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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Book Review "First Bite" and general musing on fussy eater

Throughout the year I make various homemade soups from the stuff we grow on the allotment. The vegetables I use are ones that I like to eat and the soup smells delicious when it is cooking and a sip off the spoon confirms that it tastes good too. It is baffling to me, therefore, why I cannot bring myself to eat a bowlful of this soup. Having only eaten Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup as a child, to my mind this is the ONLY soup. I cannot even blame my parents for this odd conclusion because my parents eat a whole range of different soup flavours, brands and even homemade versions. It is completely stupid and yet I cannot apparently get over it. Recently, having made a batch of beautiful borscht, I made a pact with my daughter that we would both be sensible and adult about it and sit down together to eat a bowl of it each. We did quite well but before she had finished my daughter asked, "Can I stop eating this now?" to which I said, "I have already given up, Love."

In a similar vane, when I flick through my monthly edition of The Good Food Magazine I see a whole bunch of dishes that I just don't fancy eating at all. Years ago I would have looked at food like that I just thought of it as "adult food" and be confidently assured that one day I would grow up and like food like this. I would suddenly delight in a couscous salad, would welcome quinoa or polenta on the side of my plate or would fancy filleting a fish. Now over the age of 40, it has dawned on me that I am now very definitely an adult and yet I still flick past these pages, looking for something more appealing. It is certainly true that the food I eat now is far removed from the food I ate as a child and to my mind more "grown up" but I am still not someone who would struggle to make a decision in a restaurant on the basis of liking everything on offer.

With two children of my own now, one an enthusiastic eater who apparently loves everything except Indian spices and the other "fussy", I can't help but wish to "cure" my fussy eater to help unburden her from these socially awkward moments when she will feel worried or embarrassed about not liking food she has to eat. That is not to say she has an enormous problem, probably having a wider range of tastes than I did at her age, but it is normal for mothers to wish only for the best for their children.

Somewhere along the line I came to the desire to "fix" my own stupid soup issue, to learn to like "adult food" and to help improve the food repertoire of my daughter. And this year I decided to make these my New Year's Resolutions. It was therefore fortuitous that on 5th January I came across an article online by Bee Wilson about how to relearn the art of eating. Not only was the article hugely thought provoking but it mentioned her book "First Bite" and I instantly decided this was the book I needed.

There is no doubt about it, First Bite is a brilliant book and one that would help pretty much anyone anywhere who ever has to eat food... oh, that's everyone then! In it she talks about how and why we end up liking the food that we do. It is such a complicated subject with influences from our families, society and our own bodies. She takes the reader through the way we learn to eat as children, the battles that can start in childhood and how we end up with the relationship with food that we have as adults.

I would say that this book is helpful if you are about to embark on weaning a baby from milk onto solid food, if you are a parent responsible for feeding your children, if you work with children and are there when they are eating, if you have a child who is a fussy eater, if you are an adult who is unhappy with your weight, if you have a recognised eating disorder or know someone who does, if you are embarrassed by the limited range of what you eat, if you wish to eat more healthily but struggle to stick with it or if for any other reason you wish to change what you eat but are finding it difficult.

Although I embarked on reading this book principally for myself it straight away made me think about the way I feed the family and particularly the way I deal with my "fussy" daughter. Before I was even half way in I started to change this relationship and immediately saw results. There is so much psychology associated with this topic that it is helpful to have a book explaining what things definitely don't work and why other things do work. They seem blindingly obvious once they are pointed out but are still difficult to stick to, battling as we do with old doctrines about eating everything on your plate, only being allowed dessert if you have eaten vegetables and being expected to eat foods we don't like.

It was pleasing too to have some of my natural ideas re-enforced by this book. The importance of structured meals and family mealtimes at a table cannot be over-rated. Treating children as miniature adults rather than "children" is also crucial. It does seem strange to me now that we should ever just assume that we will somehow grow out of our childhood eating habits and just naturally take up eating healthy food. Why not instead just trust that child will eat healthily if fed well. I have long believed that you cannot make anyone do anything but you can lead by example. When I realised that my pre-school child was shy I decided it was my job to be less shy myself and, my goodness, what a change that made to my life as well as demonstrating to my children what confidence looks like. If I expect my children to eat a wide range of food then I too must eat it and be seen to do it naturally and with enjoyment. Equally it is OK to show that there are just some foods that I don't like but that is not a reason not to offer it to them or expect them to dislike it too.

