Monthly Archives: November 2018

November 52

Of all the various targets that I set myself this month, the one that has been most unexpectedly successful was my determination to cook more new ingredients. I know there’s no physical way for me to catch up, but I hoped I might actually manage a month that averaged out to a new ingredient each week. And lo and behold I was actually successful! It was a bit touch and go there until the last week of the month, in fact I was properly close to the line with the last ingredient being sprinkled into soup yesterday and today. However, despite a shaky start – I made all the chilli in the world at the start of the month and thoroughly scunnered myself of it – and being away for work part of the month, I managed to take reliable dishes from my repertoire and add a more adventurous twist to them with a new ingredient.

Adzuki Beans

I picked these up as an alternative to kidney beans and cooked them much as I would kidney beans, in a veggie chilli. Before cooking they had a similar colour to kidney beans, though they’re smaller and between that and their two-tone colour scheme – that to my eyes makes them look as though they’re bursting out of their skins – they reminded me more of black-eyed beans.

Since making dinner with them I’ve discovered that these are in fact the red beans that make up red-bean paste so I feel I really ought to have done something more exciting with them. Perhaps having a go at making chaat or experimenting with a Japanese dessert!

Whole-wheat Noodles

As part of my plan to try lots of new ingredients this year, I’ve been picking up all kinds of new and interesting noodles to try. These ones ended up being next on the list for the simple – and expedient – reason that they were due to expire at the end of the month. They’re fine. Much like whole-wheat pasta, I feel they need a bit extra cooking, along with a flavoursome sauce, because they taste similar and I find that a bit discombobulating when eaten alongside a stir-fry. I think my issue with them is that you can taste the whole-wheat, and I associate that with self-declared ‘health-foods’ – the kind of thing you only eat because you know it’s good for you – and tastes like it’s good for you isn’t actually a compliment. Perfectly serviceable but not something I’m likely to bother with going forward.

Yuzu Citrus Seasoning

I wasn’t sure how effective this would be, but actually this was surprisingly good. When I don’t have any stir-fry sauces in the house, I make a basic sauce with lime juice, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Chinese five spice and a little corn flour. If I’m in a hurry I just chuck a good slug of any two of those give it a good stir and hope for the best. The first time I cooked with Yuzu I just slung some rice wine vinegar and a generous slug of Yuzu into my stir-fry and was really pleased with the result. The Yuzu seasoning I’d bought has a little thickener in it, so was just thick enough that it coated everything and didn’t just end up sizzling in the bottom of the pan. It soaked in nicely to the tofu and the baby sweet corn, giving them a mellow citrusy tang, and while the other ingredients didn’t pick it up quite so well, it left the ghost of a tang in the back of my throat on every bite.

Apparently there’s been a bit of a fad for it here among foodies, and I can see why. I look forward to substituting it for lime juice in all kinds of different dishes going forward.

Za’atar

I’ve had this for ages and never got round to cooking with it, though the scent has been seeping out the bag and making me hungry whenever I come across it. I must confess that I was prompted to cook with this because I’d been feeling chuffed with myself for having actually tried four new ingredients this month, only to realise that it was only three when I came to write up this post! However when I was making soup (Cauliflower and Leek) I came across my packet of Za’atar and was inspired. I find that Cauliflower can often be a bit bland, unless paired with a strong flavour, which is why I often but it in curries and prefer my cauliflower cheese to be made with a good strong cheese. So I’ve been experimenting with using it to season said soup, it’s taken a few goes to get the right level of seasoning – too little and while it smells amazing you can barely taste it. It adds an extra level of warming to the soup and gives a little extra kick to an otherwise quite plain soup.

It’s less of a taste on the tongue and in the back of the throat and the nose, but no less pleasurable for that. I make a Cauliflower and Ras el Hanout Soup, and I think substituting Za’atar for the Ras el Hanout would give it a more mellow flavour. One perhaps more suitable for when I make it for my less adventurous relatives!

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Fraught Subjects

Food and health. If there was ever a subject more fraught, I’m not sure what it might be.

(On which subject, this article inspired today’s post, and if you do in fact have food and/or weight issues, neither this nor the article itself may be for you.)

I’m lucky in many ways; the vast majority of my interactions between food and health have been in regard to mental health. I’ve written before about my policy of food as self-care, and the way in which I can track my general mental-health by how regularly I’m cooking and how well I’m eating.

It wasn’t until my most recent temp role that I really had to deal with – on a day-to-day basis – just how dysfunctional a lot of people’s relationship is with food. Most other places I’d worked we had staggered lunches, or we were all skint so were all bringing leftovers for lunch. (Or for a while, they were all workaholics who ate lunch at their desk and rarely took a break.) But latterly I worked somewhere were my cheerful little packed lunches of soup or bagels or leftovers were a subject of fascination. My colleagues seemed to be always on diets. Restricting themselves to a greater or lesser extent in a constant quest for a smaller dress size or a beach body. (There always seemed to be a next ‘thing’ to lose weight for: the next holiday or wedding or dress.) I used to swim before work twice a week, a habit I took up – and gradually built up to – after I stopped playing roller derby and could feel my already dodgy joints seizing up from my sedentary job. Apparently not wanting to seize up wasn’t enough of a reason for the exercise, but as I’d taken to motivating myself for my early morning swims with the promise of a nice coffee and a muffin breakfast afterwards, I found an explanation they could understand. I like cake, since turning thirty I don’t burn calories like I used to so it was either give up cake or take up exercise.

