Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Top three things I've learnt today: Not on the Label

Not on the Label: What really goes into the food on your plate (Felicity Lawrence, Penguin, 2004)

I'm about a third of the way into this book and I wanted to share 3 things that I've learnt so far that are disturbing:

i) Salad bags unmasked
You often hear that something is the symbol of our modern society, but I think that nothing represents the myth of twenty-first century Britain so well as the bagged salad. It is the ultimate consumer product for the cash-rich, time-poor shopper. It has cach√© - gone are the days of limp leaves or tasteless iceburg - the modern salad bag contains mixed leaves with exciting, often foreign-sounding names, like fris√©e, mizuna and radicchio. If you want to be even more adventurous, then why not try something with edamame beans or fresh pea shoots? A salad bag, weighing in the region of 85g will cost you at least £1, where you can still buy a head of lettuce for around 70p and it will weigh significantly more. The bagged salad rather than being compared to the often-derided ready meal, manages to be both convenient and aspirational. 'I'm so busy that I don't have time even to wash and chop some salad, so I will buy it from the 'chilled food' section where I can assume it is providing me with a healthy side dish - one of my recommended five-a-day.' (On an aside, is it just me that is driven mad at the moment by those adverts for tuna where apparently they've removed the 'fiddly bit' of having to drain the can? I mean, really, how difficult and time consuming it is to drain some water out of a can?!)

However, it wasn't until reading this book by Felicity Lawrence that I realised that ending up out of pocket was the least of the problem with bagged salads. If you are anything like me, you will, perhaps naively, have assumed that ready-to-eat salads and veg sold in the supermarkets are prepared as you or I would do it at home, albeit in an industrial setting. Peeled and cored where appropriate, then washed in water and chopped, ready for cooking (or in the case of salad leaves, washed - full stop). Well, you'd be wrong! Producers of ready-bagged salads will talk about refrigeration at every stage and special, breathable bags through which you can see the food to guarantee its freshness. Lawrence's book reveals that salad leaves are washed in a chlorine solution significantly stronger than that found in swimming pools, bagged in 'modified atmosphere packaging', where the levels of oxygen and CO2 are altered to keep the leaves from deteriorating, but that despite these precautions, incidences of food poisoning, including from E.coli, are still alarmingly high due to the long process chain the salads are subject to from field to plate. Even if you don't think that these arguments are convincing, the supermarkets demand an incredibly high cosmetic standard, which means that all food produced for them has been exposed to extremely high concentrations of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. In order to have salads throughout the winter, we rely on crops flown in from Spain and North Africa, where their production is putting pressure on increasingly compromised water supplies, and finally buying fresh food in a bag is about as far divorced as you can possibly get from its source, and this alienation from where our food comes from is closely linked to rising levels of obesity and diabetes.

Read more
Friends of the Earth
Pesticide Action Network UK
Soil Association

And the other side of the argument
Bring on the salads

ii) I'd like some chicken with that
So we've all seen the recent flurry of documentaries where well-off celebrity chefs lecture us about chicken welfare and explain that any bird that costs £2.50 (2 for a fiver) cannot possibly have lived a healthy, happy life. We've watched, and been horrified, by the footage of veritable carpets of chickens, too fat to move even if they had the space, their legs bowing under the weight of their enormous breasts, cannibalising the remains of one of their even-less-fortunate fellows. The problem is, that as time blurs the memories and we're confronted with that painful pocket choice of cheap or not cheap, any ethical standpoint we might have wanted to take is often quietly filed under 'one more thing to feel guilty about'.

But that's when you think that what you're buying is chicken. Don't get me wrong - at least some of the meat will be chicken or the producers would be in trouble with the trading standards agency. However, did you know that your chicken breasts are also likely to contain quite a lot of water. Don't worry though, if its more than 5% water (and didn't you think you were paying for chicken) they have to declare it on the label (although if you're buying chicken breasts, why would you think to check what the ingredients were?) Water is included in order to keep the meat moist and looking fresh, but to retain the water, manufacturers also need some sort of additives, which can include salt, phosphates and animal proteins. These latter don't even have to be from a chicken - previous investigations by the FSA have discovered pork and even beef proteins being used instead of chicken. These proteins are extracted from waste meat from animals, meaning that it has often been skin, blood or bone to start with. Given that the practice has been standard with some manufacturers for years, it is even possible that beef tainted by BSE could have made its way into chicken you ate and it could even have been legal as long as the manufacturer had labelled the product correctly. Don't forget also, that these same producers often supply the restaurant and takeaway trades, where even the onus of checking the label is out of our hands. Definitely enough to put you off your nuggets!