The journey that Bee has taken through her life has been a tough one, having been a binge eating in her teens and overweight from an early age, and with an anorexic sister thrown in for good measure. She has managed to move on from her unhappy relationship with food and to have made her peace with it now. Personally, I have never really had an unhappy relationship with food. I don't battle with my weight, I don't beat myself up about what I eat or forbid myself food pleasures and I have never put myself on a diet. That is not to say that I have some miracle metabolism or that I wouldn't mind being a little more comfortably within the box of "ideal" on the weight charts. Somehow I just want to eat food that is OK for me to eat and this is where Bee wants us to all be - actually feeling desire for food that is good for us. As I have already said, I don't eat what I would consider to be "adult" food - salads and weird grains - but instead just eat straight forward food but not much in the way of junk so maybe I should forgive myself for flicking past some recipes in the magazine and accept that there are some foods I don't have to like. My favourite food is pie, we eat cake every day and chips several times a week. But the food is homemade so I know what went into it and I can take a couple of ounces of sugar out of the recipe without anyone noticing and use only a tablespoon of oil for frying potatoes. I now actually find myself unhappy when I go into supermarkets as it just seems to be an assault of over-processed junk food at every turn and it is a battle to work my way through it to the ingredients that will allow me to make the food I want to eat. For some this might be a battle of will to resist temptation but to me is a battle to avoid being grossed out and appalled. I'm much happier shopping online from my list of "favourites".  Not actually wanting to eat junk and feeling an uncomfortable ache in the stomach when you see it is probably a good thing.

At Christmas I told my sister-in-law about my desire to eat more soup and adult food and she said that I already eat really well and that I shouldn't beat myself up over it. Having read this book there is definitely an element from it that would agree. It is important to be in a happy place with food and largely I am. Nonetheless, as with most things in life, there is room for qweeking and improvement and I would like to continue with my resolution. The desire within oneself for change is the only way that change will ever happen so I would say if you have a desire for change then read this book to help grow that desire and to give you pointers as to how you can achieve it. She herself says that just telling someone what they need to do will never change it and she does not preach or even advise - merely provides a whole load of examples that in themselves provide that role-model experience that is probably missing from our lives.

It is rare to get to the end of a non-fiction book and feel that sense of loss that is so common when finishing a novel. However, that is how I feel now as I want to learn more. Also, when I finish a book I hate to just put it on a shelf as a book on a shelf is a sad thing. Instead I like to pass it on but now I have the dilemma of knowing who to pass this on to as anyone would benefit from reading it.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

"Minding my Peas and Cucumbers" Book Review

Around Christmas time I was unexpectedly given a book entitled "Minding my Peas and Cucumbers" by Kay Sexton, quirky tales of allotment life. Given my love of my allotment and everything I do with the stuff I grow, it was a thoughtful and touching gift. I put the book on my coffee table and have read it, a little at a time, over the past few weeks. It is a light book with short chapters so it is easy to dip into to and not so gripping that you accidentally stay up all night to find out what happens at the end.

Having said that, I did also find the book weirdly unsettling. The book follows Kay (a real person) as she spends 19 years on an allotment waiting list. Desperate to grow her own food, she spends that time doing holiday cover for other allotment holders, or "co-working" with others and eventually agrees to take on the unwanted role of committee secretary in order to work the committee plot. She is even tasked with digging over and improving plots before passing them on to the next person the waiting list. I can't help but think that largely she is exploited by people just wanting unpleasant and heavy work to be done.

As much as I love allotment life, there are some aspects of it that I really dislike and this book seems to highlight them all! I don't like the whole concept of waiting lists and it is a shame that people who want to work a piece of land can have to wait so long to do so. I don't like the monthly inspections to ensure your plot is up to scratch and the warning letters and evictions that can follow. When you have put in all that hard work, the feeling that you are only renting the space and that you can be thrown off at the whim of some bureaucrat who has no understanding of seasons or how to work a piece of ground is really unsettling.

Reading this book has made me wonder if I have just been lucky with my allotment experience. We didn't have a waiting list 19 years ago when we took on our first plot so I have spent my time consisting working the same plot all that time and felt as if it were "ours", within the context of it being rented and having to follow (sometimes odd) rules. Kay, on the other hand, has moved from place to place, working allotments she knew were not hers and others that were "nearly" hers. I admire her dedication and persistence but it gives the book a sad feeling and not one that would encourage someone keen to get an allotment to put their name on a waiting list.

She talks too of some of the battles faced by anyone running an allotment plot - pests, weather, weeds, politics. It would be wrong to suggest that it is an easy thing that requires very little effort but, again, if I were reading this book as someone thinking about getting started I think I would hang up my trowel and walk away without attempting it. Maybe the fact that I knew nothing about growing fruit and vegetables when I started was in fact a good thing because no one and no book had put me off. So, to put the record straight, it is something you have to dedicate time to but, like with so many other hobbies, if it is something you love you don't notice and certainly don't resent the time. Time spent growing is like therapy.

It is hard to pinpoint this book and I have certainly never read anything like it before. It flits about with no apparent order, sharing moments from her allotment experience. There are characters I can identify with and some of the anecdotes raise a smile or a sympathetic nod. And towards the middle of a box she introduces a "story-line" that runs until the end and you can't help but be intrigued how that will turn out. She also chucks in some helpful growing tips and a recipe here and there so it is almost a handbook.

