Well hello, 2016. As far as ‘resolutions’ go, I try not to make them. The threat of failure, coupled with the incessant nagging at the back of my mind that I must do whatever it is EVERY day, otherwise there’s no point making them, leaves me feeling downtrodden by the 5th January. Instead, I noted down aims to keep in mind as I set off into the new year, and made a resolution to not beat myself up if I forget about them for a day or two.
This year, I decided to focus on eating mindfully (i.e. not standing in the kitchen shoving whatever came to hand in my mouth without a second thought), doing one deliberate thing every day to reduce stress (yoga, meditation, turning off all screens by 10pm) and to move more (which, given my desk-bound job, won’t take much). The mindful eating has so far (10 days in) been the most influential, as I have noticed how much of the eating I do is a result of stress or tiredness. Just noticing this pattern and being aware of it has helped massively, and reminding myself that food isn’t always the answer. Usually, a cup of tea and a lie down is.
I noticed that I was getting blood sugar drops around 3pm each day at work, when it would feel like the world was going to end and the only thing that would get me out of this state was something insanely sugary. I spoke to a nutritionist friend, Ellen, about this, who said that the solution was not to let it reach this stage, by keeping my blood sugar level. To do this, she recommended eating every 2 hours or so (hallelujah!). But it was crucial that the snacks I was having didn’t contain sugar, so wouldn’t cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a crash. So, I made these flapjacks sugar free, using stewed prunes as a base (Ellen’s idea) and a bit of honey to help stick everything together.
For more information about Ellen and naturopathic nutrition, click here.
This salad is an unashamed plagiarism from a recently acquired cookbook, ‘Persiana’ by Sabrina Ghayour. Packed full of mouth-watering photos of exotic dishes, it’s a firm favourite. Many recipes feature ingredients that I already (somewhat smugly) own, such as sumac. The book is littered with recipes that I have already made more than once, which is rare – I consider a cookbook a success if I make one recipe from it.
I am normally somewhat underwhelmed by rice salads, and almost flicked straight past this one when browsing through the book. However, given that I have a nearly empty box of red rice lurking at the back of my cupboard, I decided to give it a go. It’s safe to say that I needed to seriously reevaluate my view on the matter after making this salad. The balance of sweet and salty is just right, and the colours and textures compliment each other beautifully. There is also a pleasing balance of warm and cold ingredients – chargrilled vegetables and toasted nuts with cold rice and onions – which works well.
Owning more than one type of rice may sound extravagant (at last count I have 3), but red rice is definitely worth tracking down for this recipe. It has a pleasant nutty taste, and retains its attractive maroon colour, even when cooked. It does take a rather long time to cook though, which I always forget, and am left tapping my fork impatiently against the side of the pan, willing it to cook faster. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding it, as Sainsbury’s stocks it, proving once and for all that they’re paying attention to the latest hipster food trends. Red rice is staying firmly on my (somewhat hipster) shopping list from now on.
I have little restraint when it comes to food that I can convince myself is healthy. This includes dates, malt loaf and pistachio nuts. Oh and yoghurt-coated apricots. That’s just yoghurt and fruit, right? I recently realised I’ve been spending a small fortune on tiny jars of cashew nut butter, as I scoff down the calorie-dense paste by the spoonful, straight from the jar. I’ve toured round all the different nut butters, including the slightly bizarre apricot kernel butter, and decided that my top two are definitely almond and cashew. But the fact remains that to buy them is horrendously expensive. So I found a recipe and decided to have a bash at making some.
Making my own almond butter wouldn’t be financially viable without Scoop Away, which is an amazing wholefood shop where you literally scoop everything into bags, which is then priced by weight. When I first discovered the shop, I went a bit over the top, buying lots of random things that I had never seen before, such as yoghurt coated honeycomb, in industrial quantities. Even now I visit the shop weekly, and have to reign myself in when faced with the yoghurt- coated section. So I scooped what seemed like a reasonable amount of almonds into a bag, later realising that I had bought over double the quantity needed for the nut butter, having lost all sense of proportion when scooping.
