GBBO and a note on shame

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There is a certain magic on pressing a button, feeling the whir of the food processor, and watching light breadcrumb pastry dough form before you eyes in moments. It’s all the more disappointing therefore when it doesn’t work out. The other day, I watched instead as a pale golden play dough formed in the bowl. I was my own fault – I knew immediately that it had been foolish to throw Lurpak into the mix when I ran out of real butter. But it is my instinct to make do when I am cooking and work it out as I go. Normally pitfalls like this would not throw me in the least but this time it was important that I got it right; I was cooking for my first ever supper club. I would host an evening for 12 family friends, serving 3 courses with all profits going toward my fundraising for Raleigh International.

For a moment I contemplated restarting my dough but for that I would need new ingredients, would spend more money, would take less profit for charity. Instead I threw in some extra flour, pulsed the processor, and hoped for the best. There must be other moments like this where getting it right counted but you couldn’t perfect it. The Great British Bake Off, a UK baking show, sprang to mind. “Would Paul Hollywood be proud of this pastry?” I pondered. So often, the stressed bakers are forced by their time limit, simply to make do. Paul Hollywood’s piercing blue eyes hold their gaze as he judges them. He will comment on their failings. The new series began on Wednesday. In the first episode alone, two bakers came close to tears. Any contemplation of applying for the show were washed away; I could not imagine placing myself under such pressure. My cooking is about throwing in whatever ingredients I find lying around in arbitrary amounts until I hit on something beautiful. My cooking is inspired by a quotation on the back of a sketchbook my grandma gave me many years ago: “The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”. We seem to be living in a culture of shame. Mistakes mean resignation when they should mean reform. Unless we are encouraged when we make mistakes, we won’t have the motivation to grow and learn from them. It seems wrong.

And how was the tart? The filling was rich and divine. The pastry was the most crumbling, melt-in-the-mouth that I had ever baked. Would Paul have been proud? Who gives a shit? I was proud.

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Healthy travel tips

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In September I’m travelling to Tanzania for three months with the charity Raleigh International for a placement. I’m excited and scared. This won’t be a holiday. We undertake pre-departure training and training in country. Independent travel is not allowed and the projects we work on will be constantly under review. To add to the challenge, we will each live with a host family and an in-country volunteer but without other UK volunteers, meaning hosts may not speak much English. My Swahili still needs work… To top it off, our access to electricity and running water will be limited and to phones and wifi to call home: non-existent.

Staying healthy is such an important part of happy travelling. Obvious injections and hygiene are the first part but the internet is a boon of fab tips for new travellers. Here are a few of my finds…
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26 tips to help you survive a long haul flight

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How to stay in shape while travelling

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How to keep fit while you travel

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 15 Home made Travel Snacks

Finally, Raleigh is an amazing charity. As part of our training, we are all asked to raise money. This does not fund the trip. Instead, it ensures the valuable work of Raleigh can continue. To find out more about this amazing charity or the ICS programme, Click Here.

If you can donate, please consider doing so here: JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Athens: one week in the crisis

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I’ve been putting off writing about this for a long time for fear that I could not do justice to the experience. However I finally think I may have digested enough. Politics seems to be taking the front pages of the newspapers – here in the UK at least – so the refugee crisis has taken a backseat in the public mind for the time being. This doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.

Near the beginning of this year I got the chance to join a group of students at my university in travelling to Athens to volunteer. The group was brought together by  a student at my university who lived in Athens and had spent Christmas volunteering in Lesvos. She had seen firsthand the people suffering and wanted to do what she could. People often ask whether I traveled with an NGO but the truth is, the situation is not that organised. Most of the work I saw is grass-roots, self-organised with little overarching organisation for an area.

