Flash Says…

Archive for the ‘Food and diet’ Category

I have a keen interest in food. This was instilled by my much missed dad, who took me to Michelin starred restaurants from primary school onwards, and encouraged me to love what I ate and drank.

This passion for gastronomy has spilled over into a love of watching food programmes, and the odd over-ambitious garnish at home. Still, at least presentation was being considered!

There were many funny moments with my dad, like at home when he would get very uppity about doing his ‘mise en place’; and when in hospital the dietician was concerned he wasnt eating, I had to rein him in from being as brutal as he intended about her bulk-catered food. The dietician asked about the last meat he ate at home, which by chance had been a farm-shop guineafowl… I tried not to laugh and to say ‘well to be fair it must be hard to provide for a whole hospital on a budget’ but she got the idea as to why my dad wouldnt eat a generic and gelatinous Gala Pie. Actually my family were often on a tight budget, but that just meant that they appreciated that meat wasnt something you could eat every day, and that you had to shop around and eat seasonal local produce. (“They were lucky…” But stop me before I slip into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch…) Still, there were also many excellent moments when I tried food in my youth that youngsters wouldn’t normally encounter – veal, for example. And one of the dinners my mother regularly put in front of me was a good quality steak in a bun, with fresh onion, tomato, and cucumber relish. No fishfingers or chicken nuggets for us. When I decided to become vegetarian, aged 11, I could at least base my decision on morals, having enjoyed a range of tasty meat dishes, and knowing what I was rejecting.

Anyway, my family taught me to appreciate good food from a young age, to enjoy the best we could afford and that good food was a luxury, and I will always be grateful to my dad in particular for that. Indeed, on the anniversary of his death every year I go out for a decent meal or experience that he would have enjoyed.

Physical disability makes cooking rather difficult for me, but I persevere as it is a passion. I have two folders of recipes – sweet and savoury – which are printouts or written by hand, then annotated with personal notes relating to my own issues, equipment or oven. If something is unsuccessful then it is ripped out of the folder! If it works – or sounds good and Im likely to try it soon – it stays. I use the folders for reference for favourite regular dishes and snacks as well as inspiration for dishes that I’ve wanted to try for a while.

I love watching Masterchef in particular. Ive watched so many series, from UK, Australia (my fave), New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Ireland… Every weekday, I watch a couple of hours and always try to figure out what I’d do with that mystery box of strange ingredients. In fact it struck me recently that when I watch their masterclasses and take copious notes, then try out those dishes in my kitchen, that perhaps this is my own equivalent of an OU study course!

Ive also eaten the food of several UK masterchefs, and talk to some of them via twitter, and I have foodie friends to bounce my food ideas off – all of this is inspirational!

Sadly I dont feel I can ever aspire to Masterchef because even if I reached the cooking standard, my physical limitations are just too great. Even if I did participate, I could never work in the trade. But let’s pretend, ok? Because I like to dream along to imagine what I would create when I watch the challenges, and plan what I’d do for the judges if only I could.



QUESTION 1: WHICH BASICS SHOULD I (OR ANY BUDDING CHEF) MASTER?

Let’s assume Im aiming for more than a home cook standard. I know it is critical to taste, season, etc. and some of that can’t be taught. But if you were planning to go on Masterchef (say), which dishes and skills do you think you should have down pat? For example with invention tests I think if you can make a basic pasta, or a basic pastry case, you can make a good enough sweet or savoury dish to get through the earliest rounds.

Another spanner in the works is that I’m vegetarian. I am not against cooking meat or fish products for other people but obviously can’t taste those dishes so it is a disadvantage. I have cooked steak and scallops but I ought to at least master things I can taste and enjoy first of all – which means I’m not worrying about filleting a fish at this stage. That said, I’ve noted how to do it (and how to prep other things like squid or rib-eye beef) from the TV, so I could at least have a stab at it if I had to! But I think much of the joy of food is sharing, so I want to learn things that I can taste and share equally.

So, on my list of skills / dishes to learn (though I already know some, but for completeness), are:

* pasta – plain sheets, but also cut into tagliatelli or used in raviolli or tortellini
* risotto (dare I say, I’m quite good at this already!)
* pastries – short, puff, choux, and maybe filo?
* basic souffle (which includes making creme pat)
* choc fondant
* creme anglaise
* ‘mother’ sauces
* fondant vegetables
* gnocchi
* flatbread

These are all with a view to expanding my skills, but also are items that take no more than an hour to cook. Otherwise bread, macarons etc. would be on there (though again, I can have a reasonable stab at those). Feel free to suggest anything, however basic, that it is critical to master in order to have well-rounded cooking skills.



QUESTION 2: TIPS TO COUNTERACT PHYSICAL DISABILITY, FROM EQUIPMENT THROUGH TO ITEMS THAT CAN BE PREPPED IN ADVANCE

As mentioned, I am physically disabled. In terms of cooking, I’m mostly affected by joint pain and physical strength. For example chopping (wrist weakness), standing to stir (back pain within 2 minutes), lifting a pan and straining it (I’m likely to scald myself) etc.

I have been wondering ‘if I ever went on Masterchef what reasonable adjustments could I ask for?’ and this leads on to how to make things easier at home, of course. For example, my PA chopped a block of chocolate into small chips in advance so I could make biscuits with it; that would have really hurt my wrists for several days if I had done it.

So I am wondering what else I could get my PA to prep for me? Not at the time of need, as that is obvious – but because I don’t know exactly when I’ll have the energy to cook, which things can be prepped a day or two in advance and still be perfectly acceptable?

