feeling philisophical

On Cheese

Apparently I’ve never made a post here about cheese. I must confess that I’m genuinely astounded because I am a little bit of a cheese-fiend. I always had a marked preference for savoury over sweet as a child and a favoured snack for my small self was cubes of cheese with slices of apple. (I spotted a friend of a friend’s toddler happily munching on that very same snack the other day, causing us all to have fond nostalgia for it, so clearly it’s a getting a baby on solids classic.) Throughout my childhood and into adulthood, I accidentally evolved into the kind of person who if they can possibly add cheese to a dish they will. On crackers, on toast, to thicken a sauce or even in soup. I love cheese. I often joke to people who, on discovering I’m a vegetarian, feel the need to check if I’m a vegan, that I couldn’t possibly give up cheese – ‘giving up meat was easy, giving up cheese, now that would be difficult’. And frankly given how often the only veggie option on offer is macaroni cheese, I’m genuinely glad I like cheese.

For reasons that don’t need explored at this juncture – it was a gift – I happen to own a set of four cheese knives, along with what I think of as a bog-standard cheese knife. (It’s quite old, I think it previously belonged to my parents, I had it as a student due to the aforementioned cheese-fiend status.) I’ve always been a bit baffled as to why there needed to be so many options – surely either cheese is soft enough that you can take a butter knife to it, or hard enough that it needs a specialist cheese knife. It appears I was wrong. Over the last few years I’ve gained a fondness for cheese from the Damn Fine Cheese company – they’re based in Dumfries & Galloway so they’ve become a seasonal treat for me – which is edam-style cheese in a variety of flavours. Theirs is definitely cheese that needs a cheese knife – in fact it was their cheese that made me get my cheese knives out of storage and caused me to bemoan my then landlady’s lack of a cheese knife, in what a dear friend of mine called: ‘the most middle-class thing I’ve ever heard you say’ – though I’ve occasionally had a bit of a fight cutting their cheese although I blamed that on my cheese knife being quite small. For some reason while cutting cheese for crackers the other day I got frustrated with the cheese adhering to the knife and grabbed one of the other options from the box. This was an utter dream, lovely thin slices peeled off the block, ready to apply to crackers.

Clearly I’ve been using the wrong cheese knife. There was only one thing for it; I needed to do some cheese knife research. What else have I been missing out on? Have I needlessly struggled with other cheese when I unknowingly had a tool in the drawer that would have simplified my life? Or could I actually pare down my collection.

Apparently the kind I think of as the ‘bog-standard’ is called a Fork Tipped Spear, good for firm cheeses and serving cheese in general. The one I’d bemoaned the smallness of is a Small Spear, also a hard cheese knife. The knife that came to my rescue was a Flat Cheese Knife which is better for softer cheeses so that fits too. But what about the other cheese knives in my box set? What should I be using them for?

Well for a start one of them isn’t actually a knife it’s a cheese fork, for serving or using like a Carving Fork to spear your older harder cheese in place while you saw chunks off. Realistically for me, it’s strength would be if I’m serving friends a cheese board over the holidays, pairing with the small spear to assist with serving. But the other one, curved like a scimitar with holes in the blade; what’s its game? Well it’s for soft sticky cheese – the camembert, cambozola and castello of the world – which I must confess I tend to only cook with, rather than put on crackers, so I tend to buy in the weight I need for the recipe and then pull apart as necessitated by the recipe. I can see the logic of that knife, even if I personally have no need for it.

I guess there’s nothing for it, there’s no point having this selection of cheese knives and never putting them to use, I need to organise a cheese and wine night for my friends!

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Baked Comfort

Over the last few months I’ve been getting more adventurous with my oven usage. After something of a false start when I first moved in where it turned out the thermostat wire had melted through, I’ve been slowly getting the hang of my new oven. The rule of thumb appears to be, 10-20˚C lower than the recipe/packet suggests and 5-10 minutes less cooking time (180˚C on the middle shelf seems to be sweet spot of the oven) and you’ll be just dandy.