We left home about 2.30am on a cold, misty night. We slept a four hour journey down to the airport and a two hour flight. We wondered zombie-like through the airport and metro and finally found ourselves in the blaring sun in central Athens. After dumping our bags at our AirBnB, we went out for a meal, fueled by the buzz of over-tiredness. Then we headed into the Athens night. This first walk through the humid, rainy city brought home what my week was set to be. None of us knew exactly where we were headed or what we would find. We were exhausted and got lost and I was near tears by the time we got back. But this was a rekkie. We had heard of a number of “houses” set up in abandoned buildings and providing space for as many people as they could. They were run by locals who had the bravery and initiative to make a difference. These places had space for only around 100 people at a time: tiny fraction of those who needed them.There were no maps or advertisements. We simply had to search. We visited two houses that night. Both had people sitting or standing outside, smoking or talking. Some eyed us with suspicion, some smiled. The houses were not built for people – one was an old tax office – and the narrow corridors were almost always full. Only one had any form of planning for volunteers that coming week and when we went to sign up, the schedule was empty.

The next couple of days, five of us took work at the house, while the others went elsewhere. Throughout the week we moved through the camps and home scattered about the city. Each place was so different yet our tasks were almost exclusively sorting, folding, and handing out donated clothing. The first day at the house, we spent hour after hour trying to get the piles, boxes, and shelves in some sort of order so people could find what they needed. I spent one afternoon literally up to my waste in baby clothes, close to despair as I tried to sort them into age groups and force them into the shelving space designed to take half the volume. At Piraeus, the port which seems to have become notorious for its camp, we sat in the dust on the floor of a huge, dark, cold, and grimy warehouse sorting and folding. At what had once been an Olympic hockey stadium, I spend two hours straight slicing bread and blistered my fingers in the process.

I only spent a week there and often I felt like giving up. Hours spent sorting would end in ten minutes of people, desperately searching for coats, scarves, basic clothing to protect them from the cold or replace what they had been wearing for days. By the time the panicked search was over, our hours of work would be totally undone. I can’t help but think of tales of Black Friday in America where violence breaks out over a good deal. Though searches here were desperate in some cases, the people took the clothing with such gratitude. These items were not only free but desperately needed yet those searching through would do all they could to thank us and if they spoke no English, to smile.

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Things weren’t always pretty. One morning we found the warehouse had been broken into overnight. One time we had to turn away a pregnant woman asking for shoes, because we had none in her size. When handing out donations, we had to place a limit on what we gave so that everyone got a chance. It isn’t the place of a group of students to deny donations to people in need but the truth is, we could see no better way when there wasn’t enough to go around. It is hard to know how to reconcile yourself with that. Yet there was no clear agency to oversee things. I saw little more of Red Cross and UNHCR than the odd medical van. That is not to say they are not doing what they can. Simply that there is more to be done than seems possible.

One hot day we stood in a shipping container set along the slab of concrete in Piraeus that had become the home of so many, sorting donations for distribution later. The container acted like an oven and we took regular breaks to sit just outside, gulp down water and wipe the sweat from out faces. At regular intervals, people would approach. Some spoke in English, others pointed, all asking for water. In some cases we had to hug our bottles protectively to us “It’s for me. I can’t give it to you. I have no more to give. I’ll have nothing to drink.” We pointed them to the other end of the concrete: “water is that way”. But finally, one of our group decided to make sure our second-hand information was right so we sent off. We had been told a blue shipping container was doing water distributions but as we neared the end of the camp, we found nothing. Several medical vans and charity workers were about. We started with Red Cross. “We don’t know. Check UNHCR.” UNHCR sent us somewhere else. We bounced from place to place seeing no sign of water and I began to feel I had stepped out of reality and lost myself in a Kafka novel. Finally someone came out of one of the canteen to speak to us. She seemed exasperated. “We’re not giving out water bottles” she said as though it was the thousandth time that day. “There’s water on tap that’s fine to drink. They just don’t want to because they’ve come from places where you can’t drink tap water.” I wondered why she wasn’t telling the people around us that. Then I wondered why I wasn’t telling the people around us that. I couldn’t speak there language in most cases and what good was telling one or two people in a few thousand? We traipsed back to the shipping container demoralized. Others came by that afternoon to ask for water and we told them they could fill their bottles from the tap but later that day, when we were gone; that night when more people arrived; next week when god knows what was happening, who would be there to tell people where to get water from?

