Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

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Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

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!

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

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

Alice, Goldilocks and Heidi

 

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.

The Fish Market

pescheriaThe Fish Market at Rialto on Christmas Eve

It was great fun to struggle through the crowds to the pescheria like a Venetian on Christmas Eve. Traditionally only fish not meat passes their lips on La Vigilia but on the other hand there’s no way you could call it a fasting day! Italian housewives are out until the evening topping up their extensive provisions for the banquets to come.

Traditionally I offer a Lobster Supper (festive, nearly calorie-free and no cooking) on Christmas Eve but Venice seemed to be pretty much a lobster-free zone so we had a variety of other things instead. The recipe I think worth sharing is for a simplified Coquilles Saint Jacques which came after the garlic and chilli prawns and before the San Pietro (John Dory). You can see the scallops in the picture above but sadly we ate them too fast to offer you a photo of the finished dish. The local baker had for sale Panettone made on the premises and melting Lindt Intense dark orange chocolate and adding a little thin cream made a pudding worthy of the name. Let me know what you think!

Of course the great thing with fish is that you can eat your own weight in the stuff without putting on a pound so a little chocolate sauce is definitely allowed.

 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques for four

One scallop per person, ideally with its shell (but you can use a cocotte dish)

2 x leeks trimmed and very finely chopped

100g of Parmesan or another hard cheese finely grated

A glass of white wine

A small pot of single cream

A handful of white breadcrumbs per person

A tsp of olive oil

Make sure the scallops are really clean. This is a given if they’ve come from the supermarket but not, let me tell you, if the fish market has been involved. Get rid of any sand and trim them if they need the membrane removing.

Poach them in a little water for a couple of minutes and then fish them out and set them and the liquid aside while you make the sauce.

Sweat the finely minced leek in the olive oil until it has nearly melted. Then add all the breadcrumbs as if you were making a roux. Gradually add alternate tablespoons of white wine and cream to the leek and breadcrumbs until you have a sauce thick enough to spoon over the scallops. Now taste it and adjust the proportions (more cream?, more wine?) and the seasoning. If the sauce is too strong you can add a tablespoon of the scallop cooking water.

Arrange each scallop on its dish and spoon over a generous amount of thick sauce. Allow to cool. Cover with cling film and set in the fridge until you want to eat them. Allow them to come back to room temperature and grate some cheese over each before putting in a very hot oven for ten minutes or until the sauce bubbles slightly.

This isn’t as grand as the traditional version with piped Duchesse potatoes but it does taste as good and you have no piping bag to wash. (Result!)  It’s really useful as an impressive course in a special meal as it can be done the day before.