Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather

About two months ago things went wrong for me visiting Lisbon for a wedding.  I ended up in casualty with a bad UTI and when I eventually saw the twelve year old doctor and got my hands on some antibiotics (you could get Ecstasy easier) I thought that was that. But no. There has been pain and panic ever since.

A major attack of IBS followed and by the time I was back in England a horrible burning pain in my side which especially played up at night when I had all the leisure in the world to worry about it. A trip to casualty in England (and let me tell you Lisbon makes the National Health look like Los Angeles) established that it wasn’t a kidney stone and then they sent me home with the pain which was now a hundred times worse courtesy of lying on the scanner and worrying.

The moral of my tale is twofold. Doesn’t worrying make things so much worse (and actually produces physical sensations to order)? Secondly cause and effect is usually so much more complicated than we imagine. After months of osteopathy I was still not able to sit and meditate nor go to my piyo classes. I foresaw a future of sloth and a balloon shaped me wearing shapeless dresses. Utter misery. I tried meditating lying down and other versions but it wasn’t the same. Opening the French doors and sitting on my cushion, semi-exposed to the elements, has become a precious way to start my day and I was very sorry for myself contemplating that this might be a thing of the past. Also I had a wardrobe full of clothes I felt too bloated to wear.

Gradually I came to accept what the osteopath gently broke to me : there was a disc involved which was causing referred pain. I can’t tell you how I fought against this diagnosis but I did stop exercising and it did stop being absolute agony and reduced to miserable. But I also realised that the IBS was also still shouting its head off. So I have stopped looking for one simple treatable-give-me-a-pill-or-an-operation cause. As ever it is my spine and my bowels playing up under stress. So not even the glamour of something serious.

I am sharing this with you (and you may well say I am sharing way too much) because it can really help to stop looking for a cause and resign yourself to kindness and forbearance as a way of treating things (once serious illness has been ruled out by scans and so forth).

Arriving in Venice yesterday in stormy weather (see picture) I felt the stress fall away and this morning I did some yoga and obtained some clicks from my poor spine which may just have set things on the mend. There was no hurrying this – I just had to wait and to all those who have put up with me patiently while I learned to wait : Thank you!

I’m not sharing a new recipe today but I include photos of porridge in its different guises, sweet and savoury and risotto which seems to help the IBS big time.

 

 

Cool as a …

Cool as a …

In this hot weather cucumber soup is an easy, cheap, delicious and cooling lunch or starter. You can control the calorie count easily by adjusting the cream or yoghurt quotient as you serve it. Cucumber on its own produces a pale green soup but if you want the colour to be a bit more vibrant add some raw baby spinach leaves at the blending stage. The more spinach you add the better from a nutritional point of view since it is chock full of vitamins and minerals. You can use cooked spinach but it won’t give you that lovely bright green. This is a painless way for the non-spinach eater to get the benefits of eating spinach! And remember that making your own food from scratch is super nutritious for your self-esteem as well.

Cucumber Soup

2 x medium to large green cucumbers

1 x large onion

handful of baby spinach leaves or more (optional)

single cream or yoghurt to taste (optional)

1 litre Marigold vegetable stock or home-made vegetable or chicken stock

 

Chop up your cucumbers and onion – this doesn’t have to be a work of art because it’s all going in the blender – and sweat in a tablespoonful of olive oil in a heavy pan with a lid.

Be careful not to let the onions catch as it will affect the colour of the soup, turning it brown.

When the onions are transparent add the stock and bring to the boil.

Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.

Allow to cool and the liquidise completely adding the raw baby spinach leaves if you have them.

Chill for six hours and then taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper as needed.

At this stage you can freeze the soup or put in back in the fridge until needed. When you come to serving you can add a whole carton of cream or just a splash, or a spoonful of yoghurt in each dish and the beauty of it is each person can have it how they need it. For those of us watching the calories and feeding others this is a great boon.

A few thin slices of cucumber as a garnish and some fabulous bowls can make this a dinner party soup you can prepare two to four days in advance.

Hot hot hot

Hot hot hot

The heat wave continues in the UK and I wanted to share one of my all-time favourite hot weather recipes, good for lunch or dinner at the table, on the terrace or in picnic form. It is my version of Coronation Chicken and fair to say I have never had it anywhere else since I pinched the recipe from a friend back in 1982 so unless Annie’s coming to supper you will take your guests by surprise. It is a sure-fire winner and the left-overs are possibly even better next day.

 

Chicken and Almond Salad

1 chicken breast fillet per person or maybe 3 between 3, remove the skin and slice into generous slices.

A small handful of toasted whole almonds (for 2) or more to taste

A small handful of raisins soaked in hot water and drained.

A mayonnaise sauce made from mayonnaise itself (I use Hellman’s) and reduced fat sour cream (or yoghurt, or fromage frais or double cream depending on your taste and waistline). Proportions about half and half.

