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.

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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.

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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