Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eat/Drink more Yogurt

Did anyone see the Harvard study which was published, and widely reported on, this week?
After 20 years of monitoring which foods seemed to be most associated with weight gain, the study revealed the following list of baddies:
  1. french fries!
  2. potato chips
  3. sugar-sweetened soda
  4. unprocessed red meat
  5. processed meats . . . like bacon
  6. trans fats
  7. potatoes
  8. sweets and desserts
  9. refined grains
  10. fried foods
  11. fruit juices
  12. butter
There are no huge surprises here, but it is still a bit deflating (or, rather, the other way around) to see that potatoes have made the list three times!  I wouldn't dream of making french fries at home, but in restaurants I have been known to order a meal just because it offers fries on the side.  My favourite meal in the world?  Probably steak frites.  Still, I regard them as a treat -- and really, we eat very little red meat otherwise.

The main conclusion of the study is that we should all be eating food that is as minimally processed as possible . . . and with the odd exception, Julochka and I have already been preaching (and eating) that gospel.  I may need to rethink my loved of baked goods, but in my defense, we hardly ever eat any dessert/sweets that aren't homemade with good-quality ingredients.

One of the most helpful aspects of the study was its revelation of the five foods most associated with weight loss -- and the fab five are:
  1. yogurt
  2. nuts
  3. fruits
  4. whole grains
  5. vegetables
I've been trying to eat more yogurt for several years now, but for some reason I find it a bit tedious in solid form.  I do like greek yogurt with blueberries and a squeeze of honey, but it's not something that I can talk myself into eating every day. 

I think that smoothies are going to be the answer -- at least for me.  This summer, I finally broke down and bought a blender -- despite my lack of counter space -- and now my children and I are obsessed with it.  With all of the great fresh fruit that's around these days, it is such simple work to drink several servings of the good stuff.  I never make the same smoothie twice, but my basic blueprint is to throw in a banana, a handful of strawberries and/or raspberries, blueberries, pineapple or peaches, between 4 and 6 ounces of yogurt and a handful of ice.  You will need some liquid to get things going, and I add either orange juice or skim milk -- depending on whether I am the mood for something creamy or juicy.  You may also need a squirt of honey, depending on your sweet tooth.

Sadly, there's nothing more American than french fries and a Coke -- and America has the obesity rates to prove it.  Julochka and I were laughing about an article about the fried foods which will be offered up at State Fairs around the country this summer.  Doesn't that just sum up some of the most dreadful (and wonderful, of course) aspects of American eating?  I love the creativity and the sense of humour, but the sheer decadence and gluttony isn't as admirable.  Does anyone really need to be eating Fried Kool-Aid?  Who even dreams this stuff up?

As for my summer eating, I'm thinking more along the lines of a yogurt smoothie and a handful of raw almonds every day . . .

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

lemony roast chicken salad

most of the cooking i do is by the seat of my pants. recipes are but a suggestion in my mind and i don't do all that much planning ahead unless we're expecting guests. very often, it's 5:30 p.m. and i wander into the kitchen, bleary-eyed from the computer and open the refrigerator and take out a few things that look inspiring. and sometimes the result is worth writing down. of course, the secret to this kind of cooking is having good ingredients at hand. i can tell already that the garden is going to really help me on that front. the weekly box i have delivered helps a lot too - it means i've always got interesting vegetables and things like quinoa and couscous around. i'm also a sucker for good buys on interesting or unusual ingredients when i'm at the grocery store, so the staples in my cupboards include things like a jar of grilled artichokes or roasted red peppers.  i thought i'd share with you a recent invention. i made it for the second time today, adding a bit to it from the first round and it was wonderful. it's a chicken salad made from your roast chicken leftovers.

lemony roast chicken salad

the remains of one roast chicken, diced into bite-size pieces
1 jar of grilled artichokes in seasoned olive oil, roughly chopped up on the cutting board
  save the seasoned olive oil from the jar to use as your dressing
1 lemon, sliced thinly and cut into little wedges
1 60gram package of pinenuts
1 package of brown mushrooms
100 grams of quinoa, cooked as directed on the package (20 minutes in twice as much water as quinoa)
1 bunch of green onions, sliced finely
handful of spinach or kale, cut into ribbons
juice of one lemon

