Wednesday 30 November 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Tracking #4

 Today's Challenge: Fast from... using the dishwasher.

When I thought about today's challenge in prospect, I thought the absence of recourse to the dishwasher might cramp my style in the kitchen big time. I felt, if I was honest with myself, that I had become rather too dependent on this resident in my kitchen as a kind of unpaid, mechanical assistant. When we lived in London, I did all my cooking in a pocket-handkerchief-sized kitchen with a doll's-house sized fridge. All washing up had to be done by hand as we had no space for a dishwasher and it was only when we moved to Oxfordshire to a bigger house with a correspondingly bigger kitchen that we acquired this particular bit of kit and, of course, having it there, means it's been used all the time and the prospect of a day without using it, I confess, did fill me with some secret dismay. 

It's not that I never do any washing up by hand nowadays - there are always things that are not dishwasher-friendly that have to be hand washed - but I have come very much to rely on the dishwasher for the 'heavy-lifting' of cleaning cooking-pots, plates and cutlery and general batterie de cuisine. 

But my misgivings have not been borne out by today's experience. I've rather enjoyed not having to wait for the dishwasher to finish its programme before retrieving the articles I use a lot. And I've enjoyed the 'thinking time' washing-up by hand has provided at various junctures during the day. Completely unexpectedly, it's felt curiously liberating. To be fair, I haven't cooked anything too ambitious, or sticky, or greasy today - just the soup and the pumpkin rolls - so I may not be giving it a fair assessment and today only represents one day without it, after all, but let's just say that I am actually looking forward to the prospect of a few more dishwasher-free days over the course of the next few weeks. 

So today's menu has been as follows:

tea with unsweetened soya milk
apple juice
citrus fruit salad as per yesterday and the day before
sweet breakfast rolls from the freezer with blueberry and lemon verbena jam 

sourdough crackers (made as per my recipe here but with 30g rather than 20g rapeseed oil and no milk or aniseed so that they are vegan-friendly and also suitable for days down the line, when imported foods are banned)
yoghurt cheese and a taste of this summer's apricot and tomato chutney 

black tea
Armenian Easter buns from the freezer (yes, I know it's unseasonal but that's what the buns are called - they're slightly sweet, dotted with raisins and candied pink grapefruit peel and flavoured with mahlepi and aniseed)

tomato and sweet potato soup - made from onions, fennel, carrots, red peppers, sweet potatoes, tinned tomatoes and homemade vegetable stock cooked in the pressure cooker for 12 minutes and then whizzed to a deep rusty orange purée
pumpkin rolls / KGB* rolls from the freezer (for the bacon fanciers)
fig and melon spoon sweet as per yesterday

*KGB rolls are an affectionate name given in this house to rolls with a secret agenda. On the outside they look like plain white rolls but in their depths they carry a covert filling of bacon pieces cooked with red onions and Aleppo pepper. H loves the things and fortunately, there are a few of them in the freezer. 

The pumpkin rolls with their sunny, yellow colour were a cheering lift on a cold, dank and grey evening and I think they go well with soup. 

All in all a much easier day than I had anticipated despite rather more time spent at the sink than usual!

E x

Tuesday 29 November 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Tracking #3

Today's Challenge: Fast from... all animal products.

Today's challenge is simple, but stringent. Especially if one is not habitually vegan, which I'm not. Nevertheless, some of my regular, staple cooking does fall into that category, if more by accident than design. My £1-a-day food challenges in 2017 and earlier this year expanded my repertoire permanently on this front which is handy for the coming weeks.

Today's vegan meals have looked like this:

tea with unsweetened soya milk
apple juice
citrus fruit salad - orange and red grapefruit - as per yesterday
oatcakes (made from the recipe I gave here but substituting 42g of rapeseed oil for the 56g salted butter) with maple butter instead of honey on top

The jar of maple butter is past its sell-by / use-by date which I am ashamed to say is marked as 'June 2017' - I can't even remember where I bought it but it's labelled pure maple syrup, which is vegan-friendly and despite the date stamp, it's fine. Having bought it, I don't know why I hadn't tried it before - it's gorgeous! Essentially it's just maple syrup thickened to the point of being crystalline which is perfect for spreading on oatcakes. Almost too thick to get out of the jar but I think that is down to its 2017 vintage, probably!

