feeling philisophical

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.

Advertisements
Categories: challenges, feeling philisophical, nablopomo | Leave a comment

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

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

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.

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

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.

Categories: challenges, feeling philisophical, kitchen gadgetry, nablopomo | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: feeling philisophical | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Comfort Food

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d been expecting to this last few weeks. I never quite got round to mentioning here that I’ve been doing nablopomo again this year, not that you’d notice if you only you only read this blog. (Due largely to the fact that I’ve actually been blogging regularly here this year, so I didn’t actually have a backlog of posts I’d been meaning to make to catch up with.)

What I have been thinking about a lot lately is comfort food. What constitutes it and why does it hold such an appeal for us. I spent the early part of this week fighting off a head cold and frankly all I wanted to eat was comfort food, preferably comfort food of my childhood. Food and health, or rather food and self-care have a rather straightforward relationship for me. I learned to cook – beyond the basics – when I was living in Bournemouth and doing my Masters, as an act purely and simply of self-care. I was constantly getting throat infections and generally showing the signs of student life having worn down my body. Taking the time to learn to cook well and to feed myself properly was a radical act of self-care for me; that was physically and psychologically healing. Good food became both the fuel for and the reward for hard work. Over the years, I have taught myself that whenever I feel a cold coming on, the most important act of defence is to make a big pot of soup, packed with as many vegetables and pulses as I can get into it. Because if I fend it off I’ll have tasty soup to help me fight it and if I end up coming down with the cold, it’s entirely possible to live off the soup while I’ve no energy to cook anything else.

One of the less fun aspects of being a vegetarian is that much of the comfort food of my childhood that I crave when I’m sickly is no longer available to me as it contains meat. Often now, when I find myself craving childhood comfort I end up just making mashed potatoes or a big jug of custard. However, on Monday night I found myself longing for potato and leek pie, and decided to make my own take on it. I could, theoretically have made it with quorn sausages to make closer to the original, but I knew I had both potatoes and leeks in the house and grabbing a wee pack of puff pastry from the chiller cabinet was about all the complexity I could cope with. I stuck the potatoes on to boil and gently cooked the leek in some butter while the oven heated. While my white sauce will never be a patch on my mum’s, I do make a decent mushroom sauce, and apparently this carries over to leeks too. By the time I had a good consistency of sauce the pastry was in the oven and I was able to mash the potatoes, combining sauce and mash into a soft but firm pie filling of pure comfort. Served with little wodges of puff pastry it both looked and tasted like comfort food straight out of my childhood.

2016-11-27_07-08-17

I ended up with loads of filling so I kept the leftovers to use up with the remaining pastry on Wednesday night ahead of a long train journey. On that occasion I decided to attack my pastry with some little crimped circular pastry cutters I have and that added to the delightfully childish nature of the meal. My mum assures me that I’ve actually amalgamated two separate childhood meals into one here, but I agree with her that it hardly matters if I find it comforting.

Speaking of my mum and comfort food, we were both feeling the need for comfort food when I saw her the other day, so I gave her the excuse to have soup and pudding and call it a meal. (No matter how good I get at making soup, how happy I am with the soups that I make, no other soup, than my mum’s vegetable broth will ever taste as good when I’m sick.) Particularly I gave her an excuse to make semolina with tinned fruit, and I can think of no pudding more stick to the ribs filling and comforting, the true definition of a pudding that gives you a hug!

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

Gastropods!

I’ve talked about the podcast Gastropod previously over on my other blog, as part of my efforts to write more about interesting sound projects. At the time I thought, really I should save it to talk about it over here but it fitted with the theme of the post I was writing too well. However, as I’d only recently started listening to the podcast regularly, I decided to download the previous six months worth of podcasts onto my mp3 player and was slowly working through the backlog. Then one day, the other week, as I synced my player, instead of my unplayed podcasts number going down it went up: by about 50 podcasts. Some glitch in my iTunes caused it to make all the podcasts I’d listened to on my mp3 player since the last sync appear as unlistened to and every single episode of Gastropod from the last two years (including episodes I’d already listened to and deleted) to download. How? Why? Once I’d cleared out the unnecessary duplication I found I now had 30 episodes of one podcast waiting for me. I decided to make a project of it. Listen to the entire back history of the series over the month of April and blog about it!

For clarity, I should explain, Gastropod is not a cooking podcast, it’s a podcast about the science and history of food – though I recommend listening to it with snacks because I’m regularly really hungry when I finish an episode.

(The first thing I noted, having gone right back to the start of the podcast, is how British Nicola Twilley’s accent is in that episode. I knew from listening to later episodes that she had grown up in the UK, but – to me – her accent’s very American so I presumed that either she’d emigrated while still a kid or that her parents were American and she’d moved back to the states. But she mentions in the very first episode her parents teasing her about her American accent – and using her fork US-style – and when she was interviewing an English contributor her own accent got much more English. Not that that’s particularly unusual but it was rather charming to see that play out as her accent was notably more American when she was interacting with her co-host.)

