Pea soup and kilner jars

I went to Ikea last week. I have only been to Ikea twice. I get excited about it, then I get there and I get overwhelmed.

I like to think about my house, how I want to live. I browse through Pinterest and Apartment Therapy and imagine – I want a four-poster bed, a reading nook, a grown-up tree house, colourful rugs, dozens of vibrant pot plants spilling out of the corners.

I also want the minimalist look, blank walls, scrubbed wood, a single beautiful bloom in a simple vase. It’s hard to unite these two desires. It’s hard to unite myself into a single person. I spill out over my edges, sometimes. I want everything.

It’s been a hard year, and now I’ve found this domestic happiness. I get excited about organising the kitchen cupboards. I bought kilner jars at Ikea, and then I stuck labels to them all and now my kitchen looks like an instagram post.

Except now I’m trying to make pea soup, to use up the dried split peas I had, and what do you know – they are so old that they are refusing to go smushy, but instead stay hard and slightly crunchy. It’s been cooking for hours. I gave up on it as a dinner option, and instead cooked something beige out of the freezer. I’m almost giving up hope. They feel like they are getting crunchier instead of softer.

I worry, sometimes, that my dreams have become so tiny. I used to dream about travelling the world, visiting Japan, writing a best-seller. Now I would settle for a label on a kilner jar, and some decent pea soup.

Maybe it’s not so bad though. Tiny dreams are achievable.

Getting healthy

So, as part of the whole ‘re-starting my life’ deal, I’m going to get back into the healthy habits that I lost somewhere in the past six months.

For me, getting healthy starts with food. Now, to be clear, ‘going on a diet’ is a terrible approach to getting healthy. Diets, particularly those that are restrictive — no carbs, no fats, whatever — are pretty much going to stress you out. They contribute to overall unhealthy eating patterns, and — assuming you take up a diet to ‘lose weight’ — are going to fail.

Food underpins my health, both physical and mental. Food is something to celebrate; good food brings me joy. And food connects me with friends and family. Life would be far less fun if I couldn’t share a meal out with P. or gift a friend some cupcakes.

My focus when it comes to eating well is nutrition (as opposed to weight loss/calorie restriction). I strive to eat lots of vegetables/fruit, whole-grains, and good fats. I try and eat a varied diet, throwing in random different items and trying out new recipes as much as possible.

My food challenges tend to revolve around adding things in rather than taking things away. Drink more water, eat more vegetables and so on. Focusing on adding good foods means you don’t stress about ‘forbidden items’. Drinking more water automatically means you start drinking less soda, eating more veg means you eat less junk food almost by default.

My favourite food tracker is cron-o-meter, because it lets me track nutrition. Most trackers put way too much emphasis on weight loss/calories, but cron-o-meter comes more from the nutrition/optimum health end of the spectrum.

Nutrition is interesting. I am not an expert (more curious amateur) and I have read many many articles and blogs over the years, ranging from vegan-raw-food ‘vegetables are everything’ to the club-swinging, ketogenic loving, paleo offal-is-key.

Again: I’m not prescriptive. There are many routes up the mountain, and many diets that can work to make us happy, healthy and fulfilled.

So, today kicks off day one of me trying to eat more mindfully, and to make more healthy choices. I started the day with roasted tomatoes, asparagus and a poached egg (verdict: delicious) and then made a huge batch of pea-and-vegetable soup (pork stock, dried green peas, onion, garlic, celery, carrot and celeriac) and for dinner I shall be eating some left over chicken and dumpling stew.

I did also eat a cupcake, because cupcakes are good 😉

9 servings fruit and vegetables challenge – an update

Mmm, vegetables!

Last week I said I was trying to eat 9 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. I thought I’d let you know how I was doing.

Slow cooked beef and vegetablesMonday – Friday? Success!

A typical day included a green smoothie or eggs & vegetables for breakfast, a piece of fruit as a snack, and something plus vegetables for lunch. I found myself making healthier choices; for example when I didn’t have a packed lunch I ordered a chicken burger with both salad and mixed vegetables for the sides. Prior to the challenge I would probably have ordered chips in place of the vegetables.

