Damsons and Foregiveness

Damsons and Foregiveness

A few days ago Summer was fondly kissing us goodbye. Today a powerful wind and the threat of rain are thrusting towards me like Autumn with an outstretched hand and I rush down the garden to pick the wild plums or damsons before they are lost. Here they are having a wash in my sink and when they were clean I rustled up some damson jam which is my favourite. There’s no easy way to stone damsons but they are worth it.

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Here’s the lovely syrupy mess they become after a short while in a pan with two thirds their own weight in sugar. For me the stones never float to the top so I resort to ladling the jam from one pan to another via a shallow dish where I can scrutinise each spoonful and fish out the stones. With ordinary plums it helps to count the plums first and then you have a target for the number of stone. With damsons I usually have over 400 and invariably lose count at some point.

This ended up in seven lovely pots and in time would all disappear onto people’s toast but good damson jam is such a great treat IMO that I decided it should furnish an old fashioned jam tart for supper.

My mother was a Pastry Queen and I resolutely did not learn to make pastry for the first thirty five years of my life because I wanted to be different from her. In fact I was in a giant sulk or tantrum, truth be told, which I should probably have chucked in when I was about seven but I dug my heels in because I had been hurt and because my will power (or wilfulness as she called it) was second to none. Of course I achieved my purpose of hurting her but I see now I hurt myself much more. Since then there has been reconciliation and forgiveness although much of it only after she died. Death is never an obstacle to forgiveness luckily but if you have an opportunity, dive in and do it sooner.

Anyway … my mother used to make wonderful individual jam tarts, lemon curd tarts, treacle tarts, all in miniature so that they appeared out of the oven in all their colourful loveliness and I didn’t know which to eat first. (My tantrum extended to not making pastry but it didn’t stop me eating hers!)

So here is the recipe for Damson Jam Tart but I guess you could use any really delicious jam and needless to say the finished article is good with Ice-cream, cream, fromage frais or any other unsweetened dairy. damson tart

Sadly I am not a pastry queen but I can at last do an acceptable shortcrust. It is heavy on the fat which means it remains very soft and breaks easily when you pick it up to line the tin. But it also means you can just squidge it in in pieces with your fingers and it all sticks together well.

I get my best results with Stork margarine rather than butter but others disagree. So this tart was simply

115 g Stork soft margarine

165 g plain flour

a pinch of salt and enough cold water to bring everything together.

Roll out as far as possible and line a greased loose-bottomed tart tin approx. 15 inches or 40 cms in diameter. Heat the oven to 180 degrees and do actually wait until it is hot! Put a circle of baking parchment inside the raw pastry and up the sides and fill with baking beans (porcelain or just dried beans). Give it 15 minutes in the oven and then remove the paper and beans.

Fill about half way up with really good jam and return to the oven until the jam is bubbling – about 20 minutes or so.

When it’s too wet to barbecue. (That’ll be August if you’re in England.)

When it’s too wet to barbecue. (That’ll be August if you’re in England.)

There is nothing like the taste of barbecued food. Simple meats and fishes and vegetables are transformed by those smokey flavours into wonderful meals. In England, however, we usually get to barbecue about five times a year (if we’re really keen) and at least two of those occasions will involve the cook standing in the drizzle while the party happens indoors without you. To bypass the weather I have investigated adding a charcoal grill to my kitchen but sadly I accept they are only for the professional – so instead I have finally got to grips with the griddle.

Like you, I have had the cast iron monster lurking at the back of the cupboard for years and it fills the kitchen with smoke whenever I heat it up. Yes, that one. So instead (and I invite you to admire this radical approach) of a charcoal oven I have installed two powerful extractor fans and now I can actually use the griddle in the way it was intended, smoking hot with the emphasis, in my case, on smoking.

