Take-away the bad stuff

VERY rarely I treat myself to a take-away. Not something I’m proud of, but sometimes at a weekend I’m so tired and emotional it really is the only stuff to suffice that doesn’t take sobriety to prepare; any fool can pick up a phone and slur a number.
But think I’ve been put off take-away food for life, by this week’s news of a new survey in Liverpool which found extraordinary levels of salt and fat in foods like Chinese and pizza.
When I say extraordinary, how about FOUR TIMES the recommended daily allowance of salt in a single serving of beef in Black bean?
Or the single pizza with double the daily allowance of fat?
If those amounts were piled up high on a plate for you to see (a la You Are What You Eat) then nobody would tuck in. But hide them in an exotic sauce, or on a deep-filled pizza, and people lap them up!
It begs the question, how can we really know what’s in take-away food?
The answer is, of course, that we don’t. Unless we ask.
Take this story, of what could be the healthiest curry in Manchester. Kathryn Burns and her husband Martin admit that restaurant boss Ali Fiaz took some persuading, but they got him to redesign his menu at their fave Lal Haweli restaurant in Rusholme. Some dishes now have a quarter of the calorie and fat content, after yoghurt replaced cream, and salt was radically reduced.
Would you even dream of asking your restauranteur to cut down his fat and salt? I’m not sure I would either.
But the message from these two news stories is that it pays to ask exactly what you’re putting in your mouth – and that if you aren’t happy with the answer, sometimes, something can be done about it.

Quick-quick Thai (or How I Became A Domestic God)

I am still smacking my lips and foraging through my teeth with my tongue, after one of the quickest and scrummiest meals I’ve had in nearly a week. My Thai food is wonderful, mainly because it’s so easy to do, I can’t go wrong. The only thing I had to buy in town today was the veg – everything else was in the cupboard, which is what I call planning ahead.
I call this dish Chang, because I first learned how to cook the full version on the Thai islands of Ko Chang. Chang means ‘elephant’, but rest assured this dish looks nothing like an elephant. The island, however, looks just like an elephant.
Ko Chang.jpg
This is the just-got-in-from-work-and-can’t-be-arsed version of a Thai stir-fry, which may have the purists among you quivering.
The big ingredients are:
Stir fry veg, chopped into batons (I had babby sweetcorn, babby carrots, babby mange tout, and adult spring onion)
One pack of Amoy straight-to-wok noodles (if you haven’t tried them, do, they’re brilliant)
One box of Cauldron marinated tofu (use chicken is you wish but you’ll waste both time and karma)
The little ingredients are:
half a teaspoon of powdered kaffir lime leaf
the same of powdered galangal
the same of powdered lemongrass
the same of dried red chilli flakes
the same of brown sugar
a cup of coconut milk
a splash of nam pla (fish sauce)
juice of a lime
(I got my spices from the Creative Cook range, they’re great for starter chefs in all sorts of cuisines)
Do it in this order – quickly whizz all the little ingredients together. Leave to stew a bit. Meanwhile, put a dash of oil in a hot wok, and stir fry your vegetables. Keep it moving at all times, either by stirring or flipping the wok like a pro. When the veg is three-quarters done, toss in the tofu. Carry on stir frying, and when you think the veg is finally how you like it, pop in the noodles, and lastly the coconut concoction. Mix really well, and serve in deep white bowls with lime wedges.
How easy is that?
(You know those recipes which are inversely rewarding? The less effort you put in, the lovelier they are. This is one of those.)
You might want to use fresh chillies, lemongrass and all that jazz, and you’re free to – but when I come in from work and I want my tea in 10 minutes, then this is what I have.
This recipe serves two, but tastes so good I’m afraid I forgot to share mine. How very dreadful of me.

Let them eat cake?

