The harvest begins

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This year we are growing a few edibles and are just harvesting the first of our chillies.

We invested in a shelf unit to take advantage of the light in our kitchen. We started some tomatoes early – they are in our very small garden now – and along with two chilli plants we also have several pots of herbs that have been on the go all year.

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The herbs have been particularly good value. We just bought some of the growing herbs from the supermarket and have kept watering and feeding them as we pick the leaves as needed.

There’s something very satisfying about picking things you can eat!

 

My No-recipe Cake Recipe

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I remember chatting with someone about improvising when cooking, and they said:

“The only thing you really need an exact recipe for is cake.”

And they are right if you are looking for the perfect Victoria sandwich, swiss roll or any cake that has a name. But if like me you sometimes just want a tasty home made cake, I really don’t think a recipe is necessary.

Here’s what I made this morning.

I noticed that I had three bananas that were getting over-ripe, and as I am waiting in for a delivery I decided to make a cake. I do usually have the essentials in my kitchen – flour, eggs and sugar – but after that I see what I have that I’d like to include. Today I had some sultanas, and some malt flour and softened rye grains that I had used for bread making, and I decided to include them.

This is the uncooked rye. It’s not something I’ve ever had before this week, but I’m experimenting with rye breads, so had some in the fridge that I had boiled until soft and then drained and salted.

So back to my cake method.

I line a loaf tin with baking paper and turn on the oven to about 180 C. In a mixing bowl I mash up the bananas with a couple of spoons of brown sugar. You don’t need much sugar as there is sweet fruit in the cake. I add some flour, a large teaspoon of baking powder to make sure there is some rise to the cake, a couple of generous glugs of cooking oil (not heavily flavoured olive oil: just something light), two eggs a large spoonful of barley malt, some sultanas that I softened and rinsed briefly in a mug of water and then drained, and some milk. Sorry – there aren’t exact measurements. I just add and beat until I have a thick batter. If it doesn’t look enough to fill the loaf tin, I add some more flour and milk. Oh, today I also put in a squeeze of golden syrup, a large handful of the soft rye grains and some ground nutmeg.

Sometime I add chopped nut, sometimes I add grated chocolate, sometimes it’s ground almonds, desiccated coconut, or a grated apple, or coconut flour, or any combination of the above: really I look to see what I have that would probably go with the basic banana mixture and put in whatever I fancy, especially if it something that won’t stay good forever. I hate throwing food away.

Then I pour the whole lot into the loaf tin and put it in the oven for about 40 minutes. I keep an eye on it especially when it’s turning brown on top. When I think it’s done I take it out, press the top to see how firm it is. If it’s very soft it definitely needs longer in the oven. If it has a nice brown almost crusty finish and just a little give when I press it, I reckon it’s done. I usually use a thin sharp knife or skewer just to check. Push the metal into the cake. If it comes out covered in uncooked batter it needs longer. Because the cake has fruit in it, I don’t expect it to come out completely dry. Here’s how it looked this morning.

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Take it out and let it cool, then slice and taste.

1-IMG_1506This is my favourite moment. It’s always a bit of a surprise, but a nice surprise.

If you decide to give this non-recipe a try, I really hope it works for you too.

 

Fermenting vegetables at home

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This story started when I read Cooked by American food writer Michael Pollan. This is a really great book for anyone interested in food as it explores the basics of cooking with fire – creating the perfect barbecue; water – cooking stews and other delicious dishes that require cooking in liquid; air – raising bread doughs with yeast; and earth – fermenting with fungi and bacteria. He worked with leading exponents of each type of food preparation and takes the reader along with him as he learns techniques that are as old as the hills, but new to many of us in this age of processed food and ready made meals.

The technique that most interested me was fermentation, as this is something I have never tried before. I’ve certainly made chutney and pickles of various sorts, but I’ve always used vinegar and usually sugar as well as salt and other flavourings to get the end result. Many chutneys are really savoury jams with almost as much sugar as jam, so they can’t be described as healthy foods. Fermented veg contain no sugar, and because they are not boiled they contain many live “good bacteria” – the probiotics people buy in products like Yakult. These apparently have many health benefits and I’d already seen plenty of TV chefs from Jamie Oliver to the Hairy Bikers extol the virtues of eating the Korean pickle, Kimchi, which is made by fermentation. I was ready to try for myself.

My first thought was that I’d need to buy a purpose made fermentation kit, and there are plenty of those on the market at quite startling prices. So I took a quick look at YouTube for information from Sandor Katz, who I had learned from Michael Pollan is the guru of fermentation. His short video told me all I needed to know to get started. All you need is a large, clean container – not metal or plastic as the acids can attack those, spoiling the taste and the fermentation process as well as being potentially unhealthy. I had a large glass jar I could use – perfect!

I decided to use mostly white cabbage, with some red cabbage for colour, plenty of ginger and chilli so I would approximate a version of kimchi, some shallots and some carrot.

1-IMG_1162I quartered and thinly sliced the cabbages and put them in a large bowl adding a little salt as I went. I used three quarters of the white cabbage and half the red cabbage, but could actually have used a little more to fill the jar. Once the veg is prepared it squashes down into a surprisingly small volume.