To my great delight – and relief! – unlike my last place’s oven, this one actually bakes cakes and buns properly, no more half-cooked blueberry muffins for me! They don’t weld themselves to the paper cases anymore either! I’ve now successfully made two different kinds of muffins (rhubarb ones and apple and cinnamon varieties) in the oven so I feel more able to be more adventurous with my baking again. I didn’t realise how much frustration and uncertainty about whether they’d come out okay had curtailed my baking.

Apple cinnamon muffins

The somewhat temperamental nature of the previous ovens meant I really only made pasta bakes and pies in it – though an honourable mention needs to be made for the delightful discovery of baked eggs. It’s been rather fun experimenting with roasted vegetables – I may never again eat sweet potatoes any other way – as it’s opened up a whole bunch of recipes that I previously avoided as they started with ‘first roast the vegetables’ and it was too much of a faff. It really does improve the flavour of a surprising number of vegetables.

I’ve also successfully made bread in the oven now – even if only from packet mix so far – something I never risked attempting in either of the ovens at my old place. Before I moved to Inverness I used to bake bread, not all the time, but at least on a regular basis. I’d got pretty good at making soda bread, and it became a ritual to make it every time I made pea and mint soup, something I now only really do when I’m home visiting my parents for Xmas. I’d forgotten in the interim, how easy and satisfying I find making – most, ciabatta never comes out right for me – bread until I had the dough under my fists pummelling it gently into submission. There’s a special kind of joy in going to check on my proving dough and finding it successfully doubled in size. In the way my whole flat smelled of warm bread for a good 24 hours afterwards, and the repeated pleasure I got every time I opened the breadbox to be greeted by the scent. The way the loaf was exactly the right size for me to have eaten it all before it went off, and the satisfaction of making sandwiches for lunch with it, the added pleasure of the casual ‘that looks nice bread’ comments from colleagues to which I could proudly respond ‘thanks, I made it myself’. There are few more comforting scents than fresh bread you made yourself, I find. An olfactory hug if you will.
Cheese and tomato bread!Cheese and tomato bread sliced!

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Cooking in New Kitchens

Several years ago, when I’d first moved back to Inverness, I made a post about the ‘joys’ of cooking in unfamiliar kitchens, or least kitchens that aren’t your own. In it I looked forward, longingly, to the day when I’d have my own kitchen, that I didn’t have to share, that I could arrange to my own preference. Having moved house last month, I finally have one! Of course, this means a whole new kitchen – and associated appliances – to get the hang of, but at least they’re mine, I can set them up the way I like, and change things round to suit me without consulting anyone else!

Probably the most important development is having a full-sized fridge/freezer to work with, instead of a little fridge with an icebox. I can bulk cook properly without condemning myself to eating the same thing for a week! Admittedly, between adventures in getting the settings right on both the fridge temperature and the central heating I have accidentally frozen a few things that really shouldn’t have been, but apple juice slushies are actually very refreshing when you’ve been painting all afternoon! It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting there. It has also been quite handy for stopping me getting over-enthusiastic in filling up my fridge, as if I can’t use it up in a reasonable time-scale chances are I’ll come back to find it frozen solid!

Kitchen herb garden

Despite some teething issues, I am really enjoying cooking in my new kitchen. It’s small but perfectly formed and I like how it’s set out. (I’d prefer if the fridge/freezer wasn’t behind the door but I’m not sure where else it could reasonably go.) It’s a space I enjoy being in, which in turn means that I’m more inclined to spend longer and be more adventurous in my cooking. (I whipped up a little batch of hummus after dinner last night, and a smoothie this morning and just having my blender easily at hand makes such a difference.) I’m putting together a little herb garden for it, both a window box for my kitchen window and an indoor hanging herb garden that lives in the corner. There’s just something about having everything on hand that makes me both more adventurous and take more care with my cooking and presentation. Yesterday I was unpacking and reorganising cupboards to accommodate another box of kitchen stuff and discovered a pile of empty storage jars, so now a bunch of things that were in packets that might have fallen down the back of cupboards or got tucked behind something else are now in regular circulation and all my fun little last minute add-ons – like pine-nuts, cashews and flaked almonds – are sitting out obvious where I’ll see them and use them up, while also looking all decorative and aesthetically pleasing in their cute little storage jars.

