Cooking the Fridge

One of the things I love about leaving England to drive back to Italy for a while is what I call Cooking the Fridge. Despite my careful planning, two days before leaving I find myself with a fridge full of things I don’t want to throw away. Follows an enforced cooking session as I empty the fridge and stash things in the freezer for when we return which leaves me feeling frugal and virtuous and stores up treats for later. Win, as they say, win.

This time my fridge yielded the stock from a beef casserole which happily went with a glut of carrots and onions (how many did I imagine I needed?) to make carrot and onion soup. The beef casserole was a proper daube with lardons flamed in Cognac before a long slow cook so the stock is pretty impressive. I’ve added water to make enough liquid for the soup but it still socks you in the mouth with its taste.

I’ve chopped the unending celery, onions and carrots  and all the herbs in the garden for a mirepoix ready for osso bucco or lentils in December. And the entire bag of shallots lurking in the salad drawer has made a single jar of caramelised onions for an onion and goats’ cheese tart in December. Just cook the slowly with a dribble of oil and a spoonful of dark brown sugar. Add a dash of salt at the end.

Then there’s some broccoli which has fallen through the net until today. I have whipped it into edibleness by roasting it with nuts and spices and covering in a rich cheese sauce. I find roasting it first really adds to the flavour.IMG_0817

 

Potatoes and eggs have succumbed to an ad hoc gratin with the remains of the cheese.

IMG_0815 Cooking apples have been stewed (in the microwave) against future porridge delights or Winter crumbles.

So why not look in your fridge now if you have a slow day and cook the lot. Let me know what unusual things you make!

Here is the happy outcome of the day.IMG_0818

The Mrs Tiggywinkle feel of putting things in jars is unbeatable. And that reminds me of the fermentation I promised a while ago. Sandor Katz is the god of fermentation and once I had heard him on the radio and seen him on youtube I just had to have a go. As you can see I have experimented with pickling French beans, tomatoes and cabbage and it had already begun to bubble before I left. I’m new to this so I don’t know what state they will be in in four weeks time but I shall report back.

If you would like to learn about fermentation you could do a lot worse than listen here and look here for instruction. Great news : fermented foods are now fashionable as health foods because they replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeping your weight down and your digestion working well.

Making Friends

Making friends is what we first learn to do when we go to school or kindergarten. Anxious mothers ask that first question when we come home, ‘Did you make friends?’ Friends make the strangeness less strange, the frightening less frightening. New experiences with friends are an adventure, exciting rather than daunting. Eating, shopping, travelling, going to visit a garden or a museum – these things take on a much greater significance when we do it with friends. Friends make a little ceremony possible over a cup of coffee where on our own there was only the humdrum. Friends support us in our celebrations and our grieving. The lovely photo of the two friends above is by Survival International which works for tribal people around the globe. You can buy it as a Thank You card which feels especially appropriate since gratitude is an emotion closely allied with friendship.

Friendship seems to be an important part of being human and much of what I observe and write about concerns making friends with ourselves, treating ourselves as we would a much loved friend. Instead of chastising us for failing, a good friend would feel for us, might encourage us to try again, would honour the hard work and courage involved, the good already achieved. Focussing on what is not yet within our grasp and what we cannot yet achieve is not friendly. When positivity is needed a friend knows what to do. When a few home truths are what is required a friend will find a way of sharing them without shaming or humiliating us. This ideal friend is just the friend we need to be to ourselves!

And here’s a strange thing I have marvelled at over the years I have worked with clients : the more like that ideal friend we can be to ourselves, the more our friends will also be like that in the outside world. It seems unfair but inevitable that the world treats us like we treat ourselves. I have lost count of the delightful people who have sat in my room and told me, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, how mean they are to themselves. Very frequently those people have ‘friends’ and relatives close to them who are also mean to them. For some reason not clear to me, when our internal world is full of shame and punishment we find it out there too, in our jobs, in our yoga class, our choir, our team and in our intimate relationships. When people are being mean to you you don’t want to hear that the remedy might begin with how you treat yourself in the privacy of your own head. I say, ‘Try it and see.’

But what if you can’t shake off that chastising voice in your head? What if it’s there as soon as you wake up or even in your dreams. Some of us feel inadequate all the time and agree with the voice that we never live up to our own expectations. Then we have to make friends in a different way. We have to make friends with our experience even if that experience includes a mean, judging voice. Imagine you are minding a group of children in a playground. They are all playing nicely and being no trouble except for one who’s upsetting everyone else by taking their toys and acting mean. You have to include her in your care for the group because exclusion only leads to more trouble and more work. (Yes, a pity schools don’t take this line but exclude everyone they find difficult …)

The more we include the mean side of ourselves in our care for ourselves the quicker it ceases to make trouble. The important thing to remember is that you are bigger than that mean little person inside who needs taking care of just the same as the rest.

