sage cooker

Christmas Gift Ideas

sage cooker

Christmas is just round the corner and because few things please me more than Christmas shopping, I’m going to give you all suggestions to keep the fun alive since I’ve finished all mine already. This is a mix of things I own, want or generally recommend but hopefully with a bit more insight than the average Amazon review.

First up is my new toy: the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Risotto Plus. Previously known as the Multi Cooker, this is a slow cooker with bells on. As well the usual high and low settings as a slow cooker, it is also a rice cooker, steamer and risotto maker. You can ever sear and saute directly which is a boon for those who like to brown things before they slow cook.

I was a bit sceptical about the risotto setting so it was the first thing I tried. I made a chicken and mushroom risotto and was pleasantly surprised by the results, especially as the instruction booklet is vague to say the least. There’s no hint of how long making the risotto will take so it was all a bit of a magical mystery tour with carnoroli rice. I was very surprised that it only took about 25 minutes so was very glad I’d also tried the saute function out on the mirepoix and the chicken or it might have gone horribly wrong with raw chicken and crunchy carrots. I think I’d also recommend that you don’t rest the risotto as advised in the booklet as that made it rather too soft for my liking. But all in all, it was good enough to please an Italian friend of mine.

Buoyed by the excitement of successful risotto, I tried out all the other functions over the next day or two. Once I got used to the fact the high and low slow cooker settings have a set timing function rather than the freewheeling I’ve been using on my non digital slow cookers, I was very happy with that side of it. I really really loved the fact this is a rice cooker as well since mine gave up the ghost a few years ago and I couldn’t justify the cost in replacing it despite eating a lot of rice.

I liked the idea of the steamer insert as I think it means I’ll be able to do my standby meal of steamed fish and vegetables with rice with a minimum of effort even when I’m really not well which is the multi cooked icing on the cake with this. I think it’s a great investment if like me you’re a slow cooking fiend with a taste for rice and steamed veg and an aversion to washing up although I must make it clear I’d didn’t pay for mine. It was sent to me courtesy of the company.

I’d give it 10/10 if it wasn’t for the rather lacking booklet. I’m not sure how accurate the recipes are considering they suggest cooking kidney beans from dried in there which is highly dangerous, but since I could recommend you an excellent slow cooker cookbook, I’ll give it 9/10.

Also on the slow cooker front, I was recently introduced to cake tin liners by the fantastic BakingQueen74 which are the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys slow cooking cakes as they mean you can avoid the tell tale oval shape of the crock. Like everything else in my life, I went to Ebay for mine and got a good selection at an excellent price.

Speaking of baking, my first book choice has to be fellow Ebury author Ruby Tandoh with her fantastic book Crumb. I loved her on the Great British Bake Off and felt she was treated harshly by many people at the time. I’ve baked quite a few things from her Guardian column and enjoyed them all. I like her writing style and her recipes and hope to see more from her in the future.

I’m also keen for more from the fantastic Diana Henry. Her book A Change of Appetite is about to become my go to to while I readjust to watching my fat levels again but with none of the misery and deprivation of previous gallbladder related diets. The good news is that this is Diana’s eighth book so I can simply go back and buy some of the others to satisfy my lust for beautiful photography and great food.

I’m very much hoping there will be a second (and third) book from Mimi Aye after how much I’ve enjoyed Noodle! this year. I have always been absolutely terrible at cooking noodles and after a year of eating almost nothing but instant ramen when I was extremely poor and had no kitchen, I’d fallen out of love with them until I got this book. The Fish Ball Noodle soup has become a massive favourite and I can’t wait to try some of the Burmese dishes in the future as Mimi writes particularly well about the cuisine of her heritage. My days of cooking noodles badly are over after her guidance! Mimi has signed copies at her site currently.

Entirely coincidentally my other two book recommendations are also by women. Meera Sodha’s Made in India is a a glorious book that thoroughly deserves its nomination for the Andre Simon Award. I was lucky to eat Meera’s cooking at a dinner at The Draper’s Arms a few months ago and it was one of my favourite meals of the year.

I also heartily recommend Salmagundi by Sally Butcher. Some of you might know her from the wonderful Peckham based shop Persepolis or you may have seen her previous books including Veggiestan and Persia in Peckham. Sally’s books are especially good for getting you out of a rut of what to do with seasonal veg which can become a bit repetitive at times despite being so delicious.

If you already have all those books or fancy something slightly different, don’t forget about magazines as a great source of food writing and photography. My choice of the year is Toast with their beautiful annual edition but I’ve also been enjoying The Gourmand and Cherry Bombe.

And don’t forget that Recipes from Brixton Village is still available from all good retailers and independent bookshops. I’ll also be signing copies through Herne Hill Books on Saturday 13th at the Christmas Fair.

NHS Menu

Health Food

NHS MenueNo blog at the weekend because I had an unexpected trip to hospital with an attack of my old foe, biliary colic and ended up admitted for four days to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious than some seering pain. Luckily it wasn’t, although since I haven’t had a gallbladder since 1997, it’s a tad alarming that I’m getting pain in the area. I foresee even more medical appointments in my future.

Being a chronically ill person I am a bit of an expert on NHS appointments and by extension, since I think of little else, the food associated with the NHS. I attend no less than four hospitals in South London as an outpatient and have long since jokingly thought about blogging their lunch options for other who will be visiting too.

I haven’t had to be an inpatient since I moved to London and the last few times I was in hospital in Belfast, I’m not sure I was well enough to actually eat anything so I’ve not been sure if the unflattering comments about hospital food are still true.

At one point over the weekend, I wasn’t sure if I’d get to test the theory as I was both nil by mouth for three days and had zero appetite. I studied the five page hospital food menu in the abstract way you might with a guidebook for somewhere you’ll never visit and dreamed of a glass of ice cold Diet Coke with lots of lemon instead to quench my thirst.

However eventually I was allowed to start eating again and I started paying attention. King’s College Hospital offers the above five page menu to all patients, along with halal, kosher, Caribbean, gluten free and dairy free options, low residue and renal safe diets. They feed thousands of people a day, most of whom are homesick, ill and in need of some cheer as well as nutrition.

The menu was surprisingly comprehensive and packed with choice. There were no less than 7 vegetarian options and at least 3 that were vegan. There was curry, roast dinners, lots of fish and a mix of the light and easy to eat and the heartier for building people back up again. They’d tried to sign post everything possible to help you make good choices as they need you to eat no matter what it is.

They’d thought of pretty much everything in fact. Except what to do if someone came in and needed a low fat Fodmap friendly option like I did. Onions and garlic are my current kryptonite and I didn’t wish to aggravate issues further by risking them. But my inner Brit came out and I felt really awkward stopping a busy nurse to ask her to help pick out allium free options.

I need not have worried. The nurse was fantastic and we had a bit of a giggle about my digestive diva-dom and she then took the time to phone catering to ask them about the ingredients. They then went through ALL the options to let me know what was safe. We established all the soups had onions and that the fish dishes were all without and I was able to order cod in parsley sauce with carrot and swede mash with potatoes as my first meal in nearly 4 days and they brought it to me two hours early since I was so faint feeling at this point.

And you know what? It really wasn’t bad. Yes, it was the tiniest piece of fish I’ve seen in a long time, but it was hot, fresh and actually tasted of its component parts. The potato was real mash not reconstituted and the carrot and swede had just enough of that catering texture to be oddly comforting.

Both King’s and St Thomas’s Hospital are distinctly old fashioned these days and don’t have any fast food outlets on the premises, running central kitchens and a daily canteen for staff, visitors and patients where everyone eats the same food. I’ve been attending regular appointments weekly at St Thomas’s and eating lunch in their canteen and the price of a central London sandwich meal deal have been able to have a proper fresh hot meal rather than a limp sarnie.

There’s a touch of the school dinners about it as there’s vast portions of custard and crumble available everyday, but beyond that, it’s actually pretty good. You can have freshly cooked omelettes with your choice of filling, use the salad bar or soup or have one of five hot options which range from Cornish pastie and chips to fish or noodles.

Aside from the food, my favourite bit is that you can sit in the dining room overlooking the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Thames in possibly the finest view in London and watch a vast mix of people eating. Few things sum up London’s multiculturalism better to me than watching people of all races eat jollof rice with baked beans on the side and apple crumble for afters or a halal British roast dinner without batting an eyelid about it. Food here makes everyone the same and the atmosphere in both the dining room and the hospital is calmer than at a hospital like Guy’s where everyone has to go to McDonalds for lunch.

I understand the NHS has had to try and make money from commercial outlets coming to them and there’s many time I’ve been grateful for a branch of AMT or an M&S cafe to grab a coffee or tea when the canteen is shut, compared to the vending machines at the Maudsley. Yet I do worry that by turning food into a business transaction in a hospital or solely a nutritional aim like with the Eatwell plate the NHS promotes, it misses a crucial point of how food nourishes us. We need to combine it with being sociable and comforting and filling for it to have the best effect.

Choice within a structure here actually makes that easier to achieve so that people can seek out what they need at that time. Hospitals can take away independence so the highlight of the day is choosing your own lunch, but there’s something comforting to me about the NHS offering you options within reason like your parents did when you were a kid. Yes, sometimes you could stuff yourself on cake but other times, you had to choose which vegetable you were going to have.

The old fashioned centralised catering idea I’ve been eating at recently provides this caring choice perfectly and made me feel like someone was looking after me. I might have felt less so if I’d been eating poor quality slop dumped on a plate and wheeled round miles of wards before it got to me so it was cold and congealed like much hospital food still is. King’s steams all the food on the wards so it’s hot and fresh and they clearly use identifiable ingredients rather leaving you wondering if you’re eating horse in everything.

I think this style of cooking and eating is healthier in all senses of the word. All but one woman on my ward was very happy to eat the food provided, and frankly I’ve never met anyone so hard to please in my entire life. The nursing and catering staff attempted to answer every question and encourage you to eat, making tea and coffee to exact specifications, offering you several types of jam with your toast and providing biscuits from a local bakery for afternoon tea. They then ate the same things as we did.