Complete nonsense of course, but it kept people off my back about it. In fact, when I did find myself drifting out of the healthy weight range a couple of years ago – and really I was more concerned that my favourite dress was uncomfortably tight – the dietary change I made the most difference was changing from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and making my pasta bakes with more vegetables and less pasta. But then, lots of people don’t want to hear that small sustainable changes over a long period make more impact than big dramatic restrictive changes that you can’t possible sustain. The only people I know who’ve cut whole food groups out of their diets and sustained that are vegetarians – who generally cut down and then out types of meat over time before going the whole hog – or people who’ve developed/discovered food allergies or intolerances who are sustained by the sudden relief from the side-effects of the food group in question. And even they have the occasional wobbles when faced with a former favourite – looking at you prawn crackers – or when it’s follow the rules or go hungry.

One of my colleagues is mildly dairy-intolerant, something I only discovered because we’d been working on an Outside Broadcast and he was looking a bit ropey at breakfast the following morning. We’d had a late post-work dinner the previous evening so I knew he hadn’t been drinking – he doesn’t drink as a general rule – but he approached that morning’s breakfast with all the wariness of the queasily hung-over. Cheese, he confessed later, he loved the stuff but it did not love him, and occasionally he would risk the consequences for the sake of a tasty dinner.

The obsession with calorie counts seems both baffling and counterproductive to me. I have a clear memory of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary as a teenager and her friend Tom pointing out to her that her standard calorie count – both the one she aimed for and the one she normally achieved – were lower than the amount that you’re medically supposed to need each day. The only time she actually reached her fabled ‘ideal’ weight, everyone kept telling her she looked ill. Whatever other problems those books might have, I owe Helen Fielding a lot for giving teenage me a big flashing arrow to point out what nonsense the whole dance was. And yet, increasingly I see calorie counts everywhere. They seem utterly counter-productive; I can’t help but feel that if you’re picking your sandwich by whether it has 20 less calories than the other one, you’ve got bigger problems going on. And frankly if I’m having the kind of day where treating myself to a coffee and cream confection is the only way to improve it, the calorie count is the last thing on my mind. And frankly it’s the kind of thing that makes me ask for extra whip.

I don’t believe in mixing guilt and food. Even when it comes to being a vegetarian I try to avoid falling into that trap of pointless self-flagellation. I try not to worry about the trace ingredients – I may make sure that the hard Italian chees I buy for my own cooking is vegetarian, but I’m not going to interrogate the waitress at the Italian restaurant about whether that’s authentic parmesan she’s offering me. (A Mint Aero is a guilty pleasure to me, not because of the chocolate itself, but because Nestle have a bunch of unethical business practices I prefer not to condone, but they’ve also cornered the market in decent mint milk chocolate.) The bad food of the month will change just as surely as the weather; all we can do is eat the best we can with the resources available to us. I’ve known skinny people who ate terribly and have sundry health issues and fat people who are athletes with excellent diets, and I know exactly which of them are getting hassled by their GP.

Food should be pleasurable; you should feel better after you’ve eaten than before. (At the very least, less hungry.) If you don’t there’s a problem. If it’s your only pleasure then that’s a different problem. But in the end it’s usually a symptom of another ill – whether physical, mental or social. And those we can only fix gradually and carefully over time. But we can start, by being kinder about food and bodies, both to ourselves and to each other.

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Why No Meat?

It’s an odd time to be a vegetarian. That may be an odd claim to make, but in a strange way it’s true.

In lots of ways, it’s actually a really great time to be a vegetarian. While it would still be quite difficult to eat out in my neck of the woods if you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t like cheese or mushrooms, things are definitely improving. (Indian restaurants are the saving grace of many a northerly vegetarian.) The range of foods on the menu and options in the supermarket has come on in leaps and bounds these last few years. No longer is the vegetarian the ghost at the feast, indeed I know a fair few non-vegetarians who will go for the vegetarian option because it’s a little more interesting, less bland and uninteresting than whatever is being offered as standard to the carnivores.

The thing is that I’m not a ‘meat is murder’ vegetarian and that status seems to stymie both rampant carnivores and intense vegans. I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by dairy farms, my parents growing their own vegetables and raising chickens. I learned early not to name anything you would later need/have to eat and that you really can taste the difference between a fresh free range egg and one from a caged hen. It made me both unsentimental about eating animals and sharply aware that cruelty in the process was unnecessary. Back when I was eating meat, I never quite got the whole outrage over halal meat, a slit throat seemed a pretty quick death to me – and frankly as long as the death of quick and clean, I was always more concerned with the animal’s living conditions when it was alive than the last ten minutes of it’s life. (Sometimes the greatest kindness you can do an animal is to make sure the blade is good and sharp.) I’m not morally opposed to eating animals; I’m morally opposed to the cruelties of industrial and factory farming.