No recipe today, I’m afraid but stand by for a post about fermentation which I am completely new to. It looks like a fabulous way to introduce more healthy bacteria into my gut as well as using up the remaining vegetables from the garden before winter.

 

 

Narziss and Goldmund. Two Lives.

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Watercolour by Hermann Hesse

Here is a short story I wrote some years ago which I’d like to share with you on this Autumn morning. It is not difficult to see what the story is about and it is of course partly a tribute to Hermann Hesse’s work. His lovely water colour introduces the page.

 

When I was about ten there were brothers in school and privately I called them Narziss and Goldmund because they were so different from each other and yet somehow they belonged together. In the old story Narcissus can love no-one but his own reflection and his own reflection dissolves as he reaches out to grasp it. That is his suffering. But the Narziss that I knew was not like that. He had a handsome face and he wore his compassion on his open brow like a standard from the wars, like a young Hector. He worked hard, he was popular and he regularly came at the top of our class. Narziss and Goldmund loved each other but they did not understand each other.

Goldmund was subtle and his intellect glittered like a dagger with a jewelled handle. In class he was unpredictable. If only he could be more like his brother, the teachers said. He was musical and often the first you knew of Goldmund was his song coming ahead of him and the last was the music he left behind like perfume in the air. At the village dance after the harvest it was Goldmund that people watched and it was Goldmund who did not notice. The boy with the golden mouth was gregarious and attractive. But he was elusive and there was something about him which made me feel even then that he was a visitor in his own community. He was lent to us. I was not surprised when he was first to leave the village. We all turned out to see him off and all the girls swore to wait for him but he just smiled and struck out towards the first town with a small knapsack, a stick and a beautiful melody he invented himself.

There was talk of his going to Dortmund to continue his education. Some said music, others said he had gone into the church and been sent to Rome, that he was highly spoken of in the Vatican. There were even rumours that he had gone further afield, changed his name, given up everything to pursue an idea, to become an adept of the mystical practices of the East. In short, what happened to Goldmund became the stuff of local myth and in time we who had known him divided into two camps. Those whose pride he had hurt said he had burned himself out and come to nought. Others preferred to imagine him living the lives they would have liked for themselves – lives full of adventure, or of extraordinary asceticism and spiritual revelation, or perhaps of fame and adulation. In listening to this talk we learned much about each other but nothing of Goldmund.

Meanwhile Narziss had married and bought a plot of land. He built his modest house with wood from the tree of patience and turfed its roof with the flowers of honesty. He had sons who looked like him. He never spoke of Goldmund but a terrible endurance came into his eyes if you asked him about his brother. He would put his hand on his heart and he would say,

“My brother is in here and in here he can be free. That is enough.”

On Narziss’ land there ran a good stream which he used to water his crops and his animals. His wife brought water from the same stream to drink and to wash with. At the edge of his plot the stream went underground to reappear in the field beyond as a river. Narziss could see the field and the river over a gate in his hedge. The gate had been padlocked before his time and no-one now knew where the key was. In any case, the lock was thick with rust. In his heart when he was a young man, there was a yearning to enter the next field which looked so beautiful from his own land. When his family were out, Narziss had even searched the outbuildings for that key, thinking perhaps to find it in some hayloft or forgotten corner, but he never did. For a while there was a terrible conflict in his heart.

In time the yearning died down. Life became too busy for Narziss to worry much about anything but providing for his family and enjoying the prosperity that his labours brought him. By the time his sons left school to help him, he had extended his house with hard-earned stones of wisdom and he had built barns of prudence and charity against hard times. He gave work to six men and he was a person to whom others came in their need. He turned no-one away, although to each he gave from a different purse.

Years went by and his wife died; his sons did more of the hard labour on the land and Narziss had more time to look around him. In the evening, especially when the sun was setting, he liked to stand by the boundary gate and the yearning that he had known as a young man, grew in him again. Cut down like a thistle, it sprang up again more vigourous than before. His heart hankered after the field beyond where the wheat seemed always golden and waiting to be cut. With the evening sun in his eyes, Narziss sometimes thought he saw figures harvesting that wheat or resting in the stacks after their labours. Now and again it seemed, one or other of them might give him a friendly wave but they were never close enough to be sure. The river ran with milk and honey in the distance.

