Thursday, 27 November 2008

A Goat By Any Other Name Still Would Not Smell Sweet

There is another ingredient out there that is used in the kitchens of fine restaurants with almost as much frequency as the ubiquitous foie gras. It’s even turning up on some Christmas menus this year! Produced in most countries in the world, this cheese has many fans world wide. Sadly I am not one of them. So I set out to discover more about this very popular cheese I would really love to enjoy, but just cannot seem to.

The ingredient I am referring to is, of course, goat’s cheese. Now I have been trying to like goat’s cheese for about fifteen years now. I can remember the first time I tasted it, taking a piece from a cheese platter at a dinner party. We were chatting about the cheeses on the platter and when I asked what kind of cheese this particular one was the reply was “chevre”. I was very good at French in school and I do manage to get by when we visit my husband’s old school friends in France, but I'd had a couple glasses of wine and it took me a minute to remember that chevre meant goat. Just about as much time as it took me to get the cheese to my lips in fact.

I cannot honestly say that I tasted that piece of cheese in an unbiased manner, as the horror of the word I had just translated in my head was only just beginning to seep through. Nothing against goats you understand, but having been forced to participate in numerous school trips to local farms as a child I was not a huge fan of these animals. The thing about goats for me is that they look so cute from a distance, but when you get close up they look dirty and the smell, well, let’s just not go there. Not only that, but they tend to nip when you feed them – rather painfully in fact – although I was assured this was just nuzzling. Yeah right.

So the piece of cheese I was tasting immediately took on a life of its own, and all those overwhelming farmyard smells of the past assailed my brain. I just managed to swallow the piece of cheese I was eating. I did not, I decided, like goat’s cheese at all.

This is a real shame, because goat’s cheese is actually incredibly good for you. Easier to digest than cheese made from cow’s milk and full of calcium and nutrients, it’s smaller fat globules make it easier to digest than bovine alternatives. It’s also an incredibly versatile cooking ingredient and is lower in cholesterol than cheese made from cow’s milk.

Everyone else I know seems to love goat’s cheese. Not only that, but they are vocal campaigners for it. Whenever I have had the temerity to admit I don’t actually like it, I find folks are very quick to come to its defence. Their major argument is that not all goat’s cheese tastes the same. This is very true. In fact, the French goat’s cheese I tasted the first time was probably the strongest sort available, due to the diet consumed by French goats. You see goat’s cheese tastes different depending on where it is made. The diet goats eat varies wildly from country to country. For example, while Canadian goat’s cheese is quite mildly flavoured, Spanish goat’s cheese is more distinctive as the goats eat wild herbs. English goat’s cheese tastes different yet again. Incidentally, the old wives’ tale that goats will eat garbage if they are allowed to is not true. Goats are just naturally curious and will nibble anything just to find out what it is (including my fingers). However they won’t actually eat it, indeed goat farmers are quick to point out that goats are actually quite fussy and will refuse poor quality food.

The other good thing about goat’s cheese is that most of it is made in a way that makes it suitable for vegetarians. This means you can use it when cooking for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, a real boon if you have both carnivores and herbivores coming to dinner. This does raise a problem for me though.

Although I am far from vegetarian, I love vegetarian food and often like to order it in restaurants. Unfortunately, more and more, the vegetarian choice on a lot of menus includes goat’s cheese. One of my favourite vegetarian pizzas in our local pizzeria is now off limits for me as they have replaced the mozzarella with goat’s cheese, much to my intense disappointment. In fact, in most restaurants I have been to recently, there is a surfeit of dishes containing this ingredient. It’s almost getting hard to avoid!

So, I have continued to attempt to like goat’s cheese. Over the last few months, I have re-tasted the French variety, sampled Italian Caprino, British goat’s cheese, Canadian goat’s cheese and everything in between. I have tasted crumbly White Nancy and I have even sampled the hysterically named Welsh Pantysgawn. (Okay it doesn’t sound funny if you pronounce it correctly in Welsh, but if you pronounce it phonetically – well, I’ll leave you to do that for yourselves.)

I really, truly, do not like any of the goat’s cheeses I have tasted, and goodness knows I have tried to! Now goat farmers will insist that improved farming methods and hygiene have ensured that goat’s cheese no longer has the terrible smell it’s reputation has been tarnished with, and I agree that is the case, but it still does not help. I have even tasted goat’s cheese not knowing it was goat’s cheese and somehow knew from the taste what it was.

