Category Archives: vegan

♫ 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!

Tahini sauce 

Sauce drips in a stream from a spoon

This image and recipe comes from a new book, Lebanese Home Cooking, by Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Lebanon’s first farmers’ market.

Lebanese Home Cooking, from Quarto Eats, has all my favourite food words in its title. In the 1980s a friend took me to a Lebanese restaurant in Soho and I was knocked out. Every dish appealed in new, refreshing ways. Tahini, beans, yogurt, lemons, olive oil, garlic. These are now my favourite ingredients. Versatile and health-giving, they are always in the kitchen.

(My posts on making home-made yogurt and hummus both of which I eat almost daily).


Writing about the Lebanese market founded in 2004, The New York Times says that Souk El Tayeb (“market of good”): “reconciles Lebanon’s warring factions through their common love of their food.”

Kamal Mouzawak writes: Food is a window – “the best way to look into people’s lives.”

Make food, not war.

Kamal Mouzawak is full of practical wisdom and inspiring encouragement. The recipes are simple. He says souk food is easy and fast – how I like to cook.

Tahini sauce – Tarator 

Garlic 1 clove or more

240g tahini (sesame paste)

Juice of 3 lemons

1 tablespoon of olive oil.

Crush garlic with little salt, add to tahini in the bowl, and add the lemon juice. Tahini will thicken so continue stirring with a fork and add more lemon juice if needed. The mixture will be smooth. Season with salt to taste, blend in olive oil and serve. Good over dark leafy vegetables.

Fava bean stew – foul medamass

I love the addition of quartered lemons to this fava bean stew.

120g small brown beans

1 onion peeled halved

Garlic

Handful split yellow lentils

1 lemon plus juice of 2 lemons

80 ml olive oil

Ground cumin and salt.

Soak beans overnight. Drain. Add onion halves, garlic and lentils. Add water to cover by 2 fingers. Cook beans for several hours to be mushy. Add quartered lemons 20 minutes before the end. Take off heat and add lemon juice, olive oil, cumin and salt to taste.

Souk food – soul food.

PS On the subject of tahini sauce, I came across this amazing recipe by UK chef and co-owner of Wahaca, Thomasina: Tagliatelle with blue cheese, tahini and caramelised onions. Straining the yogurt and adding tahini makes this into a luxurious and creamy dish, yet it is light too. Comfort food – recommend!

The original recipe (serves 4-6). Here follows my mini-version:

Cook 900g sliced onions slowly (25 mins) in 4 teaspoons olive oil + 30g butter. Cook 450g pasta (I use buckwheat noodles), adding 300g frozen peas in the last three minutes of cooking. Drain pasta and peas but keep 250ml of the cooking water. Strain 450g of Greek natural yogurt. (I added the residual ‘yogurt water’ to the pasta cooking water because I hate waste.).

Put pasta in a bowl. Beat reserved pasta water into strained yogurt, and season. Then add to pasta, so it absorbs sauce for a few minutes. Add more of the cooking water gradually until you have a “silky pile of pasta”. Crumble 100g blue cheese over your luxurious pasta pile, and top with the caramelised onions.

Exterior of Byblos with yellow awning with lettering, Mezza of Lebanon

And, finally, a picture of Rafic’s (see comments) Lebanese restaurant in London. Mezza of Lebanon (1968 – 2004) was at 262 Kensington High Street, near Holland Park.

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!

Coconut benefits banana bread

Banana bread

Funny to think that, as a child, I thought of coconuts as fairground shies, or Bounty chocolate bars. Yet coconuts are far more versatile than that. 

Coconuts produce coconut oil, coconut flesh, coconut milk, and coconut water, naturally and healthily.

Like hemp, coconut is nourishing, health-giving, and practical too. Think coir matting

Coconuts act as body moisturiser, teeth-cleaner, digestion-soother, rehydrater. And more. 

Coconut even sorts out head lice, according to Dr Mercola’s wondrous list of coconut’s varied uses.

If you love scientific facts and opinion with lots of swear words, check out Shannon’s Kitchen on coconut’s versatility and health reputation.