Narziss often looked wistfully at the rusty padlock and the tall hedge – again the conflict arose within. Why had he not dealt with these things when he was young and had his strength? His sons were busy enough now, he could not ask them to help him. Regretfully Narziss accepted that he had left it too late to strike out and find the key, too late to keep the brambles from the hedge. He had been too busy building his house, weeding his fields, providing for his family and giving charity to others. He had stilled his heart in a way that Goldmund did not know how to do and it made him sad. Perhaps after all, Goldmund had chosen the better path and he was ashamed of the judgments he had made those years ago.

He thought more often now of his brother. He remembered his laughing mouth, his bold countenance, his disregard for the everyday and his courage as he strode away from all he had ever known. He knew that in his position Goldmund would have let his land go to wrack and ruin, his children go hungry whilst he hunted for that key until he found it. He envied him a little. Why did Goldmund not suffer the same struggle as he? But I could not have been different, he told himself. It is in my nature to be steadfast and I could not abandon my duties to

follow my heart. Still I will do what I can for those who come after me, for my sons. I will bring a little piece of wire wool with me on my evening walk and I will remove the rust from the padlock though I will never be able to open it.

And that is what he did. Each evening that Summer after supper cooked by his daughter-in-law, he went down to the boundary hedge and sat by the gate. In the golden light he worked with his once skilful hands at the rust on the big, old padlock and all the while he soothed his heart with the beauty of the field nearby, the faint rushing of the river, the harmony of the figures in the distance. By the time his own crops were in the barn, the padlock was bright and well-oiled and that evening there was joy in his face as he went back to the house and to bed. It was as if, in polishing the padlock, Narziss burnished his own heart.

Autumn came and Narziss still took his walk each day. He needed a thick jacket now and a stick to help him and he leaned heavily on the gate when he got there to get his breath back before returning to the house for the night. As the months came and went it was by moonlight that he toiled down to the gate and each night it seemed further away. On such an evening with a full moon and a mackerel sky, Narziss was

rubbing his cold fingers and looking across to the river, black and silver in the moonlight, when something caught his eye. There was a figure moving towards him across the field. This he had never seen before. The people he had seen cutting wheat or making hay had always remained stationary like figures in the mind’s eye. This soul was different as it came – purposeful, deliberate and of course it was Goldmund moving easily, as lithe as when he left fifty years ago. He too had a stick, though he used it for cutting tall grass ahead with all the old energy that Narziss remembered. As he grew nearer Narziss could hear his song, a song he had heard in his dreams. As the notes settled into his old heart Narziss began to weep with love and with hope. His tears washed away the last grains of rust, the last traces of conflict within.

At length Goldmund was upon him, seemingly the same young man who had left, the same song on his lips, the same glitter in his eye. But no, now Narziss could see him close too. Goldmund too had aged. Leaner than Narziss and fitter it is true with a young man’s vigour about him, yet in his face were the lines of a life-time’s learning, the hollows of many hungry days and sleepless nights.

‘What have you learned on your travels, brother?” asked Narziss.

‘I have learned patience and fortitude’, replied Goldmund. ‘The very things you were born with. And tell me, what have you learned at home?’

‘I have learned joy,’ replied Narziss, ‘The gift you came into the world with I had to learn, and I learned it late’. They embraced across the gate and were silent a long time and then Narziss felt a movement in his heart like the spiral of the Milky Way.

‘What have you brought me, brother?’ asked Narziss.
Goldmund did not reply but put his hand deep into his shabby coat and pulled out a large key. At this Narziss was overcome and put his head on Goldmund’s shoulder for a good while.

‘Have I wasted my life, Goldmund, toiling after food and shelter? You have brought me my heart’s desire and I have nothing for you.’ He began to chastize himself but Goldmund touched his face and looked into his eyes. Narziss was quiet.

‘I am the key, brother, but you are the gate,’ said Goldmund.

When they found them next day the gate stood open, the old key in the shining lock.

Feel the love

brownie

‘When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. ‘

This is how my post called ‘Comfort Eating’ began nearly a year ago and I want to revisit this intimate connection between food and how we feel inside because it lies at the heart of our obsession with food. It is implicated in the psychological knots we tie ourselves in about what we eat and what we should look like. If things go well in our earliest days, eating and love and the comfort of contact with another become inextricably bound together in our brains as they grow. This becomes part of what we call reality and however bad your childhood was, if you’re reading this you somehow got enough food to get by and you likely got enough love to get by as well … and maybe more. We are very good at feeling wistful for the love we yearned for and didn’t get. It is often difficult to feel the love we did get because we are angry and sad about what was missing.