So sadly for me, I don’t think I will ever be a convert to this amazing cheese. I’d urge everyone else to try it though. You can eat it as it comes with bread or crackers or you can cook with it very successfully. I’m told it is lovely toasted or even fried, and friends of mine have recipes for everything from peppers with lentils and goats cheese to roasted tomato and goat’s cheese tart. You can even make cheesecake with it! Added to its versatility are the clear health benefits of a cheese that is lower in cholesterol, calories and fat than other cheeses.

Sounds like a wonderful cheese for the 21st Century. Perhaps I’ll just give it one more try…

Friday, 21 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

I’m sure most everyone in the United States is already getting excited about Thanksgiving. It’s not long now till the fourth Thursday in November. Growing up in Canada, I always thought that Americans had it right when it came to celebrating Thanksgiving. Although the holiday weekend was a big deal in Canada, we only got one day off school, not two. We did have big family dinners, but it seemed to me that the ones in America looked much more exciting. We had parades as well, but who could compete with the spectacular balloons of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York? So I never felt that passionately about Canadian Thanksgiving. As the Canadian ancestors in my family tree travelled to America on the Mayflower (but later fled to Canada as United Empire Loyalists), I liked the pilgrim story. It was much more interesting than dusty old explorers Martin Frobisher and Samuel de Champlain celebrating with the Indians. This opinion made me very unpopular with patriotic teachers in primary school. I did love the family get-togethers and Thanksgiving food, and of course, I was grateful for all the blessings I had, but it wasn’t until I left Canada in 1989, that I suddenly realised how much I loved Thanksgiving.

I came to this realisation because Thanksgiving just didn’t seem to exist here in England. The first year I lived here, the second Monday in October came and went, and no mention was made of Thanksgiving. As my fianc√©es family had lived in the United States for several years I nurtured the faint hope that they might celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but that didn’t materialise either. I never said anything, because I was at the point in my life where I didn’t want to stand out. I was the new kid on the block – okay I was the immigrant – and hated to mention anything that made me seem any more foreign than I already felt. But as a married woman two years later, I decided that we would celebrate Thanksgiving, and we would celebrate it the second Monday in October just as my family always had. Unfortunately I had no idea just how difficult that was going to be. My first stop was, of course, the grocery store. Finding the usual Thanksgiving ingredients seemed like it would be fairly easy in Autumnal England. Potatoes were readily available, and vegetables of every description lined the shelves of the produce department. It was not until I got to the meat department that my problems began. I looked everywhere for a turkey but there was none to be found. I went to the butcher counter to ask the man himself. After I made my request, the butcher looked at me as though I had asked for something very exotic, like maybe ostrich or boar.

“Turkeys?” he asked. “Yes, please, “ I replied. “You won’t find fresh turkeys this time of year, only at Christmas. You might find a frozen one though”. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Three grocery stores later and I was still in the same boat. No one had fresh turkey and the frozen ones were clearly left over from Christmas 1985 (this was 1991), totally frosted up and unappetising. There wasn’t a Butterball to be found. You should have seen the butcher’s face in the store where I asked for those! “Butter’s in the dairy section,” was only the beginning. In the end all I had for my first Thanksgiving dinner in England was some potatoes, vegetables and some very dodgy looking packaged stuffing. Not only that, but my request for cranberry sauce had been met with utter confusion. Ocean Spray wouldn’t make it over here for several years after that. So in the end I cooked a chicken. The stuffing tasted rather strange to me and without the cranberry sauce, well, as far as I was concerned, it could have been any old Sunday lunch. There was not even any pumpkin pie. It was very disappointing. Over the years I coped by either arranging to be in Canada for Thanksgiving or by smuggling jars of cranberry sauce and packages of Stove Top stuffing back in my luggage after our Canadian summer vacations. But if it was Thanksgiving in England, it was always chicken. The past five or six years have been so chaotic for us I hardly even thought about making Thanksgiving dinner, except the times we were in Canada with my Dad and Mom. But their deaths twelve and eleven months ago respectively suddenly made me crave the Thanksgiving tradition again. It was important to me to celebrate not only Thanksgiving itself, but also the happy memories I have of them at Thanksgiving. This year, cooking Thanksgiving dinner was a little different. I still had to cook chicken, but the rest of the ingredients were much easier. I managed to find a supplier of Stove Top stuffing here in England. Okay, it makes my hair curl paying the equivalent seven dollars for something I could have bought for $1.99 in Canada, but for a treat, it’s worth it. And I found proper Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce here too. We finally got Ocean Spray products about seven years ago, but this year I even found the sauce with whole berries like I used to buy in Canada – oh joy! And my son helped me make the dinner. While he peeled parsnips I shared my secrets for a homemade Butterball. If you buy a big chicken, lift the skin up off the breast and slide a few pieces of butter in underneath you get an effect not unlike a Butterball turkey. I also showed him how to make a pumpkin pie using Libby’s Tinned Pumpkin – in my opinion, the only way to go. But that’s another column.

