Category Archives: eating well on a budget

♫ Good, good, good, good bacteria ♫

A Kilner jar of sauerkraut made by Real Food LoverI wrote this long piece about good bacteria for the Sustainable Food Trust, which has given me permission to republish it here (slightly edited).

Thank you, Sustainable Food Trust.

♫ Good, good, good, good bacteria ♫

Recent research on the role of bacteria suggests we need a radical rethink about what makes us healthy.

Thanks to advances in genetic sequencing, scientists are starting to discover, categorise and understand the importance of the vast universe of microbial organisms that lives invisibly on, in and around us.

In May 2015, results from studies conducted by Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, showed that a ten-day diet of junk food caused the loss of 1,300 species of beneficial bacteria in the intestines.

Professor Spector said: “Microbes get a bad press, but only a few of the millions of species are harmful, and many are crucial to our health.”

Instead of bacteria being our deadly foe, it turns out the vast majority are really our best friends – and our oldest.

According to the Human Microbiome Project, our ‘live-in’ molecules – the single cell organisms including bacteria and fungi that are neither plant nor animal but in a category of their own – have evolved symbiotically with us and our pre-historic ancestors since time began.

Like the best of relationships, we are inter-dependent. We provide energy via food to our single-cell friends: in return, they perform a myriad of life-giving activities.

As it is in our gut, so it is in the soil. The idea articulated by Sustainable Food Trust, director Patrick Holden, that healthy topsoil thrives because of microbial activity – functioning in a similar way to human digestion – illustrates the interconnectedness of everything.

In the dark of topsoil, microscopic microbes perform vital tasks to maintain the health of soil life. Meanwhile, in the dark of our digestive system, trillions of tiny microbes are likewise busy keeping our bodies healthy.

The role of beneficial bacteria is multi-functional. A key role of both soil and gut bacteria is digestion. These beneficial bacteria break down nutrients into digestible forms that can be assimilated by the plant’s roots, or the gut lining in our intestines, enabling both plants and humans to thrive.

As well as bacteria being an essential component of digestion, beneficial bacteria also help to repel disease and are a key component of a healthy immune system.

The number of microorganisms living invisibly in the world is mind-boggling: one teaspoon of rich garden soil can hold one billion bacteria along with fungi and other microorganisms.

As for the bacteria in a symbiotic relationship with us, the majority live in the walls of our intestines. This community of diverse bacterial species, called the gut microbiome, weighs about two kilos.

There is a clear analogy between soil and human digestion and, according to nutritionist and author Daphne Lambert, there is also a direct relationship. In her book Living Food: A Feast of Soil and Soul, she traces the origins of soil eating for health, drawing on recent studies to argue for increased exposure to soil to build immunity.

Daphne Lambert writes, “Today our food industry kills off these organisms and together with our excessively clean households this means few if any of these soil-based organisms manage to find their way into the human digestive system.”

According to Daphne Lambert, there is evidence to suggest that the ingestion of soil-based organisms from a vibrant, healthy soil enhance the functioning of our gastrointestinal tract.

But our modern lifestyles break the link between healthy soils and healthy humans, with fewer people than ever before working on the land and every last trace of soil washed off the vegetables we buy.

But what about the scary bugs? Small children are naturally drawn to soil but it’s usually us adults who start freaking out about the dirt. Take heart that the benefit of handling soil far outweighs the risks. First, the good bacteria outnumber the bad. Second, we develop the capacity to deal with the bad ’uns by the very practice of being exposed to microbes in the first place.

Initially proposed in 1989, the hygiene hypothesis in medicine shows that we do small children a disservice by keeping them in a sterile environment. Getting down and dirty is how our immune system learns to defend us from disease.

Children who develop healthy immune systems in this way will doubtless be better able to resist infections. However, a word of caution: a great deal of our soil has had its inherent health degraded by intensive agricultural methods and intensive farms can be breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria such as E.coli O157, so hand washing hygiene is called for in some situations.