The funny thing about Italy is they don’t barbecue – at least not here in the Veneto – even though you could stand outside about 75 per cent of the year and not get wet. But they do griddle all sorts of thing and just recently I have been branching out and doing vegetables the Italian way.

courgettes

Here are some lunchtime courgettes or zucchini which you dress with oil and lemon juice and add to your salad or eat alongside your meat or fish. You’ll notice they look quite pretty too.

Trying to be more adventurous I also bought squid from the local fishmonger but being a novice I didn’t ask him to do prepare it in any way which left me with a quick lesson in squid anatomy. (Basically cut off anything you don’t fancy eating.) Then I brushed the rest with oil and added chilli salt when it came off the heat. I also sneaked in a couple of scallops which were meant to go in the oven as a first course but, hey, it got late and the first course was amalgamated into the only course!

squid

No real marks for presentation but this lot did taste really good!

More Fresh Ideas for your Kind-to-Yourself Lunch : get pickled

More Fresh Ideas for your Kind-to-Yourself Lunch : get pickled

Well now, we all know about Prosciutto Melone (and if you need reminding, take a look  here) but I recently discovered a new twist on this theme which brings together the irresistibly sweet and the tongue-ticklingly piquant. When I was a child water melon was a mouthful of black pips but nowadays I seem to be able to buy them with tiny white edible pips which are much less off-putting and I’ve been feasting on water melon this summer. Add to this an urge to pickle something and, bingo! Sweet and sour lunch and as good to look at as it is to eat.

I guess water melon has some calories in it but it’s also extremely healthy and delicious. Cucumber, we all know, is as good as calorie free (and the pickling only adds a few teaspoons of sugar to a whole cucumber). That leaves whatever protein you fancy – this is very good with all kinds of ham and cold meat as well as clean cheese – by which I mean not the kind that runs all over your plate. Runny cheese is high on my list of delights but not with melon, somehow. Gruyere, Emmental, Ossau Iraty, the primo sale I mentioned the other day, halloumi, anything nice and clean and dry- but that’s just my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. This is the kind of meal that expands children’s tastes if you’re feeding the family and they usually enjoy the contrasts and the colours and the fact that it’s great finger food if you’re little. (In fact you can make very nice smiley faces out of these ingredients should someone need coaxing. Maybe you are someone who needs coaxing to eat?)

As ever taking the time to pickle your cucumber and prepare your melon and arrange the whole thing on a nice white plate is a simple and foolproof way of being kind to yourself, raising your self-esteem little by little and staying healthy. If you’re due a much bigger meal than this it can make a wonderful starter before your pasta, steak or your jam sandwich. Eat this first and you are much more likely to eat what you need afterwards rather than eat on autopilot at the fridge door. Yes, we have all done that! Lights on, nobody home. It’s not naughty. It’s unkind. Be kind to yourself by taking a little trouble and you’ll find it gets easier each time to do.

Water melon with Parma ham and pickled cucumber

pickled cucumber

Salmon Tartare with Pickled Cucumber

Making the pickled cucumber could not be easier. Just chop it into whatever shape and size you fancy and swish over some white wine vinegar into which you have dissolved some sugar. Chill in the fridge until cold and dip in whenever you’re peckish. It last a long time. In fact I defy you not to eat it before it goes off.

Tip : if you want to use your pickled cucumber for something formal like a salmon tartare, cut it into wafer thin slivers before pickling. Dill fronds can also add to its prettiness.

For the salmon, merely take the time to buy skinless salmon fillet as fresh as possible and then dice into tiny cubes. Marinade four hours or overnight in lemon juice, black pepper and some Maldon salt, a dash of olive oil, chopped dill and some finely diced shallot. Stir occasionally until all the salmon has been in contact with the marinade and has changed colour slightly.

Arrange on plates with the cucumber, some black rye bread and some yoghurt or labneh handed separately.

NB For this you do not need sashimi grade salmon because it is really a ceviche and not tartare. The raw salmon is ‘cooked’ by the lemon juice.