And when we sat down to steaming plates heaving with juicy chicken (which I insisted on referring to as turkey), stuffing, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips, leeks and gravy it was with glad and thankful hearts. We rejoiced in our blessings, toasted absent friends and family, talked about happy memories and celebrated Thanksgiving as never before. So spare a thought for friends and family abroad when you celebrate Thanksgiving. Remember that sometimes it isn’t easy to keep to traditions and think how much you’d miss them if you couldn’t. It even makes listening to the same old stories for the seven hundredth time or keeping Great Aunt Mildred out of the sherry seem like fun. Wherever and whenever you celebrate, I wish you many blessings, and a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The 21st Century Housewife Meets the Original Domestic Goddess

On Sunday my family and I attended the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia in London. The British Broadcasting Corporation holds several Good Food Shows every year in throughout the UK. They are a coming together of food and beverage producers, television personalities and people who love food and drink - so they are my kind of place!

I was more excited about the show on Sunday than I have ever been before as it afforded an opportunity to see Nigella Lawson cooking live. Back in 2003, when Nigella published her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess", I had gotten to the stage where cooking stressed me out completely. Although I was good at it, I was getting myself so worked up about doing everything perfectly I had stopped enjoying it. Dinner parties were no longer fun, they were incredibly stressful events that often found me near to tears in the kitchen. Nigella's relaxed attitude - and her firmly tongue in cheek use of the word "domestic goddess" - encouraged me to get back in there and enjoy myself. It was life changing. I've been a huge fan ever since.

I've been to several BBC Good Food shows before, but never one at Olympia. I have to say it is the best venue I have ever visited. The layout of the hall it was held in was such that you did not feel claustrophobic, despite the fact it was very busy. You could easily visit all the exhibitors and taste their wares. There was a really lovely atmosphere as well. Most of the exhibitors were hugely enthusiastic about their products and it showed. The funniest was a chap at a kiosk selling home-made fudge who was shouting "Come here my lovelies and taste my fudge" to all the girls. Let's just say he didn't have to ask anyone twice! All in all, there were a huge number of exhibitors at Olympia - organic producers, small farmers, the slow food movement, butchers, bakers, candy makers – almost everything you could imagine. There was even an entire section of producers of Gluten Free products. From bread to cookies and cakes to ice cream cones, there were a huge number of products available for those with a gluten allergy. Although I don't have any allergies, I tasted many of them and you really could not tell they were not "the real thing" - even the white bread! And as for some of the cookies and cakes, well, they were among the most delicious packaged products I have ever tasted.

In the centre of the hall was "The Restaurant Experience" - a section of kiosks from ten of London's top restaurants. Each one was producing small portions of their signature dishes that you could buy for your lunch. Sterling was exchanged for "dining currency" - which bore a strong resemblance to poker chips - in 1, 2 and 5 DC (dining currency) denominations. Most dishes cost between 3 and 5 DC. We were lucky enough to have reserved seats in the VIP area so we were able to sit down with a menu and decide what we wanted for starter, main course and dessert. There were suggested wines for each course as well although I stuck to soft drinks. The lovely thing was you could have as many dishes as you liked (budget permitting of course!) from as many of the kiosks as you wanted. For example, my starter was a fabulous Szechuan miso soup from Kai Mayfair, followed by Italian Tortellini with pork ragu at Refettorio and then dessert at Sumosan. Dessert was amazing - dark chocolate fondant filled with white chocolate, baked in the oven and then covered in green tea chocolate sauce. It looked beautiful and tasted delicious.

