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.

damsons 2

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.

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.

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.

Quickie breakfast to set you up for your work-out.

I’ve been reading for years that breakfast should be the big meal of the day and that has never suited me. (I read some research recently which suggests they got that wrong anyway!) My favourite breakfasts are leisurely affairs with boiled eggs, home made granola, bread and jam, lots of coffee. After that delicious and satisfying feast with the Sunday papers and Radio Four I’m also certain to be hungry again by lunchtime. Breakfast of any dimension seems to give my digestion a signal to wake up early and start kicking off.

So normally I stick to fruit salad but some days that just doesn’t cut it so I wanted to share this zippy addition to make your fruit salad a bit different for days when you need some protein first thing but you don’t want to go the whole hog. (LOL)

fruit and cheese

Here is the secret : adding some cheese (primo sale with rocket). Primo sale is a very mild fresh cheese and this version is squeaky so I’m hoping it is also low in fat. Anyway it’s delicious and you could use any cheese you like to the same end. (Roquefort is very satisfying.) Whatever you do you will be saving a ton of calories by not diving into the breakfast cereal. I’ve read that people who live with breakfast cereal visible on the kitchen counter weigh lots more than people with biscuits on show. In fact breakfast cereal bars and so on are often mistaken for health foods because they’re full of oats and fruit and the like. Yes, they’re full of good stuff if you’re about to run a half marathon but if you’re just dragging yourself to the office, think again.

This colourful plate gave me the energy for my work-out with Chalene this morning. Oh, you don’t know about Chalene! I am away from my regular classes which I love, so I have brought with me piyo DVDs which feature the awesome Chalene Johnson who invented piyo. She is gorgeous to look at and chock full of astonishing American enthusiasm and encouragement. By the time she is done with me I feel awesome too! Click on the link to see her in action and you may also be tempted to add her to your arsenal of tools to stay healthy.

 

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!

IMG_0470

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.

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.

When is a brownie kinder than a fruit salad?

Imagine you live in the stone age when wild animals were not just going through your dustbins of an evening but threatening to eat you and your children. The regime, we may surmise, was feast or famine. After a prolonged period of stress (how much fun do you think living off berries and roots and fending of the local bear actually was?) comes at last the day when the young bucks are successful and bring home meat for dinner. Party time. The big fire gets going, alcohol is unleashed, the resident shaman is warming up and at last there’s hot food, streaming with animal fat. General rejoicing. Nobody back then said ‘I only want a little’, ‘No meat for me’ or ‘I’m sorry I’m on the 5/2′. When there was food, everybody ate what they could get because who knew how long it would be before there was meat and fat again. Simple.

Now imagine you are a new baby, unused to being out of the womb, unused to being on your own, oh and you’ve never been hungry before. (The placenta used to deliver all of your needs before you knew you had them.) Suddenly you’re out in the world and hunger is pretty frightening. Warm sweet milk (our own animal fat), when it arrives, is an end to all suffering. Party time. Eat all you can get. This regime too is feast or famine because just a few moments’ hunger feels like a famine to the infant – witness the noise they make which rivals a fire alarm and produces just one desire in any nearby adult. Make It Stop. The milk almost invariably arrives with a caring person attached so you get company, physical pleasure and an end to some nasty feelings all in one hit. You feel great. Simple.

These two scenarios explain how it is second nature to cheer ourselves up and relax (or self-medicate as the psychs say) with ‘unhealthy’ food. It wasn’t unhealthy food back then (either in the cave or in infancy). It was just what we needed. Have you noticed that under stress the body effortlessly chooses high calorie foods? Bad morning? Before you can turn round the body will have hoovered up a bag of dried fruit and nuts from Pret. (Real food but high cal.) Adding insult to injury, it then tends to hang on to all the calories as long as possible, slowing down your metabolism, rather than burning them up efficiently. When the nervous system has been under threat and then that threat is removed the body wants to eat, eat, eat – and we’re not talking salads here. The body, in its wisdom, wants to restore its wellbeing by wolfing down the highest calorie food it can lay its hands on.

What was an intelligent response in the stone age isn’t so great today when the only threat has been a ticking off from the boss, a tube strike or a visit from your mother. Your nervous system does not distinguish between the agony of the working mother with a sick child and the heart-pounding flight from the sabre-toothed tiger. Your nervous system has all its alarm bells ringing (‘My office, now!’ ‘Can you come home?’ ‘It’s only me…’) just as if your life were in danger. When your break comes a doughnut or some chocolate or a Big Mac may feel like the very thing that will restore your sense of well-being because you feel as though you’ve run a marathon and it’s only 11am. But then comes the kick-back. The voice that makes you feel worthless.

That endless monologue about what you’ve ‘earned’, what you ‘deserve’ has no place in your food choices. What to do?

Back to basics. When we eat those high-fat, high-sugar things we are trying to restore our sense of well-being. They taste good in the mouth but they also signal to the body that the threat is past and the sympathetic nervous system (what a misnomer) can throw itself on the sofa and watch TV for a while. Chill, if you will. In a word, our evolutionary heritage is on the side of MacDonalds. Show it a burger, steak and chips, pancakes with maple syrup and butter and it rolls up its sleeves and digs in before you can say Weightwatchers. As so often, our evolution into human beings is in microcosm replicated by our journey from embryo to adult. If we call ‘bad’ the very foods that produce the sensations of physical safety and which mimic our earliest, sweetest experiences of love it is a short step to confusion, anger and eventual revolt. (The revolt will be high calorie, trust me).

So how can we drag our bodies out of the stone age, out of infancy and into the present where there is no shortage of food and where the ever-present danger is of ruining our health through over-eating? Here is a step by step guide.

  1. Abandon the notion of good and bad. This is not about being good. Reward and punishment have no place in our diet.
  2. Focus on what the food represents for our physiology – that loving attempt to restore our well-being.
  3. Feel into the kindness of that attempt – this is love for ourselves, a way of looking after ourselves.
  4. As you feel into the kindness bring in the knowledge you have of your own situation and what you know about food so that something can emerge which will respect exactly where you are.
  5. ‘Your own situation’ means your health, how much running about you’ve done today, what the rest of the day holds. If you’re in ill health, can’t run about and tonight you’re out to dinner somewhere fun, you need to choose your lunch and snacks with a kind and light hand. If you’ve already done a work out, you haven’t sat down all day and tonight will be a boiled egg and soldiers (my favourite supper when I’m on my own) you need some energy and your lunch should reflect that.
  6. Never again think of things you put in your mouth as ‘treats’. Inherent in the word is that good/bad splitting which keeps us rebelling and eating heavy.

 

So here is the best brownie recipe I know of. It is also shamingly easy. Humour your body by making them and having a taste each day for a couple of days. Share them widely and you will be much loved and go straight to heaven.

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.