Monday, 17 April 2017

Same same, but different.

I'm writing this after a cookery course on a farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It's a course I've done already, some years ago, back when I hadn't done my chef course yet, before I had worked in restaurants, before I ran a cafe, before I supported, worked for and left a food charity. It's left me thinking about the journey I've been on since the last course and wondering what that means I call "now" - do I call it After? Different? New?

When I get back to the UK there will be lots of change. There's been a fair bit already - I've got a new kitchen with more space, which necessitated a cupboard clear out to prioritise the kind of food I want to make in it. I've boxed up a hefty weight of cookery books I don't love enough to keep. I'm soon starting a new job in a field I am passionate about, but it's definitely not in the food industry. I don't yet know much about the people I'll be working with but they'd really have to go some to beat the levels of food obsession of the team I have left behind. Frankly, I'm a bit worried about where my passion for cooking will fit in to my life if it isn't part of what my work involves, and therefore a labeller of who I am, and I wonder how I will keep learning about it. The last thing I want is for it to fall back.

Something I have learned recently is how important it is to keep learning from each other. That for me was the best bit about working in hospitality - learning from chefs passionate about their craft, and sharing my knowledge with young people who were timid about cookery and watching them bloom. Recently a colleague challenged himself by exploring how diverse and exciting veganism can be, and this reminded me to break from routine. Dinner at a friend's lead to my buying a slow cooker, which helped see me through the kitchen refurbishment but also reminded me about the beauty of cheap cuts of meat and the gift of time in the evenings. Learning how to work the timer and pre-set options on my new oven did the same. Shopping with a friend in a Lebanese supermarket taught me new ingredients and flavours, which made me get up early on a Sunday to spend time making breakfast. Another friend is going to help me demystify my pressure cooker. There are themes here of sharing the love of food and also of gifting oneself time, to spend exploring new foods and flavours.

There is every chance that not working in, or talking about, food all day every day will mean that I have more space and time to explore it on my own terms and more drive to get creative. I did however think this would be the case when I moved from working in hospitality to working office based for a food charity, and it simply didn't. Basically, you have to make your own opportunities to create wonderful food, around all the other stuff that takes up life space like work, housemin, relationships, family and exercise. The best breadmaker I know is my wonderful friend the academic who can turn her dough in between marking papers at home, which is not a possibility for everyone. For me it feels like there is just so much food I want to learn and make, and so little time, it seems, to make it all! And if I am not making chatter-worthy food regularly, then frankly, who am I?

But maybe this is where I am worrying too much, and being too hard on myself. Last Christmas, at an annual dinner bonanza with friends, where we usually try to outcook each other, we all had circumstances that nearly lead to us cancelling. So I ended up making roast turkey - we'd never actually celebrated this way and it was suitably undemanding of my time the week before. And it was a glorious dish, perfect to remind us that the important thing was coming together as friends to share a meal.

Today's cookery course was much the same in content as it was for me almost five years ago, but this time round it wasn't about frantically making notes about it all. It was about taking it in, enjoying it and noticing its simplicity. Thai cookery isn't actually that complicated - the same combinations of ingredients pop up regularly and there is an economy in things like curry pastes, which are often adapted from each other into totally different things from the same core. I've come away just as excited about recreating it at home, but in a more relaxed way.

So maybe that's the answer. Maybe all I need to remember is what I think food is all about anyway - enjoyment, exploration and sharing, and that this can be found in wonderfully simple foods done really well just as much as in complex techniques and flavours. It's just important that it's bringing a smile. And that doesn't sound nearly as challenging as constantly pushing my food exploration limits.

It might mean I have to find more excuses to cook for people however. But how bad is that?

Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


I'm now on day 4 out of my 5 on FoodCycle's #BreadlineChallenge. It's been an interesting journey.
I say interesting, but actually I mean frustrating.

Frustrating because of the constant temptation to break budget - whether this be by being told it would be ok to have a sip of my boyfriend's pint at the pub rather than stick to water, or by the way my stomach rumbles at 3pm when I know that, really, my lunch was sufficient.
Frustrating because I didn't realise how easily I would succumb to the need to maintain my working routine - not to mention my relationship with my colleagues - with tea I don't really need. Or a couple of biscuits from a shared pack.
Frustrating because when Tuesday's apple suffered a dent on the way in to work, I couldn't buy another one. And when my over-enthusiastic fridge froze my celery and carrot solid, my mid-afternoon snacks were no longer something to look forward to but something I had to put up with.
Frustrating because I have had to work my life around my food. This is usually a concept that would fill me with joy, but this week, food has just got in the way. I have forgotten a doctor's appointment because my mind was more concerned with what I was supposed to be cooking when I got home. I have felt like a rubbish hostess in my own home when I don't quite have enough milk to make tea for my parents when they pop over and make my porridge in the morning, so I've had to use water for my porridge instead.
Frustrating because by only doing 5 days of the challenge, I am restricting my budget further. I have enough base ingredients to get me through 7 days, and yet not quite enough money for some greens, or fish, or eggs. Or chocolate. Nutritionally, this week doesn't look great.

I have had a background headache since Sunday evening, which could of course be nothing at all to do with the challenge. But it has made me wonder if I'm a bit dependent on sugar or caffeine, and it's made things that little bit less 'fun'.

But more than anything, this experience is making me frustrated at just how much living on this food budget takes over your life. Everything is having to be made from scratch - and this is time consuming. I know how to make bread because I'm a trained chef, and while a trip to the library to use the internet would show you how, this kind of knowledge isn't something you can then perfect through through trial and error when money for raw ingredients is tight. I'm finding myself irritated at having beige food every day because all I bought in the way of herbs and spices is garam masala. Again, this is a result of my having fairly broad food horizons and being used to colourful plates. I feel cheated when I hear that someone else managed to find tinned tomatoes cheaper. We've all become a bit territorial over our food in the office - haggling with each other for teabags and the like. It's brought up debates like "if this were my usual budget, at what stage would I have decided that a stick blender is a vital part of my life?", "if I had to cook from scratch like this every day, how would it affect my gas and electricity bill?" and "how can I maintain my principles and care about the planet when my money won't allow it?"

It angers me that I have a choice to be on this challenge, and I have a passion for food which is backed up with skills and knowledge to make basic food bearable, whilst there are single parents up and down the country frantically trying to nourish their kids and maintain a stable home life whilst having to hunt down the cheapest food. If £2.86/day for food is a reality of your life, then so is stress over where to find it, how to prepare it and when to find the time.

So, to those of you now halfway through the challenge - keep going. If, like me, you feel a fire in your belly from it (and one that isn't just a result of eating lentils every day), then I hope you are getting angry too. Having to feed yourself on this budget isn't fair. I'm biased and I know that one solution is to volunteer for FoodCycle, so that more people can access a free nutritious meal, giving them a bit of a breather from their budget (and their kitchen) for the week. But there are other solutions out there. Let's get the conversations going.

You can support me, my colleagues and our wonderful volunteers through their #BreadlineChallenge week by donating here.

Monday, 16 November 2015

#BreadlineChallenge - The Shop

For most people taking part, FoodCycle's #BreadlineChallenge starts today. Up and down the country, volunteers will be living off £2.86 per day to highlight the harsh realities of food poverty and the reasons why organisations such as FoodCycle exist.

I started my challenge yesterday, and did most of my food shopping on Saturday, having started researching prices in the week.

This meant:
  • 5 different shops
  • 2.5 hours traipsing up and down my local high street in the rain
  • 3 additional aborted shop visits as I deliberated over bacon, fish and the reduced section

So, what did I buy with my £14.30?

Chopped tomatoes - 4 tins for £1 (Sainsburys)
Basics vegetable stock cubes - 30p (Sainsburys)
Basics pasta - 35p (Sainsburys)
500g brown rice - 90p (Sainsburys)
Tin basics kidney beans - 30p (Sainsburys)
1.5kg Plain flour - 45p (Lidl)
500g porridge oats - 65p (Tesco)
500g red lentils, and 150g Garam masala - on offer together for £1.50 (Tesco)

Fruit and Veg
1 lemon - 35p (Sainsburys)
5 small bananas - 37p (Sainsburys)
2 carrots - 20p (Sainsburys)
Bag of small basics apples (contained 7!) - 80p (Sainsburys)
Small butternut squash - 49p (Lidl)
Celery - 59p (Lidl)
2 parsnips - 65p (Sainsburys)
1 red chilli, 4 onions, 1 red pepper, a small piece of ginger and a bulb of garlic - £1.03 (local greengrocer)
3 avocados - 50p (skilful haggling with the £1-a-bowl man!)

500g Basics natural yogurt - 50p (Sainsburys)
Basics mozzarella - 50p
4 pints semi skimmed milk - £1 (Iceland)

50g Fresh yeast from the bakery counter - 20p (Sainsburys)

I'm being pretty strict about the challenge. I went to pub quiz this evening and took a bottle of water with me. I've given away the food in my fridge that won't make it to the end of the week. I'm even using a counter-top fridge from my uni days as my Breadline supply store so I don't use anything that's not from the budget. But there have been lines I've crossed that others might not cross.
Salt, pepper and sugar - I haven't bought this, as it is freely available in fast food outlets for anyone to help themselves to. I needed 1tbsp salt for the bread and 2tbsp sugar.
Oil - I'm really debating this one. The cheapest option, it seems, is to buy lard, and I'm not quite prepared to do that. The most economical and acceptable option for me personally would be to buy a block of vegetable fat for 79p. But I won't use it after this week, which I feel is wasteful. As things stand I have £1.72 left in my budget, so I can afford this. However, I already know that I will have some food left over from the week, so I reason that if this were true on occasion, I would probably have some cooking oil in my cupboard already. So I'm using what I already have, very sparingly.

My shopping is fairly balanced, but if I had the extra two days of the challenge there are definitely some gaps that need filling.
I will be getting a good hit of protein from the lentils, milk, yoghurt and cheese, which will also provide calcium.
I think I'll be getting about 4 of my 5-a-day of fruit and veg, so that could definitely be better. There's no leafy veg, so my iron intake this week is poor and I will be missing a number of vitamins and minerals.
There's no fish. I'm planning on using some of my remaining budget for either a small piece of coley or on some oily fish such as tinned mackerel for essential fatty acids.

I made white bread, but porridge and brown pasta will provide fibre, and are slow burning carbohydrates.
As I've not bought any, it's definitely going to be a diet low in salt and sugar!

Challenges and Things I'd Change
I feel fairly confident I can make it without tea and coffee, and I'm thinking about cutting up my apple for lunch so I can use the core to flavour my water to liven things up a bit. I'll definitely be using the lemon rind for this. But by the end of day one I have a headache, which I think is due to not drinking enough water, so I need to watch out if water is all that's on offer!

I'm already finding myself thinking about snacks more than I anticipated. I have some celery sticks for tomorrow at work but at this rate my leftover budget might end up on chocolate rather than oily fish... Again, if I had more time and money on the challenge, some sultanas would provide snacks, iron, fibre and make breakfast more fun.

I made bread using plain flour rather than strong flour as it is cheaper and careful foodie forum research told me that this is possible, with extra time for kneading and proving as the flour contains less gluten. It has definitely made an odd few loaves - it looks ok but feels a bit too spongy and tastes a bit trashy. Maybe I actually over proved it. It is definitely better toasted!

I have 500g of flour left after my bread-making bonanza, and I will have milk leftover too. If I were to have 6, rather than five days of the challenge, I would totally buy eggs and treat myself to pancakes.