The essence of the crisis seemed to be that no one could plan ahead. Everyone is so busy just about managing that there is no space to breath and plan, let alone to communicate and coordinate. Everything we did was so necessary but it would be necessary all over again tomorrow.

I was near tears several times during the trip but they weren’t always unhappy. The moments so vivid in my mind were moments of utterly beautiful human nature. One afternoon during our break a group of children asked us by gesture to join their game of catch outside their parents’ tents. A striking woman in a turquoise scarf looked on protectively from one and although she said nothing to us, she looked so glad that her children had these moments of joy. When we went to leave, she called to us and held up a phone to take a photo of us with the children.

The next day one of the little girls from the game of catch ran up to me and held out her fist. I opened my palm and into it she dropped two gold plastic earrings. They are the sort of things I would have treasured for dressing up when I was her age. I would have put up a fight before letting anyone else take them, yet this girl with so little insisted that I take them. After I hugged her she ran away seeming quite happy, tailed by her little sister, who had acquired a plastic viking sword and helmet from the donations earlier that day.

I don’t know what will happen to those people who had such an impact on me, or to the thousands like them. I can’t pretend to have any expertise or begin to make suggestions. I only hope that the generosity and goodness I saw both in migrants and volunteers can begin to counteract the ugliness and difficulty of the situation. Bad things are happening but the only way to act, it seems to me is with some patience and compassion.

If you are considering volunteering, donating, or doing anything for this cause, I urge you to do so. Plan carefully and stay safe if you want to travel to any of the camps. The best way is to contact current volunteer co-coordinators via Facebook or email  beforehand. There are a lot of people already doing incredible work but more is needed. Anything you can do is worthwhile. Expert help is especially treasured but the manual labour to get food and clothes to those in need is also great. I was there for a week and the situation varied from day to day so I can’t comment on how it compares now to when I went but if you are considering doing anything, I urge you to act.

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Curiosity: 5 days raw vegan

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I had to admit to myself, as I made my way through a small mountain of crisps one Sunday night, that this had not been a healthy weekend. That, a bucket of salted caramel frozen yoghurt, and chocolate. It’s true the working week I had stuck to my resolution: no junk food, no alcohol. But in the end denying myself the food I wanted only made me more likely to binge when I did allow the indulgence. The healthiest way is everything in moderation.

This certainly does nothing to explain why the satisfaction I got from my my mostly-milk decaf latte would have to last me the following five days.

Until Saturday morning I would be raw vegan. That was the plan at least.

Day 1:

I had tried to make up for my junk-food-extravaganza by pre-prepping breakfast for the following morning. But as I tucked into my overnight oats with kiwi and balsamic vinegar, I realised I had already failed; balsamic is not raw…

In fact, after a little googling I discovered that some raw vegans claimed that vinegar contained toxins produced in the cooking process which built up in the body, supposedly causing cancer, and that this is common in most cooked foods. My strange breakfast combination had come about because I had read an article claiming vinegar is good for stabilizing blood sugar. I was at a loss but not yet defeated.

I tackled lunch with enthusiasm: sliced apple and carrot drizzled with tahini. It was simple but tasty. Dinner too was easy: fresh peas, lemon juice, black pepper and tahini blended into a “gazpacho soup”.

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Day 2:

Soaked oats attempt 2, this time topped only with fresh fruit. Lunch was a repeat of dinner the night before since it was easy to pack away and take to work. By dinner I was feeling bored and uninspired. I began to look up raw vegan recipes. I have meandered through these numerous times in the past and it struck me that the majority are cakes and biscuits rather than meals. These recipes also seem to be made up of the same ingredients every time…coconut, dates, maple syrup, oats, cashews… not only are these expensive, but surely the wonderful variety of recipes hides the fact they must all taste the same.

That night I was hosting a movie night, so alongside the normal snacks, I tried my hand at some raw vegan cookies:
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coconut cream
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They were fine but they were not cookies. Blended together, my ingredients formed an unappealing brown dough. This was to be frozen to set, which worked, but half an hour after coming out of the freezer the sludge had returned.

