Resolution roundup: February 2017

cheese-and-black-bean-quesadilla

It’s the end of the second month of the year – the shortest month and traditionally the grimmest and dreariest, although to be honest I’ve found February this year to be surprisingly warm and bright and hopeful. I’ve been trying to maintain my commitment to the resolutions, though I think I understand why momentum traditionally drops. I already feel defeated and exhausted…though I am writing this while nursing a two-day hangover for which I can only blame myself, but for which I would like to blame all of my friends.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

Yes, done, though sometimes I’ve supplemented fish cooking with a bit of bought-in sushi. I do love it. I have also noticed that this resolution is making me more likely to order a fish dish over a meat dish when eating out.

Anyway, in terms of dishes that I cooked, some highlights include this Martha Stewart recipe for herb-crusted salmon –  simple but very good; we had it with rosemary roast potatoes. Equally, this recipe for foil-baked fish with ginger, garlic and chilli, by Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall, was child’s play but utterly delicious served with steamed rice and broccoli. My platonic fish meal, and I always adore HFW’s recipes.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

Done! Sometimes a bit exhausting and occasionally wearying if I’m eating the same thing over and over again (see below), but not a bad effort.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Yes, mostly achieved thorough work lunches – for some reason this month a lot of dishes seem to have been served with a flourish of diced chorizo. After eating this sweet potato and chickpea curry every day for lunch plus for dinner I never want to eat it again. It was the never-ending curry; if I had a freezer I would have tucked away half of it. These black bean quesadillas from Allegra McEvedy (pictured above) were glorious, incidentally. I usually grate cheese over my main quesadilla mixture, but somehow mixing it in with the vegetable filling made a real difference. I also made a really luscious macaroni and cheese with leeks: just cooked pasta, leeks sauteed in butter, a standard bechamel enchanced with mustard powder, nutmeg and lots of Cheddar, and a crunchy topping of parmesan cheese with breadcrumbs. No bacon necessary, and I don’t say that lightly.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I have been successfully ploughing through but the recipes were, broadly, not such hits this time. This mac and cheese recipe was an out-and-out mess – like all such recipes it used up every vessel in the kitchen and curdled, to boot – I thought it was my error but a few commenters have mentioned curdling as a problem. It tasted okay but was texturally a fail. However, of a mediocre (though generally not bad/horrible) bunch, there were a few standouts, including this comforting sausage and kidney bean stew from Angela Hartnett. I enjoyed these sweet potato latkes, but my boyfriend adored them and absolutely wolfed them down. I served them with chorizo.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

I read a news story about K.A.A. Gent beating Tottenham in the Europa League and that’s good enough for me. Since my interest in football is such that I glaze over at even a mention of it, this is extreme patriotism indeed. (In other words, no).

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I’m waking up regularly at 6am naturally, which is not entirely welcome. I don’t think this can be considered ‘good’.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

No.

8) Read at least one book a month

…I think I have. But I can’t remember what I read in January and what in February…? Anyway I’m currently re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s marvellous and inspiring ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ and will then read ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ for my book club – slightly apprehensive about this one…

 

 

 

Enjoy without thinking about it: warming the heart with turmeric milk

tumeric-milk

This winter I’ve had cause to reflect that no amount of meditation, mindfulness apps or aphorisms about living in the now will encourage you to inhabit the present as much as walking down an icy, frosted street will. The council will occasionally scatter a handful of salt onto the roads, but the pavements, untreated, remained glazed with a hard carapace of frost. The slick streets require focus and calm. Your world reduces to only the crunchy grey pavement and each footstep you take in order to avoid a fall. It’s risky to distract yourself even with the extraction of a tissue to blow a wintery nose.

These are days to forego your 10,000 steps and spend as much time as possible snuggled beneath thick fleecy blankets, under a lamp throwing a pool of welcome, warming yellow light, with a stack of cookbooks to leaf through (or maybe Laurie Colwin’s always-soothing ‘Home Cooking’) and the TV on low. Of course you’ll need something warming and filling to drink, because nothing else sends much-needed heat pouring into you in quite the same way. And while I am perennially devoted to tea – truly, madly, deeply in love, always and forever, with a strong and malty Assam – I have more recently been making myself the occasional cup of turmeric milk, usually before bed.

