Author Archives: thelostpenguin

About thelostpenguin

Writer. Sound Designer. Researcher. Film Maker. Photographer. Puzzling my way through my 30s and across the world in search of a way to combine my varied interests, from Astro-physics to Archeology to Animation to Architecture. A believer that ideological fundamentalism (whether political or religious) is the second biggest source of the world's problems. The first being greed. This blog serves as an online record of my writing.

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.

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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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Growing My Own

After last year’s success with herbs, this year I decided to try my hand at growing some vegetables. I kept things simple by only trying two things – I figured that growing vegetables from seed was adventurous enough for one year – and picking varieties that were supposedly good for container growing.

I had high hopes for my spinach – cut and come-again variety – which got off to an early and promising start. Unfortunately it proved to be disappointingly insipid in flavour, and I never quite master the cut and come-again aspect of the process.

Growing Things

My spring onions on the other hand were an unmitigated success. They got off to a slow start, as it wasn’t until mid-July that I had any worth picking, but once they got going, I had a veritable glut of them. My favourite part of growing spring-onions is that you can leave them in the ground and just pull them as you need them. So I could just pick two or three as I needed them. Also I’d under-estimated the germination rate of the seeds thus had planted them too densely. So once I had made first few croppings (picking the biggest ones, that had pushed their bulbs out of the soil, as per the internet’s collective wisdom) I found that the remaining bulbs spread out into the new space and bulked up in turn. Oh and the flavour of those more mature plants was something else, as a friend of mine put it, less of a strong onion flavour and more of green flavour. The polar opposite of my bland and insipid spinach. I’ve never been much of one for raw spring onions, but I found myself garnishing all sorts of things with these piquant little fellows. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to go back to their bland supermarket compatriots over the winter…

Spring Onion Omlette

My herbs have been rather less successful this year. After thinking that my mint had died a death in a late snow, I was delighted to find that it made a stellar recovery, only for my rosemary to wither and die for no obvious reason. (More experienced gardeners suggested it had wet feet, but as it was in exactly the same level of drainage as it had thrived in the previous year, I have my doubts.) Also while my parsley is still struggling away, struggling is definitely the word, as it has remained pretty much the same size since I cut it back after it’s attempts to take over the world last year. Though the purple sage has definitely benefited from the parsley’s downfall, as I’ve had far more sage than I could possibly eat.

I decided to try a different herb preservation technique this year, I was brave and attempted to dry my herbs in the oven. The version that worked for me, was to lay out all my herbs on an oven tray while my dinner was cooking in the oven, and put them in the very bottom of the oven once it was switched off (but still warm) shut the door and leave them to toast gently while I ate dinner and washed the dishes. So far I’m quite happy with the results, and the little grinder that I bought for the purpose is now full of ‘mixed garden herbs’ (mint, thyme, sage and a few left over bay leaves).

Dried Herbs

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Fried Food (Or a lack thereof…)

As a side challenge this month, I’ve doing something else from my Day Zero List, and trying not to eat fried food for a month. It’s been relatively successful actually, as other than one packet of crisps early on in the month, and pinching a couple of a mate’s chips in the pub one evening, I’ve managed to almost entirely avoid fried food throughout this month. I refuse to count sautéing mushrooms to make a sauce, largely because that that feels like taking things to ridiculous extremes.

I expected it to be a much more difficult challenge than it turned out to be. My reason for doing it this month, was that I felt that I’d eaten too much rubbish, what with travelling so much for work – and also being on holiday – and wanted to cut back on deep fried food in particular. I should perhaps have made it more specific – deep fried food – because while I felt the benefit of the desired decreased intake of chips in particular, what the challenge was, was inconvenient. I couldn’t have a stir-fry, or a curry for that matter. Most Mexican food was out of the window too. Many of my plans to try new ingredients were de-railed because it seemed like every cooked recipe I found, involved some element of frying, and the alternative methods of cooking I might have normally used to circumvent the prohibition proved too time-consuming with my current shift pattern. So really it’s proved to be more of a frustrating prohibition rather than a difficult or challenging one.

And it just dawned on me that the little portion of pumpkin katsu curry that I had at the sushi place where I ate dinner last night, was bread-crumbed and most likely flash fried. What a…nuisance. Which could equally well sum up this month’s food challenge. A complete nuisance.

