Eating Healthier: Chips. #NewcastleCan

Until comparatively recently I rarely looked at the ingredients of the food I was buying. I was more interested in how easy it was to cook than what was in it. I had what now seems a naïve amount of trust in the food industry, who I was sure wouldn’t feed me anything unnecessary. 

My drive to get healthier has seen me paying a lot more attention to the labels, and doing a lot more of my own cooking rather than relying on convenience foods. I hadn’t realised how much I’d bought into the convenience food culture, believing cooking certain things myself was far too much trouble, without ever having tried it.

Until very recently having chips in our house meant either a visit to a chip shop or oven chips…

I mean they’re just chips, right? But quicker. Bung them on a tray, bung it in the oven and chips are ready in 20 minutes. No need for all that faffing about peeling potatoes, no worrying that the potatoes will go off before you use the whole bag, no dealing with roots or mud. And it’s just potatoes. 

Actually no…

This is the brand I happened to have in my freezer. Other brands may have different ingredients.

Call me fussy, but I expect chips to be more than 92% potato! Why do chips need two different types of flour? Why do they need colouring? And 4% oil seems a lot. 

So I decided I’d give making chips a go. Believe it or not I’d never made chips. As a child my mum made them, in a chip pan full of boiling oil that terrified me! As an adult I’d believed oven chips were healthier and more convenient. 

It turns out it’s not that hard to chop up a potato…

Skin on for healthier chips.

After chopping them I put the chips in a large bowl, with a tablespoon of oil and some seasoning, cover it up with a plate and give it a good shake…

Then pop them onto a baking tray and into the oven at 220°…

Depending how chunky I’ve cut them they can take up to 20 minutes to cook. They’re best turned half way through cooking. 

This is the way I make chips most often now. I can vary the size of them, vary the seasoning, and they’re very popular with the family. Apart from a couple of extra dishes to wash they’re not really an inconvenience. 

No flour, no starch, no colouring, no fuss! And a bag of potatoes is a lot cheaper than a bag of oven chips.

I’m not saying I never get chips from the chip shop any more, and we still have oven chips in the freezer for emergencies. But in general I make chips from scratch these days, and I’m surprised how easy a switch it was. 

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Newcastle Can is a project to get my home town working together to get healthier and lose weight. You can find out more about the project here, and my other blogs on the subject are listed here

Book Review: Unprocessed by Megan Kimble

Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she knew that she cared about where her food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble (from back cover blurb)

It has taken me too long to read this book. That’s not down to the book at all, it’s well written, and informative without being dry or excessively technical. I started reading it a few months ago before my current bout of anxiety and depression. 

One of the first indications I’m getting ill is when I struggle to read. In general I’m a real bookworm, flying through book after book. But when I’m ill I struggle to concentrate for a paragraph let alone a chapter. Reading just becomes impossible.  

Contrawise it’s a good sign I’m on the road to recovery when I feel like reading again. Last week I read two pages. Over the weekend I read six pages. Yesterday I sat down and read the two and a half remaining chapters and finished the book. The return of my concentration is hopefully a good indicator that I’m on the mend. 

I spotted this book in the wonderful Quaker Centre Bookshop last time I was in London. It leapt out at me. I’ve been worrying about the amount of processed food my family eats for some time, both in terms of its impact on our bodies and in terms of the environmental impact of its production. Yet it seems impossible to avoid. Then here was someone who had avoided it, for a full twelve months, I could read about her experience, and possibly pick up some tips. I had to buy it. 

I enjoyed it from the start. It’s clearly well researched and referenced, without the level of excruciatingly complicated scientific detail which puts casual readers like me off. The style is chatty and cheerful. While I try and avoid processed food by avidly studying labels Megan Kimble actually visits food producers, from massive industrial dairies to small breweries and distilleries. She finds out more about how labels can mislead us than I’d ever have known without her. 

I hadn’t started the book with the intention to dramatically change the way I eat. One of the things Megan demonstrates is how much work an unprocessed diet is. I knew that for me completely cutting out processed food wouldnt be practical. But it did get me thinking differently. 

Some of Megan’s conclusions shocked me. Considering dairy for example:

I try to consume less, but better. By better, I mean whole — I eat eggs with all their yolks, milk with all its fat, cheese with all its curd. Not only do fat molecules help your body to absorb the nutrients in mill, but also fat is delicious. Fat fills you up, so its easier to eat less of it. 