There was also an entire section where you could taste wines and spirits. I tend to avoid this section as it can lead to serious headaches, but it is a great opportunity to try new things and order wines and spirits at a serious discount. But as this was a daytime event (I rarely drink alcohol before 6pm), I resisted temptation and confined my beverage purchases to half a dozen bottles of a fabulous non-alcoholic ginger wine for mulling from Gran Stead's Ginger and some lovely cordials from the Pixley Berries Company.

The highlight of the day was Nigella Lawson’s presentation in the Icon Theatre. She was demonstrating how to make her edible Christmas Tree decorations. The nice thing about her demonstration was that she made you feel like you could actually make what she had, and that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t picture perfect, it really only mattered that you had fun doing it. It is such a refreshing attitude in these days of “perfect” this and “perfect” that! Nothing against Martha Stewart, but I always feel vaguely inadequate when I look at her flawless projects. I much prefer Nigella’s attitude – particularly as I am a recovering perfectionist! I left the presentation positively inspired and ready to do lots of Christmas baking this year.

Nigella has just published another book entitled Nigella Christmas, a gorgeous coffee table book, full of wonderful photographs as well as her inimitable writing. It transpired that she was doing a book signing after her presentation. I did not realise that my VIP pass meant that I would be taken straight to the front of the queue, so when I arrived at the signing and was immediately whisked up to meet the lady herself, I was a bit taken aback. I have always admired Nigella’s relaxed and joyful attitude towards food and cooking and I think her books are just amazing so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her. It was just the speed with which the opportunity presented itself was very startling and I found myself almost speechless. I need not have been nervous though. As you can see from the photograph above (that’s me in blue on the right), she is just as relaxed and friendly in person as she comes across in her writing and appears to be on television. I have met quite a number of high profile people over the years but I have never before met anyone in the public eye who was quite as genuine and unaffected as she was.

It was a really super show this year, one that all three of us enjoyed. There was plenty to hold the interest of both the 21st Century Husband and the 21st Century Teenager. As for me, I’m happy anywhere that good food, wine and inspiration come together. So bring on the mincemeat, glace cherries and candied peel, I’m all fired up and ready to get started on the Christmas preparations!

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Great Steak Controversy

Why is it that ordering a steak in a restaurant is almost always a difficult experience? First you explain to the waiter how you want your steak cooked, then you wait expectantly for it to arrive. Then, more often than not, you will have to send it back. Failing that, you will grit your teeth and eat it anyway even though it is either too rare or too well done. And then you pay for it. Not good. I travel a lot, and believe me, this happens in more restaurants than I'd like to admit.

Despite this, I have to confess, I have a real weakness for a good steak. Now, my definition of a good steak might not be yours. I like my steak cooked medium, warm throughout with a pink centre. Your good steak might be rare or even well done. Whatever your preference, you should be able to get exactly what you want when you order a steak in a restaurant. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

There are wildly varying degrees of how steak is cooked in restaurants around the world. A medium steak in America is a very different thing from a medium steak in England, as is a medium steak in England from one that has been cooked in France. And that is before you get to the medium steak cooked in England by a French chef! Travel to Cyprus and you’ll find that medium is closer to rare, and well done to medium. Different parts of Europe follow different rules of thumb, but generally lean towards cooking steak quite lightly. Even chefs in the same town cook according to different rules of doneness, many influenced by their country of birth or even how they like to eat their own steak.

The official standards for degrees of cooking are pictured left. The top steak in the picture, in which seventy-five percent of the centre is red and has an internal temperature of thirty to fifty-one degrees Celsius, is rare. Working downwards, medium rare has a fifty percent red centre and comes in at fifty-seven to sixty-three degrees Celsius. Third from the top, a medium steak should have a centre which is twenty-five percent pink and be sixty-three to sixty-eight degrees Celsius. Below that there is medium well, which has only a hint of pink and should be seventy-two to seventy-seven degrees Celsius internally. Finally, well done steak should be brown (not charred) and have an internal temperature of seventy-seven degrees Celsius.