It quickly became clear that to get the 9 servings you really need to be eating mostly vegetables/fruit at each meal. Take a look at a typical dinner plate to the right. That was beef and a whole heaping pile of vegetables.

The key to success is to find lots of different ways of serving vegetables. If you’re anything like me, you quickly get bored of the same things again and again. Luckily there are lots of vegetables, and lots of ways to cook them!

Beef casserole

I had a few notable successes. The beef casserole was one. The beef itself was delicious (I cooked it for two and a half hours, with a slug of red wine and vegetable stock. It’s not a quick after work meal, but it is an easy one as you just need to leave it alone!

Once the beef was cooked, I drained the liquids into a bowl and set the beef to rest. I boiled the veg in the casserole liquid, and then made a gravy out of the remaining liquid into which I mixed some spring greens to wilt.

Spicy Eggs

One easy way to get a serving of veg in is to use tomato sauce. In this case, it was passatta into which I mixed smoked paprika and chilli flakes.  I cooked until the sauce was thick, wilted some spinach into the pan, then cracked in two eggs and covered the pan with a lid. When the eggs were done I sprinkled on some goats cheese.

Thai Green Curry

Another brilliant choice was a Thai Green Curry. This was super fast… mostly because I used a jar of thai spice paste. Cook up some chicken, toss in a bunch of veg, add a can of coconut milk and your paste and let it simmer. When the veg is cooked, you’re done!

One failure…

I opted to make some chinese chicken, but replaced the chicken with large mushrooms. This turned out to be a mistake, as the mushrooms soaked up so much of the soy sauce that they tasted of nothing else. It felt a bit like eating solidified sauce. Yech. The greens were no better, as I overcooked them.


A couple of bowls of bananas and cream, or some homemade applesauce finished the day up nicely.

Getting fruit and vegetables while travelling

The weekend proved to be more challenging. I travelled on Friday. I started the day with a green smoothie and picked up a ‘five-a-day’ juice at a juice bar. Luckily, the people I visited had created a vegetable curry for dinner, so Friday was fine.

Then I was dependent on my friends and restaurants. I decided not to worry too much about things, and to eat what was served. I didn’t really want to turn into an obnoxious guest!

Saturday we had fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, but then a buffet lunch (we were at a conference) led to an over-fill on bread and meat. A visit to a Turkish restaurant for dinner meant a salad and some lovely vegetable soup but also a plethora of naan and kofta.

Sunday started well, with a fried breakfast that ticked off three servings (beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes). Lunch also went well, when we got a sunday roast lunch overflowing with parsnips, broccoli and carrots. Unfortunately, the rather delicious additional stuffing, yorkshire puddings, mountain of roast beef and potatoes meant that dinner just didn’t happen at all — we were stuffed!

Still, five servings minimum on both days was not too shabby…. right?

Then Monday happened! We started the day with scrambled eggs and mushrooms (one serving). For lunch we went to a noodle bar. Sadly for me, the only vegetables on display included a large quantity of bell peppers.

Ick. I hate bell peppers. I don’t know why, they are pretty much the only food thing I actually won’t eat.

So I got noodles and chicken, with barely a piece of vegetable in sight. Then I did the only thing possible, and ordered a slice of cake.

The cake was amazing – banana, chocolate and hazelnut – but my total servings of fruit and veg for the day still stood at one.

A train ride home, and we were packed in so tightly that I could barely breathe, let alone snack on the orange in my purse. I finally rolled into the house at 9pm and was too tired to face cooking. So an insta-pack of pasta it was. The packaging claimed it contained broccoli, but if it did it was in such microscopic amounts that it didn’t count.

Sooo… Monday I managed just one serving and that was it.

However, today is another day. I’m about to go and cook up a concoction of eggs and vegetables – at a minimum spinach and mushrooms and then head into town to run a few errands.

After all, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy!

Power and fear

Last week, journalist David Miranda was detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. In addition, some hard-drives were (pointlessly!) destroyed at The Guardian’s London offices. Both of these actions were spurred by the fact The Guardian and David Miranda were actively working to investigate and reveal the length to which the USA and UK governments are monitoring… everyone they can get data on.

