feeling philisophical

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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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!

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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!

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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…

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Like the Internet reached out and hugged me.

I’ve known my friend Sarah for the best part of a decade now: since the days when we both lived on the south coast of England. We share an abiding love of horror movies, but food has always been our favoured method of communication. Despite having left home with a good grasp of the basics, I was a very unadventurous cook. More importantly, despite my love of planning and organisation, I’m fundamentally not a very organised person. (Most jobs I’ve ever had have involved either high levels of organisation or working to deadlines, so all my energy goes into those, leaving my personal life with a sort of Douglas Adams approach to deadlines…) So when I was living down by the sea, working on my masters’ dissertation, my organisational energies for anything that wasn’t research or writing was utterly minimal. I would get up eat breakfast, start working and get caught up, forget to have lunch and suddenly it would be dark and I’d be feeling light-headed, because it was 8 at night and I hadn’t eaten since 10 in the morning. And at the point when you’re already ravenous, that’s a really bad time to try and make sensible and healthy choices about food and what you want to eat. I ate a lot of pasta with sauce that was made from chicken soup, generally with either sausages or bell peppers. That or chicken in a cook-in sauce with rice. Unsurprisingly I got sick a lot. (I eat a lot of fruit – I suspect it’s the only reason I didn’t get scurvy as a student.) My blog from back then talks a lot about poor health and poor diet and learning to cook to combat that. At some point I borrowed one of my mum’s OXO cookbooks and diligently worked my way through that to varying degrees of success. Along the way, as I started feeling the benefits of cooking properly, I started to branch out into ingredients I wasn’t familiar with. Sarah started gently nudging me towards new and interesting foodstuffs, sharing quick and easy recipes that were tasty and simple, but felt grown-up and adventurous. (She mothered me a little, but far from home and determined I could make it on my own, I kind of needed it.) The distance between pasta and sausage and peppers in a chicken soup sauce and gnocchi and chorizo, with cherry tomatoes, in pesto is not that far, but it feels a thousand miles away. Pancetta and Parmesan and spinach and ricotta, all rolled into my repertoire and stayed there. Mostly she taught me how something a little different (that squeeze of lime juice or sprinkle of parmesan) could turn an ordinary meal into something special. Reassuring instructions and tips in the IM window as I cooked, encouraging me to be adventurous in the kitchen and somehow it was easier to be brave.

I was a long way from home those days, and it was years ago, but gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and pesto is still comfort food. I’m older and wiser – I hope! – now, a vegetarian even, but I’m a long way from home again.

I’ve recently discovered Instagram (I keep a food blog, no one should be surprised that I would gravitate towards a social media format stereotypically known for people photographing their food) and have been vicariously enjoying other people’s food. One of those people being Sarah. The other week she made a particularly tasty looking soup. Mussaman chicken soup. She reckoned it would be dead easy to make it veggie with lentils instead of chicken. It sounded pretty darn good and I told her so, and she responded with the recipe.

I’d not been…good about cooking during September (or August really); in fact the only thing I’d been consistently making was soup. I’ve eaten a lot of broccoli and blue cheese soup but otherwise if I did a decent cook once a week I was doing well. I make grand plans about what I’m going to make, but I don’t actually make very much. If food is self-care for me, then I wasn’t doing a very good job of looking after myself. I needed to break the spell. Soup I could do, I bought the ingredients I didn’t already have – the list nestled safely on my phone as a reminder both of what I needed and that Sarah would be expecting to learn how I got on with it.

One Sunday I made the soup. I even remembered to buy a nice crunchy loaf to eat it with. It was warm and aromatic. Spicy without a chilli kick of doom. I mentally made notes for future cooking, an extra five minutes for the lentils and sweet potato, perhaps a little seasonal squash (if pre-cooked) would work well in the mix, debating whether blending it would improve or weaken the soup. It was tasty and comforting and a bit different from anything else I’d made recently. Almost as though my friend had reached out through the Internet and given me a hug. It was, in fact, exactly what I needed.

