Wedding Breakfast

Last week was a week of weddings and in addition the sun shone pretty much non-stop. In the face of these dual causes for celebration I completely forgot about eating kindly and consciously. My beautifully regulated digestion system, my quiet start to the day meditating in the open air, my attention to the quality and quantity of what I put in my mouth – all out the window! Too much wine, too much cake, not enough sleep, not a fruit or vegetable as far as the eye can see and here I am back in an uncomfortable place I know. Body uncomfortable. Shaming demons dancing in triumph. But just a minute …

Two good things about this disaster. First it is completely reversible. (The demons sit down, nonplussed.) Secondly I get a reminder of why I changed things. Overdoing it is no fun, turns out. (Demons scratching their heads.) I remember, after the event, why it is kind to say ‘not for me’ now and again. Even when it’s pink Champagne. Finally my body demands my attention and I have the awareness to give it. I am grateful for that. (Demons regretfully push off.)  So if this happens to you, don’t let the shaming demons in. Just enjoy your awareness as it returns with its cornucopia of blessings and notice that the time lapse between forgettings gets longer. Tip : gratitude is death to the shaming demons.

 

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Weddings, eh? Whether it is your septuagenarian aunt marrying her Facebook beau or your fresh-faced offspring romping up the aisle, there is that heart-stopping moment when the couple look at each other and make their vows. Suddenly all present understand the depth, the sacredness of what is happening. We understand it in our cells despite our minds. It is this depth, this presence that can be cultivated by the sensing practice. It is this depth, this presence which keeps me close to myself and which enables me to take care of myself. It is itself strong drink and I have a theory that it is because we cannot bear too much of it that our sacred occasions give way immediately to carousing and strong drink of a different sort.

This morning the sun is shy and the garden soaks up the sprinkling of rain that has refreshed the plants. The very last of the broad beans need picking and the first artichokes I have ever grown. I also have a yen to make pasta amatriciana with some very splendid looking rigatoni that a kind soul brought me from Spoleto.

rigatoni

It so happens that Amatrice is not far from Spoleto in Lazio, Italy, so the sauce and the big pasta will be soul mates. So here we go.

Rigatoni Amatriciana with Baby Artichokes for Two

First cut your baby artichokes from the plant and soak them to do away with wildlife. For this recipe the artichokes need to be small enough not yet to have developed the choke so no bigger than six or seven cubic centimetres. Now cut off about a centimetre nearest the stalk and start to peel off the outer leaves until you reach less tough ones.
Finally cut off the very tough tips of the leaves and cut each artichoke in half before poaching in water until tender – about ten minutes.

artichokes

You could grill them with goats’ cheese and put them on top of a salad or use them as a vegetable alongside others. I’m going to pop them on top of my pasta when it’s ready.

For the amatriciana sauce you should use 200g guanciale or diced cured pigs’ cheek but, pig cheek not being so popular in Oxfordshire,  I am making do with some dry cured smoked bacon lardons from good old Waitrose. Start by heating them gently in a heavy pan (no oil) until the fat is rendered and they begin to colour (10 minutes or so). Add half a finely chopped onion. (And if you don’t know how to chop an onion it really is worth learning which you can do from no less a figure than Gordon Ramsay right here.) Sweat the onion for ten minutes with the bacon and the lid on until soft and then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a half teaspoon of chilli flakes and a pinch of salt. Let it just bubble for ten minutes and then set aside until you are ready to cook the pasta. Ideally you will have to hand a good handful of Pecorino sheep’ s cheese, you guessed, also from Lazio. Tonight I will be making do with some very old Grana or poor man’s Parmesan but then, it’s a poor (Ro)man’s dish.IMG_0604.JPGTo make this dish vegetarian is simple. You can add more chilli if you wish or finely chop some black olives, capers (and anchovy if you eat anchovy). This makes it more of a puttanesca and none the worse for being invented by Neapolitan prostitutes as a quick supper between clients.

When the pasta is cooked lift it out with tongs and put it into the sauce with a dash of pasta water. Mix well and serve with the cheese and a salad.rigatoni.JPG

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

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?

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

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

Lido by Rob

Alice

‘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.

Goldilocks

‘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.

Heidi

‘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.

Packed Lunches

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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.

Stress and Addiction Eating

Under stress our addictions pop right up again even when we thought we’d sorted all that. If you’re under stress (who isn’t?) look after yourself. Here’s how.

Have in a wide range of food in healthy proportions. (That means a packet of biscuits in the tin, sure, but a fridge and a fruit bowl overflowing with fresh raw things. Cheesecake is not a raw thing.)

  1. If you feel the need to eat and it’s not a meal time reassure that anxious part of you that it’s not going to starve and lay your hands on as much fruit as you can. Eat it straight or arrange it like a still life first. Don’t want fruit? Always have access to some tomatoes and miso soup, maybe a hard boiled egg too. Keep reassuring the anxious part which is not your stomach. If your anxious part is afraid of the food, reassure it just the same. There isn’t going to be any force feeding. There is only kindness. Sense into the part of you that panics. How old is it?
  2. If part of you is always afraid of being deprived, eat off large plates. A large plate filled with raw foods and a small amount of protein/carbohydrate/fat (meat, fish, cheese, bread, mayonnaise, salad dressing, butter etc) . This feels generous and is less likely to send that hungry frightened part into orbit.
  3. Equally if your small and hungry part is frightened by food, make it a small and tempting plate. Imagine you are looking after a toddler.
  4. Make it tasty! Anchovies, lemon juice, fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, coriander on your salad mean you don’t need so much oil.
  5. I’m all for healthy eating but this isn’t the time to start giving up salt. If you’re trying to eat sensibly in terms of quantity make it delicious. If you try to revolutionise your eating in one go (from a Full English diet to no-salt, low fat)  you are asking to fail. One thing at a time. Don’t feed the part that believes in all or nothing. Feed the grown-up part that knows to take it slowly. Someone needs to look after that toddler.
  6. Make soup. Make soup often! Making it is incredibly therapeutic and eating it is pretty good too. My current favourite is root vegetables such as carrots, swede and parsnips – whatever you have in but go easy on the potatoes. Chop and saute and onion. Peel and chop your root veg and add to the pan with enough Marigold vegetable stock to cover generously. Cook until the veg are soft and then liquidise. Freeze some and meanwhile season what you are keeping out for the next few days. By seasoning at the time of eating you can vary the soup. I like to add cayenne and curry powder for quite a spicy taste, then add some good yoghurt or a dash of cream to your bowl when serving. Next time you can add ginger and lemon and parsley or some other wonderful combination you’ve discovered.

 

Today’s recipe is for Pasta with Prawns.

Prawn Spaghetti

 

Chop finely some parsley and garlic and put in a small bowl with the prawns (room temperature), the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Heat some good olive oil in a small pan and when your pasta is drained and ready add everything from the bowl with the prawns in it and a teaspoon of Harissa pasta or a sprinkling of chilli flakes. Warm through and divide between the pasta dishes. This also works beautifully with crab meat or sautéed courgettes or roasted broccoli instead of the prawns.