Better Bugs

 

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The Hadza People

with Alice Crittenden, anthropologist

I have sung the praises of Radio Four’s The Food Programme before and here I am again putting their two programs on the microbiome right under your nose. In case you’ve missed it, the microbiome is now recognised to be such an important part of our inner workings that it qualifies as an organ in the human body. And what is it actually, the microbiome? To you and me it’s a fancy name for all the bugs hanging out in our digestive system. Word is there aren’t enough of them and we should be thinking about how to increase the little beasties, in number yes, but particularly in variety.

Two episodes of The Food Programme are devoted to hunting with the Hadza, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer tribes in the world whose world gives us an insight into our ancestry over the last ten thousand years or more. Two things really gripped me as about these ancient people. They have a totally non-hierarchical society (maybe, the program suggests, because food supply is not in the hands of any one section of society). Conflict is handled by moving away to begin another group. The second thing is that their colons harbour roughly forty per cent more friendly bugs than ours do and they don’t suffer from many of the digestive and autoimmune diseases that plague our society. Through this correlation and others it is slowly but surely becoming apparent that the flora and fauna of the gut (the micro biome) are related to our health and longevity. The cancers that kill us, the diabetes that plagues our population, the heart disease that is still the number one killer, not to mention the many allergies and intolerances which come to our notice ever more frequently – all these and more may have some relation to the extinction in our bodies of so many of the bacteria that would once have lived happily with us and us with them.

In visiting the Hadza, The Food Programme team revisit the human race some  thousands of years ago and some of the turnings we have made are thrown into relief. Turnings in our cultivation of food that have led us to our present paradox : societies with the most advanced medicine ever and no idea how to eat. Many of us are killing ourselves with food. As we hear the men of the tribe hunting porcupine and imitating the bird that will lead them to wild honey we get a sense of a time when our relationship with nature, with food and with each other made more sense than it does today.

In addition we learn about out relationship with those long ago human beings and I found it moving to do so. Feeling kinship with the rest of humanity is always enriching but to do so over thousands of years offers an opportunity to touch into the history of our human nature. I urge you to listen to this life-enhancing programme and the other episode on the same theme!

White Fish with Pine Nuts Butter and Steamed Greens

Meanwhile I have no recipe for porcupine but I am lucky enough to be in Venice once more and the supper recipe today is for white fish with pine nuts and butter. I am using sea bream which is easily available here but any white fish will do as long as it is filleted. It looks better without the skin on but I forgot how to ask the Italian fishmonger to skin the fish. (It’s spellare for skinning a chicken, I now know, but it still may be different for fish. Anybody out there know for sure?) TBH I was pretty pleased that I fluently asked him to fillet it and anyway I feel the skin is good for me.

This recipe is from one of my favourite cookbooks, Marie Claire Food Fast by Donna Hay and it’s as simple as they come. If you don’t have access to good fresh fish and you don’t want to use chicken, you can use this recipe for any vegetables that grill or fry well such as courgettes, aubergines but it is also excellent on steamed green beans as a side dish.

Melt some butter in a frying pan and toast your pine nuts in it before adding lemon juice (half a lemon for two people).

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Now take your fresh fish and add it to the pan for three or four minutes each side. Meanwhile steam yourself some French beans or Spring greens or spinach or broccoli. I used my colander with a lid on over a pan of water.)

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Then arrange the fish on top of the greens and pour over the nut butter. You can see how it would look prettier with the skin off but it did taste delicious.

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Afterwards the espresso and some gorgeously bitter Willi’s Cacao Pure 100 Per Cent Gold chocolate which is a new craze of mine. Giving all the health benefits of the cocoa bean and very little sugar, it also supports the Venezuelan people in their attempts to return to a cocoa based economy rather than oil.

