Thursday, 30 April 2009

(A)H1N1, Intensive Farming and You

As we hover on the brink of a possible pandemic of swine flu, which we are all now being told to call (A)H1N1 out of deference to pork producers, I can’t help but wonder if we have not somehow contributed to the emergence of this disease. Is it possible that we – and by this of course I mean the collective we - could be somehow responsible for its development?

The disease’s journey appears to have started in a tiny village in Mexico called La Gloria. A combination of one strain of avian flu, one strain of human flu and two strains of swine flu, it moved quickly, killing dozens of people in Mexico at the date of writing. Transference of the disease appears to be totally from human to human in this case, creating a the curious situation of a global health emergency that appears to have come from nowhere in particular. And now, it seems, it is getting practically everywhere. New cases are springing up daily, and while thankfully most people are responding well to treatment, this is a very worrying disease. It is not just the form it is taking now that we need to worry about; it is the form it might develop over the next few months. Influenza itself is a very unpredictable disease, and this mutation of it is no different.

However, regardless of appearances, something has to have started this modern day plague. Pigs have suffered from swine flu for years, in the same way as chickens have suffered from avian flu. Understandably, there is a real resistance by pig and chicken production companies to acknowledge the connection between their animals and variations of this disease that affect humans, such as the (A)H1N1 strain we are dealing with now. However as time goes on, this connection may be harder to deny.

Strangely enough, there is an intensive pork farming operation about twelve miles from La Gloria, the first place a case of (A)H1N1 was recorded. The Mexico City newspaper La Jornada reported that state agents of the Mexican social security institute are concerned about the clouds of flies that come out of the barns there and also the alleged ‘waste lagoons’ into which the company that owns this farm disposes of the tons of manure generated by the animals inside. Smithfield, a company who have previously been fined in the United States for violating pollution permits in Virginia with waste from their farming operations, vigorously denies the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico and have assured the authorities that they regularly vaccinate their pigs against swine influenza.

It is a good thing they do that. The circumstances of intensive farming operations, where animals and birds are raised in extremely cramped and often filthy conditions, mean that disease can spread rapidly between them. Animals often have to be heavily medicated just to ensure they live long enough to be slaughtered. Vaccination against disease and treatment with antibiotics are common. As a result, the animals can develop resistance to some strains of disease and viruses, and with the potential overuse of antibiotics, those diseases and viruses can mutate.

Even if there is no correlation between intensive farming and the spread of these nasty diseases, something which I find hard to believe, it cannot be a good thing to be exposed to the waste products from these huge operations, many of which raise tens of thousands of animals every year. And it seems an uncanny coincidence that the majority of the cases of swine flu (I mean (A)H1N1) began in such close proximity to one of these operations.

However even if there is no connection in this particular case, there can be no argument that situations like this, and the avian flu problems we experienced 2006, are raising important issues about the methods of food production we are using. Surely it is not good to raise such a large number of animals in such cramped and unsanitary conditions – and that is before one gets into the ethics of this method of food production.

Interestingly enough, free range and organic farms rarely experience the scale of disease outbreaks intensive farms do. It is believed the animals are healthier because they have more space to roam around in and live more comfortably. Organic farms only use antibiotics to treat actual disease, rarely if ever as a preventative measure.

And yet we as consumers still demand more and cheaper meat, seemingly oblivious to how it is produced. A supermarket local to me is offering chickens for sale this weekend for £2; that is just a little over $4US. It’s pretty much a certainty those chickens did not have a very happy life; in fact I doubt any of them ever saw the sun, except perhaps on their way to the slaughterhouse. But the worse thing is, we as consumers actually buy this meat, stimulating economic demand for it and filling the pockets of the intensive farmers. And we as consumers might actually be contributing to the causes of this latest health crisis by doing this.

I made a decision not long ago to buy only meat that was free range or organic. A lot of other people are taking this same decision these days. It does cost more in the long run, and means that we do not eat meat every day. However, lots of vegetarians survive perfectly well without meat; surely omnivores can manage a few days here and there without it as well. Far better that than to economically stimulate an industry that is not only cruel, but might even be dangerous.

We as consumers need to consider whether it really is worth encouraging an industry that might potentially cause us serious problems in the future. We also need to consider how we could better use our consumer dollars to stimulate the free range and organic industries that not only raise healthier meat, but meat that really does taste better and is better for us. The collective ‘we’ has a great deal of power but only if we use it sensibly can we really effect positive change for the future.