golden-milk

Also known –  in English – as golden milk (and sometimes even referenced as a ‘turmeric latte’ when available to purchase in coffee shops, presumably to push up the price), this drink, a favoured cold remedy of [some] grandmothers of the Indian subcontinent (a friend described it as ‘the kind of thing our granny forces us to drink every time we cough’), has recently become trendy as turmeric secures its status in the global pantheon of superfoods. The co-optation of golden milk and its celebration in Western diets has been noted as potentially problematic, which a thoughtful piece by Tara O’Brady (brought to my attention by my friend Mehrunnisa) outlines, as has its growing symbolism as a representation of an idea of a monolithic, singular ‘Indian’ culture. The parcelling out of one acceptable piece of a traditional culture, divorced from wider acceptance, appreciation or integration of that culture or its people, is an ongoing process and an ongoing, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation which surely finds  echoes whenever a ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ culture meet. (I don’t think ‘host’ and ‘immigrant’ are quite right here, but it’s difficult to find something equally expressive and concise. During my MA, I studied a unit on migration to London and we discussed there terms such as ‘third generation immigrants’ and their problematic application to people who are by definition not immigrants at all). Whenever I read pieces like this I find myself reflecting on those lines between cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation and, in the case of food, the culinary adventurousness which compels people who love to cook and eat to explore different cultures through mealtimes, picking and choosing without regard for context beyond one’s own taste and dinner table. I’m not quite clear what the answer is. I know that when I drink a cup of turmeric milk, it is indeed “removed from its thousands-of-years-old provenance”, albeit without the promise of anything beyond its delightful taste, just as I certainly don’t eat quinoa as a Peruvian person would do. I am reminded of Nigella Lawson’s oft-repeated phrase “I don’t know if it’s authentic, but it’s authentically good” – and am compelled to wondering if this is really enough, or even if I am the best person to reflect on these complex issues.

I know, however, that I’ve been intermittently drinking warm, spiced milk since I was a university student in an attempt to develop a good sleeping pattern, though the soporific effects of milk are debatable. With regular sleep eluding me and wanting to avoid the caffeine associated with tea straight before bed, I more recently returned to my occasional spiced milk habit in the evenings, albeit with a few twists; one of these is a dusting of bright turmeric. In addition to staining the milk a cheerful butter yellow, I admit it makes me feel good to ingest more of this spice, whose anti-inflammatory properties are increasingly subject to pharmacological scrutiny. I’m always sceptical of the claims that any food can cure dementia, arthritis or any other maladies, but evidence suggests a lot of foods (such as fish) have preventative, even if not curative, effects. And rest assured that I am as happy to drink my spiced turmeric milk for its mood-elevating properties, delivered by its soothing taste and pretty colour, as for any health reason (perhaps an example of ‘just eating’ and enjoying without thinking about and intellectualising the experience).

golden-milk-with-spices

My spice mixture was always loosely based on the spices used in masala chai, albeit one brewed without tea leaves: I used cinnamon, black pepper, piney cloves, fragrant star anise and ginger (either the dried version, dusty and warm, or the spikey fresh root), maybe cardamom if I had it – but as a student my funds didn’t always stretch to all of these and sometimes it was just a short, sharp mixture of pepper, tooth-tingling cloves and cinnamon, which I tended to have in greater abundance. Over the Christmas break, I read a feature in Belgian (well, Flemish, anyway) newspaper De Standaard called ‘The favourite winter recipe of 25 foodies’ (‘het favoriete winterrecept van 25 foodies’), which did what it said on the tin and, in terms of combining food and personal stories, was pretty much my platonic ideal of a foodie magazine feature. It made for an incredibly absorbing and comforting reading on the Eurostar trip back home to London. A recipe from Dorien Knockaert – who is described as ‘without a doubt one of the most interesting culinary voices in Flanders’ – for masala chai was included and something about her voice caught my attention. I tried her recipe out and some elements from that crept into my own recipe. (I am fully aware – given the contours of the debate about cultural appropriation of food which I’ve tried to point to, albeit necessarily incompletely, above – of the many ironies of one white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent inspiring another white Belgian woman’s interpretation of a traditional drink from the Indian subcontinent). Regardless of the politics of this cross-cultural exchange, the chief inheritance is the addition of a good sprinkle of fennel seeds; to me, the faint aniseed scent of fennel truly elevates the drink, and I now wouldn’t be without it.

Continue reading “Enjoy without thinking about it: warming the heart with turmeric milk”

Resolution roundup: January 2017

I set myself some resolutions this year which are – I think – achievable, and am going to see if I can write up my progress regularly in the name of accountability and to see when and where things go wrong. So here we go for January.