 

 

FOMO

As you probably already know Fear of Missing Out is a major player in our food-choosing dramas. There you are doing so well, perusing the menu like a pro and mindfully choosing the things that are just right for you in this moment when your loved one (who has worked out within an inch of his life that afternoon) orders the Mac ‘n’ Cheese or the Eton Mess and suddenly inside there is unseemly debate and uncertainty where previously there was calm and wisdom. (There may also be a re-evaluation of your loved-one but we’re not going there today.)

FOMO, the psychologists tell us, is an enormous factor in our decision-taking and you and I, who are trying to feed ourselves with love, need to get wise to this. And it isn’t only when people you thought of as friends suddenly give themselves carte absolutely blanche with the menu is it? What about when you know you’ll never be on this holiday again, in this country again, in this restaurant again? That can deal a death blow to the kind and reasonable intentions you had before you left the house, the hotel room or the villa. In the face of Baked Alaska or Zabaglione (and how often do you see those on a menu??) those intentions seem narrow, punitive, unimaginative and unnecessary. Before you can say ‘bring me an extra spoon’ you’ve wolfed down unforeseen goodies that you maybe haven’t enjoyed as much as you hoped. Whoops.

It seems to me that preparation is the best defence against raging FOMO. If you possibly can, (actually you always can) check out the menu online beforehand and imagine what you will order. If you’re on holiday, imagine what you will wear and how great you’ll look. Now and again I have to give myself a newsflash that there is in fact no world shortage of mac ‘n’ cheese. (A small personal weakness amongst, ahem, many.) Even burrata can today be found on several continents and does not have to be guzzled down right now in case it never appears again. (This is not 1982.) I can save it for a day when I was too busy to eat lunch or have done a bunch of exercise.

So what I wanted to offer you today in the way of summer food is a dish which can easily evoke FOMO in me because I love it and I don’t make it often. It is one of those dishes that is enormously more than the sum of its parts and the good news is that it is a balanced and delicious dish if you follow the recipe guidelines – main course for 4 or side dish for 8. This is my favourite ever salad – another from Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons – not leaves this time but bulgur wheat, spinach and all kinds of good things. It goes brilliantly with BBQ food or roast chicken or the artichokes someone brought me from their garden and it can also stand up proudly as a meal in itself. The picture below in no way does it justice because I forgot to photograph it until we’d eaten most of it! Sorry about that! Lay it out on a large white platter for eight people and it looks impressive topped with the crispy onions which had all gone before I got my phone out. I love this dish because although it is brilliant in summer, it also has enough about it to transition into cold weather without leaving you feeling deprived. And deprived is what you never want to get near since it has the internal glutton kicking off quicker than any other feeling.

NB each of the component parts is made separately and can be used fabulously in other meals too

Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chilli Roast Tomatoes

favourite salad

Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish. The quantities are very approximate so don’t worry about them too much. You must make the labneh the day before but if it suits you the whole thing can be prepared the day before and assembled for eating when you’re ready.

Make the labneh the day before by mashing a garlic clove and some salt into 250g Greek yoghurt. Now bear with me because you may not want to bother with the next bit but it is easy and crucial. Put the mixture in a sieve lined with muslin resting over a bowl to catch the liquid and leave in the fridge overnight. The result is easily worth waiting for.

Now roast 12 good tomatoes cut in halves or quarters if they are very large. Put them in a shallow roasting pan with 4 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, a teaspoon of harissa and a teaspoon of soft dark sugar and mix well. Put in a preheated oven at 180 for about 40 minutes until they are shrunken but not mush. 

Caramelise 2 finely sliced onions over a high heat in a frying pan with 2 tbsp olive oil, 0.5 tsp cinnamon, 1.5 tsp soft dark sugar, salt and pepper and a good squeeze of lemon. Fry until crispy and brown round the edges.

Wilt 600g spinach in the water left on it after washing and draining. (Over a moderate heat this happens very quickly if you haven’t done it before.) Immediately drain it, roughly chop it and add a dash of olive oil.