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble

 This is so counter to everything I’ve been told about low fat that it seems positively revolutionary. And I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never had whole milk, unless they gave me whole milk at school in the 1970s (until it was notoriously snatched by Thatcher.) Its been semi-skimmed or skimmed all my life. Maybe I should give it a try?

In other areas her experiments in processing he food herself led her to realise why communities and eventually big corporations developed, as the time and effort taken to produce food was better spent when sharing roles. But the soullessness of these massive corporations is evident, churning out bland additive-filled food, caring for their own profits over their customers health, causing damage to the environment and seeing animals as commodities rather than living creatures. There are lots of good reasons to avoid processed food.

One of the compelling reasons for Megan, which she quotes more than once in the book, is the realisation that we as consumers have power, and can make changes. In the UK free-range eggs and various Fair Trade products are now generally available, all due to customer pressure. 

For me, living in the north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, the argument about investment in the local economy also resonated. If I spend £100 on food at one of the big supermarkets most of that money will leave the region, going instead to shareholders and parent corporations. If I buy locally produced food with that £100 much more of it stays in the region, supporting the local economy. 

Unprocessed food is more expensive though, and we all have to decide where we spend our money. Whether its £5 or £50 it will make a difference. I try to buy organic and unprocessed, but its a fine balancing act between what I want and what I can afford. I often have to compromise.

If I had to have a negative, and its a very unimportant negative, the book was very much embedded in the American systems of agriculture and processing. This is only natural, it’s where it was written and the audience it was initially written for. But it let me wondering whether things are the same here, and how I would find out. And she just did food, a mammoth task in itself, but what about the chemicals we have around us all the time? Toiletries, cleaning products, plastic. I had unanswered questions. However I think inspiring me to look further into something is the mark of a good book, not of the author missing something out. 
All in all a good read, and one I’d recommend. 

You can visit Megan Kimble’s website to find out more about her year unprocessed. 

Trying new veggies: Pak Choi #NewcastleCan

My quest to eat helthier continues! This weeks veggie bag included another new to me veg, pak choi. This one I did at least recognise, but I’d never bought or cooked it before. Luckily a quick trawl of Pinterest turned up several recipes, and I decided to adapt this Stir Fry Pak Choi recipe.

I doubled up the ingredients, as we have 4 adults in our house. I was using what I had in, so substituted rapeseed oil for the sesame oil in the recipe. I also omitted the chillies, as both my son and I have no stamina when it comes to spicy food. As I was cooking a main meal rather than a side I added noodles too.

As the cooking time was really short I got myself organised and prepared everything before I started cooking. There wasn’t much to do, chop the garlic and ginger, separate the stems and leaves of the pak choi, and mix the soy oil.

All prepared!

Cooking was quick..

A couple of minutes for the garlic and ginger.
Another couple of minutes with the stems…
Add the leaves and carry on stirring for a couple of minutes more.

I added the noodles at the same time as the stock and soy oil and upped the amount of vegetable stock to 800mls. Let it bubble away for three or four minutes until most of it had absorbed. And voila.

Finished stir fry.

Quick and tasty. It used slightly more oil than most of the healthy recipes I’ve been trying, and because of the soy sauce slightly more salt too, but well within healthy limits. There was some initial reluctance from some of the family, due to the pak choi stems resembling celery. After establishing it didn’t taste like celery they got stuck in and pronounced it very tasty and definitely a recipe I should try again.

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Newcastle Can is the project I’ve signed up to which is inspiring all my healthy eating and exercise. It aims to get the city healthier and help residents lose 100,000lbs over the year. To find out more click here

In praise of occasional randomness

It’s getting towards pay day, that last week of eking out the remaining pennies and supplies and hoping nothing expensive happens. It’s in these circumstances that some of my best culinary creations occur, like the fried rice in Tanking the Takeaway. My family look forward to such delights as “almost payday pasta” and “almost payday pancakes”, meals made of whatever’s to hand without a recipe in sight. 

It’s a skill to just throw what’s left in the fridge together and get something that tastes like a meal, rather than something that tastes like you just threw what was left in the fridge together. It’s a skill I’ve developed over time, although it can be a bit hit and miss. Since I signed up to the organic veg scheme (of which more here) I have a lot more fresh fruit and veg to play with than in previous months, which helps. 

My trawl of the cupboards turned up just 200g of pasta. Before I signed up to Newcastle Can and started eating more healthily I would have given up at this point, certain that you can’t feed four adults (or two adults and two adult sized teenagers) with so little. Now I know better. 

The fridge was better stocked than the cupboards, yielding some bacon, two onions, a courgette, half a bag of spinach, one pepper, a small cabbage and some feta cheese. 