All of this prompted my friend to ask on Twitter:

To which I responded:

Specifically I was referring to the Tor Project, but there are also other solutions. The article How to keep the NSA out of your computer discusses ‘mesh networks’, essentially an alternative to the internet. One of the most prominent of these is Hyperboria. Use Bitcoin for any financial transactions that you want to keep secret. You can use bitcoins for pretty much anything, including food in some cities.

Unfortunately, there is a ‘tech savvy users only’ gateway to this stuff – because the surveillance techniques are so heavily technical, the solutions are as well. The ‘easy’ internet, comprised of Amazon, Google, ISP’s… this stuff can be used by anyone, but is also monitored.

Josh responded to me:

Now this is a subject close to my heart, because someone I greatly love has been on the wrong side of an airport detention policy. Like many (completely harmless) people, this person was treated outrageously; lied to, kept in miserable conditions, denied food, denied telephone contact with the people worrying about them. They were detained for over 24 hours, and then denied entrance to the country and sent back on the next flight.

I, who had gone to the airport to meet and greet them, was also repeatedly lied to.

It was my first real experience with the power of the state government: and it made me realise that we enjoy our ‘human rights’ only with their permission. You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, break no rules, never claim welfare, pay taxes, vote for central parties, be white, middle class and not subscribe to ‘other’ religions – and still get fucked over. Should you do anything ‘wrong’, whether on purpose or by accident, I can only imagine how much worse it is.

And here we see despair and hopelessness. The apparatus of Government is insanely powerful. It manipulates the media, it controls the military, it works in partnership with the corporations that own so much of our lives. Meanwhile, ‘everyone else’ – without full access to the facts, and with many diverse lies that appeal to their emotional needs, and who also need to get on with the hard work of living a normal human life – is pretty much hopelessly unequipped to deal with the Government.

It is a David and Goliath set-up, except that David doesn’t even know what’s he’s fighting or why.

We are not powerless

This is a false set up. It is a popular one, and a beguiling one, but it is not true. The ‘Government’ may have power and wealth and military might, but it is also made up of people. Incompetent people! Read the stories of detainees and you swiftly realise that the airport security personnel are people, way out of their depth, dealing with situations in idiotic ways. Read the stories of big business owners and you quickly realise they are sociopathic, and just as likely to turn one each other. The Government loses briefcases full of important info, gets their secrets leaked by The Guardian, and destroys hard-drives – apparently unaware that data is rarely confined to a single, physical location. They are not some robot brain, committed to a single purpose.

We do make a difference

We may only have human rights with their permission, but they exist only with our collective permission. We do make a difference:

  • Slavery is now illegal in all nations (the last place, Mauritania, made it illegal in 2007)
  • There are now only two countries where women cannot vote: Vatican City and Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia plans to change this in 2015.
  • Global poverty is declining – and dire poverty could be eliminated in 20 years
  • Public health measures have brought global life expectancy up to about 67. This is of course unequal, but the level of inequality is dropping around the world. Medical advancements are making access to life saving devices cheap enough for all.
  • We have almost hit ‘peak population’ – since the beginning of time we have been shouting about the dangers of human overpopulation. Now it looks like in 2050 we will peak at around 10 billion, and then population will drop/hold steady. Providing secondary education to girls is the single most effective intervention to reduce population growth; and access to education is improving.
  • ‘Serious’ crime rates have been decreasing.

There are three serious problems that face us:

  1. Climate shift/environmental issues. Basically, we have fucked the planet. Any solutions will come from the the tech & science sector. As an issue, it will probably impact on everything from food prices to environmental refugees to large numbers of people killed in extreme weather incidents. There will be consequences (and already have been) – we’ve gone too far to prevent them – but we can mitigate the severity of those consequences and do our best to adapt and protect.
  2. Inequality. Whilst dire poverty is set to be eliminated, overall inequality is growing. The very rich are, well, getting richer. Oxfam are calling for a new goal;  end extreme wealth. An equal society is a happier, more productive, better educated, and more stable society.
  3. The repercussions of moving into a digital & global age. Every time in human history that there is a major upheaval the ramifications were massive and far-ranging. The fallout from the shift into a digital age is difficult to predict, but will definitely include issues about data protection, the right to privacy, and the difficulty of working, trading and governing in a global economy. Who pays tax and where? Which laws and cultural assumptions come out on top? Is access to internet a human right in the way that access to education is? Who stores the data? Who monitors the internet? What about hacking? What is money, once it’s been reduced to numbers in a computer program? How do we cope with possible pandemics which could easily spread globally in a few hours?

