Video: January-March 2017 Food and Cooking Favourites

It had been such a long time since I’d filmed something for the blog that I’d almost completely forgotten how. So please forgive the odd ramble as I take you through some of the food and food-related things I’ve loved in the first part of this year, from dazzling sweet-sour citrus to two very good books, afternoon snacks, and a new and slightly sticky obsession…

 

 

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August 2016 Food and Cooking Favourites

I feel like a slightly tentative snail or bear or other creature that habitually creeps from a comforting hibernating environment to say – hello! I’m here! I made a video! I have created content! I have not, despite appearances to the contrary, been smacked entirely unconscious by work, which picks up a head of steam around this time of year sufficient to blow us into December.

I have still been eating and reading and enjoying things, which brings me to my August 2016 Food Favourites, which, looking at it now, is centred around the theme of comfort: comfort food (meatballs), reading (Laurie Colwin) and TV (the Great British Bake Off). It’s a reminder that the weather is getting colder as we moved into autumn but also that things are starting to get more strained and stressful in the office as the deadlines hit us like arrows).

I filmed this a few weeks ago (it’s just taken me a while to get my editing act together) and my gushing about the Great British Bake Off and expression of it as a genuine national treasure of a show now reads as oddly ironic and a little bittersweet. (For those of you who don’t know, the Great British Bake Off, a BBC institution, has moved to the commercially orientated broadcaster Channel 4, which specialises in edgier programme aimed more explicitly at the youth demographic – or, as almost inevitably described, ‘yoof’. It’s inevitable that the unique character of the show will be lost now that the two presenters and one of the judges have declined to move channels).

Friday Food Things, part VI: I get peachy keen about Lucky Peach, and swallow the stone

128While I was in New York earlier this month, I visited three outposts of David Chang’s Momofuku empire. The Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar offered up some out-of-this-world spectacular food, the find of food I’m still thinking of. (I also visited the Milk Bar, if you’re wondering about the third outlet). I would love to go again and would recommend them heartily to anyone (apart from vegetarians – no real non-meat/fish options are available. It seems kind of out of step with current sensibilities but hasn’t affected their success). Anyway, considering I fell pretty hard for the slurpy, spicy, punchy food offered at Momofuku, I also picked up two copies of Lucky Peach, the food journal David Chang founded: the Pho Issue and the Versus Issue.

Unlike other food magazines, it’s quarterly rather than monthly and is decidedly a journal of food writing rather than a small recipe compendium smattered with writing, reviews and other features. Clearly comparing Lucky Peach to Olive, Delicious or BBC Good Food would be to compare some quite different beasts. While the latter serves an audience of keen home cooks, Lucky Peach is aimed at true food hobbyists, the kind of people who some might say are unhealthily obsessed with eating. And it is true that for anyone whose interest or passion is food there is a real danger of fetishisation, whether of chefs, produce, or fancy and expensive equipment. Fortunately Lucky Peach‘s editors prick an inclination to pretentious with amusing and perhaps even bold send-ups of the food reviewing genre: in the Pho issue, for example, a writer reviews packets of instant pho and freely admits to them becoming samey and boring and feeling ‘full of noodles’ at the end of the challenge.

Beautiful photography in the Pho Issue
Beautiful photography in the Pho Issue

The writing is also bloody good. I became surprisingly into the history of pho, even though it was hard work initially considering I’ve like, never eaten it and stuff. But once I let go and got immersed into the writing I learned so many interesting things about not just pho but Vietnam itself: the country’s fraught relationship to America; its transition from imperial outpost to Communist state to capitalist transition; the people who fled and how they built their lives; how all this history has come together in a bowl of beefy noodle soup. Despite living in South East Asia for the better part of my life I’ve never visited Vietnam (nor Cambodia nor Laos for that matter) and Lucky Peach really captured a lot of dimensions and complexity about the country, a particular feat when you consider the whole thing was ostensibly about soup.