Sadly, in my experience, chefs rarely pay attention to this guideline – and this incenses me. There seems to be a real prejudice against medium to well done steak, and an almost sinister attempt to force those of us who prefer our steaks cooked this way to change our ways.

Steak – and beef in general - is a very personal thing. Those who like it rare will explain that it keeps the steak tender, and that the juices are delicious. (At this point I cannot keep silent – if those “juices” are red then they are not “juices”. They are blood. But I digress.) Those of us who like our steaks medium will say that any further cooking dries the steak and spoils the experience. And those who prefer well done say that it is unappetising to eat meat that is still pink or red. And do you know what? On one level or another, we are all correct. Because you should have your steak cooked the way you like it – not the way you are told you ought to have it.

I used to like my steak well done – and more than once was served something that virtually resembled charcoal on the outside but was still red on the inside. Over the years, either my tastes have evolved or I have been beaten into submission, but I now enjoy a medium steak. Sadly, this does not seem to have helped much. Not that long ago, I sent back a steak three times in a very elegant (and expensive) restaurant in England as the French chef virtually refused to cook it anything beyond medium rare. Although we never saw the whites of each other’s eyes, the tension between us was palpable. The poor waiter was shaking by the end of it, and I had been very calm and polite throughout. Clearly the chef was not. If I am paying for a steak, I expect it to be cooked how I want it cooked, not how the chef feels it ought to be cooked. And if anyone tells me the steak will be tough if it is not cooked lightly, they ought to buy better steak.

So often a medium steak arrives looking very rare indeed – a medium steak I had a few weeks ago in Cyprus was actually bleeding on the plate. What is this preoccupation with undercooking a good steak? I mean, if you want to eat it rare, fine. I don’t. I want my steak cooked to medium – pink centre, warm throughout.

Now the obvious solution to this seems to be to order the steak cooked more thoroughly than how you would like it to be. In my experience, as soon as you ask for anything beyond medium well, many chefs just hear “burned” and provide you with what they think you’ve asked for. Many of my friends do like their steak well done. They have assured me that well done definitely does not mean burned. It means cooked slowly over low heat until it is brown (not black – brown) and warm throughout.

To any chefs out there who are trying to convert the world to the joys of rare steak – seriously, stick to the rules. You are the cook and I am the customer. If you think I’m a heathen for eating my steak cooked till it is pink inside and warm throughout, I have to confess I do not care. Just please cook it that way. You can try all you like, but I’m not going to eat rare steak just because you insist that is the way I should eat it. That just is not how it works.

Of course there are some amazing chefs out there and there are many places in the world where you can get a really good steak, cooked exactly as you want it to be. Some I have yet to discover, but I've found a good few. Harris’ Steak House in San Francisco is a place where they cook steak just as you order it. At the other end of the scale, most Outback restaurant chefs really hear you when you tell them how you want your steak cooked. The Brook House Restaurant in Staffordshire, England also does a very nice steak – particularly Steak Diane - as does Sam Sneed’s Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.

But if you are not close to one of those, don’ t be like the woman next to me in the restaurant in Cyprus who not only did not eat her $50 steak because it was too rare, but was too intimidated to send it back. If the steak that arrives at your table is not cooked how you would like to eat it, ask the waiter to request it is cooked a little longer. Expect the steak that returns to your table to have been gently helped along to the next level of doneness. If it has been anywhere near a microwave, complain again. If you are paying for it, it should be served as you have ordered it. Don’t be intimidated. Ordering steak in a restaurant should never be a stressful experience!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Very Reluctant Detox

Recently I found myself hitting a bit of a low point. I was totally stressed out, always feeling exhausted and there were points during the month where I took moodiness to a whole new level. Now it just happened that my husband was also very stressed at this point as was our son, who had exams in the offing. So a holiday was suggested. This sounded like a very good idea, so off we went for a week in the Cyprus sunshine. The first few days were idyllic. We laid by the pool, swam, visited the spa and totally relaxed. In the evenings, cocktails at seven led to dinner at eight, and after a walk in the evening breezes we would retire early and sleep like babies. Perfect.

Now, how often have you heard a friend complain that they no sooner went on holiday than they got sick? Well, that’s what happened to my husband and I. Clearly we had waited too long to take a break from the rat race because suddenly two people who had not been sick in literally years picked up a bacterial infection that made them feel utterly awful.