As for the issue of global pandemics, it’s a very worrying one. Surely anything we can do to lessen the threat is worth trying – especially if it is something as simple as making better choices when we do our weekly shopping.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Gourmet Dining in the British Countryside

England never used to be a place you would come for gourmet food. We were a lot more famous for comfort food – fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and good old-fashioned steak and kidney pudding (which incidentally I find anything but comforting, but that is another story). Then, about twenty years ago, the United Kingdom’s tastes began to evolve. Nouveau cuisine was no longer something to be feared. People began writing about food, talking about food and embracing dishes previous generations would have turned their noses up at.

It was a quiet revolution and it took rather a long time. To begin with, all the places that served more adventurous cuisine were in the big cities, and even as recently as a few years ago, small towns were not the place to look if you wanted a special meal. But times have changed and these days even little places in the countryside have some fabulous restaurants. From gastropubs in tiny villages to five star restaurants in market towns, British cuisine has undergone a transformation so immense that it is now almost unrecognizable. Indeed, there is even a movement afoot to get us all back to cooking “good old fashioned dishes” as some folk worry they may disappear.

I for one do not think that Shepherd’s Pie is under any immediate threat, and even in the poshest gastropub you will still usually find a ploughman’s lunch on offer, albeit one made with locally made artisanal cheese. What delights me is the wonderful meals that can now be had in the tiniest of places.

There is a little village in Staffordshire called Rolleston-on-Dove that boasts not just one, but two fabulous restaurants. Dovecliffe Hall is a Georgian house dating from 1790 set in seven acres of beautiful grounds. It is gorgeous inside, with a beautiful staircase, paneled halls and huge rooms. As for the food, well, it is quite simply magnificent. I’ve been going here for over ten years and am always so impressed by the variety and freshness of their constantly changing menu. One of the things they are famous for is a bread and butter pudding that I have actually heard described on more than one occasion as “better than sex”. (Not ever by my husband I hasten to add!) Now I certainly would not go that far either, but I do have to admit it is very good indeed. The chef has lightened this traditionally very heavy dessert and served it with a crème anglais and caramel sauce that is quite beyond delicious.

If that does not appeal, there is always the restaurant at the wonderful Brookhouse Hotel just down the road. Set in a William and Mary house dating from about 1690, this is another place to go for the most delicious of food. Over the past few years, I have enjoyed everything here from beautifully cooked traditional Sunday lunches to gourmet evening meals. I defy you to resist their dessert trolley, which offers such a huge selection of decadent choices it is almost overwhelming.

An hour or so away on the Welsh border, the little village of Shrewsbury also boasts some wonderful places to eat. The Chamber restaurant, part of the Prince Rupert Hotel, might look like a pub, but its dishes could never be described as pub grub. Their moules mariniere are the first I have ever been served where every single mussel was open and the sauce was perfect for soaking up with pieces of crusty bread. They offer a huge selection of main dishes including some very inventive vegetarian choices, and again, their desserts are wonderful. Traditionally heavy British desserts, such as Sticky Toffee Pudding and Ginger Pudding, have been lightened and served with delicate sauces. Delicious! Also at the Prince Rupert, you will find the Royalist Restaurant which offers a more formal setting but equally delicious food. Their menu offers everything from seafood to vegetarian choices, and uses lots of locally produced foods. The desserts do not disappoint either.

Even in the tiniest of places you can find wonderful culinary gems. For example, not far from where I live in Berkshire is a tiny little place called Tidmarsh. The pub there is called the Greyhound and the building dates from the thirteenth century. It has been a pub since the 1600’s. Not a place you would expect gourmet food? You would be surprised. Try their Chicken Liver & Armagnac Pate with Plum & Apple Chutney as an appetizer and you will be delighted. As for main courses, the menu offers a huge choice of delicious foods from many different cuisines. And if you are after something more traditional, their beer battered fish and chips are made with beer freshly pulled from the taps at the bar. Many of their desserts would not look out of place in the finest French restaurant, but they also include versions of traditional British favourites including crumble with custard and Sticky Toffee Pudding.

Or journey down the Thames to Moulsford, a tiny village in beautiful countryside and dine at The Beetle and Wedge Boathouse. Set on the riverbanks that inspired famous books like “The Wind in The Willows” and “Three Men in a Boat”, this restaurant offers a unique dining experience. The older part of the restaurant, which is downstairs, offers an open charcoal grill where delicious dishes are cooked before your eyes. In the conservatory upstairs, floor to ceiling windows offer wonderful views of the Thames riverside. Again, the menu is wonderful, offering a huge range of beautifully prepared dishes. New twists on traditional favourites like Liver and Bacon sit alongside more European dishes and even dishes from further afield like their yummy Crispy Duck on a Ginger Rissotto Cake with Plum Sauce. Although I cannot personally recommend the Liver and Bacon, every other dish I have eaten there has been wonderful, particularly the seafood dishes cooked on the charcoal grill. Again, many of their desserts are lighter twists on traditional British favourites. Their Sticky Toffee Pudding is not to be missed.

