Monthly Archives: April 2012

A perfect day

The rainbow warrior's (clothes) horse It’s been a phenomenally busy week – the beginning of a new semester always brings with it a lot of extra (often unexpected) work and long days, no matter how well you’ve tried to prepare in advance. Almost every class presents a sea of new faces, and apart from the psyching myself up I feel I need to do before going in there to stand in front of them and make a halfways competent impression, and the concentration needed to brief all the people whose names appear on the magically computer-generated course lists, there are always the problem cases to deal with, the last-minute changed minds, and the chaotic paralysis of system overloads caused by everyone trying to access everything at once.

Today, Sunday, is a total contrast. Not that I lay abed for an age in a stubborn attempt to claw back some of the “me doing nothing” time denied to me over the last ten days or so – I wanted to get up, was raring to go, and the reason? I have NO commitments today, NO appointments, NO deadlines, NO annoying chores that absolutely have to be done, and I even have the prospect of NO one to talk to for a good few hours, which, believe me, is all a real luxury just at this particular point in time and after such a peopled-out week. And what am I doing? I opened up the windows and blinds to air the flat, had a leisurely breakfast while reading the paper, have done two loads of washing, tended some of the plants, sorted clean laundry, tidied some stuff on the computer, drunk tea, reorganized the fridge and have a list of smaller tasks to keep me occupied for a couple of hours more. The place is bright, smells fresh, has a ton of healthy-looking greenery, and I’m feeling fresh and well tended myself. Oh, and it looks as though I have now almost written this week’s blog entry, too….

All this might well strike anyone else as a pretty mundane if not boring listing of activities that most people feel are not even worth mentioning (except perhaps on Twitter ;)), but what I’ve managed to get done entirely voluntarily today and how it’s making me feel is quite significant to me. During the university vacation I have a clear (though mostly undramatic to the outside observer) tendency to collapse in a little heap of unmotivated misery if faced with such an unstructured day devoid of obligations, and if I’m not careful this can result in a chronic lack of productivity that creates a sense of dissatisfaction (aaaand repeat, in ever decreasing circles…). I’m writing about how good I feel today and how much I’m getting done – and for ME, not because I HAVE to do it for anyone else or any other reason – just so that maybe it will help if I can look back at it another time when I’m struggling to find the motivation.

It is, indeed, a perfect day.

Note: the image accompanying this blog entry was originally used for this post.

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Photo showcase: cold comfort

Cold comfort

Click on the image to open it in Flickr (opens new tab / window)

I spent a little while a day or two ago tidying up some of my photo sets on Flickr – reassigning photos to sets, updating the content of sets, and so on. In particular, the set I call my best pics (a purely subjective title and certainly not all of whose content has been rated highly by others) had been a little neglected and in fact contained some items that I really didn’t like any more or just didn’t find as appealing as the items either side of them, plus some more recent shots that I was particularly pleased with hadn’t been added.

This photo was one that I decided to leave in the set as it’s one that I love just as much now as I did when I took it. It hasn’t been viewed very frequently so I decided to try to give it a little of the TLC I think it deserves by showcasing it here. Maybe this will become a regular feature of sorts – we’ll see.

The picture was taken in March 2009 when I attended a photography get-together in Oxford. It was a wonderful day out, and you can see a lot more photos by (and of) the participants here. As you might expect, we almost experienced sensory overload from the amount of majestic, historic architecture we saw in the course of the day, but as I often find is the case, it’s sometimes something a little more mundane that can make a more interesting picture.

You might well guess that this shot was taken inside a church, and you’d be right: it’s St Mary’s University Church. I like the way that even just showing parts of some objects – in this case with most of the background in very soft focus – can conjure up a clear sense of place. The way the light was falling on this pew also made it a more appealing choice: I find low-light photography VERY challenging and am often unhappy with the results. Yes, it’s something I need to work on and put a bit more effort and time into…

My eye was also drawn by the contrasts the scene offered. The battered, worn pew is a world away from the polished carved seating you find all over the place in many of Oxford’s other well frequented historic sites, and it is an excellent foil for the crisp, new-looking brocade of the cushion. The colours are another important source of contrast – the eye is clearly drawn to the cushion – and I did make the decision to tone down the saturation of the wood just a touch, though it really was only a minimal change that was necessary. I also wanted the detailed, regular pattern of the cushion to have the upper hand over the chaotic, random marks on the wood, though without losing any of that essential rough/smooth, random/carefully organized juxtaposition.