Mussaman Sweet Potato and Lentil Soup

It did in fact break the spell, setting me off on all sorts of cooking adventures. Sausage rolls and pesto puffs, various curries and several different ways with apples. I made spanakopita from her instructions too, despite never having eaten feta cheese before, stepping into the unfamiliar territory of Greek cuisine with only an old friends reassurances that they were simple and tasty – correct in both cases. (Exploded a little but I’ll get the hang of them eventually.) I’m on a downswing again from my cooking kick of the last month or so. I feel all scatty and disorganised. But when I was searching through my cupboards and fridge for inspiration this evening, I came across the left over feta from the spanakopita and remembered to be brave. Made something simple and filling, but a little bit different. Spanikoptika for dinner

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Foodie Resolutions

It’s January and the traditional time for taking stock (and making stock, I’ve made a lot of soup this month) and thinking about what we want to achieve in the coming year. If I’m honest: it’s my favourite thing about this time of year. Regular readers will know that I love a good list, even if I rarely complete them. It’s the journey not the destination!

Last year I made a couple of food related resolutions. I wanted to go vegetarian for 3 months and – after an aborted attempt the previous year – I wanted to get into food blogging. I succeeded in both of those things – victory for me! Over the course of the year I set myself various challenges that were greater or lesser successes, and I want to do more of that this year. The pick 30 recipes I’ve never made and cook them thing (both iterations) was a challenge of dual utility – it made me clear out a lot of recipes I’d been accumulating and wanting to cook and it gave me something to write about on here! I even managed to make on average two recipes a month off the list from March when I started the challenge onwards, which I think is a reasonable steady rate and one, which I’d like to maintain. I’m at 18 recipes so far; if I keep up the pace I should be finished by July.

So enough about last year, what are my food aspirations for this coming year? The main one involves baking. I really enjoy baking and I don’t do it enough. I procrastinate and forget about it, but I love doing it and I love eating the results. I want to bake 10 times in 2015. Not a massive target but large enough to be a challenge (I baked a total of 3 times last year) yet small enough that I really really should be able to achieve it. Besides, I got 2 Lorraine Pascale cookbooks for Christmas, and they’re heavy on the baking so I should really justify their existence shouldn’t I? More specifically I want to master the art of gluten free baking…nothing to do with having promised a certain friend of mine a birthday cake…

After a recent bout of food poisoning (dodgy burger on the way to a gig, I’ve only myself to blame) I’m not particularly feeling well disposed towards meat at the moment. So, I’m thinking that going vegetarian again may well be the way forward, though I’m holding off for the moment due to various factors that may make going veggie difficult – i.e. I might be moving to the Western Isles and I’m not sure how tenable being veggie there actually might be. It might be fine, I mean I’m unlikely to be able to get the kind of meat that I truly miss (chorizo, pancetta, pastrami) out there and I don’t actually like fish or seafood so it might actually be easier… Anyway, geographical issues aside, I’m planning to up the ante and go vegetarian for six months this year.

Plus I’d really like to get those meat-based recipes off my 30 recipes list actually made…

Other than that I want to do more challenges, I don’t quite know what yet, so I’m open to suggestions, but I’m thinking a sustainability/waste reduction theme wouldn’t go amiss. Suggestions on a postcard…or more usefully, in the comments below!

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Mugs of Seasonal Cheer

Here’s a thing. I’m not a massive fan of xmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love an excuse to buy and make things for my friends and family and also to generally eat, drink and be merry. But the day itself has no particular religious or emotional significance to me – if the choice is working Xmas or New Year there’s no doubt what my choice would always be.

However, the thing I do love about the whole idealised winter stuff that comes along with the Xmas obsession is the sudden onslaught of amazing hot drinks. When Winter arrives I like to be cosy, fluffy jumpers and fluffier socks, thick tights and winter boots, earmuffs, mittens and giant scarfs. Coming in from the cold to a big steaming mug of hot chocolate? Bliss!