It’s just so nice knowing where everything is and having it on hand when I need it.

Now…if I could just figure out how to work the oven…

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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.

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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.

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The Joy of Brunch

I love brunch. Possibly the most millennial statement I could foreseeably make, but, as I am both a foodie and a millennial – and, as such, a foodie on a budget – it’s one that I feel comfortable standing by. One of the great discoveries of last year for me, partly, though not entirely, a product of both working shifts and giving up alcohol for several months was the joy of brunch dates. There are specialist places now – a bit hipster, but my goodness the food is great – which makes the whole process feel more like a treat and less like an apology for all involved. A great deal of my foodie-ness is a product of learning self-care as a student – I do a great deal of bulk cooking both because it works out cheaper and also because it makes my life easier in the future. But there are few greater joys for me when I have a day to myself or even just a free morning, than putting together a really nice breakfast or brunch.

In summer I love to make my own yoghurt and find all kinds of tasty and adventurous ways to use it up. My favourite being to make my own little compote pots, gently cooking some summer fruits and berries with a little ginger, toasting some oats and flaked almonds and perhaps adding some to a smoothie that needs thickened up a little. I must confess that when I was younger I always thought that muffins – the American style muffins, not the English ones, those have always been in the category of ‘posh toast’ for me – were too sweet for breakfast. However, once I learned to make my own there was no stopping me. The fact that the second variety of muffins I successfully pulled off were savoury – spinach and three cheese muffins are things of glory, especially if you perk them up in the microwave for 30 seconds before eating – undoubtedly helped.

Spinach and 3 Cheese Muffins

However, it’s in winter – especially wintery Sunday mornings – that I make the truly decadent brunches. Egg-heavy cooked breakfasts have always been associated with Sundays for me. When I was a kid, my dad used to make brunch for us on Sunday mornings and all his brunch recipes involved eggs. (Looking back on it, this was probably largely because we kept our own chickens and if you have plenty of fresh free-range eggs at your disposal, why on earth wouldn’t you?) And what I wouldn’t give to figure out his old ‘toad-in-a-hole’ recipe that he hasn’t made since I was in single digits and therefore can’t remember how he did it. Even in my earliest student days when I barely cooked at all, on a Friday morning, when we’d all been out the night before, I would gather up all the left-over eggs and bread and make French Toast for anyone that wanted it. Cooking eggs for breakfast will always be an act of care and indulgence.

One of the first pieces of kitchen equipment I bought myself after I moved to Inverness was a small omelette pan. It felt like a ridiculously indulgent purchase at the time, but it’s proved surprisingly useful for a variety of things – my other frying pan is a large heavy-duty, oven-safe frying pan – and is the perfect size to make a one-person omelette. Mastering the art of a good omelette and eggs scrambled exactly to my liking were both moments – years apart though they were – that felt weirdly like milestones of adulthood.

Fancy Scrambled Eggs

An awful lot of fancy brunch recipes have the unfortunate tendency to revolve around either salmon – I didn’t eat fish even before I was a vegetarian – or avocados – I like guacamole just fine, but getting ripe avocados here is more trouble than its worth – so I when I find a fancy egg based brunch recipe it is a thing of joy. Eggs in purgatory are decadence personified, but really needs a friend to make cooking it worthwhile. Baked eggs in halved peppers are a slightly precarious but ultimately delicious proposition, while spinach, feta and egg muffins are decadently glorious. Even just treating myself to some soda bread or cheese muffins to toast, butter lightly and serve with scrambled eggs is somehow soothing to the sole. And frankly adding a little paprika to most things makes everything feel that bit classier.