Read more
Food Standards Agency
Food quality news

iii) CBP
Not another acronym! This one stands for Chorleywood Bread Process. Any the wiser? Apparently this one process completely revolutionised the mass production of bread, making it cheaper and easier for manufacturers to bring a sliced loaf to the nation. Unfortunately, it also seems to have made it inedible. Literally. I don't just mean that supermarket bread all tastes the same, or that there are some disturbing stories about the production of wholemeal bread just being white bread with caramel food colouring added. I mean something even more fundamental about what used to be a staple in our diets.

The story of bread is more than 2,000 years old and for that period, up until the introduction of the CBP in the 1960s, bread was made with four main ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. These ingredients were allowed to ferment for at least four hours, during which time the flavour and texture that characterises 'real' bread develop. The CBP eliminated this time-consuming part of the process, by using high-speed mixers, more yeast and water, chemical improvers and hydrogenated fats. The mixers ensured that a high enough temperature is reached very quickly which causes the bread to rise. The first major criticism of the CBP is that the high speeds that smash apart the starches in the flour to speed up the fermentation process with the yeast also remove much of the nutritional value of the grains. The second is the corresponding rise in health problems relating to hydrogenated fats, excess salt and high levels of yeast in our diets from the 1960s. This is before you start to investigate the chemical improvers and their possible impact on our health. Making bread from scratch may be too daunting, but there a range of bread machines on the market that more than pay for themselves when you discover what bread can taste like. This may not be quite as good for you as true 'real' bread (recipes for breadmakers tend to include butter/oil and sugar/honey in addition to salt and yeast), but at least the ingredients list is simplified and controllable. Give us this day our daily bread, as long as it's not a pre-sliced and packaged chemically-enhanced loaf. Check out sustain's new campaign for real bread to find out more about why you should bake your own and/or support your local baker.

Campaign for Real Bread

Read more
Doh Boy
Wikipedia explains CBP

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Muffin madness

Two posts in one afternoon - you don't get that often! We rounded off our weekend with a little bit of baking fun. A fabulous idea, this one!

Strawberry cheesecake muffins (from 101 Cakes & Bakes, ed Mary Cadogan)
Makes 12

350g plain flour
1/1/2 tbsp baking powder
140g caster sugar
grated zest of 2 med oranges
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
250ml milk
85g melted butter

For the filling
175g half-fat soft cheese
3 tbsp caster sugar
6 small strawberries, halved

1. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, then stir in the sugar, zest and salt. Beat the eggs with the milk, stir in the butter and then mix into the dry ingredients. Don't stir too much!
2. Line a muffin tin with 12 cases.
3. Mix the sugar and cheese for the filling together. We did it in the same bowl into which we'd grated the zest and it added a real tangyness to the filling.
4. Half fill the cases with muffin mixture, then push half a strawberry into each one. Add a scoop of the sweet cheese and then top with more muffin mix.
5. Put in a preheated oven at 200C or Gas 6 for between 15 and 30 mins (ours took about 30, and we turned them around half way through).
6. Cool and enjoy!

Your mix should look something like this - don't worry, there will be lumps!

Squish in the strawberry halves

A dollop of sweet cheese

Make sure you cover all the cheese with more muffin mix

Two spoon technique, displayed beautifully...

Fresh out of the oven

Mid-month update time

It's time for a mid-month update of all things garden-related......

1. Tomatoes - the Gardener's Delight and Moneymaker, which had looked sick from the week we planted them out, with curling, crispy leaves, have finally recovered and are even starting to flower. All the growth at the top of the plants looks normal, so we're hopeful about a crop. Meanwhile the Roma's have just completely taken off - this pic is from before I did some pruning to let some light and air circulate. These tomatoes are all showing lots of flower trusses now - can't wait!

Lots of growth on the Roma's

Beginnings of some flowers

2. Courgettes - rampaging is the only word. If they weren't in tubs, there'd be trouble. I've had to cut back the foliage on them a couple of times now so that the tomatoes that share the tub (and the marigolds in a tub beside and below) still get some light. They're lovely when they flower tho.

This is about the 5th flower from these three plants

They really brighten up the garden

3. Peas and beans - the beans are still threatening to crowd out the peas, so I keep pinching out the leaves growing over the centre of the container, to give them so air. The beans have grown so much this last week, we've now put in a wigwam of canes to offer some support.

This picture was taken a few days ago and even in that time the beans have grown more!

4. Everything else has either gone over slightly or still going strong. We had another good salad crop yesterday and we had the first, tiniest spring onions last week as we couldn't wait any longer. The red variety are particularly nice to cook with as they a subtle colour. The garlic is still strong, although the leaves are beginning to die down. The spinach isn't anywhere near its bumper crop last month, but I don't think I did enough successional sowing (top tip to remember for next year). And that's about it for now. We're in the process of buying our very first house, which has a fantastic garden already set up with green house and veg plot - I'm trying not to make too many plans until everything is signed and sealed but it's difficult as it's very exciting!

Our salads are so impressive, they've had a visitor!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Domestic pursuits

WH and I had two days off last week so the weekend has felt nice and long - although, of course, not quite long enough.

Three days of fun and enjoying that heady break-from-routine left us feeling a bit tired; a number of late nights out at the theatre, learning about whisky, and other extraordinary (for us) pursuits.

Today, by contrast, has been mainly about the domestic. I've managed to cobble together a personal philosophy when it comes to housework that borrows from pragmatism (I realise the truth that keeping a clean home is better for our health, but recognise that the reality is beset by hurdles ranging from laziness to boredom), to skepticism (I refuse to see my world as either embattled by a vast horde of lethal bacteria intent on making me ill, or that dirt is a sin, preferring the maxim that exposure to a bit of dirt strengthens the immune system) to a bit of rationalism (if this chemical is strong enough to eat away in mere seconds a stubborn stain, with no scrubbing, what will it do when I wash it down the drain?) As a result, I do very little housework, using a variety of Ecover products and a bit of old-fashioned kitchen magic (vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, for the most part).

Anyway, that was a rather long-winded way of saying that I took some cathartic relief from dashing vinegar and bicarb down the loos and giving them a bit of scrub to get rid of the limescale, followed by a blitz of the kitchen. Homemade bread is a real pleasure and I would certainly never go back to shop-bought loaves now that I've the breadmaker, but slicing your own really does result in a lot of crumbs! I've also done some washing and some ironing and even fitted in a spot of baking. My first attempt at Chelsea buns and they were yummy! So yummy in fact, that I forgot to take a photo and they've already been reduced significantly, so you'll just have to wait for the next batch and a possible variation on the recipe to see them!

Things are looking good in the garden although the three tomato plants we bought from the farmers' market are still not the healthiest things in the garden. We're having an absolute nightmare with aphids on the tomatoes and courgettes, but we're persevering with the squishing method. Having said that the Roma toms are looking good and all of the plants have the faintest hints of some flower buds. The courgettes are flowering madly, the peas and beans are shooting skywards and the spring onions are about ready to pull. Without our realising it, the two salad tubs both went from plentiful to 'over', so I cut them both back to the soil level and sowed some new seed. The first tub is already sprouting again, so we'll have to make sure not to let it get to mad again.

Speaking of mad - the parsley had almost taken over the entire herb container it was in. Fortunately, St Hugh of Whittingstall came to the rescue in a timely fashion last week with a fantastic recipe for parsley pesto - we had it last night, as suggested, scooped into a ciabatta loaf baked in the oven with a simple salad.

Simple salad
Baby leaf spinach (about 2/3 large bag)
Green or fine beans (about half a pack from Waitrose)
x4 bacon rashers, smoked back pref
x1 clove garlic
x2 eggs

x1 generous tsp of wholegrain mustard
x1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
x4 tbsp of olive oil

Peel the garlic clove and add it to a frying pan with a small drizzle of oil. Cut the bacon rashers into large chunks and add to the pan and cook over a medium heat for 10-15 mins until the bacon is nice and crispy. Meanwhile boil the eggs and briefly cook the trimmed beans. Make up the dressing. Put all of the ingredients bar the eggs in a bowl and mix with the dressing. Slice the eggs in half and add to the salad. Serve with Hugh's parsley pesto ciabatta loaf.