Having now listened to the entire backlog of the show – they just finished the current series – I can thoroughly and unreservedly recommend the show if you enjoy podcasts and reading/hearing interesting backstories about the food and drink that we consume. It is, however, not a podcast to listen to if you’re the kind of person who likes to be able to enjoy their food in an uncomplicated fashion. While both the presenters are omnivores, they never shy away from the dark side of some of the foods they explore, whether that’s the historical or current exploitation of workers or land that has lead to popularity of certain kinds of foods becoming popular and varieties replacing each other, the problematic relationship between food/agricultural science and industrial agriculture, or animal cruelty. A sizeable chunk of their episode on the history of beef in the US explored the connections between current livestock breeding programs and the eugenics movement in the US at the start of the last century. (About half the history units that I took at university were on US history, it never touched on this at all which is disturbing not just because of the subject matter.) Personally, I love that about the show. I’m quite happy to self-describe as a bit of a foodie, but the inherent classism shown by a lot of foodies and a lot of the food theories in general circulation is deeply uncomfortable to me. It’s preferable to me that people know where the food comes from and that they understand the costs and in some cases problematic issues around particular types of food. I like being informed about what I put in my mouth and this podcast is a brilliant source for that. I’ve learned all sorts of fascinating things about food and eating and the science and history behind both of these things. For example did you know that in Ancient Mesopotamia there was a Goddess who preferred act of devotion was to be given cheese? Or the Mafia got started in the citrus growing boom in Sicily that was caused by the English Navy buying lemons in bulk to fend off scurvy? Or, for that matter, that we have bitter receptors not just as part of our taste buds but also in our gut and respiratory systems, and that scientists suspect this may be why people who don’t like bitter tastes are more predisposed to sinus infections? (I’m one of those people; I was so excited to discover that it was an actual legitimate thing!)

I’m a little biased as they did a double bill on food and sound – going clubbing or to a gig and getting that bass thump in your chest is the closest we get to experiencing sound the way a plant does – and sound is my other great passion in life, but really the show is great, it makes me want to write blog posts on the topics they write about pretty much every third episode. Go listen!

Categories: feeling philisophical, food geekery, reviews | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Bake More Often: Baking in Unfamiliar Kitchens

Over the last year and a half, I’ve lived in three different places, which has meant three different kitchens. One of those was my parent’s kitchen, which is familiar but having been away seemed strange and new again last winter. I adored the kitchen in my old flat. It was big and between my flatmates and me we basically had everything culinary we could possibly need (and a few things we didn’t). One of my flatmates was as keen a cook as me and the kitchen became the main social space of our flat. The weekend that I moved in there were home made brownies and I never had a chance to get nervous about cooking in this kitchen because someone else was already experimenting. There were successes and disasters and not a little heckling.

My current kitchen is different. It’s small and perfectly formed but it’s not mine. I’m a lodger and however well that situation has worked out, I’m always aware that this is someone else’s kitchen. It’s exacerbated by the fact that my landlady isn’t much for cooking herself. She doesn’t bake at all. I already spent much more time in the kitchen than she does just making dinner and preparing packed lunches. So for months I chickened out of baking. After my excellent start to my Bake More Often challenge in the first three months of the year, I didn’t bake again for another three months.

Then June arrived and with it both my parents’ birthdays. And they came to visit. In our family birthdays are always marked with cake. Even when I was writing my dissertation in sunny Bournemouth and couldn’t come home for my birthday, my parents sent me a tiny box cake in the post. I couldn’t not provide cake and pride forbade the shop-bought variety. There were some obstacles. Due to the aforementioned small kitchen, most of my non-essential cookware is in storage at my parents’. I had no cake tin and it seemed foolish to buy one up here that I would use once or twice and not again after it. Equally it seemed foolish to buy flour and sugar and all the rest when I had no room to store them and would probably only bake once or twice. So I determined to get one of those packet mixes and make a cake that way. After all I’d got back into baking back in Bournemouth after I’d found a packet on special offer and had too much fun making butterfly cakes…

Flutterby Cake

Then I discovered that neither did my landlady. In fact the extent of her baking equipment is a large bowl, a whisk, a set of scales, some wooden spoons and a bun tray. Undeterred I bought packet mix and butter, and made red velvet cupcakes. Not quite as impressive as I’d hoped but baking nonetheless. The icing was a bit of a disaster but the buns were tasty and my parents were impressed that I’d actually produced cake in this strange new kitchen.

Red Velvet Cupcake

The oven has taken some getting used to. Its highest temperature is 200˚C (it’s a fan oven thankfully) and pretty much anything I ever bake in it takes at least 5 if not 10 minutes longer than the instructions say. It’s been an experience. However, I’ve persevered, as evidenced by the fact that I have another two Bake More Often posts planned for this month. (Pastry is a bit of a theme; it seems to be the most consistently successful substance to bake in this oven.) I made Banana and Peanut Butter muffins and they were…fine. Well the recipe needs a bit of refining which doesn’t help but in the end I established that giving them a wee zap in the microwave then letting them cool down again made them quite pleasant to eat for breakfast. Given how nice they looked and smelled they were just a bit underwhelming.

Banana peanut butter buns!

Back to the drawing board with those ones I fear…

Categories: bake more often, challenges, feeling philisophical, nablopomo | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.