One last look back. Resolution roundup: October-December 2017

Sacred Heart Church

Happy New Year! If New Year’s Eve is for quiet reflection, then New Year’s Day is one for looking forward – though in my case yesterday eve was spent in riotous feasting and today spent in the recovery position, by which I mean eating plenty of avocado and bacon and drinking lots of water (I am actually not too hungover because – top tip for 2018! – I stuck to gin). As neglectful as I’ve been vis-a-vis blogging, I hope one last glance back will be indulged.

October to December is one of the busiest and most taxing periods at work. The cyclical nature of the job means things quieten down in summer; not quite to a peaceful whisper, but at least to a gentle hum. I have time to think, time to do, sometimes even time to plan. October hits me like a brick to the face. Even though I know it’s coming, it always manages to come hurtling out from another direction. In other words, I have been tired (getting a terrible flu in October which left me flattened – the flu virus was apparently quite bad in 2017 – did not help). I also got quite sad around my birthday in September, which is unusual (though it was a big number – well, psychologically anyway), and it took me a while to shake this off.

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

I’m pleased to say apart from a few obvious weeks (such as when I had the flu) I’ve pretty much managed to achieve at least the bare minimum of eating fish once a week. I really do need to try to branch away from eating salmon – I eat it almost exclusively, even though I actually like most fish. I did make a really delicious stuffed trout dish (the recipe was from Rukmini Iyer’s extremely useful cookbook The Roasting Tin, which is all about one-pot, hands-off, gutsily-flavoured food) but it freaked out my boyfriend because its head was still on (I also had to extract the spine for him). (As a friend of mine put it, “British people only understand fillets”. I’m sure there are exceptions…).

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

I definitely didn’t manage this every single week but I’m pretty proud of how I did nonetheless. Autumn and winter has meant cooking up huge batches of soup and just taking them in, punctuated by the odd box of leftover stew or risotto. Cold-weather food is the best to take in because it usually improves over time, whereas light summery salads taste best (to me anyway) when consumed a la minute.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

No problem at all. We both like vegetarian food so this has been one of the easiest goals to hit week-on-week. Also, I eat so much soup during the week and it’s always vegetarian (barring the odd use of a chicken stock cube – why no, I don’t make my own stock on the regs, thanks).

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

One problem with this is that for every recipe I make I bookmark about three. But I have made progress. Most recently, I made these sweet peppermint meringues on a whim for a Christmas gathering at a pub – we called them ‘toothpaste meringues’ since I had coloured them quite brightly and the strong stripes of colours and minty flavour definitely made them reminiscent of a tube of Colgate. They weren’t a universal hit on account of this but some people really liked the toothpaste-y element. To get the meringues properly crisp and completely dried out I did have to bake them for much longer than the recipe said, but in her column on Perfect Meringues, Felicity Cloake does suggest that up to six hours for dry, non-gooey meringues is totally normal. This incredibly hearty sausage and cabbage dish was extremely low-maintenance, seasonal and warming – perfect for cold and rainy days. We liked this a lot, especially my cabbage-loving boyfriend.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Antwerp
Chocolate box houses / I vow to thee, my country. Though I’m not sure what exactly I vow.

I actually visited Belgium in December, and saw my family, and ate all the Belgian food and visited Belgian elephants and watched little Belgian children visiting Sint Nicolaas in a shopping mall. I’m counting it. For all three months. (On reflection, this was not a very good resolution to set, because it’s not SMART-able at all – but then one could argue that cultural heritage and attachment to country, culture and tradition are not particularly grounded in rationality anyway).

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I cannot claim that I have achieved this. How do people sleep at night?!

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

Sandhurst chapel
It was here that my friends discovered I an an unrepentant Roll of Honour bore

I did it! One of my good friends graduated from officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and a group of us went down to watch her pass out. We visited the Sandhurst grounds, of course, where my newly-minted officer friend Sarah pointed out the frozen ditches she’d crawled through and the muddy fields she’s tramped across, and we sang hymns in the chapel. Then we all spent some time in the nearby town of Camberley. It was very pretty, very charming, and despite being so close to London was absolutely not London at all. I also went to Bath earlier in the year.