In my final assessment of this book I would say, it makes a nice coffee table book and would actually work well as a waiting room book where someone could dip in and read a chapter without committing themselves to the whole book or the lifestyle. If you have an allotment already then it can be read for comparison and amusement but beware of that unsettling reminder about the precarious nature of renting an allotment. If you are thinking about starting out then please don't in any way take this book as a guide to what allotmenting is necessarily like or you will never get started!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Perfect Roast Potatoes from Rubbish Spuds

This weekend I partook in that odd tradition of all kitchen gardeners, and carefully arranged potatoes in egg boxes. The potatoes are my seed potatoes and the arranging is also known as chitting - a way to encourage strong, short green shoots to grow on them prior to planting them out next month. I don't honestly believe that chitting potatoes makes much difference to how quickly they grow away or how big the final yield is but the fact of the matter is that they have been delivered by the seed company and if I leave them in a dark paper sack until next month then they will have long, white sprouts on them that will probably get knocked off when I plant them out and I don't suppose that will help improve yields.

Anyway, this for me is the first dabble into the season ahead and there is a tingling of excitement with it, like those weekend mornings when you throw open the curtains to bright sunshine and actually feel as if you want to clean something! Potatoes are an important part of our kitchen garden and I feel a plate of food without a potato is a sad one. Well, I suppose if there is pasta, rice or bread in its place then that is OK but I'm certainly no caveman, happy with a hunk of red meat and a green salad. I like a good helping of complex carbohydrate on my plate, thank you very much! And being able to provide that straight from one's own garden is a satisfying thing.

Despite the feeling of a new season, the potatoes won't be planted until March and April and the first harvest will have to wait until June. So in the meantime, we are left with the old potatoes. With each passing day they become less and less good at being an eating potato as they slip into their natural springtime state of becoming a seed potato; shrinking, shriveling and sprouting. We have no choice but to either make use of these slightly springy, sprouting things or eat nothing but pasta, rice or bread until summer. I'm not adverse to any of those but I do like a roast potato with my Sunday dinner.

As I have said previously, old potatoes make rubbish roast potatoes, chips or sautees. Too much of the starch, which helps a potato crisp and turn golden, has been converted into sugars, making the potatoes over brown whilst never crisping up. Where is it easy to make a decent chip or roast from a freshly dug up potato in summer, it is a struggle at this time of year. However, if you have ever read the ingredients on a bag of Aunt Bessie's "roast" potatoes, you will see that the secret to faking that crispiness in the absence of good quality ingredients is the addition of a floury coating (rice flour and potato starch in this case - you may like to avoid the environmentally unfriendly palm oil and the sugars dextrin, dextrose and caramel that they also add). At home this can be achieved easily by tossing the potatoes in a mixture of flour and semolina between the par boiling and roasting steps. Below are my steps for making lovely roast potatoes whilst we wait patiently for that glorious day when the new season potatoes to be ready for harvesting.

1) Peel the potatoes (yes, a lot of the fibre and nutrients of the potato are to be found in and just below the skin but at this time of year the skins are rubbish to eat so get rid of them).

2) Cut the potatoes up into roast potato sized chunks and place in a pan of boiling water and boil for about 5-8 minutes until just beginning to soften at the edges.

3) In the meantime, preheat the oven to 200°C and place a roasting tin in the oven with fat or oil in it. Saturated fats, such as dripping, goose/duck fat or lard, are best able to withstand the high temperatures of roasting without degrading so use these if you can, otherwise use vegetable oils. It is a misconception that vegetable oils (unsaturated fats) are better for you because when exposed to high temperatures they degrade and create new chemicals, some of which are harmful and even carcinogenic. It may go against everything you were ever taught about healthy eating but dripping, lard and goose fat are probably better for you when roasting potatoes - and they taste great too!

4) Drain the potatoes then put the lid on the pan and give it a good shake to roughen up the edges of the potatoes. Take off the lid and let them steam dry for a couple of minutes.

5) Put a handful of flour and some semolina on large plate or chopping board then tip the potatoes onto the flour and turn each one so that it is coated. If you are making roast potatoes in the summer with fresh potatoes you do not need to bother with this step.

6) Remove the roasting tin from the oven and tip the floured potatoes into the hot fat. Carefully turn each potato around in the fat so that it is coated all over.

7) Return the roasting tin to the oven and cook for an hour until the potatoes are golden brown and crispy. If you have properly coated the potatoes before putting them in the oven then there is no need to turn them part way through cooking.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Crispy Pancakes

With Shrove Tuesday this week, it is only natural that my thoughts should turn to pancakes. I love pancake day. Indeed, I was born on Ash Wednesday and the story goes that my mum was deep breathing through her labour pains on that particular Shrove Tuesday whilst tossing pancakes for my dad and brother. We take pancakes very seriously in our family!

I don't think you can beat sugar and lemon on pancake day. But, having said that, my thoughts recently wandered off to Findus Crispy Pancakes. I remember that it was on a sleepover at my friend Fiona's house that I first came across them. I would have been about 10 years old at the time and we had the minced beef ones for our dinner. I thought they were amazing and I must have told my mum that too but oddly they never became part of what we ate at home. Later, when my girls were little, I would sometimes dish up the 3 cheese versions when staying in caravans on holiday.