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Beetroot Double Feature

This month I’ve been doing a mini-challenge, not just with food, but with a variety of projects. At the start of July I declared this month, ‘finish the things’ month. I’ve a bit of an unfortunate tendency to start far too many projects and not finish them, and while I’m certainly better at that than I used to be, it’s an on-going work in progress that needs regular stock-taking and attention. Mostly this month has involved finishing half-read books, watching documentaries I have book-marked in tabs and not starting new craft-projects. However, I’ve been trying to do it more generally in my cupboards, which has meant (alongside using up bottles of moisturiser & shampoo with tiny amounts left in the bottom) that I’ve been trying to cook up my cupboards rather than buying more things.

As part of my project to re-habilitate beetroot, I’ve taken to keeping one of those vacuum-packs of cooked beetroot in the fridge as emergency vegetables during winter. Quick and easy to use, lasts for months in the fridge. However, you do need to remember to actually use them, as it’s easy to forget about them once the better weather – and greater vegetable availability/variety – returns. Handily I discovered I had some giant couscous needing used up, so I picked up some feta cheese cubes, cropped some spinach from my container garden and made my summer variant of beetroot risotto. However, because I was only making enough to use up the remains of the couscous I was still left with half a packet of – now blended – beetroot. Which prompted the question: what else to make?

One of the major challenges that I’ve faced with my ’52 ingredients’ challenge, is that I end up with lots of new things to use up. It’s all well and good finding a recipe to try several new ingredients on, but I end up spending the rest of the month trying to use up the remains of said ingredients. (Most recipes involving tahini only require a spoonful or two, but it comes in a sizeable jar. I got to the point where I tried eating it on toast but that was a decidedly joyless experience so we’ll be giving that one a miss.) Which limits the options for making things with other new ingredients and so we get stuck in a vicious circle. However, while searching for other recipes for beetroot, I discovered a recipe for a selection of Summer picnic dips, one of which involved beetroot.

It’s technically called Pink cannellini and beetroot dip, however, I didn’t have cannellini beans in the cupboard but I did have a jar of black-eyed beans. Black-eyed beans and Beetroot dip has a pleasantly alliterative sound, and, I’m pleased to report, a pleasantly mellow flavour. It was a four-fold success. It used up my left-over beetroot before it could go off, it meant I tried a new ingredient (black-eyed beans) and it helped use up one of last month’s ‘new’ ingredients (a generous tablespoon of tahini paste). Which in itself would have been good enough for me, but it was very tasty and I’ve been trying it with various different things for picnic lunches.

Based on that success, I’m definitely have a bash at their hummus recipe. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some pumpkin seeds in the cupboard to decorate it with…

Picnic lunch

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June Ingredients

This month has been quite successful on the trying lots of new ingredients. I managed to try five different ingredients this month – it would have been six but I couldn’t track down konbu powder. As I’ve been averaging one new recipe a month at the moment, I picked out one that included lots of different new ingredients that I either thought I would like or have eaten previously and know I like. White miso and tofu ramen with chilli garlic asparagus, had the advantage of being the kind of recipe that both looks and sounds exactly like something I would love, and has a pretty straightforward recipe. I love Miso/ramen soups but I’m always a little nervous of making my own, at least ones more complex than packet ramen with veggies and protein thrown in.

Edamame Beans
I had a bit of an adventure getting hold of these. The recipe blithely tells you that most major supermarkets stock podded and frozen edamame beans, and while that may be true in the south of England, here in the north of Scotland that is really not the case. I eventually tracked some down in the little Sainsbury’s (who actually proved to be a saviour for the recipe having many of the specific items that much bigger supermarkets did not) in the next town over. They are rather tasty lightly pan-fried as in this recipe, but overall I think I prefer them boiled. I love edamame beans, and I think I might make them a freezer staple as a more exciting alternative to peas. One of my favourite Yo Sushi dishes is a dish that appears to be essentially edamame cooked with sea-salt and spring onions so I fully intend to get myself some sea-salt and attempt to recreate it. Perhaps even with spring onions straight from my garden!