Ideally, we should be able to ditch our antibacterial cleaners too. Rather than obliterating all bacteria, we could take a leaf out of traditional Asian cultures and clean our houses with a fermented solution of probiotics that feeds good bacteria, which then eat up the bad smells, dirt and grease caused by harmful bacteria.

(Yet, in our spoiled and imperfect world there will be exceptions here too, and caution is needed, especially when preparing chicken, which is so often a source of campylobacter infections).

Good bacteria in food

Just as we can colonise our homes [I swear by Libby Chan probiotic cleaner!] and soil with good bacteria, so we can restore health to our gut.

When it comes to the human diet, nutritional therapists commonly agree that the best way to create good gut bacteria via what we eat is to eat more as our ancestors ate and adopt a three-step approach: reduce sugar, raise fibre and eat fermented foods.

Take sugar first. Or rather don’t! Bad bacteria feed on sugar and they start complaining when they don’t get it. Based on a review of recent scientific literature, US researchers found that gut microbes may cause us to crave the very nutrients they need to grow, by releasing signalling molecules into our system.

You can diminish bad bacteria by giving your good bacteria a boost with prebiotics, or fibre on which good bacteria feed. As Daphne Lambert explains:

“The intestine lacks the enzymes necessary to break down oligosaccharides so they move through to the colon where they serve as food for beneficial existing bacteria so they grow and multiply, squeezing out bad bacteria. Oligosaccharides are found in many foods but there is a major one for each season: onions in winter, asparagus in spring, leeks in summer, and Jerusalem artichokes in autumn. Nature really has got it right.”

Finally, fermented foods are important. Bacteriology may be in its infancy, but, according to author and food campaigner, Michael Pollan, every traditional food culture has fermented food in its diet. Think sauerkraut, chocolate, tamari and kimchi.

“Fermented foods not only produce amazing tastes, they also increase nutrients,” says Daphne Lambert. “Growing colonies of microbial cultures makes nutrients more available, and also increases them, including vitamins and especially Vitamin B.”

Fermented foods are low-energy – they require no cooking or refrigeration. By preserving summer foods throughout long winters or saving food from decomposition in tropical heat, humans have survived inhospitable climates. Captain Cook famously took sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) to reduce scurvy on his sea voyages.

Check out fermentation workshops including by Daphne Lambert, [and Annie Levy who turned me on to the joys of fermentation by sending me a jar of kimchi through the post!].

Most bacteria are notoriously hard to culture in a petri dish, so our knowledge of bacteria’s many uses is still severely limited. One of the most widely known bacteria is Lactobacillus acidophilus – the Latin for acid-loving milk bacterium – which predigests food, transforming, for instance, milk into yogurt.

“The more foods you eat that aid digestion the better, and in many cases these foods are beneficial because of bacteria,” says Daphne Lambert. “It is about understanding our relationship with bacteria – not annihilating them. By declaring war on bacteria, we are declaring war on life itself.”

The following is from a collection of over 80 recipes  from Daphne Lambert’s excellent book, Living Food: a Feast for Soil and Soul, which celebrates a gastronomy that is good both for human and planetary health.

Fermented vegetables

Cabbage is cheap to buy. Once fermented, it adds complex and delicious flavours – one of the joys of life.

Sauerkraut

3 medium-size white cabbage heads (about 2 kilos)

1 four-litre clean glass jar

2–3 tablespoons sea salt

Shred the cabbage and place it in a large metal bowl. Sprinkle over one tablespoon of salt and pound gently with a wooden rolling pin to help pull the water out of the cabbage. Cover with a cloth and leave overnight. The next morning, place about two inches of cabbage into the glass jar and press firmly down, sprinkle with a little salt and repeat until the jar is full. As you layer up you can add spices and herbs to flavour.