I know many disabled people buy frozen pre-chopped veg, but I eat a lot of raw, salad and lightly stir fried or blanched food. I don’t enjoy veg that has been frozen or is anything less than flavourful and al dente. (That said, I do already chop and freeze spare herbs, for throwing into sauces.) I heard that diced onion will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days with no issue. Unfortunately my favourite vegetable, fennel, would go brown once cut (unless acid works on it like with apples?) Are there any other chopped veg “gotcha”s?

Anyway, I would be glad to hear firstly of vegetables (and raw herbs and spices) that can be prepped in advance, and how they should best be stored and how long they will last; and secondly of any labour saving devices that you can think would make my life easier in the kitchen. I’m not talking about the cripple’s dreaded christmas present (“how lovely, another kettle tipper!”) but practical things that I might not have considered.

Note that I do have a mandolin and some other gadgets but it still hurts my back to stand and do anything for more than 2 minutes, and a mandolin is a bugger to wash up! But there must be quick and rough solutions involving, I dunno, food bags and a hammer? which I could do with learning to make my life easier.

I think what I truly need is a Thermomix – but unfortunately you get what you pay for and the cost is prohibitive. Does anyone know if the older models which sell for £300 on ebay are worthwhile? This is the only solution I can see to relieve the pain from standing and stirring over a bain marie, or similar…



FINAL THOUGHT:

I presume there isn’t a free online course and community where I can study this stuff and compare notes? Particularly as a screen grab wont tell you if the seasoning was good or the sauce hit the mark? But is there any online community for this? I’m interested in learning at home at my own speed though, not adult classes at my local catering college. (Also, Ive eaten at the local catering college’s Fine Dining Restaurant… Let’s just say ‘er, no’.)

I enjoy learning techniques from Videojug, Instructables and other websites, but where these are submitted by peers, it is hard to know how authoratitive they are, or if I’m missing a trick. I find I learn most from the Australian Masterchef Masterclass programmes, but these are only broadcast once a week, and I would love more in the same vein that I could study.

Lovely foodie, cook and chef friends, please help!

Ever wanted to donate to a food bank, but not known what to give or how to help? A food bank was set up in my area during 2013, but then for months I held back because I wasn’t sure quite how to donate. I read several online discussions which reached different conclusions, and the more I pondered, the more complicated it seemed! I wanted my donation to be appropriate, but ended up over-thinking it. Eventually I phoned my local food bank to find out – and here is what I learned. Read this article, find a food bank, make a shopping list, get donating!

Food poverty is a topic close to my heart. When I was a student, there were no food banks – but there were many occasions when I had no money for meals. I walked down busy streets in the evening looking for dropped pennies, then went into the supermarket just before closing time, hoping for some discounted bread so that I could afford toast to go with a 3p can of baked beans. One night I stood outside the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane, counting my pennies, trying to work out what I could afford to eat. A passing stranger pressed a pound coin into my hand, said “Get yourself something sweet” and walked away as I called out thanks. That night I bought six beigels, some with filling, to share between myself and my partner; it was the only thing we ate that day. It is telling that twenty years later, that stranger’s act of kindness is still imprinted in my memory. So, now that I’m able, regularly donating to a food bank is my way of paying it forward. We never know when we will find ourselves in that position, and you can be sure that people using this service are not there by choice.


What I bought for a food bank with £20. If you’re not sure what to get, start here.


Find your local food bank and ask what they need.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Locating your nearest food bank is probably best achieved by typing your locality and “food bank” into google. Otherwise, the Trussell Trust runs many of them, but several are run by other groups or individuals – mine is organised by a Children’s Centre. If you’re still having no luck, try asking a nearby church, or your local council, who should know where food bank services are provided.

When I initially asked what would be most appreciated, I was told “anything! We would be grateful for anything at all, thank you!” While this is a kind thing to say, it isn’t actually helpful – it didn’t tell me what would be inappropriate, or if there was anything they might prefer me to supply. So, although I would urge you to ask your local group what they most need – as well as what they have plenty of – I provide a list below, giving you some items which will always be welcomed, as well as a heads up on which things you should check before including.

It is important to be aware of the needs of users in your community, so here are a few points for thought:

  • Fuel poverty – not everyone can afford to run a stove, so include some items which can be eaten cold, or just require boiling water. There may also be service users who are living in temporary accommodation and don’t have access to a kitchen – make sure you include things for them to eat.
  • Short term vs long term need – does your food bank cater for people over the longer term, or those who have lost benefits for a few weeks but will be ok thereafter, or a mix of both? People with short term needs will probably just require basic food items to get them through. Those with longer term needs may not have cutlery, cooking equipment, can openers, and may also need additional items for cooking such as vegetable oil and salt.
  • Following on from the last point, if your food bank doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a can opener, then it might be better to provide some canned items which come with ringpulls.
  • Weird and wonderful items – assume that people using food banks have only basic cooking skills, so they won’t know what to do with that jar of octopus tentacles that’s been at the back of your cupboard for months, nor do they want olives or caviar – they’d rather you spent the money on something simple and filling that will go further.
  • Special diets – because I live in a very multicultural area, I had initially thought that I ought to consider halal food items. In fact, Muslim people tend to seek help from the community at their mosque, rather than a food bank – so this is less of an issue. My local food bank merely distinguishes between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I asked about other special diets such as coeliac or dairy free, but they see very few people with these requirements and are able to cater for them from their regular stock. So I would suggest you include a good selection of vegetarian food – in any case, this is more affordable than meat and fish – but don’t spend money on expensive halal / kosher / gluten free items, unless your local food bank has said that this is something that they need.

Remember that food banks receive lots of donations from Harvest Festivals, and at Christmas time. However, it’s during the summer holidays, when parents have to feed children who would otherwise eat at school, when their needs can be forgotten. If you are able to make a regular donation – be it monthly, quarterly, or just annually – then please think about the time of year and find out when your food bank’s stocks run low or when there is the greatest need.