Early on babies do not distinguish between love and food and what we learn about love and food we mostly learn unconsciously when we are newborn babies. Small wonder then that when we need love many of us look around for something to put in our mouths. There is no right or wrong here, just observation. This is how being human works. If we can stop punishing ourselves for eating the ‘wrong thing’ or ‘too much’ and just notice how much love we really need, that can help. If we can pledge to provide it for ourselves we take a big step towards forgiving the person who didn’t give us enough.

Promise yourself right now that whatever else you do you will not shame yourself around food and weight. That is a huge step towards bringing love and self-control into the same room. Refusing to shame yourself can liberate you from the tyranny of food : what should I eat, how much, have I ‘earned’ it? We don’t eat because we ‘deserve’ to. We eat because we need to. The more we listen to our bodies with an open mind the easier it is to find out what we need to eat and when.

We are not here on earth very long but long enough to find out how to feed ourselves with kindness. Does that sound like a good plan?

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Unknown

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.)

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.

Wedding Breakfast

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

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

 

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

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

rigatoni

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

Rigatoni Amatriciana with Baby Artichokes for Two

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

artichokes

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

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

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

FOMO

As you probably already know Fear of Missing Out is a major player in our food-choosing dramas. There you are doing so well, perusing the menu like a pro and mindfully choosing the things that are just right for you in this moment when your loved one (who has worked out within an inch of his life that afternoon) orders the Mac ‘n’ Cheese or the Eton Mess and suddenly inside there is unseemly debate and uncertainty where previously there was calm and wisdom. (There may also be a re-evaluation of your loved-one but we’re not going there today.)

FOMO, the psychologists tell us, is an enormous factor in our decision-taking and you and I, who are trying to feed ourselves with love, need to get wise to this. And it isn’t only when people you thought of as friends suddenly give themselves carte absolutely blanche with the menu is it? What about when you know you’ll never be on this holiday again, in this country again, in this restaurant again? That can deal a death blow to the kind and reasonable intentions you had before you left the house, the hotel room or the villa. In the face of Baked Alaska or Zabaglione (and how often do you see those on a menu??) those intentions seem narrow, punitive, unimaginative and unnecessary. Before you can say ‘bring me an extra spoon’ you’ve wolfed down unforeseen goodies that you maybe haven’t enjoyed as much as you hoped. Whoops.

It seems to me that preparation is the best defence against raging FOMO. If you possibly can, (actually you always can) check out the menu online beforehand and imagine what you will order. If you’re on holiday, imagine what you will wear and how great you’ll look. Now and again I have to give myself a newsflash that there is in fact no world shortage of mac ‘n’ cheese. (A small personal weakness amongst, ahem, many.) Even burrata can today be found on several continents and does not have to be guzzled down right now in case it never appears again. (This is not 1982.) I can save it for a day when I was too busy to eat lunch or have done a bunch of exercise.

So what I wanted to offer you today in the way of summer food is a dish which can easily evoke FOMO in me because I love it and I don’t make it often. It is one of those dishes that is enormously more than the sum of its parts and the good news is that it is a balanced and delicious dish if you follow the recipe guidelines – main course for 4 or side dish for 8. This is my favourite ever salad – another from Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons – not leaves this time but bulgur wheat, spinach and all kinds of good things. It goes brilliantly with BBQ food or roast chicken or the artichokes someone brought me from their garden and it can also stand up proudly as a meal in itself. The picture below in no way does it justice because I forgot to photograph it until we’d eaten most of it! Sorry about that! Lay it out on a large white platter for eight people and it looks impressive topped with the crispy onions which had all gone before I got my phone out. I love this dish because although it is brilliant in summer, it also has enough about it to transition into cold weather without leaving you feeling deprived. And deprived is what you never want to get near since it has the internal glutton kicking off quicker than any other feeling.

NB each of the component parts is made separately and can be used fabulously in other meals too

Bulgar and Spinach Pilaf with Labneh and Chilli Roast Tomatoes

favourite salad

Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish. The quantities are very approximate so don’t worry about them too much. You must make the labneh the day before but if it suits you the whole thing can be prepared the day before and assembled for eating when you’re ready.

Make the labneh the day before by mashing a garlic clove and some salt into 250g Greek yoghurt. Now bear with me because you may not want to bother with the next bit but it is easy and crucial. Put the mixture in a sieve lined with muslin resting over a bowl to catch the liquid and leave in the fridge overnight. The result is easily worth waiting for.