148Again, I started off by finding the Versus issue somewhat hard going (the rivalry between San Francisco and New York as food capitals is pretty much alien and irrelevant to me as a rivalry between Marseilles and Avignon would be: I mean, I’d be happy to visit either!), but again a really great selection of energetic writers and compelling interviews drew me in despite my initial scepticism. Lucas Peterson’s article on disordered eating was frankly one of the most affecting pieces I’ve ever read about food, as someone who has suffered from bad cycles of binge eating, self hatred and extreme dietary deprivation (not as an adult, but as an overweight teen). I ached for the loneliness that came through in his eating; by contrast to his patterns of indulge as a teenager, his writing is calm and self-reflective without dipping into self-pity or pathology.

Surprisingly the article on Tokyo by David Chang himself was a weak spot and suffered from one of Lucky Peach’s greatest downfalls, its manufactured bad-assery. I mentioned to my boyfriend when we were eating at the Ssam Bar that David Chang is considered this majorly rebellious, bad-ass, bad-boy, rule-book-tearing chef. “Why’s that?” said the boyfriend, not unreasonably. “On you know, he swears and has tattoos,” I said, and we both laughed because neither are exactly the acts of a wild child dismissive of taboo.

136So there’s a lot of swearing in Lucky Peach and Chang’s Tokyo article is one ‘fuck’ after another (of Italy: “For fuck’s sake, can you eat anything besides fucking pasta?” I don’t disagree with the sentiment as such, but it doesn’t actually require the swearing to make its point; it’s there like a Christmas decoration in July, superfluous but the owner likes it, which is fine when it comes to home decor and less fine when it comes to literature and especially the confines of print media). Like we get it, you don’t believe in the norm of being polite to your reader or mindful of their potential delicacy. But swearing isn’t really that original or shocking and frankly is too often used as a crutch in Lucky Peach, a shorthand to show how edgy and alternative the writers and editors are, the expletive delivered in lieu of any real nuance or insight. It’s fundamentally laziness that occasionally mars and, more rarely, threatens to entirely derail an article, which doesn’t do justice to the magazine’s typical depth and grasp of complexity.

All in all, if you see food as more than just fuel and are interested in it as a mechanism and medium for biography, history, geography and even anthropology, I’d recommend having a bite of Lucky Peach (this is the kind of lazy and derivative metaphor which falls into the same category as the swearing I complained about above, but it was surprisingly hard to resist! Sorry guys). It’s definitely one for those whose interest goes beyond cooking as a craft and is not too sensitive to swearing, who has the tolerance to get through some slightly dense articles, the patience to forgive the ones trying too hard to shock (and failing), and can survive long thematic issues on seemingly narrow topics. But perseverance wins the day: if you can make it through, you will discover some truly excellent food writing and experience some real insight into issues you might not have thought about or considered interesting without prompting.

Friday Food Things, part V: the miracle of seasonality

I haven’t written in a bit because the past couple of weeks have involved the following: preparing to travel (including trying to finish off as much work as possible before leaving the office); travelling and enjoying myself enormously; recovering from travelling. My travels took me to New York, where I visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled around Central Park, and ate some amazing food. You can read the first instalment of my adventures in the Big Apple here.

IMG_2336Since back, I have absolutely devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificently inspirational Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver is primarily known as a novelist, with The Poisonwood Bible probably being her most immediately recognisable work (true to form, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read The Lacuna which, if nothing else, introduced me to the concept of the lacuna). (That sounds flippant. It was very good). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, is something like a memoir, something like a work of journalism, something like a handbook for seasonal eating. It follows Kingsolver and her family as they move to her husband’s farm in Appalachia and agree to eat seasonally and locally for a year, as a family project. I’ve always been interested, in a token way, in locality and seasonality, and occasionally get so prickly about our general reliance on fossil fuels, a reliance embedded deep within the food supply system, that I wake up in the middle of the night and sit bolt upright, panicking. However, in recent years, what was once a passionate interest has seemed marginal when I have struggled to find time to cook at all on occasion. Even when you love food, the reality of cooking

Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)
Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)

when you’re home at 7pm, 8pm, ground down by a long journey deep underground in a rattling carriage, can be a prosaic and joyless chore at times. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was like that moment when I drink my third cup of coffee: an awakening. Kingsolver lives on a farm, so it’s arguably easy for her to eat locally, seasonally. But the advice is generous and understanding about the impact even a few cumulative decisions can have on the whole fossil fuel-dependent global supply chain of food, how it can reduce our reliance on them, and how a few small changes can directly benefit farmers. Yes, the book is a little dated now, and it’s obviously focused on the US, which doesn’t map exactly with agriculture in Europe. In the EU, we simply don’t have the same issues with growth hormones in milk, concentrated animal feeding operations and patented genetically modified crops, partly due to EU regulations and partly due to consumer rejection. Interetsingly, disagreements about food standards are one of the issues holding up agreement on the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