Fabrique Bakery's vanilla bun
The lovely, loopy vanilla bun at Fabrique Bakery, and a flat white. January, and breakfast, joy

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

Notwithstanding my hand-wringing over the ethics of fish consumption, this was an easy resolution to keep because I really like fish and seafood (I realise that my resolution to ‘eat fish’ really means ‘eat seafood’ because I did count prawns as a ‘fish’ at one point). Admittedly I sometimes only managed to achieve this by eating sushi for lunch, but I am in a big, big sushi phase at the moment. The avocado and salmon rolls at Itsu are currently everything I want and more (but I limit my intake because they are not cheap).

Sesame salmon

Highlights include salmon with avocado remoulade, although I baked the fish rather than frying it and used garlic instead of shallots in the avocado (so it was like gaucamole, really), and this ginger roasted salmon (I halved the recipe), which was lightly sweet in a way that complemented the sweetish taste of salmon itself, and delicious served with wilted kale doused in black bean sauce and sushi rice. I really loved these maple and sesame-slathered fillets of salmon, too. Steamed fish with chilli, garlic and lime had some delicious flavours but I struggled to steam it as directed – baking it in a foil or baking paper parcel might be easier. I enjoyed these fish tacos but my boyfriend was less sure that fish and tortillas belong together. I made pork tacos the next day to use up the tortillas before they went stale and he liked that a lot more.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

Frosted leaves
January : cold days, colder nights, and crunchy, frost-edged leaves on the way to work

On the second week of January I only managed to make my lunch for two days – including a day where I was working from home (I made a very delicious toasted mozzarella and aubergine sandwich) – but other than that I have hit this one on the head in January, usually managing to take things in for the full working week.

The lowest-effort way for me to bring things to work is to make a big batch of something for dinner for one night and tehn package of the leftovers for work – this Georgian red bean and walnut soup and this black bean soup (I left out the ham hock and added lots of smoked paprika) made absolute vats and reheated easily in the microwave.

Harder work and more cleaning up, but offering satisfying variety, I made a range of dips to eat with flatbreads and vegetable sticks. This carrot puree was nice enough but too sweet for my tastes – it needed more chilli and less honey. I made muhammara, but as delicious as roasted red peppers always will be, Diana Henry’s recipe is much better – this one was too breadcrumby. This avocado hummus was a big hit, however, because it was very creamy and light and added that smoothness often lacking from homemade hummus (in my opinion, anyway).

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Easily met if you count my work meals, but I still achieved this even if you discount breakfast and food at work. I made vegetarian chili (nice but not a ‘forever’ recipe), then another one, pasta spiked with herbs (I added lots of chilli flakes and lemon zest to counteract the blandness so many reviewers commented on, and reduced the breadcrumb amounts, for what it’s worth), this very delicious aubergine parmigiana which I recommend highly, and a cauliflower risotto, which had a very creamy blandness which made me think of my favoured childhood meal of steamed cauliflower with bechamel. It was comforting, but also…mild.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

Granola and rhubarb and blood orange jam
Homemade granola with homemade blood orange and rhubarb jam and organic vanilla yoghurt

Yes! Most of the recipes I made were from the bookmarks, as can be seen from the links. I also made a couple of granolas – skipping the cranberries in these – and this simple but extremely practical and very delicious granola; the second recipe is from, of all places, Tesco’s food magazine and is one I have made before. It’s very good, very flexible, which is so important with granola, to avoid having 12,000 half-empty packets of nuts and seeds in the cupboards. I made these lean turkey meatballs but I didn’t love the flavour, although my boyfriend liked them a lot. Maybe he just likes meatballs? I prefer a veal and pork mix myself.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Hmm. I neglected to celebrate Verloren Maandag because I got home too late and just needed to cook something quick and simple. On the other hand, we’ve been eating regularly a very Belgian dish on Sundays of chicken, chips and applesauce. It’s classic kid/comfort food. Belgian households make chips properly – in the deep-fat fryer – but I don’t own one and don’t really have the inclination to deep fry on such a regular basis. I make my chips in the oven. My grandmother uses Jonagold apples – Jonagolds are most popular in Belgium – but here in the UK I use the good old Bramley, whose tartness means I don’t need to add any lemon juice, as my grandmother does. I’ll call it even.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

No chance. I’m a very fretful, fitful person and I’ve been struggling to fall asleep and shooting awake most of this month. I’m hoping that, having finished off two big financial planning projects, I’ll get some closure and some rest.

