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.
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!
No real marks for presentation but this lot did taste really good!
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.
‘If seven maids with seven mops Swept it for half a year, Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said, That they could get it clear?’
This is the beach in Venice where I have been spending some time. In May the weather is less exciting than this October photo but very beautiful. The breakwaters head out into the sea and in early morning they offer a great place to be alone with the waves. When life is busy and people are all around it can be a real breath of fresh air to make some space for myself alone.
Aloneness is quite difficult to achieve in Italy and even at seven in the morning teams of men are getting the beach ready for its grand opening on the 1st of June. They sweep the sand and pick up all the seaweed evoking shades of The Walrus and the Carpenter. They relay all the flagstones around the beach huts. They paint fences and mend awnings. It feels as though a great play is about to open and when the beach opens for business and the (mostly) local people turn up with their summer accoutrements to rent their hut for the season, the drama begins. The curtain comes down after the film festival in September and the beach is returned to the dog walkers and strange people who like to commune with the Absolute by the sea.
‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’
This morning I am not there any more. I am in Germany which feels like a land of giants in comparison – the desk chair in the bedroom makes me feel like Goldilocks. About three us of could sit in it comfortably. This morning is a time of reflection before a week’s retreat and the first thing I know is the that my body will be grateful for a holiday from too much food and drink. Like you I do know how to look after myself but when there are visitors to share things with and places you’re never going to come back to it seems somehow wrong to turn things down so I have been saying ‘yes’ too often. Happily my body is making it easy for me to take a break since I can feel its longing to be treated with lightness and delicacy for a while.
‘On a clear sunny morning in June two figures might be seen
climbing the narrow mountain path; one, a tall strong-looking
girl, the other a child whom she was leading by the hand, and
whose little checks were so aglow with heat that the crimson
color could be seen even through the dark, sunburnt skin.’
Last night’s overnight’s stop in rural Germany was a wonderful step back into another age and every dish came with home made buttered noodles and potatoes on the side in case you might have a corner to fill. My salmon (a feint towards health) came in batter with noodles and would have fed a family of four. I ate way too much! The delightful middle-aged waitress in a dirndl skirt was so smiley and hospitable I would really have liked to have eaten even more just to please her. In fact I would have liked to take her home with me just to be cheered up by her gemutlichkeit – that famous cosiness which Germany offers – whenever I felt glum. I was right back there with Heidi and her grandfather in one of my favourite childhood books. The idea of drinking goat’s milk and sleeping in the hayloft still lifts my spirits even though neither is quite as delicious as I thought. But there is in this a longing for simplicity and the love of attuning to what is needed.
So onward to Holland for some merciful discipline and some loving mindfulness.
One of my sons recently sent me this excellent lunchbox from Sistema. He and I have a thing about great storage and great food and this hits the nail on the head on both counts. Bring out your lunchbox on a train with a napkin and a proper fork and notice how little appeal those trips to the buffet have when you’re not hungry any more. Pack yourself a salad, maybe a yoghurt or a few squares of chocolate for afterwards and you are about £5 better off and all the healthier for it. And making yourself something good to eat also builds self-esteem.
When you are trying to eat healthily being out and about can be your undoing. On the road or in city centres it is quite difficult to find a lunch as healthy and delicious as one you might make before you leave home. If you never have time to do this I have a word of advice – you would expect no less – keep your home made salad dressing ready to go in the fridge. Throwing in the leaves and the protein is literally the work of an instant but the minute I think about making salad dressing I realise I’m going to miss my train. Having a couple of jars in the fridge with a choice of dressing can make the difference between a cheap and lovely salad (like my picture) and another wearisome trip to Pret or M&S and all that choosing.
Eating healthily is a lot to do with being prepared and I guarantee you will feel just a little bit smug when you are.
So here is the standard recipe for A Travelling Salad :
A handful of your favourite leaves.
A handful of your favourite protein (chicken, prawns, cheese, beans, tuna, nuts)
Optional extra veg such as tomato or shavings of courgette or carrot
An apple chopped up
And the all important dressing : (courtesy of Rayond Blanc)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil (replace with olive oil if you don’t have any)
salt and pepper
Shake all together in a jam jar before spooning over the salad.
Pleasing variations can be made by replacing the water with single cream or yoghurt, replacing the walnut oil with another flavoured oil (basil, chilli, garlic) and by sweetening the dressing with a teaspoon of honey or pomegranate molasses.
The Detox Kitchen has put its recipes into print.
This cookbook was on my Christmas list and I have tried out a good few of the recipes and whilst they are not quite as delicious as the food they sell in the Detox Kitchen in London that may be because they are even healthier! However what I have really got to grips with through cooking with this comprehensive book is that the use of fresh herbs and lemon juice is really underrated – at least by me to date.
What are the toxins I am trying to get rid of? My belief is that my body mostly expels things it finds toxic all on its own and that my job is to keep my body healthy enough to take care of itself. So I got curious. The toxin I identified with the help of this cookbook was the toxin of two double binds I hadn’t spotted previously.
- I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to use fresh herbs and lemon (unless other people were coming of course) because I hate buying those little packets of fresh herbs in the supermarket. For why? Because I feel I ‘ought’ to be growing them. It won’t come as a big surprise that many of them grow best in hotter and drier places than an Oxfordshire garden so, to be clear, I was doing without because I had an idea that they should be perfectly sourced. Madness.
- The second thing that stood between me and cooking with finely chopped greenery was a laziness I wasn’t conscious of. An aversion to the labour of chopping properly, a resistance to tracking down the lemon squeezer and and washing it up afterwards meant I was depriving myself of deliciousness and some health benefits too. Letting go of the notion that I had to grow the herbs myself means I can cook with herbs! Letting go of the notion that it is too much trouble to wash the lemon squeezer means I can cook with fresh lemon juice!
Just doing the things that seemed ‘too much trouble’ has sidestepped the double bind and this seems a radical detox to me. Try it because, as that woman on the TV says, you’re worth it.
In the consulting room I am always listening out for the toxin of undermining ourselves and punishing ourselves in the name of being better people. If there were one magic wand I would like to wave for my clients it is the magic wand that would dispel all these forms of self-hatred (because, yes, that’s what it actually is). Not thinking I’m worth taking trouble for is a form of self-hatred. Likewise there is no kindness in improving your diet out of a desire to be good. If you want to be a better person, start by weeding out the self-hatred which lurks behind some ‘good intentions’ and imposes a regime of self-chastisement which breeds rebellion.
Meanwhile back to the herbs. You won’t believe how great it is to have a beautiful pile of finely chopped parsley or coriander and garlic to strow over your simple sautéed chicken breast.
Here is the chicken with herbs and lemon juice shown with either lentils (I’m afraid they were tinned as I was in a hurry) or saute potatoes. The Spring cabbage is done in the microwave for four minutes with a knob of butter and a little salt.
Of course if you don’t eat chicken you can do the self-same thing with courgettes or carrots or roasted squash (when it comes out of the oven).