Okay, like soooooo many others, I’ve jumped on the Paleo bandwagon this January.
But here in the UK the Paleo diet is not quite so much a ‘thing’ yet. In fact, if I had a nickel for every blank look I’ve received when I’ve said I’m doing Paleo, well, I’d have a few nickels at least. (But hey, I live in the UK, so what good are nickels to me?)
So, what IS the Paleo diet? Well, its based on the premise that our guts haven’t really evolved much in the last 15,000 years so we’re really better off eating what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, including fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, eggs, vegetables & fruit, fungi, roots and nuts. Things you can’t eat are grains, legumes, dairy, (white) potatoes, refined salts and sugars and processed oils. (Processed oils? Yeah, I know, all oils are processed. I use common sense here: pasture-fed butter, organic raw coconut oil and olive oil are the only cooking fats I keep in the house. If I ate red meat, lard would be on that list as well.) This way of eating isn’t just about weight loss. Done properly, its helped a lot of people with autoimmune issues (Crohn’s, Coeliac, etc) and leaky gut, as well as people with inflammation issues caused by food intolerances they may not even have been aware of before.
The thing is, I’m pescatarian. I don’t eat red meat or poultry, but I do eat fish, so I can’t strictly be called a vegetarian or an omnivore. So I contacted Dr Loren Cordain, an expert on the Paleo diet about whether I could adapt this diet as a pescatarian. I received a fairly prompt and unhelpful response setting out that in no uncertain terms would they advocate not eating meat. It threw me a little bit, but only for about 2 minutes until I thought about it logically. Whats not to love about this way of eating and why did I need commercial validation to do it anyway? My diet is now filled with brightly coloured vegetables and greenery, fresh organic fish, organic free-range eggs and healthy fats & nuts – lots of unprocessed foods. All I have eliminated from my diet is a vast amount of sugar – by this I mean sugar in the form of bread, pasta and grains, not just refined sugar. So, I say boooo to Dr Cordain and I’m just enjoying doing Paleo the way that works for me.
So, have I lost any weight with the diet? Well, its only been 3 weeks and as I don’t have a functional set of scales, I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can say is that my stomach is much flatter, I feel overall much more toned and my energy levels are much higher than they were.
Have I cheated? Well, yes. I have. Several times. And I’m okay with that. There have been a couple of mornings when I have really missed my oatmeal, cooked with coconut cream and sweetened with apple and raisins – so I made it. I didn’t feel the worse for having it. I’ve also continued to have a bit of organic milk in my tea and the odd bit of sheep or goat milk cheese. For me its not a competition about being ‘right’ – its a process of finding out what works best for my lifestyle and what makes me feel the healthiest. I lived a low-fat lifestyle for years, but now my diet is full of plenty of healthy fats – yes, including some saturated fats – and as a result, I’m staying full throughout the day and my usual mid-afternoon hypoglycaemic episodes appear to have disappeared.
What do I eat? You know, its much MUCH easier than I thought it would be. For lunch I might pack a tupperware box filled with organic baby spinach, a small baked sweet potato with a tad of feta crumbled on top, a grated carrot salad with raisins, a small bag of nuts as a snack and a couple of pieces of fruit. Or a half an avocado on a bed of quinoa with some greens on the side or cooked kale with a lemon wedge to squeeze over it all. Because I work in an office, I tend to save eating fishy things for dinner at home or restaurants – at the moment I’m really into Alaskan wild salmon, though also am trying to eat more local sustainable fish and also sardines. I’ve also found a fantastic recipe for cauliflower pizza that I have adapted by putting sheep feta in the crust and grating some St Helen’s hard goat cheese (a version of cheddar) on top.