Basic / value priced items are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable in many cases. It’s simple: a food bank is providing SOMETHING to people who have NOTHING. They are not going to be brand-conscious or judgemental as to what has been offered. If you have a choice between buying two cheap bags of pasta, or one branded bag of pasta, buy the cheaper ones – that way twice as many families will be fed. Even if you choose to donate the most expensive Scottish salmon, a can of cheap tuna may be handed out in preference if that is what will expire soonest. So spend your money wisely and get as much as you can (of a decent basic quality) in order to help as many people as possible. Even just a few pounds will go a long way.

Always needed:

Essential food items which can be eaten cold, or made up with boiling water from a kettle, for example:
• Smash (powdered potato)
• Couscous (plain or flavoured)
• Instant noodles
• Tea and instant coffee
• Rice pudding in cans
• Cereal
• Longlife milk
• Longlife fruit juice

Canned items that can be heated and used to make up a meal:
• Meat and fish, such as canned tuna or frankfurter sausages
• Canned vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn
• Pies (e.g. Fray Bentos or Princes’ Steak and Kidney)
• Canned desserts, such as sponge puddings

Cooking oil is always in demand.


Usually wanted:

The following basics are very useful. I’ve only put them in the “usually” list because many food banks are inundated with certain items (such as sacks of rice, or cans of beans) and may prefer to receive an alternative. So if you’re not able to check, these items will almost certainly be appropriate and welcomed, so please donate them; but if you are able to find out what’s in demand, that would be even better. I know our own food bank have enough cans of baked beans for several years!
• Rice (these usually can’t be split into individual portions, so buy several smaller bags rather than a large sack, even if it seems less cost efficient)
• Pasta (any type that can be cooked in hot water)
• Canned pulses such as lentils or beans
• Canned tomatoes

Toiletries are usually given out by food banks. I’m told that men’s needs are often forgotten. Also, I was told that nappies are the one thing that are always needed and will definitely be used. So I would suggest:
• Shampoo / 2 in 1
• Shower gel
• Disposable razors
• Nappies (disposable, unisex)

Flavourings help to bring plain meals to life, and are inexpensive. They are important if your food bank provides long term support for people who will no longer have these in their cupboard:
• Mustard
• Salt and pepper
• Stock cubes
• Herbs and spices
• Tomato puree

Children’s lunchbox items are usually welcomed too, such as:
• Cereal bars
• Dried fruit
• Juice boxes


Check before donating:

Sanitary items are often welcomed, but not always. Some food banks have a supply of toiletries and say “take what you need”; others provide pre-prepared bags and would not feel able to have that conversation with whichever member of the household has come to collect groceries. So always check that your own food bank can use these items. However, if they say yes, I would make sure to include some in every donation. Give pads, not tampons, as a pack of pads can be used by young teenagers as well as mothers, and those of all cultures and beliefs. Don’t be tempted to donate Mooncups or other unconventional items – when you’re at your lowest ebb and having to ask for help at a food bank, you don’t want someone’s hippy ethics forced upon you. It may be well meaning, but this is not the time for it.

Baby formula and foods may also be welcomed, but they are expensive, so before buying, check that your food bank accepts them and currently has a need for them.

Pet food is accepted by some food banks, but not all. My local organisation takes the view that they are there to feed people. (If someone opts to give their tuna to the cat, that’s their choice.) If you have excess pet food to donate, check out local animal rehoming centres instead.

Sweets and treats: Many food banks will take these, and appreciate the importance of a treat to boost morale now and then – who doesn’t love a choccie bikkie? However, some organisations prefer that only healthy food is donated (some even request only wholegrain cereals!) While I think it is good to include something to enjoy as well as essential food items, I recall sending luncheon vouchers as a gift to a homeless friend. I asked her to please spend 50p of the £10 vouchers on something she’d enjoy – a bar of chocolate, for example. I really wanted her to have something to savour for a moment. But she told me that she just didn’t think she could honour that – she needed the money too much, and that 50p could be another bag of pasta. So if you are planning to include treats in your food bank donations I would encourage you to add them as an extra, rather than instead of essential items which could send someone to bed with a full stomach. And make sure that whatever you donate will be welcomed.

Non-food items such as toilet roll and laundry powder might be accepted, but it depends on whether your food bank has the capacity to administer them, and whether they are providing long term assistance rather than short term aid. If you’re not sure, I would leave them off. As a student I used to scrounge loo roll from public toilets and wash my clothes by hand in the sink, so if people have to make do without these items it is better than going hungry. Unless you know they are welcome, spend your money on food.

Fresh food can sometimes be used, particularly items like apples and potatoes which can survive for a couple of weeks. Again, check whether your food bank has the capacity to handle them – you might be better off donating excess from your garden or allotment to a charity which provides hot meals to homeless people (ask local churches to find out where).


Don’t give…

Opened and out-of-date items probably won’t be accepted, but it is worth checking before you chuck them out. If the date was a “best before” rather than a “use by” and is not far over the limit it may still be useful. Opened items can’t be used unless they are individually wrapped.

Baking mixes should be avoided unless they only need water to be added. Giving a cake mix may seem kind, but the recipient may not have the eggs, oil or milk necessary to make up the pack. Don’t donate anything which requires the addition of extra items.

Alcohol – food banks don’t wish to accidentally enable alcoholics. This includes items such as Christmas puddings – make sure that nothing you donate has booze as an ingredient.


If you have no money but would still like to help out…


If you’ve been inspired by this but really don’t have any money spare to donate items, here are two other ways you might help:

Volunteer! Do ask whether you can help in some way, if you’re able to donate your time. It might be collecting from local groups having a food drive, sorting items or making up bags – you don’t necessarily have to engage with service users if you don’t feel comfortable with that (although, why not?)