My coconut musing is prompted by a hamper full of coconut joy sent by Cocofina.

Cocofina coconut products

Cocofina have been cracking coconuts since 2005. The name says it all: Cocofina is made from fine young coconuts picked at their peak when its water is at its most plentiful.

To add to my joy, Cocofina is certified organic (by the Soil Association), which is shorthand for healthily-grown food, with no chemical fertilisers/pesticides to pollute soil, air, crops, wildlife and farm workers.

Cocofina’s big triumph is to produce delicious on-the-go nutrition energy bars. I sampled them with various energy-snack (and coconut) lovers, and their praise was unstinting.

And I love its coconut nectar – low-GI slow-release sweetness without that crazy thing that happens to my eyes (as if they are being squeezed) when I eat sugar.

(Pause to reflect on sugar – how it drove slavery, and now makes mental slaves of us all via obesity and the money markets).

To celebrate coconut happiness, I made banana cake, substituting sugar with coconut nectar, and coconut oil instead of butter.

Along with pre-soaked sultanas, this recipe produced a light, healthy cake, its bananariness lifted by nectar and complimented by coconut.

Banana bread

If you don’t have self-raising flour, add an extra egg. Keep the baking powder/bicarbonate of soda to a scant teaspoon – just enough to lighten the flour but not too much to impart its strange fizzy taste. Or even (boldly) omit and rely on beaten eggs instead.

2/3 large mashed ripe or over-ripe bananas (up to 500g/1lb)

125g (4oz) butter/coconut oil, softened

125g (4oz) caster sugar/4 Tablespoons coconut flower nectar or honey

2 large eggs, lightly beaten with a fork until frothy with air

250g (8oz) self-raising flour (or ordinary flour with extra egg) I used gram flour made from chickpeas because wheat (argumentative fellow) does not agree with me.

1 scant tsp baking powder/bicarbonate of soda

Optional extras: sultanas soaked in water and drained, walnut pieces, cocoa nibs/lemon rind.

Oil 2lb loaf tin and line its base and sides with baking parchment/greaseproof paper.

Rub in the oil/butter/fat into the flour (+ lightening agent if used) until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sweetener and mashed bananas and lightly beaten eggs beating it well.

Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4.

Turn into the tin and bake for about 1 hour until a skewer comes out clean, covering if necessary so the top does not burn. 

This recipe is a great way to use up over-ripe bananas. 

Happy eating! 

Making sauerkraut

A jar of purple sauerkraut looking jewel-likeSauerkraut is a traditional fermented food which produces probiotics, cheaply and naturally.

Probiotics are good bacteria which help good digestion, as Sacramento Natural Food Co-op explains.

“Fermented” food can sound a turn-off to our modern ears. But, for aeons, every traditional society has used lacto-fermented food – kimchi from Korea and cortido from Latin America, says Nourishing Days – for healthiness.

Sauerkraut hails (as do my ancestors) from Eastern Europe, Germany/Poland etc

I have been thinking about making sauerkraut for ages.

I bought a Kilner jar in preparation. I procrastinated. I had never made it before so feared failure. Making any food is a leap of faith. Will its mysterious alchemy work?

Then, by chance, I got a comment from Annie Levy, who holds UK-based lacto-fermentation workshops. Can you imagine? The maven of probiotics turns up on this ‘ere blog. Of course, I have to make sauerkraut. Now.

So I read Annie Levy’s great piece on making sauerkraut.

I also consulted this sauerkraut one from the Kitchn and a few others. Exciting to be in the zeitgist – there is no shortage of posts on lacto-fermentation.

Lacto, I query? It means the type of bacteria which creates lactic acid. Lactic acid protects fermented food from being invaded by bad bacteria, says Natural News.

Basically, to make sauerkraut, you add salt to cut-up raw vegetables. Salt naturally draws out the water from the veg. Then the veg soaks in its own salty water for days (and then keeps in a fridge for weeks). The soaking-in-the veg’s-own-water creates the fermentation process which in turn produces sauerkraut with loads of friendly bacteria.