 

IMG_1162I can’t and won’t live without aubergine, but I am making an effort to eat seasonally and locally. In this I have been aided by two things. The first is April Bloomfield’s A Girl and her Greens, an ode to vegetables which bursts with creativity and ideas for beautiful, sometimes unusual, vegetables. Not all the recipes are 100% to my taste (like many professional chefs, she uses more butter than I am personally comfortable with!) but I feel genuinely excited when flicking through this book, inspired to cook new things in different ways. The quirky illustrations of dancing pigs and quizzical chickens are also a delight.

IMG_1166
These dancing pig illustrations in A Girl and Her Green never failed to draw a smile

The second aid to seasonality is Farm Direct, a website my friend Mehrunnisa directed me to. It’s effectively a virtual marketplace where farmers can list their produce; the food you order is delivered straight to your door. I browse the website like some people browse Asos or Tiffany’s: I just want it all, and everything is precious. So many wonderful things are growing around this time of year and I piled my online basket high, and then reluctantly took stuff out, bitterly acknowledging the fact that we are a two-person household who can only eat so much. The fantastic thing about the produce offered is that there are plenty of things simply not available in supermarkets: think sorrel, baby purple turnips, red spring onions. I find the prices competitive, too, especially for the unusual and organic produce, and I like the fact that farmers are earning more than they would if I purchased their food through a supermarket. I can’t wait for my next crate of baby turnips, gooseberries and Tiptree strawberries to arrive this weekend.

IMG_1172So immersed in my new love of seasonal, more local, eating (fresher! Directly benefitting farmers in my locality! Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels!) was I that reading Adam Johns’ opinion column ‘What’s so great about reating seasonally?’, published in the ‘A Good Rant’ section of delicious magazine was something of a shock. Johns describes encouragement to eat seasonally (though he intertwines this with the issue of eating locally – admittedly the two are very intersected) as an “absurd foodie dictum” and characterised by “piety, hypocrisy, and chauvinism”, not to mention snobbery and “culinary xenophobia”. He bemoans being unable to find South African apples in his local supermarket. I found the article pretty judgemental, but most of it was just his opinion, and I’m excellent at living and letting live on those (I just don’t have the energy to get exercised about how other people feel most of the time). However, there were two parts in particular where I thought Johns’ arguments were specious. Firstly:

Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? […] why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato?

My counter-point to that argument is the simple issue that fresh food is perishable. When it is imported via air, huge amounts of fuel are used to bring over produce which is, largely, destined to have a relatively brief shelf life. Coupled with the knowledge that UK households throw out 7 million tonnes of food items a year, half of which could have been eaten, the implication is that a lot of food is being imported only to be thrown away. A huge amount of non-renewable fossil fuel has been used to transfer out of season green beans to our rubbish (or perhaps compost!) bins. When importing clothes and shoes, there is no real shelf life (beyond the vagaries of fashion) as these are not perishable items, therefore importing them is not so risible. They are also much more likely to be shipped by container, and not a refrigerated one, either.

The second argument that Johns makes is as follows:

There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.

Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct
Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct

It’s been well recorded that the market distoring impact of the Common Agricultural Policy has had the unwelcome effect of flooding developing countries’ markets with subsidised food grown in Europe, resulting in the decline of local food production; in addition, the CAP’s subsidies mean developing-world farmers cannot compete with their European counterparts on price. While the CAP has been reformed, these structural problems remain and arguably will continue to do so. The idea that farmers in the developing world are making a decent living due to our appetite for their vegetables is risible. A lot of the growing is done on large-scale monoculture plantations or farms owned by local or international corporations.

 

The restructuring of developing countries’ food markets to grow crops for the Western world’s table is also having a serious impact on the local environment and is in some cases compromising local peoples’ access to fresh, affordable food. At the same time, I recognise that food exports will be an important source of income for many people in the developing world and that whole countries’ economies rely on export of primary products. My point is that the whole issue is complex from a range of perspectives, including human, economic, and environmental, and Johns’ reductionist argument, painting those reluctant to buy foreign-grown vegetables as xenophobic Scrooges does a disservice to this difficult issue.