Recently, and admittedly mainly as a consequence of reading "Swallow This", I have been avoiding processed food like this and have been trying to make home made versions of things we have previously enjoyed on occasions - chicken nuggets, chicken Kievs, beef burgers etc. So when thoughts of Findus Crispy Pancakes came into my head I wondered how easy it would be to make these. The answer, of course, is that is it impossible to make anything at home that is exactly like a factory made version. If you are a real die hard fan of a particular brand of processed food then whatever you do at home will fail to measure up. On the other hand, if you are a fan of the flavours of real food and prefer your food to only contain ingredients that you can spell, then homemade is the way to go. To my mind freshly made, home made "processed" food knocks the highly processed, slightly odd tasting factory versions into a cocked hat every time.

So, crispy pancakes were surprisingly straight forward. Once you have made some pancakes and some filling, it is just a matter of brushing with egg, folding the pancake and dusting with breadcrumbs. The secret to any homemade breaded food is panko breadcrumbs - extra crispy breadcrumbs that you can buy at the supermarket. And it is possible to put whatever things you like into the filling instead of being restricted to whatever the manufacturers have decided upon. On this occasion, I made cheese and gammon ones and I even froze them and cooked them from frozen in 20 minutes so they are a real convenience food come midweek. Having achieved success with that combo, I next tried a minced beef version and below I provide the recipe for both.

Crispy Pancakes (Cheese & Ham)

4 oz plain flour
Pinch of salt
10 fl oz milk
1 egg

1 oz butter
1 oz plain flour
Grated mature Cheddar
Cubes of cooked gammon/ham

1 egg
Panko breadcrumbs

Put the flour into a bowl and add the salt. Beat together the milk and the egg. Make a well in the centre of the flour and gradually add the egg/milk mix, stirring in well before adding more. Leave to stand for half an hour. Heat some oil in a 15 cm frying pan and tip away into a heat proof bowl/cup. Add enough batter to coat the bottom of the frying pan and swirl around to make sure it is evenly coated, Fry for 2-3 minutes then flip over and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Set aside and repeat, reusing the discarded oil each time, until the batter is used up.

Next, gently melt the butter in a small saucepan then stir in the flour and continue to cook for a minute or so. Gradually add milk, stirring all the time, until a white sauce is created. Remove from the heat and add some grated cheese to taste. Cover the surface of the sauce with Clingfilm and set aside to cool completely. Once cool, stir in the chunks of gammon/ham

Take a pancake, dollop a heaped spoonful of filling to one side of the pancake. Brush around the edge of the pancake with beaten egg then fold over the pancake and push down firmly to seal. Brush more egg over the top of the pancake and scatter on breadcrumbs. Repeat until all the filling and/or pancakes are used. The pancakes can now be frozen on trays and then later packed into freezer bags or boxes. To heat, bake in the oven at 190°C for 20 minutes.

Crispy Pancakes (Minced Beef)

250g mince beef
Handful of flour plus salt and pepper
1 rasher of bacon, cut into small pieces.
1 small onion or a couple of shallots
200 ml beef stock (from one OXO cube)
1 tsp dark brown sugar
A splash of balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp tomato puree

Plus pancake ingredients and breadcrumbs as above

To make the beef filling, preheat the oven to 150°C. Put the seasoned flour onto a plate and then toss the mince in it, breaking up the mince with your fingers. Heat some oil in a large frying pan then add the mince and bacon to the pan and fry for a few minutes until beginning to brown. Transfer the mince into a suitable ovenproof dish with a lid. Next, fry the onions then add that to the mince. Add the sugar, vinegar, cocoa and tomato puree to the stock then pour that into the frying pan and heat through, scrapping the pan with a spatula to add those flavours to the stock too. Pour the liquid onto the mince, stir then put on the lid and place in the oven for an hour. Remove from the oven, stir and taste then add salt and pepper if necessary. Leave to cool completely before adding tablespoons of the filling to the pancakes and assembling as above.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Japanese Influence Part 3 - Eating out

Although eating out is always a pleasant treat, there is often an underlying feeling of anxiety that you won't find something on the menu that you want to order. The more picky you are as an eater, the worse this feeling. It is even harder when you visit an establishment that you have not been to before, and more so when it is a type of cuisine that you are unfamiliar with. It is for this reason that I think it is important to take my girls out to various places to experience the menu. This includes everything from KFC and take out pizzas to world food buffets and international restaurants. Sometimes they are places I am very familiar with myself and other times I am just as unsure as they are. That's not to say that we eat out often - actually probably less than 10 times in a year, but it is nice to vary their experiences so that if they go out somewhere with friends or when they are older they will know how a place works and what they like from the menu. How good it feels to walk through the door of an eating establishment, confident that you will enjoy your meal and looking forward to the evening ahead.