BOGOF! If you see a “buy one, get one free” offer in the supermarket, why not choose that item instead of your usual brand, and set the free one aside to give to the food bank? As long as it’s a longlife item, it can probably be used.

And if you really have no money – and are having to decide whether to eat, or spend your rations on other items – please use a food bank if you need to. Some require a reference from your GP, benefits office or social services, but others – like near me – will take self-referrals, or those from other community organisations. Don’t be afraid to find out – it’s better than going hungry, and as I’ve proved, it can happen to anyone. There’s no shame in needing help, especially under the current government’s appalling austerity measures. Please, seek assistance if you need it.

On behalf of anyone who needs to use a food bank, thank you. I remember that kind stranger from my student days, and I’m sure the families fed by food banks will be touched by your generosity too.

Have you found your local food bank yet? Why wait? Go and add items for them to your shopping list! Let me know if you think of anything I’ve missed.

Food is one of my long-standing passions. But while I might know what I enjoy eating, I find that most meals I want to make have already been documented online, or are beyond my capability, as a “spoonie” (disabled person with limited energy). However, using a slow cooker means I can make quite a lot of satisfying food with relative ease, and I’d encourage anyone to do so.

I’ve taken the time to hone five recipes (adapted over time from a selection of different versions), and present them here for your convenience. If you’ve never used a slow cooker before, do have the confidence to give these a try! And please let me know how you get on with them.

I’m vegetarian, although these recipes happen to be vegan (or very easily converted). However my meat-eating partner and neighbour are always delighted to tuck in as these dishes are full of flavour and texture.

Where I’ve called for stock or bouillon, I use 250ml boiling water to 2 teaspoons vegan lo-salt bouillon powder. Butter can be substituted with Pure vegan spread. Where I say “diced” I intend pieces no larger than 1cm2, and “chopped” means roughly an inch square – but you can adjust for your own preference, of course.

Some slow cooker info: I use a 3.5 litre Cookworks cooker which cost just £12. This size provides a generous meal for two, and then three or four lunch-sized portions to freeze for later. So these recipes would probably feed a family of four for dinner, particularly if served with rice or bread. Also, I tend to prepare the meal in the afternoon, then cook on high for 3-4 hours. If you prefer to prep earlier in the day, an hour on high is roughly equal to two or three hours on low. However my experience has been that once things are done in a slow cooker, they don’t go over if you leave them a bit longer – even courgette held its texture! If you set any of these recipes going in the morning and leave it all day, please let me know how you got on.

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Perfect Veggie Chilli


Ease of preparation: Couldn’t be easier! Just chuck everything into the pot!
Spoonie notes: You need to be able to open tins and chop firm vegetables.
Freezes: Very well.

This veggie chilli is a crowd pleaser. It can be served on rice, potatoes, in a wrap – and accompanied by cheese, soured cream, or a crisp green salad. It is fairly mild (just a little comforting chilli warmth) because the first time I tried it, I ended up swapping out the liquid with cool passata while my eyes were streaming… I’d suggest you try it my way to begin with, and if you then want it hotter, wait until an hour before serving (when the vegetables are cooked and a sauce has formed) and add extra chilli to taste at that point.

Ingredients:
1 courgette, diced
1 large leek, chopped into small pieces
2 carrots, in ribbons (use a peeler – or you can grate, but ribbons give a better texture)
1 parsnip, diced
2 cans chopped tomato
2 cans beans (rinsed) – I usually use one can black eye beans, one can kidney beans
125ml water
½ – 1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ – 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
½ teaspoon chilli powder
A generous shake of paprika

Method:
Just put everything into the pot! I recommend the firmer veggies at the bottom, as they will get the heat soonest, then the contents of the cans, then the seasoning.

To begin with, everything will be firm and fairly raw – that’s normal. Come back an hour or two before the end and give it a good stir to mix everything together before leaving it to finish cooking.

Cook on high for 3½ hours.

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Vegetable Korma


Ease of preparation: Requires a food processor. Fairly easy though – you just make the paste in the food processor, then chuck it in the cooker with everything else.
Spoonie notes: You need to open the can of coconut, and grate ginger by hand. The korma paste, once made, can be a skin irritant.
Freezes: Very well, although the cauliflower loses a little texture when re-heated.

This korma is delicious and impressive. I like to serve it with fragrant rice.

Make sure to use full-fat coconut milk (whichever you can get with the highest fat content – brand doesn’t matter) as it isn’t so flavoursome and unctuous if you use a reduced fat version. Also, note that while it is very tempting to dip your finger into the delicious korma paste, it will be very hot, and will irritate your skin and probably your throat too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Stage 1 – Korma paste.
Mix the following in a food processor:
40g raw cashews
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
4 inches of fresh ginger, grated
1 chilli pepper (deseeded and roughly chopped)
½ bunch fresh coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam marsala
2 tablespoons tomato puree
3 tablespoons dessicated coconut
Small pinch of salt
Water – for consistency (add once the rest is blended, until you have a good paste)

Stage 2 – The base.
In your cooker, mix together:
All the korma paste
250ml stock
1 can full-fat coconut milk

Stage 3 – The whole thing.
To the base in the cooker, add:
2 leeks (diced)
3 medium potatoes (diced)
2 carrots (diced)
2 tomatoes (diced, and ideally de-seeded and skinned)
4 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
½ head cauliflower (in small florets or chunks)

Cook on high for 3½ hours.

Then add:
80g peas (blanched frozen peas are fine)
40g raw cashews (in halves)

Cook for another ½ hour on high – you can serve once the cashews have softened.