If you do enjoy good food and good eating, England is definitely a place you should visit. And although London, Birmingham and other big towns offer some fabulous dining experiences, do be sure to venture off the beaten path to some of our small towns and villages. You will be very glad you did.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Recipe of the Week - Hot and Spicy Thai Beef Soup

These days you are never very far away from an Indian, Thai, Chinese or Mexican restaurant these days. In the city where I live, we have a huge selection of all kinds of restaurants serving food from around the globe. It's a big step away from when I was growing up and spaghetti with meat sauce was considered pretty exotic just because it was Italian.

One of the more popular restaurants to appear in the UK in the last few years is Wagamama. It is modeled on the noodle bars which are so popular in Japan. You are seated at long tables which hold about twenty people. I always find that part of the experience a bit disconcerting, sitting elbow to elbow with total strangers while trying to eat noodles politely! The service is fast and it is not a meal you are encouraged to linger over, but if you like hot and spicy ramen and noodles you are in for a treat.

A few months ago I had a delicious soup at our local Wagamama’s restaurant called Chilli Beef Ramen. It contained thinly sliced, just cooked steak in a broth of delicious vegetables. There was something about the hot strips of just cooked steak simmering away in the hot soup that was so delicious, The only trouble was it was a bit too spicy for me. I'm pretty good with spicy stuff, but this soup made my eyes water and my nose run - not a really attractive look for me!

This experience made me want to create my own version of this soup without the rather unattractive side effects. I knew that with a bit of tweaking I would be able to make something similar that I really liked. I played around with the vegetables and spicing, and also changed the broth into a creamy soup with the addition of coconut milk. I also left out the noodles, but there is no reason why you could not add some if you feel this is an unnecessary omission. You could cook them up and add them at the last minute. It's just that with the steak and all, I did feel that the noodles made the whole thing a bit filling!

This is the best version of this soup I have created so far (in the opinion of my tasters as well as myself!). I went with red Thai curry paste in the end, a bit of a departure in terms of country of origin for this recipe (Japan to Thailand!) but the spices were just warm enough to make it delicious. Be warned though, red Thai curry paste is very spicy and seems to get spicier as it simmers. I recommend you start with a scant tablespoon and go from there, tasting as you go. You don't want to be crying in your soup like I was!

This recipe makes enough for three to four, but of course it is easy to halve or double it.

2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced very, very thinly
1 cup handful white mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon Thai Red Curry Paste
1 - 400 ml can coconut milk
500 - 750 ml vegetable stock (made from cubes is fine)
4 ounces rump or sirloin steak per person
salt and pepper
1 bunch spring onions, shredded

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan. Saute the onion and mushrooms until they are just beginning to soften. Add the carrot and continue to saute. Stir in the Thai Red Curry Paste until the vegetables are coated.

Gently pour the coconut milk and 500 ml stock over the vegetables. Bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Season the steaks with salt and pepper and cook them quickly, a few minutes each side. You don’t want the steaks fully cooked at this point so that they can continue to cook in the soup. I usually cook them about two minutes each side. Wrap the steaks up in foil and allow to rest for a couple of minutes while you assemble the bowls and serving spoons.

Taste the soup for flavour, adding salt and pepper if necessary. (You probably won’t need to.) Check the consistency/spicing of the soup and add a bit more stock if you feel it needs it. Slice the steaks thinly.

Divide the soup mixture between three or four bowls. Top with slices of steak, pushing them down gently into the soup. Garnish with the shredded spring onions and serve.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

In Praise of Pudding

When I was a little girl in Canada, pudding was one of my favourite things.  I particularly liked pudding pie, with its graham cracker crust and its soft, velvety milk pudding filling.   Being a child of the seventies, I was a great fan of Bill Cosby’s advertisements for Jello Pudding, and it was that my Mom always bought.  We used it for dessert as it was, or used it for making other desserts, from the aforementioned pudding pie to (with the addition of some other ingredients) wonderful light cakes.