This also has me wondering: is cocoa raw? I had initially planned to make a carrot-pasta sauce for dinner with some tomato puree, but this too is surely not raw. In fact, what in my kitchen was raw? I had only being trying this diet for two days and I didn’t even know whether I was succeeding. I had begun this challenge thinking that the main issue would be craving cooked food. Instead, it was boredom from the lack of variety and confusion as to what I was even allowed to eat.

I can’t fault recipes such as these wonderful Nori wraps from thekitchn (link here). But, though the recipe claims to be raw and vegan, most of the Nori I have come across is toasted and for hummus (also in these) chickpeas need to be cooked.

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Day 3: I made a tactical retreat.

I realised that this diet was a lot more than I had bargained for. I didn’t have a dehydrator: an apparently essential appliance in a raw vegan kitchen and so many recipes require significant pre-planning. I’m fine with dehydrating something for several hours or soaking overnight on the odd occasion but not for every meal.

Only two days on a raw vegan diet was not long enough to feel any effects but it didn’t feel healthy. My new loyalty to the gym (let’s see how long that lasts) means I am looking to up my protein intake and it seems that the main raw vegan protein sources are also high in fats. Nuts and seeds are great and full of good fats but “good” does not mean you can eat as much as you want without worrying.

It felt to me like this diet was about cutting out all “bad” foods so that you can gorge yourself on those few “good” things but that’s not what a healthy diet is about. My initial belief that most things in moderation is best still holds.

I fully intend to make a second attempt at raw veganism but this time with research and planning by my side. Yet what I know so far has not sold the diet to me in any way.

 

Re-adjusting

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Nigel Farage claims Britain can – should – have an independence day; other countries have one. Why not us? The irony seems to have escaped him that many of those countries celebrate the day they won the long and bloody battle – literally or socially – for independence from colonial rule by Britain.

But I’m not here to rant. I’m not here to talk about Brexit at all. Those following the issue have likely had enough by now and those outside can certainly find a more eloquent and informed opinion than mine.

But it’s a readjustment. I never thought Brexit would happen but what I’ve seen in the last couple of years is politics being turned on its head. I’m just learning to live in this unreliable world. I went to one of those academic schools that tried its utmost to press everyone into going to university and for most of my child- and young adult- hood I assumed, as most do, that my way of life was as normal for everyone as it was for me. It was impressed into me that all of school was working towards going to university – a good university, to get a good degree – and then you’d get a good job. Life was that simple. But when school is your life: where you spend all your time, the source of all your friends and achievements, then university becomes the culmination of everything up to this point. Is it any wonder that levels of stress and anxiety are on the rise with that sort of pressure?

I’ve been to university. I went for three years and got a good degree. I made friends, got involved and had an amazing time. I learned a lot, though mostly not from studying. Now I’m done. Those three years passed in a flash and despite my degree I am not set for the future. I feel as much of an imposter applying for jobs as ever and I am far less sure about what I really want to be doing. So it’s time to take a moment to breath and readjust.

Brexit, among other things is a sign that the world I’m trying to plan my future in is shifting under my feet and all I can plan is what I’m doing with myself. If biology taight me anything it’s the value of resilience. I want to read and write, to keep fit and keep learning. I want to be able to take care of myself and to value the small things in life. These are my roots and with these I can grow.

Black sesame hummus

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My mum is against eating anything not-food-coloured, which seems sensible until you find out it means she won’t eat Oreos. Fortunately, after some suspicious looks, she agreed to try my latest kitchen experiment. I don’t know that I’ve turned her around, but this at least has her seal of approval.

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Grey hummus might not be the most photogenic or appetising creation, but it tastes damn good. Black sesame seems to be found more commonly, though not exclusively, in sweet foods but after discovering an extortionately priced pot of black tahini online, I knew I wanted to try is. The recipe is unlike ordinary hummus. It’s rich, sweet and salty. Adjust the ingredients to your liking, try new things (maybe add something to make the colour a little less-sludge-like).

Ingredients

3 tbsp black sesame seeds
1 tbsp olive oil/vegetable oil
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp icing sugar
1/4 tsp salt
200g chickpeas cooked until very soft
3tbsp water

Method

Grind the sesame into a fine powder (a coffee grinder is perfect!)
Tip the seeds into a bowl and add the oil, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Mix into a thick paste.
Finally blend the chickpeas and water. Add the tahini and continue to blend until fully mixed.