IN an effort to modestly debase my own skills (and ingratiate myself to readers) I’ve decided to lift the lid on a few culinary disasters to have befallen me. Please don’t chuckle. This takes a lot of pride-swallowing to do, you know.
The greatest and most public of these culinary catastrophes was the Christmas Cake Kerfuffle. I was 18 at the time, and had eagerly grabbed the job of icing the family Xmas cake. (The mother-parent was the icing queen in our house, but she was bored of her yearly forage into fruit cake, and had passed the chore to me.)
Because I’m a dirty cheat, I decided to eschew the washing-up bowl full of dried fruit that was my mum’s recipe, and instead opted for a Marks and Spencer’s Luxury Fruit Cake. No slouch, I’d realised that the money shot when it comes to Xmas cakes are the finishing touches, the icing, the piping, the little plastic Santa Claus sat atop a mound of sugar snow. That’s where the glory lies, I believed – (and besides, Marks’ makes better fruit cake than any man could ever manage.)
Well, I went to town. First came a thick layer of marzipan. Next, a flawless Paris icing, as canvas to the main event. Then the icing – and boy, did I ice. Ricocco swirls, ornate filligree patterns and snowflakes soon adorned the masterpiece. I even popped a hedge of fake grass on there, all the better to show off my rotund little Santa Claus as he posed open armed, almost in awe at the creation upon which he stood.
The final product looked, even if I say so myself, fantabulous. It took me over two weeks, all in all. Goodness knows how long it would have taken if I’d done what I told everyone I’d done, and baked and booze-basted the actual fruit-cake myself. But that little short-cut was between me, Mr Marks and Mr Spencer.
Or was it?
Of course, after Xmas dinner, no one wants to even breathe too heavily, let alone eat Xmas cake. But I persisted in coralling the family round the table to witness the cutting of the cake.
The first cut went well. Oh yes, the first cut was near perfect. I swear I even heard a gasp as the knife plunged through virgin icing at precisely 6 ‘o’ clock on the cake face.
It was the second cut that caused the problems.
As I tried to slide out the huge triangle of cake, I realised something was stuck. The icing was shifting. Santa began to wobble, as a cake-quake shook the very foundations of his new home. The icing was sliding off, the marzipan too! This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?
It wouldn’t have happened of course, had I thought to remove the near-invisible layer of grease-proof paper in which Mssrs Marks and Spencer had clad their creation. Between their cake, and my icing, lay this paper layer. Within seconds of cutting the cake, I had a pile of icing, a pile of marzipan, a now pristine fruit cake, and one very confused Santa ornament.
Oh, and I also had a family in stitches, laughing like drunken drains at my fruit-cake subterfuge.
Moral to the story: Don’t cheat at cooking. (And certainly don’t cheat at Christmas – it will become THE family story that gets retold every year, for, oooh, TEN YEARS OR SO.)
Let them eat cake? Let them eat casseroles, more like.

Urban Harvest No.1 (Elderflower)

We’ve gone elderflower crazy at my house. It looks like I’ve sprung a dozen leaks in the ceiling, so many bowls are there perched on every flat surface. But once I shared my newly brewed elderflower cordial with my pals, you see, they all wanted a bottle too. Be warned.
It’s one of the sure signs of summer, the cutesy white blooms of the elderflower. They’re everywhere, on countryside walks and brightening surburban gardens. Always being a great believer in greedily harvesting whatever happens to be free, I hit the golden cobbles of Eccles with my recycled carrier bags to get me some of this bounty.
Half an hour of park life later, and I had four great bagfuls of blooms. If you live in the UK, and would like to know where elderflowers might be growing near you, here’s a tip; take a great big stone, and throw it. Where it lands, there’ll be elderflower. (There was even a trio of elderflower trees in one corner of the church graveyard. I left those well alone though, call me sqeamish.)
The fragrant muscadet flavour of this gorgeous cordial works well in summer drinks, perhaps with posh water over ice, or even turned into a sorbet. In the later months of the year, it’s supposed to make a good warm tonic – we’ll all have to wait until we catch colds to see if that’s true.
Back in the kitchen, I scrubbed up, shook the various wildlife from the elderflowers into the garden, gave it a convincing rinse under the tap, and gathered my cunningly aforeprepared ingredients. You’re cordially invited to do the same:
6 pints (about 3 litres) of boiling water
2lb (900g) of caster sugar
1 packet of citric acid (I got mine from the local chemists)
2 unwaxed oranges
3 unwaxed lemons
I’ve used itallics on unwaxed there. This is a shorthand way of saying that bog-standard citrus simply won’t do.
To make, simply put the sugar in a huge bowl, and pour the boiling water over, giving it a stir to dissolve. When it’s cooled, add the citric acid, the sliced-up citrus fruits, and the magic elderflowers. Steep the lot for 24-hours, strain through muslin or any other tight-mesh strainer, and bottle.
It’s that easy.
All I need now is some nice alcoholic recipes for my cordial (I think something with vodka would work, and some fizz of some sort…) If you have any ideas for it, feel free to share.
For my next urban harvest, I shall be reaping nettles!
(I adapted my cordial recipe from this page at the BBC.)