Here’s the thing: none of these problems are insurmountable. We’ve been saying it’s the end of the world almost since we had the capacity to project the future. But despair is not helpful. It is entirely possible that the rich could escape the ravages of climate shift, spying on us at will, whilst the poorer citizens of the world live and die horribly. But it is equally possible that rationality and compassion could win out, that we find a way to use our considerable ingenuity and problem solving skills to adapt to a changing climate whilst still equalising our lifestyles. That we can find a way to celebrate diversity and live together instead of clashing over political and ideological differences.

And if we don’t? Well, at least if we hope and work towards the best outcome we’ll be happier than if we just give up now.

 Make a difference

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The only thing that we can do is make a difference on the micro level. We all have the ability to make a difference on a tiny scale, but those differences all add up to a whopping big change on a global scale. There are lots of ways you can help, and the best thing to do is pick the cause(s) you are most passionate about and do something relating to them.

  • Support a charity that does something you agree with. Run a fundraiser, donate, volunteer some time.
  • Look after your friends and loved ones.
  • Support local, environmentally sustainable farming methods.
  • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
  • Pass on your skills (blog, teach, make a youtube video, share with your friends).
  • Do the research on internet memes. Don’t just share a picture because you agree with it, check the facts before you hit ‘share’. You are responsible for the spread of misinformation.
  • Go on protest marches.
  • Keep a (wild) garden. Grow veg. Give the veg to your local food bank.
  • Do your research on corporations. Whilst it is probably impossible to avoid buying from companies that have some unethical practices (particularly where IT, clothing, and food are concerned) you can kick up a stink about the worst excesses. Boycotts can work.
  • Dispose of your waste properly. Recycle or reuse it.
  • Stay informed. Use your vote.
  • Fight against welfare cuts; these are people who deserve to live, deserve to relax, deserve to have fun. Compassion is a wonderful thing.
  • Support a living wage.
  • Speak up against discrimination. Accept that you will discriminate. If someone tells you that you are discriminating, apologise and figure out why.
  • Keep an eye out for children. They need the support of everyone in a society, not just parents and teachers.
  • Do the right thing wherever possible.

R is for… Recipes

The letter RThis post is part of the A-Z Challenge blogging challenge.

I love cooking! I would do far more of it if I didn’t have… you know, a full-time job and a business and a novel to write. I’ve already shared one of my own recipes for Jumbalya. Today, however, I am going to highlight a few recipes that have been posted by other participants in the A-Z Challenge.

A is for … Applesauce Ice-cream (holy crap that sounds amazing!). Every single A-Z Post on this blog is about ice-cream. That alone deserves an ovation, frankly.

B is for … Brussel sprouts with balsamic glaze. Yup, our often misunderstood little green sprouty vegetables of awesome complete with a delectable sounding glaze. This recipe looks like an easy way to spice up a veggie side!

C is for … cauliflowers and cherries. Not in the same recipe, sadly, but here are two ingredients jazzed up by this talented food blogger 🙂

D is for … dill. Specifically carrot, dill and white bean salad. Not an A-Z blogger, but one of my favourite recipe blogs. I had to share.

E is for … eggplant rollatini. Okay, so I’m not advocating an extreme raw food diet. But replacing a few of our meals with high-raw versions is a great way to get more veggies/fruits in and feel more awesome. This recipe is an tasty way to start.

F is for … fennel. I first discovered fennel when it turned up in a veg box. Since then, I’ve discovered this vegetable also makes a rather lovely tea. If you’ve yet to discover the delights of fennel, this post will help you out.

G is for … goat-cheese baked potato. I’m always looking for healthy fast dinner options. This looks like one of those.

H is for … hummus! I adore hummus, and luckily it’s one of the few things my other half also loves. I like falafel in pitta bread with hummus. Yum. This blog has a great recipe for a basic, tasty hummus.

I is for … indian cuisine. If you’ve never tried it, you probably should. This A-Z blogger introduces some basics and shares a recipe for butter chicken.