DSC_0387Omelette muffins!

I do sometimes make brunches that don’t involve eggs. I don’t often make my own (English) muffins, or my own lemon curd, but when I have both on hand there are few greater joys. I’ve never quite mastered making my own crepes, so I prefer to leave those to the professionals, but nonetheless I’ve had some fun trying! Just the other day I made what I insist on calling ‘posh cheese on toast’ where you toast some fancy bread (a nice roll, soda farl or muffin halved is particularly good for this) under the grill, then spread with either tomato paste or pesto, and then layer on some nice cheese (those slices of smoked cheese are the perfect size, but any cheese with a low-ish melting point will work, mozzarella is good if you’re in a hurry and/or really hungry) and stick it back under the grill to melt. If you’re feeling fancy you can put a couple of cherry tomatoes on the side or a sprig of parsley on top. While this morning, I made my own take on breakfast burritos, a recipe I concocted out of what I happened to have in my fridge and freezer one Saturday morning, when I needed something reasonably substantial and was distressingly out of eggs. I know that for some people waffles are sweet things, but for me the default setting of waffles is potato, and I like to keep emergency waffles in the freezer – normally the mini ones for both space and versatility reasons.

Breakfast BurritoPosh cheese on toast!

So my breakfast burrito consists of the following, cook half a dozen mini waffles by your preferred method, take one soft flour tortilla and warm lightly, then spread with sour cream, prep a handful of spinach and arrange on the tortilla. Once the waffles are cooked pile them on top of the spinach and sprinkle over whatever cheese you have to hand, and stick the whole thing back in the – now off, but still warm – oven or under the grill for a minute to let the cheese melt. Fold the whole thing up like a burrito and voila! Breakfast of champions! I had some chopped red pepper left over from dinner last night, so I sprinkled them over the waffles too, and they added a delightful crunch. You can replace the sour cream with cream cheese if that’s what you have in the fridge, but I made a big pot of chilli last week so sour cream it was.

There’s just something about having made myself an excellent brunch that sets me up right to have a productive weekend, like a big comforting hug in food form. A reassurance, that no matter what else I may or may not manage to achieve over the weekend; one thing at least has been a complete success.

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Latte Explorations

It wouldn’t be nanoblomo on this blog, if I didn’t squeeze in a wee entry on hot beverages. Last year, when the annual, parental cry of Christmas present hits went up, I dredged up the idea that I’d like a milk steamer. I’d gotten slightly obsessed with coffee lattes – the only kind of coffee I actually enjoy – over the last few years and had recently discovered the odd sub category of tea lattes, especially the ones that shouldn’t really work. (I know from unfortunate experience that milk in green tea is vile, so why on Earth is a matcha latte so darn good?) Being able to make my own seemed a good way to save myself both time and money of a morning. I got myself a little insulated mug – its got owls on, its very cute – picked out a little milk frother – try to find a non industrial milk steamer outside of a coffee machine proved to be an exercise in banging my head off a wall – and bookmarked a whole bunch of recipes for my favourite odd tea lattes and planned to beat the January blues with them.

Of course, life happened in January and I didn’t have a commute to need to make lattes for, so my careful plans fell by the wayside. Other than a couple of uninspiring attempts at better hot chocolate my milk frother has been gathering dust in my cupboard. However, November has arrived, with driving rain and gloomy grey skies, and in the aftermath of a grinding cold, my commute has been in dire need of a cheer up. So I decided to break out the milk frother and bring myself some much need seasonal cheer.