The basic technique of my random meals is to chop everything then cook it all together, nothing complicated! So while the pasta was cooking I chopped everything except the spinach. I cooked the bacon first, adding the onion and pepper after a couple of minutes. Next went in the courgette, followed by the chopped cabbage and the spinach. When it was almost ready I added the chopped feta and stirred til it had melted into the sauce. I didn’t need to add any liquid, plenty had come off the veg. Then stir in the pasta.

Tadah! A healthy, tasty, colourful meal made in minutes. 

Although I was so busy chopping and stirring that I almost forgot to take a photo for the blog!

I think it’s important to embrace randomness occasionally. I tend to get stuck in a routine, unable to easily leave my comfort zone, especially when I’m struggling with my anxiety. I’ll seem fine while doing my usual stuff, but throw something unplanned at me and I completely unravel. So I need to remind myself now and then that random can be fun; just throwing things in a pan can be tasty; that sometimes it will go wrong, and that’s OK.

Tonight, on the spur of the moment, I tried an alternative route home from work. I ended up stuck for ages at one of those junctions where the traffic lights seem slightly out of synch, so only on every third green light could any traffic from my lane move. Sometimes random things don’t work. Rather than get frustrated at being delayed I turned the radio up and sang along, enjoying a few minutes with nowhere to go (and possibly startling passing pedestrians, my singing has more enthusiasm and volume than tunefulness!) Despite the delay I had a good journey. 

So, here’s to occasional randomness. 

Not too much randomness though, chaos would just cause more stress! 

Dancing, Memories, Exploration, Cooking – a good weekend.

Saturday morning was my fourth Dancercise session. It seems I can still get either my legs or my arms moving in time, never both. Despite that I am improving. Certainly I’m managing more of the high impact moves now, and feeling confident enough to sing along. Its doing me good at many levels.

After a shower and change my partner and I headed off across the Pennines for a night away, a much needed break. Our destination was chosen because I wanted to visit my dad’s memorial bench and the place we scattered his ashes. 

I like to think I’m all scientific and logical, I know he isn’t really there. I believe he’s still alive in our hearts and memories more than in the place we left his physical remains, but science and logic can only get you so far. Sometimes I need to be in a place he loved, to take a few moments to be quiet and remember him, away from the busy, challenging turmoil of everyday life. 

It’s changed, but everything changes. His bench had been revarnished and repositioned to face the meadow where his ashes were scattered.

The view from dad’s bench.

The tree that used to stand in the meadow is long gone, but a darker patch of grass showed me where it had been, and closer examination revealed some remaining bits of tree stump. I felt a connection to how it had been when my dad knew it, despite the changes. The bee hives were busy, the sun shining, the gardens beautiful. It was evening and felt like summer. I was glad I’d gone.

We had dinner in a local pub. My tactic to try and eat healthily when eating out is to go for either fish or salad, and the red snapper was delicious, but the meal was considerably less healthy than it could have been due to the marvellous dessert! We had a long walk through the town, possibly confusing the folk outside the local pubs as we walked through the market square several times in an hour, from every possible direction. 

The following morning we decided to set off early but stop and explore Kendal on the way back. Despite confusing signage (one signpost directed us down a back alley at the end of which was the river and no further directions!) we eventually reached the castle, glorious in the sunshine and well worth the climb up the hill. We could see for miles.

Kendal Castle.

Home and back to reality. Dogs to walk, family to feed, all the everyday things to do. I didn’t want to spend a long time making tea, and after the indulgences of the weekend I definitely wanted it to be healthy. Our veg bag this week included cabbage, so I decided to have another go at this Garlicky White Beans and Greens Pasta recipe. Last time I tried it I hadn’t cut the greens small enough, so it had a slight raw cabbage vibe which wasnt exactly appealing. This time I was without beans, which I replaced with chickpeas, and rosemary, which I replaced with oregano (that and mint seem to be the only herbs flourishing in the garden at the moment.) It turned out well, definitely better than my last attempt and I’ll certainly be using the recipe again. 

All in all a good weekend. If I could only have stopped my anxious mind worrying about the week ahead it would have been perfect. Howeve there were times over the weekend when my brain was still, and that’s an improvement on recent weeks, so I’ll take it. 

The Pasta Controversy…

One of the challenges of changing to a healthier lifestyle and diet, in my house at least, is getting it past the resident teenagers.

My daughter has me cornered in the kitchen.

“I’ve noticed we seem to have brown pasta” she states, ominously.