dice your roast chicken leftovers into bite-sized pieces (i specially-roasted a chicken for the purpose today, as we have a couchsurfer here, so it was not just going to be the three of us). remove the artichokes from the jar and roughly chop them into bite-sized pieces. save the seasoned oil from the jar to use as a seasoning.  slice the lemon into thin rounds and then chop cut them into little wedges, throw them in, peel and all. clean your mushrooms and slice them in halves or fourths if they're large - sauté them off in a pan with butter and a little olive oil, then sprinkle liberally with soy sauce until they've lost their rawness (but not 'til they're shrunk down to nothingness). chop the green onions. toast off the pinenuts. put all of these ingredients into a large, flat bowl and keep tossing it together (i do it with my hands as i add each ingredient). lastly, sauté off the spinach or kale (i used fresh-picked tuscan kale from the garden). while you're chopping, cook up your quinoa - a highly nutritious and delicious grain that gives body, texture and loads of nutrition to the dish. dress it all with the seasoned oil from the artichokes, juice of a lemon and a bit of salt & pepper. can be served immediately or refrigerated and taken on a picnic. serve with plenty of fresh bread. and you can never miss with a crisp white sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.

serves 6 - 8 (if you use a whole chicken and not just leftovers). people may leave little piles of lemon rind on their plates, but that's ok.  make this for a cool lunch on a hot summer day. you won't regret it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

found flowers: cordially speaking

rhubarb + vanilla, violet and elderflower cordials
a few elderflower blossoms, which we were using in our pancakes.
and some freshly-harvested honey from today (not ours yet, but soon)
oh, and those strawberries? from our garden.
i've been going a little bit mad around here on the cordial front. it started for me earlier this spring with violets. they were the first flower around here that came in something like abundant quantities. as you can see from the post over on the sustainable life blog, i started with jelly, but soon switched to cordial. my family likes it better - they're not jelly people, it seems (perhaps because the actual violet flowers i put in the violet jelly looked a little bit like flies, but just leave those out). but the violet cordial has been brilliant. i mused a little bit about the actual picking of violets here - it takes an eternity to pick enough, but it's a bit like meditation, and i definitely need that, so i've made 5 batches. you can see that there's not much left in the bottle above, so i suppose i'll be out in the field, meditating again soon.

violet cordial
2 cups of violets (the flowers only)
2 cups of boiling water
4 cups of sugar
juice of one organic lemon

place your violets in a glass or ceramic bowl (don't rinse them, you'll be straining, so it doesn't matter if there are small bugs in with them) and pour two cups of boiling water over them. cover the bowl with a plate and place it somewhere to steep overnight. it will turn a lovely shade of teal, but don't worry, the lemon will fix that. strain the violets - i use a metal strainer lined with a clean tea towel. then add the sugar. stir and place on the stove and begin to slowly heat to boiling. pour in the juice of one lemon and watch the liquid magically turn from teal to brilliant purple. my batches have actually varied in shades of purple as my violets have varied - some days there were more white ones and variegated shades of purple, so some batches have been more purple than others. once it boils, let it boil only for a few minutes and then pour into prepared bottles. 

i prepare mine by running them through the dishwasher on a hot cycle, pouring boiling water over (for good measure), rinsing with a preservative product called atamon (which i then completely pour out). for several of these batches, i've skipped the atamon because i knew we would use the sirup right away.

it would be excellent over ice cream (if one had a freezer - don't ask and don't mention the smeg) or even pancakes. but we use it almost exclusively as a soda. about an inch and a half in the bottom of a glass and the rest filled up with sparkling water (and ice if you have it) and you'll never want to buy regular commercial sodas again. 

like bee, i've also been making elderflower cordial. yesterday, i counted no less than 21 elderflower trees (they are not bushes around here, no siree) on our property and then husband saw five more down in our forest, which is a couple of kilometers away from our main property. i could practically go into making commercial quantities if i had enough large pots.

i make mine the same way i make the violet cordial, by making a "tea" using about 30 of the flowers and hot water first. i used to add the sugar to that water, like bee's recipe suggests, but i had several batches begin to mold on me before i thought they had steeped long enough (the sugar speeds this along, especially if the weather is warm and humid). with the elderflowers, i let them steep for 48 hours, rather than only 24, to get all of the perfumed goodness out of the blossoms. then, i strain them and add sugar in the same quantities recommended by bee. i use 3 teaspoons of citric acid (available in both pharmacies and the grocery stores here) and the juice of four organic lemons as well. i used to use slices of lemons, but now i just juice them and add them to the elderflower "tea" when i boil it with the sugar. these are the best batches i've ever made (and i've been trying now for ten years).