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Vegetable Bourguignon

I love the flavour of boeuf bourguignon, but don’t eat meat. So here’s a vegan version. The vegetables I’ve used work well for me, but you can vary them with the veg of your choice. Just make sure they are in fairly solid chunks and will hold their shape. If you want to use mushroom I would suggest quarters of portabello, added 15 minutes before serving. (I am one of those awkward vegetarians who doesn’t much care for mushroom, but at least chunks of the larger varieties have flavour and won’t go slimy.) I’ve left the quantities vague; I use “about so-many” – whatever looks right in the pot.

This is one of those simple but delicious dishes where you can’t help drinking the dregs from the bowl… or sopping it up with some good chunky bread. Alternatively you can make a simple herb dumpling and add them to the pot 30 minutes before serving.

Ease of preparation: Simple, although you do need to brown the veg in a pan first.
Spoonie notes: You need to chop firm veg, and fry them in a pan.
Freezes: Haven’t tried it. I would imagine it freezes fairly well because the vegetables I use would cope well with re-heating, but there is a high liquid content to this dish so you might want to be careful if using other vegetables such as mushrooms.

Stage 1 – The vegetables.
Ingredients:
Shallots
New potatoes
Carrots
Parsnips

All the vegetables should be chopped into large chunks (e.g. halve a baby new potato, leave shallots whole, cut carrots into chunks along their length). Blanch the shallots, then fry all the veg together in a pan (in a little butter or Pure) until they are starting to brown and soften.

Stage 2 – The sauce.
Ingredients:
1 small can tomato puree
250ml water
500ml bouillon
400ml red wine (I usually use a £5 Côtes du Rhône)
Lots of fresh thyme
5 bay leaves
A bulb of garlic, finely chopped (yes, a bulb! If you really don’t like garlic then ease up on it.)

Dissolve the tomato puree into the water so there are no lumps of puree. Then add this to the pot, along with the bouillon, wine, herbs and garlic. Stir the sauce to mix.

Stage 3 – The whole thing.
Once the veg have started to soften and lightly brown, add them to the sauce in the pot.

Cook for 3 hours on high.

When serving, don’t forget to put the bay leaves aside – I would leave them in the pot as long as possible, but don’t serve them.

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Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew with Cobbler

This soft, comforting stew is sweet and tasty. The cobbler isn’t vegan but you could adapt it by leaving out the cheese, or just make a herb dumpling instead.

My top tip is to eat the stew cold the next day with a generous dash of balsamic vinegar.

Ease of preparation: Simple. The cobbler might sound fiddly to people who don’t usually bake, but it’s dead easy when you give it a try.
Spoonie notes: You need to open a can, and start the stew cooking in a pan, which means transferring quite a large quantity into the pot. Also, butternut squash is very hard to cut! You can buy packets of prepared chopped squash (fresh or frozen) and I would recommend that if you have any difficulty with your hands or wrists. The cobbler requires making “breadcrumbs” which takes a couple of minutes of wrist action, but you can always leave it out and just make the stew.
Freezes: Frankly, I wouldn’t – the stew is soft and comforting but I suspect it would turn mushy on re-heating. However, to refrigerate it for a few days keep the cobbler dough separate, then bake individual servings on a baking tray or in the pot as required.

Stage 1 – The stew.
Ingredients:
1 large onion, chopped
500g butternut squash, chopped
500g carrot, diced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
250ml stock
1 teaspoon caster sugar
3 sprigs rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary (I put them in a piece of knotted muslin, to get the flavour without having solid rosemary pieces throughout the dish)

Brown the onion in a large pan (I use a dash of olive oil). Add the other ingredients. Bring to the boil. Transfer to the slow cooker and then cook on high for 3 hours.

Stage 2 – The cobbler (optional).
Ingredients:
50g butter or Pure vegan spread
150g self raising flour
A pinch of salt
(rub these three things together to make “breadcrumbs”)
75g crumbled stilton or feta
2 sprigs or 1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped very finely
Water for consistency
(add the cheese and herbs to the “breadcrumbs”, then stir in enough water to make a firm dough)

Pat out the dough into a shape somewhat smaller than your cooker’s diameter. Cut it into triangle segments. Then place them on top of the stew (with gaps between each piece) after the stew is cooked, and continue to cook the whole dish for another 30 minutes until the cobbler is puffy.

Serve and enjoy!

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Root & Fruit Tagine

Again, I’ve turned to root vegetables to make this dish. However, you could use any that you prefer. In future I’m going to try theming it to give the dish more of an identity, so for example you might have sweet potato and apricot as the main ingredients with just small quantities of other items. Let your imagination run away – why not try olives, or chestnuts? You can vary the dried fruit too, of course.

But to get you started, here is my tried and tested recipe.

Ease of cooking: Very simple – add things to the pot, cook, add the rest, done.
Spoonie notes: You’ll need to open a can, and chop firm vegetables.
Freezing: Haven’t tried it – but I think the fruit would lose its texture on re-heating.

Ingredients:
500g carrot (chopped)
500g parsnips (chopped)
500g turnip or potato (chopped)
2 leeks (chopped)
12 dried apricots (in small pieces)
8 prunes (in small pieces)
1 can of chick peas (rinsed)
Stock – enough to cover the vegetables with an inch of liquid
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
A pinch of salt
Large bunch fresh parsley (finely chopped)
Large bunch fresh coriander (finely chopped)

Add everything except the dried fruit and fresh herbs to the pot. Cook on high for 3 hours.

Then add the dried fruit, parsley and coriander, and cook for another 15 minutes before serving.

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While these are a few dishes to get you started, a slow cooker can also be used to make savoury rice (you could then freeze portions to eat with the chilli or korma), or a dessert dish such as chocolate rice pudding, or stewed rhubarb. There are so many opportunities!