Cos lettuce or your favourite crispy lettuce.

Method

Toast the whole blanched almonds in a dry frying pan until they are toasty golden brown at least in places.

Poach the chicken slices in water with peppercorns, fresh herbs if you have them, half a carrot and a little salt. When the chicken goes white it is cooked through and you can turn the heat off.

Soak and drain the raisins to plump them up.

Cool the chicken and remove from the water. Cut the slices into chunks.

In a large bowl combine the chicken chunks, almonds and raisins. Add the chilled mayonnaise and grate a little raw onion on top. Add black pepper and combine all gently. Keep in a tupperware in the fridge until needed. It keeps well for 48 hours.

When the salad is needed arrange the lettuce leaves beautifully on a large white plate or in a large white bowl and then tip the chicken mixture on top leaving much of the lovely green lettuce leaves showing around the edge. The picture below is only in a picnic box but it can look rather elegant!

chicken and almondIf you don’t eat chicken you can make quite a nice Waldorf salad with walnuts and apple and if you want to bulk it out add some cooked vegetables of chunks of raw courgette or newly podded broad beans.

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

Sant’Erasmo. Venice’s Garden

 

flags

These islanders are proud of their water entrance which is always a priority for Venetians however little used.

My first day back in Venice and I am on a day trip out into the Lagoon. I change boat at Treporti where my feet briefly touch the mainland, albeit an outpost of Italy which is still clearly Venice. A brioche and a cappuccino in the ten minutes waiting for the next boat is breakfast and an exquisite reminder of the sweet tooth of the early morning Venetian. On the number 13 boat I have only a small German family and the boatman for company. Like me they are going to explore Sant’Erasmo. I know this because this is the only place this boat is going. Three stops, all on Sant’Erasmo. The boat sits low in the water as we hum out further into the lagoon, surrounded only by pieces of land at water level covered in scrub. I get an idea of what Venice looked like before they built it. With every moment we grow further away from Venice itself and the profiles of islands I know. Burano is a distant memory.

The German father wears strange orange trousers with the seat and knees reinforced in brown tweed as though he might be going to crawl everywhere or shuffle on his bottom. On his feet are crocs and on his head a brown wool beret complete with tiny stalk. The mother carries a large rucksack with all the necessary, some of it strapped on the outside including a change of socks for the little girl who is dressed like Pippi Longstocking. In fact they are all so colourfully dressed I wonder whether they are in fact Dutch not German. The rhythms of their conversation sound German but above the steady thrum of the boat’s engine it is difficult to be certain. The boatman mutters Venetian dialect into his phone.

fort

The Fort at Sant’Erasmo built after Napoleon’s defeat was used as late as World War One by Italian soldiers. It is now an occasional exhibition centre.

Young, handsome, the Venetian is simply dressed in clean and ironed trousers, a blue pullover with grey collar and cuffs, sunglasses. I imagine he would smell delicious and it is delightful to watch him manoeuvre the boat with one hand as he talks on the phone with the other. Arriving at a stop he moors the craft and unchains the doorway still with one hand. Laid back does not begin to describe it. No-one gets on or off and the German makes a mime of looking for people, as in Why are we stopped? The Italian holds up two fingers – he has a timetable and we are two minutes early. Not a hundred feet away is a fisherman paddling up to his knees in the water, his boat rocking gently nearby in our wake.  Not a hundred feet away we could run aground and I realise that, laid back or not, our boatman really does know what he’s doing.

orto

Quite soon you pass the vineyards where they grow this local wine. Orto means vegetable plot and the wine is serenissimo like the republic Venice still takes itself to be.

Did I say it is sunny? And for an April day, very warm in the way that promises a certain summer. Back in England a sunny week in April can be all the summer we see. Not so here. What I love about Venice is that the seasons have more or less stuck to their guns. In Winter you will need a coat and maybe boots. In Summer the sand is so hot you cannot walk on it barefoot. In an unpredictable world these small certainties feel reassuring.

On this wonderful day with a blue sky I am taking a trip out into the lagoon to visit Sant’Erasmo where they grow many of the fruit and vegetables that feed Venice. When the local fruit-seller says the artichokes are ‘nostrana’ – ‘ours’ – this is what she means. In Erle Zwingler’s  lovely blog about living in Venice there’s lots more about the purple artichokes from Sant’Erasmo and all kinds of Venetian foibles. So I went to see this garden, second only in size to Venice itself, and found an entire island given over to cultivation and canals but also to birds, butterflies and bees.

flowers

I am jealous of the gardeners here. They seem to have no rabbits. No wire. No nibbled plants. Maybe being an island they have banished them. At home my globe artichokes are decimated by rabbits already this Spring. Walking the lovely canal-sides I am also struck by the no thistles and no nettles. Wherever drastic action is not taken at home, these become the foremost crop. So whether it is some generations of stamping them out or whether this is one more aspect of Italy’s charmed life I cannot say, but it is very lovely.

