Chillies ahoy!

It feels like my chilli plants have taken forever to produce any actual chillies. Then again I’m not the world’s most patient person! Having outgrown both my indoor greenhouse and my living room window sill, I’ve relegated the plants to the floor, where they seem quite content:

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I think they might have sprouted chillies sooner, if I’d actually done some homework and found out that you should start feeding them as soon as they begin to flower. A bit of research also revealed that to get a good crop of chillies, you need to pinch out their leaves. Nope, I had no idea what that meant either. Basically it involves removing some of the plant’s leaves to encourage them to get bushy rather than just tall. Bushy is good because more stems means more chillies. And more chillies means I have to buy less from the supermarket!

IMG_0066As I ended up with more plants than I had space for, I gave a couple away to friends and family. I like the thought of other people enjoying the fruits of my labour, as it were! I’ll let you know how the chillies taste when they’re big enough and ripe enough to eat… hopefully that’ll be soon!

Cookery leader training

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a two day Cookery Leader course, with Community Chef, aka the very talented Robin van Creveld. The aim of the course is to give people the basic tools and knowledge they need to be able to share their cookery skills with others in their local community. I was there with my Curb hat on; others were interested in teaching basic cooking to teenagers off to uni, helping people with specific dietary requirements, or working with mums and their young children. It was lovely to spend time alongside a diverse range of people (even if most of them were from Southampton’s rival city, Portsmouth!).

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The training was interesting and engaging, and – as you might expect for a food based course – had a strong practical focus. Usually when you go on training courses, you get a free lunch. Well, we did get a free lunch, but the catch was we had to make it ourselves! The photo below shows us salivating over our Greek themed lunch on the first day, which included sesame bread, dips and spanakopita (spinach and cheese filled filo pastries of deliciousness). I just love meals that include a bit of this and a bit of that, and since buying my mini blender, have become a fan of homemade dips, so this lunch was right up my street. And let’s face it, there is something satisfying about having made it yourself!

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At the end of Day 1, our homework was to do some research about an ingredient we liked cooking with, to find out some historical and dietary information. After much pondering, I went with sesame seeds. Did you know sesame seeds were used by the Ancient Egyptians? Or that Japan is the biggest importer of sesame seeds? Or that they’re a source of fibre and all kinds of vitamins? Robin asked us to bring the ingredient we’d chosen with us on Day 2, so I duly arrived with my jar of sesame seeds.

I was expecting to simply hold up my jar and tell the group about what I’d found out, but something more challenging was in store for us! Robin divided us into small groups and gave us a bunch of ingredients – a protein, a carbohydrate and some vegetables – with which we had to make a dish for lunch. The catch was, we also had to use the ingredient we’d brought in from home. As it turned out, my sesame seeds went nicely with the tofu, rice noodles, pak choi and mushrooms Robin had provided, but we didn’t even try to incorporate the Marmite, potatoes or lactose free milk other group members had chosen! Our Ready Steady Cook/MasterChef style challenge was probably one of the highlights of the course for me. As I’ve been discovering through Curb, cooking communally is great fun. Even with far too many people in a small, hot kitchen!

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From super seeds and smoothies to healthy apple crumble and bread, Robin challenged our existing culinary skills. It was great to be cooking with recipes that weren’t overcomplicated, were healthy and nutritionally balanced and, most importantly, tasted great. As well as practical skills, we spent time thinking about how we could develop our own projects, and I think everyone went away feeling more confident and inspired. Our only complaint was that the course was too short… We could have happily have cooked with Robin all week!

Can cook, will cook!

Recently I attended a four week Indian cookery course run at a local community café. There’s something ironic about an Asian girl whose mother is a dab hand in the kitchen going to an Indian cookery course, no?! The fact of the matter is, even though I’ve loved all things food related (mainly eating, obviously) and have cooked meals for myself from scratch for years, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to actually enjoy cooking. I’ve even learnt to do something I never thought possible: embrace kitchen mess. A cluttered counter top, crumbs on the floor and a pile of washing up used to bring me out in a cold sweat (it’s the OCD in me). Now I just accept it all as part of the process and enjoy the journey, as it were. Not that I ever let it get as bad as this:

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Don’t ask me how this transformation has come about. It certainly wasn’t a case of ‘Right, that’s it. I’m going to learn how to poach eggs once and for all, damn it’. I’ve never poached an egg. But that’s what I’ve come to realise. Like most things in life, I tend to enjoy something if I do it on my own terms. It’s taken me years to figure out that just because you almost never prepare meals for friends and loathe dinner parties doesn’t mean you can’t cook. It probably just means you don’t like having to cook under pressure, for more people than just yourself. And don’t own enough matching plates. Cooking is cooking, whether that entails using an egg to make a frittata (one of my favourite egg dishes when done with rosemary, feta and squash – see below), or poaching it with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, or knocking up a sponge cake.

