Category Archives: vegetarian

♫ 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? 

Raw green herby sauce and Organic September

bowl of cooked new potatoes with green vinaigrette dressing

This deliciously green sauce or vinaigrette is versatile in many ways. You can use a variety of fresh herbs or salad leaves such as baby spinach/rocket/chives/dill/ mint, and also combine them. Further versatility comes because the green sauce will zazz up many a dish.

Here it is (see pic) poured over new potatoes. Just cooked, the warm potatoes soak up the fresh, green zinginess.

My idea behind this sauce is to put the greens/herbs centre-stage. They do not merely flavour a vinaigrette but positively overwhelm it. By using the greens raw, you get freshness and taste, and as well as many nutrients as possible because they are not lost by cooking. The raw garlic cloves add further immunity-boosting power, and sparky taste.

I use my trusty blender wand to whizz it all up. About £20,  this is an excellent investment, takes up little room in the kitchen and is fab for smoothies. 

Raw green herby sauce or vinaigrette

Trusty hand blender in blender pot full of greens, with gartlic, lomon juice, balsamic and olive oil standing by

The amounts below are approximate. Natural yogurt is also superb whizzed into this dressing. Or add a spoonful or two of tahini. The greens will produce their own moisture as you whizz it all up, but if you want more liquid, add olive oil – not water , which will make it too watery. 

About 50g of fresh herbs/greens 

1/2 raw peeled cloves of garlic, roughly chopped (I use 3/4 cloves) 

Olive oil  3/4 tablespoons to start

Natural yogurt / 1-2 dessertspoons of tahini (optional) 

Balsamic/ lemon juice (half -1 lemon squeezed)

Add the leaves and roughly-chopped garlic to a measuring jug (something with tall sides that will contain the liquid while you whizz).  Add in a couple of glugs of olive oil, and start blending. Add natural yogurt or tahini if desired or more olive oil until sauce is creamy and pourable. Add vinegar or lemon juice, and salt to taste.

The sauce is a glorious green colour.

If possible, use organic, or unsprayed, ingredients.

Why organic?

Growing with nature increases a crop’s nutrient content, and thus its taste. Let your taste buds be the judge of this statement, but your brain may be interested to know that an international team led by Newcastle University found organic crops are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants (nutrients) than ones grown the chemical farming way.

There are two reasons for this. One is related to how the soil is fertilised, the second is how plant fights disease. 

1) Using factory-made chemical fertiliser draws more water into the plant. The crop may grow quickly but is also more sappy than crops grown with natural fertiliser. Food grown the natural way has more density. (Chemical fertiliser is banned in organic farming, which instead uses biological methods, such as composting and crop rotation, to create healthy soil).

2) Plants naturally produce valuable antioxidants to keep disease and pests at bay (which we in turn benefit from when we eat the plant). When plants are sprayed with pesticides, they produce fewer antioxidants because the chemical spray is doing the work for them. (Killing pests with pesticides is a crude way of protecting a plant because it involves lots of nasty chemicals and kills beneficial insects too, such as bees. The organic way is more creative, using a host of natural and biological methods to keep pests away.).

The way we farm affects the food we eat. You get more carrot for your carrot. In fact, the Newcastle team suggests that switching to organic fruit and vegetables may have the same benefits as adding one or two portions of the recommended “five a day”. Just switching a few of your fave items to organic will add nutritional joy to your life. 

So, why not organic your September?

 

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Hard boiled eggs in raw herby vinaigrette sauce

Thank you, my dear acting colleague, Nichola Taylor, from the Barded Ladies, for asking for the recipe.  

Turmeric Tonic 

I love a good tonic.

Here is one I concocted to boost my immune system last week when I played York in six shows over four days (the closest I have come to doing an extreme sport, ever.).

The play was a regendered production (hence me as York) of Henry VI Part 3 by feminist Shakespearian ensemble company, The Barded Ladies.

Things got done with encouragement, creativity and playfulness, rather than dominance and criticism. Made me hopeful: you can run the world  without being a bully.

Here is the tonic recipe, in brief:


I used turmeric root and ginger root. Try health food stores, or greengrocers’ especially Middle Eastern or African ones.

(Omilord, can you imagine how bland food would be in the UK – without immigrant cuisine?).


Peel the roots and cut up small.

If no roots can be found, use 1-2 teaspoon each of turmeric and ginger.

Add the juice of 4 squeezed lemons – organic ones tend to be smaller but juicier.

(I have just discovered Sunita from squeezed organic Sicilian lemons. I felt a right cheat but it uses no preservatives, so there is no chemical aftertaste).

Stop press: Add black pepper and oil to the concoction to increase  bio-availability of the turmeric. (Thanks, Jane!).

Add runny honey to taste. Whizz all together with a hand blender.

A wide awake tangy taste in smoothies AND a savoury dressing. And, of course, for sipping backstage.

Here is some of the feedback the Barded Ladies production received:

Home-made mayonnaise and Brexit

Elderly woman's hands around a jar of thick, yellow, unctuous home made mayonnaise
I arrive the day before the EU referendum vote. London is hot and sticky, under a heavy grey cloud. Later, there is lightning and Biblical rains.

