1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week
One of my favourite standby meals has been the prawn coconut noodle soup pictured below, which basically involves simmering coconut milk and aromatics like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, then cooking up some vegetables and prawns and adding cooked rice noodles. We’ve already established that I’m counting any kind of seafood for this resolution and my reliance on this fragrant, filling soup is helping me meet this easily. I also made other fishy standbys such as salmon in soy sauce, which I invariably have with rice and broccoli. It’s very easy and quick and basically brainless – I’ve made it for so many years it’s muscle memory now.
2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week
The weather in the UK has veered between very hot in June and, more recently, as cool and wet as early autumn on some days. I still like to eat warm food on hot days – not boiling hot, but equally I’ve never seen the appeal of cold soups and so on which are invariably recommended when the sun comes out. I’ve tended to rely on grain salads – I made a few nice ones with pearled spelt and barley, fried chorizo and spinach wilted in the pan and this Mediterranean aubergine and barley salad, which at first glance looks lengthy but includes a lot of store-cupboard spices. On the cooler days I’ve been eating soup – sometimes the courgette soup made to my grandmother’s recipe (‘cook the onions and celery in some butter until glazed, add the courgettes, add the stock, cook until done and blend’). Other days I’ve just packed up leftovers from the night before: bean and pepper stew (see below!) reheats well and, as it turns out, tortillas warm through perfectly when heated up in the office microwave.
The thing I’ve come to realise about having set this as a challenge is that it actually pushes me to get up and make myself a packed lunch for tomorrow, even if I’d rather stay sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling on a Sunday evening and cursing Monday’s return. So that’s good.
3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week
I almost missed this resolution in the week of spelt and chorizo salads for my work lunch – work lunches are almost always vegetarian, which means I hit this resolution easily with minimal effort. But in the end I managed to scramble my menu plan around and ensure we ate more vegetarian food in the evenings.
Here’s a vegetarian meal I like which I make intermittently: fry up some sliced onions in oil. Add sliced up peppers – I use those tricolour packets sold in the UK for this, even though I really favour red peppers. Add paprika (preferably a combination of sweet, smoked and hot), cumin, black pepper and salt. If you have fresh, ripe tomatoes, cut them up and throw them in here; otherwise use a tin of plum or chopped tomatoes. Cover and cook down for 15 minutes. Add a rinsed tin of beans (kidney beans or black beans are good) and add to the pot to heat through for another ten minutes, uncovered. Serve to go inside heated up corn or flour tortillas with sliced up avocados, creme fraiche and grated cheese.
I’ve never made this exactly the same way but it’s always the same dish. I had half a tin of chipotles in adobo which I rescued from the freezer unit and added those with the tomatoes, which was good – and another time I added dried, soaked and blended chipotle and ancho chillies, also very good. These are messy to eat but really satisfying.
4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes
You may have been able to tell from some of the descriptions above that I’ve been cooking a bit more spontaneously than in other months, and that’s with a purpose: I have finally, after many, many people have told me this, realised that I hoard too many dry goods in my cupboards. I must stop treating them like a collection. This means I’m driven by the dictates of my cupboard and not a recipe.
But I have made granola to Clotilde Dusolier’s basic formula on repeat: it’s great because it can use up any old odds and ends of grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruit in the house. I’ve made versions rich in coconut flakes and studded with jewelled apricots (pictured – the apricots make it look beautiful considering it’s just granola), and others heavy on sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and others almost entirely with walnuts. I’ve used every permutation of almond in the house (except ground). I’ve used barley flakes as well as rolled oats. I always used the soaked flax seeds because I have a huge tin of them on my countertop, and this does mean the granola never gets as crisp as it would without the liquid, but that’s okay.
My boyfriend has started eating bananas for pre-exercise fuel (sensible): with a handful which were blackened and softening I made this banana bread with pecans and it was excellent. There are a million or more recipes for banana bread in the world so it feels strange to recommend a particular one, and one in the dreaded American cup measurements too. It was very nice though.
5) Celebrate my heritage more
I’m caught in the intractable dilemma that you really start doing all of this tradition and routine stuff when you have kids, because that’s when you discover the benefits of a less chaotic lifestyle and the power of ritual. I’m sure I’d benefit from a bit more togetherness and organisation in my life but I also had a two-hour nap today and that was really much better than hanging around trying to feel Belgian. I don’t know. I’m about ready to give up on this one and file as an ‘I don’t actually know what to do with this’.
…On the other hand I have been reading a book on the history of Flemish nationalism during the First World War and finding it really interesting – there are parallels to the history of Irish nationalism and occasionally overlapping cast members, too.
6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine
Off and on as always. I spent a week or two in a really excellent pattern of good nourishing sleep, waking up at 6am and therefore getting in all my French practice before work rather when tired and slumped afterwards. Unfortunately it gave way to my more typical pattern of staring in increasingly tense, frustrated silence at the ceiling willing for sleep to come, tossing and turning outrageously. I think it’s a lifelong work in progress, but I will keep trying.
7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London
I did it, I did it, I did it! In June I visited the spa town of Bath with my friends Juliet and Ariadne. It’s a very picturesque Georgian town – we visited on a weekend of clear days and soft, milky light (see the top picture) – which is absolutely rammed with tourists and visitors (including ourselves) of all languages and nationalities (at least judging from the multilingual signage that peppers the town). We visited the cathedral, drifted around the shops, admired the Royal Crescent and bought chocolates at Maison Georges Larnicol (if you’ve watched The Sweet Makers on the BBC it appears (unnamed) in the Georgian-era episode). We also ate, of course: an exquisite seasonal meal at The Circus, deliciously filling pizzas (savoury and sweet) at The Stable and an indifferent cream tea.
8) Read at least one book a month
Thanks to rediscovering Agatha Christie, this has gone really well. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of the great Poirot classics – Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders – and slightly less iconic works such as Death in the Clouds as well as the short story collections.