Thankfully, the meals in Everyday Strength: Recipes and Wellbeing Tips for Cancer Patients reflect a wealth of 21st-century nutrition. There’s a dish of salmon, buckwheat and fennel, garnished prettily in a bowl with capers and dill; mushrooms piled onto polenta with vivid dollops of salsa verde. Restaurant-worthy, lip-smacking stuff.

But the delectability of these dishes – created by Sam Mannering, executive chef of Auckland’s Pah Homestead cafe – doesn’t stop them being a doddle to prepare and adapt to individual tastes and needs.

The idea for Everyday Strength sneaked up on co-author Karen McMillan, who has previously shared her own story and others’ experiences in Unbreakable Spirit: Facing the Challenge of Cancer. A long-time hospice volunteer, she lost both her parents to cancer and was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. For those who are told they have cancer – an average of 60 New Zealanders a day – food can become foe, she says. “People get really fearful about eating.”

And while articles and opinions abound on which foods may help to prevent cancer, few address what to eat when you’re battling it.

Everyday Strength echoes the advice of oncologists, who tell patients to have what they enjoy – with an emphasis on plant-based whole food.

“Just enjoy the good nutritious food you’re eating. Don’t feel you have to go on a crazy diet,” says McMillan. And beware of well-meaning friends bearing pseudo-scientific advice, she adds.

Mannering has designed a variety of recipes to cover the possibilities of individual treatment outcomes – which can vary from weight loss to weight gain – but they share common threads: being alkaline rather than acidic, mild in flavour and avoiding tough, chewy meats. There’s also a section of foods to appeal to kids suffering from cancer, such as healthy versions of chicken nibbles, sausage rolls and jam tarts.

McMillan, who is also a book publicist, met Mannering during the promotion of his 2014 cookbook Food Worth Making. When she approached him to work with her on Everyday Strength, she wasn’t aware he’d had cancer himself; in fact, he was treated for a third bout of melanoma while writing these recipes.

McMillan wishes she’d had a cookbook like this one during her own battle with cancer: compact in size; large, easy-read font; advice served in easily digestible bites. “When you’re going through cancer treatment, you’re often exhausted,” she writes, “and there’s already an information overload with the medical side of things.”

As well as helping curate the recipes, McMillan consulted the team of experts she’d worked with on Unbreakable Spirit for tips on how to deal with nausea, lack of appetite, skin and hair care, and other common side effects.

Of all the books she’s written – from novels to war-vet memoirs – McMillan says she’s most excited about this one, given its potential to play a positive role in people’s lives as they grapple with a cancer diagnosis.

“We don’t promise to cure cancer, but we do hope to make each day a little brighter.”

Baby Root Vegetables with Balsamic & Chèvre

Serves 4-6

  • 200ml balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • Several sprigs of rosemary
  • 1kg mix of baby root  vegetables, washed
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 150g chèvre or other  soft white cheese 
  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC on fan grill.

  2. Combine the balsamic, honey and rosemary in a small saucepan over a low heat and let it gently reduce by half, which will take about 10 minutes. Be especially careful not to let it burn. Once reduced, take off the heat and allow to cool.

  3. In the meantime, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Quickly blanch the vegetables in batches according to variety; turnips and beetroot will take a little longer than baby carrots, which will need barely a minute. Baby leeks won’t need long, either. You want to retain some crunch. Drain and refresh the vegetables under cold water, drain again, then spread on an oiled baking tray.

  4. Roast the vegetables until they are caramelised and a little crisp on the outside, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and set aside to cool. Remove the rosemary sprigs and transfer the cooled vegetables to a large bowl. Pour over the balsamic mixture and toss well to coat.

  5. Arrange the vegetables on a plate, crumbling the chèvre on top.

Sam: “You can use pretty much any sort of root vegetable. Baby turnips, swedes, beetroot, leeks, fennel bulbs and baby carrots (which now come in a whole spectrum of colours) are all pretty decent options. And while chèvre can be a little strong for some people, a nice creamy feta or even some ricotta will work well as an alternative.”

Karen: “Not only does the fragrant herb rosemary add a delicious x-factor to this recipe, it also contains substances that are useful
for stimulating the immune system, increasing circulation, and
improving digestion.”

Moroccan Chicken with Preserved  Lemon, Kumara  & Spiced Yoghurt

Serves 4-6

  • 6 chicken thighs
  • ½ preserved lemon, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp ras el hanout
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 medium-size kumara, scrubbed  and cut into 3cm chunks
  • 2 carrots, cut into chunks
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • 1 x 400g can chickpeas, well rinsed
  • ½ cup (125ml) unsweetened    natural yoghurt
  • 1 tsp ras el hanout
  • A little chopped mint and   coriander (use either or both)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC.

  2. In a bowl, combine the chicken thighs, preserved lemon, cinnamon and cumin seeds with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper to taste, and the first portion of ras el hanout. Set aside for a minute.

  3. Place a wide, ovenproof pan over a medium heat. Add some olive oil and when hot add the onion. Cook for several minutes until the onion is soft. Add the kumara and carrot, and cook for a few minutes until the vegetables are a little caramelised (adding a little more olive oil if necessary), then add the chicken thighs and coating. Cook the chicken for a minute or two on each side, so it browns a little. Pour in the stock, add the drained chickpeas, and then pop the pan into the oven.

  4. Cook for 25-30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and tender, the kumara has softened, and the stock has reduced down a bit.

  5. Remove from the oven and set aside while you combine the yoghurt and second teaspoon of ras el hanout with a little salt and pepper. Sprinkle the chopped mint and/or coriander over the top of the chicken and serve alongside the spiced yoghurt.

Sam: “Traditionalists insist that 12 spices make a real ras el hanout. However, it varies enormously from region to region, with a good amount of fierce rivalry. I’m also a sucker for preserved lemon, another key Moroccan flavour. It is damn simple to make yourself. A little goes a long way, and it keeps a long time in the fridge.”

Karen: “As well as being an easy and nutritious one-pan dish, the beauty of this recipe is that the spicy yoghurt can be served on the side, accommodating different tastes within a family.”

Pear and Chocolate Crumble

Serves 6-8


  • 5 pears, peeled, quartered lengthways and cored
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence or ½ tsp vanilla paste
  • 100ml water
  • 175g brown sugar
  • 100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 100g butter
  • 200g flour
  • 100g oats
  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC.

  2. In a saucepan over a medium heat, combine the pears with the lemon zest and juice, vanilla essence (or paste), 100ml water and 100g of the brown sugar. Allow the sugar to dissolve into the water and become slightly caramelised before removing from the heat. Transfer to a large ovenproof dish and scatter the chopped chocolate over the top of the pears.

  3. In a food processor, whiz the butter, flour and remaining sugar so that the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Turn out into a bowl and use your hands to rub in the oats. Scatter over the pears and bake in the oven for about 25-30 minutes until the top is nicely golden brown. 

Sam: “Make sure you choose a good dark chocolate to offset the sweetness of this dish. Serve with runny cream, custard, ice cream, or all three.”

Karen: “The dark chocolate really makes this fabulous crumble; although it’s a sprinkle of decadence, it offers many antioxidants and other health benefits.”

Extracted from Everyday Strength: Recipes and Wellbeing Tips for Cancer Patients by Sam Mannering and Karen McMillan (Beatnik Publishing, $44.99).