My 93-year-old mother and I agree not to talk about Brexit. It would be too painful and divisive. She believes the Daily Mail. I think it is the politics of hate.

So, I watch her making mayonnaise, Zimmer-framed yet resolute. I admire her spirit.

My mother Fay has been making home-made mayonnaise since the 1950s.

She would not dream of having shop-bought mayonnaise in her home. Ever.

My mother uses a food processor these days but says nothing (‘scuse pun) beats mayonnaise made by hand, using a fork as a whisk.

My sister Gee (see  pics of her 1974 mayonnaise recipe below) eschews a food processor because it makes the mayonnaise too dense, and uses an electric mixer with the balloon whisk attachment instead. She also (I love this refinement!) whisks in the olive oil by hand, with a fork, at the very end of the process.

Gee also adds a teaspoon of warm water to lighten the mixture, if, she says, she is feeling French.

Fay’s home-made mayonnaise 

The risk factor is curdling – when the oil and egg separate. So make sure the eggs are at room temperature. Emulsify the egg yolks with mustard, then add the oil very, very, very, slowly, drop-by-drop.

Then – once the risk of curdling has passed – pour oil in a thin stream, whisking all the time. You can speed up the streaming of the oil. Add lemon juice or a dribble of vinegar to thin.

If it curdles, do not despair but start again with one egg yolk and add the curdled mixture, again – s l o o o o w l y!

My mum uses 1/2 pint of oil, which equals 10 fluid ounces, of which 7 or 8 fluid ounces is sunflower oil, and the remaining 3 or 2 fluid ounces is olive oil. My sister Gee (who makes mayonnaise without such exact measuring) says in other words: use mostly sunflower oil.

I use organic oils because organic certification guarantees oils have been cold-pressed by mechanical (not chemical) means, ensuring maximum nutrients and top taste. 

Ingredients

2 egg yolks
Two egg yolks is the minimum whether for 1/2 pint or 1 pint of oil. Keep the egg whites in the fridge (or freeze them) for future meringues or cocktails. 

1/2 pint of oil of which most is sunflower oil, with top-up of olive oil

1 heaped teaspoon dry mustard powder (my mother thinks ready-made mustard is sacrilegious but Gee, free-thinker that she is, believes this makes the mayonnaise bitter and swears instead by Dijon mustard.).

2-3 or more garlic cloves cut-up

Using a food processor, electric balloon whisk or a fork, start by combining the egg yolks and mustard. Add garlic. Add oil SLOW-BY-SLOW until the mixture emulsifies. Then, once there is no risk of egg and oil separating, gently add the oil in a thin stream – whisking all the time!

Juice of half – one lemon, as little salt as possible to taste and a light shake of cayenne pepper. (In another departure from the status-quo, Gee adds seasoning – salt (1/2 teaspoon to 1/2 pint of oil) and paprika which is less spicy than cayenne – at the very start because otherwise, she says,  the salt does not mix in properly).

I cannot end this post without adding, for the record:

I am European. I am international. We are one family.

If money and weapons can move freely around the globe, why not people? Especially people displaced by war.

I am not saying the EU is perfect (obvs). It needs reform. But, hey, the UK has its own unelected bureaucrats and neo-liberal project. Surely reform (like charity) starts at home?

The Brexit campaign was led by vile hate-filled propaganda which has legitimised hate, unleashing a rise in racist crimes

Many who voted to leave are angry, and this anger (zero hours contracts, underfunded public services and unaffordable housing) is correct. But to conclude the problem is caused by the EU and immigration is a severe misdiagnosis resulting in the wrong medicine, which will only make conditions deteriorate.

Leave is the operative word. I feel the grown-ups have taken leave of their senses. I feel left in the hands of an irresponsible parent consumed by their own crazy agenda.

I am “returning” to the comfort of mayonnaise. 

Hand written mayonnaise recipe

Hand written mayonnaise recipe

Sore throat? Use the whole lemon!  

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I had a sore throat. My mother said:

“Drink hot lemon. Use the whole lemon.”

Yeah, yeah, I know about lemons. Indeed, lemon water  – a squeeze o’ lemon  in water plus the peel – is my daily, refreshing, health-giving drink.

But, wait….

The whole lemon? A revelation.

“In the days before antibiotics, that is what we used,” says my mother, now aged 93. “My grandfather used to gargle every morning with warm salted water to prevent infections.”

Lemons deliver an impressive 187% of a person’s daily value of Vitamin C, as well as a host of other disease-fighting nutrients, according to Dr Mercola.

So I squeeze the juice of a whole lemon in a mug of boiling hot water and add a dessertspoon of honey.

Don’t stint on the honey. It makes it delightful to drink – and honey adds health-giving properties.

I cannot mention honey without comment: How outrageous that pesticides used by chemical agriculture are killing our beautiful bees.

My throat felt much better. So I made myself another hot drink with the juice of a whole lemon. And my sore throat was cured.

I also reach for the raw ginger, and raw garlic, when under-the-weather. What are your favourite natural remedies?

Lemon to be squeezed and South Gloucestershire jar of honey

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

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