8) Read at least one book a month

So many books. I am going to spare a list of everything I’ve read in these months (because I really was very prolific) and point you to my new ‘newsletter about books’, which sounds very ominous but is really just a rundown of things I have read and had thoughts about and will include cookbooks and articles. You don’t have to subscribe to read them (though you can also totally subscribe, which would be nice, and then it will come straight to your inbox whenever I write them up!).

 

Resolution roundup: August and September 2017

Red leaves

We had strange weather in August – damp, almost humid, sticky, and yet quite cool; and some equally odd days in September, punctuated by the odd stretch of beautiful sunshine. Days are certainly taking a turn, though: the skies are becoming bleached and grey and by contrast the trees are starting to turn glorious shades of red and orange. It’s a happy time – autumn is a beautiful season and I celebrate my birthday in September – but also occasionally a difficult one as work becomes much more intensive and tiring, and will be until the Christmas break in December. I’ve worked hard over the summer but there’s always a brief respite in July and August: the shock of October will mean lots of quick cooking with minimal washing up (I hope anyway).

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

Yes, I achieved this – just. Some of the dishes cooked were my ‘standards’ (salmon in soy sauce…), but I also made this miso salmon (pretty similar in flavour and profile to the salmon recipes I usually make) and this ‘firecracker’ salmon, which is like my basic soy sauce salmon with added ingredients that gave it a really nice twist. Writing down the fish dishes I make regularly has emphasised how reliant I am on those helpful twin packets of salmon fillets in the supermarket. More unusually, I made this lemon and parsley-crusted fish (I think I used haddock), which was served with mashed potatoes (I cooked tenderstem broccoli instead of serving it with spinach because I didn’t feel like washing spinach on the night).

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

I did try, but I failed in a number of weeks over the last two months – in one week I actually bought lunch every day, which is very rare. Buying in so many lunches only reminded me of how much I dislike the sandwich offerings in the supermarket, and also how expensive it is! I’m determined to do a bit better and be more disciplined about spending some time making something, as tiring as it can sometimes be. Moving back into soup season will be a big help, because it’s such an easy thing to bring along. I currently have a few containers full of a really delicious spinach and rosemary soup I love in the fridge ready for Monday, so I feel like I’m winning already…

Palm House (Kew Gardens)
The Palm House at Kew Gardens (see below)

Continue reading “Resolution roundup: August and September 2017”

Resolution Roundup: June and July 2017

Bath, England

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.

Coconut prawn soup

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

Homemade granola

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.

I made some edible gifts for friends: this peanut butter granola, these roasted rosemary nuts, and Thomasina Miers’ salty-sweet spiced nuts. I don’t know how they were received; hopefully well.

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

The Circus, Bath - creme brulee
The Circus’ creme brulee

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.

Resolution Roundup: April and May 2017

Halva in Machne Yehuda market
Many flavours of halva at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Easter came late this year and a late Easter (and consequently a late break from work) corresponds easily with a sense of general weariness, frayed tempers and impatience. I don’t tend to notice it much at the time but in retrospect concede I was probably at my snappish worst throughout late March and early April…

Once April hit, however, I felt like I was barely in the office or in this country. Firstly I was off to Girona, as written up here; then, thanks to a craftily-timed stretch of annual leave, I was off work and visiting Israel for around ten days (more on which soon, I hope!). It was an interesting holiday: Israel offers a lot in terms of history, beauty and, in Tel Aviv at least, sheer, indulgent relaxation (I also appreciate, as a destination, Israel is not without its controversies. But I’ll leave it at that). As ever when I go on holiday, I certainly felt the intense weight of my great fortune.

The consequence of course is all the catching up and sorting out that returning from holiday entails, but luckily April is a quiet time at work (in some ways less hectic than the summer, which always promises to be quiet but rarely is). The quiet of April is paid for with a quickening pace in the months thereafter, and before I knew it, May was over in a flash. They’ve not been months for reflection and adherence to resolutions – I know I’ve failed on some counts over the past two months – but overall I think it’s been okay.

Mediterranean sea from the Old City, Jaffa
Yes, Tel Aviv is nice (view of the sea from the Old City of Jaffa).