Soba Noodles

I generally prefer Udon noodles when I’m making or eating Japanese noodle dishes – my dad calls them worms, but the thick unctuous texture that puts him off, is my favourite part about them. Soba noodles do however work perfectly in ramen and these ones had a pleasingly whole-wheat flavour that I enjoyed and what worked particularly well in the soup.

Tahini Paste

I bought this with intent to make something from my Middle Eastern cookery book, but it turns out that it makes a good addition to soup base. I know some people who use it as a healthier alterative to peanut butter, but on its own I find tahini paste to be a bit overwhelming. I really like sesame seeds, but to me it tastes like when I’ve been cooking with sesame seeds and accidentally gone overboard with them? Perhaps I just bought the wrong kind, it was after all ‘light’ tahini paste

Soy Milk

I can’t speak to how well this does or doesn’t work as a milk substitute, but my goodness it makes a lovely miso soup. I suppose it shouldn’t really be a surprise that soymilk should work really well with soybean paste, but nonetheless it was a pleasant discovery that even before I had added any tofu – there’s a lot of soy in this recipe – noodles or veg it was strangely more-ish. I’ve only ever made miso soup with hot water; perhaps making it with soymilk instead – or perhaps going 50/50 – might be the key to more enjoyable miso soup. Also it has a decent shelf life, so once I have more shelf space I might take to keeping a carton of the cupboard kind for emergency miso soup!

White Miso Paste

My previous experiments with miso paste have been…uninspiring, but even before I put it in the blender to make the larger paste; it had a pleasingly mild taste. (I got some on my hand; I am not a tidy cook.) I still have some left over so I feel much more confident about making a basic miso soup with just the paste, some spring onions and a little tofu. Quick, cheap and easy lunches ahoy!

 

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April Ingredients

So March was a complete wash when it came to this challenge. I sort of have the excuse of having been sent to another city for work for a week and then having a horrible cold for another couple of weeks but ultimately it’s just proof of my procrastination that I didn’t get any new ingredients tried out last month. So this month I decided to try and get a jump on the month and start things off early doors. And it was a good job that I did, because after that first week of industriousness I didn’t actually manage to try anything else new, despite my best intentions.

Tinga Paste

Pretty much every American I’ve ever known has told me that Mexican food here is not remotely like Mexican food stateside, never mind anything like the food in actual Mexico. So I can’t remotely claim that I know if this is remotely a legitimately authentic Mexican ingredient. However, what it is, is delicious. Not having a high tolerance for chillies I wasn’t exactly going to dump an entire jar over some chicken – or in my case ‘chicken-style’ quorn – as per the jar’s instructions, however I did stick a couple of spoonfuls into my pot of veggie chilli and ended up with a smoky, mellow heat that definitely made me want to experiment with it further.

(I’m going to try making it into a marinade for quorn/chicken and put in quesadillas, or perhaps fajitas. Maybe I will finally achieve truly satisfying veggie fajitas…)

Frozen Smoothie Mix

For things other than smoothies, I might add. They actually make a great cheap and easy source of out of season fruit in bleak mid-winter (or as was the case for me, when spring is refusing to spring, you’ve got a lingering cold and a craving for fruit that isn’t apples or tangerines). I started making my own little fruit pots back when I started swimming before work, to fend of my muffin cravings, and finding myself on the early shift, I wanted a treat to motivate me through to my breakfast break. I’d made peach yoghurt in my yoghurt maker so I wanted to make the fruit puree with fruit that would compliment it. The frozen tropical smoothie mix proved a lifesaver, I picked out all the mango and pineapple – and most of the watermelon – cooked them down with some ginger, gently mashed them and voila – success! Breakfast was both cheering and tasty. However I was then left with a pile of frozen kiwis – and the remaining watermelon and stray pineapple chunk – that needed used up. Just sticking them in a smoothie seemed like admitting defeat. So instead they will be cupcakes! I know, I know, but do you know how hard it is to find recipes for kiwi fruit that actually involve them being cooked rather than acting as decoration/accompaniment? Many fruitless and frustrating hours were wasted.

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January (and February) in 52 Ingredients

Despite my best intentions, January was something of an inauspicious start to this challenge. I only managed to cook with two new ingredients. If we’re honest, February wasn’t much better, with once again only two new ingredients being tried. That’s almost a trend, but what it also is, is steady progress so we’ll count it as a win and resolve to do better this month. Mostly during February I was finding new and pleasing ways to use up left-over sour cream – I particularly recommend putting a generous spoonful of it into broccoli soup in place of blue cheese.