Now roast 12 good tomatoes cut in halves or quarters if they are very large. Put them in a shallow roasting pan with 4 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, a teaspoon of harissa and a teaspoon of soft dark sugar and mix well. Put in a preheated oven at 180 for about 40 minutes until they are shrunken but not mush. 

Caramelise 2 finely sliced onions over a high heat in a frying pan with 2 tbsp olive oil, 0.5 tsp cinnamon, 1.5 tsp soft dark sugar, salt and pepper and a good squeeze of lemon. Fry until crispy and brown round the edges.

Wilt 600g spinach in the water left on it after washing and draining. (Over a moderate heat this happens very quickly if you haven’t done it before.) Immediately drain it, roughly chop it and add a dash of olive oil.

To make the pilaf saute another onion and a clove of garlic finely chopped in a little oil until soft. Add 175g bulgar wheat and 300ml of chicken or vegetable stock* and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to rest for another 10 minutes and then fluff up with a fork. (The wheat will have absorbed the stock.)

Now comes the fun part. Choose your favourite large bowl, dish or platter and layer the pilaf with the tomatoes and juices, some chopped mint if you have it (or another herb if you don’t)  and the spinach. On top arrange lumps of labneh you have broken apart and finally the crispy caramelised onions.

24 Hour Food Watch

courtyard breakfastIt’s the most transcendentally beautiful morning here in Oxfordshire and I was looking for an excuse to show you pictures of my breakfast in the garden. I came up with the idea of watching my food for 24 hours. A food diary is what they ask you to keep when you join Weightwatchers or similar and usually has sinister overtones of self-denial. But this one is entirely voluntary and I will try not to alter what I put in my mouth to make it look good. Honest! It is just an enquiry into what I eat and how and it begins with my hot milk and honey, cinnamon and turmeric that kicks off my day about 7am with meditation. In Winter this is usually inside. In Venice it is often at the end of the breakwater surrounded by the lapping waves and occasionally a party of swimming Italians who talk as they swim (I kid you not) just as loudly and enthusiastically as they talk during every other activity. Such stamina!

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.

Institutional food brings out the two-year-old in me. What about you?

Institutional food brings out the two-year-old in me. What about you?

Who decides what you eat? Like me you may find that on a not-too-stressful day when you have the time and the awareness quite a kind and creative part of you makes your food choices. The inner two-year-old feels safe and cared for. Build in a row with someone you care about or a sudden work problem and that kind and creative part may be more difficult to access. What happens then? The two-year-old starts to feel wobbly and I find food is my first go-to means of feeling better – or that’s what I hope as I open the chocolate digestive (substitute your own comfort). Sometimes that can be a quick fix, a little hug that I can give myself and sometimes … well we all know what happens sometimes. Sometimes that blessed child has eaten the whole packet before you notice and then there’s a lot of shouting and shaming. All that and on the outside you are that well-groomed adult going about your business.

So what if you’re in a situation where your food choices are limited by your canteen or the conference centre or the hospital you work in? What happens when circumstances force you to change the time of your main meal from evening to lunchtime or vice versa? You may remember I was looking forward to a bit of a detox at my retreat last week but I had reckoned without my reaction to being a Dutch conference centre with no access to a kitchen! I suppose that’s not as bad as having no access to a bathroom but it’s a close run thing for us cooks.

Let me be clear. There was a huge choice of food, much of it healthy, much of it not but very little of it made my heart sing. It was catering on the large scale and catering never lends itself to a little something arranged on a plate but rather to things that you dollop onto your plate with a spoon. Portion control already a problem, you see. Grazing around the endless tables of food that doesn’t appeal means I easily eat vastly more than I usually do and it’s food I don’t even like! This made me angry in itself – with myself and, unfairly, with the Dutch. When someone else is in charge of what is available it can bring up a very young part and I found I was quietly having a tantrum amidst all the peaceful spiritually aware crowd. It was their fault I was eating too much and not even enjoying it. Before long I hated everyone and the rotten chairs we were sitting in too.

Fortunately at a retreat you get a lot of time to process your reactivity and after a couple of days I got wise to what was happening. I stopped blaming everyone else (mother, take a bow) and took myself off to the supermarket to buy lots of fruit and that was enough. Having heaps of fruit for breakfast meant the other two meals were fine. However it made me really feel for people whose whole lives involve institutional food which can be very tasty and very heavy on the calories. When the food is a break between work periods (or meditation periods) it feels as though you deserve something nice and you do. The trick is to take care of yourself and look out for the two-year-old within drumming its heels and howling while you cast around for something to shut it up. So at the risk of repeating myself here is salvation on a plate. The eternal fruit salad. Enjoy.

 

fruit-salad