J is for … Jalapeno! (Damn straight it is!). Spicy looking Cornbread Crusted Chicken with Jalapeno Popper Sauce recipe over on this A-Z blog!

K is for … kiwi fruit and kale. In short, we should all eat more kale.

L is for … Lemons. Yes, one of the best ingredients, it acts a bit like salt in savoury dishes (boosting flavour). Anyway, 9 ways to use a lemon here, great for when you’ve got half of one left over.

M is for … macaroni & cheese. I basically live on pasta. Mac & cheese is one of my favourite ways to make it.

N is for … Naughty & Nice. A rather lovely looking cappuccino coffee cake recipe from friend and co-blogger Louise!

O is for … olive oil. This post talks a bit about olive oil and why it’s awesome, and then sends you on to a recipe for homemade pizza dough. Anything that involves pizza should be shared.

P is for … peppermint ice-cream! More ice-cream recipes, but I had to highlight this one. I love peppermint and this ice-cream sounds refreshing and cooling.

Q is for … Quince paste! Yes, an oddity you may never have heard of, but which sounds delicious.

Yikes! That’s a lot of cooking I suddenly feel like doing. How about you – do you have a favourite recipe you would like to share in the comments?


O is for… one week (low sugar challenge)

The letter OThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Yes folks. In the same month I write a post about the evils of dieting, and how important food is, I’m now writing a post about restricting a food group.

Bear with me.

First, ‘sugar’ is actually a misnomer. What we call sugar covers a range of different substances and combinations of substances. Here is an article with more information than you ever wanted to know about different types of sugar. It may be possible to cut all of these out, but it would be difficult and pretty stupid. Our cells require sugar to function, particularly our brain. Don’t deprive the brain of sugar! It will only end badly.

However, because sugar is required and we need a fair amount of it, we evolved to love sugar. And, in their attempts to make a profit, food companies have been adding more and more sugar to various foods and drinks. Eating this kind of food results in major energy spikes that are not really utilised in a sedentary lifestyle.

(Disclaimer: I am not a food expert, and I pretty much failed biology. I am keeping things lose here because I don’t really understand the science. I encourage you to read other articles as well.)

After the high, you crash, for various complex reasons relating to insulin. Some types of super-sweet sugar (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) also does other things, like turning off the feeling of being full. You can enter an addictive cycle of sugar spiking. Eventually you might end up with type-2 diabetes.

So much for that.

I’ve been slowly hooking into a sugar cycle over the past couple of years. Dessert used to be a treat; now it’s standard. I dump sugar on my porridge, buy a muffin to have with my lunch, and consume ice-cream at the end of the day. Alongside that, I stopped walking to and from work (around 6 miles a day) after I moved, with the result that all of that sugar-fuel is effectively just clogging me up and making me irritable.

So I have decided to take a step towards better health as it were, by ditching the ultra-sweet refined-sugar loaded desserts. Anything with added sugar is out. Natural sugar is a-okay (remember: sugar is essential!)

Low-sugar challenge – today’s tally:

Breakfast: organic energy drink (fruit juice + caffeine basically)
Lunch: Gammon, roast potatoes, parsnip and peas
Dinner: Chicken and dumpling stew
Pudding: A microwaved baked apple, vaguely based on this recipe. It was pretty good, but I think oven baked (or stewed?) would be tastier.

I’ll keep a tally over the next week… and a summary of the week at about the ‘U’ mark.

Got any naturally sweet recipes? One thing I’m expecting to find helpful is liquorice tea, which is super sweet!

D is for… diet

a-to-z-letters-dThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Diet is a dirty word. “I can’t have that, I’m on a diet” is a modern day incantation against the ‘evil’ of tasty foods. I hate diets. I hate the idea of counting calories, restricting grains, demonising fats, casting out sugar. I hate all the associated rubbish as well.. the ‘detoxes’ and the ‘fifty ways to burn ten calories’ and all the other palaver associated with strenuously trying to feel good enough about yourself to wear a swimsuit.

Food has become inextricably associated with weight, and that’s a problem.

