Category Archives: Food

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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My top 5 cookbooks

Today I’m taking inspiration from Ruth, whose post on this topic made me curious as to which cookery books I’d select from my largish collection as being my favourites. In the end the choice was quite simple – there really is only a handful of recipe books that I keep going back to again and again. So here are my five, with a brief bit of information about what makes each one  a firm favourite…

1. Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

50th Anniversary edition – published by Random House, 1998

If I had to pick just one cookery book to keep from here to eternity, I think this would be it. Unless I’m looking for something from a particular cuisine (e.g. Indian), this is invariably the place I look first for inspiration. It strikes – for me – exactly the right balance between traditional and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, manageable and challenging, healthy and tasty, text and pictures. It is mercifully free of both pretentiousness and over-simplification while including really helpful selections on buying, storing and preparing everyday foodstuffs as well as more unusual ingredients.

For me, the test of a good cookery book is whether most of the recipes are such that, if they were to appear in a magazine, you would cut them out and keep them. I can open this book at any page and immediately find something delicious.

As a result, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a favourite recipe or two, but the rabbit casserole with red wine and sherry and the filo pastries with feta and herb filling are certainly a couple that I’ve made quite often.

2. The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook

(German edition: Vegetarische Küche)

Originally published by Konemann UK, 1997

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of food that is, plus I have several friends who don’t eat meat. Given that it’s not healthy to eat meat every day in any case, I get exasperated at people who either think it’s not a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat, or whose world order disintegrates if it turns out that one of their dinner guests is vegetarian.

The back story to this recipe book is that M and I originally bought it as a gift for a friend who was finding it hard to find inspiring things to cook for his vegetarian partner and had developed an “awkward” tendency to diss vegetarian food. Sensing that a gentle nudge in the right direction was needed, we chose carefully, wanting to avoid anything that was too reminiscent of his “rabbit food and lentils” stereotype of vegetarian food and looking instead for something that fitted in with his own tastes.

This book ticked all the right boxes – modern, fresh ideas with plenty of Mediterranean influences as well as forays into Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines: exactly the kinds of things our friend loves to cook (and so do we, which is why we ended up buying a second copy of the book). There is also an excellent section on nutrition at the front of the book, which is well worth a read in itself and is certainly not restricted to vegetarians in its scope.

This being a very recent addition to the cookbook shelves, I haven’t actually made any of the recipes yet but have already pored over it for hours working up quite an appetite. I love the look (and the imagined flavour) of the hummus with beetroot, there’s a great-sounding carrot lasagne (yes, really!), and I can’t wait to try some of the savoury scones, muffins and polenta recipes.

3. 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi

(German edition: Indische Currys)

originally published by Kyle Cathie, 2004

Funnily enough, this book was a gift from the friend mentioned above, and although I already possessed several Indian cookery books (including The Curry Cookbook, a throwback to my student days…), this one quickly became my favourite.

It’s an almost ritualistic book – each recipe is prefaced by an interesting explanation of any unusual features and about the part of India and/or cultural milieu the dish comes from, and Panjabi cuts no corners in the preparation of each: no ready-made spice mixes, purees or pastes are used, and whole spices form the starting point for almost all the recipes.

The detailed introduction is a real culinary eye-opener and adds considerably to this ritualistic feel, explaining – among other things – the philosophy of Indian cuisine, the impact that the method and order of preparing / adding your spices has on the flavour of the dish (dry-roasting, frying in oil, when to add liquid etc.), the importance of balancing ingredients such as ginger and garlic (the former raises blood pressure, while the latter lowers is), and different ways of using and combining ingredients.

My favourite recipes from this book are the lamb madras, chicken dopiaza, and aubergine curry. The most surprisingly delicious one has to be the watermelon curry, which I thought would be awful but actually works really well.

4. Backen! (= Baking!)

(only available in German, as far as I know)

published by Gräfe & Unzer, 2005

I don’t bake much as I find it quite scary, and the reason I find it scary is probably that I don’t bake much. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to have a good staple cookery book for baked goods so that I couldn’t use the lack of a suitable book as a further reason not to wield the hand-mixer. And this is the one I settled on.

Its 450-odd pages are jam-packed with recipes, usefully subdivided into common or garden cakes, cakes with fresh fruit, gateaux (Torten), muffins and pastries, biscuits and cookies, bread, pizza and savouries, with the odd but welcome addition of a final – and very detailed – section on coffee and tea. Most sections are further divided according to what kind of pastry, dough or cake mixture  (the word Teig covers all of these) forms the basis for the recipe – Rührteig, Mürbteig, Hefeteig, Blätterteig, Brandteig, Plunderteig, Sauerteig, Quark-Öl-Teig or whatever.

I have a friend who is a very proficient baker, and she dislikes this book as it doesn’t have any pictures. “I want to see how it’ll look when it’s finished!” she protests. Given that the stuff I bake only rarely comes out looking as it’s supposed to, I hardly feel that I need see this as a disadvantage. While pretty pictures can be appetizing and nice to look at, there’s nothing I dislike more than cookery books where more than 50% of the entire book consists of pictures. This book contains 888 recipes, and that’s the reason why I bought it.

My occasional forays into baking have seen me make several of the savouries in this book – they’re fantastic for parties, picnics or feeding a crowd in other situations – and there’s a rather fabulous baked cherry ricotta cheesecake with an amarettini base and almond topping. Yum!

5. Farmhouse Kitchen

published by Yorkshire Television, 1975

This is a 1970s cookery book based on the Yorkshire TV series of the same name. It has a glorious naffness to it as a result, but also some hidden jewels that are priceless – please bear with me while I explain.

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on traditional cooking, and as I’m someone who’s interested in the history of food and its part in culture, that’s something I’m all for preserving. Many of the recipes are submitted by viewers from all over the country, so there is a lot in terms of regional variety. There are some pretty odd sounding concoctions in part (there is one recipe called “Love in disguise” which seems to be stuffed sheep’s hearts, and a “Thatched house pie” that requires “1 dressed pigeon”(??) as its main ingredient), including some of those inimitable 1970s attempts at crossover cuisine: sausages in sweet and sour sauce, anyone?

Many of the recipes still bear the signs of postwar thrift – using cheaper cuts of meat, making the most of leftovers, preserving food – and reveal skills and a standard of nutritional value many people struggle to keep up with today. It’s good to have a book like this in the house, to remind you of what home economics really is about.

Despite the oddness of some of the recipes, there are some really reliable ones for traditional favourites such as Yorkshire parkin, old-fashioned puddings (pineapple upside-down pudding – yay!) and a whole range of good, wholesome comfort food. I’m also determined to try some of the pickles and chutneys, maybe even the wine recipes.

The best thing about this book, though, is the fact that it belonged to my grandmother, and I kept it mainly because here and there in between the pages there are scraps of paper she’d scribbled her own recipe memos on (some of these pre-date the book, including one for home made “pietsa” (her spelling was actually very good, but pizza was simply not so common in Britain back then)), or newspaper cuttings, leaflets and so on. The value of the book itself only became apparent to me later.

Snippets from Grandma's cookery book

If you are interested in seeing what other people picked as their top 5 cookbooks, you can find out here.

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December 27 – Ordinary joy

Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year?

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December 26 – Soul Food

What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

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December 18 – Try

What do you want to try next year? Is there something you wanted to try in 2010? What happened when you did / didn’t go for it?

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December 14 – Appreciate

What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it?

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