Please let me know if you try any of these recipes, and if you adapt them, what changes you made and how they worked for you!

Catering for a Vegetarian

Imagine the scene: someone is bringing a guest to dinner. Casually they tell you “oh, by the way, she’s a vegetarian”. Uh-oh, what do you feed them? To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is a common scenario:

Host: I’ve spent ages making them something special! It’s taken twice as long to get this meal ready!
Veggie: Oh no, she’s made me something special… polenta… but I HATE polenta… and she’s given me enough for four people!

Don’t panic! Catering for us veggies can be painless – here are a few tips to make it go smoothly.

If you remember just one tip, let it be this:

  • If you’re serving meat and veg, just make a cheese sauce for the veggie (it can even be made in advance and microwaved) and let them have the same vegetables as everyone else, with cheese sauce instead of meat. This allows them to be included, it’s tasty and it’s a balanced meal. Plus, it’s less work for you!

Here are some more general tips. I speak from the point of view of someone who’s been veggie from the age of 11 (by choice). Of course I do not speak for all vegetarians, but I hope I can cover most bases. I’d love to hear comments from other veggies particularly if their views differ and they can offer further advice.

  • Check what the veggie will not eat – expect that all kinds of meat and seafood are out. Generally, animal products such as lard, suet and gelatine are also out (so check dessert ingredients too). Ask whether free-range eggs, milk and veggie cheese are ok, and avoid others to be on the safe side.

  • Check whether there is anything the veggie really cannot face. Although it is your house, and you should feel free to carry on as normal – in fact the veggie will probably feel bad if you don’t – it can still be offputting if someone leaves the table to be sick. Foods that can be particularly hard for some vegetarians to deal with are: food on the bone (e.g. people gnawing chicken legs), food with faces (e.g. whole shrimps, whole fish), food with a strong smell (e.g. crab pate, smoked salmon) and the sound or sight of meat being carved, or ripped apart (e.g. ribs being cracked from racks). If it is possible to carve in the kitchen rather than at table, it is much appreciated.

  • Cheeses can be veggie, or non-veggie (containing animal rennet). Note that there is no such thing as vegetarian Parmesan – if it’s labelled as Parmesan it is bound to contain animal rennet – however there are vegetarian “Italian style” chesses which you can use instead, such as Bookham’s “Not Just A Pasta Cheese”, and Sainsbury’s Basic range “Italian Hard Cheese”. If an item is not labelled as being suitable for vegetarians, it may be that it contains non-veggie cheese. Pesto is a regular offender for this as it contains Parmesan (some supermarket’s fresh pestos are ok, or you can make your own). Look for the veggie logo when shopping just to be sure all ingredients are compliant.

  • Veggies eat normal food, they just don’t eat meat and fish! If you are serving something you would not normally eat, chances are that they would not normally eat it either! Which leads onto…

  • Don’t make them something “special” of their own! It will take you longer, and you may have no idea of their taste. It is a nightmare to be looking at a pile of inedible spiced lentil mix, especially when you know the cook spent ages on it.

  • …but if you do make something separate for the veggie, only give them enough for one person! Even if your recipe served four, please don’t make them sit behind a mountain of food. However much they eat, they may feel bad at leaving the rest. Serve a single portion and keep the rest in the kitchen – offer it when they clean their plate, if you wish.

  • And if you will make something separate, allow the vegetarian to join in with the meal and have some of the other things on the table too. Don’t stop them from having the vegetables “for everyone else” if they fancy it. You want to include them in the meal, not exclude them – otherwise why invite them?

  • Don’t worry about serving a balanced meal (squeezing vegetable protein, mushrooms or lentils into everything…) just worry about serving something tasty. It is only one meal, the veggie won’t get ill if it isn’t perfectly balanced!

  • Don’t serve imitation meat, such as Linda McCartney pies and sausages, or Quorn, unless you are certain that your guest likes it. Many veggies who don’t eat meat on principle will be reminded of meat and grossed out, and veggies who don’t eat meat because they dislike it won’t like imitation meat any better! In addition, if you’re not used to eating Quorn it can go straight through you – many people (not just veggies) reported this to me, a very unpleasant effect. Instead, how about serving Goodlife Leek & Cheese Sausages (or similar) in place of meat? They resemble croquettes so should be inoffensive.

  • Some other easy ideas, which you might serve for everyone not just the vegetarian: spinach and ricotta cannelloni (available in most supermarkets in the fresh pasta section), ratatouille with potatoes & green vegetables, cauliflower cheese or potato gratin and vegetables.

  • If you are making stuffing, why not cook some of the mix in a separate dish, so the veggie can have some too? (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to sausagemeat stuffing!)

  • If you make veggie gravy, many of the mixes (e.g. Bisto) are quite dull. The best I’ve found is Bisto Best, roast veg flavour. Add a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and/or mint sauce to sharpen it up a little and make it more interesting. Taste it and see if you’d want it on your own food!

  • It is less of an issue to serve a veggie a separate dessert. All the veggies I know would rather have this than no dessert at all!

  • During the meal, please treat the vegetarian naturally, don’t draw attention to them or make them feel awkward. Be as welcoming as to any other guest, no matter what you think of their beliefs – after all, you have invited them to your home and surely want them to feel comfortable.

  • Don’t ask them about their vegetarianism around the dinner table. They will feel awkward, and if they are descriptive their reply may well put you off your own meal! However, feel free to ask them what they like to eat for future reference.

  • Remember that the veggie is usually apprehensive about eating with people who aren’t used to cooking for them. They probably feel just as awkward as you, and are willing the meal to go well just as much as you!