So, when my step-daughter asked me if we fancied going out to try a Japanese restaurant in Wolverton, I was keen to give it a go. A few years back the thought of eating in a Japanese restaurant would probably have terrified me, thinking it would all be weird dishes involving raw fish, octopus and unpronounceables.  However, having been re-educated as to what Japanese cuisine actually involves I am more open-minded and also confident that my girls would be enthusiastic too. A quick look at the menu online and I picked out words that I recognised - sushi, gyoza and ramen soup - so I knew I could find something to order amidst the largely unfamiliar words.

It was last Sunday evening when we drove up to Wolverton to visit Akasaka. It is a small place on Stratford Road, not far from the Bath House. I can't believe how often I have driven down this road on the way to Buskers or Wolverton Farmers' Market and I have never noticed the place - or any of the other little shops and takeaways down there. We had rung up to book a table for Saturday as it happened but it had been fully booked so had booked for the Sunday instead so it is obviously a popular place. The reviews on TripAdvisor are favourable too.

As small as it looks from the outside, it is equally as small on the inside, having only a handful of tables so I can see why it gets booked out. However, that evening it was busy but not packed out, which created a nice atmosphere. The staff greeted and seated us pleasantly and efficiently and served us in the same manner all evening. The menu that I had seen online was presented on the table in an attractively bound way and we spent some time reading it, trying to accustom ourselves with largely unfamiliar food. It was handy having my step-daughter there who is more au fait with Japanese food and was able to expand on the menu descriptions.

As the desserts seemed to consist exclusively of some odd flavoured ice-creams, we decided that rather than worrying about ensuring we had room for afters, we would go for a starter and a main course. I decided to start by seeing what their gyoza were like and how they compared to the ones we had made at home and soon I was presented with 5 pretty dumplings on a plate with a neat little corner divided off for dipping sauce. My girls both chose tori karage,which seemed to essentially be battered chicken pieces with a dipping sauce. This looked tasty too so I swapped them each one of my dumplings for a piece of their chicken. Steve went for takoyaki, which is indeed octopus, and my step-daughter had something with tofu. She also ordered some salty edamame beans for us to share. These are cooked soya beans still in their pods and you eat them by squeezing the pods and popping the beans straight into your month. They were like a cross between peanuts and peas and we all enjoyed them, which was pleasing as any vegetable that goes down well is something to celebrate. As it happened I spotted a bag of frozen edamame beans when in Costco a couple of days later so decided to buy some to have at home. They are pre-seasoned and just heated in the microwave for 4 minutes before serving so couldn't be simpler.

The main courses were equally as well presented and tasty too. One daughter went for a plate of chicken sushi, the other for teriyaki chicken. I didn't know what teriyaki was at the time but, having tasted some from her plate, I decided I liked it. Since then I have looked it up and the sauce seems to be easy to make from soy sauce, sesame oil and honey so definitely one to try at home. I ordered tonkatsu, which sounded very Japanese and a little scary but turned out to essentially be a thin pork cutlet, coated in breadcrumbs, deep fried and drizzled with some kind of fruity brown sauce. It was served with rice and a small but tasty salad, nicely dressed. Steve ordered seafood yaki udon, which was noddles with various bits of seafood in it, not a million miles away from the seafood pasta he normally orders in an Italian restaurant. My step-daughter ordered vegetable tempura and gave my girls little pieces of it to taste to broaden their horizons. I asked her if she thought the food was authentically Japanese and she said it was certainly like the food that is available to eat out in Japanese these days, even if not necessarily what might have traditionally have been eaten.

By the time we got to the end of our main course we were surprisingly full and decided that we really couldn't manage dessert too so we asked for the bill and headed home. It had been a pleasant evening out and had introduced us to a restaurant we will undoubtedly return to in the future. It had also re-enforced my understanding that Japanese food isn't weird and is just as acceptable to our western tastes as Chinese cuisine has become. It has also given me a few ideas and I'm raring to try out teriyaki chicken, tonkatsu and maybe even something with octopus!

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Japanese Influence part 2 - The fussy eater and Ramen Noodle Soup

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have one child who will eat almost everything and another who is a fussy eater. On the grand scale of fussiest, she is doing OK and I know deep down that I have nothing to worry about. However, it is perhaps because I too was a fussy eater when I was a child that I want to help her overcome her fussiness. It is definitely more worrying to go out for a meal or to be invited around to friends' houses when you are picky about what you eat and I want her to avoid this embarrassment and unease. I also want her to be fully equipped with a good repertoire of foods she will eat before she leaves home so that she can feed herself a balanced diet and actively put vegetables onto her own plate.