Aside from getting the appropriate treatment, my husband and I decided that perhaps it might be time to do a little light detoxing. This was not a decision I reached easily.

In fact, not so long ago, my yoga teacher suggested that I give up caffeine. I was horrified. My morning cup of coffee was sacrosanct, and I have always felt that any grumpiness exhibited before this cup of coffee was not only to be tolerated, it was to be expected. I’ve tried to moderate my caffeine intake before, limiting it to three caffeinated beverages a day. This was accomplished with a great deal of stress and was not usually very successful. Without sounding too negative, I tried to explain to my yoga teacher that this was a Very Bad Idea. After all, I was feeling exhausted as it was and without caffeine surely I would be even worse. “Caffeine,” she said to me patiently, “is the reason you are walking round exhausted. You are complaining of fatigue and stress. Aside from practicing yoga, you need to think about what you are putting in your body.”

She then proceeded to gently explain that everything I put in my mouth, from my first bite of toast in the morning to my glass of wine in the evening, affects how I feel. Now, I’ve known for years this is true in principle, but it is one of the facts of life I prefer to ignore. The 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen is not a place where you often hear the word detox. I enjoy the finer things in life and I love to share them with my friends. Wine, champagne, rich coffee and dark chocolate all have a place in my kitchen, alongside truffle oil, good fillet steak and a nice bottle of vintage port.

I have always been blessed with good health. I do drink lots of water, at least a couple of litres a day, and I watch what I eat both for reasons of appearance and health. I also exercise regularly and practice yoga. I have not even had so much as a cold in the last four years. But clearly I was sick now, and I needed to do something.

I decided to finally listen to my yoga teacher and drop the caffeine, and as we were taking antibiotics, my husband and I also decided to give alcohol a miss for a week or so. This was not a hardship for my husband, who has always been able to take or leave alcohol and who rarely finishes a cup of tea. For me, it was a decision taken very reluctantly. I love my coffee and my wine, and even knowing that I was not giving it up forever was making me feel really uncomfortable. I mean, wine was my great indulgence after the working day was over, and especially in these days of bad news all round the markets (both financial markets and supermarkets!) it was something I really looked forward to. I wanted to feel better though, and so very reluctantly committed to drop both wine and alcohol at the same time.

I was fascinated to discover that I found it easier to give up my glass of wine than my coffee. If you had asked me, I always would have said if I had to trade in coffee or wine, the coffee would go. But amazingly giving up the wine had absolutely no negative physical or mental effects on me at all. I’m not saying I didn’t fancy a glass, but it was just a matter of saying “no” to myself and that was it. Caffeine was a different story.

Three painful days into our detox, I was stressed out, tired, and had a caffeine withdrawal headache that could make me understand how the mythical Zeus might have felt when Athena burst forth from his head. It was taking a great deal of self control to prevent me from heading straight for the nearest Starbuck’s – or at least having a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc. However, after some thought, I was horrified to realise that if someone asked me what my top “cure” for stress or anxiety would be, my choices would be to have a coffee or (if it was the evening) a glass of wine. The shock of this realisation gave me all the willpower I needed to power through the caffeine withdrawal and pass on the Sauvignon.

Now, after nearly a week with absolutely no liquid caffeine at all (there is a line, I’m not giving up chocolate!) and no alcohol, I feel much more energised, I’m sleeping better and I have not been moody at all. Also the three o’clock slump is a thing of the past. I am also delighted to say we are both nearly better.

They say there is a reason for everything and whilst I am not very happy about coming back from holiday sick, or the stressful week we have had because of it, I have learned something very important. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, indeed everything we put in our mouths has a consequence. I don’t honestly think we realise how easy it is to develop a habit totally unwittingly. I mean, it’s not like a couple of glasses of wine makes you an alcoholic, nor that caffeine is the worst thing for you. (In fact there are those who would argue that coffee is actually beneficial to your health.) But this last week or so has taught me that many of the things we use to perk us up or help us to relax are often accomplishing the exact opposite.