canal

One of the farms sitting in its own fields and canals

My guidebook to the invisible city describes Sant’Erasmo as a green mosaic and that is certainly what it looks like in the glorious sunshine. After a few hours walking I am hungry and my path has brought me back towards the boat stop where I landed. Knowing that Italians are never far from a bar and an aperitivo I’m not worried by the apparent lack of refreshments on offer. I know that round the next corner …. in the most idyllic spot … with its own private beach and some large shady trees – ah! there it is. The bar/restaurant that was bound to be there. It’s one of those places which could easily turn out to have a four language menu and a 100 euro price tag but I am in luck. It’s the local bar/pizzeria and I get a wonderful lunch of mussels and a view of the water.

restaurant

Mussels together with an Aperol Spritz and an espresso make the perfect lunch for another hour’s walk. The restaurant fills up while I am there. A pair of lovers, rolling each other’s cigarettes and stealing kisses between  mouthfuls. A trio of local working men, one wearing a gypsy bandana without a trace of self-consciousness. Gradually all the tables are full and the waitress moves faster and faster until they all have plates of food when she sits in the shade and lights her own cigarette.

mussels

I walk back up the island towards the church where there is another boat stop. On the way I see pomegranates from last year petrified on the trees.

pomegranates

In all my wanderings, apart from the German family who turn up here and there and the lunchtime crowd in the restaurant, I see no-one but some builders in a field renovating a house, a man walking his dog and a lady on a bike. I am gratified to be acknowledged by the lady on the bike with a slow ‘Buon giorno‘ and a nod of the head and I decide this is because I am dressed for April despite the hot weather. Venetians are never knowingly underdressed and would no more wear a T shirt in April than dance naked in the street. They are simply to discreet to see the happy tourists who make like summer in April with shorts and sunbathing.

church

The church, another boat stop (‘Chiesa‘)  and the local shop are clearly the hub of the island and there are about four islanders waiting for the boat as well as a young woman with small children and a dog taking the air. Nearby a duck submits to the attentions of her drake in an operation somewhere between mating and waterboarding. Seagulls comment in dialect and geese look the other way.

Time to take the boat home and here I am once more outwitted by the boat system. I get on the right boat going the wrong way when I change at Treporti and end up coming home via Torcello. The kindest thing I can say is that this is the scenic route. Nevertheless a grand day out.

Flageolet Beans

Flageolet beans are my favourite bean, reminding me of life as a student in France a lifetime ago. When I’ve been overdoing the animal fats and the spending in restaurants, these beans put me back on the road to financial and physical health without feeling like fasting. Once in a while are a much healthier accompaniment to roast lamb than roast potatoes and yet they’re ultra satisfying to eat.

Here are the beans we had with our Easter Lamb. I’m popping them in the freezer until they are needed for a quick supper because that’s how versatile they are. At £2.19 for 500g (enough for about 8 people) they are also satisfyingly frugal. So you can feel like an Elizabeth David original and feed a large family or a table of friends for the price of a cappuccino.Beans

Here is how to cook them.

Start the night before and soak the beans in plenty of cold water. When you’re ready to cook them next day drain the beans and think what deliciousness you are going to add. If they are an accompaniment to roast meat you can just cook them in stock and some fresh thyme if you have some. A glass of white wine never hurts either. If they’re the main event then finely chop and onion or two and sweat them in a heavy pan with some olive oil. You may even have some soffrito or mirepoix in the fridge, homemade or bought. If you’re a carnivore then some finely chopped smoked bacon or ham really adds magic at this stage. Sweat your vegetables etc until they are softened and then add the beans and plenty of Marigold stock to completely submerge the contents of the pan. Bring to the boil and then cover and turn the heat down to a bare simmer and cook for a couple of hours. Add more liquid from time to time as needed. If it’s too runny remove the lid and allow the stock to evaporate once the beans are cooked.

You can cook this on the hob or in the oven but it’s easier to keep an eye on the hob.

This dish is real comfort food with some good bread and fresh green cabbage. Grilled radicchio can make it more sophisticated. Eat with a good spoonful of yoghurt or creme fraiche. It’s high in protein, low fat and cheap to make. Soak your beans tonight and get started.

I just want to be me.

I just want to be me.

At the bottom of this post you will find a recipe from Honey and Co for the most wonderful White Chocolate and Tahini Cake. I recommend you make it and then sit down with a slice to read a bit about being yourself.

Implicit in coming into the world as a human being is the physical connection with Mum. If you’re lucky there is also a profound emotional connection. As time goes by Dad comes into the picture too if he is available. Little Bloggins learns who s/he is by looking at Mum and Dad and working out what they like, what brings a smile to their faces and what brings on scowls and angry words. In an ideal world we want to please our parents and they like to show their pleasure in us.

