Slow Cooker Pig Cheek and Aubergine Stew

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek and Aubergine Stew

Slow Cooker Pig Cheek and Aubergine Stew

I’ve recently taken a bit of a shine to aubergines. I’ve always had terrible trouble cooking them well, ending up with something vaguely slimy and acrid unless I use the slow cooker.

Even then I keep thinking I don’t really like aubergines so don’t bother buying them, but as they are one of the few veg I can currently eat on the fodmap diet, I decided I really needed to find a purpose for an aubergine.

My first attempt didn’t go very well when I left it to the last slightly limp moment and needed to make something for the Brixton Blog and came up with a velvety bean and pomegranate infused soup I couldn’t eat, but which went down very well with other tasters.

For my second attempt I really needed to get to grips with an aubergine and what better way to do that than with pork? Every time I go to Waitrose I try and pick up a few packs of pigs cheeks. They work really well in the slow cooker, take flavour brilliantly and they are extremely good value. What’s not to like?

Sadly my favourite slow cooker recipe for them on page 36 of Slow Cooked for Soy Braised Pigs Cheeks is a blast of garlic I can’t handle anymore so I needed to adapt a bit. I know aubergines love those Chinese flavours so I decided to stick with soy sauce as my base and go from there.

And when I say go from there, I mean rummage round my kitchen making it up as I go along. I used some soy and some Chinese rice wine and a bit of tamarind and brown sugar for the cooking liquor and then added some star anise and the black cardamom pods I’ve had forever but keep forgetting about.

I then forgot I’d unplugged the slow cooker when the cleaner was here a few weeks ago and ended up leaving everything to marinate for a couple of hours until I noticed, but 10 hours when I remembered again, I had soft buttery aubergine and silky strands of succulent pork with little effort.

Slow Cooker Pigs Cheek and Aubergine Stew (serves 4)

  • 4 pigs cheeks (approx 250g)
  • 1 large aubergine, peeled and diced
  • 75ml soy sauce (tamari is wheat free if on fodmap)
  • 50ml rice wine or sherry
  • 50ml water
  • 1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 2 star anise pods
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 2 black cardamom pods, slightly crushed
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, chopped or 1 teaspoon paste
  • black pepper

This is ridiculous simple to make. I like to cook the pigs cheek whole and then tease the meat apart at the end with two forks so that it falls into the stew and tangles in with the aubergine for the best texture. This way they also go much further and serve far more people than you’d think on first glance.

Simply place the whole pigs cheeks in the slow cooker crock with the peeled and diced aubergine. Peeling it allows the flesh to collapse down into a lovely sticky finish more easily.

Pour the liquids on top of it all and add the spices and flavourings. It will look like very little liquid but slow cookers need hardly any liquid and the aubergine will add some anyway as it cooks. No one wants a wet aubergine after all.

Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook it all on low for 8-10 hours. Checking you’ve actually turned the thing on is as stressful as this recipe gets.

Once it’s cooked, pull the pig cheeks apart with two forks and mix everything well together. Pick the spice pods out if you see them on the way, especially if serving to kids and eat with something green and leafy on the side and some steamed rice.

I’m definitely an aubergine convert now. Mine had pickled ginger on top of it because I’d run out of any other kind but the warmth of that made me think a bit of chilli heat wouldn’t go amiss here. Otherwise this was an excellent introduction to aubergine for me and I look forward to more tricks with them in the future.

Fodmap Friendly Banana Crumble

banana crumbleSome people eat oysters when there’s a R in the month, but since I’m allergic to them I collect new food intolerances on those months instead. September is brought to you by fructose malabsorption and a heartily pissed off look.

I had wondered why I was still feeling awful even when I was eating fodmap friendly fruits such as raspberries or kiwis. Everytime I drank red wine even in small quantities I felt sick and bloated. I assumed my issue with coconut milk making me feel grim was because I had no gallbladder.

Turns out it’s the fructose instead. I had mistakenly thought that fructose = fructans as in one of the fodmaps and if I avoided those, I’d be fine. But no, you can be fodmap sensitive and malabsorb fructose as well just like lactose intolerance doesn’t mean fodmap intolerant per se.

I really can’t explain you the science because I’m too busy crying but basically it means I can’t eat any fruit in any quantity. This has meant spending the summer lusting after chunks of chilled watermelon and plump cherries and little flat peaches and now it means scrolling past people’s Instagram photos of blackberries apple crumble and swearing at them under my breath.

