Eat Like an Italian

Eat Like an Italian

When I feel a little heavy I have a tried and tested recipe for losing a few pounds. It’s nothing new, just cutting back on carbs and bumping up the fruit and salad. In our family, dinner is sacred so I have always saved myself for dinner. That means I get desperately hungry in the later afternoon but I hang on. It’s quite hard work but it’s especially hard work in Italy where pasta and pizza are constantly available along with wonderful breads and cakes from my local bakery.

I look around me at my Italian neighbours and there is no big weight problem going on here. There is less obesity than there is at home in Britain and that goes for children and adults. The shops still close (out of season) for four hours at lunch time and I guess that many Italians are still going home to eat pasta. Likewise many of my neighbours breakfast in the local bar with a delicious cappuccino and a croissant or little cake. I wondered how this was possible when I eat so little and put on a pound at the drop of a hat. Why isn’t that happening to them? I don’t know but when I’d been here a few weeks I thought I’d give it a try.

Usually a croissant is a treat for a weekend so it was counterintuitive ( and wonderful) to have carbs for breakfast – in the name of science I forced myself! I went to the bakers about eight when everything was fresh and chose my pastry. A few hours later I cooked pasta for lunch and I had a small glass of wine too. It felt like a holiday. For supper I have been sticking to fish or meat and vegetables (and more wine) with maybe a mouthful of bread or a small pudding but more often fruit and a mouthful of cheese. It is an absolute treat to have all this wonderful food.

Newsflash! Within a couple of days I lost the remaining two pounds that were troubling me and after two weeks of my new regime my weight is constant at the place I prefer it to be. But also I am never hungry. I am never desperate for food or a drink in the evening. It feels really balanced. I am also sleeping better and my digestion is great.

It’s not about bingeing. Just one croissant or a couple of pieces of toast with some fruit is easy for breakfast  if you know there is a decent lunch coming. After that I am full all day and ready for a proper dinner. I have not been controlling the olive oil either because it is so good for me and also brings out nutrients in fruit and vegetables which are not accessible without it.

The more I hear about nutrition the more it seems it is a matter of balancing many unknown factors as well as some we know about. It obviously varies from individual to individual and also from season to season and from one age to another. I’m sharing with you what is working for me right now because I was really surprised how well it worked. If you are tied up with a low-carb diet in an effort to maintain your ideal weight you might want to try it too. At least experiment – I have had to let go of many ideas I had and it has been well worth it. It feels really kind and in tune with my body and has reduced the stress of choosing what to eat by one hundred per cent. Recommend.

 

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

Loving What Is

Loving What Is

People who come to psychotherapy largely fall into two groups. They are people in crisis who have finally decided that some outside help would not go amiss or they are people who are interested in growth and discovering more about themselves. People in crisis are, of course, much easier to help because things can only get better for them. This is where listening really is the most helpful thing to do. Just being there and giving permission whilst they let the confusion or the grief or the rage pour out seems to make a difference. Eventually we both come up for air and see what the world looks like now.

Sometimes, once people are over the worst they begin to get interested in the process itself, just like the second group. Then it all gets more complicated.  So often these are great people, fascinating people, intelligent and kind people and all they need to do is relax and enjoy being themselves and that is just what they are unable to do. The urge to improve oneself, to make the planet a better place tends to get in the way. What is more it can lead to all kinds of plans for improving others too. Often my work with them is all about killing the urge to improve. Lie down until it passes, is my advice.

When I first went into therapy myself I was diagnosed as a picture-straightener and that was pretty fair comment at the time. My eye goes straight to the place where a little tweak would make everything just that bit tidier and boy, is that an unrestful experience.  Today I have learned to relax a little and I have stumbled upon a simple truth. Our work here on earth is to love what is at a very deep level. Love is the medium of change and the more we can surround ourselves with it, the more a natural unfolding can happen. This is a million miles away from that mean little voice which criticises us and tells us we should be in the gym when we’re walking on the beach or on the beach when we’re in the gym. (Have you noticed it is literally never content with us?)