i have made batches both with organic sugar and regular white sugar this year and there is a big color difference. regular white sugar gives a gorgeous yellow that will make you think of liquid sunshine. the organic sugar results in a darker, more brownish, honey-colored elixir.  i'm not sure which i like best, tho' i lean towards organic on principle. i know tho', that next winter when we break into the golden ones, we'll feel a much-needed direct connection to those long, golden danish summer nights.

our elderflowers are still in full bloom and i've got batches 6 and 7 brewing as we "speak." i want to lay in a good supply for the coming months.

chive flower vinegar and olive oil
and last, but not least and not at all a cordial, thanks to the inspiration from chris, one of my partners on sustainable living, i used all of the chive flowers i found around the garden (discovering a load of hidden chive plants i didn't know were there) to make an absolutely beautiful chive vinegar and olive oil.  all you do is pick the chive flowers, rinse them very well and pop them into clean bottles (at least half full, but preferably 2/3 if you have enough chives), then fill to the top with good quality white vinegar in one and a good extra virgin olive oil in the other. within a couple of days....instant salad dressing.  i have repurposed tomato sauce bottles and they work just great, so there's no need to go out and buy something fancy. 

*  *  *

and as for the rhubarb + vanilla cordial? i'll do a rhubarb post in the coming days, so stay tuned for that.

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for more inspiration on what to do with found flowers, check here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Elderflower cordial

For me, hedgerows are the quintessence of life in the English countryside.  I grew up with wide open spaces and barbed wire; how different and mysterious are these living fences.  They line every narrow road, and make a secret garden of every neighbour's property.  They divide up the countryside like the embroidery thread of a patchwork quilt.

All year long, the hedgerows brim and buzz with life . . . and edible things.  After many years in England, I mostly don't recognise the different kinds of greenery until it actually presents its treasure of blossom or berries.  I still have the constant feeling of surprise.

Unlike me, my youngest daughter is an observant person -- and it was she who pointed out that the elderflower had come into bloom.  It's one of those things that I mean to look for, and pick, every year; but most years, I miss it.  First comes the blackthorn blossom, then comes "the may" (hawthorn), and for about three weeks in June, you can find the creamy-yellow elderflower blooming. 

Last week, I seemed to spend most of my week in the car . . . and everywhere I drove -- through Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey -- I saw masses of elderflower blossoms on the roadside verges.  (It thrives in sunny, open places, but it obviously doesn't mind a bit of car exhaust, either.)  I kept wanting to stop the car and gather up armfuls of the stuff.  Blink, and it will be gone; and that's a shame, because homemade elderflower cordial is delicious stuff.

You want to pick your elderflower just as the blossoms are opening . . . if they are still green, the elderflower won't have much scent or flavour, and if they've gone a bit brown it will tend to bitterness.  A perfectly ripe elderflower will be rich with scent -- a somewhat lemony, but otherwise indescribable, smell all its own.  Elderflower is one of the flavours of English summer -- and unlike the sun, which is being highly temperamental at the moment, you can bottle it.

Elderflower Cordial
1.3 litres/2 1/2 pints water
1.8kg/4 lb granulated sugar
25 elderflower heads
2 lemons, sliced in rounds
65 g/2 1/2 oz citric acid (in England, this can be purchased from the chemist)

First, give the elderflower heads a good shake (to make sure they are free of dirt and tiny bugs) -- but don't wash them, as that will dilute their flavour.
You want to strip off the flowers -- leaving as little of the green stem as possible.
(If you are like me, give this job to a willing child.)
Then, place the water and the sugar in a large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil.  When all of the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat.
Place the elderflowers, slices of lemon and citric acid in a large plastic or glass container and pour the sugar syrup over the other ingredients.
Cover, and leave the mixture to infuse for three days.  You should stir it once a day.
After infusing, you need to strain your mixture -- ideally, through a muslin-covered colander into a clean bowl.  Then decant into containers (plastic or glass containers with lids) and store in the refrigerator.

It should keep for months . . . but only if you don't actually offer it to anyone!
We had an (indoor, sadly) barbeque last weekend and I passed around the elderflower cordial with an arguably too-lavish hospitality.  Hopefully, I can steep another batch of it before the end of its short season.

I like elderflower cordial as a drink -- made with sparkling water (but still water is good, too).  Fill the glass with ice, and then add approximately one part cordial to three/four parts of water.  (It depends on how sweet you like it.)  A slice of lemon, and maybe a sprig of mint, makes a nice garnish.
You can also add elderflower cordial to spirits -- like vodka or gin.
Or, splash your ripe June strawberries with it.


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