The other amazing side effect to this rather unwilling detox is that I have lost a huge amount of weight. I never weigh myself, but my trousers are hanging off my waist and my stomach is almost washboard flat. (I do a lot of sit ups, but up until now I have never had results like this.) It turns out that although a small amount of caffeine can have a diuretic effect, too much can actually dehydrate the body and thus cause water retention. Of course, alcohol does this too, and that is before we even start to talk about the calories in my favourite Sauvignon or a latte.

It turns out that for me, caffeine is not really a good idea at all, and when I am not drinking a glass of wine every evening, I feel more energetic and healthy. So is the 21st Century Household destined to become a Teetotal Temple to Decaffeinated Bliss? Somehow I don’t think so. Good wine is one of my great pleasures in life and if anyone opens a bottle of champagne, I expect to be offered some. However, now I’ll really think before having a second (or third) glass. As for caffeine, I live in England. It's positively unpatriotic not to drink tea.

However, detoxing has made some very good economic sense for us. Seriously – add up how much you spend on caffeinated drinks and alcohol in a week. Most of you will be surprised. When I did it, I was staggered. I’ve saved about $50 on wine alone (my husband and I probably drink about three to four bottles between us in a week), and that’s before we get anywhere near a Starbuck’s.

If you feel inspired by this, I do recommend that you cut back slowly on caffeine to avoid the mind bending headaches I described, eliminating (or replacing with decaffeinated) one cup of coffee or tea a day over a period of a few weeks. Remember that drinks like cola and even soda can have caffeine in them as well. As for alcohol, the odd glass of wine can do you good. Just remember, “everything in moderation”. Too much is too much. And you don’t need that seven o’clock cocktail or glass of wine every day (honestly you don’t, I’m proof of that!). Try doing something else, maybe going to the gym or treating yourself to a nice walk a couple of evenings a week instead. You will definitely feel better for it. Incidentally, Vacuvin wine saver is a great way to seal a bottle of wine so that it still tastes delicious even a couple of days later – so there is no “we need to finish the bottle” excuse.

It may seem odd for someone who writes about food, wine and travel to be preaching moderation, but I have an almost evangelical zeal to share my experience of how simply moderating a couple of things can make a huge difference to how you feel. Despite the fact I am only just fully recovered from my illness, I have loads more energy than I did before and I’m sleeping better too.

Why not choose to have “a little of what you fancy” from time to time so that you can really enjoy it when you do? It’s better for you, your pocketbook and the planet.

PS- This afternoon on a long drive I desperately needed something to perk me up so I succumbed to a cup of tea. After so many days without it I found it tasted pretty awful (mind you it was from the motorway services!) but it made me high as a kite. I actually got the giggles, much to my son’s intense embarrassment. I’m still so full of energy I’m buzzing. If I ever had any doubts that caffeine is a drug, I sure don’t now!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

England's National Dish

If England had a national dish, what would it be? The French jokingly refer to us as "les rosbifs" because of our perceived love of roast beef, and I suppose, as meat goes, it probably used to be the most commonly eaten meat here. Now roast beef is a very expensive choice, and whilst many Brits still love it, it is a treat rather than a staple. Some folks say fish and chips are our national dish. Certainly fish and chips are a big part of many a British person's diet and I often see tourists coming out of fish and chip shops enjoying this wonderful treat, whilst wondering at the absence of the newspaper it was always said to be wrapped in. (Health and safety regulations put an end to that in the late 1980's.) Back in 2001, the late Robin Cook hailed Chicken Tikka Masala as Britain's national dish, but I'm still not sure of that - even if we are an incredibly multi-cultural society and this variation on Indian cuisine was actually invented in England.

To my mind, the quintessentially British dish will always be Shepherd's Pie. This wonderful blend of meat and vegetables topped with fluffy mashed potato is a one dish meal that comforts and soothes. Interestingly, there is absolutely no pastry involved despite the word "pie" in the dish's name. There is also often confusion between Shepherd's Pie and Cottage Pie. I find both of these names deceptive as of course, Shepherd's Pie is not made of shepherds, nor is Cottage Pie made of cottages. In fact, Shepherd's Pie was traditionally made with lamb (hence the shepherd tag) and cottage pie was made with beef. This can vary regionally, and even from family to family, and I have to say that in my house and my husband's childhood home, Shepherd's Pie has always been made with beef.