minestrone soup (made from onions, leeks, carrots, celery, potatoes, tinned chopped tomatoes, homemade vegetable stock and vegan-friendly, (ie egg-free), pasta stellette) left over from the weekend, as per yesterday.

black tea
multigrain seeded crackers with sesame, poppy, linseed and pumpkin seeds as per yesterday

chips cooked in corn oil in the deep-fat fryer H gave me last Christmas (and which still feels like a new toy) seasoned with salt and homemade apple cider vinegar
avocado, tomato and watercress salad with toasted pine nuts
Greek fig and melon spoon sweet* (Diana Henry's recipe in 'Salt, Sugar and Smoke')

* I made a few jars of this last month when I happened to have a surplus of purple figs to use up but hadn't got round to trying it. It's a typical 'spoon sweet' of the type that Greeks often serve in small quantities at the end of a meal with a very small, very strong cup of coffee and a glass of water to offset the intense syrupy sweetness. It's very good. I shall definitely make it again next year.  

I had some temporary misgivings about whether it qualified as vegan or not. The only ingredients are figs, melon and sugar so you would think that's a no-brainer but actually figs have a complicated symbiotic relationship with the wasps that pollinate them that raises a bit of a question mark on the matter. 

Apparently, because of the unusual, inverted and enclosed shape of fig flowers, they rely on wasps to carry out pollination in a unique way. The female wasp, already carrying pollen from the fig from which she emerged as a larva, does this by crawling inside a male fig flower to lay her eggs. In the process of entering the narrow entrance to the fig (called the 'ostiole') she loses her antennae and wings and nearing the end of her life anyway, having laid her eggs, she dies inside the fig. Her body is then digested by the fig using an enzyme present in the flower called 'ficin', the active substance in the milky, white sap of the fig tree. Ficin is powerful stuff that in the ancient world was used in cheese-making - it's even referred to by Homer who compares the double-quick time of the healing of Ares' wound to the speed with which fig juice curdles the milk into which it is stirred, in Iliad Bk V. 902-4. 

Back to the wopses. When the eggs hatch, the young male and female wasp larvae begin their own, (and the fig's), life cycle all over again. The male larvae mate with the females and tunnel out a channel big enough for the pregnant female larvae to depart and develop into fully-grown queen wasps. 

If the female wasp enters a female fig flower, she cannot lay her eggs but her load of pollen allows the incipient fruit to develop and ripen. Her mistake is a fatal one as she will still die inside the fig and her body is digested in the same way as if she enters a male flower.  Either way, the fig absorbs and incorporates the wasp into itself which you might feel potentially compromises the fig's vegan status.

It is a fascinatingly labyrinthine symbiotic process that you can read more about here and here, if you're interested. Slightly off-putting to begin with, I admit, but I adore figs and on balance decided that I would include them without too much guilt today.

E x

Monday 28 November 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Tracking #2

 Today's Challenge: Fast from... sugar.

Of all my 'Fast from...' challenges, this may be the hardest for me. If you have dipped into these pages before at all, you will know that I do have quite a sweet tooth and while I'm happy to steer clear of sweet things for many of my meals, I do usually have something that falls into that category every day even if it's only a small nibble. 

Anyway this has been today's sugar-free menu:

tea with unsweetened soya milk 
unsweetened apple juice
citrus fruit salad - oranges and red grapefruit - this is quite tart without any sugar but actually, for all that I have a sweet tooth, I prefer it like this. And grapefruit are less sharp than they were years ago - modern red or pink grapefruit have apparently been specifically developed to be sweeter than the original white version.
homemade Greek-style yoghurt

leftover homemade minestrone soup from the weekend

black tea
multigrain seeded crackers with sesame, poppy, linseed and pumpkin seeds

homemade spaghetti chitarra cooked in beetroot juice* with watercress pesto** and Parmesan cheese
clementines, pears and assorted seasonal nuts in their shells 

*This is an extraordinary idea and I freely confess that I have been lured to it solely by the colour. I don't particularly like beetroot (neither does anyone else in the house) but I'm afraid that the prospect of that vivd pink swept all before it!