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

This target was certainly not met in April – I don’t think I ate any fish while in Israel – and I barely scraped it in May, with only a single serving per week.

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

I was hardly at work in April, as above but, apart from that, I have been doing pretty well on this resolution so far this year, and April and May were no exceptions. Although I sometimes feel less than enthusiastic about whipping something up on a Sunday evening, it usually pays dividends – especially when the weather has been as windy and changeable as it has been recently, enabling me to avoid being caught in a lunchtime downpour in search of a sandwich.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

I definitely achieved this goal while I was in London, but I’m a little less certain about the time spent in Israel, unless I count breakfast in the mix (which, when tallying this up, I usually don’t as breakfast is typically vegetarian for me by default). While I did eat a few meals of hummus and falafel in Israel (obvs) I also know I ate much more meat than I usually do, from spiced lamb kofta kebabs to barely-cooked chicken liver (not great).

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I haven’t been relying on bookmarked recipes lately mostly because, on return from Israel, I felt the need to, er, recalibrate my food intake a little and eat healthier meals after several enjoyable, guilt-free weeks of indulgence. I’ve therefore turned to some of my reliable ‘diet’ cookbooks to feed myself since I came back. I will be returning to the never-ending bookmarks in due course…

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Not a chance, really…although…

When we were at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Centre), a guide kindly told me to look out for some of the Belgian names in the memorial garden of the Righteous Among the Nations when we were there, which was really nice of her to mention (the Righteous Among the Nations are people who protected and saved Jewish people during the Holocaust; the most famous among them is probably Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand people, but the memorials also remember many of those who saved smaller numbers of people, sometimes one or two, usually by hiding them in their homes). It wasn’t a ‘celebration’ of my heritage, but provided an opportunity to reflect on European history and Belgium’s place within that, and to consider the inherent complexities associated with both the ideas of heritage and the celebration thereof – the things that are left out as well as left in.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I slept pretty well while on holiday – free from stress and being forced awake for work regardless of when ready to be or not, but admittedly things haven’t been going so well since I’ve been back. More effort needed – started with going to bed at a fixed time in the evenings rather than knocking around the flat until past midnight for no fathomable reason.

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

Obviously this wasn’t achieved, BUT I have actually planned a trip to Bath with some friends at the very end of June/start of July. I am absolutely thrilled.

8) Read at least one book a month

I’ve been doing really well on this front actually. I’ve started re-reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and going forward in order. They’re quick and breezy, which is a plus: perfect for the commute. I read this work by Helen McPhail about the German occupation of the north of France during the First World War (much less widely known about than the more widespread occupation of the Second World War). I also read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last for my book group: it’s a dystopian work of speculative fiction (so far so Atwood) with an intriguing promise that ultimately tipped into the absurd and proved greatly disappointing. The significant contrast between the beginning, which chilled me deeply, and the end, which irritated me significantly, was marked. The characters were poorly drawn and their choices stretched credibility. The patchiness of this particular work is explained by the fact that it started off life as an e-book serial; it showcases Atwood at her best (the beginning) and quite possibly worst, quite unlike her seminal work The Handmaid’s Tale, which is uniformly excellent throughout.

In fair Girona: travels in Spain

 

Churros

We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.

Hidden alley

Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).

Dali museum

It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.

Espresso Mafia

In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.

We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.

The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.

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…

 

 

Resolution Roundup: March 2017

Golden-leaved bush

I have been loving the tilts towards light and warmth – I love the changeable seasons – but in some respects March has been a hard month. Not for any particular reason I can point to, but my sleep pattern went haywire. I’ve rarely fallen asleep before 1am and have woken up on the dot at 4am to thrash around for an hour or so. This is not brilliant fun when you have to go to work and has resulted in me feeling like March has absolutely spiralled out of control. I’ve had some moments of feeling utterly defeated by ‘stuff’, such as washing up. But I’ve also cleared away some clutter – got rid of stacks of books and general household and kitchen detritus, and hope this will help me feel calmer soon.

salmon patties
Salmon patties and the technicolour red cabbage salad

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

The fish eating continues to go well. I made this Tom Kerridge recipe with salted pollack – although I actually used cod. It’s so much easier to buy sustainable, line-caught, MSC-certified cod than it does finding the cod ‘alternatives’ we’re always encouraged to try instead, which is a shame. Although the fish-chorizo combination is successful, I think the whole thing is too salty. I made these crab cakes and am not entirely convinced that it’s the best way to showcase this expensive shellfish. I preferred these salmon patties – easy and cheap and, if made with red salmon, absolutely packed with omega-3 fatty acids. This miso-glazed salmon is what I think of as a classic way to prepare salmon and was easy and quick – and didn’t require any extra shopping, for me at least.