I became a vegetarian for a variety of reasons. There was no one thing that made me a vegetarian; rather there were an accretion of issues over years that built up until becoming a vegetarian seemed inevitable. I’ve long been cognisant of the environmental impact, from excess methane from cows, to MacDonald’s clearing rainforests to graze cattle, to the damage to the sea floor from deep-sea trawlers. When I began to think about vegetarianism in regard to myself, it was during the initial ‘meat-free Mondays’ campaign; I appreciate that kind of collective action, lots of people making a small change to create a big difference. If you want to change people’s habits, make it easy for them. (When I was a student, my flat-mates didn’t recycle glass until I stuck a bin in the corner of the kitchen with a silly multi-coloured label on it and a promise that I’d empty it. By the end of the term they were washing out their glass jars before they put them in my bin and by the end of the year, whoever was taking the bin out would take the glass to the bottle bank while they were out.) I didn’t really intend to become a vegetarian; I planned to be a flexitarian. I tried out vegetarianism for a month at a time on an annual basis for a while, trying to cut down my meat consumption only for it to slowly creep back up. I always noted an improvement in my health. I felt less lethargic and less prone to bloating and gastric discomfort. (I suspect now that I may have had a mild intolerance to chicken.) I ate better in general because I had to think about what I was eating and plan my meals more efficiently. I never really thought that my own health experience might be more widely applicable but increasingly the science is showing that excess meat consumption is having widespread, long-term health impacts throughout the developed world. Doing something that improved my health and had a positive impact on the environment and meant I could stop worrying about how to access the animal welfare of producing the meat I ate, made it an easy choice to make.

This seems to provoke a particularly intense response from hardened carnivores and vegans alike. My failure to fit neatly into their mental dichotomy seems to provoke a particularly virulent ire, as though their usual arguments not being appropriate to me, is a personal affront. Perhaps I just came to vegetarianism to late or by too roundabout a route to have manifested that zeal and sanctimonious righteousness that seems expected from me from both sides. I just think we should eat less meat, and be more ethically responsible about sourcing the meat we do eat. That doesn’t really work as a campaign slogan or printed on a t-shirt. Perhaps it’s a product of these times; that we seem caught in the politics of extremes, of the black and white argument, where you are either for or against something with no nuanced ground in between.

Strange days indeed.

Categories: being veggie, challenges, feeling philisophical, nablopomo | Leave a comment

52 Ingredients Catch-Up

It’s November, which can only mean one thing – it’s Nablopomo time again. After having got off to a good start to the year here on the blog, life – or work if we’re being entirely honest – has rather got in the way of my food blogging and frankly cooking plans. I’m hoping that Nablopomo will inspire both a return to more regular food blogging and, in turn, more adventurous cooking.

I’ve been falling back on old favourites on the recipe front, as I’ve needed bulk cooks that were guaranteed to work and be enjoyed. Also, as I’ve been travelling a lot for work over the summer, I was reluctant to buy new things to cook with, when I might get sent away for work and have my shiny new ingredient expire while I was gone. Which all goes to show why, since July, I’ve barely tried enough new ingredients to count for one successful month.

Rustica Mushrooms

I was quite excited when I spotted these in the supermarket, as I love mushrooms, and like looking out for new and interesting varieties to try in different recipes. I cooked these in stir-fries, curries and even made a mushroom sauce for pasta with them one evening, and to be honest, if I hadn’t known they were different mushrooms, I would have thought they were chestnut mushrooms. So in future I’ll be sticking to their cheaper cousins as they’re not worth the extra 50p per punnet.

Miso Soup Mix

In my quest for miso paste for my previous attempt at miso ramen soup, I ended up with a box of miso soup mix so I took that as a sign to try it out in it’s intended form. It comes with little packets of freeze-dried veggies – spring-onions and seaweed, which reconstitute in the hot water, but they’re pretty bland and tasteless. Mostly it made me want to experiment with using seaweed in my cooking – it doesn’t have to be this slimy!

I’ve come to the conclusion though, that I definitely prefer my miso soup either full of veg or make with soya milk instead of water. However it does make a decent emergency dinner with a wee nest of noodles and a not quite hard-boiled egg.

Marrow

This was a fortuitous contribution to this challenge, as I spotted giant marrows for one shiny pound in the supermarket and couldn’t resist snaffling one. It turns out that marrows are essentially overgrown courgettes, which was something of a disappointment to me, as I was imagining something rather more squash-like and sturdy. That didn’t stop me making soup with it though. I’m not sure the marrow added that much flavour by itself, but my winter vegetable soup was no less tasty for it’s addition. Based on how much the marrow disintegrated when I made soup with it, I decided against making curry with it – other than cutting it in half and stuffing it with couscous, the most popular recipe suggestion for marrow appears to be putting it in thai green curry – I pictured squelchy soggy veg, and I don’t put courgettes in my curry to avoid exactly that scenario.

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