So remember, if in doubt simply serve whatever you’re having, minus the meat or fish, plus a veggie gravy or a cheese sauce, or perhaps a cheese ‘sausage’, and you’ll be well away!


A few notes for caterers or restaurateurs:

  • Please be inventive and give just as much care to your vegetarian dish(es) as you do to the others. It is so depressing to see mushroom risotto on every restaurant menu, or vegetarian lasagne in every mass-catering situation. Don’t see vegetarian food as a problem to be addressed but as an opportunity to be creative.

  • If possible, offer a choice of dishes. Perhaps some of your other plates could be adapted to be vegetarian on request? Indicate this on the menu.

  • Please avoid making the vegetarian dish also be the gluten free and low calorie option. Not all vegetarians are on a diet. If you want to provide low calorie and gluten free options this is laudable, and so much the better if one of them is also vegetarian, but please offer a “normal”, hearty vegetarian dish too! Don’t cram us into a “one size fits all” option.

  • Indicate which of your desserts are vegetarian on the menu – even if they all are! Many places neglect to do this, and the waiters often have to ask the kitchen. It is better if we can see which dishes we can choose from without having to make an issue of it. (Of course, I am assuming that you are already marking which main, starter and side dishes are vegetarian!)

I hope these tips have helped anyone who is daunted by the prospect of catering for vegetarian guests. But if in doubt – just ask them what they like!


This post is adapted from my older version written in 2009, which can be found here .

Are you wondering why my blog posts are no longer every week? It’s still my intention, but life has taken over. Let me give you an insight into living with, and managing, pain. It’s a daily juggling act.

I take two different painkillers. One, dihydrocodeine (DHC), is what I’ve taken for years. It doesn’t really have any side effects for me, but on the other hand it does very little for me nowadays. It maybe shaves a little of the edge off the pain but not enough that I can sleep, for example. It also takes about an hour to work. The other, oxycodone (oxy), works nicely on the pain. It never removes the pain completely but it reduces it to a background level so I can function and so I can sleep. It also begins to work quite soon after taking it. The trouble with oxy is that I experience two side effects. The first is constipation, which I manage with another medicine. Usually this works ok but sometimes not enough (so I don’t go to the loo for 3 days, and feel ill) and sometimes too much (so I go to the loo 20 times a day and spend that day in bed recovering). I spend about one day a week in bed because of digestive troubles one way or another, or just exhaustion.

The side effect I really hate, however, is lack of appetite. For a gourmand like me, that’s a terrible thing. I’ve gone from loving my food and eating out being a real treat, to having to force myself to eat when every mouthful is horrid.

A few years ago, I saw a programme about anorexic girls who were forced to eat – they did everything to avoid it, and to try and make their plate look clean – hiding food under the table or even in their hair. At the time that was incomprehensible to me but now, faced with even a teaplate of food, it’s how I feel. Each mouthful feels impossible and I just want the food to disappear, but I know I have to carry on until another bite would actually make me throw up. On a good day I can enjoy the flavour of some of it, but my relationship with food has utterly changed. I don’t even fancy alcohol very much and often make one drink last all evening.

So, that’s oxy for you. Sometimes it makes me feel nauseous as well but I can manage that, it’s unpleasant but bearable and compared to the other two side effects is insignificant.

Now imagine you are in bed at night. You wake up. Damn, the curtains are still dark. You reach for the clock – it’s 3.30am. Although you were in bed early, you know you were still awake with pain at 1.30am so the most you have had is 2 hours sleep. Back at midnight you’d taken the DHC but it doesn’t seem to have done much. Now everything really hurts; your knees have a burning pain. Your hips have a more stinging ache, and your ribs ache on the side where you’ve been lying.

You try turning over – grabbing hold of the headboard to haul yourself up, so you’ll put as little weight as possible on your hips and pelvis. Wincing as you turn, you rotate, and this relieves the ache in your ribs for a few minutes. You gently tuck some duvet between your two burning knees.

Turning over hasn’t helped. Light glints on the blister pack of oxy by the bed. You know it will block you up and also make you struggle to eat. But you’ve only had 2 hours of sleep and are desperate for more. What choice do you have?

It’s been an odd three months, since my dad died. I’ve been wearing painkiller patches which have turned me into something of a zombie, making me sleep 14 hours a day. Last week I ripped off the patches and for the last few days I’ve woken naturally at 11am – a great improvement! I’m getting my life back on track. That includes resolving to blog here more often, too! So…

Now I’m almost back to my usual everyday state, I thought that I’d demonstrate what the “everyday state” for someone with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome can be like. It’s a condition that people know I have, but unless you’re also affected it’s hard to fully understand. Let me explain by making muffins.

It’s 4pm. I think it would be nice to make strawberry and chocolate muffins, a treat for both me and my husband. I find a simple “foolproof” recipe and pop to the corner shop to pick up some fresh flour.

Of course, I need a sit down after walking to the shop (a distance of about 30 metres), a little rest for my knees and hips. At about 430pm I gather myself and go to the kitchen. I put out the ingredients and begin chopping the chocolate and strawberries. The chopping takes me 15 minutes, and I get backache after standing for more than 5, so I’m hurting and sit down for a rest against a specialist supportive chair.

This is a good point to introduce the concept of “being a spoonie”. Christine Miserandino’s magnificent Spoon Theory describes the concept of spoons representing energy. You might keep a spoon in your back pocket, or borrow from tomorrow’s allocation, but you always have a limited capacity and whatever you do will have a physical payoff. Or as I always used to say before I had a diagnosis, “the more I do, the worse I am”.

