Sorrel

So at last I get home to find that the pathetic little sorrel plant I shoved in before I went away in July, the one that looked as though it might not survive the weekend, has taken over the world. Or at least my herb garden.  I have a great nostalgia for sorrel. Some time before the Flood you used to see it on French menus but now, not so much. As a student  I used to feel very French buying small, expensive bunches of sorrel in M & S on Kensington High Street but I don’t think I have seen it on sale these many years. In my mind it has taken on a mythical status and its taste has been elevated in memory to something near divine. Have you tried it? It’s lemony and refreshing and delicious with fish. So it is a delightful surprise to come home to sorrel with ambitions to march on Moscow which has started by annexing all available space in the zinc manger that is my herb garden. It is a divided affair, the manger, otherwise both sides would have fallen to the sorrel. I’m secretly delighted with this occupying force although I do wonder what has happened to the horseradish that went in at the same time.

herb garden

So what am I going to do with it? Interestingly recipes for things containing sorrel are only in my oldest cookbooks. Nigel Slater’s volumes on his garden produce do not mention it and a cursory glance at Diana Henry also draws a blank. A quick scroll though google, however, confirms what I remember. Sorrel dissolves even better than spinach with butter over a little heat. It lacks that blood and gravel taste of iron that people who don’t like spinach don’t like. With seasoning and an egg yolk or some cream or stock it is a ready made sauce. No blender to wash up! I can see it is going to be my mystery ingredient for the Autumn entertaining that is on the horizon.

It will also be keeping some pretty grand company as I am proud to tell you I have in my freezer, direct from the French field it grew up in, a poulet de Bresse. Such a song and dance has been made over this chicken (not least by Alistair Little) that when we passed a sign on the French motorway advertising Bresse as the next exit I brought the full force of my charm to bear (and a little hysteria) to persuade the driver to turn off so that we could buy one. I don’t know how it is in your car but in ours it doesn’t matter which of us is driving the power goes straight to our heads. Coffee stops, loo breaks and even medical emergencies simply cut no ice with the one behind the wheel, especially when abroad. If you want to stop do not begin your sentence ‘Shall we …?’ or ‘We could …’ or ‘Oh, look …’  Deaf and head down, the driver’s instinct is to Keep Going at all costs. The inviting lay-by, service station or out-of-the-way country restaurant is merely a cloud of dust behind you before you finish. Rather, shout ‘STOP!’ in such a way that obedience is instinctive but not so that the driver has a heart attack.  (I suggest you practise before setting off.) To maintain the effectiveness of this technique I recommend limiting it to once every five hundred miles or so. Anyway when I tell you I came home holding aloft a poulet de Bresse as though I had won Wimbledon and did a victory lap of the kitchen, you will appreciate why.

I will keep you posted when we eat it but it will be cooked with love, I promise, not shoved into a cold oven I meant to put on half an hour earlier and then heated to spontaneous combustion temperature because we’re all hungry. Perhaps some boiled potatoes with a sorrel sauce? Meanwhile I am planning a sorrel risotto with or without a few prawns. Here I am rerunning the risotto recipe that I gave some months ago to which you add your sorrel at the end. But first you need to plant your sorrel and there is no problem buying a plant online from a website like this. Make sure you give it some decent soil in a pot as big as you have room for. Like most plants it likes plenty of sunshine and plenty of rain but if we are lucky with the rest of September there is time to get one established before Winter. Here is the monster that was planted in July.

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In cooking sorrel disappears much like spinach so although it is lovely to have a few leaves in a salad, it is best kept for soups and sauces unless you’re going to give it the run of your borders.

Sorrel Risotto

500 g risotto rice (Replace 250g of the rice with finely diced vegetables (carrots, celery, courgettes) if you are watching the calories.

50 g butter

50 g olive oil

1 onion or leek finely chopped

2 litres of beef or Marigold vegetable stock (hot)

2 glasses of white wine

an egg yolk beaten with half a cup of double cream

as much sorrel as you can muster

  1. Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
  2. While the onion is softening wash and chop the sorrel and melt it in some butter over a low heat. When it is like a puree, turn off the heat.
  3. Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
  4. Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
  5. Add the stock one ladleful at a time until it is all absorbed. This should take 20 minutes but I find it takes longer, so be patient.
  6. Turn off the heat and add the pre-cooked sorrel, salt and pepper, the egg yolk and cream. Check the seasoning again.
  7. Leave to ‘mantecare’ (to cream) for 3 minutes and then serve.

This risotto is great with grilled white fish on top or a few sautéed prawns. It goes equally well with ripe and mild Dolcelatte but to my mind Parmesan overwhelms the sorrel. You could leave out the egg yolk and cream and put a dollop of burrata into each portion before serving.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

courgettes

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

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

squid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water melon with Parma ham and pickled cucumber

pickled cucumber

Salmon Tartare with Pickled Cucumber

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Better Bugs

 

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The Hadza People

with Alice Crittenden, anthropologist

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

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

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

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

White Fish with Pine Nuts Butter and Steamed Greens

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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