Now, in years gone by, the lamb or beef would be left over from the Sunday roast, finely chopped, mixed with vegetables and gravy and topped with potato. It was a way that the housewife could stretch a roast to last, if not the whole week, at least part of it. Nowadays people tend to use ground beef or lamb to make their pies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that not everyone has a Sunday roast these days, and the second is that ground beef is much less expensive to buy. Shepherd's Pie is a perfect dish for these troubled economic times. You can either use leftovers to make it as it was originally invented, or you can start fresh with ground meat. It freezes easily (without the potato topping) and can even be adapted for vegetarians by using ground vege-mince or ground Quorn.

Even the potato topping can be varied by including different "mashable" vegetables, such as parsnips, turnip or swede. A dollop of mustard in the potato topping adds a nice hint of zing, as does a dollop of horseradish. Or you can stir a small amount of grated cheese into the potato topping. The variations are endless. If you find you have less than the amount of meat called for, you can always up the ante with extra chopped vegetables or a can of good old Heinz baked beans. You can even make it with just vegetables topped with potato, although I'm not sure you could really call it Shepherd's Pie anymore. Perhaps Gardener's Pie would be more appropriate in that case!

What follows below is merely a guideline. Whilst the original dish might be steeped in tradition, the 21st Century Housewife's Shepherd's Pie is not a dish you can be bossy about simply because it lends itself so easily to variation. However, it is a dish I do urge you to make as it is hearty, economical, flexible and utterly delicious.

The 21st Century Housewife's
Shepherd's Pie
Serves 4

1 - 2 teaspoons olive oil (or other cooking oil such as Canola or sunflower oil)
I large onion, peeled and finely chopped
500 grams of ground beef, lamb or vegetarian mince product OR about 2 cups of finely shredded leftover roast beef or lamb
2 cups of finely chopped vegetables (carrots, frozen peas or corn, parsnips, turnip, swede or any variation thereof)
2 beef stock cubes
1 can (approximately 400 grams) of chopped tomatoes OR 1 cup of boiling water
Hot mashed potato made from 8 medium potatoes, peeled, cooked, mashed with butter and milk, and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
You will need a medium sized casserole. Preheat the oven to about 175 degrees Celsius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat the oil in a medium frying pan. Gently cook the onions for a minute or two until they begin to soften. Now add the ground beef or lamb and cook until no pink remains. (If you are using Quorn, cook according to the package instructions. For leftover beef, just heat it gently and proceed virtually immediately to the next step as you do not want it to dry out.) Crumble the stock cubes over the browned meat. Now add either the can of tomatoes OR 1 cup of boiling water to make a gravy. Stir in the vegetables and heat through.

Transfer the beef mixture to a casserole. Heads up, if you wish to freeze the dish, cool it quickly and refrigerate until cold at this point and then place in the freezer. If you are not freezing it, now is the time to top the dish with the lovely fluffy mashed potatoes. (As I mentioned before, as an alternative, you can add other mashable vegetables to the potatoes. For example, try boiling four potatoes with four chopped parsnips or 1 cup of chopped turnip or swede. Drain and mash together with butter and milk and spread on top of the beef mixture.) I like to run the tines of a fork over the mashed potatoes to make little sticky uppy bits that go nice and brown in the oven.

Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes until lovely and golden brown. If you prefer a slower cooked dish, lower the oven temperature to about 150 degrees Celsius or 325 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for about 45 minutes. Either way, this dish "holds" well in the oven if dinner gets delayed because someone is late. Just turn the heat back a bit, but ensure that the dish stays at a safe temperature (don't hold it for more than 30 minutes or so either).

You can serve this straight from the casserole at the table. I sometimes steam a few more vegetables to have on the side - broccoli or Brussel sprouts are a popular choice in our house because of their vivid green colour, but choose your own favourite vegetable. Or defy tradition and serve with a salad. As I said, it's totally flexible.

Cool any leftovers quickly, refrigerate and use within 2 days. You can reheat this in the microwave very easily, just make sure it is piping hot before you serve it. Alternatively, use four small individual casserole dishes and make individual portions. If you are not going to use them all the first night, cool and refrigerate those that won't be used till the next day immediately after topping them with the hot potato. They will keep for up to two days. When you want to use them, bake in the oven at 175 degrees Celsius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes until piping hot. Flexible, economical and delicious - what more can you ask for?