An apple crumble was about the the first thing I learned to make in a kitchen. My granny lived on a farm with both an orchard and a vast abundance of brambles nearby so autumn involved scratching my arms silly reaching into the bushes for blackberries and letting someone else cope with the wasps to get the apples.

Back home, everyone’s favourite way to eat the fruit was in a crumble. I’d stand at the kitchen table rubbing butter, flour and sugar together and feeling so clever that I’d created this masterpiece all by myself. It’s a hard dish to give up now so I wondered if I could make it fodmap and fructose friendly.

The two fruit I can apparently still eat in small quantities are pineapple and banana. My friend Beth had already tried pineapple crumble and given it the thumbs down so that left banana to try. I wanted to do a wheat free crumble topping and thought I could finally use the bag of millet flour I bought to replace it.

A little bit of Twitter advice led me to simply bake the bananas in their skins while I cooked the crumble topping separately on a baking tray. I then mashed the banana up with a splash of vanilla extract and countered the slight savouriness of the millet with some extra brown sugar and scattered it over the top for a pretty good crumble in 15 minutes.

Fodmap Friendly Banana Crumble (serves 4)

  • 100g millet flour
  • 50g cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 50g white sugar
  • 25g desiccated coconut (optional)
  • 25g brown sugar
  • 4 bananas
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put the flour and sugar in a large bowl and add the butter. Rub it all together with your finger tips to create a coarse breadcrumb texture. Don’t feel you have to break up all the lumps of butter now or the crumble might become tough. Add the coconut and mix through.

Spread the crumble mix out on a lined baking tray so it is evenly scattered and not too deeply piled. Put the bananas in their unopened skins on another baking tray and put them both in the oven at 180℃ for 10 -12 minutes.

Keep an eye to make sure the crumble doesn’t burn but don’t be freaked out that the bananas go black and sad looking in their skins. They are glorious swans under their ugly duckling exteriors.

Take them both out. Mix the brown sugar into the crumble mix and allow to cool slightly while you carefully take the bananas out of their skins and roughly mash them in a dish or ramekins along with the vanilla extract. If you want to bananas sweeter add a spoonful of coconut jam.

Scatter the crumble on top as deeply or shallowly as you like. Any excess freezes beautifully. Serve as it is or with custard if you feel cosy or creme fraiche if you feel sophisticated.

The millet flour is very light and crispy so you get a really good crumble texture. You do lack the stickiness of the slow cooked fruit of something like an apple crumble here but you do save on cooking time and on washing up while sating a craving so you’re still winning.

Let me know if you try the crumble on top of a more traditional fruit if you’re simply wheat or gluten free. I was really pleased with how this turned out on both speed and flavour and I no longer have to read fruitarian blogs* to try and kill my fruit cravings that way.


*Please note that linking to other blogs isn’t necessarily an endorsement of what they have to say, it’s simply keeping you in the loop with what I’ve been reading.




Spring Succotash Salad

succotash salad

I was quite nervous posting last week’s piece about the psychology of dietary intolerances in case it just sounded whiny, but it seemed to have resonance with many of you and I was bowled over by the response. The kindness and thoughtfulness in comments, tweets and emails was genuinely overwhelming and inspiring. I’ve felt much less despondent this week and I’ve spent more time cooking than in the previous month put together.

So it seems like a bit of a cheat to post a recipe that has almost no cooking involved. I’ve been really busy this week and just wanted something easy to make on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I had a little rummage in the fridge and freezer and with my odds and ends came up with this salad version of the American dish succotash.

It usually involves some kind of bean mixed with fresh corn and rather than used tinned pulses which are Fodmap kryptonite I’ve added broad beans for colour and flavour. I’m experimenting with using small amounts of vegetables to allow me to eat  wider variety of things without feeling ill, so I bulked the potentially problematic beans and corn* out with potatoes and added a dressing of lime juice, mustard and oil and dressed it all with lots of parsley and it was fantastic. You could use fresh corn or broad beans when they come into season, but it made frozen veg much more interesting and satisfied some of my longing for the crunch and texture of vegetables which I’m really missing.