To make the pilaf saute another onion and a clove of garlic finely chopped in a little oil until soft. Add 175g bulgar wheat and 300ml of chicken or vegetable stock* and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes and then fluff up with a fork. (The wheat will have absorbed the stock.)

Now comes the fun part. Choose your favourite large bowl, dish or platter and layer the pilaf with the tomatoes and juices, some chopped mint if you have it (or another herb if you don’t)  and the spinach. On top arrange lumps of labneh you have broken apart and finally the crispy caramelised onions.

24 Hour Food Watch

24 Hour Food Watch

courtyard breakfastIt’s the most transcendentally beautiful morning here in Oxfordshire and I was looking for an excuse to show you pictures of my breakfast in the garden. I came up with the idea of watching my food for 24 hours. A food diary is what they ask you to keep when you join Weightwatchers or similar and usually has sinister overtones of self-denial. But this one is entirely voluntary and I will try not to alter what I put in my mouth to make it look good. Honest! It is just an enquiry into what I eat and how and it begins with my hot milk and honey, cinnamon and turmeric that kicks off my day about 7am with meditation. In Winter this is usually inside. In Venice it is often at the end of the breakwater surrounded by the lapping waves and occasionally a party of swimming Italians who talk as they swim (I kid you not) just as loudly and enthusiastically as they talk during every other activity. Such stamina!

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The empty cup of golden milk!

 

But this morning it is in the kitchen, French windows thrown open, birds singing their little hearts out and the dog wondering if he can help. For the Dalai Lama and others whose state of consciousness is solidly under their control it may be that an inquisitive Labrador is neither here nor there. For me, not so much. However it was a lovely place to drink my milk and sometimes, if the concentration is not showing up, my meditation becomes an appreciation of hot milk and bird life which is still a lovely way to begin the day.

Beau on top of the world

The dog in question on his winter holidays

 

Breakfast came next after getting dressed and before starting work. My favourite cappuccino with turmeric on top, banana and peanut butter wholemeal bread. At the end of the morning I had my breakfast fruit salad for lunch instead. (Very boring but good for my insides.) I would have liked a piece of Gruyere or something with that but none in the fridge. Still shopping imminently so I can fix that craving. There was also a cup of instant coffee along the way and a glass of water.

Breakfast

Peanut butter, banana and wholemeal bread – is this the ultimate breakfast?

 

In the middle of Waitrose I realise I have miscalculated and am struck with that ‘must eat now’ feeling. An apple is no way going to address this! Only divine grace guides me towards a small packet of brazil nuts and away from Snickers (or Marathon as I internally call them in my antique way). There is internal protest but on the other hand I really love nuts. I reckon the calories may be the same but the nuts are protein and therefore count as nutrition – unlike the two butter crunch biscuits I have at home with a cup of tea. Not to worry. Soon I shall start preparing dinner. Some English asparagus is inspiring me to make an hollandaise (which doesn’t always work). After that chicken with garlic, ginger and fresh turmeric is in my head. Whether it will be bread with the asparagus or rice with the chicken depends a bit on how well the hollandaise turns out. Sadly a non-alcohol day today so my trusty alcohol free Cobra beer is in the fridge. Strangely I didn’t miss the alcohol at all on retreat but there’s a real sense of loss at home. Must be because the wine is right there and it’s only my own rule … interesting.

Well it turns out the hollandaise did work! The last of the English asparagus (according to my local shop) is the best we’ve had this year and the two together were sensational. The wholemeal bread once again came into its own and TBH I should have stopped right there.

asparagus

But the chicken with turmeric and garlic and cabbage was by now waiting and a lovely colour. Ignoring the fact that I wasn’t very hungry was ill-judged but I can report that it was a good combination and at a hungrier time would have gone well with rice. Without the coconut milk it is super healthy. With the coconut milk it tasted nicer.