However! Anyone who has been near a two-year-old or a sixteen year-old will know that there are two periods in our lives when we ‘just want to be me’. The two-year-old has just learned to say ‘no’ and sometimes can’t be persuaded to say anything else. The teenager (at some point or other) will act out the ‘no’ loud and clear and sometimes by not speaking at all. This is normal behaviour. Not pretty but normal.

If you are parenting one of these age groups let me congratulate you if you have an obstreperous toddler or a sulky teenager – it means you have done a grand job! You have children who attached safely to you and now feel safe enough in that relationship to separate as they need to, to be themselves. Because they love you so much they have to make themselves pretty unpleasant and difficult to do that. Don’t worry. Underneath is the child you love and who still loves and needs you. S/he will emerge.

One of the ways in which those separating children may act out is with regard to food. Haven’t we all had a teenager, resident or visiting, who has a special diet? That is a way of making you notice s/he is not the same little one who complied with your food offerings. It is a way of individuating and, notice, it often disappears into the background later in life. Toddlers, of course, do not spare our feelings or our upholstery but spit out stuff they seemed to eat willingly only last week.

You can see how, if things go awry with this tricky separating process, people can get stuck in this rejecting stage, metaphorically spitting their life out as a matter of course. It’s a wearing way to relate with the world and one that often brings people to therapy. Sometimes the ‘problem’ is with food. Sometimes it is with people or other things. The curious thing is that where this behaviour becomes embedded the child remains unable to ‘just be me’. They remain attached albeit in a negative way, unable to ‘leave home’.  Of course the other thing can happen too. The eating becomes compulsive and unhealthy and, ironically, this often happens where the parents eat this way already even if they put a lot of effort into their children’s healthy eating. It may represent a refusal to separate. Whichever way of not separating occurs there is generally a lot of anger with it. The energy to separate is like rocket fuel but where it is thwarted (maybe mother is too insecure and touchy? too overwhelming?) it turns to rage. What makes working through these issues delicate is that these behaviours are deeply rooted in love and loyalty to the parents. People fear that they will lose that by separating whereas the opposite is actually true. We need to individuate to appreciate the people our parents are or were, to have compassion for their difficulties and for ourselves.

So what does healthy separation look like and when does it happen? The good news is, it is never too late. For some people it doesn’t happen until long after their parents are dead. Finding out you can ‘just be me’ without rejecting anyone or anything is the most wonderful liberation. You can explore yourself for the first time rather than defining yourself by rejecting the world around you. Likewise finding out you don’t need to hold on to Mum any more (or how she wanted you to be) is a huge gift. Separation is about growth, the way a flower pops out of its bud casing. It’s not rejecting anything. It’s not grabbing anything. It’s just being itself.

And as parents seeing the beauty of our children just being themselves is much more rewarding than trying to hold onto them or an idea of how we thought they were going to be.

White Chocolate and Tahini Cake

courtesy of Honey & Co.

Items in bold are my alternatives to their recipe.

320g caster sugar

350g plain flour or half plain white flour and half spelt flour

1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1.5 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

zest of 2 lemons

2 eggs

70g chopped white chocolate

120 ml vegetable oil

230 ml tahini paste

1 tbsp vanilla essence or the seeds from a pod

240 ml buttermilk, kefir, yoghurt or milk

180 ml boiling water

For the icing and the filling I have developed my own mixture which is simpler to make and gives a much stiffer spread than the original recipe (which included Mascarpone, cream cheese and double cream and had less icing sugar).

I use 500g mascarpone and 180g icing sugar (and 1 tbsp vanilla and 1 tbsp rum as per the original recipe).

For the decoration : 30g white chocolate finely chopped and the zest from another two lemons.

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Heat oven to 170C fan (190C /gas mark 5).

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl mix the eggs with the oil, tahini, vanilla and buttermilk, then combine the two mixes, before slowly adding the boiling water.

Mix until everything is well incorporated.

Line the base of two 9in cake tins with a round of baking paper. Divide the mix evenly between the two tins, place both in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate for an even bake and return to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes. The cakes should feel lovely and bouncy and have a good golden colour all over.

Remove from the oven and carefully flip the cakes to flatten the tops. Allow to cool upside down.

Make the icing by mixing all the ingredients together with a small whisk until well combined and thickened. If you are using an electric mixer, use a paddle to avoid overworking the mix and splitting it. Place the first cake on a serving platter, top with half the icing, spread around and top with the second cake. Add the rest of the icing on top, spread and, if you wish, sprinkle with chopped white chocolate and lemon zest. If serving on the same day, it is best to avoid placing the cake in the fridge. If you are keeping it for longer do place it in the fridge, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.