The problem I’m finding with this challenge is that because I’m only cooking for one person I tend to bulk cook and if you open a jar of something for a recipe it needs to be something that you will use up before it goes off.

Yakiniku sauce
This was a great success. I tried it in various guises in stir-fries throughout January and evolved a preferred method of using it. Two thirds sauce to one third water makes a good consistency for a stir-fry sauce that coats the rest of the ingredients well. It’s a fairly mild flavour, just strong enough to give your stir-fry an unusual but pleasant flavour, without overwhelming the taste of the constituent parts. A little goes a long way when you’re me, so despite being a fairly small bottle I got quite a lot of dinner out of it. Definitely one to buy again, in a bigger bottle next time.

Mediterranean Style Cooking Cheese
Probably the best thing that can be said about this cheese is that it comes in a tub, pre-cubed and with liquid that is surprisingly effective at keeping it fresh. Unfortunately, as I was using it as a feta substitute – some places do feta in the same way but not many of them and usually I loose about a third of my packet of feta – it is disappointingly bland.

Giant Tapioca
This one is a bit of a work in progress. Last year I fell in love with Bubble Tea – hot not cold, and yes, I know, about six years behind the curve – and, on discovering Giant Tapioca at the Chinese supermarket I just had to try making my own. I suspect that my problem is that its not actually the right kind of Tapioca for Bubble Tea because every recipe I’ve followed has turned out poorly. I may have to admit defeat and just make really chunky Tapioca pudding, but in the interim…I still have hope!

Coconut Milk
No, not that kind of coconut milk. I cook with the traditional kind that you get in cans all the time. (Often enough that I know exactly where to go to buy it cheapest and consider it an essential cupboard staple.) This is the milk substitute kind, that you buy in cartons and that is mixed with rice and various other things to turn it into something that works as a substitute for cow’s milk. I’ve been trying it as a milk substitute in various home-made lattes. Particularly in my continuing attempts to master bubble tea. (I tried cooking the giant tapioca in it – that was less than successful.) I doubt it’ll ever replace cow’s milk for me, but it’s a reasonably pleasant substitute if I’m cooking for a dairy intolerant friend, and I prefer it vastly to almond milk.

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Emergency Back-Up Dinners

Back in December, when I rescued dinner disaster from jaws of defeat with a Tortilla Pizza, I mentioned that I was adding that particular recipe to my Emergency Back-up Dinners list. After finding myself making emergency back-up tortilla pizza for my dinner this evening, I thought it was probably high time that I actually wrote about emergency back-up dinners.

I am, and indeed have, if not always been, certainly been my entire adult life, a chronic procrastinator. I can procrastinate anything, some people merely procrastinate on things they don’t want to do or things that are hard, I procrastinate on things I want to do and enjoy. As a student I tried to use food to motivate myself, which was a truly terrible idea, as I’d end up procrastinating eating until I started to feel nauseas. Hence why I ended up turning food prep into a self-care routine. I make detailed plans on what I want to cook, because otherwise I’m capable of standing staring at a cupboard full of food for the best part of an hour, frozen by inertia, unable to figure out what I want to eat and getting ever hungrier. While as an adult, my relationship with food is much healthier, if I’m having a bad day, I’m entirely capable of procrastinating on making dinner until its two late to make whatever I actually wanted to make.

So for those days, I have Emergency Back-up Dinners. Simple, straightforward dinners, that require minimal prep, short cooking times and only a few ingredients. They almost always involve some variety of cupboard staples that I almost always have in the cupboard and can use as a base. Also, because, often once I get started on cooking I’ll feel inspired to do something more adventurous, they’re also recipes that can be easily made more complex if you find yourself with extra energy or ingredients.