I did boost the overall light/dark contrasts and sharpness some more, because it’s a shot that screams out texture with the high relief of the velvety, silken cushion cover next to the splintered wood. I wanted it to be a tactile shot and for the visual element to help to convey sensations of other sorts.

Last but not least: the title “Cold comfort”. I wanted something that expressed the inherent contrasts I’ve just explained above, and I also love double meanings. I didn’t necessarily want to emphasize the negative tone of the term “cold comfort”, but if anyone else wants to include that element more prominently in their interpretation of the photo, then they’re welcome to do so. ;)

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100 foods to eat before you die

Cutlery (colour)

Knives and forks

Continuing the food-related themes I’ve been writing about of late (not that I intend this to be my sole source of subject matter), I was intrigued to come across this 100 foods to eat before you die list. It’s been doing the rounds as a Facebook app and there are countless blog entries that deal with it, so I can’t reliably say who came up with it, only that I found the complete, unedited list here.

It seems to have originated in the United States: although there is quite a bit of diversity of cuisines and ingredients included, it contains quite a significant number of things that are easily identifiable as quintessentially American, including chicken and waffles, clam chowder, biscuits and gravy, as well as a number of other things I hadn’t heard of and that don’t seem to have found international recognition. Some of these I have looked up in the meantime, but any items that baffled me initially I have marked with a question mark.

I’ve crossed off all the items on the list that I’ve tried, and the grand total is: 54. This compares really very favourably with the predicted average total of twenty items, though I am still some way behind friends who have travelled more widely, grew up with a wider range of these foods or have more adventurous palates.

I’ve also picked out a few of my personal favourites (comments in green) as well as a few items I either don’t like or think are overrated (comments in red). At the end of the list you can find out which further items I’d most like to try, those I’d prefer to avoid, and a few suggestions of my own.

  1. Abalone
  2. Absinthe
  3. Alligator
  4. Baba  GhanoushI adore aubergine, and although I find this dip fiddly to make, the taste is SO worth it
  5. Bagel and lox
  6. Baklava
  7. Barbecue ribs
  8. Bellini
  9. Bird’s Nest Soup
  10. Biscuits and gravy
  11. Black Pudding - one of those foods from home that I miss here (German Blutwurst is similar, but not the same and tends to be served differently)
  12. Black TruffleI can’t really understand the appeal of either black truffle or white truffle. They both seem to add a slightly mildewy note to things
  13. Borscht
  14. Calamari
  15. Carp
  16. Caviar
  17. Cheese fondue
  18. Chicken and waffles
  19. Chicken Tikka Masalapossibly not my favourite curry ever (I prefer ones that are more coconutty and a bit hotter), but definitely one of the best items on this list
  20. Chile Relleno ?
  21. Chitterlings/Chitlins ? (I’ve heard of this but can’t remember what it is)
  22. Churros
  23. Clam Chowder
  24. Cognac
  25. Crabcake
  26. Crickets
  27. Currywurstdefinitely not a favourite: I don’t like sausage and chips, or the sauce, or the sprinkling of curry powder
  28. Dandelion wine
  29. Dulce de leche
  30. Durian ?
  31. Eel
  32. Eggs benedict
  33. Fish Tacos
  34. Foie GrasI’ve written about my dislike of this before – I really don’t see the appeal at all (and it’s not exactly good for the goose or for the person eating it)
  35. Fresh Spring Rolls
  36. Fried Catfish
  37. Fried Green Tomatoes
  38. Fried Plaintain
  39. Frito Pie ?
  40. Frog’s Legs
  41. Fugu ?
  42. Funnel Cake ?
  43. Gazpacho
  44. Goat
  45. Goat’s milk
  46. Goulash
  47. Gumbo
  48. Haggis
  49. Head CheeseI’ve only had this once, in France, in a truckers’ hotel we ended up in at the end of an exhausting 100km+ bike ride. The most welcome meal ever! It’s called fromage de tête in French, which sounds so much more poetic, doesn’t it? ;) (edit: originally had this in red, but could also be green, hence “neutral” black…)
  50. Heirloom Tomatoes
  51. Honeycomb
  52. Hostess Fruit Pie ?
  53. Huevos Rancheros
  54. Jerk Chicken
  55. Kangaroo
  56. Key Lime Pie
  57. Kobe Beef
  58. Lassi
  59. Lobsteralthough I went through the whole of my childhood seeing the piles of lobster pots at the harbour in Aberystwyth, it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I actually tried lobster. Verdict: wow!
  60. Mimosa (I guess a strong Buck’s Fizz counts ;))
  61. MoonPie ?
  62. Morel Mushrooms
  63. Nettle Tea
  64. Octopus
  65. Oxtail Soupin its tinned variety, a childhood trauma (and I haven’t felt moved to try a better version since)
  66. PaellaI got to know and love this dish at a shooting club in Tübingen, of all places. The (public) restaurant there was run by the Spanish wife of the guy who ran the outfit, and a large group of us would often go there on special occasions, when Carmen would serve up these huge pans of garlic-infused goodness
  67. Paneer
  68. Pastrami on Rye
  69. Pavlova
  70. Phaal
  71. Philly Cheesesteak
  72. Pho
  73. Pineapple and cottage cheesecottage cheese is excellent stuff and I could eat it by the carton, but I really don’t like pineapple in combination with anything savoury
  74. Pistachio Ice Cream
  75. Po’ boy ?
  76. Pocky ?
  77. Polenta
  78. Prickly Pear
  79. Rabbit Stew
  80. Raw OystersI’m inclined to say these are highly overrated, though I have had them only once and that was without any kind of dressing (other than a bit of seawater and sand): I’m told a good vinaigrette makes all the difference
  81. Root Beer Floatdefinitely doesn’t float my boat. The two ingredients should be served separately
  82. S’moresIn my case, s’lesses (far too sweet and sickly)
  83. Sauerkraut
  84. Sea Urchin
  85. Shark
  86. Snail
  87. Snake
  88. Soft Shell Crab
  89. Som Tam ?
  90. Spaetzle
  91. Spam
  92. Squirrel
  93. Steak Tartare
  94. Sweet Potato Fries
  95. Sweetbreads
  96. Tom Yum
  97. Umeboshi ?
  98. Venison
  99. Wasabi Peas
  100. Zucchini Flowers

A few things on the list I’d like to try

Borscht – not really sure why I’ve not had it before (I prefer the impossible-looking German “beatbox” spelling Bortschsch)

Crabcake – I’ve got several recipes for Thai-style crabcakes, so this is something I should definitely try making

Dandelion wine – the sound of this has always had a magical quality. I expect you can create your own fairytale world if you drink enough of it. I have recipes for wine made out of various common or garden plants among the old recipes I wrote about here.

Kobe beef – just to see what all the fuss is about

Snails – they’re a fairly local speciality here, so I think I should try them

A few things on the list that I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole

Abalone, bird’s nest soup, sea urchin, snake – these all sound ecologically and/or ethically dodgy in some way (though maybe the same could be said for many of the things I’ve eaten and enjoyed. Hmm)

Chicken and waffles, chitterlings (I have now looked them up), crickets, squirrel, sweetbreads – I find all of these ideas a bit stomach-churning

Items I’d add to the list

Pakistani mangoes – I love mangoes in any case, but the elongated, yellow Pakistani ones – which Kavey introduced me to – are the most exquisite in flavour, perfume and texture

Traditional mature Cheddar cheese – I’ve tried a lot of cheeses in my time, but nothing beats this. It’s such a pity that the mainstream market (esp. outside Britain / Ireland) is flooded with poor imitations

Fresh tuna steak – I know there are ethical issues with particular species of tuna, but if you can get a sustainable, reliably sourced and dolphin-friendly variety (feel free to add any further criteria I may have forgotten), then do try it. I’m happy enough to eat tinned tuna, but the fresh stuff is something else entirely.

Pickled walnuts – eaten with cold meats after Christmas, pickled walnuts remain one of my favourite foods in the festive season (not that there is any reason not to eat them at other times!)

San Daniele ham – this is cured roughly in a similar way to Parma / serrano hams, but I find the flavour superior

Suet crust – another of my favourite comfort foods from home

Morellino di scansano (red wine) – this comes from the same area of Tuscany that produces the prestigious (and pricy) Brunello di Montalcino. It’s a fraction of the price and on almost every occasion I’ve been able to compare the two wines one to one, this one has been the distinct favourite. As the name may suggest, it has a deep cherry flavour, and it’s been one of my favourite wines for years now.

Have you tried any of the more unusual things on the list? Have I missed out on anything spectacular in the dishes I put a question mark next to? I’d love to read about other people’s “scores” and experiences with any of these foods / dishes.

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Digesting last week’s meal plan

Just a very brief post today – I’ll try to get something more substantial out later this week, but I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on the meal plan thing I did last week.