When I first arrived in England twenty years ago, I was surprised to see that Jello as a brand did not seem to exist over here.  I was very disappointed to find that instead of the myriad of flavours of Jello gelatine I was used to seeing on offer, all there were was small boxes of Hartley’s gelatine cubes.  These were a mystery to me because, as far as I was concerned, gelatine was a powdered substance (except if I was making something very fancy indeed, in which case it came in “leaves” or sheets).  Not only that, but there was no Jello pudding.  In fact, there was no “pudding” of any kind.  My enquiries of the staff in the grocery store yielded only confusion and usually went something like this.

“Pudding?  What kind of pudding dear?” they would enquire. 

My reply of “I really don’t mind what flavour” would cause their brows to furrow with confusion. 

Thinking I perhaps had not heard them correctly, they would ask, “No, I mean what sort of pudding are you looking for?”

“You know, the creamy kind you mix up?” I’d reply. 

“You mean custard dear.  It’s over on the left next to the ice cream cones.”

By this point I was so confused and embarrassed I would usually give up. 

I soon discovered what the problem was.  Not long after that I was in a casual restaurant eating dinner with my boyfriend, G, who would later become my husband. 

“Any pudding chaps?”  the waiter enquired after we had finished our main course. 

Thinking I might finally have discovered somewhere I could get a creamy, milky dessert that faintly resembled the thing I so enjoyed, I eagerly answered “yes”.  The waiter disappeared and returned with a list of desserts, not one of which was pudding.  In desperation I turned to G and asked him what was going on. 

Although he is English, G spent a considerable part of his youth in the States and so was ideally placed to sort out my confusion.  He gently explained that in England, and in fact pretty much anywhere in the United Kingdom, pudding is not a creamy, milky dessert.  Here, pudding is defined as the final part of a meal.  It is usually something that is served hot, like sticky toffee pudding or rice pudding, but over the years the word “pudding” has come to mean the same thing as the word “dessert”.  Even an ice cream sundae or piece of cake can be a pudding. 

Even now, twenty years later, I still cannot buy instant pudding here in England.  Actually, that is not strictly true, you can buy a whipped dessert called Angel Delight .  It is similar, but once you have had Jello pudding, nothing else really measures up.  I find Angel Delight to be too sweet, and its texture very grainy, nothing like the smooth creaminess of my favourite.  I really miss it in cooking too.  It’s impossible to make Bacardi Rum Cake the way I really love it without the addition of a package of vanilla Jello pudding, although heaven knows I have tried. 

As a result, I have been known to bring back boxes of Jello pudding in my suitcase after visits to Canada or the States.  My husband laughs at me, but we do enjoy the desserts I make with it so much.  I have to confess I always worry as I walk through Customs though.  There is nothing illegal about bringing it in as it contains no forbidden ingredients, but I can only imagine what the officers would say if they opened my bag and saw several boxes of the stuff tucked in amongst my clothes.  I might never live it down, but it would be worth it!  

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Asian Prawn (Shrimp) Noodles

I have always hesitated to cook raw prawns/shrimp. I’m not sure why, but the idea worried me. If you feel the same way, by all means use pre-cooked prawns or shrimp in this recipe, just add them at the very last minute so they don’t go rubbery. However, now that I have cooked them from raw, I must say it is incredibly easy and they do taste really lovely. Also, you can be sure to de-vein them properly as well. (De-veining means removing the black line that runs down the back of the prawn/shrimp before you cook it. The vein is actually the digestive tract of the fish, and not something you want to be eating! Sometimes when you buy them already cooked, the digestive tract has not really been properly removed.)

There is a lot of debate over the name of this shellfish - are they shrimp or prawns? Some people say it depends on size what they are called, but I have had things called both shrimp and prawns of all sizes. As far as I can tell, they are mostly called prawns in England and shrimp in North America. I just use both names to avoid confusion. However, one thing there is no confusion about in our house is how delicious my recipe for Asian prawn/shrimp noodles is!

2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon mild olive oil
1 teaspoon “Very Lazy” Ginger or about 1/4 inch of ginger root, grated
1/4 cup mild sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
About 28 or so raw prawns/shrimp, deveined
1 large onion, finely sliced
3 cups peeled and finely chopped or sliced vegetables
(I used carrots, mange tout (snow peas), baby corn, red and yellow pepper)
4 medium “nests” of dried egg noodles

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or wok until it is very hot. Add the onion and stir fry until it begins to soften. Add the ginger and stir fry for a few seconds. Add the remaining vegetables and fry, stirring often.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water according to package directions. When cooked, drain and rinse in cold water. Toss with 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Set aside.