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

I managed this for all but one week of March, mostly by packing up leftovers made the night before. David and I both had the remains of this beef stir-fry with some rice and found it delicious. I would never have thought of using preserved stem ginger to add hot, sticky sweetness to a beef dish, but it really works. I also used up a packet of dried red kidney beans languishing in the cupboard to make this lobio, a Georgian bean salad. I think it’s an acquired taste thanks to the aniseed taste of tarragon and bitter-earthy sweetness of fenugreek with the sharp intensity of a shedload of vinegar. It tasted strangely digestible, if that’s something you can ever say of bean salad.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Yes – maybe I set the bar too low but I’m finding it relatively easy to achieve. Among some of the recipes I tried, I made these sweet potato fries on a working from home day – I’ve never managed to get crisp oven-baked sweet potatoes and these were as soggy as any other recipe I’ve tried. I hope to persevere and finally achieve crisp-crunchy sweet potato perfection. Maybe when I get a better oven.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

This chilli con carne is delicious – the dark chocolate and tomato ketchup seem to give it a really velvety depth. I also made this one which is a bit more of a standard chilli, although I’m not used to seeing celery and carrot in such recipes – it was fine but not as good as the other one.

I thought these chicken burgers would be better than they were (more punchy), but I did enjoy them. I thought the recipe would come together more quickly than it did, but then I did have to MINCE MY OWN CHICKEN because the butcher, yes, actual butcher at the fancy organic family butcher I went to said “we don’t sell chicken mince, go to Sainsbury’s”.

I made this very nice honey nut granola – it was very crisp and deliciously buttery with the variety of nuts used. However, I found the nutmeg (mentioned in the ingredients but not the method) a little overpowering. This banana-walnut granola relied more on the sweetness of bananas ripened to darkness than of added sugar and made a huge, not-too-sugary jar of granola. I gilded the banana lily by eating it with sliced bananas over a bowl of skyr.

On the sweet side, another bowlful of vegan, banana-based, chocolate-flecked cookies – different but acutely similar to the ones I made at Christmas. They improve upon keeping. But also your traditional soft, large chocolate chip cookies made with multiple sugars. This recipe was all right but I prefer Nigella Lawson’s, from her soothing book Kitchen.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

I have shouted a great deal about Guy Verhofstadt.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

See the opening paragraph. I wish I could say it’s the lateness of Easter – and therefore the Easter break – which resulted in my March meltdown, but I think it’s more likely to be down to letting my exercise routine lapse. I have started going to the gym again – yes, I am proud for picking up that thread – and hope that my sleep patterns will…normalise.

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

I haven’t done this but am planning a trip to Bath with some of my friends after Easter, and David and I might go to Scotland at some point (yay!). The weather has turned and we’re heading in to the right time of year to explore, I think. It’s almost pointless to go when it’s cold.

8) Read at least one book a month

As I mentioned in the February round-up, I read ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ for my book group. It’s an extraordinary book in some ways – it plays with the form and structure of what we call ‘the novel’ in genre-breaking ways that recall Joyce and Woolf. There were some very profound moments and we had a lot to talk about. But some members of the group felt the book was pretentious and a lot of us felt simply confused. On balance I liked it and was impressed by it, but despite a personal experience of bereavement, it didn’t speak to me as deeply as I thought it would.

I also read Laurie Colwin’s ‘More Home Cooking’ which is, appropriately, the follow-up to her book ‘Home Cooking’. I have no ambiguous feeling about Colwin’s writing: it is warm, soothing and homely in the best way.

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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.