My tuna bolognese

This is just one of many tuna recipes that I make a lot. It’s not intended to be a dish for entertaining but a real stay at home staple that cheers you up. I thought it was my own invention but I’ve since seen Giorgio do a very similar dish but with the addition of a copy of anchovies at the stage when the tomotoes go in. It only takes about 20 minutes and leaves you wanting more.
What you need
Tin of good quality tuna.
Tin of good quality chopped tomatoes.
About 10 small mushrooms sliced.
1 onion – finely diced.
Enough wholemeal spaghetti for two servings.
Parmesan cheese for sprinkling to taste.
Black pepper.
Fresh or dried oregano.
Clove of garlic.
Teaspoon of chopped red chilli.
What to do
Sweat the onion in a small amount of olive oil until soft.
Add the chopped garlic and chilli.
Add the mushrooms and stir for two minutes.
Add the tuna and stir fry in the dryish pan for a minute or two before adding the tomatoes.
Add the oregano to taste.
Reduce the heat and simmer for the time it takes to cook the spaghetti.
Serve the sauce on top of the spaghetti with black pepper and Parmesan to taste.

Let me know what you think of this recipe or send me your favourite. If its looks tasty I’ll try it out.

I’m away on my holidays now but, in my absence, Justin Webb (of mackerel pate fame) will be keeping this blog on the boil.

The price of ugly

Ugliness now has a price it seems. The upmarket supermarket Waitrose (still conspicuous by its absence from almost every high street in Greater Manchester) has decided this week to put fruit without obvious beauty on its shelves – for the jam makers, preserve hoarders and smoothy munchers rather than bargain hunters.
There’s nothing wrong with this fruit other than coming in nature-provided packages that may be mishapen, oversize, undersize or just plain odd in some way from the plastic ideal we now all expect offered up in their clingfilm shrouds.
The fact that huge amounts of food is wasted, both in this country and abroad, due to the exacting and rigid standards of the big supermarkets, won’t be news to anyone and it’s been going on for years.
I’m sure I’m not alone in doing potato-picking as a summer job as a student many years ago and being shocked to see the amount of spuds which would be rejected because they weren’t the exact size that the buyer required. That process goes on with every crop we are offered and while no-one wants food with blight or pests, the idea of shelf appeal now seems to rule the purchasing process.
Ignoring the fact that Waitrose’s target customers are seemingly so affluent that the idea of cheap(er) food won’t be a selling point, why aren’t all supermarkets allowing their customers to decide what’s acceptable to offer for sale? Let the market decide the price for ugly.
Does the modern, urban shopper feel so affronted by a double-legged carrot (the staple diet of the That’s Life television programme not so long ago) that they could never bring themselves to peel it or perhaps an oversize potato could lead to an explosion in the obesity problem that the authorities just couldn’t risk?
Does this attitude show an ignorance of agricultuire and a further removal of ourselves from the land which sustains us?
Maybe its also part of a nostaligia about rural affairs which seems to sweep around supermarket shelves with promises of “free-range” and “organic” still packaged in the same uniform sets of four, contained in the same Russion-doll layers of packaging.
The National Farmers’ Union and some environmental groups have welcomed this move by Waitrose as a step in the right direction as far as the war on waste goes, but surely until metropolitan purchasers accept that food can be imperfect in appearence it will be nothing more than a gimmick.
None of these issues will concern the amazing 89-year-old subject of Chris Evans’ Radio 2 drivetime show on Monday.
Interviewee Christine revealed how she has NEVER purcahsed any fruit or vegetables from a shop. Throughout her life she has fed her family from food grown in her allotment.This life’s work has meant she (and her daughter) have never been on holiday but has left her healthy and contented. I bet she’s seen her share of ugly fruit – and throroughly enjoyed it in all its strangeness!
Do the supermarkets standardise things too much? Do you insist on “pretty” fruit and veg? Let me know below.
Picture by devilboy from America where ugliness is cheap.

More Big Brother food delights

The bizarre breath-smelling contest featured on last night’s Big Brother means it caught my attention again. The disgusting ritual of sniffing contestants’ breath to guess what they had been eating did provoke some insightful reactions though.
Thanks to Nikki for pointing out that pickled onions are “quite vinegary” – a true revelation. But I was very impressed that the housemates correctly guessed the small of oysters – obviously some sophisticated palates hiding among the pasta nad corflake munchers of the house. Perhaps some gourmet treats will be served up later in the series.
BB bosses laid on bubbly, beer, sushi and canapes following the housemates’ success in the Death Breath test but this didn’t really satisfy the housemates. “Was it worth smelling Lisa’s eggy burps for this?” asked Lea. Thank heavens for a lack of smellyvision.
But at least their latest round of food related testing does give me the excuse to upload this lookey-likey file which came my way last week.
Its cruel, so cruel but, hey, that’s Big Brother. Crack open another garlic glove and enjoy.
Download file

Justin’s hot ‘n smokey mackerel pate


Recipe provided by Justin Webb of Eccles(pictured).