The Buddhists talk about ‘accepting what is’ and ‘gratitude’ is also a big seller but for me, even acceptance and gratitude come with a big, unattractive ‘should’ attached. Immediately I feel negative and ungrateful. Loving what is feels different and more possible. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean we have to like what is. Loving life is a very different ball-game from liking the details. When we think about eating more healthily or reading more or taking up swimming or volunteering with sick animals, we can do it from a place of love or we can do it from a place of ‘trying to be a better person’. I bring you a shocking thought which will change your life today. What if you don’t need to be a better person? What if you’re fine just as you are?

The sunshine breakfast in the picture is a shining example of how easy it is to love things. You can make a smiley face with yours. You can arrange your fruit on porridge or you can stew it and eat it with ice-cream and biscuits. IT’S ALL GOOD. You can do it your way and won’t that be great?

Cool as a …

Cool as a …

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

Cucumber Soup

2 x medium to large green cucumbers

1 x large onion

handful of baby spinach leaves or more (optional)

single cream or yoghurt to taste (optional)

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

 

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

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

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

Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.

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

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

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

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

I just want to be me.

I just want to be me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Chocolate and Tahini Cake

courtesy of Honey & Co.

Items in bold are my alternatives to their recipe.

320g caster sugar

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

1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1.5 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

zest of 2 lemons

2 eggs

70g chopped white chocolate

120 ml vegetable oil

230 ml tahini paste

1 tbsp vanilla essence or the seeds from a pod

240 ml buttermilk, kefir, yoghurt or milk

180 ml boiling water

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

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

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

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

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

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

Mix until everything is well incorporated.

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

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

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

New Year New Ideas

New Year New Ideas

I can see how my entire life would have been a lot jollier if I hadn’t had a total aversion to things which did not come easily to me. The feelings of shame, disappointment, frustration, self-hatred and defeat which crop up when I get things wrong have separated me from achievements within my grasp. In fact I have watched others with less skill walk past me just because they were prepared to learn. Here’s my new year’s quote which is going up on flashing lights on the kitchen wall :

‘Say to yourself : but what if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that you may begin to listen to her.’

Now this excellent advice was from a dog trainer and the ‘her’ he was listening to was a Pug! But it came up in an article about psychotherapy because it’s a very good starting point for a therapist who is learning to listen to clients. In 2018 I have the idea of approaching myself like that, with my ears open. Let me rephrase slightly :

What if I’m wrong about everything? It is from this place of suspension of belief that I may begin to listen to myself.  

So I shall start in the kitchen now that my food production is scaling down from the industrial (Christmas) proportions of feeding 12 people three time a day to the more normal one or two, there will be less firefighting and more space to make mistakes. I feel happy enough in the kitchen to experiment with assuming I am wrong about what I can do and what I can’t do and opening my heart to truly new experiences. One of the wonderful cookbooks I received for Christmas (yes, my family know me well) is Salt, Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat and this will be my workbook because this is not the kind of cookbook I would buy myself.  It’s about technique and a rather scientific approach to cooking which is an area where I feel less able. Give me a book with lovely pictures and I will produce you my delicious versions of the food which I can rarely recreate exactly because I don’t measure or time things. Diagrams of salt absorption? Scientific explanation of how different fats affect pastry? That’s not me at all. Except, turns out, it can be. It is.

Because Samin has written the book so engagingly and encouragingly I am gripped by learning how to use salt properly, by different types of acid and what they are for. This book is for accomplished cooks and for beginners and it is a delightful read. I begin to hope that it will genuinely increase my skills without impinging on flair and imagination. First I have discovered that I can bear to become aware of the areas where I lack skill – and that is no small thing in itself – I generally cover them up with a passion for aesthetics. But the truth is I would dearly love to be able to the tricky, technical things  that I see others do and it just may be that 2018 is the year when I can learn. Watch this space.