Making almond butter is ludicrously simple. You need a powerful food processor to get the creamy consistency, and simply roast the nuts in the oven for a few minutes, then put them in the food processor and leave them to it. I was convinced that it wasn’t going to work at first, as I just had ground almonds whizzing round the processor bowl for the first ten minutes. But then, suddenly, the oil is released and the almond powder mushes together to form the butter. One of my favourite things to do with the butter (other than eat it straight from the jar) is to stuff pitted Medjool dates with a spoonful, then put them in the fridge to set. In my experience, it’s impossible to eat less than five of these in one sitting.
Gooseberries are tart little devils. I remember summers spent at the pick-your-own farm, enduring the torturous wait until they had been carted home and stewed with copious amounts of sugar to eat them. The ones used for this cake came from my friend Nicola’s garden –actually more accurately from her freezer, where they have been stored for the winter months ahead. As did the blackberries, and given the choice several freezer-dwelling fruits, we chose these two as a match.
Fruit and cake is a winner in my book. And you can kid yourself that it is somehow healthy, and can therefore be justifiably eaten for breakfast. The sourness of the gooseberries is offset by more forgivingly mellow blackberries, and the sweet, almondy sponge. Upside down cakes like this one, where the fruit is placed at the bottom of the cake tin, and the batter on top, always provide a satisfying moment when turned over to reveal the fruit underneath. For some reason, I’m always slightly surprised to find it still there, thinking that it might have been consumed by the cake batter.
Having a cake around is dangerous: I get to the stage that I struggle to have a cup of tea without a slice of cake, or more accurately I have a cup of tea as an excuse to eat cake. This cake disappeared in about two hours – and not only (although almost only) due to me. And I had a large slice for breakfast the next day, covered in natural yoghurt – because if something has yoghurt on it, then it’s breakfast, right?!
This time of year is my favourite. There is a slight chill in the air, making it the ideal time wear a ‘transition scarf’, yet there is still enough of a whisper of summer left to make the occasional evening unendingly balmy. At around this time every year I take this opportunity to gorge myself on fruit like it’s going out of fashion – so much so that I’m even cajoling it into savoury dishes.
According to the Waitrose catalogue (on which I base a lot of my culinary decisions) one of the best things about this period of time, referred to as late summer, is the abundance of apricots. Paris and I decided to turn to the apricot for our next source of culinary inspiration. Such a versatile little number deserves some attention – so we’re going to experiment with how they can be used in sweet and savoury dishes.
We have discovered the joys of chargrilling fruit, caramelising the natural sugars into blackened lines. This works particularly well with soft stone fruit such as peaches, nectarines and apricots. Brushing a bit of scarlet-red, fiery harissa paste onto the fruit before grilling is a good idea, although it’ll leave a burn in the back of your throat as it cooks. To add to the harissa apricots, we wilted some chard, and piled the whole lot on top of some cous-cous. Not just any cous-cous, mind. Giant cous-cous – also known as maftoul –is, as the name suggests, a bigger, plumper version of the regular variety, with a pleasant nutty taste. The whole thing was finished off with a dollop of yoghurt with some more harissa swirled into it.
The summer before last, I went to visit some friends in the South-West Peloponnese, a beautiful corner of Greece unspoilt by hoards of tourists. Greek food, whilst being delicious, is rather same-y. I lost count of the variations of chargrilled aubergine dip, tzatziki and moussaka we tried. They were all slightly different, some being much more palatable than others, partly due to how much garlic each chef thought was acceptable.