Firmly compress the layers of cabbage. Place a weight on top like a jam jar filled with water to make sure the cabbage is completely submerged by the brine (if necessary add a little water). Cover with a cloth to protect from flies. Every day, push the cabbage gently down. Let the jar sit at room temperature. After a week the cabbage has fermented sufficiently to be eaten, but you can leave it for a further couple of weeks. If you are not going to eat the cabbage straight away, fit with a lid and store in a cool, dry place where the tangy flavour will continue to develop. Once you start eating the cabbage, keep it in the fridge.

[Here is my take on Making Sauerkraut.]

Fermented grains

Many grains in different parts of the world are made more digestible through fermentation: in Japan, the soya bean is fermented into traditional fermented foods such as tempeh, soy sauce and miso. In Africa, millet is fermented for several days to produce a sour porridge called ogi, and in India rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before making idli and dosas. Corn was fermented before using in Mexico, and, throughout Europe, grains used to be soaked overnight in soured milk ready to make porridge in the morning.

It’s easy to start soaking grains and this simple process is an enormous aid to digestion. Soak your chosen grain in water for a minimum of eight hours at room temperature. You can assist the process by adding a little fermented (sauerkraut) vegetable juice or yogurt.

Fermented whole oat porridge

By fermenting the whole oat grouts (whole oats) before cooking, the flavour of the porridge is enhanced, the grains are more digestible and there is greater nutrient bioavailability.

Place oat grouts in a bowl, just cover with water and leave at room temperature for two days. You can leave for longer if you choose to create a more intense acidic flavour. To assist the process, add a tablespoon of sauerkraut juice, apple cider vinegar or kefir to the water.

Strain the oats, saving the soak water, then simply eat the grains as they are with soaked nuts and seeds and seasonal fruits. Alternatively, you can cook the grouts, either in the soak liquid or fresh water, depending on your flavour preference. Gently heat the oats and cook very slowly until thick and creamy. Add a pinch of salt and serve with whatever you fancy.

May your good bacteria flourish!

Beetroot and feta salad 

A bowl of cooked beetroot and feta cheese
There was a time I barely knew you, beetroot. I thought I had your number (only good for borscht) but oh your hidden depths. 

Raw in beetroot and carrot salad, roasted for caramelised sweetness, sumptuous in chocolate brownies

Beetroot’s unequivocal colour makes it a natural dye. Bear in mind beetroot turns  everything red. (Including your urine). 

Red is fitting because iron-rich beetroot helps make red blood cells. Its powerful pigment is due to the super-nutrient, betacyanin. Beetroot has been used medicinally for centuries because it helps detoxify the liver. 

This is my current fave way to eat beetroot. 

Beetroot and feta salad 

The feta adds creamy saltiness to beetroot’s natural sweetness, while the raw red onion adds succulent crunch and freshness. 

You can substitute crumbly white cheese such as Caerphilly, or fried tofu, for the feta.

Two large beetroots or a few small ones 

1-2 small red onions or shallots sliced/chopped 

Packet of feta cheese 

Olive oil and balsamic to taste 

Scrape or peel beetroots. Cut into chunks or cubes, cover with cold water and bring to the boil then simmer for about 25 minutes or until beetroot is easy to cut but not too soft. 

Drain the beetroot (drink the cooled cooking juice!), and put into a serving bowl. Add the cut-up red onion and diced feta. Drizzle the beetroot with oil and vinegar. 

Beetroot grows in the UK, and stores well – a perfect winter vegetable, and very versatile. 

What are your fave ways to eat the beet? 

Junior doctors strike and Cullen skink

My glam mum aged 93

My mum, aged 93, (her pic, left) made me the traditional Scottish dish, Cullen skink.

She bought the smoked haddock at Whole Foods Market.

“Only use undyed haddock” she commands.

A bowl of home made cullen skink

Recipe for Cullen skink

Here is the recipe my mother uses (added/amended after posting): 

Put undyed smoked haddock (500g) in cold water (300 mls) water, bring to boil and simmer for 8-10 mins until fish is cooked. Remove fish with slotted spoon, and set aside. 