Then I added grated carrot and grated root ginger with a little more salt and started squeezing and crushing the veg by hand (my husband’s hand, to be honest, so I could take the photo – thanks Al!). This starts to get the vegetable juice flowing. After a few minutes, you find there is all the liquid you need to cover the veg. I added the finely sliced chilli at the end, as I didn’t want to get potentially irritating hot chilli juice on our hands for too long. Then I started pressing the veg into the glass jar. The idea is to squeeze out any air as air pockets could allow moulds and the wrong sort of bacteria to grow.

When all the veg were firmly pressed into the jar I topped it up with all the juices from the bowl. Because you need to keep the veg submerged in the briny juice, you need to weigh down the veg. I found a drinking glass that was a good fit, so I filled it with water to make it heavy enough and used that.

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As the veg ferments it releases Carbon Dioxide, so you don’t seal the jar: just cover with a clean tea towel so nothing gets in. I did need to top up the liquid after a day or so – just mixing a light brine by adding half a spoon of salt to a glass of water worked for me.

As Sandor says in his video, no-one can tell you how long to leave the pickle as it depends on your preference. All I can tell you is that fermentation starts straight away so within a few minutes small bubbles of gas start to appear in the mix. I tasted the liquid after a day, and it was already tasting of pickle – the lactic acid was already building up. You probably realise without me saying that the lactic acid tastes vinegary, but I think it’s less harsh version of vinegar.

After three days the colour was a much more even red. I think you’ll agree from the photo that is looks tastier.

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We had some for lunch today in a toasted cheese sandwich with some extra lettuce for some green.

How delicious! It tasted better than shop-bought pickle: lighter, fresher and more naturally vegetable. I had put a lot of ginger and chilli in but there wasn’t as much heat as you might expect: just a nice background spiciness which worked very well with the cheese.

I decanted the rest of the pickle into smaller, lidded jars which are now in the fridge to slow down the fermentation because I like the taste just as it is.

So now it’s just a question of what combinations of veg to try. I am going to get Sandor Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation because there is so much more to this that I want to understand and to try. I’ll let you know as I get more results!

 

 

 

 

Lovely local lunch – Salthouse Clevedon

On boy do I enjoy simple, well cooked food! Just had a lovely lunch with Alec, Blanche and Rex at the Salthouse in Clevedon.

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Lovely pub nestled into Church Hill Clevedon, just beside the Marine Lake.

I had a beef and shiraz stew with dumplings, the boys had beef and Ale pie and Blanche went for scampi and chipe. Not a complaint amongst the three of us and I don’t know when I’ve had such a lovely winter dish as my stew.

Great atmosphere and friendly service. Really – what more can you ask for?

 

I love walking in the rain… (well, I do!)

Quite often bad weather is a reason to stay inside if you can and keep warm and dry, but as I’ve often blogged about the pleasures of walking, and my intention to get out and about with my camera in all weathers, I decided not to let storm Clodagh keep me indoors today, and I headed out before breakfast for a walk.

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Not only is the walk more exhilarating and fun – there is something about the wind that works on almost everyone – but it feels as though it is doing you good. So a good brisk walk in the wind, with Poet’s walk to myself as most other walkers were giving it a miss.

Clevedon looked a little wild today. We never get storms like you do in Cornwall as we are in a relatively sheltered location, but it was still rough and choppy and the pier looked as though it was sitting low in the water.

I love the reflections in the puddles too. I know – little things please little minds but I do like this photograph of a tree.

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More ways to find fun and fitness with walking are in my kindle book!

What a morning! What a walk!

A perfect late September morning in England is a thing of absolute beauty, and that’s what we had today in Clevedon. I went for a walk before breakfast, and went further than I expected to, as it was too difficult to stop!

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First photo shows the view across the little park in Jesmond Road… Most views of the coast show the headlands further down the North Somerset coast, and you can often see the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm, as well as the distant North Devon coast. And of course Wales across the Bristol channel. The view is the reward for a fairly steep climb up the hill!

Then I carried on to Hill Road, and walked up the Zig-Zag to see the various views accessible from there. You get Zig-Zag paths in many hilly towns, but ours in Clevedon is quite well hidden, as the entries from Hill Road aren’t sign-posted. So here are the views:

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Looking down the coast…

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… and looking across the town towards the distant hills. At least some of the hills shown are the Mendips.

Then I walked down Kings Road and Cambridge Road, past The Avenue….

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… onto Wellington Terrace back towards…

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… the sea front and …

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… The Pier.

I was planning to walk home from the sea front, but the day was so pretty I finished off by walking around Poet’s Walk. No ravens or peregrine falcons today, but plenty of other birds, including a heron looking hopefully at the puddles in the Marine Lake.

Here’s the view as you reach the brow of the hill…

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Gorgeous!

I’ve tried to work out the distance and I think it’s about 3.5 miles. The route includes some fairly steep hills, so it was quite good exercise. But more importantly it was a total pleasure – just as good exercise should be!

[Have you read my book yet? A beginners guide to walking for pleasure, available on Kindle!]

Hi, cholesterol!

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So I went to my doctor’s surgery for a routine check up and it turns out I have high cholesterol. Not scarily high, as my ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is in my favour. In addition I know that neither of my parents have suffered from heart disease. However, I do need to do something about it.

To back track a little; I was rather surprised to hear that I have a potential problem, as I’m more than averagely active (I’ve written a Kindle book about the pleasures and benefits of walking) and eat healthy food (loads of veg and nearly all our meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients), so I was quite complacent about my diet. To be honest though I am aware that I am slightly overweight and I have been trying to shed a few stubborn pounds over the last few years. Chatting with the nurse, helped me to identify a few improvements I can make. Here are my thoughts. If you are in a similar position to me with your cholesterol, or are trying to find ways to help someone else, maybe my ideas will help you too.

The first thing I’ll do is to reduce the few foods I do eat quite a lot of that are high in cholesterol. Hard cheese, really. I am partial to a nice cheddar, especially when added to sauces and as a way to add a splash of flavour to other dishes. I don’t eat much cream or ice-cream, but I will try to reduce those even further, taking just a splash when I do indulge. I’ll also reduce the amount of prawns I eat, as these are higher in cholesterol that you might imagine. And I’ll avoid snacking between meals.

Will I eat products that reduce (or claim to reduce) cholesterol? Only if they are natural foods. So I’ll have porridge for breakfast more often – the oats apparently help to reduce cholesterol – but my personal choice will be not to switch to a margarine spread. I will continue to use butter, but I’ll make sure it’s in small quantities.

Otherwise I think the key to success lies in:

  • Not buying or making cakes/cookies/biscuits/desserts unless for very special occasions. If we are out and about and fancy a treat, then we can sometimes buy a slice of something not too rich and wicked to eat with our coffee. If we are invited to dinner, or have a special celebration, then dessert will be eaten, but it will not be a general daily habit. I know from bitter experience that if I have treats in the house, I am quite likely to give in and eat them, so it’s best to only have healthy options available.
  • Being aware of the content of the food I am eating. This means avoiding take-aways with heavy sauces, and dishes swimming in oil. While most oils are better than solid fats, all oils are on my list of things to eat/use in moderation.
  • Eating less red and fatty meat. I enjoy a varied diet, so I only eat red meat once or twice a week, most weeks. I can make sure I eat less meat by taking a smaller slice when we have a roast, and by including more vegeables in dishes such as stir-fries and stews. If I use no more than 0.5 kg of beef to 1.5 kg of vegetables, and take care with the flavourings and spices to ensure the dish has a good flavour, I won’t notice or care about the reduction in quantity of meat. Lentils are a good addition to dishes with beef or lamb mince. Reducing the meat by a half and substituting red lentils not only reduces the fat content of the meal but, if anything, improves the flavour.
  • Eating more vegetables. Fortunately I enjoy vegetables and so this won’t be a trial. Relying on seasonal veg, including frozen veg, shouldn’t make this too expensive an option. I am also learning to cook with pulses – lentils and such like – and these really are good value for money. I’ll be seeking out more vegetarian recipes, so that I have two or more meat free days each week.
  • Eating fewer potatoes. Not that I think they are too bad in themselves – it’s that I enjoy them most when they have cream, butter or cheese added, or are turned into chips or roasties.
  • Use lower fat cheeses where possible: cottage cheese, ricotta and mozzarella instead of hard and full fat cheeses.
  • Cook with wholegrain versions of rice, flour and pasta. This makes it more filling and better for you. I’ll also pay more attention to the recommended portion size, so I keep to the right amount.

As an example of my new approach, this very evening I am going to have spaghetti bolognese. To make it healthier, I’ll use some lentils along with the mince, mix in plenty of courgette spaghetti (made by cutting the courgettes into thin strips and then into strings) along with a small amount of pasta, and I’ll just have a little parmesan cheese on top. I’ll add some extra greens sliced up into the sauce as I have some delicious looking chard that needs to be used… Water to drink with the meal and maybe some green tea afterwards to complete the healthier approach.

Why does all this matter? There are plenty of websites with medical advice, such as this Heart Foundation of Australia page if you’d like more of the facts and figures. A side benefit for me is that through reducing the fat in my diet, I’ll also reduce the processed sugar I eat (no processed food with hidden sugar, and very few cakes, biscuits or desserts). Looking after my diet will help reduce my weight, generally improve my health and reduce the risks of diabetes and cancer, as well as heart disease.

A second side benefit is financial. Reducing the amount I eat means I can reduce the amount of food I buy. Although fresh vegetables aren’t cheap, they are cheaper than meat. Good cheeses are expensive too, so eating less meat and cheese and more seasonal vegetables and pulses will save a little money too.

During the coming months I’ll be making sure I eat wisely and keep active too, with plenty of walking, pilates and other classes. It’ll be slow progress towards where I want to be. Next summer I’ll have my blood cholesterol retested, and if I have adjusted my diet enough I’ll be able to continue my healthier life style without resorting to statins.

We shall see, and I will keep you posted!