D is for… diet

I’ve always loved food. Roast dinners, cheesecake, olives, excruciatingly bitter dark chocolate, lebanese coffee, fresh pasta, garlic infused butter dripping over a baguette, bacon sandwiches, seared tuna steaks, dark flecks of mushroom in a rissotto… I love it all. I would quite happily spend my life cooking and eating, except for the dreaded spectre of grease filled pans to wash up.

I’ve also been fascinated with what food does for us: the way ginger can stem nausea, mint can help digestion, parsley can freshen breath, hemp seeds contain essential omega-3. As a species, we are a long way from understanding the way we interact with a complex meal, the way some foods can aid the absorption of vitamins from other foods, the impact any of this has on insulin, weight gain and health.

Let’s be clear: you can be fat and fit. The health at every size movement makes it clear that weight is not the magic number that makes heart disease, diabetes and all those other ‘diseases of affluence’ spring up or vanish. You can be thin and tragically unhealthy. Eating disorders are one of the deadliest diseases – and something like 20% of people who suffer from one will die.

Over on tumblr and pinterest, unhealthy obsession with thinness reigns supreme. I spent a short period of time looking at ‘thinspiration’, shots of ribcages, thigh-gaps and sunken-cheeked waifs tagged with things like ‘pro-ana’ and ‘mia’. Even when not taken to these extremes, women — and increasingly men as well — spend far too much time struggling with food, hating themselves, alternatively ‘giving in’ to temptation or eating tiny slivers of steamed chicken and vegetables.

Food is intensely complicated. Let’s look at just a few of the things we gain from cooking and eating:

  • Fuel. At the minimum level, food is required to keep our bodies going, to give us energy, to charge up our brains and muscles and to provide us with adequate energy to get stuff done.
  • Pleasure. Yes, you’re allowed to enjoy food. A well cooked meal can be a sublime experience. I don’t know what types of food turn you on, but I bet there’s something. Life without pleasure? Who wants that?
  • Social bonding. We celebrate weddings, birthdays and reunions with food. In the past, ‘breaking bread’ with someone was a sign of friendship, a promise that you wouldn’t kill them. The sharing of food is a deep expression of love: our mother’s roast dinner is always the best… because it is more than just the food, it’s about what the food symbolises. Sharing food is sharing love. Don’t exclude yourself from the group!
  • Self-love. Sadly, all too often, food has become an expression of self-hate. Stuffing ourselves whilst secretly despising ourself for being so ‘weak’? Argh! Instead, viewing food as the ultimate act of self-nurture, of giving your body the things it needs to be healthy and happy.
  • Medicine. Yes, food is medicine. See the aforementioned ginger and mint. Whilst you should in no way attempt to shun modern medicine in favour of some weird hippie idea that you can cure cancer with grapefruit, it is true that eating a wide variety of particular foods can boost our immune system and provide tangible benefits to our health. Green smoothies, vegetable juices, garlic, fresh herbs… the benefit goes far beyond hitting our RDA of vitamin-C.

Our relationship with food is one that will stay with us from birth to death. Yes, of course we comfort ourselves with food! The problem is not the comfort-eating… the problem is if we are so sad so much of the time that all we do is comfort eat.

There are things we can do to improve our relationship with food:

  • Learn to cook. Alright, look. It is entirely possible to eat nothing but KFC and ramen noodles, and if that is really what you want then so be it. From my experience, however, learning how to cook opens up a whole new world of culinary experience. 
  • Eat slow and appreciate every bite. I’m a big fan of the slow food movement. Relegating food to the periphery of our lives just means we lose out on a lot of the benefits. Food is important – treat it as such. Okay, so I have snatched a sandwich from a train station when on the move from one meeting to another… and generally it’s been okay. Live your whole life eating nothing but snatched sandwiches and drive-thru? No. Again, you’re just limiting your experience.
  • Eat vegetables. Look, you can eat everything else as well. But vegetables are fundamental to our health. Restricting any major food group is bad news, but vegetables are pretty much the king of the food kingdom in terms of improving our health. Don’t force yourself to eat things you hate, but can you honestly tell me you’ve tried every vegetable from amaranth to wakame?

Looking for some awesome food inspiration? Pinterest’s food & drink category has swallowed many hours of my life. Check out my board: