Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why is there no C, A, K and E in Muffin?

There are some who believe that the Americans invented the word “muffin” so they wouldn’t feel guilty about eating cake. Whether that’s true or not, the great American staple certainly is a culinary wolf in sheep’s clothing. It so easily passes itself off as acceptable: acceptable breakfast food, acceptable substitute lunch, acceptable coffee companion, and acceptable snack. But it’s barely even that. Lurking beneath its healthy and wholesome exterior lurks something (almost) completely devoid of goodness. But do people know this, and just assuage their conscience by opting for a muffin with grated carrot in it, or do they really believe that the most wholesome thing they eat on a daily basis is their breakfast muffin?

While we might be able to opt for a muffin containing grated carrot or blueberries, it’s not so easy to opt for one containing no flour, sugar, baking powder/soda, eggs, fat, and milk (not a proper muffin, anyway); these are the basic ingredients that make up the average muffin, as well as 430 calories and a total of 16 grams of fat (that’s what a blueberry muffin from Starbucks has, according to calorieking.com). Can you now see just how sharp this pretend sheep’s little teeth are…?

So if a Starbucks’ muffin has more calories and the same fat content as a McDonald’s McChicken Sandwich, why doesn’t it elicit the same raised eyebrows as the McChicken Sandwich does when eaten as a snack? In some ways it seems that the muffin has escaped the scrutiny of the healthy food brigade. And it shouldn’t have. The donut hasn’t; and yet an average-sized Dunkin’ Donuts’ glazed donut contains only 180 calories and 8 grams of fat (admittedly, half of that is trans fat, but then, as they say, if the cap fits…). But it does seem a little unfair that the donut is branded an unhealthy choice (or rather a suicidal one), when there’s little in it between the two in terms of their fat/carbs/protein make-up.

Where the donut might win out over the muffin as far as healthy eating -- or not so unhealthy eating -- is concerned, is in its size. Most commercially sold muffins are huge; donuts on the other hand tend not to be so big. So if you’re having just the one for breakfast or a snack, then you might be doing yourself a favor by making that one a donut. You at least know where you are with the donut: it isn’t masquerading as anything other than a push towards an early heart attack and obesity. It’s been outed for such a long time now it has nothing to hide behind. You could say it’s an honest food.

So the next time you’re waiting in line at your local coffee shop and suddenly remember you haven’t yet had breakfast, don’t be seduced into thinking that because the word muffin doesn’t have a C, A, K, or E in it then it’s healthy -- the word donut doesn’t either!

Friday, November 5, 2010


A jacket potato is one of the classic comfort foods. Admittedly, it does take quite a while to bake (if you do it properly that is), but it’s very much worth it. There was talk at the Guardian this week about how to get the perfect jacket potato: should you put salt on before putting it in the oven? What temperature should you bake it at? Should you prick the potato before baking?

Nigel Slater is quoted as saying that he reckons there’s a certain element of luck involved in getting a great jacket potato. Although I can’t really see how much luck can be involved in putting a potato in the oven and turning it on. It’s not exactly a soufflĂ© we’re talking about here. Maybe the luck bit applies to the actual potato. Either way, I have to say where my jacket potatoes are concerned, I’ve always been lucky.

Here’s what’s involved:

Wash the potato, dry it, and then coat it in olive oil. Sprinkle coarse salt all over it and then place a metal skewer through it. Because the potato is cooked at a fairly high temperature (approx. 225 degree F), the metal skewer helps ensure the flesh is cooked properly and the skin doesn’t get too crispy before the inside is done. As I said, it does a while to cook (around an hour or so), but the end result is well worth it.

As for toppings, well I’m a bit of a purist and like nothing more than a chunk of hard salted butter and lots of black pepper. If I’m feeling a little extravagant, then I’ll have a handful of grated Cheddar on top – but nothing else.

The best part of this meal is the crispy, slightly charred potato skin, which by the time you’re ready to eat it is shiny with melted butter. Again, as with baking the potato, you have to wait a while to get to this part, but it’s a different wait altogether.

I know that some people cook their jacket potatoes in the microwave for a few minutes before placing them in the oven to crisp up the skins. This isn’t a bad way to go (much better than using the microwave for the entire cooking process), but having tried this method, I can guarantee you nothing beats baking the potato in the oven and not letting it anywhere near the microwave. Be warned, however, if you’ve never tried the oven method for the entire jacket potato baking process, once you do, there’s no turning back. You will be forever committed to spending at least an hour whenever you want to eat a jacket potato. But your life be improved considerably – or at least your dinner will!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thinking 'bout your holidays

Travelling south to Montana a few weeks ago, I heard a report on the radio that said research showed people get more enjoyment from planning their holiday than they do actually having it. I can quite believe that. “Thinking ‘bout your holidays” was one of the aspects of working class life that Paul Weller sang about on The Jam track That’s Entertainment, reminding us that booking up a holiday months in advance gives us something to think about when the weather’s rubbish and we’re feeling crap.

I’ve always thought people looked happier when talking about what they were going to do on holiday than they did actually doing it. But then that’s probably because I used to spend my holidays in Greece and there is little that can be done comfortably – let alone with a smile on your face – in 35 degrees C.

But is that still the case now that we don’t plan our holidays in quite the same way we did thirty years ago. Back then we’d pick up a brochure from the travel agents at the beginning of the year, get seduced by photos of sparkling pools and romantic beach coves, and then rush to book up a holiday while the rain lashed against the travel agent’s windows. Most of the time back then, we booked early not to secure our place at a top resort, but to help us get through the remains of the dreary winter. At least that was how I used to plan my holiday.

But now, however, we’re much more likely to just pick somewhere on the planet and then work out how to get there and where to stay – either once we’re there or a few weeks before we get on the plane. That’s how I plan my holidays now. And maybe that’s why I don’t spend hours thinking about it before actually having it. The days spent shopping for “holiday clothes” are also long gone (as has the money with which to buy them!). And so I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s this way of planning a holiday – a bit last-minute – that ensures I always have a brilliant time. Either that or it’s the cynic in me that doesn’t expect too much from a holiday anyway!

One aspect of holidays that I do tend to get bored with after a while is eating out. It’s great at first: being on holiday you’re excused counting calories, even more so if you’ve spent the day hiking or walking around sight-seeing. But after a while I miss handling food, preparing it, and cooking it. And as much as I like fries and pizza, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. That’s why on the last few evenings of my trip to Montana, I went to the local supermarket and bought provisions to enable me to “make” dinner in my motel room. When I say make, I don’t mean cook, I mean put together. Simple stuff such as bread rolls, cheese, potato chips, yogurt, and fruit makes for a great supper (I was also able to have a bottle of beer as there was a fridge in the motel room). This is something I regularly do when I go on holiday. Not necessarily to save money, but to break the tedium that can sometimes come with eating out every night. Maybe it’s a reflection of the places I holiday at but I don’t think so, as I’ve adopted this approach when in the south of France and Spain, and not just when in Western Canada and the States!

So maybe, as with the holiday itself, in order to enjoy eating out I need to forget the planning and thinking about it all and just do it. But then again, I really enjoy eating cheese rolls and chips in motel rooms!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Heavenly hummus

As well as excess body hair and zero resistance to gravity, old age also brings a certain OCD approach to some commercially produced foods. At least for me it does. Like a lot of people, I don’t like seeing too many ingredients I don’t recognise the names of in lists attached to the products I buy. And in something as simple as hummus, which is really just mashed chick peas, there shouldn’t be too much else involved (even I know that). But it’s perhaps not only a question of ingredients control, making your own means you get to make it just the way you like it. And while I haven’t done the math (as they say), I’m sure it works out less expensive than buying the commercially produced stuff in the supermarket.

While I had been meaning to make my own hummus for a while, I wasn’t too sure how easy it would be to get tahini paste (even when the idea had occurred to me back home in Blighty). But apparently it’s very easy – even in the outback here. So I got out the blender and found a Jamie Oliver recipe online. All very straightforward: 4 oz of chick peas, 2 tbs of tahini paste, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, and some lemon juice. The first batch I made was good: the right consistently, and a good garlicky taste. However, I then decided to up the quantity and it seemed the blender couldn’t quite cope and I was left with a slightly course hummus with the old half or quarter of chick pea hidden in the mix. Admittedly the blender isn’t that great but if it can crush ice then surely it can squash up a few chick peas.

And then I stumbled upon an article on the Guardian website where the issue of the perfect hummus was discussed and I picked up a few good tips.

1. If you’re boiling dried chick peas, you need to boil them so that they are mushy.
2. You need to add a little liquid to the ingredients in order to get a creamy consistency to your hummus (if boiling dried chick peas, save a little of the cooking liquid; if using tinned, use water – not that horrible gloopy stuff that’s preserving them!).
3. If using tinned chick peas, it’s best to take the skins off. This may sound a bit tricky but all you need to do is to rinse them and then place them in a bowl of water and gently rub the chick peas between your fingers and the skins will come off. They will float to the top of the water and then you can just skim them off.

Three great little tips that mean now my blender is able to cope with blending my hummus and I get a nice consistency to it. Technology – great, eh?!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Tree Stone Bakery

There’s a delectable little bakery over the road that makes me feel as though I’m living back in England at times. Admittedly, there’s usually a huge 4x4 parked outside whenever I go in, and the shop itself is situated on a busy main road along which more 4x4s and pick-up trucks thunder pass, but you can’t win them all.

What’s so lovely about this little place – and it is little – is that there’s usually something different in there every time I go in. They don’t seem to stick to the usual fare. I think the master baker must like to experiment. So far I’ve tried three different loaves, the baguette (excellent!), and a few pastries. Last week I had a poppy seed pastry (pictured). It wasn’t made in the usual way with the poppy seeds scattered throughout the pastry, but rather with a lump of poppy seeds (more a sort of spawn of them), dolloped in the middle. And it was delicious!

What’s also nice about this place is that they put all the goods in natty little brown paper bags which carry their logo. And this helps me feel at home when I walk from the bakery to my house (which is a few blocks away). Mainly because I am actually walking home carrying a loaf of bread which I’ve bought in a bakery. Something I took for granted when I lived in England, but which living here in Alberta, I rarely get to do, mainly because these little independent bakeries are few and far between (although having said that, I now recall there’s another one three or four blocks around the corner from the Tree Stone!). But that one’s not as quaint as the Tree Stone, nor does it have a little door chime that sounds every time you walk in and out.

They say that surrounding yourself with things that remind you of home can help with feelings of homesickness - especially when those things are poppy seed pastries and baguettes!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A taste of honey

I have arrived. Yesterday I received my first ever organic vegetable delivery box. Precisely. Actually, it was my first ever vegetable delivery box. But it being organic, you can understand how I feel that my life is getting on for being almost complete now.

It felt like Christmas-time, especially as once I'd opened my 'present', I had to cook the dinner!

I signed up to this scheme some weeks ago. I’m not sure why (probably just my general pessimism), but I did wonder at one stage whether Danny and Miranda were going to be able to pull this off. Something in one of the emails Danny sent out maybe gave me the impression that they weren’t getting the numbers they wanted. Anyway, they did it, and what a great job they've done so far. Lots of lovely salad vegetables, plus a big bruiser of an avocado were packed away in the box. I was pleased to see that the box was sturdy and completed covered the contents (I had visions of the squirrels munching away at my tomatoes). It was also good to see that packaging inside the box had been kept to a minimum. As well as all the veg, there were bananas, oranges, and apples. And it was great to see apples that weren’t the size of footballs and impossibly shiny like the ones at the local grocery store.

Danny and Miranda’s delivery service is called The Organic Box. It’s based in Edmonton, Alberta, and it’s a new venture which I hope is going to prove very successful. I’ve signed up for a trial three-week period, with delivery every other week. I wasn’t too sure that my husband and I would get through all the contents of one standard size box, which is why I opted to receive a box every two weeks. But I now realize that that won’t be a problem - today's Wednesday and we’ll be lucky if it lasts out the weekend! The cost is $50 a week for the trial three-week sign-up, or $45 if you sign up for the full 13 weeks it’s offered for (another reason I opted for a box every two weeks instead of every week). I did the math before signing up, and I worked out that we only spend about half this sum a week on fruit and veg (hence the delivery every two weeks). So while it's more expensive than shopping at the local store, it does mean that I'm not buying (and eating) suspiciously shiny apples the size of footballs, and I do get all the heavy stuff delivered.

What I've tasted so far of the fruit and veg has been good. Maybe I'm raving about the box because it contained Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes as they're called here), and last night was the first time I had tried them. And they were delicious! However, I think I should reserve judgement on the whole organic veg box delivery thing until I've eaten everything that was delivered.

Even so, although I’m an impoverished writer, I’m seriously considering signing up for the whole shebang: weekly delivery for however long they’re doing it. How can I go back now? As Smokey Robinson knew only too well, a taste of honey is worse than none at all.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The right funk

So the snow’s gone and I’m now out of my funk (as they say here in Alberta). Not too sure what a funk is exactly, but I think the English equivalent might be 'having the hump', or as any wannabe-Cockney would say, 'the right 'ump'. Anyway, with the snow gone, I was able to finish off the beds, and rather fetching they look, too.

As luck would have it, while the ground was covered in snow for those few days last week, a flyer was put through the door advertising a compost sale. A local swimming club was having a fund-raiser and selling bags of organic compost. As my compost isn’t ready – at least not in any amount that’s worth digging into the soil – you can imagine how deliriously happy I was to receive this flyer. I quickly called and placed an order for one 40-litre bag, at the price of $10. I worked out that I would be able to get the bag of compost back home (the sale was being held about 20 blocks or so from my house) in my shopping trolley. Brilliant!

So the compost is now dug into the beds, and I’ve sown some seeds directly into the ground. I’m hardening off the plants I started off indoors from seed. Unfortunately, I think the cucumbers must have had quite a shock at the weekend when I placed them outside for a few hours as they’re looking very sorry for themselves. The tomato plants seem to be doing well, as are the onions and parsley.

I also bought some bedding plants at the weekend for containers and the one hanging basket the previous owners left in the back garden. However, I’m not planting any tender plants out just yet as there’s every chance that we’ll get another dump of snow before the summer really starts – which will give me the right funk!