The time this is all taking is really quite significant. I changed my plans this weekend to factor in breadmaking, and an unexpected trip to visit someone in hospital meant I had to throw together an unsatisfying dinner. Trying to carry on with my week as usual is definitely going to be tricky...

You can support me, my colleagues and our wonderful volunteers through their #BreadlineChallenge week by donating here.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

FoodCycle's #BreadlineChallenge

These days, my day job is working for FoodCycle, a national food charity that serves free communiy meals cooked by volunteers from food that would otherwise be thrown away by supermarkets. I got here by volunteering at my local hub, enjoyed it so much that I wanted to do it full time, and ended up in the team running their wonderful café for a year. Now I’m working at HQ, managing a number of projects similar to the one I started volunteering at.

A major part of what we do is trying our best to raise awareness of, and tackle, food poverty in England. We are not a soup kitchen or a food bank (although our projects around the country often collaborate with both), but instead somewhere that anybody can come and eat a nutritious meal, cooked from scratch with care, and make friends in their community. Our guests sit down and have a three-course meal brought to them at laid tables, often dressed with flowers. We only serve vegetarian and vegan meals both to minimise risks of food safety and to make the meals inclusive to all cultures and beliefs. People come to eat with us for many reasons – some are motivated by wanting to do their bit to reduce food waste. Some come because it gets them out of the house, provides some respite from caring responsibilities or gives them an opportunity to socialise somewhere warm and friendly. But some come because they have little choice; they can’t afford food and they need to eat.

My daily budget during #BreadlineChallenge
Next week, our volunteers around the country and the team at HQ are taking part in the Breadline Challenge. Research has shown that those people on such limited income that they are living on the breadline have an average budget of £2.86 per day for food and drink. So that is what our budget will be too. If we want to go out for a pint, it needs to come out of the budget. If we drizzle our budget pasta with olive oil, that does too. If we travel an extra mile or so to get to that budget food store, we should probably consider how the journey was paid for, and if we grow our own herbs, we need to factor in how much they cost.

It will be the first time I’m taking part in the annual challenge – the café team decided last year that this would simply be too difficult alongside catering orders and communal eating with our volunteers – and my colleagues warn me it will be very hard. I’m already having to wimp out of taking part for a whole week as both of my parents celebrate landmark birthdays next week, which also means a party. I'll still be doing five days though - with a total budget of £14.30*. We’ve already decided as a team that we can’t eat the cookies that will inevitably be put out at a training day next week, nor can we make use of the tea and coffee supplies already in the office – these are luxuries that simply wouldn’t be available to people on the budget we are calling into attention.

I will be blogging my way through the week and sharing my menus, as well as highlighting all those pitfalls I’m sure even my careful planning won’t have seen coming – like needing chocolate at 3pm on a Wednesday…

Further information about FoodCycle's Breadline challenge, where the figure of £2.86 came from and why we are doing this can be found here.

You can sponsor me to take part in thie challenge here. All money raised goes to helping us to open more much-needed hubs around the country and support our volunteers in the fantastic work they do.

*I will be donating the £5.72 from the extra two days of the challenge week to FoodCycle

Monday, 14 September 2015

Award Winning!

Well, hello there!

We have met before, it's just that I don't come here often. So it's not surprising that I'm vaguely familiar - but after our little rendezvous, you'll want us to stay in touch.

To those of you who have occasionally wondered where on earth I've been, apologies.
To those of you new here, welcome! Please take a look around. I'm doing the place up and it's on its way to being fabulous. Make yourself at home.

I couldn't possibly fit all the stories behind my radio silence into one blog post, but all in good time. Let's take this post as a relaunch of sorts, and allow me to reintroduce myself as


Right now, my bill-paying work does not include cooking. This could be a Sorry State Of Affairs, but it does allow me to cook more in my spare time, i.e in a leisurely fashion, and this is a Good Thing. It is a particularly Good Thing when it means I win prizes.