What you need
1 packet of smoked peppered mackerel from the chill cabinet.
1/2 asmall tub of low fat cream cheese.
Good squeeze of lemon juice.
About two tablespoons of horseradish – the more expensive the better.
10 minutes.

What to do

Basically you just mix alll these things together and mash them up with a fork, adjusting the amount of lemon juice and horseradish to taste.
Doing this with a fork gives a course mixture – perfect for crusty bread for a light supper – or the mixture can be blended to give a finer finish for entertaining.
My verdict.
I make this lots. It’s cheap, healthy, very tasty plus it can be dressed up or down depending on the company. I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t like it yet. Safe bet for entertaining.
Have you got a recipe for me? If so send it with a photo of yourself and tell me who you are. If it looks tasty enough, I’ll try it out.

Life without bread: Part 1

Bread and husbands, it seems, have plenty in common. No it’s sadly nothing to do with dough (not in my case anyway!) but perhaps husbands can also lead to some intolerance.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been on the look out for bread-free lunches recently in a strangely altruistic move that’s down to my husband.
Now, I love bread. All sorts of bread but especially that rosemary and olive oil bread they sell in Selfridges with has a soft crumbly interior, shards of rosemary and a crunchy, perfect crust to hold it all complete.
And I don’t think it’s ever really caused me any ill-effect – apart from the fact that I’ve grown to rely on it and I’ve just realised the previous sentence makes me sound like an addict looking for a fix.
Until recently my breakfast was toast, my lunch a sandwich and it wasn’t unheard of for me to accompany dinner with some more bread too.
But I liked to think of it as a more companiable activity, a comforting harmless devouring of the daily loaf – after all isn’t breaking bread is a sign of friendship and peace.

Oh no, don’t alcoholics think of drink in these social terms

However, Himself was having a very different experience. Over a few rounds of toast one weekend morning I suddenly noticed that he was having quite a violent reaction to the bread.
Hot and complaining that he felt unwell I thought back to all those books and articles I’d read on wheat intolerance and promptly advised him of my un-expert diagnosis.
According to all the experts I’d read, part of the problem with food intolerance is that our bodies perversely crave what is bad for us. It seem that there is a spiral of addiction in which bread and cow’s milk are quite the evil twins.
Surprisingly Himself agreed that we would avoid the bread for a bit and see what happened.
I found the first two days really hard. No hot toast dripping with butter – replaced now by yoghurt, honey and fruit.
No sandwich and definitely, never, ever bread and olives.
Being a bloke, Himself never entered into the discussion about it being difficult – stiff upper lip was obviously the order of the day.
But once that tough couple of days were out of the way I made tentative inquiries. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” he said “It’s not difficult at all”.
A little surprised I persisted and asked what he had managed to find for his lunches during the week. “Oh I just had wraps, they’re alright you know” he said reassuringly.
Marriage, like bread, obviously requires a little tolerance to succeed.
Thanks to the photographers at Flickr for the bread shots.

Fish oil highlighted for brainy diet

The wonders of fish oil is once again in the news with reports of a review by The Food Standards Agency.
The review will concentrate on the effects of Omega-3 and 6 fish oils have on children’s development.
As mentioned before on this blog , the use of these supplements has already received favourable coverage from Durham Local Educational Authority which has carried out a series of tests.
While all the anecdotal evidence looks good – the oils appear to improve concentration when consumed by children who have attention disorders and allergy problems – there has still been little hard-science research into its possible effects on children in general.
Dr Alexandra Richardson the director of the charity Food and Behaviour Research , called for the supplements to be subjected to double-blind trials. on Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme .
And the Professional Association of Teachers wants to see more research as well as guidelines on how schools will administer the supplements to pupils.
There is also a note of caution from the States where registered dietitian Suzanne Havala Hobbs warns against a head-long rush into mass consumption of supplements saying: “Most healthy people should count on getting omega-3s — and other needed nutrients — from whole foods. Tofu and other soy foods, canola oil, flaxseeds and walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acids, which the body can convert into omega-3 fatty acids.
So why would children need extra supplements if a healthy diet provides all the necessary Omega 3 and 6? Well perhaps the answer is in the question. How many children actually get a healthy diet to start with? In these days of convenience foods, poor cooking skills and ignorance about nutrition, maybe the only option for a healthy diet is to boost the bank balances of the supplement manufacturers to ensure a brainy future for our children.
If you have had any experience of using fish oils – good, bad or indecisive – then please share them by submitting your comments via the link below.