Mind you, I did fall asleep on the Tube this very evening, only waking up at my stop. Can’t sleep in my nice, soft, warm bed. Can sleep on the rush-hour Northern line.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

Not on the cards this month.

8) Read at least one book a month

Yes, including a couple of re-reads. I read ‘Blood, Bones and Butter‘ by Gabrielle Hamilton, then J Ryan Stradal’s ‘Kitchens of the Great Midwest’, both for the second time. I also read Ruth Ware’s ‘In a Dark, Dark Wood, which was disappointing – I’d figured out the plot twist and ending very, very early on. Unfortunately, I have read a fair amount of thrillers in the past year and [spoiler] quite a few of them have used the trope of a woman’s dark, desperate secret being a teenage pregnancy, so I put the allusions together fairly rapidly, after which I was just marking time to the end. The novel is well-paced and that pacing makes you think it hangs together well, but after I finished it and thought about it for a bit, I realised quite a lot of it did not make sense. A shame, but still an enjoyable read while I was actually reading it – the commute flew by.

 

 

On resolving – resolutions for 2017

fireworks
HAPPY NEW YEAR

Resolutions are often fraught things, aren’t they? They are so tangled together with promises about the year ahead and visions of our ideal lives and selves, not to mention the comedown after a season of parties and feasting and socialising which could have lasted a few days but for some people lasts a month or more. No wonder we feel like we need a reboot come January.

I found it difficult to make a list of resolutions ahead of time and spent the first day of 2017 mulling them over. I am lucky that I receive the days between Christmas and New Year off, a perk of the sector I work in. Removal of this privilege would doubtless result in a revolt to put the poll tax riots to shame. Few of us will ever become truly wealthy in this game, so give us our holiday, is the general sentiment. Because of this the New Year slipped into frame quietly; as I was travelling home on the 31st, and didn’t go out to celebrate, there was little sense of transition, the clean slate.

When I read other peoples’ resolutions they are often quite inspirational – ‘be braver’, ‘write my novel’, ‘travel every month’. Mine are much more…homespun? More like good ideas than visionary aspiration. Still, here we go. I’ve started with food ones, but there are a couple of non-food related resolutions towards the end.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

amieux-freres_fay
Image via Wikimedia Commons

I honestly feel quite conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I know it will probably be very beneficial for me personally – the health benefits of eating fish and the Omega 3 fatty acids they contain are myriad and seem to cover a new vital function a week, from heart health to brain function to overall emotional wellbeing to management of aggression. I have been catching up on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme over the winter break and listened to a fascinating podcast on Diet and Dementia; it was noted that eating fish twice a week is strongly correlated to a lower risk of developing dementia (eating berries also seems to be correlated to a lower risk, but berries are seasonal and perishable and so I don’t think I can commit to eating them regularly in winter). I’m not yet thirty, but I fear dementia like I fear Type II diabetes: it’s slightly irrational, but both are diseases correlated with age and with significant lowering of our quality of life if developed. I am an academically-minded person and the idea of losing my brain, which is to say my essential self, is very, very scary. So if I can do something which will have a long-term protective and preventative impact for my health, especially when it is as easy as eating more fish, which I love anyway, it seems obvious to do it.

Yet the personal benefits to me must be balanced against the wider, indeed environmental, consequences of increased consumption of fish in the context of the global decline of fish stocks. Our oceans are not well-managed, and even consuming farmed seafood may put pressure on wild fish stocks, as farmed fish are frequently fed fishmeal made from their wild cousins. When farmed fish is fed on grains, as livestock is, they develop Omega 6 rather than Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s very, very easy to eat, and indeed overeat, Omega 6 fatty acids, so in this case the unique health benefits of eating fish may also be significantly reduced.

On balance, I’ve decided to keep this resolution (obviously) because I’m quite careful about how I buy fish, only buying those caught using more sustainable methods. I avoid all trawler-caught fish, seek out alternative fish species to very popular, possibly overfished, types, and almost always buy fish which has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

soup_small

Bringing in a lunch prepared at home is almost always more economical and healthier than buying one in the shops, especially as I don’t usually like supermarket ready meals. I also tend to find the meals I bring in more filling than shop-bought ones.

This was also one of my resolutions for 2016. I was often successful but did occasionally fall of the wagon, which I expected – it’s an aim rather than a stick to beat myself with. I tended to slip up more towards the end of the year when my time was running short during the weekends and inspiration was failing me.