After some painkillers and half an hour’s rest I felt able to go and blend the ingredients. It sounded simple, until I had to add melted butter. Hang on, where did the recipe mention melting? Now I had to find a pan! However, all went well until it came to stirring the final mixture. The recipe suggested it should be done by hand, to leave small lumps. My wrist didn’t feel strong enough to stir such a stiff mix and I had to wear a wrist brace to finish the job.

At last I could drop the mixture into cases and pop it in the oven (using two hands in case a wrist wobbled). I had a lovely 25 minute sit down which I needed to recover from 12 minutes mixing! And then, as 6pm approached, a wonderful hot chocolate and strawberry muffin to enjoy!

My husband arrives home and asks “What’s for dinner?” At this point I realise I’m exhausted. I’ve used all my spoons making the muffins, and don’t even have the strength to cook pasta. My back hurts from standing. My wrists ache from stirring. So, guess what we both ate that night?

That’s what happens when you’ve got Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome! It’s a genetic collagen disorder, meaning the collagen in my skin, ligaments, tendons, every tissue in my body, is too floppy. My joints bend in ways they shouldn’t and sometimes dislocate. My gut misbehaves. Everything aches, and some bits of me stab in pain. But hey, there’s no part of my back I can’t reach (to scratch) so that’s alright, eh?

A few days later I made these double chocolate muffins “to use up the ingredients”, and they were perfect. To anyone who has the spoons to cook, I recommend them. After all, when it’s a choice between muffins or dinner, you want the tastiest recipe!

When I look in the mirror I don’t believe the figure smiling back at me. It’s only when caught unawares – such as at a service station toilet with full length mirror opposite the loo – that I am confronted with the fact that I have a spare tyre around my middle. Otherwise I would be blissfully unaware, and still expect to see a thin version of myself in mirrors. Although I’ve been fat for years now, it just doesn’t seem like me.

I know what size I am. I’ve been buying clothes of that size at M&S for years. But still when I unpack them, they seem too big. They fit me, but it always feels wrong.

I haven’t always been overweight. In my sixth form I was depressed and ate so little that my uniform had to be ordered in specially, a size 6. (For the men reading who have no idea what that translates to, think Victoria Beckham.) Through university I was a slightly more healthy 10 to 12. When I discovered eBay I was pleased to find that I was a normal, healthy size and I could fit into a range of gorgeous goth clothing!

Slowly, the weight has crept on. Mostly this came about once I started a full time job and could no longer attend gym classes several times a week. Exercise was on the backburner, but I thought having a full time job would keep me on my toes.

Once I recognised that I was overweight, I tried healthy eating and then even Alli, the weight loss pills that were promoted in every pharmacy when they became available over the counter earlier this year. The name is a misnomer (“friend” or “helper”) as any meal with more than 10-15 grams of fat resulted in what the manufacturers so nicely call “treatment conditions”. Basically if you don’t stick to a very low fat diet, you will end up farting oil – and nobody wants that. I stopped taking Alli, recognising that fat content wasn’t all of the story and that as a vegetarian, fat content in my diet was likely to conflict with Alli’s strict limits when I ate meals which were based around cheese – although it would still fall within the government’s “Eat well” recommendations. It seems that Alli helps you lose weight by terrifying you into not eating any food containing fat at all.


Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010
Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010.

There is an elephant in the room – my disability. I have a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and when I was diagnosed, the first thing my consultant ever told me was not to go running or swimming. Straight away I wondered how to exercise, but I’d known for years that my knee dislocates easily and other joints behave strangely, so I am very limited unless I have a low-impact programme. Now that my weight has crept up (taking me to a size 18) it is even harder to exercise safely and within my limits, as aerobics teachers are unwilling to support me, not understanding my impairment or unable to suggest safe alternatives to the routines in their class.

I still look in the mirror in disbelief, not knowing how best to dress to disguise my curves and jowl. Size 18 may be just two inches larger than the average British woman, but that doesn’t make it acceptable – it just means that there are lots of fat people out there! However, even though I do want to exercise, I am restricted by my impairment to doing just sit ups and “chairobics” – a form of exercise I have created which lets me stay sitting down. Hopefully it burns calories as much as aerobic exercise, but I have no way of knowing, and I can only manage 20 minutes at a time which is barely enough to get the blood pumping. Still, it’s fun to dance in my wheelchair at parties, and other people will boogie with me, so I must be doing something right! But at home it’s embarrassing – I would hate anyone to see me doing my chairobic “dancing” to Blur and Ian Dury as I try to work out. I set an alarm on my phone each day to remind me to exercise, yet four days out of five I am unable to physically manage it, having to rest my knees when I would rather work off some fat.

Although I am working on my weight, it seems I really need to tackle my self perception – after all I know which dress size I buy, so I should be used to seeing a fat person in the mirror – but I’m not sure how to address this. It seems to be harder than dieting. There may be many recommendations on how to diet and eat well, but I’ve yet to see any suggestions on how to retrain your brain! I still don’t recognise the body staring back at me.

So I’m trying to find a way to shift the kilos, but as I already eat fairly healthily it will be a long process – there are few things I can cut out for instant wins. (I’ve already swapped from sugary to diet drinks, from regular to reduced-fat cheeses and from mayonnaise to natural yoghurt.) To keep my spirits high I simply remember how little I recognise my body when it is undressed – the curves which should not be there – and then I am ready to aim for the figure with which I actually identify, similar to my early university days, while recognising I can never recapture my youth or reverse the progression of my impairment. For starters, perhaps I should be proud that I have stopped the gradual increase in my weight and seem to be slowly reversing the trend.

It may take a long time until I am able to squeeze into smaller dress sizes, perhaps many years, but hopefully over the long term I will be able to lose weight, respect myself for the effort, and move forward. For now, my old dresses are still in storage – but at least I haven’t given up and thrown them away altogether.