I hope this experience wasn’t an outlying one and that more hospitals are starting to see the value rather just the costs of food for both staff and patients rather than simply renting their lobby out to Maccy D’s and Starbucks. I know the staff struggle to find more than lattes and biscuits on nightshifts and welcome the communal spaces with microwaves that St Thomas’s  offers everyone for their use.

Ironically now I’m home, I’m probably not going to be eating quite as well as I’m mainly existing on toast and microwaveable rice as I don’t have much appetite and have to be low fat and bland for a week or so. I think the slow cooker will be pressed into action tomorrow when I feel a bit more like getting out bed. My friends have been terrific, but sadly none of them has an extensive menu of tinned fruit about their person like the NHS offered me thinking it’s still 1972….

slow cookers

Slow Cooker Matchmaking

slow cookers

So you’ve decided to buy a slow cooker? Welcome to the least time consuming cult in the world. We find time to put our feet up (at least metaphorically) and get on with all the other stuff we love in life and then sit down to a proper meal at the end of it. I particularly love the low washing up levels that accompany it.

But what do you do if you’re still standing on the side of the fence with the stove and saucepans, looking forlornly at a dish needing steeped and don’t know which toe to dip in first to join Club Slow Cooker? I’ve got some advice for you here so you’re ready to start using the recipes in Slow Cooked.

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book cover

Creating Slow Cooked

book cover

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before now or anything, but I’ve written a book! You’ll have to forgive me getting meta and writing about writing a book but I’m still in post book writing withdrawal and indulging myself with as many blog posts as possible before Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th.

After people congratulated me on the book deal (and believe me, nothing gets people more excited than a proper paper book even in these days of blogs and e-readers), they generally wanted to know two things. Firstly, how do you get published and secondly, how do you actually write a book from scratch?

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pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2

Pork, Plums and Fodmaps

pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2I have a notoriously delicate constitution. My innards tend to react like an angry toddler needing its bedtime over all kinds of things. Some of it is because I am an expert maker of gallstones (despite having my gallbladder removed when I was 18) leading to my digestive system reacting like angrily to say the least. I’ve done a lot of exclusion diets in my time.

There was the post cholecystectomy low fat diet that meant all I could safely eat without a trip to A&E was bread and jam which in turn meant having to do a candida exclusion diet. Not only am I prone to yeast issues in my gut but because it was the mid 90s and it was the current solve all your internal ills idea at the time. I also dabbled with wheat and dairy free for a while and didn’t achieve much effect apart from sending myself gently bonkers around food. I’m sure I’d have excluded gluten too if I’d heard of it then.

I thought I’d just have to put up with feeling terrible all the time and existing on a heavy routine of peppermint oil capsules and mint tea and then I saw a new and wonderful gastroenterologist about some other gallbladder related issues you don’t want to read about over breakfast. While not denying I had a problem, he mentioned that about 80% of his current caseload is down to three things: poor gut flora, Chorleywood bread and Fodmaps.

The first, I know well. The second makes sense since it relies on underproving yeasts and gluten and making bread much harder to digest. The third? I had no earthly idea what he was on about. But I trusted him (I should, he swears like a sailor on shore leave, keeps a sourdough starter in his office for patients and is Michael Mosley approved, all on the NHS no less) so I went off and looked these Fodmaps up.

Discovered by Monash University in Australia, it identifies that there are certain sugars and carbohydrates that the human body finds hard to digest leading to problems. These are the Fermentable, Oligo, Di and Mono Saccharides and Polyols the diet is named for. Often confusing for people because many healthy foods are an issue, it’s a complicated diet that should only ever be undertaken with the help of a trained medical professional, hopefully via the NHS these days,

However it’s worth looking into doing it if you find you have issues after eating wheat or rye, all dairy products not just lactose based ones, certain fruits and vegetables, especially onions and garlic or pulses beyond the normal response to large amounts. Meat substitutes like Quorn can only be a big Fodmap trigger. People are further confused by Fodmaps because everyone’s tolerance is different. I am absolutely fine with wheat (and other members of the galactan family) and have no issue with lactose.

Yet give me a fructan in the shape of an onion or garlic especially and I am utterly miserable. My problems are compounded by the fact I am also fructose intolerant so react terribly to high fructose fruit, any kind of fruit juice and anything like agave syrup that’s high in it. It’s best to only consume fructose when it comes with the natural fibre of the fruit to prevent overloading your system but for fructose malabsorbers like me, any amount is difficult. A glass of orange juice or a whole apple will be both cause my mouth to swell and break me out in a sweat and itchiness. I suspect many people have this issue these days but have simply never heard of it. Innocent times. Literally.

I have to be incredibly careful in what I eat so that I don’t end up lying down feeling faint and bloated at best or triggering off my more intense bowel issues. Fruit and pulses are occasional treats for me (which is why I become murderously annoyed when people tell me how great lentils are when you are poor) and alliums are to be eaten only when I can’t avoid them and can be alone soon after. I will never eat a Jerusalem artichoke or chicory root or take a prebiotic again as they contain inulin, a form of indigestable fibre that is problematic for everyone but triggers debilitating biliary pain for me. Read more