Christmas for coffee shops means seasonal drinks, special blends, extra cream, unusual syrups and silly names. I have a couple of friends who are obsessed with Christmas and I enforce the rule with them that the season hasn’t begun until the red cups appear– if I have to deal with all this seasonal silliness I want a Gingerbread Latte or a Black-forest hot chocolate in hand to get me through. But beyond the usual suspects there are a myriad of hot drinks from smaller places that are no less charming or warming. The indie coffee shops in Stirling to a good line in spiced winter warmers (spiced winter apple at the bottom of the hill, mulled spice chai tea at the top) served in odd shaped mugs that only come out at this time of year.

And of course you can always make your own hot drinks at home, to your own exact specifications, whether that means extra syrup, less cream or whether or not your mulled wine is actually alcoholic. Personally, I have a marked preference for homemade blackcurrant wine – though the kind that I like, that will forever be the true taste of Christmas, is not remotely alcoholic and arguably has never seen an actual blackcurrant. Instead it is made from a strange syrup called yuleade, that, as far as I know, can be purchased only from the co-op and even then probably only in Scotland, combined with hot water and a frankly obscene amount of sugar and should rightfully be served in really tiny glasses. I made some myself a couple of winters ago and the sugar high I got from drinking an entire mug in one go – so decadent!! – explained just why the glasses I was given as a child were so very, very small.

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Tea Musings

I came to tea drinking later in life than most, despite coming from a family of tea drinkers – my gran in particular would feed you tea until you burst if you were too polite to tell her to stop.

Over the last few years I’ve developed a thing for loose leaf teas, culminating in my getting a tea pot – with filter – for my birthday a couple of years ago. Until I had a teapot of my own, I’d never really understood the whole tea-making-drinking as ritual thing, with steepings and timings and the rest. I had plenty of experience of the ‘tea as cure-all’ thing, though honestly even then there’s only one friend of mine who defaults to feeding me tea when I’m distressed and she makes the best tea in the world as far as I’m concerned – only from her will I always take a cuppa unquestioningly whenever offered. (Oddly enough she’s the only other person I know who owns a teapot – who owned one when we were students! – even if she makes it with tea bags and milk) But here I am as an adult, discovering the process of tea making as meditation. Of time spent in contemplation of the process, focused but unfocused, forgetting the rest of the world and its stresses and strains, to take a little time for oneself. Soothing and necessary. Time to rest and unwind, refocus on the things that matter.

I’m drinking Yunnan tea today, out of a little set of mini-tins of Chinese teas I got as a present. (Proper, curling dried leaves, that look like plant when they’ve been brewing for a while, none of this dust nonsense you get some places. Leaves you could read a fortune in if you were so inclined.) It’s rather pleasant.

One of the most useful craft projects I’ve ever undertaken was to make myself a tea cosy. Years ago, I came across a book of tea cosy patterns, a delightful blend of kitsch and charming, and fully expected it to spend its life much admired and un-used. With the arrival of my own teapot, the necessity of a tea cosy became apparent. It was fine if I made a pot of tea to share, but if I was making tea just for me, by the time I went for a second cup it was cold. Also, frankly, I didn’t particularly like any of the cosies in my mum’s collection and so it was make my own or be mildly irritated every time I made a pot of tea. My tea cosy is blue. Well, actually, its turquoise cable-work with a dark blue – with sparkles – trim at the top and bottom. Largely because the turquoise was left over from another project and I feared I might run out and the dark blue is an almost perfect match for the teapot. It looks cute and quaint wrapped in its cosy, and more importantly, the cosy keeps the tea at perfect drinking temperature for me. So I can spend an afternoon working away – on college work, crafting, writing articles or just curled up with a good book – and never need to move further than to reach over and pour another cup of tea.

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