“It’s not brown pasta, it’s wholemeal pastaI explain. “It’s much better for us.”

“You’ve gone too far this time! I don’t mind all the fruit, I quite like spinach in everything, but you can’t mess with my pasta.”

“I changed this weeks ago. We’re onto the third bag of wholemeal pasta. It can’t bother you that much if you’ve only just noticed.”

“I’d hoped that it was just a phase you were going through” she retorts.

In her defence she was only half serious, half using my own lines against me for comic effect and has since admitted she’ll probably get used to the wholemeal pasta. 

I’m probably quite lucky having a family who’ll give anything a try at least once, and often without me even having to pull the “I’ve cooked it so you’ll eat it” routine. But no one likes dramatic change, we’re creatures of habit, which is why I’ve been changing things gradually. Small, sustainable changes I can gradually build on, hopefully leading to a more healthy lifestyle for us all. First less unhealthy snacks, then more fruit and veg, next up the amount of exercise, followed by reduction in dairy, now changing to wholemeal bread and pasta. I’m not sure what the next change will be, or how seriously my family will complain about it, but I know these small changes are making a difference.

Controversial pasta.

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I’ve signed up to the Newcastle Can challenge, working together to make the city a fitter, healthier place to live. Find out more by visiting www.newcastlecan.com

Trying new veggies: Chard #NewcastleCan

The main positive change I’ve made in trying to eat more heathily since signing up to the Newcastle Can challenge has been adding more fresh fruit and veg to my diet. Most of the other changes have been negatives, reducing this, limiting that and cutting down on the other. To help with the fruit and veg I’ve signed up for weekly organic bags, as I explained in That’s what apples look like!

This weeks veggie bag had another new to me vegetable, a bag full of leaves labelled CHARD. Like the purple sprouting broccolli it’s something I’d heard of but never cooked with. I’m getting braver with new things, and am spending a lot of time searching online for recipes which include whatever’s in this weeks bag. Last week I made both Rhubarb and Ginger Muffins and Dark Chocolate Rhubarb Brownies, to the delight of my kids who’d begun to worry that the healthy eating meant I’d never bake again. It was a challenge not to forget being healthy and eat them all once I’d made them, but I coped!

I found this recipe for spaghetti with cauliflower and garlicky swiss chard gremolata after much browsing on Pinterest, and clicked through despite not knowing what ‘gremolata’ was. I was heartened by the fact that I had most of the ingredients to hand, and totally won over by it being described as an ‘oops recipe’. This perfectly describes most of my creations in the kitchen! 

There were minor challenges though, and its a mark of how comfortable I’m getting at cooking and improvising that I stuck with it. 

Challenge 1. No spaghetti. I am the sort of person who can’t eat soup without slopping it down my chest, so really messy food like spaghetti is rarely on my shopping list. I replaced it with 300g of wholemeal penne pasta.

Challenge 2. No food processor. As I mentioned way back in Kneading to Stop Thinking there was an incident with a dog, a hob and an almost fire. I’ve still not replaced the broken bits, partly due to lack of funds but also due to lack of motivation, to be honest I’ve been managing fine without. 

This recipe calls for the cauliflower and chard to be pulsed until the bits are the size of grains of rice, so I had to adapt this to my food processor free kitchen. 

The cauliflower seemed straightforward – just grate it. I decided to try the finer side of the grater, but one floret took ages, and even on a bank holiday there’s a limit to the time I want to spend in the kitchen, so I decided grating the florets on the coarse side and the stalks on the fine side led to near enough rice sized pieces. After 10 minutes the cauliflower looked like this:

The chard I decided just to chop as finely as I could with scissors, using the effective but not very high finesse method of grabbing a handful and chopping slivers off the edges until it was all done. 

I also had to consider how much chard was a bunch? One handful, two handfuls, the whole bag? This is the sort of lack of detail that used to terrify me away from new recipes, but the more I cook the more confident I am at just giving it a go and hoping. I decided as I’d only had a small cauliflower to use the whole bag of chard.

The chopped chard looked like this, and I added a dash of hope that the pieces being much bigger than rice sized wouldn’t affect the taste too much!

My only other alteration to the recipe was to skip the red pepper flakes as I didn’t have any.

I think it turned out well, if a little more bodged and less beautiful than the original! The family agreed it was very tasty. Because I’d used less pasta it made 5 portions rather than 6, so my partner and I now need to decide who’ll be the antisocial one breathing garlic fumes over our colleagues tomorrow! It’s definitely one I’ll make again, when chard and cauliflower next appear in my veg bag. 

Count Spatula approves!