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It’s also dawned on me that there are probably two kinds of cooks. There are those who like to follow recipes to the letter, planning everything carefully, measuring precisely and not substituting ingredients. Then there are those who like to use a recipe as a basis for a dish, but to wing it a bit. I’m the latter. I think the invention tests on MasterChef prove the point – some people faced with a bench full of seemingly unconnected ingredients panic, while others dive right in. Recipes for me are a starting point, but if you can’t ‘make them your own’ (to use an annoying talent show phrase), where’s the creativity, experimentation and fun? I lean heavily towards a Ready, Steady, Cook ‘What’s at the back of the fridge and what funky stuff can we make to use it all up?’ approach.

I believed for years I couldn’t cook, all the while messing around with ingredients in my own kitchen most days of the week and teaching myself how to make a modest repertoire of vegetarian dishes. Now I know that while I’m never going to be facing an invention test under the scrutiny of John Torode and Greg Wallace, I have more of an understanding of flavours and techniques than I previously gave myself credit for. Armed with this knowledge, I’m thoroughly enjoying spending more time in the kitchen, even more time reading recipes and – inevitably – a lot more time doing the washing up!

Rocking rocket pesto

In January, I blogged about an initially suspicious, but ultimately yummy food waste soup I made to use up the dregs of the vegetables in my fridge. The soup included half a packet of pretty limp salad, which I chucked into the soup along with everything else and hoped for the best.

I don’t often toot my own trumpet, but I can confidently say that my kitchen produces miniscule amounts food waste and I’m always conscious of how quickly bagged salads can start to turn, so I try and gobble them up before they do. I buy rocket and rocket/watercress/spinach mixes most often, as a way of avoiding frilly, bitter lettuce varieties and completely tasteless Iceberg. I have yet to figure out the point of Iceberg lettuce.

Having been away last weekend, I came home to find my half opened packet of rocket had already reached that soggy, slightly smelly, ‘Yeh…I’m not eating that’ stage. After prodding it a bit, I decided it was probably fine to use in my salad for lunch the next day (yes, I will eat virtually anything and yes, I do regularly eat around mould), but then had a change of heart. It really was limp. And a bit pongy.

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But there was no way I was going to throw out half a packet of rocket, soggy or not. I toyed with repeating my soup experiment with rocket until I remembered I’d come across several recipes for rocket pesto. I looked up a couple on the internet and then reached for my new whizzy blender thing. I was so glad I did – it turned out great!

This is what I put into my pesto, but I’m never too precise with quantities with things like this, as I think it’s better to just taste and adjust as you go along.

  • Half a bag of past its best rocket
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Clove of garlic
  • Generous handful of toasted pine nuts (I’ve finally learnt how to toast them, not burn them!)
  • Olive oil
  • Basil leaves (no idea how much but maybe a 3:1 ratio of rocket to basil)
  • A large dollop of soft cheese (I didn’t have parmesan)

All you need to do is chuck everything into the blender until it’s mixed but still has some texture. I don’t like my pesto and dips too oily, so the soft cheese ended up working quite well to add ‘liquid’ in place of some of the olive oil, though didn’t have as strong a taste as parmesan would have. I didn’t take a photo, but it looked something like this one I’ve stolen from the internet:

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I’d never made pesto before, but it was so ridiculously easy and tasted so good (plus lasted a few meals) that I’m now a pesto convert. I would totally recommend using up rocket that’s past its prime by turning it into pesto, rather than throwing it away. It’s so satisfying to make something yummy out of food destined for the bin!

I am not a professional chef and that is the point

This post from the Zero-Waste Chef really resonated with me, as I’m a big believer in the need to get people back into their kitchens and cooking from scratch. It’s healthier, it’s cheaper and it actually doesn’t need a lot of time or much effort. As I wrote in a previous post, I enjoy watching the likes of Masterchef as much as the next person, but this isn’t what a nation that’s spending ever decreasing amounts of time preparing their own food should be aspiring to.

The Zero-Waste Chef

Fermentationwrksp-20-scaledI teach in-person workshops and online webinars, mostly on fermentation, and I need to create some new marketing materials to get the word out. How do you like this tagline?

I have no formal training in food preparation™

That might not result in droves of students beating a path to my door, but it is my point. Anyone can learn to cook.

The majority of us now leave our food preparation to someone else. We outsource our cooking to corporations when we eat at chain restaurants,buy frozen entrée at the supermarkt or sign our kids up for unhealthy school lunches. I realize that some people have no choice but to eat food-like products rather than real food. In a short blog post, I can’t cover the complicated issue of our inability to feed ourselves. For more on how we arrived at this bizarre point in human history, I suggest reading The Omnivore’s…

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