Positive outcomes

  • no messing around spending too long deciding on meals when tired.
  • shopping was quick and easy, even catering for the extra days around Easter when the shops would be closed.
  • varied and tasty meals, no sameyness.
  • fewer not-very-necessary appetite-led purchases, and overall it didn’t seem an expensive week in terms of food shopping.
  • the new recipe – Goan fish curry – was really fantastic, and I’ll certainly use the spice mix as a basis for a range of curries in the future.
  • I also made progress with falafels – they were significantly better than on my first attempt, AND I managed to use up a slightly over-ripe (but still delicious) mango to make a sauce that went really well with them and was a nice contrast to the yoghurt-based sauce.
  • there was definitely less food wastage through being able to foresee opportunities to use up anything I’d forgotten about.
  • the one meal we had out at friends’ made me realise – delicious and beautifully cooked as it was – that I’ve actually done a better job in terms of balancing food groups and general nutrition considerations (on the whole).
  • I had various people commenting on this idea over on Twitter, and a big bonus is that I actually got sent some really tasty looking new recipes, which I will definitely be trying out soon.

Negative outcomes

  • Silly me did rather miss that frisson of “Ooh, what shall I cook tonight?” spontaneity, even though overall it was a good thing not to have the attendant cluelessness.
  • If I do it again, I might want to be a bit less specific about exact components (though I did vary things a bit as it was – we ended up with rabbit on Sunday rather than lamb or chicken, but it was healthy and less pricy than lamb).
  • It’s made me think that I should have thought harder about what I eat over the course of the day, not just in the evenings – my breakfasts are quite variable and I could have done a better job adapting them to complement whatever was on the menu later in the day.

Still, overall the negative points are far fewer and pretty mild, really – I had to think a lot harder to come up with them! I think I’ll carry on with the weekly planning, making a few adjustments based on the points outlined above. I shan’t be blogging it every week, though (that would be tedious), but if I discover any interesting new recipes or combinations I might write about those from time to time.

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On (not) making a meal of things…

I’ve seen a number of bloggers doing a weekly Monday post about meal planning for the week (known as “Meal Planning Monday”) and thought I’d have a go, mainly as an experiment to see whether I fancy sticking to it and to see if it saves me any effort in thinking or ambling cluelessly around the supermarket during the week.

I’ve never got into the habit of planning meals a great deal in advance, mainly because I’ve not felt the need to: I’m not responsible for feeding a horde of people on a daily basis, I manage to shop and subsist fairly cheaply as I don’t buy much convenience or “luxury” food, AND I have five supermarkets, an organic food shop, a health food shop and the local market all within 200m of where I live. I very much value the flexibility and choices that I have and don’t see compelling reasons to give them up. When I was mostly cooking for one, my substitute for daily meal planning was to cook a big pot of stuff that would last me several days; nowadays, though, I quite enjoy cooking almost every day, partly because there are more often than not two (and sometimes more) of us eating together, and partly because I find it somehow creative and therapeutic.

However, there are things about the day-by-day way I subsist that sometimes bother me. Food waste is the biggest one. While I am, on the whole, really good at using up leftovers and using as much as one can of the ingredients I buy, very perishable foods do sometimes get the better of me, for example dairy products such as cream or yoghurt: while it’s no doubt better for the waistline to use just part of a carton of cream in preparing a meal rather than a whole one, there’s no virtue whatsover in letting the other half go rancid and nasty at the back of the fridge, only to throw it out in disgust some time later. I’ve improved a lot when it comes to yoghurt, but there’s still a way to go yet…

As for fruit and veg, you can only feel smug about the “healthy” content of your shopping basket if you actually eat the stuff… I have to admit that a significant factor here is laziness and the time pressure of going shopping after work, at the last minute: a one-stop-serves-all-purposes trip to the supermarket is often all I can fit in, and the supermarket I tend to find most convenient on the way home sells a lot of its fruit and veg pre-packaged in quantities that are frequently a bit too large. I’d do better to buy hand-selected quantities elsewhere (ideally at the market, in season) for the things I find hard to use up in the bulky pre-packaged quantities – mushrooms and spinach being good examples (and frozen spinach simply isn’t the same). I also need to re-programme myself to take some fruit with me to work – I really don’t have a sweet tooth whatsover and don’t see the point of leaving space for dessert – therefore I find it really hard to get a decent amount of fruit into my diet, except perhaps in very hot weather. I do like fruit smoothies, but I seem to labour under a permanent misapprehension that they are time-consuming and messy to make (stupid, I know, but the lazy part of my mind is the most stubborn, it seems).

Better planning of meals might get me to shop better in this respect, but I’m also hoping it might help me to balance my diet more evenly. If I know I’m having meat, cheese or whatever for the evening meal, I can eat something else earlier in the day. Yesterday, though, I had cheese three times, in an example of particularly poor planning, and the fact that I also cycled nearly 60km still doesn’t excuse that lack of variety, even if it means not all of it will immediately land on my hips. I also find that if I’m feeling tired, uninspired or particularly hungry after a day that has not left much time for eating, I am more likely to go for something meat-based that may also be quite fatty. Normally I have no problem using more white / lean than red / fatty meat and having a good representation of fish and seafood, vegetarian and the occasional vegan meal on the menu, but a bit of more careful monitoring might be a good idea nevertheless.

But anyway, enough sounding off about nutrition and food use: what exactly am I going to cook this week? Here is what I’ve come up with…

Monday: Potato and courgette bake

I bought a pack of five courgettes at the weekend and still have two or three left: I’ll certainly use up two in this recipe, as well as some potatoes that are still perfectly good but have been around for a while. Ditto for a handful of wild garlic leaves: I’m going to blend them with some fresh (home-grown!) sage and a small leftover amount of ricotta to add a bit of sauce to the bake.

Tuesday: Baked chicken breasts with asparagus

There was green asparagus on special offer today and I snapped up a pack as it tends to sell out quickly. It’s great baked in a dish in the oven with a little olive oil, lemon juice and garlic (if I still have a courgette left after tonight, I’ll chuck that in as well), and I’ll simply bake the chicken breasts at the same time. I may stuff the breasts with herbs or marinate them first – I’ll see what’s available. This is a quick and easy dish that is really tasty as well as being fairly healthy (depending what you stuff the chicken breasts with!).

Wednesday: Falafel with pita bread / wraps and salad

I love pretty much anything made with or out of chickpeas, and they’re a great basis for a load of meat- and dairy-free dishes (though I certainly have nothing against combining them with those ingredients, either, and will be doing so here). I made falafel for the first time the other week, having found several recipes that appealed to me because they used tinned chickpeas (something I always have in, as opposed to the dry variety) and were done in the oven rather than fried. I think I used this recipe but added a bit of olive oil to the mixture and then simply baked them on baking parchment. To be served with pita bread or wraps, a Greek-type salad, and a mint and yoghurt sauce. At some point I’d like to find a really tasty vegan sauce as an occasional alternative to the yoghurt-based one, but I don’t like tahini, hummus is too samey as it’s made out of chick-peas, and I don’t much fancy a tomato-based sauce with them. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment!

Thursday: Pasta

This will probably be penne, though I haven’t decided on a sauce yet – in all likelihood it’ll be based on tinned chopped tomatoes and whatever fresh vegetables are available – I always try to put plenty of veg in pasta sauce – though possibly with tuna and anchovies, or a small amount of bacon. Whatever it is, it’ll be a fairly simple dish as Wednesday’s and Friday’s dinners will be a bit more fiddly to make.

Friday: Goan Fish Curry

I’ve written before about my love of Indian food, and I was very excited when Dave brought this recipe to my attention. Not only does it promise just the kind of curry I enjoy most – coconutty and hot – but the description talks about all kinds of variants and different ways of preparing the dish. I’m really very excited about trying this and decided that Good Friday – traditionally a fish day – was probably as good a day as any to give it a go.

I’ll probably simply do rice to go with it, plus a raita of some sort, which will use up the rest of the large pot of yoghurt I’ll be buying for Wednesday’s meal (see? I’m getting better).

Saturday: tbd

Saturdays are most frequently a day for entertaining, and as I don’t yet known what is going on, who is around or who will get to do the cooking, I’ll leave this one empty for now.

Sunday: Roast lamb or chicken

I don’t make a big deal out of Easter and definitely won’t be scoffing chocolate all day, but I like the excuse of a special holiday to do a roast dinner. M may want to be in charge of this one and he certainly does a mean roast – I’ll let him decide whether it’s to be lamb or chicken. Whichever of us is chef de cuisine for the day, I think it’s more or less a given that we’ll have the baked/roast potatoes out of the Hamlyn Herb Book (whole potatoes sliced almost through at ~3mm intervals, brushed with olive oil & sprinked with rosemary and sea salt before roasting about an hour in the oven) and something green on the side.

How do you plan your meals, and what are your main challenges when it comes to trying to make sure you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet?

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