Because I have a sweet tooth, I also sometimes make an um…healthy(ish) sundae for dessert. To do this, I whiz up 1.5 frozen bananas in the food processor with a tablespoon of maple syrup. If it needs more liquid to get creamy, add a tablespoon of coconut water or coconut milk. That makes the ice ‘cream’, which is like the texture of soft serve. To make the chocolate sauce, you’ll need to open a can of full fat coconut milk which has been in the fridge for at least 24 hours (I always keep a few in the fridge now – the coconut cream rises to the top of the can and hardens and delicious coconut water remains at the bottom of the can, so you can use both) and scoop a heaped tablespoon of the coconut cream into a small saucepan. On a low-med heat, melt the coconut cream and whisk in a couple of teaspoons of a dark cacao powder along with enough maple syrup or coconut sugar to sweeten. It will make a thick, fudgey hot chocolate sauce to pour over your ice ‘cream’. Delicious!
There are some wonderful bloggers out there who inspire me with a regular dose of Paleo friendly recipes for meals, packed lunches, cakes, cookies & muffins. Here are my favourites! (And please don’t knock the Mommy Bloggers – these women channel their energies into creating delicious food for their amazing websites and have a better grasp on social media than most FTSE500 companies!)
Nom Nom Paleo
The Paleo Mama
In general, I guess while there is a lot I’m enjoying about this way of eating, I’m a little cautious about cutting significant food groups from the diet and probably lean a bit more toward the Weston A Price dietary guidelines than strict Paleo, but we’ll see how it goes. By my next post I may have eased off the Paleo thing a bit. Its not everyone’s cup of tea, but rest assured there are some tasty recipes in the wings and more adventures of dining in London to come.
Every year I ask my mother what her new year resolution is. She says she’s giving up chocolate. It lasts about 3 days. Sound familiar? Sure, I’ve made major life decisions which I have adhered to over the years, but I’m pretty sure that none of them were ever the result of a new year resolution. In fact I struggle to think of a single new year resolution which wasn’t a complete failure. So I’ve come up with 10 achievable changes to incorporate into my life for 2014.
1) More Family Time
A while ago I made the decision that my job should make me as happy as the rest of my life does and I started training to become a Nutritional Therapist. This has involved me keeping my day job while attending class on most weekends. My work-school-life balance has been less than ideal for a while now and so this week I made the decision to reduce my hours at work and switch to a weekday class schedule, which will once again free up my weekends to once again spend Saturday mornings at Borough Market with my husband again or exploring Telegraph Hill with the dog…or even just spending a lazy morning on the sofa with a mug of tea and a copy of the Sunday Times.
2. Grow Where You’re Planted
Maybe this one only applies to me. I’ve spent my whole life thinking “life will be perfect when we move to….” and ”when we get a bigger house then we can……”. But maybe I just need to learn to love the space I’m in and cherish what I’ve got. I have a warm and beautiful home with enough space to welcome our friends and a garden where I can enjoy the sun in the summer. We live in a great neighbourhood with access to plenty of parks. There’s always going to be something bigger and better and somewhere else that seems more exciting. And who knows what the future might hold? But right now, maybe I just need to nurture the little plot where I’m planted right now.
3. Eat More Coconut Oil
Hey this is an easy one. Coconut oil is great. I’m a little biased because I love the stuff. Its great for healthy skin (applied topically or when eaten regularly), for shiny hair (again, either applied topically or eaten regularly….or both!), for brain function (appearing to play a role in the reduction of dementia and Alzheimer’s), and it contains high levels of lauric acid which can kill fungi, harmful bacteria and viruses. Yes, its a saturated fat, but its structurally different to other saturated fats and is metabolised differently. It fills you up, reducing your overall intake of calories, and even promoting a reduction in abdominal fat. You know…your spare tire. But make sure that you buy the raw, virgin, cold-pressed organic stuff.
4. Take Your Vitamins. (Not Just Buy Them)
I’ve got better with this over the last year, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. I spend a lot of money on good quality supplements and when I take them, I feel great. I try to keep it down to a minimum, so I’m not rattling as I walk down the street, but there are a few vitamins I take as well as a couple of herbal tinctures and a fantastic breakfast shake which balances my blood sugar from morning to early afternoon because I really REALLY don’t wan to get diabetes! That being said, I don’t particularly want my life to revolve around my vitamin schedule, but I do think it would improve my overall wellbeing if I just take the vitamins I’ve got when I’m supposed to take them. (Even the yucky ones with kelp and spirulina that stink like low tide on a hot day and make me want to barf every time I take them.) Its called structure. I have very little of that in my life.