While veg are cooking (below), skin fish, flake into chunks removing any bones, and set aside.
Add 2 chopped onion and 2 large potatoes (or instead of potatoes use Jerusalem artichokes!) with pepper and cook  in the haddock’s cooking water for glorious fish taste until potatoes are soft and tender – about 15/20 mins. 

Take off heat, roughly mash contents, add (450 ml) whole milk and (2g) unsalted butter. Bring to boil, turn down to simmer and gently add fish. Gently, reheat. Serve with chopped chives and if desired, creme fraiche. 

(Or drink it cold from a jar as I did happily on my return train to Bristol).

The next day, I received a call that my mother – and Cullen Skink-maker – had fallen and hurt her head. Luckily she had been able to press her Community Alarm and within five minutes of being alerted, an ambulance team had arrived and had taken her to a large London teaching hospital.

And this the day of the Junior Doctors’ strike – against a new contract that will be: “Bad for patients, bad for doctors and bad for the NHS,” according to the British Medical Association reports the New Economic Foundation.

After a scan, my mother was kept in for monitoring, and a battery of tests to ascertain why she keeps losing her balance.

God bless the National Health Service (NHS).

My late dad was one of its first GPs – see Dr John Winkler’s obituary in the Guardian.

The NHS is free health care for all – the embodiment of the world I want to live in.

God bless the NHS.

Simple oat cake recipe

Good Food oatmeal flour packet and butter with bowl of oatmeal
When I am out-and-about, and get hungry, I need healthy food, such as slow-release carbs for sustaining energy. Oats are the nutritional answer. My oatcake recipe comes from Jane Mannings of World Jungle.

Award-winning social enterprise, World Jungle brings people together creating healthier communities.

African drummers and drums

Based in Gloucestershire, World Jungle also holds regular dance classes, and organises festivals and events including African drumming and dance (see pic) . Dance is a great way to bring people together.

I like this recipe because it only uses two ingredients and there is no fancy pastry-cutting involved.

Simple oatcake recipe

200g fine oatmeal – Jane used Good Food organic oatmeal.
50g butter.

Heat the oven to hot – Gas 7 \ 425° \ 220°C

Squish the oatmeal and butter together with a fork adding a little water to bind into a dough. Roll pastry dough (on a floured board ) as thin as you can without it breaking. Lift the flattened shape, draped over rolling pin, place on a greased baking tray, and bake for 15 minutes. Eat warm, or store in an airtight container for when you are out-and-about.

I might experiment by replacing oatmeal with buckwheat flour, butter with olive oil, and adding salt, or caraway seeds.

What ingredients would you use in your oatcakes?

Knob of butter atop oatmeal in mixing bowl

Fork assembling squidge of oatmeal dough

img_6096-1

Easy fruit smoothie 

wine glass of creamy looking smoothie Ta da.

Start the day with a health-boosting refreshing fresh fruit drink.

You need an electric hand-blender to do the whizzing. I use the cheapest, least fancy (about £20) – my most valuable and versatile piece of kitchen technology.

Banana is the base – add fruit such as apple/pear/orange/berries.
Apple, orange and pear in the curve of banana's

Use the whole apple/pear: whizz it up, pips, peel and all. Don’t even peel the apple/pear (especially if organic).

Yes, take stones out of mango/peach/plum/apricot. (Blender blade can’t cope).
Yes, peel the orange.

But no need to de-pith orange. Whizz it up with pith, and pips.

Fruit in cut up piecesI learned this time-saving tip at a raw food workshop by Kira G Goldy. Kira is also a healer.

She encouraged me to write creatively: “You have all these voices inside that want to be heard.”

As a journalist, a challenge. But her words rung true. I focused on writing and two things have developed from my new intention.

I give courses to facilitate creative writing (and at the same time teach myself as it turns out).

And I have written a verbatim play based on interviews of people facing eviction in the hyper-regeneration of Brixton, and Lambeth council estates.