Although my aim is for her to become less fussy, I don't actually know how to go about achieving this. Certainly sticking a plate of food she doesn't like in front of her and making her sit there until she eats it isn't going to work. Nor is me constantly going on at her in a disapproving way about what she does and doesn't eat. Honestly, I barely ever say anything despite sometimes feeling a good deal of disappointment (at best) or resentment when she leaves food on her plate or her shoulders slump when I reply to her question of "What's for dinner?" I have said on occasions, "Are you really going to leave that?", or "Couldn't you eat a bit more of that?" or "But I think it tastes nice." Even so she has accused me of picking on her about what she eats and showing favourism to her sister who eats with enthusiasm. As with pretty much everything else in life, it is not the reality that is important but rather the person's perception of it that matters. She may not see herself as fussy and I do not see myself as picking on her at meal times but we are, nonetheless, not seeing eye to eye at dinnertime. Clearly, the way forward is a difficult one that should include compromises on both sides - her making attempts to try new things and me saying nothing about food left.

I also know that hiding nutritious ingredients into food she likes is not the answer. This is likely to make her wonder why her favourite foods now taste different, odd, or wrong. It is also not teaching her to like those hidden foods so when she is at her friends' she still wouldn't know she liked it and when she is older she wouldn't know to put those things on her plate. And, ultimately, it is re-enforcing her dislike for certain foods but saying that they cannot be enjoyed unless heavily disguised by "nice" ingredients.

Having given this some thought and having done a bit of reading around the subject I have determined that there are a few things that are likely to improve the situation:

1) Me saying nothing.
2) Helping my children to express what they really feel about food to get beyond "I don't like it," and appreciate and respect that everyone has moods when it comes to food likes and dislikes.
3) Presenting her with tiny morsels of new food and inviting her to try them but not complaining if she doesn't - and repeating with the same food several times over an extended period.
4) Giving her a degree of choice in what she eats within a framework of what I want to make for dinner for the whole family. So, she could have her carrots raw or cooked; she could decide if we have mash or chips with our sausages; or she could choose to have more roast potatoes and less meat with our Sunday roast.
4) She can help cook dinner.

I have certainly found that when someone has a say in what goes on to their plates they are happier to eat what is there. It is weird to think that if we had an adult guest for dinner we would either ask them when dishing up the food which vegetables they would like or we would put them in bowls on the table and let them help themselves but we don't think to offer our children the same choice. Instead we assemble their dinner for them and then expect them to eat everything on their plates regardless of preference, mood and how hungry they are feeling. I remember as a child crying out "I don't like [food]!" when really what I meant was "I don't fancy that today," or "I'm too full to eat any more." I went for years saying that I didn't like Yorkshire puddings or custard just because both of these foods made me feel so full up that I didn't like the feeling in my belly afterwards. Children do not always have the words to express what they mean and adults are sometimes less understanding of their day to day preferences. My husband goes for long periods of not really fancying eating bananas and then he'll get in the mood for banana eating again. Admittedly this can make it hard to actually have the right level of bananas in the house for his particular mood but I do just accept this whimsical behaviour because he is an adult. If my daughter did this I would probably find it infuriating, especially if I had just bought a load of bananas because she "liked them last week". It is perhaps easier for a child to just blanket say they dislike a food than try to explain that they like, say, gammon pieces in a quiche but not a slice of gammon on their plate.

I have also found, over the years, that my girls are much more inclined to eat fruit and vegetables that they have grown themselves than ones I have just put onto their plates. They feel ownership of the whole process, from choosing the variety of seeds to sow, through nurturing them to putting them onto their plates. They want to like it because they started from the premise that it would be something good to grow. We can't grow all our foods but our children can certainly take an active role in the kitchen and choose what the cook for dinner and be involved in the preparation of it in various ways depending on their skills. Not only are they important skills to learn but when they have made the food themselves they want to like it and are more forgiving if it is not entirely to their taste. Where they might complain that, "the carrots are hard!" when you cook them, if they have cooked them they might say, "the carrots could have done with cooking for longer but they still taste alright."

So, with all this in mind, I have been attempting to involve my daughter in dinner more and I am especially pleased when she comes to me and says, "I want to have a go at making [food]" or "Would you make me [food] for dinner?"  It might be that I have to say that we can't make that until next week once I have bought all the ingredients for it but other than that I am unlikely to say no. It was therefore truly heart-warming when she came to me to ask if I could make a bone broth. Bone broth!
These are not words any parent would particularly expect a 13 year old girl to say and certainly not a fussy eater! Bone broth - that ridiculously nutritious food that they feed to invalids to help them recover from illness.

It turned out that her favourite YouTube recipe gurus had been making Japanese ramen noodle soup and the basis of this is bone broth. Since her big sister had introduced us to Japanese cuisine (see previous blog post), she has had an open-mind to anything Japanese so this combination of influences was bound to appeal. That's to say - Japanese, as inspired by her awesome big sister, recipe by her favourite cool YouTubers, and absolutely nothing to do with her nagging mother! Who cares, this is progress!