Over the past two years, my lovely home town has introduced me to new friends, new skills, new cuisines and new cooking opportunities. It is a Transition Town, designed to nurture ventures that seek to build, promote, or improve a sense of community. Aside from volunteering locally, I am barely more involved in helping this movement than any average Joe, but I do at least like to think that by doing a little bit where I can, even if that's just explaining the concept to somebody, I am doing something positive.

Every year, Transition Town Tooting runs Foodival, a celebration of growing, eating and cooking locally produced and sustainable food. And with that comes the Top Tooting Cook competition.

So on Saturday, I went along to see the frankly enormous mountain of vegetables that had been grown in local community gardens, allotments, backyards and window boxes, and as an entrant, I was allowed to take my pick of the beautiful produce on offer.

I selected:

  • Tomatoes - big, small, green, yellow, red and orange. Some squishy and some firm
  • A piece of horseradish root
  • Some home-grown and dried garlic
  • A small beetroot
  • Thyme
  • Some beautiful nasturtium flowers and leaves

Back home, I put the tomatoes (about 2kg in all) along with the washed and peeled horseradish, half a clove of garlic, a good bunch of basil and a small slice of beetroot into a blender in batches, before using a stick blender to make the mixture really smooth. I added a healthy dose of freshly ground pepper, about 2.5tbsp of red wine vinegar and a good couple of pinches of salt. I was being halal-friendly on this occasion, but if I wasn't, I'd have added a couple of shots of vodka.

After tasting the mixture (and adding more horseradish, seasoning and vinegar to make it really punchy), I poured it into clean muslin cloth in a bowl, before tying the cloth into a bag, knotting it really well and hanging it over a bowl to drip through overnight. This needs to be done somewhere cool where pests won't be a problem - the best place for me happened to be the living room and my housemate reported quite enjoying the aromatic water feature during her film night.

In the meantime, just because I could, I halved a good handful of leftover baby tomatoes, tossed them with some salt, pepper, thyme leaves, olive oil and a little sugar, laid them in a roasting tin and put them into a really hot oven, along with a foil pouch of whole garlic cloves and olive oil. I turned the oven off immediately and left them in there overnight. By the morning, they were tender and delicious and barely made it past the poached eggs brunch I made to thank my sous chef.

This 'moonblush' method is such a simple thing to do with tomatoes that I often pick up a bowl of them from the greengrocers at the end of my road, or pounce on a reduced punnet in my local supermarket - because it's so much better than the sunblush tomatoes you can get from the deli counter, and so little effort. Give it a try!

Anyway, by Sunday morning, the muslin bag was considerably lighter, and below it shimmered a bowl of gloriously pink and clear liquid, which I tasted for seasoning (only salt can be added at this stage!) and then chilled.

Just after lunch, off I went to Foodival, where I presented my consomme decorated with some baby basil leaves, some drops of beautiful olive oil and the nasturtiums:

Easy peasy. And a few hours later, I became one of Tooting's Top Cooks! You will shortly see me at my local pub, celebrating with money off my food bill. But first, I have to cook my way through the box of lovely locally grown fruit and veg I was given.

There's going to be runner bean chutney, squash and sage risotto, courgette curry, carrot cake.....

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#onepoundpantry - the fourth

So, a string of family meals (thanks mum!) and dinners at friends houses (thanks chums!) has meant that, whilst I may have saved pennies, I've had to put my #onepoundpantry challenge on a temporary hold. 

Until today!!

After a loonnnng day at work, tonight I basically couldn't be bothered. So I had a look in my fridge and decided to make an  odds-and-sod it salad.