As I said I am unlikely to be able to live entirely without products from the world’s larder: in my fridge and on my counter I have bananas, aubergines, tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs and spices from around the world (and when it comes to fossil fuels…I did travel to New York recently!). But attempting to tread a little more lightly on the earth by reducing my reliance on foods imported by fossil fuel is driven not by xenophobia or pettiness but by an attempt to live more responsibly in my day to day actions. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Video: April 2016 Food Favourites

It’s Sunday the 15th of May today, so pretty much bang on halfway into the month, but I have put together another video of my favourite food and cooking items from the month of April (see my first video of March favourites here). I talk about things to read, a fabulous recipe for a wonderful white loaf, my new breakfast obsession (handy hint: it’s skyr) and a lifechanging cooking implement (hint: I’m holding it in the thumbnail). I hope you enjoy it!

Friday Food Things, Part IV: gadgets, gizmos and jam, served with a bit of ranting

026 028The Bank Holiday weekend was all about jam for me. Our computer monitor broke on Friday night and we didn’t get a replacement until Wednesday, shattering my plans to catch up on emails, write an overdue report for work, and finish some research for a project. Instead, jam-making came to the rescue, and I’m now the proud home preserver-mother of jars of simple, sweet raspberry jam; lemon marmalade; rhubarb and strawberry butter; and kumquat and passion fruit marmalade (exotic, fragrant, unusual). The first three recipes are from Thane Prince’s Perfect Preserves; the latter is from Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke. I was deeply resistant to buying preserving books for a long time, but now I feel something of a bug coming on. I recently purchased Kylee Newton’s The Modern Preserver and now have a Do Preserve kind of feeling…

 

Moving on, I’ve recently discovered The Angry Chef blog – a blog that claims to expose lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food. There is a lot of all three out there – I tend to avoid media outlets and blogs on the ‘lies and stupidity’ spectrum, but pretension is pretty difficult to avoid. The writer is a self-proclaimed balding, middle-aged chef with ‘a mind trained in scientific investigation’, which means his writing is clear, logical and well thought out. But it’s also just really funny. The blog first came to my attention with the post ‘An unfashionable defence of convenience

Angry Chef unapproved
Angry Chef unapproved

– read it if you’ve ever felt slightly guilty about feeding yourself/your partner/your kids/anyone food out of a packet, even though you’re absolutely shattered and the only way you can hold on to your sanity is through the microwaveable ready meal in your shopping bag. A recent post on ‘The Irritating Superstars of Health and Fitness’ has sent the blogosphere/ Twittersphere/ foodiesphere on fire. However, the post I shared with my decidedly non-foodie boyfriend was ‘Has anyone seen my Ayurvedic tongue scraper?’, a savagely funny, yet at heart deeply concerned, take-down of the glossy, photogenic advocates of cleaning eating, whose diets of choice are centred on the unecessary elimination of food groups the vast majority of people are perfectly fine eating. Particularly in his sights in this article are Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, whom he criticises for their promotion of the comtroversial, dubious GAPS diet. In addition to being informative and intelligent, it’s a darkly humourous piece that absolutely skewers his subjects.

Let’s leave things on an equally funny, but considerably frothier, note. I’ve been a regular reader/dipper into and out of Rhik Samadder’s slightly whimsical Inspect a Gadget columns in The Guardian. Samadder reviews kitchen gadgets from the outer realms of probable need (even from the perspective of a dedicated kitchen-clutterer like myself), from a self-heating butter knife to his take-down of the Egg Master, which is a bit of a classic and has turned many an idle reader of the column into a rabid fan. In short: he goes there so you don’t have to. Fun stuff, and the below the line comments, rarely for a Guardian article, are equally joyful.