Loveliness in the Gloom

I recently joined the student food co-op and ordering seasonal vegetable bags each week

We are well into the months of gloom. It is warmer here than is usual for this time of year, but that is not all good news. The deep grey clouds hang over us. The skips have disappeared from the streets but many shops are still empty; still in silent shock after the floods. Winds race the cars up the main streets while the hardiest of off-season tourists still trudge the streets. Nonetheless, there is some beauty in the gloom.

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I’m growing some of my own winter veg. The leaves and stems of beet are gorgeous

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Day 2 of my first go at sprouting mung beans

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I recently joined the student food co-op and ordering seasonal vegetable bags each week

 

 

Cook celery! Here’s how

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Celery is totally underrated. I’ve learned this on a diet which precludes me from eating onion or garlic. Celery is too rarely sidelined – eaten raw, or included only in stock. So here is a gorgeous, healthy broth to make the most of that celery…

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Ingredients (serves 2)
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp tumeric
2 tsp dried coriander
2 tsp sumac
pinch salt
1 celery heart, chopped
100g puy lentils
500ml vegetable stock
4 large handfuls curly kale leaves
4 tbsp chopped dill

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Mix together the tumeric, coridaner, sumac and salt and add to the oil to begin to infuse. Add the celery and lightly sauté for 2-3 minutes. Stir until covered in the oil and beginning to soften.
Add the lentils and stir to cover with the oil and spices.
Pour over the stock and pour in the vegetable stock.
Top with the kale.
Bring to the boil and then turn down to a low simmer. Cook for 20-25 minutes until the lentils are al dente.
Take off the heat and stir in the dill.

For a little more spice, serve with a pinch of cayenne pepper and a dollop of greek yogurt to top!

A sunny winter salad

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New Year’s resolutions anyone? Or is that all old hat by now? Well, call me cliché but I’m on the typical health kick and I thought I’d share a salad with you lovely folks.

Ingredients – serves 2
200g carrots (about 3 medium)
1 tsp melted coconut oil
pinch of salt (I use chili salt)
3 large celery sticks
2 medium beetroots
1 apple
1 pot salad cress
Half an orange
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp sumac
Ground black pepper

Chop the carrots into thumb sized pieces and toss in the oil and salt. Roast for 20 minutes at 250°. Set aside the carrots until cool.

Chop the celery, beetroot and apple into dice-size chunks and place in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss. Voila! Enjoy xx

Chocolate, walnut and halva tray-bake-cake

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I’ve wanted to try Halva for so long and baking it in to brownies seemed like it could only be a good idea. I’ve been trying all sorts of ways to develop a good, crispy-on-the-outside low FODMAP brownie recipes but I haven’t got there yet, so if anyone can help me, please…advice!

Until then, I have what I am calling a tray bake instead. This is chocolate cake at it’s best – soft, rich and slightly crumbly without being in the least dry. You wouldn’t even know it was gluten and dairy free (honest).

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Ingredients
200g banana
150g dark chocolate (vegan if you want it dairy free)
25g dark brown sugar
25g cocoa
25g ground almonds
1/2 tbsp instant coffee
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 bicarbonate of soda
60g chopped walnuts
60g crumbled Halva (make sure to avoid any with honey in if low FODMAP)
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 180°C

Roughly break the banana into a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high for 50 seconds. Take a knife and thoroughly mash the banana. Break the chocolate into the bowl with the banana and heat again for 50 seconds.
Mix the chocolate and banana until you have a smooth, chocolate paste.

Add sugar, cocoa, almonds, coffee, salt and bicarb and mix well.
Stir in the walnuts and halva.

Separate the eggs, placing the whites into a clean bowl. Add the yolk to the other ingredients and combine.

Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks (about 1 minute with an electric beater). Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the egg white mixture into the batter to loosen it. Then slowly add the batter to the egg white, mixing together with a metal spoon so as to beat out as little air as possible.

Pour into a tray lined with grease-proof paper and bake for 15 minutes.