Melting Sunshine Rice
This was the very first of my vegetarian appropriate emergency back-up dinners. I’ve made so often over the years that it never even made it into my hand-made recipe-book, instead its ingrained in my brain. It came from a ‘Low-fat cooking’ recipe book I found at the back of a drawer in my mother’s kitchen over a decade ago. I think, technically, it was probably meant to be an accompaniment rather than the main dish, but its pure sunshiny comfort in a bowl all by itself. The main theme of the recipe is yellow. Cook the rice with a generous teaspoon of turmeric. Throw in a couple of handfuls of frozen sweet corn. Chop up half a yellow pepper into small pieces – I don’t think that’s actually in the original recipe but it does taste good – and depending how crunchy you prefer your peppers either add while the rice still has few minutes of cooking left or once you’ve drained your rice. Once you’ve drained the rice, return to the pot and tear up some mozzarella cheese (or any other suitably melt-y cheese you have in the fridge) and stir through the rice so it gets nice and melted. Spoon into bowls and enjoy. (You can put leftovers in a box in the fridge for an edible hug for lunch on a cold day, or eat straight from the pot if it’s been that sort of day.)

Sesame Hot Noodles
This has been in my repertoire almost as long as the Melting Sunshine Rice, and is a recipe firmly in the ‘that shouldn’t taste as good as it does’ genre. Cook a nest (or two) of egg noodles according to the packet instructions. Mix together a couple of tablespoons of sunflower and sesame oils, with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a crushed or finely chopped garlic clove. Once smooth, add finely chopped chilli to taste, three tablespoons of sesame seeds, four tablespoons each of soy sauce and lime juice and mix well. Drain your noodles, dump the gloopy disaster into the pan and stir through noodles until heated through. Serve and wonder aloud why on earth this tastes so good. If you’re feeling fancy, you can always stir-fry some spring onions, mushrooms and the protein of your choice and them to the pot, but its pretty satisfying just the way it comes.
Sesame Chilli NoodlesSesame Hot Noodles
Apparently some people have couscous in their cupboard that isn’t quick cook? I’m not one of those people. Couscous has always been an emergency food for me, whenever I go on holiday or other long journeys I take an emergency packet of lemon and coriander couscous with me in case of food disasters. In more civilised circumstances, I just dump a few ounces of couscous into a pint of vegetable stock, leave until its drunk all the stock, wilt some spinach in a pan with some feta cheese and stir through that and a couple of generous teaspoons of harissa paste. The best part of this dish – aside from being, as far as I’m concerned, the tastiest way to eat couscous – is that when you take your leftovers to work for lunch the following day, your colleagues will act like you’ve made the fanciest of lunches. Especially if you used the giant couscous they sell now. Unless your colleagues are actually from either side of the Mediterranean, then they’ll be on to you…
Harissa Couscous with Spinach & Feta
Emergency Back-up Ramen
Packet noodles – with those little sachets of flavouring – were a staple of my student days that I look back on with mix love and loathing. However, more recently I’ve discovered some in the world food section of the supermarket, that actually lives up to the name. They do in fact attempt to make a semi-decent basic noodle soup. So for ages I kept them in the cupboard as an emergency dinner, when I looked in the fridge and thought, that’s an odd assortment of veggies, and I’ve got some cooked meat and I really can’t be bothered making a stir-fry… These days I can only use the sesame flavoured ones, which handily makes a nice noodle soup all by itself, and I now have to throw in a handful of frozen quorn pieces in a the small frying pan, with a couple of spring onions, and a mushroom or two, and maybe half a pepper you’d forgotten was in the fridge. And suddenly you’ve got enough food for two, and can divide the noodles and accompaniments in two, have noodle, quorn and veg soup for dinner and noodles, with quorn, veg and whatever stir fry sauce has been lurking unloved in the fridge. (In a true emergency mix a tablespoon each of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, corn flour and Chinese five spice together in a pot heat through until it thickens and pour over your leftovers. Despite almost never buying it, I almost always have sticky plum sauce in the fridge. It keeps well.)
Ramen!

Not Remotely Mexican Quesadillas
I love quesadillas. I do not, in any way shape or form, make remotely authentic quesadillas. Generally I make them with leftover veggie chilli and lots of cheese. However I have also been known to fill them with anything that fits the bill of thick, unctuous and spicy. Almost always, when I’ve made a stir fry or a curry in bulk, will end up with a three decent sized portions and one, awkwardly small sized portion. A portion that, if it were chilli, would be the perfect size for quesadillas. And honestly if you’re using up leftover korma or goan curry, and you happen to have some paneer in the fridge, its amazing in fake quesadillas.

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

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