Friday Food Things, Part III: of magazines, portion sizes, and tahini cookies

Good Food magazine

075This month, Good Food magazine launches its new look, and the May issue’s dazzling front cover showcases beautiful eclairs dressed in spring-bright shades of icing. There’s also a 16-page Nigella collection (though I doubt it will be anything new for me as I actually already own all of her cookbooks). As a further bonus, if you buy the magazine from Sainsbury’s, you will receive a Lakeland duo-colour icing kit, which will enable you to pipe two different colours at once and comes with 6 nozzles, 8 disposable icing pages amd a coupling set. This is an extra exclusive to Sainsbury’s so it’s worth holding out on your purchase to get it from there.

 

Portion control

This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards
This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards

When I decided to reassess my diet and work towards losing the weight I’d progressively gained over the course of work and, especially, my part-time MA, the first thing I took in hand was portion sizes. For the first time in my life, really, I started paying attention to the portions of a recipe and limiting myself to a single share; no longer would I consume half a recipe of something which said ‘serves four’. At first it was difficult and I was very hungry, but it’s become much easier. I feel like I now have a much more intuitive grasp of how much I should be eating of any given food. These – I hesitate to call them insights, but I suppose they are – meant I read this Guardian article on portions with interest. The article is written by Bee Wilson, who is a fabulous writer, and thanks to my avid and greedy reading of her books, a lot of the information wasn’t new to me, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a very useful summary of what has happened to portion sizes in the last 50 years (they’ve gotten bigger). Jay Rayner, Gizzi Erskine and Tamal Ray’s contributions on how they approach portion control were engaging, too; of the three I’m most sympathetic to Gizzi’s approach but none of the three experiences overlaps exactly with how I approach food.

Cleaving

078I’ve been reading Julie Powell’s Cleaving. I remember when Julie Powell was a huge deal in the food blogging community, though I was never an avid reader of her Julie and Julia blog back in the day (I was a Chocolate and Zucchini girl). I did read Julie and Julia when it came out and found it riveting; she’s a compelling writer and I missed Tube stops reading this (which resulted in missing a train to my station and having to trek back in the dark). Cleaving was not such a success, partly I think because it’s about adultery, which I am, I realised, not really comfortable with, but more importantly, I think the central conceit of the book – that butchery, adultery and the ties of love and obsession are interconnected – does not work. I could have bought the elaborate metaphor in a work of fiction, where suspension of disbelief in these things is essential, but not in autobiography. It stretched my credulity to imagine that, as Powell sliced pork or beef, that the elaborate thoughts and memories of her marriage and obsession with her lover came as perfectly to mind as she portrays.

Salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies, via My Name is Yeh

050I have baked two batches of the salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies I found via Molly Yeh’s beautiful and considered blog; to my surprise my boyfriend adored them too. I thought that perhaps the tahini would put him off, because he doesn’t tend to like nut butters, but he is as obsessed with them as I am. They are utterly delicious: crumbly, salty, absolutely packed with chocolate.

My observations: the recipe states that you must not skip the step of resting the cookie dough overnight in the freezer. The first time I made these, I chilled the dough for about half an hour. The cookies baked up crisp, crumbly and short, which is how I like them actually. For the second batch, I rested the dough overnight in the fridge and only then scooped the dough out onto the baking tray to bake. My fridge is tiny and I don’t have a freezer, so this is how it has to be. The rested batch is indeed softer, slightly doughier and cakier, though not in an undercooked way. My boyfriend prefers them this texture; I like them crunchier, as per the first time, without resting.

The recipe has salted in the title but I thought 1 teaspoon of Maldon salt flakes a little too much. Three-quarters of a teaspoon, as per the second batch, is much better. The recipe also supposedly makes 12 but I find this inconceivable, since I made at least 18 large cookies using a pretty sizeable cookie scoop. If making 12 I can only imagine they would be unreasonably large.

Finally, cup measurements are annoying. If you want to make them the metric measurements (I weighed as I went) are as follows (I haven’t included the full list of ingredients, just the ones that benefit from being weighed out rather than measured in cups):

  • 113g butter
  • 140g tahini
  • 120g sugar (I did reduce this from the original recipe, which calls for a whole cup; I measured out three quarters of a cup because I thought the ratio of one cup sugar to just over a cup of flour to be excessive)
  • 190g flour
  • 260g dark chocolate chunks (I didn’t use the Valrhona feves; I just used Sainsbury’s dark chocolate, cut up into squares to retain the spirit of very large chunks of molten chocolate striated through the dough)