Verbatim is like journalism because it is entirely made of people’s quotes, like a documentary. The subject – how profit-driven thinking wrecks human lives – is a subject close to my campaigning heart.

The play is a collaboration with Changing Face Collective and director Lucy Curtis.

Where Will We Live? premieres at Southwark Playhouse on 25 – 28 November 2015.

I will need to keep my strength up. Time to make an easy smoothie!

Smoothie recipe for 1 – 2

Use organic fruit if possible. Why organic?

1 apple (cut-up with pips and peel ) 
1 orange (cut-up with pith and pips) 
1 banana (peeled and sliced)
Half a glass of water/milk (dairy/plant) to thin
A dollop of peanut butter and/or coconut oil and/or yogurt for protein and good fats. Or a handful of cashew nuts soaked overnight in water 
Optional: ground cinnamon/raw ginger
Blend with a hand-blender in a jug, pour and enjoy.

Ta da!

Making chicken soup from scratch

Raw high-welfare chicken and cut-up carrots and red onion covered with water in a panThe secret of chicken soup is to use raw chicken.

By all means, use a cooked chicken carcass to make stock but if you want to make healing chicken soup, start from scratch with raw chicken.

I used two legs from Abel and Cole high-welfare chickens.

Add a cut-up onion and carrots. Cover with water. If you use loads of water, it will dilute the soup. But just covering the chicken and veg with water will create the right concentrated amount.

Bring to the boil and simmer for about one and a half hours to two hours until the chicken is tender and falls away from the bone.

The next secret – imparted by my mother – is not to let the precious liquid boil away. So keep a lid on the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Strain to drink the healing soup – this article explains why chicken soup has healing properties.

The beautifully-tender chicken and vegetables will make another meal.

It is simple to make, and will bring strength.

My grandmother’s beetroot soup

Cup of purple coloured soup pictured from above against big pink flowers

Image: Michael Caplan

I ring my mother. She is 92.

“Do you use beef stock to make beetroot soup?” I ask.

“No,” Fay says, “we never used beef stock. This is how we did it,” said my mother. “This is my mother’s recipe.”

Sarah’s beetroot soup

Slice the beetroots.

Cover with water. Simmer for about half an hour until tender. 

Drain the sliced beetroot and keep the beetroot stock. 

(You don’t use the sliced beetroot for the soup. My mum says: use them in a salad with sour cream with sliced onions). 

Beat 2 eggs with the juice of one lemon.

Add carefully- or eggs will curdle – to some of the warmed beetroot stock.  

Once the beaten eggs are incorporated into this small amount, tip it into the main soup.

Reheat carefully – very carefully – so the eggs don’t curdle. 

Add sour cream if desired.  

Thanks, mum.

This purple-looking healing soup, which I make with organic ingredients for extra quality, health and taste, enables nourishment to slip-in unsuspected via its beetroot-sweet, lemony lightness.

My grandmother Sarah died when I was 16. She was warm, earthy and wise, with fierce opinions I did not always agree with. Born in 1899 in London, her parents were migrants from anti-semitic Tsarist Belarus and Lithuania. I think of her so much in my heart.

My mother says the older she gets, the more she thinks of her grandmother, Jesse, (Sarah’s mother).  Jesse died when my mother was ten years old.  My mother says: “I talk to her every day. I call to her by her Yiddish name, Yeshki. She used to read the Yiddish translation of Shakespeare’s plays.”

I am showing my mum this blog on my phone

(I only learned that bit yesterday when reading out this blog to my mum – see pic above).

My mother repeats stories endlessly so we remember them. My mother’s recollection of her grandmother are imprinted on my DNA since childhood so I have absorbed Jess’s “live each day as if it were your last” philosophy.

My mum again:  “Jesse used to say: I am not frightened of death,’ and pointing over to the window, she would say: ‘It’s as if I’m passing to the other side of that net curtain.'” 

So, eat beet soup, and enjoy this precious life!