So, with the remains of a chicken carcass and some pork ribs, miso and mirin bought especially, I spent the required 8 hours (yes, 8 hours!), boiling up the bones to make the bone broth. This creates an amazing stock that has potentially hundreds of uses from soups to casseroles and is even so gelatinous that I used it as the jelly in a pork pie. To some of it I added the Japanese flavours - soy sauce, mirin and miso then cooked some egg noodles in it. She insisted that I bought some beansprouts too - I didn't argue! Topped with a hard boiled egg, this made an amazingly filling soup that was more than adequate to be the main meal and she supped it enthusiastically, perhaps not just because it was so tasty but because she had brought this novel meal to the table. I enjoyed it too; it's flavour and that my daughter was eating it without complaint. And you know what, when she got full and couldn't quite finish it, I said nothing!

Japanese Ramen Noodle Soup

For the bone broth
1 chicken carcass
500g pork ribs
1 handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
25 g root ginger, sliced
2 cloves of garlic
4 spring onions

For the noodle soup (per person)
About 300ml bone broth
1 tsp miso paste
2 tsp mirin
3 tsp soy sauce
1 bundle of dried egg noodles
Handful of beansprouts
1 hard boiled egg
Put the chicken carcass and ribs into a large stock pot saucepan and fill with water. Bring to the boil then drain away the way, retaining the bones. This helps to remove some of the fat and makes for a less greasy stock. Refill the pan with water so that the bones are covered then add the other broth ingredients. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and simmer, with the lid on for 8 hours. This should make plenty of broth which can be poured into suitable containers or sauce bags and put in the fridge or frozen for later use. Remove the ribs from the pan and pick the meat off them then splash with a little soy sauce to flavour. Set aside for later use in the soup but discard the other broth ingredients.
To make the soup, put the correct amount of bone broth into a pan depending on the number of people being served then add the miso, mirin and soy sauce and serve well. Bring to the boil then add the noodles and cook for a few minutes until soft. Stir in the beansprouts and a handful of the reserved pork meat and gently heat through. Pour into a bowl and top with a hard boiled egg cut in half.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Japanese Influence Part 1 - Sushi & Gyoza

Over the last few years we have gradually been influenced by aspects of Japanese culture. I think this is a general trend, what with jewellery and fabric patterns depicting cartoon food with cute faces, the popularity of Studio Ghibli animation and the interest in Bento lunchboxes. However, as a family we have been directly influenced by my husband's eldest daughter. When she was at university back in 2005, she decided to join an Anime appreciation society and soon decided that she would like to visit Japan one day. Indeed, she realised this ambition in 2008 and has been going back pretty much every year since. Over the years she has shared with us a love of the Japanese cherry blossom and simple zen gardens, the numerous cute characters that feature on everything from keyrings to shopping bags, and, of course, food. We, in return, have embraced it. Last year my husband transformed our front garden into a Milton Keynes version of a Japanese rock garden, even explaining the various pieces of symbolism in it to any delivery driver who cares to enquire. My daughters, in awe as you might imagine, of their big sister, lap up the cute anime characters, especially when gifts are brought back from Japan. And we have all opened our minds to Japanese cuisine.

When I think about Japanese food I cannot help but think about sushi. Being not much of a fan of seafood at the best of times, the thought of raw fish makes me uneasy at best. However, I, like so many people, have been labouring under the misconception that sushi involves raw fish. I have now learnt that the raw fish version of sushi is in fact called sashimi. Sushi is the name for the type of rice used - a short grained rice that turns sticky when cooked. Sushi rice is just like risotto rice and I have used rice from a bag labelled "sushi rice" to successfully make risotto. This rice is wrapped around a core of something that defines the name of the sushi roll and is enclosed in a thin layer of black seaweed called nori. The core can be pretty much anything but is often egg in an omelette form, cucumber or, for more western tastes, chicken. It may also be raw fish, squid, octopus or similar in the case of sashimi.

Having had this explained to me, I was less reluctant to taste sushi and it was in March 2013 when we all went to Piccadilly Circus to the Japanese Centre to eat sushi and shop for Japanese food and cute Bento items. Even though there was no raw fish involved, I didn't, unfortunately, like sushi. The taste of the nori to me was over powering and was reminiscent of the smell of the strandline on a beach on a hot summer's day. I guess it is fairly predictable that someone who doesn't like "fishy" flavours is unlikely to like sushi. In contrast my husband and daughters loved it and have been fans of it ever since so it was well worth the experience. Just round the corner to the Japanese Centre was a shop called Minamoto Kitchoan, selling authentic Japanese confectionery so we popped in there too and bought some amazing things unlike anything I had ever considered to be a sweet before. Unlike Haribo or pick n mix, these were more like individual hand crafted mini-desserts, with a price to reflect this. Rather than absently cramming them into our mouths one after another, we made sure we ate each one slowly, concentrating on the flavours and texture - perhaps the way sweets should be eaten.