Sauerkraut 

1 raw cabbage (and/or raw carrots/garlic etc)

1 tablespoon salt

Spices of choice: I used 1 dried chilli, fenugreek, cumin seeds and black peppercorns

organic purple cabbage sliced in half

Method: Slice cabbage thinly (my food processor did the job otherwise use a sharp knife). Mix the salt and veg in a bowl, rubbing the salt in with your fingers. Leave the salted veg in a covered bowl. I am amazed how quickly I was squeezing water out of salted cabbage. Mix again. Keep cabbage submerged in its water with a heavy plate.

Making sauerkrautHere is me submerging the veg in the Kilner jar using a cabbage leave to press it down. I got anxious about this bit. However, it is OK to add a few dessertspoons of water to make the sure the veg is covered. After 12-24 hours, transfer the salty cabbage from covered bowl to a Kilner jar and keep in the fridge.

I used two organic cabbages (and two tablespoons of salt). I thought two cabbages would not fit in the Kilner jar …but they did not even fill it!

The quantity of salt to use is up to you, but 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of vegetables is a good ratio to follow, says website, Paleo Leap.

The result: Having lived with my jar of sauerkraut for the month of July, with regular servings with a variety of dishes, I can report: it is delicious. A blend of salty and sweet, and easy to eat.

And, it works. For instance, last night, my digestion felt weak. I could not be bothered to eat. So, I had a small bowl of sauerkraut and within an hour, my appetite had returned, heartily. The magic of friendly bacteria!

Carrot and coconut salad plus literacy

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Handwritten notes – clearly of importance because they hang around for years – yet they exist on scraps of paper, with no proper home.

OK, time to give two of them the attention they deserve.

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George Cooper (who gave me the recipe on the above note) has since published a book on nutrition with recipes. Be Your Own Nutritionist marries traditional (mid-Victorian healthy diet) and modern thinking. As an acupuncturist, he also brings ancient eastern wisdom. Practical information on nutrition at George Cooper’s website.

“Dr George dressing for grated carrots” (says the note)

3 tablespoon coconut milk
1.5 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon honey

Pour dressing over grated carrots. Above amounts worked for three big carrots to serve 2-3. I grated ginger with the carrots too. (Carrots were organic, from local organic farm shop, Radford Mill Farm).

Delicious – now I see why I have hung onto that note for eight years. The cumin adds a special taste.

Next up…

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My note says:

“UK
one of the lowest literacy
in developed nations
and highest obesity in Europe.

(Sunday Times)”

Is there a connection between the two?

Raw date and lemon cake

I am writing this post on my iPhone so a mini-experiment. So is the cake.

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Many thanks to The Rawtarian for the Lemon Cheesecake recipe.

Mine differed in several ways. I used date syrup which made the base dark (pinky!) rather than white; I did not have fresh cranberries or enough dried ones (for the topping) so supplemented with extra dates and drained tinned mangoes (try pomegranate seeds next time); and finally I spread the base too thinly on too big a serving dish. Never mind, the taste was great – lemony, coconut-y and very refreshing.

The ingredients (such as raw coconut oil) were a bit costly – although healthy – but I saved money on cooking fuel.

However, not a low-tech cake, as you do need an electric blender and a freezer.

Lemon-y base

2 cups cashews
1/2 cup lemon juice (3 lemons)
1/2 cup honey (or maple syrup or agave nectar for white base – date syrup added darkness)
1/3 cup coconut oil (melted)
1 tablespoon lemon zest.

It really does all whizz into a smooth liquid. Pour it into serving dish, cover and freeze for 15 – 30 minutes. The coconut oil hardens as it cools so it turns into a firm base.

Fruit topping

2 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup dates

First pulse dates (no need to soak). Stop blender every now and then to swoop down escaping date mixture with a spatula so everything gets properly blended.

Spread topping on frozen base and freeze again for five hours.

Measurements

I found this useful conversion chart at Doves Farm.

Luckily, my measuring device does American cups.

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It really is a handy (low-tech) measure for dry ingredients.

Grateful for all these devices that make life easier.

Including this WordPress App on my ‘phone. It halved the time it takes to post a blog because I could upload pics straight from my ‘phone. And I made cooking notes on the Notes App as I went along. Brilliant.