Spring Succotash Salad (serves 2)

  • 100g broad beans
  • 100g sweetcorn
  • 100g green beans
  • 100g cherry tomatoes
  • 100g new potatoes
  • 35g fresh parsley
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon oil (this garlic oil would work well)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce or other hot sauce
  • salt and pepper

This is incredibly quick to make. I started with the potatoes, cutting them small and steaming them for 5 minutes in the microwave. I almost never boil potatoes anymore as this is quicker, easier and I prefer the flavour especially with new potatoes.

As the potatoes cook, pour some boiling water over the broad beans and allow to sit for two minutes. Drain and then pop the gorgeous green inner beans out of the tough waxy outer shells. While you do this, pour some boiling water over the corn and allow to sit. Drain when the beans are ready and toss them both into a large bowl.

Quarter the cherry tomatoes and add along with the potatoes and some chopped parsley. Season well with salt and pepper. Make the dressing by combining the oil, lime juice and mustard together and tossing over the salad. Sprinkle well with the hot sauce. I like Tabasco as it doesn’t have any surprise garlic unlike many, but go with what you enjoy. Taste and add more hot sauce or salt as needed. Serve as a side.

If you aren’t sensitive to polyols and want to go veggie, some cubed avocado in this will make it more substantial or some black beans would be fantastic. I served mine with some sausages that needed eaten up. The whole meal took about ten minutes to prepare and I got to eat it outside for an extra spring feel!

*with a cup of after dinner peppermint tea I didn’t feel terrible after eating this. I hardly knew what to do with myself.

Rethinking Food

fox plateYou may have noticed there haven’t been very many recipes on the blog recently and if I’m honest, that’s not so much having writer’s block but having the most complicated dietary requirements around at the moment.

Having discovered the whole Fodmap thing and giving it a proper go since just before Christmas, I’ve been rewarded by radically improved physical health. My fatigue is more manageable, my joint pain is reacting to painkillers and my innards aren’t in full mutiny all the time. I haven’t felt this well in years, possibly decades.

And yet oddly, it feels like life has got harder with this change. I know now what aspect of my diet has been worsening my ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and now for the first time in my adult life I have some control over my body and its physical health and it’s terrifying.

I feel incredibly under pressure that if I eat the wrong thing now I’m actually making myself ill and in our current climate the only sin greater than being sick is being fat. We live in a world where Nutribullets sell out, people talk about the nutritional value of chia seeds rather than the taste, Instagram is awash with 5:2 shots, papers like the Daily Mail and Express feature health cure stories on the front page several times a week and people like Ella Woodward and Belle Gibson are in the pages of every magazine crediting exclusion diets as miracle cures.

Being well and eating well are indistinguishable and the modern morality tale. Even discussing weight or the ‘obesity crisis’ is talked about in terms of health on both sides from the doom-mongers to the Health At Every Size proponents. As someone who has been ill their entire life, I’ve never felt like such a failure. Not only have I failed to cure myself, but I’m so sick I can’t work and have to be one of those scroungers who lives off the taxes of those healthy hard working families according to the Mail and Express on the other days of the week. To top it all off, I’m even a bit overweight and won’t be healthy at any size anyway. I’m not hitting any of the milestones society expects of me.

My health in many ways feels like public property and that puts a massive pressure on me to not do anything that isn’t actively trying to improve it. The fact it’s hard to know how to improve ME/CFS because no one actually knows what causes it rarely stops people suggesting things anyway or prevents me from thinking one of those suggestions might be the answer I’ve waited 25 years for to cure me.

And then it turns out there is something I can quite definitely do to help. Avoiding onions, garlic and other alliums and fructans isn’t a cure, but it’s a massive positive change and yet, it’s just not as simple as it sounds. It requires a huge amount of commitment, research and effort on a daily basis.

So far I haven’t found a single widely eaten cuisine in the world that doesn’t use alliums at all. I can’t eat onions, shallots, garlic or spring onions or garlic of any kind, fresh, dried or powdered and since these flavours form the basis of most meals worldwide, unless I move to Alaska and only eat a traditional Inuit diet, it’s going to be tricky.

I’ve become that person who can’t stop talking about their diet because what I’m going to eat and what I’m able to eat now consumes (literally) my entire life. 99.99% of the world have never heard of Fodmaps and thus think I’m just being precious, asking for explanation of how the diet works and what happens if I break it. Frankly there’s never a great time for me to discuss bloating, wind, nausea and diarrhoea, but over the menu somewhere seems particularly inappropriate and I’m guessing you have to tip the waitstaff extra to discuss your guts with them. (FYI: no one in England can understand the word ‘bowel’ in a Belfst accent just to complicate things further. There’s a lot of questions about ‘bile’ which is ironic since having no gallbladder complicates my dietary needs even more.)

I’m getting used to scanning the menu studiously and running everything through a Fodmap lens and then asking for the dishes with the most potential to be adapted. There’s usually only one choice on the menu and bewilderment at cooking without alliums from the chefs. I’ve been lucky enough to eat at some of London’s best restaurants in the last few months and if this is causing them such issue, I’m not sure I can ever really ask friends to cook for me anymore. I’m starting to weakly joke about bringing my own Tupperware of steamed fish and rice in future, but I can see it having to happen.

The tyranny of the dried onion and garlic means that I can’t eat most commercial sausages, black pudding, haggis, salami, salad dressings, crisps, stocks, spice mixes, marinades and dips. Going round to someone’s house means them adapting nearly possible sauce or marinade or flavouring for food and preparing everything from scratch. Add in the fact that I also can’t eat beans or pulses, leeks, aubergines, mushrooms, apples, pears, artichokes of any kind, celery, sweetcorn, cashews and pistachios on this diet and much cheese, cream or coconut due to my gallbladder issues and that I just really hate peppers and anyone who doesn’t just tell me to go away is too kind.

I now feel incredibly guilty and stressed out when I eat out either in restaurants or at other people’s houses and that has removed much of the pleasure and spontaneity of eating and socialising. I also really miss the textures of of smooth soup and crunchy fruit and vegetables. My world around food has shrunk hugely and it’s really started to affect my mental health which is the bit around food and health very few people seem to want to mention.

I’ve suffered from anorexia and bulimia for my entire adult life and it has been an enormous struggle to widen my coping mechanisms around food to something that isn’t distorted and disordered and my own body seems hellbent on sabotaging that progress by refusing to play nice and digest anything without making an almighty fuss.

Being forced to stick to a very restricted diet of ‘safe foods’ is making it very hard not to relapse into previous coping strategies around eating, especially since I suspect much of my eating disorder stems from the loss of control casued by being seriously ill since childhood.

The logical thing to do in this case is ask for help and back up before it gets worse, but I’ve been unable to find anything out there which is why I’m writing this. If I’m honest, most of the stuff around ‘healthy’ eating, especially the current trends, lean very heavily toward eating disorder language. All those words like ‘safe’ or ‘clean’ or ‘toxic’ are laden with judgement and much of the phrases are about exclusion or restriction.

This is juxtaposed with the whole ‘dirty burger’ style of eating which is all about over indulgence, innuendo and a culture of binge style eating, sandwiched together with most people talking about exercise as something solely to burn off calories and attain a certain body shape through. There is very little about the joy and privilege of being able to move your body and know that it will respond in kind in our discourse here. No one seems to take a walk when they could run 5K. You do the 5:2 so you can eat something specially created like a ramen burger, cronut or shakfutu French toast. It’s all extremes and very little middle ground.

I’ve approached my GP who is sympathetic and supportive, but baffled as to what to do. To receive eating disorder treatment on the NHS, my BMI has to hit certain points for certain conditions and therefore it’s almost impossible to do so preventatively even if mental health services hadn’t been slashed and there was much in the way of eating disorder treatment in the first place. I mentioned my ED history to the dieticians who introduced me to Fodmaps in the first place and they could offer no practical support or psychological help as they insist most people don’t have to make radical dietary changes once they re-introduce trigger foods as the exclusion period resets their system. None of the eating disorder charities seem to cover what to do if you have to exclude certain foods while in recovery.

I’m pretty much stumped and out of options. It’s almost amusing that the whole of the internet exists and I’ve found a subject it hasn’t covered. (The only thing I tolerate less well than onions are cute cat videos admittedly.) This is a literal example of how modern society has detached food from its social and psychological importance and how stigmatised mental health issues can still be when we only talk about the physical health implications of it. So if anyone has any suggestions of what to do or where to find support, I’m all ears…


White Pudding Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

cabbage rolls Ocado Here at North/South Food, we are such black pudding fans, it’s one of our biggest  and best used tags, but we’ve completely neglected its close cousin, the white pudding. Made from oats, onions and pork fat, it has a lot of the flavour of black pudding but without the fear factor some people feel toward blood.

It’s a very traditionally Irish dish, but not really eaten in England and I have to admit I’d forgotten about it a bit until a friend mentioned their love of it recently, so when I saw it in the Ocado Irish shop, I knew I had to get some. Usually served fried in slices as part of a breakfast, I needed to perk it up for dinner.

Most people associate cabbage with Irish food (mainly alongside boiled bacon) and if I’m honest, I’ve never met a cabbage I didn’t love so it was a logical conclusion to use the heavily spiced white pudding to stuff cabbage leaves for a simple meal that promises to impress. I teamed with a beurre blanc and some Vichy carrots for added (and accidental) green, white and gold on the plate.

White Pudding Stuffed Cabbage Leaves (serves 4)

Preparation time about 25 minutes

Cooking time about 30 minutes

  • 1 cabbage (I used sweetheart, but Savoy works a treat)
  • 300g white pudding
  • 2 spring onions
  • 25g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1/2 teaspoons pul biber or red chilli flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mace

Vichy Carrots (serves 4)

  • 500g carrots
  • 500ml sparkling water (I doubt you’ll find Vichy handy sadly)
  • 1 dessertspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 50g butter
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional) or parsley to serve

Beurre Blanc (makes 250ml but keeps well)

  • 50g shallots or spring onions, finely chopped
  • 15g fresh tarragon, finely chopped
  • 50ml white wine or vermouth
  • 25ml white wine vinegar
  • 25ml double cream
  • 125g butter at room temperature
  • salt and pepper

This might sound like a complicated meal but it really isn’t. I made it while half distracted and apart from accidentally buying dill for the beurre blanc instead of tarragon, it worked perfectly.

Boil a kettle of water and pour about two thirds into a large saucepan and the rest into a shallow bowl. Put the porcini mushrooms into the shallow bowl and allow to soak for 10 minutes. Keep the pan of water at a rolling boil and carefully peel the leaves of your cabbage off one at a time. Remove the central rib and split the leaves in two if using the pointed sweetheart cabbage.  Blanch each leaf individually for about a minute and use a slotted spoon to fish them out again. I lay mine on a clean tea towel.

Call that slotted spoon back into action and scoop your porcini out and finely chop them. Add to a mixing bowl, along with the spring onions which you have also chopped as finely as possible. Crumble the white pudding in, adding the extra seasoning and mash it all together with your hands.

Lay a cabbage leaf out at a time and put a heaped dessertspoon of white pudding on it close to the base. Roll the base of the leaf over the filling once and then fold the sides in as well to make a parcel. Keep rolling the leaf until the filling is completely covered. Repeat until all the filling and cabbage leaves are used. I got about twelve from mine. Steam the leaves for about 30 minutes.

raw cabbage leaves

While they are steaming, cook the carrots. Peel them and cut into batons (or if you have baby ones, peel and leave whole) and put in a saucepan. Just cover with the sparkling water and add the salt. You want to season them quite heavily to mimic the salinity of Vichy water (but without the sulphurousness.) Don’t forget the sugar. Boil them rapidly on a high heat without moving the carrots around as you want the water to evaporate leaving a glaze on them. Mine took about 15 minutes to become tender. I then added the butter and cooked them for another 6-7 minutes on a medium heat. Add the caraway seeds at this point to soften them or they are unpleasantly crunchy.

Carrots under control, turn your attention to the beurre blanc. In a dry pan, soften the shallots (I only had spring onions so used the whites) for a minute or two. Add half the tarragon, wine and about half the vinegar and reduce down for about 5 minutes to infuse the flavours.

Add the cream and bring to the boil. As soon as it hits boiling point, start adding the butter, whisking vigorously until it comes together. Take it off the heat and blitz it all with a hand blender until foamy and add the remaining vinegar and chopped tarragon.

Serve the cabbage leaves with the beurre blanc and the carrots on the side and enjoy the praise for a meal that’s full of flavour but with very little hassle to make. I kept the main course a little lighter so you could enjoy the cream of potato soup and the coffee Baileys marshmallow pie in style too. Perfect to give cabbage a new lease of life for the doubters!