I like to aim for three days a week because I don’t then feel guilty if I miss the full five working days, but also because if I aim to prepare three days’ worth of meals I usually actually manage to make a week’s worth anyway.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

salad_sm

This is a goal made with the impact of our eating habits on the environment in mind, and possibly acts as a corrective to my slightly more ethically troubling first resolution. I toyed with making the goal more stringent, with at least three vegetarian days rather than simply meals a week, but have kept it as above in the interests of setting a goal which is manageable.

While I hope that this resolution will also help me to eat more healthily – with respect to such things as my intake of vegetables – vegetarian eating is no shortcut to health. God knows this ex-vegetarian has eaten enough cheesy, butter and cream-saturated vegetables, or those slicked with generous quantities of silky olive oil, to know a vegetarian diet is not necessarily always synonymous with austerity. In the spirit of the environmental ethos which has governed the setting of this resolution, and with a nod to health, I will also aim to choose vegetarian recipes which do not rely heavily on resource-intensive cheese and dairy products to bulk them out and boost flavour.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I used to not only read food blogs avidly (I still do, although less than I used to owing to time constraints) but also bookmark many recipes with aplomb. Many of these recipes remain, bookmarked and uncooked, many years later. While they do not take up physical space, being mere bookmarks, they do seem to occupy a lot of psychological space and, for some reason, weigh on my mind. 2017 is the year to free myself of these mind-forg’d manacles and start cooking the recipes I have so carefully set aside. I have many recipes gleaned from blogs which have become much-loved gems, and it will be fun to see if I have other future classics hidden in my archives.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Antwerp's Grote Markt
Antwerp’s Grote Markt, with bonus crane

I felt a bit strange about committing to writing this down – especially after a year which many people feel has been characterised by a resurgent and often repugnant strain of nationalism – and wasn’t entirely sure if it was a food or non-food resolution. But I want to mark my Belgian roots more than I currently do, and almost any observation of culinary or other traditions would be an improvement on the current situation. While I am fully, 100%, Belgian (which surprises many people, who assume I have at least one British parent), I have lived outside Belgium most of my life and have rarely felt emotionally connected to Belgium as such in a way which could be considered patriotic or nationalist. However, as members of my family become older, and especially following my father’s death, I have developed something which resembles nostalgia, sentiment, for my heritage, and certainly resembles an appreciation for my own culture which I’m sure wasn’t necessarily there a few years ago. My ‘roots’, as it were, always seemed so permanent and ‘just there’, which I could pick up and go back to whenever I felt like it, not like something that need to be nurtured and preserved. As I get older, and with those changes within my family, these connections seem all the more fragile and strangely important, as if, after all my protests, the intersection of my personal and cultural histories is actually essential. Who would have thought it?

This is, of course, not just a culinary thing – cultural heritage is strongly associated with language and I have become more and more sentimental about the Flemish language and preserving it. I know if I end up having my own children that it will be important to me to pass on Dutch to them and ensure they speak it, which is not something I thought was necessary even a few years ago – indeed I dismissed the learning of Dutch as not worth the effort, as it’s not an internationally important language. (The speaking of Flemish/Dutch and French is a very fraught thing in Belgium; as I’m Flemish and speak Dutch with my family, I don’t have the same sentiment towards French). However, cultural identity is also cemented in the eating of common foods and partaking in common celebrations, and as I like to cook this might as well be my way of observing my heritage.

I suppose in this respect I will be starting with the celebration of ‘Verloren Maandag’ (Lost Monday), a celebration day held on the somewhat awkward date of ‘the first Monday after the first Sunday after Epiphany’. It is not only a very Belgian celebration but one very unique to Antwerp, the city where I was born and involves the eating of sausage bread, putting this resolution directly in conflict with No. 3.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

Must sleep more in 2017. I am terrible at sleep and really need to work on going to bed at the same time every night and falling asleep, rather than staggering into bed at midnight and staring at the ceiling for two hours.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

This was also on last year’s list of resolutions and I didn’t manage it, which is a bit shameful, but I hope to manage this year.

8) Read at least one book a month

I am a pretty decent reader, mostly thanks to a long commute, so I’m setting this so I don’t slip out of the habit. I don’t think I’ve properly read a book in months. My boyfriend kindly gave me Ian McEwan’s Nutshell for Christmas so I suppose I will start with that.

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