Languishing in my fridge and salad draw I found:

  • 2 carrots
  • A kohlrabi - leftover from a FoodCycle session at the weekend
  • Leftover cabbage from my #onepoundpantry turkey and bacon pie
  • Some slightly squishy tomatoes
  • Broad beans donated from a green-fingered neighbour
  • A red pepper and some frisée lettuce left behind by my housemate before he went away for the week (Mwahahaha! You snooze, you lose!)
  • Coriander bought for an abortive #onepoundpantey meal last week before Mum called with an invite - 49p
  • Eggs leftover from last week's beetroot ravioli.
  • Half a lemon

Being a kitchen gadget-aholic, I have a mandolin and decided that using it would make dinner quicker. I cut matchsticks of carrot, kohlrabi and an apple from the fruit bowl to create a makeshift slaw. To this I added lemon juice, a little white wine vinegar, olive oil and seasoning. There's even enough left for tomorrow! I finely sliced some of the cabbage to add to this, along with the frisée and some coriander. While I blanched and refreshed the podded broad beans and soft-boiled an egg, I cut fine dice of tomato and pepper. 

The whole lot got tossed together and served. Not only were there lots of different flavours going in here, it had loads of colour, and hence vitamins, a good filling hit of protein, and an added benefit of everything being chopped small means that it was quick to eat as well as make! 


TOTAL #onepoundpantry SPEND: 49p

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

#onepoundpantry - Wednesday

Tonight I cooked beetroot ravioli for my housemate and I, and given that I was not at work today I had a little extra time to spend. Saying that, dinner probably only took an hour from start to finish once the ingredients were in place.

Yesterday, aforementioned housemate bought a bunch of beetroot for £1 from the '£1 a bowl' man on the corner. I gave them a good wash before drying them and putting them in a roasting pan on a bed of sea salt and thyme stalks I had dried in a cupboard. This was fully enclosed with a foil lid and popped into the oven at 180C for about 45 minutes. The beetroot need to be cooked until they are tender so check them from 30 minutes onwards as their size will affect cooking times.

Once they were cooked I left them to cool with the foil still on the tray, allowing them to steam as this makes the skins much easier to remove - when they're cool enough to handle, that is, and wearing rubber gloves! Once they were cool I blitzed them in my food processor with seasoning and a little cream cheese I needed to use up to make a purée. I should mention at this point that some of my beetroot a turned out to be golden, and others pink, so I decided to make not one purée but two, in different colours. I kept a couple of little beetroots back for later.

Then I got onto making pasta. I bought a box of mixed weight free range eggs for £1 and beat two larger ones together. Once clean and dry, I used the food processor to blitz 200g of type 00 flour I need to use up on the cupboard with a good couple of pinches of salt. Then, with the motor running, I drizzled in the beaten egg just until the mixture looked like couscous. You will probably need to use all of the egg. If it clumps together, add a little more flour. You can mix it together by hand as well. Once you have the mix, knead it for 10minutes before leaving it to rest wrapped in cling film for half an hour; if it feels too dry, leave it to rest with a damp tea towel covering it instead. 

After half an hour, you're ready to roll! I have a pasta machine at home I bought for less than €20 on holiday in France that has served my needs fine, but if not you can roll it out by hand with a rolling pin. Dust surfaces with flour before you start and keep extra pasta covered with a damp cloth. Extra pasta sheets need to be dusted with semolina while you work on filling the others.

I worked out the sizing of my ravioli and used piping bags to pipe beetroot filling onto a sheet of pasta before carefully laying another sheet on top so that the edges matched together.

Then I used the blunt edges of a small cookie cutter to 'seal' the filling in the middle of the ravioli and cut them out with a larger one - but you could equally use a knife.

I put a large pan of salted water on to boil while I made a mint butter by melting a large knob of butter in a pan until it sizzled before adding wedges of the cooked beetroot I'd kept back. Once these had browned I added finely shredded mint leaves from the garden.

The ravioli take about 2 minutes to cook and can then be tossed in or drizzled with the butter - which would also work well with toasted pine nuts. Tonserve, I alternated the ravioli with the different colour fillings and piped on top some of the beetroot purées. Beautiful to eye and to palate!

TOTAL #onepoundpantry SPEND: £2