The dessert of choice, not being presented with many other options, was baklava, a Greek and Turkish concoction made by drenching filo pastry and nuts in an insanely sweet syrup. I became mildly addicted to it, and many balmy evenings were spent hunting down the best. It took me the entirety of the week-long holiday to pronounce ‘baklava’ correctly. The emphasis is on the final syllable ‘va’, rather than the more natural Anglicised stress on the middle ‘k’, so it is said ‘baklava’.
Pronunciation aside, here’s my take on baklava. Some of the best baklava we tried I think used honey in the syrup, rather than acres of sugar, so I’ve tried that here. I chose a mixture of pistachios, almonds and walnuts, but any nuts can be used. It is ridiculously sweet, so you only need small pieces.
I have started feeling very festive all of a sudden. I guess it must be due, in part, to decorating the tree today. This was accompanied by the crashing overtones of Handel’s Messiah, not directly Christmas-y, but, being choral, it puts me in the festive mood nonetheless. Having resisted the descending season with some effort for the last few weeks– even with the repetitious Christmas playlist pounding its way into my head at work – it now seems time to embrace the inevitable.
I made the optimistic, blasé resolution way back in October to make edible Christmas presents this year. I already have the Rhubarb and Ginger Gin in the bag, along with some Quince Cheese, but need to supplement it with something else. I decided to take the plunge with Florentines, which I have never attempted before. More to the point, I’ve only ever eaten a nice on one occasion. I managed to eat a total of about ten in small little ‘tastes’, which I assured myself were for quality control purposes.
I underestimated just how many I would need (due to, unfortunately, having lots of friends and family to give them to) and the amount of time it would take to make around 100 Florentines. They are basically simple, but anything made in a large quantity gets a bit stressful, and you end up staring around slightly manically, covered in bits of whatever it is you’re making. I kept leaving trays of cooked Florentines around the house to cool, then forgetting about them. The tipping point came for me when I’d thought I’d finished, only to find a rogue batch on top of the washing machine a few hours later.
The temperature around these parts has suddenly taken a nose-dive. From a pleasant, if a little chilly, seven degrees it has now plummeted to an icy minus three. The dreaded ‘s’ word has been mentioned. When it’s this cold, the only thing that will coax me out of my lovely warm bed at seven in the morning is a bowl of porridge.
I am suffering the onset of my usual autumn/winter cold. It was with a severely blocked nose that I made my first batch of spiced pear compote to go with my morning porridge. Having neglected to read the faint label on the spice jar, I liberally sprinkled in what I assumed, relying purely on my non-existent sense of smell, to be cinnamon. It was in fact chilli powder.
I didn’t discover this, however, until the next morning, when I sat down to tuck into my porridge and compote, only to be proverbially whacked in the face by so much chilli it made my eyes water. Well at least it woke me up. There was something quite pleasing about a slight bit of chilli in amongst the sugary pears and creamy porridge, although maybe not in this quantity.
So this was attempt two at pear compote – relying on my much more reliable sense of sight to decipher the contents of the spice cupboard. I’ve included a tiny pinch of chilli powder as an optional ingredient, but feel free to leave it out if you consider it mildly insane.
My friend Sally is a committed vegan. Although I would never want to adopt it as a lifestyle choice, I have recently begun to relish the challenge of vegan cookery. It’s fair to say that some experiments have come out better than others- this one was more successful, and more edible, than the green tea tofu ‘cheesecake’ disaster.
Main courses are relatively straightforward – we made a lovely Japanese vegetable curry with coconut milk – but it’s desserts and cakes that present more of a challenge. It makes you realise what a vital role eggs play in binding ingredients together and helping things to rise. The strategy I opted for here was to use almond milk to bind, and baking powder to help with rising, but it is still quite dense.
This torte is quite intensely chocolatey (chocolate being the primary ingredient), so needs to be served in modest slices. Some soya cream would be a good accompaniment to lighten things up a bit. The caramelised almond topping adds a pleasing crunch as a contrast to all the gooey chocolate beneath – you can use either honey or agave syrup depending on how much of a hardcore vegan you are.