When the vegetables are nearly cooked (you want them to be tender-crisp), heat the 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a separate medium frying pan. Add the prawns/shrimp and stir fry for a few minutes, turning occasionally, just until they turn pink.

Add the noodles to the stir fried vegetables, along with the sweet chilli sauce and soy sauce, stirring to coat. Divide the mixture between four plates, topping each plate with about 6 or 7 prawns/shrimp.

Serve immediately.

For previous Recipes of the Week, please visit my website by clicking here

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Spring Salads

I’m so pleased to see that spring is well and truly here in England. The flowers are out; I’ve even got bluebells (one of the later bloomers in terms of English spring flowers) in my garden now. Now the clocks have gone forward it stays lighter longer and I notice I feel more energetic.

As a result I have been making a lot of salads, both complete dinner salads and side salads. Inspired by a couple of recipes my cousin Esther makes, I got a bit creative the other night and used strawberries in a savory side salad. It was delicious. It is not really enough of a recipe to be on the Recipe of the Week page, but I do want to share it as I hope it inspires you to try some versions of your own. Mixing fruit and nuts together with salad leaves can make for some very tasty experiments! Provided you go easy on the dressing and don’t use too many nuts, they are a very healthy choice as well.

I bought a ready-made speciality aged balsamic vinegar dressing from Waitrose, but any good balsamic dressing would be fine. You can even make one yourself using 2 to 3 tablespoons each of olive oil and good aged balsamic vinegar plus 1 tablespoon of honey.

Strawberry and Macadamia Nut Salad
Serves 3 - 4

About four to five cups mixed salad leaves (I used a bag of mixed salad and added about a cup of torn iceberg lettuce)
10 - 12 large strawberries, washed and sliced in about four slices each
2 handfuls of macadamia nuts
3 - 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar dressing

Toss everything together in a salad bowl. It’s nice to hold back a couple of strawberries and a few nuts just to decorate the top of the salad.

This recipe is so delicious you might want to make extra. We all had seconds!!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Once an Anorexic

There is an old saying, “Once an anorexic, always an anorexic” but I would like to think that it does not have to be true.

I had wonderful parents who loved me dearly, and who I loved in return. Unfortunately, they had huge issues with weight - both their own and other peoples’ – and with food. It was to affect them both for their whole lives, and it would change the course of mine.

In our house, descriptions of people generally involved their size. “He needs to lose weight” or “She’s looking lovely and thin” were things I heard often. My parents were always watching their weight, although my Dad did love nuts and chocolate.

Mom was incredibly thin but she had not always been that way. She was a heavy child. However, once she hit her late teens, all that was over. Her hips were small, her bones were tiny and she had the body to match. She watched her weight like a hawk. Everyone always described my Mom as slim, so much so that I developed a huge fascination with the idea of being slimmer than her. Dad’s weight used to go up and down, but it never stayed up for long, mostly because my Mom hated it when, as she said, “Your father has put on weight again!” The seeds of obsession were planted very young.

I wasn’t like my Mom. My bones were anything but tiny. However like her, I developed early. The plump “puppy fat” phase that hits many girls around puberty happened to me before the age of ten. My parents panicked.

I went on my first diet with my Mom when I was eight years old. The instructions for The Seven Day Milk Diet were contained in a booklet from the Canadian Milk Board, along with recipes. I remember that the recipes were delicious, and to my memory, the diet was quite nutritious, although the calorie count was a bit low for an eight year old. (In fairness to the Milk Board, I don’t think it was meant for children.) Our next diet was the Stewardess Diet - a three-day, very low calorie diet apparently used by stewardesses to keep within the weight restrictions demanded by the airlines in the early 1970’s. Then there was a diet my Mom had used in the past that involved either a glass of skim milk or a glass of orange juice every hour and a nutritious meal in the evening. Now, I feel is important to mention that we ate well in our house. Food was plentiful and my parents were known for their generous entertaining. These diets were always short-lived as I had trouble sticking to them. I do not remember ever actually feeling hungry and I most certainly was never deprived of food, but I did feel a bit of a failure when I fell off the diet wagon.

My parents really believed they were working in my best interests by trying to help me lose weight. They desperately wanted me to be slim as they were sure it would make me healthy and happy. I was being bullied at school because I was walking around in a woman’s body at less than ten years old, and I felt that if only I could lose weight, perhaps that would stop. So for the next few years I did everything I could to reach 110 pounds. Ironically, at this time I was not much over the ideal weight for a person of my height. One hundred and ten pounds was about ten pounds too light for me. I’d get weighed every morning and how I felt during the day depended on what number I saw. From the age of eight, I thought about my weight constantly.

My weight went up and down with every diet – fluctuating between 136 pounds and 110 pounds. Then one day, I finally ended up well below the magic number. I was sixteen and in the throes of full-blown anorexia.

Despite the fact I was very thin indeed by this point, I desperate to get even thinner. My parents were, I think, secretly pleased for me. I was not exhorted to eat (although there was always plenty of very tempting food to be had in our home) and my Dad used to tell me that I was “doing great” and to “keep it up.” Of course, the issues my parents had with food were affecting their own behaviour. They wanted the best for me and had no wish to see me ill or unhealthy; they truly believed you could not be too thin. I know now that my Mom was definitely anorexic, in fact I have reason to believe she may also have been bulimic, although she kept it very well hidden. My Dad had been brought up to believe that women should be slim.

In the end, I was fasting every other day, and eating very little on alternate days. During this time I was obsessed with food. I read about it, studied it, copied out recipes from cookbooks I had borrowed from the library – I did everything except eat it. Strangely enough, I think that was when my love of cooking was born, but I would not know that until much later.

My weight stabilised at about 96 pounds, and I couldn’t manage to lose anymore. One night I considered trying to throw up in order to be able to budge some more pounds. Literally the minute I was about to make myself vomit, I had a huge sense of knowing that if I carried on, I was likely to die. So I got up off my knees and decided to get better.

It took a long time to recover, and at one point I actually gained more weight than I would have liked to. But eventually I managed to regulate my weight to a more normal level and felt better about myself. Some time later, I left home and met my husband who thank heaven, likes his women to look womanly. Having someone love my curves went a long way to making me well again.

You see the biggest myth about anorexic people is that they are all thin. Actually, those who have really learned to cope with the disease may even be slightly overweight. We don't hate food either - most of us are fascinated by it. Many are accomplished cooks or even study food sciences. Both my parents were wonderful cooks, and my Mom got a degree in nutrition at university in the 1950's. I write about food and lifestyle issues for a living. While I recovered from the serious affects of anorexia twenty years ago and am now a normal weight, I still have a distorted body image and up until very recently a relationship with food that could only be described as dysfunctional. But then something happened that would change the way I felt about food forever.

About seven years ago, my wonderful Mom, who had never eaten very much anyway, began to refuse to eat altogether. She said her tastes had changed and that she could not swallow the food. My poor Dad took her to doctor after doctor, all of whom searched for the cause of her inability to eat. Scans, swallowing surveys and just about every test imaginable was performed. No reason for her inability to eat properly could be found. Dad tried so hard to get Mom to eat, cooking her every tempting dish he could think of. Anorexia was never mentioned by the doctors nor by my father, and I did not dare. It was like a terrible secret. Gradually, anorexia combined with dementia. It was a lethal duo. At one point, Mom had to have a tube inserted into her stomach so she could be fed through it. Once she reached a healthier weight, she promised faithfully to eat and the tube was removed. Of course, she never kept her promise.

It was a constant battle to get her to eat, and by the time my much loved Dad himself was ill she would only eat broth. As for Dad, who suffered from congestive heart failure, the last two years of his life were one long struggle to balance his salt, liquid and potassium levels. Unable to eat most of the foods he enjoyed, even the amount of water he could consume was restricted. When my Dad died, my Mom was so bereft that she literally starved herself to death, refusing any form of nutrition and all her medication. She was too weak to have a tube put back in her stomach, and no amount of pleading or medical intervention could help her. It was horrendous.

Watching what happened to my Dad made me promise myself I would never taken a glass of iced water for granted ever again. Watching what happened to my Mom made me promise myself to stop obsessing about calories and weight. Life is far too short to refuse to enjoy one of the greatest pleasures it offers – nourishing yourself with good food. While I can understand why she would not want to live in a world without her beloved, the way in which she went about leaving it will haunt me forever.

A healthy, balanced diet coupled with lot of exercise keeps me at a pretty healthy weight. Yes, I would still love to be model thin, but when I look at what it would mean to me in terms of my physical and mental health, I know the cost is far too high.

My parents were wonderful people, and neither one of them deserved the suffering their issues with food and weight brought them. The thing that breaks my heart is that there are thousands of women out there like my Mom. Way too many of them end up like her, and not very many of them end up like me.

Once an anorexic, always an anorexic? It certainly was the case for my much loved Mom, but I’m going to make damn sure it isn’t for me.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Sandwich as An Art Form

Monday night, we arrived in Ontario after a long day's journey. We were tired and hungry. Although you eat a lot on a trans-Atlantic journey, there is then an awfully big space of time between the last meal you have on board the plane and breakfast the following day, and unless you want to wake up at an ungodly hour really hungry, you are wise to have a light bite. This is what we were seeking when we wandered into the bar of the Holiday Inn Kitchener Monday night. I ordered a Steak and Cheese Panini. Unfortunately, most British people can't understand why anyone would combine steak and cheese and are reluctant to try it. This is very sad as steak and cheese is one of the most ambrosial combinations I know, particularly if the steak is sliced in thin strips and combined with a light horseradish mayonnaise as it was last night. It was also anything but "just" a sandwich, it was a meal. It reminded me of the wonderful Philadelphia steak sandwiches I have enjoyed on past travels.

I always find this in North America. One thing Canadians and Americans alike do really, really well is the sandwich. If you order a sandwich in England or France, it generally really is "just a sandwich". In Canada or the United States, it is a great deal more than just that.

One of my favourite North American sandwiches is a Reuben, generally made with corned beef, swiss cheese and sauerkraut. I've never had one I didn't like - especially in New York. I particularly like the Reuben sandwich at The Cheesecake Factory in San Jose and San Francisco, made with turkey pastrami and coleslaw. It's supposed to be a lighter version but it is so generous it really isn't. Still it is nice to feel like you are having the lighter option - even if that is not necessarily the case - especially when it is something so delicious! Canadians make good Reuben sandwiches too. I had two wonderful Reuben sandwiches this time - one at "Frederick's" in Kitchener where Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, has also enjoyed them - and one at The Sarnia Golf and Curling Club.

Even the condiments used on sandwiches in North America are interesting. There are so many different kinds of mustard here! Certainly the British do a great line in chutneys, which taste super on sandwiches, but it's no competition when you line up the different sauces available in North America.

Club sandwiches - a North American favourite, are beautifully prepared with crisp bacon, lean chicken or turkey, lettuce, tomato and sometimes even cheese. Now the Club sandwich is gaining popularity in Europe, and I must admit the Club Ladurée, at the restaurant of the same name on the Champs Elyseés, is quite remarkable. But North American Club sandwiches truly are the best. With the delicious ingredients lovingly sandwiched between lightly toasted slices of bread, they are utterly mouthwatering.

Then there is the Western sandwich, with its onion and pepper omelette enclosed in toasted bread. It's probably the easiest supper on the planet but it is something I have never yet come across in Europe. My Mom used to love them. In fact, she used to make a lot of supper sandwiches - especially steaming hot corned beef on crusty bread. It tasted amazing.

Another great sandwich is the Sloppy Joe - which my friend's mom always called Sloppy Sams in deference to my Dad, whose name was Joe. Ground beef, chopped onion and vegetables with a spicy tomato sauce on a hamburger bun makes a delicious combination. And of course, if you were really in a rush, there was always the tinned Manwich Sauce you could buy in the grocery stores - I'll always remember their jingle - "A sandwich is a sandwich but a Manwich is a meal". Kitsch, but good!

I think it is a shame that sandwiches have yet to cross the pond as a meal of choice, and that they are often thought of as little more than a snack where I live. Of course at home I do my best to replicate the delicious sandwiches we enjoy when we travel in the US and Canada - but people at home still look at me a bit strangely when I tell them we are having sandwiches for supper. So for now, I'll have to content myself with enjoying delicious sandwich meals only when I travel in the US and Canada - and continue to encourage family and friends at home to give these delicious creations a try by making them myself whenever I get the chance!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Fish Isn't Just For Friday Anymore

For centuries, Christians have eaten fish on Fridays to remember Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s one of those religious traditions that seeped into secular life and to this day, even many non-Christians like to eat fish on Friday.

We’ve always eaten lots of fish in my family – although I must admit I struggle to get my son to eat it. He saw “Finding Nemo” when he was little and the “fish are friends, not food” thing has stuck with him. I was different. From the time I was a little girl, I loved fish. Growing up in a Christian home, I knew about the Friday tradition, but I would have happily eaten fish any day of the week. Unlike my own son, I made absolutely no connection between the pretty fish I saw in pictures of the ocean and the fish on my plate – until a family trip to Maine when I was three. It’s one of my first memories and it is as vivid as if I were there right this very minute.