A while ago, I came across a tub of the instant matcha sachets – on one of those, end of line shelves in the supermarket – and made grand plans to have a go at making my own matcha lattes. (They can be rather hit or miss, either divine or a little…dusty, depending on which barista you get in the coffee shop.) I had delightful plans for comparing and contrasting between those made with the ground matcha and different kinds of green tea bags. Would a Tokyo Fog turn out to be more my thing? What would you call the same thing made with Jasmine tea? (A Beijing Fog? Given the air pollution issues in that city that doesn’t sound entirely appetising.) Yet, once again, I didn’t get around to actually doing anything about my exciting plans until gloomy mid-winter came to call. I’ve been glorying in a seasonal special at my favourite tea shop called a Matcha Maker, which is essentially a white hot chocolate matcha mash-up. It’s utterly heavenly, so once I master the straight forward matcha latte, I need to perfect that one. Though first I’ll have to figure just how they make it!

This week I have, for reasons that don’t need explored at this juncture, been working on perfecting my London Fog. I’m not entirely sure what it is about a well-made London Fog, but there’s something deeply comforting about drinking it. Somehow it brings out the best of the Earl Grey, that deep aromatic flavour and almost floral scent. I suppose in certain ways its my ideal form of tea drinking. My preference when it comes to standard tea is strong with lots of milk (several of my colleagues just leave the bag in for me when they make my tea – as does the lass in my favoured tea shop when she makes me a London Fog) and when you make a London Fog you make the Earl Grey into a highly concentrated brew which you then top up with a decent serving of hot frothy milk. It’s hot, soothing, flavoursome and just a little sweet. Perfection.

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Returning to an Old Friend

Many years ago, when I was first exploring the world of tea, I decided that I wanted to become the kind of person who drank green tea and set about exploring the world of green teas.

(I like to say that my twenties were all about working out who I wanted to be and figuring out how to achieve that, whereas my thirties have been about becoming and being that person.)

One of the problems of being known among your friends, relations and acquaintances as someone who likes green tea is that you get given a lot of green tea. By given a lot of green tea, I don’t mean that people see an unusual green tea somewhere and buy it for you as a present, or keep a box in their cupboard for when you visit – a few people do, in fact do this, and it’s lovely and much appreciated – but rather that you become designated drop of point for spare green tea. There was a while in the late 00s where green tea became the trendy health drink of choice. I’m not sure how or why, but lots of diets and general health improvement articles and advice seemed to involve drinking gallons of green tea. For a while it seemed as though everyone was trying to cut down on their caffeine and trading in their afternoon coffee or tea for a cup of the green stuff. I’m sure some of them found a deeply satisfying replacement or supplement to their hot beverage repertoire.

Now, for most people whose entire experience with tea drinking involves teabags of the kind purveyed by Tetley, PG Tips or Typhoo, served with milk and/or sugar, changing over to green tea requires a bit of getting used to. I would go so far as to call it an acquired taste. There are a lot of terrible green teas out there, that are, to me, the equivalent of those cheap generic tea bags that my dad calls ‘floor sweepings’ tea. Even with decent green tea, its fairly easy to make a terrible cup of tea with them, its very easy to make weak insipid tea and even easier to leave the bag in too long and end up with bitter stewed tea. Which should actually not be a surprise to the average tea drinker, as while most people who drink tea will claim a cup of tea is a cup of tea, given the option they will evince surprisingly specific requirements for their cuppa. (I’m a strong tea with lots of milk kind of person – leave the bag in if you’re not sure – or neart le torr bainne gorm at work.) Learning how other people take their tea is a gesture of friendship and affection. But rarely do people consider this when they try green tea. Therefore the fad for green tea mostly led to those people having a box of green tea lurking in their cupboard, for months, with half a dozen tea bags out of it and then gifting them to me when they discovered that I actually liked the stuff.