Now I’d like to share with you another recipe from Nadine Redzepi’s delicious book which I have to say I adapted to my time schedule and the ingredients I had to hand and you may want to do that too. (The ingredients in brackets are my substitutions or suggestions).

Or you may want to take the trouble to muster the right ingredients before you start and take the time to follow the recipe exactly. Steering a healthy, creative, pragmatic and kind line between these two approaches is experimental work in itself.

Beef-Glazed Celeriac with Buttermilk Sauce

Celeriac – this is the main ingredient so for 4 people you need about 2 and a half pounds or a kilo

Rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)

Beef or veal demi-glace 240 ml (and here is how to make a vegetable equivalent)

(beef demi-glace is a finishing jus sold in sachets in Waitrose and doubtless many other places. Or you could make one. The point is that it is full of umami flavour so if you’re vegetarian you will need to follow the steps on the link above to make a vegetable umami bomb. This time a few teaspoons of Marigold is not going to hack it. And if you can’t do that I would try some toasted sesame oil brushed on instead of a jus. It should produce something of the richness effect. Add a little liquid at the same time.)

pine nuts 3 tablespoons

salted butter 200g

curly kale, 2 large leaves (or any substantial green vegetable such as broccoli, chard or what you have in)

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 2 tablespoons freshly grated

Buttermilk 60 ml, preferably full fat

(I used kefir as I didn’t have buttermilk)

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 or 160 with a fan. Peel the celeriac and chop into 4 slabs each about 8mm/3/4 inch wide. (I made mine too thin the first time). Save the other parts of celeriac for soup or puree.

Grease a baking dish large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer.

Turn the slices to coat them in the oil and cook for 30 minutes before turning over and cooking for another 30 minutes.

Raise the oven temperature to 200 and pour over the demiglace. Continue cooking and basting for another 20-30 minutes. Add a drop of water if it gets too dry.

Meanwhile toast the pine-nuts dry in a small frying pan.

Melt the butter and whisk over the heat until it turns a lovely nutty brown. Keep warm.

Fry the kale in small pieces, discarding tough stems, in the pan used for the pine nuts and some of the oil. Drain on kitchen towel. (I added a few chilli flakes to the kale but probably better without.)

Sprinkle the parmesan over the celeriac for the last few moments in the oven.

Stir the buttermilk into the browned butter over a gentle heat and arrange on four plates. To which add slices of celeriac and a garnish of kale leaves and pine nuts.

This dish was totally unexpected and wonderful. If you are not vegetarian do make the effort to get the demi-glace or jus. The celeriac becomes a truly meaty and different vegetable under its influence.

 

Pasta with Broccoli and Gorgonzola

IMG_0835This is a nice simple recipe and totally delicious, suitable for vegetarians and adaptable if you are counting calories – what more can you want?

 

Ingredients

100g of your favourite pasta per person

1 large head of broccoli (trimmed and broken into florets) for 2-4 people (see below)

2 oz Dolcelatte or Gorgonzola per person

1 onion, finely chopped

olive oil

 

Method

  1. Sweat your finely chopped onion in a pan with a glug of olive oil.
  2. When the onion is cooked, boil a large pan of water for your pasta and briefly cook the broccoli heads in it.
  3. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the onion.
  4. Cook your pasta in boiling water according to the instructions on the packet – usually 8-10 minutes. Drain.
  5. During the last few minutes of the pasta cooking time add the cheese cut into large cubes to the broccoli and the onion and put a very low heat under it. Be warned, you just want to melt the cheese very gently. If you give it too much heat the cheese will completely disappear.
  6. Add the broccoli etc to the pasta and spoon into dishes.
  7. Add a handful of toasted pine nuts or hazelnuts or walnuts to each dish.

 

Calories

Ordinarily, pasta is heavy on the calories but you can easily reduce the carbs in this dish by increasing the broccoli and reducing the pasta for those who are watching their weight.