Back in October 2015, there was a street food fair organised by MXMK at The Buszy near to the train station. As part of this event, there was a free 2 hour Japanese cooking course so I enthusiastically signed my eldest daughter and me up for it. It was good too. We were shown how to cook Japanese omelette and gyoza dumplings and we were shown how to make sushi. I even managed to pursue the lady running the course to try making sushi without the nori so that I could enjoy some for a change. It was a very hands on experience and very useful to see it being done and to be able to ask questions rather than just reading a recipe. We enjoyed all the flavours too and were keen to try it at home.

A couple of weeks later we drove up to the Asian supermarket, Central Oriental, in Bradwell Abbey industrial estate, just round the corner from Concrete Cow Brewery. There we stocked up on sushi rice, nori, dumpling skins and a few other authentic flavours and a bamboo sushi mat. Then the following weekend we spent a good few hours creating pork gyoza and sushi. That evening we tucked into our first "Japanese" as opposed to our usual Saturday evening "Chinese". Not only was it tasty but it was different, something I always welcome. Our horizons had been broadened and we are all the better for it.


150g sushi rice
40ml sushi vinegar
Nori sheets
Other ingredients such as cucumber, egg, fish, cooked chicken

Put the rice into a large saucepan and fill the pan with water. Gently stir with your hand then tip the water away. Repeat until the water remains clear then leave it in the water to soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain the rice and measure out 180ml water and pour this into the pan. Put on the lid then bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Once cooked, remove from the heat and leave to steam for 10-15 minutes. Whilst still warm, stir in the sushi vinegar and then use a fan or a chopping board to fan the rice to cool it down and remove the moisture.

If you want to make egg sushi, now cook a Japanese omelette. To do this, beat one to two eggs in a jug and add a splash of soy sauce, fish sauce and sesame oil. Heat some oil in a small frying pan. Traditional Japanese omelette pans are rectangular and these can be purchased at Asian supermarkets or online on Amazon or ebay. Alternatively, you can just use a small round one. Heat a little oil in the pan then pour in a thin layer of egg mix. As it quickly begins to set, start to roll it up, rolling it away from you towards the back of the pan. Now add another thin layer of egg mix, tipping the pan and lifting the roll of omelette up slightly so that the new egg attaches to it. Now roll the omelette from the back of the pan to the front, wrapping the new layer of egg around it as you go. Repeat until you have used up all the egg. You can serve this warm to eat straight away as an omelette but for use in sushi, let it cool down then cut it into long, thin strips.

To make a sushi roll, cut a sheet of nori in half and place it on a bamboo sushi mat about 4 pieces of bamboo from one end.  Next take an egg sized clump of cooked sushi rice in your hand then with wet hands spread it out quickly on the nori, leaving a little nori free around the top edge. Try not to prod and poke it too much as it squishes the rice and doesn't really help with spreading it out.

Place a strip of filling onto the rice such as cucumber, omelette, cooked chicken or fish.

Now roll the sushi up by quickly lifting the bamboo mat and curving it so that the closest edge of rice comes down on the free edge of nori.

Gently press down to make sure the sushi has closed properly. It is important to not over fill the sushi or it will not seal properly and will look messy.

You should now have a long length of sushi and this can be cut into individual portions using a large, very sharp knife and a swift downwards slicing motion. Use a damp cloth to clean the knife between cuts to remove the build up of sticky rice on the knife which will stop it cutting otherwise.

Arrange on a plate or tray and serve cold with soy sauce for dipping.

Gyoza (Japanese Pan-Fried Dumplings)

Gyoza can be filled with any number of different ingredients and it is common to see frozen vegetables ones or prawn ones in the supermarkets these days. This is a recipe for pork and cabbage ones.

1 pack of frozen gyoza skins, thawed
100g sweetheart cabbage (the ones that are pointed at one end)
250g pork mince
50-60g spring onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tablespoon of grated root ginger
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons miso paste
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Finely chop the cabbage and put into a large bowl. Add the other filling ingredients and mix together with your hands until everything is evenly distributed. Put a little water into a small dipping bowl and carefully lay one of the gyoza skins in the palm of one hand.

Place a heaped teaspoon of the filling mixture into the centre of the skin. Use a finger dipped in water to trace a line along the edge of half of the skin.

Fold the skin over the filling and push it together at one corner. Make a pleat in the skin and press down. Repeat until you have enclosed the filling with a neatly pleated edge.

The gyoza should be flat on the bottom and domed over the filling. Repeat until you have used up all the filling. The gyoza can be frozen at this point and can be cooked from frozen at a later date or cooked from fresh now.

To cook, use a wok or frying pan that has a lid. Heat some oil in the frying pan then place a few of gyoza in the pan so that they are not touching. Cook then for about 3 minutes until they are golden brown on the base. Now quickly pour a quarter of a cup of water into the pan and put on the lid. Turn the heat down if necessary so that it is just simmering. After about 2 minutes the dumpling skins should look slightly translucent. At this point, remove the lid and turn the heat up a little and continue to cook until the the water has evaporated. This should take about another 2 minutes. Serve hot with a dipping sauce made of 2 parts soy sauce to 1 part rice vinegar and a few drops of sesame or chilli oil.