For years I never had to buy the stuff, just keeping on top of the forsaken boxes of tea kept me in more green tea than I could face. To the point that I was completely scunnered of the stuff. I had some beautiful Jasmine tea that I’d picked up at one of the Chinese supermarkets in Glasgow and I couldn’t face it. For years. Even when I liked green tea, it wasn’t an everyday drink. It was something I had to be in the mood for, something I drank after some excellent Asian cuisine or as an accompaniment to a good book. I’ve spent most of the last five years refusing green tea anywhere that wasn’t a Japanese restaurant – for some reason, even the complimentary cups they do at Wagamama’s are reliably great – and exploring other teas. I’ve discovered lots of teas I love along the way, but every time I came across some nice looking green tea, I’d feel wistful that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it the way I once had and so would pass it over.

A few months ago, I was visiting my parents and discovered a small stash of Jasmine tea bags. Out of curiosity I made a cup and a beautiful aroma rose out of the cup, it was a truly gorgeous cup of tea. I gathered up the remaining bags and rationed them out over the following months. Slowly, carefully I’ve been experimenting with green teas again. Mostly Jasmine teas, but with more generic green teas, a flavoured green tea here, an iced tea there, the surprisingly pleasing matcha latte when I’m in the mood. (Why are matcha lattes so good? I’ve accidentally put milk in green tea on several occasions and its vile. It shouldn’t work – and admittedly depending where you get them, it sometimes doesn’t – but somehow, a good matcha latte is divine.) At work the other day, I unearthed a box of green tea, which a Malaysian colleague had brought back for the office from a recent holiday to Korea. It is one of the mildest, loveliest green teas I’ve ever drunk. The box is massive and now lives on my desk, because I’m the only one who drinks it. It’s amazing. I’ve rediscovered my love of green tea.

But I’ll be keeping that to myself most places, in fact lets just keep it between ourselves, because we’re about due for another cycle of ‘green tea is good for you’ and if people find out I’ll start to receive boxes of unloved green tea once more. And I’d really like, to just keep on, enjoying my green tea.

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Seasonal Eatings

There’s a little bit of a vegetable crisis in the UK at the moment. While the weather here has been suspiciously mild, Spain – where something like 80% of Europe’s salad vegetables are grown – and Italy have been experiencing flooding and snow. Hence, the noticeable lacks of things like lettuce, spinach, courgette, aubergine and broccoli.

My main question is, who’s eating all that salad at this time of year? It’s cold here, what are they playing at? On the other hand, not being a fan of either aubergine or courgette, the news of a shortage gives me a surge of relief, perhaps I’ll see more ‘vegetarian options’ on the menu that aren’t centred on either vegetable!

This winter appears to be one that is determined to make me think more actively about seasonal vegetables and seasonal eating more generally. I suspect there must either have been a bit of a cauliflower shortage earlier this year, either that or there’s been a glut of the stuff the last few winters. Since becoming a vegetarian, I’ve grown used to buying a big cauliflower cheaply to bulk out winter curries and soups. At the start of the season there appeared to be very few of them around and once they did appear they were twice the price they’d been the year before. Handily beetroot was plentiful and reasonably priced so I’ve been continuing my experiments in rehabilitating it into my diet with some enthusiasm.

It wasn’t until spinach disappeared from the shelves that I realised quite how dependent I’d become on it as a source iron and general colour in meals. I also hadn’t noticed, quite how often kale could be found on special offer, or just reduced at the end of the day. I still need to pump up my iron levels, so I’ve been experimenting with substituting kale for spinach. Now that I’ve learned the trick to quickly and effectively steam cook my kale it’s proving surprisingly versatile. I’m still a bit dubious about trying it in muffins or on pizza, but so far it’s been delicious in dal and a perfect substitute for broccoli in many a meal. Weirdly, on the broccoli front, while there’s been an utter dearth of those familiar little trees around the place, I’ve been able to pick up packets of broccoli florets (or mixed broccoli and cauliflower florets) in the reduced section on a regular basis. So broccoli and cauliflower cheese has become a regular treat for me (I made it a few weeks back with leftover Xmas cheese, brie makes a really very decadent sauce) and sweet potato and kale bubble and squeak is an unexpected delight.

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