 I tried making bright pink pasta once before, using some dried beetroot powder mixed with the flour in the pasta dough. It failed miserably - the pasta dough initially came out the most gorgeous magenta colour and as it dried on the rack before cooking, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the beautiful, vibrant colour leached out in the cooking water leaving the finished pasta only a dull, pinky-brownish colour and with a distinct and unwelcome residual flavour of beetroot. It was not a success and complaints were made when it was dished up! 

This method is different. The idea came from an American cooking magazine that Felicity Cloake read on her way home on the Tube one evening and, as I have been, she was entranced by the colour and went on to publish a version of the recipe in her 'A-Z of Eating - a Flavour Map for the Adventurous Cook' where a picture of it features on the cover. Nigella Lawson also has a slightly tweaked version in her 'Eat, Cook, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, Stories' 

You can use ordinary bought pasta or make it yourself in the usual way from eggs, flour, salt and a splash of olive oil. When you come to cook it, you par-boil it in ordinary, salted water before adding it to a pan of simmering beetroot juice. During the remainder of the cooking period, it absorbs the colour (and indeed most of the juice) and comes out as per the pic! Fabulous! There were again negative comments made about the beetroot flavour but I have to say that I thought the flavour was far better (ie less pronounced) than I expected and in any case I am so captivated by the success of the colour that I am impervious to all derogatory remarks about it!

**The watercress pesto is something I often make. It's a good deal cheaper to make in the UK than classic pesto Genovese made with lots of basil and I rather like it. The version I make was originally derived from this BBC Good Food recipe, I think. For mine, you toast 50g raw almonds under the grill until they smell toasty and have browned a bit. On no account let them darken too much and burn or you'll have to start over. Once they've cooled, tip them into the food processor and whizz with an 85g bag of washed watercress, 25g grated Parmesan cheese, 1 tbsp lemon juice, ½tsp salt, (an optional clove or two of fresh peeled garlic, if you like or not, if you don't) and enough olive oil to loosen the mixture - at least 50ml. Add a bit more oil if you think the pesto is a bit too thick and decant into a clean, lidded glass jar. 

Leave at room temperature if you are using it the same day. If not, or there are leftovers, store in the fridge but allow it to return to room temperature for a few hours before serving over hot pasta, or to accompany baked fish - baked salmon fillets go particularly well with it. It keeps perfectly well in the fridge for a few days but not long term so once you've made it, it's best to use it up promptly. 

E x

Sunday 27 November 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Tracking #1

Today's Challenge: Fast from... one meal of your choosing out of your normal daily routine.

As today is Advent Sunday, today is the first day of my 'Fast from...' challenges even though there isn't a window to open on my Advent Calendar yet because it's still November and Advent calendars don't kick in until 1st December. 

This is probably the easiest of my assorted Advent challenges because it is so simple and doesn't interfere with the rest of life, or affect the rest of the day's eating or cooking plans. Although I am not big on skipping meals - I prefer to eat little and often - it's perfectly manageable, although I'm glad not to be doing it every day. 

When this challenge pops up over the next few weeks I've chosen to skip either breakfast or lunch - not teatime, which is a sacrosanct pause in the day for me, or supper which is usually my main meal of the day. Skipping that would affect my ability to sleep which isn't very good anyway and I certainly don't sleep well on an empty stomach. So it's either breakfast or lunch. Today, it's lunch partly because it's Sunday and we tend to have breakfast later on a Sunday anyway so it won't be such a long gap between meals as on a weekday. 

If one is skipping a meal then it's important to drink plenty to avoid dehydration but otherwise this challenge involves the least effort and accommodates busier schedules more easily than some of the others. 

If I find circumstances dictate that I won't be able to complete one of the other challenges on any particular day, I shall feel free to substitute this one as a kind of back-up. You never quite know what you may find yourself involved with at this time of year and it isn't meant to be in the spirit of the thing to find oneself in the position of entertaining unexpectedly and imposing a strict vegan or otherwise restricted menu on unsuspecting guests for supper, for example!

Happy Advent!

E x

Saturday 19 November 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Forward

It's that time of year again when the days can feel heavy-going. Christmas is not far off but not here yet and the worries and uncertainties of 2022 seem to loom oppressively, especially in the fading light of darkening November afternoons. Light levels drop rapidly in November every year in the UK which always exerts a melancholy aspect to the season but somehow, this year, it's affected me more and I've been thinking about how to combat it.  

It's made me think about revisiting the original ethos of Advent. In the Christian tradition, Advent, like Lent, was always a penitential season, a time of abstinence and reflection. Forget Christmas parties, light-up Santas and inflatable snowmen bobbing in your front garden, chocolate Advent calendars and any other frivolous indulgences throughout the first part of December  - Advent was a time for fasting and thinking about what were ominously referred to as the 'Four Last Things'. 

These were matters hardly calculated to diminish November gloom, I'm afraid, as the 'Four Last Things' are heaven, hell, death and judgment - not subjects, at first glance, calculated to inspire cheer and lift feelings of melancholy but the idea was to provide a contrast in lifestyle and tone with the celebration and festivities of Christmas that followed. Fasting before feasting has a lot to recommend  it. Not that that's unique to Christianity, by any means - it's a strong feature in Judaism, Islam and other religions. And in the past, regardless of religious belief, it was also a purely pragmatic necessity in winter, in the northern hemisphere because of limited food supplies during the non-growing season. If you wanted to celebrate and feast in style in the middle of winter, you literally had to forego eating too much into your supplies beforehand because once they were gone, they were gone. 

For our ancestors, it was a recurring rhythm to life and I feel their celebrations may well have had the edge on our 21st C ones. Don't get me wrong, I am deeply grateful that modern infrastructure provides a level of constancy to food supply that our ancestors would have given their eye teeth for, but I still feel there is something we've lost in abandoning that ancient pattern of living. Increasingly, I notice, health advice also  sings the praises of periodic or intermittent fasting. Temporary or permanent abstinence from alcohol to give the liver a respite, longer fasting periods between meals to rest the whole digestive tract as well as cutting back particular foods such as sugar, animal products etc for assorted health benefits have all seen much greater support in recent years than before. 

As a child, I grew up in a household that very much waited for Christmas before celebrating it. We never observed any kind of obvious fasting nor, I am pleased to say, did we spend our time considering the 'Four Last Things', but we never put up Christmas decorations before Christmas Eve and Advent calendars were simple, two-dimensional, cardboard affairs with paper doors that we opened each day to reveal small pictures, nothing more indulgent. There was an enchanting, if unsophisticated, sense of excitement and anticipation in the household, not just for my sister and myself as children, but also for adults, something that celebrating Christmas too early cuts across big time. 

The idea of a treat-laden Advent calendar that gave you a goodie for each day of Advent or indulging in any Christmas excesses before Christmas was unthinkable. Advent was about looking forward to Christmas not celebrating it in advance. And when Christmas came, it was joyous - not just Christmas Day itself but the days afterwards, the traditional 'Twelve Days of Christmas' which were every bit as good, if quieter, than Christmas Day itself. In fact it's probably the idyllic nature of those post-Christmas days that I miss the most - they had a magical quality all their own. No one was bored or fed up with Christmas by Boxing Day, as is often the case today, inevitably so, if the celebrations have already been running for a month or more beforehand. 

The 'Twelve Days' were a halcyon period of blissfully relishing the novelty of Christmas food - sumptuous leftovers and all the things that had been saved up for Christmas, of winter walks, of spending hours engrossed in reading one of the new books I'd got in my stocking or under the tree, oblivious to the outside world, of savouring the new, and as yet still fresh, feel of the house decorated for Christmas. They were truly days that were balm to the spirit both for adults and children. Why on earth would one swap that for spending Boxing Day fighting queues in 'The Sales' and a few days later, if that, clearing up every sign that Christmas had ever passed by? No wonder we find January a long and miserable month. Because, of course, if you celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas as they were originally intended to be celebrated, January is effectively shortened by a whole week - good news for anyone who finds January tedious, dreary and cash-strapped. 

All of which brings me to thinking about reclaiming an old-style fasting Advent this year. So I've come up with an Advent calendar with a difference. Instead of a charming picture, a chocolate, miniature bottle of gin, or any other indulgence, (and have a look here for some of the mind-bogglingly expensive, treat-laden Advent calendars available for 2022), behind each door is a challenge to go without something. My challenges are cooking and food-related but you could easily rework the idea to cover other themes. There is some repetition but also quite a bit of variety which hopefully will make it something that I can fit the rest of life around without disrupting things excessively or imposing on others to an unwelcome degree. 

I shall not be considering the 'Four Last Things' per se, I'm afraid - the news is too miserable and depressing without adding to the general gloom by dwelling excessively on my own mortality - but I suspect the challenges in a modest way will certainly make me think about and be grateful for what I often take for granted which seems an appropriate preparation for the Feast of Christmasse. 

2022 may have been (and still is) for many of us a difficult year. There are many reasons to feel despairing and wistful as the dying year wanes to its close but there is also much to be grateful for.  Even thinking and planning this, I notice, has raised in me an increased happy sense of anticipation for Christmas and lifted the gloom. 

I've therefore made my own Advent calendar out of some old monoprint experiments that I did a few years back. I glued them together to make one large piece and got D to cut 25 little doors in it, behind which, instead of jolly pictures or anything more substantial and indulgent, I added little black and white icons that represent a particular fasting challenge for each day. 

I had wondered about making my own rubber stamps for these icons but quickly realised that much of the detail of these kinds of images is not compatible with being turned into a stamp so I've used free clip art images I found via Google and added a circle and a bar across to indicate what is off limits. 

I came up with eleven different fasting challenges with the intention that some are repeated more than once over the four weeks and there is an extra icon for feasting on Christmas Day.

Reading the rows in the image below from left to right the challenges represented are as follows:

Fast from... using the dishwasher.

Fast from... sugar, including honey, jam, syrup, chocolate etc but not the sugars found as natural components in foods such as fruit.

Fast from... using the oven, including the microwave.

Fast from... any kind of commercially highly processed food - it's difficult to be absolutely rigorous about this as pretty well any foodstuff one buys has been 'processed' in some fashion but basically anything that has had any significant ingredient(s) added or has been subjected to anything more than the most rudimentary preparation is off limits so no ready-meals and no commercially prepared, composite foods are allowed but basic, plain ingredients such as milk, milled cereals, sugar, raw meat, raw fish, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables etc are fine as is homemade processing of said basic ingredients in preparation for eating.

Fast from... wheat, including spelt, but allowing other cereals and grains such as oats, rye, buckwheat, barley and rice.

Fast from... oils and fats - butter, any type of oil, low-fat spread, margarine, lard etc. Fat that is integral to a food such as in lean meat, eggs or nuts is allowed (within reason) but nothing that you would categorise as a particularly high fat food such as bacon or roast chicken skin.

Fast from... dairy products - butter, yoghurt, milk, cheese, cream etc

Fast from...  anything that has been imported from abroad. Here in the UK that means eliminating virtually all spices, coffee, Indian or China tea, most beans and pulses including soya, most oils, fruit and vegetables grown abroad, rice, chocolate, cane sugar, many cheeses, some meat and quite a lot of fish. Any UK grown, reared or produced foods are fine, whether or not they've been processed, so it's a question of checking labels for country of origin to see what's permitted. Annoyingly, quite a lot of foods are labelled 'packed in the UK' which is not good enough. To be allowed, the item (and / or its ingredients) must actually have been produced in the UK. 

Fast from... anything out of season. I had some difficulty thinking of a suitable image to denote 'in season' and decided on the cherries as British cherries are so seasonal - only available for a short window in the summer. What is allowed under this heading will depend a bit on where you live. In the UK it means primarily eating seasonal root and green vegetables, dried beans and pulses, dried fruit supplemented by some fresh fruit, nuts, fish (including shellfish), meat and game, mature cheese, grains and cereals and avoiding anything whose natural eating season is say, July, such as summer fruits and salads. In the past, eggs and dairy products were less plentiful during the winter so I shall try not to major too much on these.

Fast from... all animal products - meat, fish, dairy products, honey etc - days with this icon are strictly vegan ones. 

Fast from... one meal of your choosing out of your normal daily routine.

Feast on... anything you choose as you celebrate Christmas,  including, but not limited to, Christmas pudding!

If you'd like to use the same images to do something similar yourself, you can print a pdf of these ones from here. The pdf contains one copy of each image so you'll need to print several copies and then select and cut out the images you want to repeat more or less of. 

My intention is to post updates here through Advent with any musings I have and my menu ideas for each fasting category, to help me feel accountable and in case anyone is interested, or perhaps feels they'd like to join in. 

E x