My food for the day drew to a close with more water and a mug of cocoa. So I notice a couple of misjudgments – ones I’ve made before what’s more. I musn’t let myself get over-hungry away from home and especially not in the supermarket. And I don’t enjoy eating stuff I’m not hungry for – I wish I had chilled the chicken for another day.

Here’s the recipe in case you’d like to try it.

 

chicken with turmeric and cabbageChicken with Turmeric, Garlic, Ginger and Cabbage

 

1 chicken breast per person or 4 between 3

fresh turmeric, root ginger and garlic, grated with a microplane

olive oil

cabbage or greens – any sort, shredded

Soften your turmeric, garlic, leeks and root ginger in a large heavy pan (frying pan with lid is ideal) with some olive oil. (I used leeks but you could really add any vegetable that cooks reasonably quickly – courgettes, onions, finely cut carrots, celery.)

Cut your chicken breasts into a size of piece that pleases you and add to the pan with the cabbage. Cook as little as possible until just cooked through. Now taste it and add salt and pepper and decide whether to go for the coconut milk (one tin for two people) or not. If you add the coconut milk bring the pan to the boil and then turn down immediately. Just give it a couple of moments to amalgamate with the rest of the dish and then serve.

If you prefer leave out the coconut milk ands serve with a spoonful of fromage frais or Greek yoghurt.

Rice, couscous, bulgur wheat or bread go well.

Institutional food brings out the two-year-old in me. What about you?

Institutional food brings out the two-year-old in me. What about you?

Who decides what you eat? Like me you may find that on a not-too-stressful day when you have the time and the awareness quite a kind and creative part of you makes your food choices. The inner two-year-old feels safe and cared for. Build in a row with someone you care about or a sudden work problem and that kind and creative part may be more difficult to access. What happens then? The two-year-old starts to feel wobbly and I find food is my first go-to means of feeling better – or that’s what I hope as I open the chocolate digestive (substitute your own comfort). Sometimes that can be a quick fix, a little hug that I can give myself and sometimes … well we all know what happens sometimes. Sometimes that blessed child has eaten the whole packet before you notice and then there’s a lot of shouting and shaming. All that and on the outside you are that well-groomed adult going about your business.

So what if you’re in a situation where your food choices are limited by your canteen or the conference centre or the hospital you work in? What happens when circumstances force you to change the time of your main meal from evening to lunchtime or vice versa? You may remember I was looking forward to a bit of a detox at my retreat last week but I had reckoned without my reaction to being a Dutch conference centre with no access to a kitchen! I suppose that’s not as bad as having no access to a bathroom but it’s a close run thing for us cooks.

Let me be clear. There was a huge choice of food, much of it healthy, much of it not but very little of it made my heart sing. It was catering on the large scale and catering never lends itself to a little something arranged on a plate but rather to things that you dollop onto your plate with a spoon. Portion control already a problem, you see. Grazing around the endless tables of food that doesn’t appeal means I easily eat vastly more than I usually do and it’s food I don’t even like! This made me angry in itself – with myself and, unfairly, with the Dutch. When someone else is in charge of what is available it can bring up a very young part and I found I was quietly having a tantrum amidst all the peaceful spiritually aware crowd. It was their fault I was eating too much and not even enjoying it. Before long I hated everyone and the rotten chairs we were sitting in too.

Fortunately at a retreat you get a lot of time to process your reactivity and after a couple of days I got wise to what was happening. I stopped blaming everyone else (mother, take a bow) and took myself off to the supermarket to buy lots of fruit and that was enough. Having heaps of fruit for breakfast meant the other two meals were fine. However it made me really feel for people whose whole lives involve institutional food which can be very tasty and very heavy on the calories. When the food is a break between work periods (or meditation periods) it feels as though you deserve something nice and you do. The trick is to take care of yourself and look out for the two-year-old within drumming its heels and howling while you cast around for something to shut it up. So at the risk of repeating myself here is salvation on a plate. The eternal fruit salad. Enjoy.

 

fruit-salad