My parents took me to a restaurant by the ocean, one they had been to before I was born. When we arrived, the owner insisted we go out round the back to see the cook. The kitchen had huge windows open to the beach, so it was like being outside. I was wearing a pretty dress and little sandals, and I can remember looking down at the wooden floor and feeling the sea breeze, a bit chilly against my bare arms in the early evening. The cook appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He was a big man, tall and quite heavy, with beefy arms and a full face. When he smiled his whole face creased up. I was a little afraid of him because he seemed very large but he was so friendly I tried not to be. He showed us huge tanks full of hard fishy things with claws. They looked kind of like crabs but different. Their claws were all taped shut and there were so many in the tanks they looked very uncomfortable. Everyone was oohing and aahing over them. The big man lifted me up to one of the larger tanks and asked me to choose two of them. I was not quite sure what I was choosing them for (hey, I was only three!) but I dutifully pointed out two of them. After that, we went back into the restaurant and my Mom ordered fish and chips for me. Strangely enough, the waitress already seemed to know what my parents were having. Before long, my fish and chips arrived, a huge oval plate full of fried fish and French fries. I was delighted. The waitress then went away and came back with two more plates with two things on them that looked remarkably like the fish I had chosen in the tank – but these ones were red. When I asked what they were, my Dad smiled and said I “sure was a good lobster picker”. I was mortified. When I asked why they were red he said it was because they were cooked in boiling water. This did not make me any happier.

Oddly enough after that experience, I grew up to be a bit of a fisherman – catching my first lake bass when I was just five years old. I was using what was supposed to be a toy rod and I remember feeling the fish pulling as it tried to get away. Aside from making sure I did not fall out of the boat, my Dad let me land it myself. It weighed five pounds. I was very proud, especially when my Dad filleted it and fried it up like only he could. He used to bread freshly caught fish and fry it up in an old skillet and it was, to this day, the best I have ever eaten. Fried fish is wonderful comfort food, especially if you bread it and fry it yourself like my Dad used to. Of course, frying is not the only way to cook fish. You can bake it, poach it, steam it, even stir fry it. And there are a lot more fish in the sea besides salmon and cod. From firm white hoki to delicate red mullet, there are so many delicious choices. And that’s before you get to lake fish. You don’t have to catch it yourself either. Fish is readily available in most supermarkets and some even have specialist fish counters now. If you have a specialist fish shop (or “fish monger” as they are known here in England) near to you, you really should take advantage of it. The staff there will be able to fillet your fish for you and recommend lots of delicious ways to cook it.

Actually fish is very easy to cook, and it is the original “fast food”. Seriously, if you have a piece of aluminum foil and some oil or butter, you can cook fish. Most fish fillets taste gorgeous if you just dot them with butter, lay them on a piece of foil, wrap the sides round like a little package and pop it in the oven on a baking tray at about 375°F or 160°C for between 15 and 25 minutes depending on how thick the fillet is. Of course, you can add seasonings, lemon and even a few drops of white wine to flavor the fish if you like. Stir frying fish is fast and easy too. Just heat up the olive oil, choose your favourite stir fry veggies, add the fish, stir fry, and you’ve got dinner!

Delicious and good for you, fish is low fat and low calorie, particularly if you poach, bake or steam it. Even fried fish can be relatively good for you if you use olive oil to fry it in and go easy on the breading. All fish has loads of valuable nutrients including protein. Of course, it is important to choose fish that has been sustainably caught. I also avoid farmed fish when I can as I don’t think anything that is intensively farmed can be as good for you or taste as good as something raised naturally.

Fish is a great freezer standby. Often frozen on the boat it is caught on, frozen fish is in many cases the freshest fish you can buy. Most of it cooks in minutes from frozen which means you can have dinner on the table in as little as a quarter of an hour if you serve it with lightly steamed frozen peas and rice or couscous.

I serve fish at least a couple times a week and the only fish I won’t cook is lobster. Although I do like the taste of it, I just can’t manage to cook it. That first experience really stuck with me. However, I find ways to get round that. About two years ago, when we were visiting my Dad in Canada, he mentioned that the local grocery store had fresh lobster. If you ordered it, they would cook it for you and you could just pick it up. Sure enough, we called up the store and they cooked three beautiful lobsters– one for Dad, one for me, and one for my husband. (My Mom and my son chose to eat chicken breast instead.) I will never forget the look on my Dad’s face as he ate that lobster. Man, did he enjoy that meal. I’m glad, because it was one of the last meals we all ate together round the family table. How strange that both of my first and last memories of my Dad involved fish, particularly lobsters. I think of him whenever I eat them - and lots of times in between.

Whether fish has been a part of your life for years as it has with me, or whether it will be a new addition to your diet, it is a wonderful healthy choice for you and your family. It definitely isn’t just for Friday anymore.