5. Walk More – 10,000 Steps
“You know what, I really need to start walking less” said no one, ever. Okay, that sounded like one of those glib Facebook shares and perhaps somewhere it is. But really, walking is so good for you, and if you are at all able to engage in this exercise (i.e. not in a wheelchair or completely bedridden) then get out and walk some more. I’m not really a pedometer kind of a person, but depending on your height and gait, 10,000 steps a day is between 5 and 8 kilometres. There is a plethora of evidence that 10,000 steps a day will burn excess calories, improve heart health and also can improve mental health. Any times in the past when I’ve gone through a difficult period, I know that walking has been my drug of choice. I walk, walk and walk some more. And when I think I can’t walk anymore, I just keep going. This year I definitely plan to reignite my love of this simple activity – and best of all, its free!!!
6. Think About Where Your Money Goes – Shop Local & Shop Strategically
Your pound, dollar, peso, whatever, is the best communication tool in the world. Its better than Twitter, Facebook. customer feedback groups or the Amazon star rating system. Because in the end, like it or not, the world is about money. Every purchase you make tells companies (both big and small) what to keep making and tells stores what to keep stocking on their shelves. For instance, today the average person in Britain consumes 36.4 kilos of sugar each year. In 1997 that figure was 29.5 kilos. This trend tells companies to produce more consumables (can you really call it food?) with sugar and to continue to make sweet foods sweeter. By thinking about which companies, products and values we are supporting before spending our money, and taking into account the impact that even one person’s spending habits can have (remember that 36.4 kilos of sugar per year we’re all eating? That’s over 230 million kilos of sugar in Britain alone), we are shopping strategically and helping to set the marketplace of the future.
7. Try Something Different
Everyone gets caught up with crazy, restrictive or just plain unhealthy new year diets. We suddenly realise we have to lose a whole whack of kilos which we just spent the last 6 months gaining and expect to lose it in two weeks. Well, it don’t work like that, honey. So instead of putting pressure on yourself, just remember how to enjoy real food and exercise again. I find diet books exhausting. They provide such rigid protocols I feel bored before I’ve even finished the second chapter. But you know what? Some different ways of eating are both really healthy and really fun. For instance, in the spring, summer and early autumn months, I love eating a lot of raw vegan food. There are some great bloggers out there with recipes that are so much fun to try: Fully Raw Kristina, Fragrant Vanilla Cake and Live.Love.Raw. Try it for a day. A week. A month. Or even just one meal. I’ve always been a little intimated to try eating Paleo, so on 1 January Mr Harris and I agreed to do it together. There was no pressure – no commitment to adhere to it for any set length of time. Just to see how we got on with it. And you know what – it couldn’t be easier having a grain-free lifestyle. It makes the weekly shopping trip quick and easy (just fish, meat, eggs, fruit, vegetables and nuts!) and if I feel I just can’t get on without a bit of dairy, well, then I have a bit of cheese made from organic sheep or goats’ milk, which are much easier to digest. Its not about discomfort and deprivation. We might keep eating this way for another week. We might keep eating this way forever. But I’m just pleased that we tried it. (And don’t forget to combine it with resolution number 5 above: Walk More!)
(Uh oh…where’s she going with this?) Meditation doesn’t have to mean a prayer rug and incense. It can mean whatever it needs to mean to you to calm the near constant hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system which so many of us experience in our everyday lives. We react to the so called ‘emergencies’ in our work environments in the same way our bodies evolved to react to say, an attacking tiger. While intellectually we can tell the difference, unfortunately our nervous system can’t, and adrenal fatigue is just all too common from overstimulation of the fight or flight instinct. So what helps? Meditation is one thing that can help. You can sit on a prayer rug and silently empty your mind. You can tune into Oprah & Deepak on their regular 21 day meditation sessions. You can find a group of like minded people who enjoy chanting and ohm your hearts out. I find it difficult to clear my mind unless I’m focusing on some type of gentle, preferably repetitive movement like walking or rock climbing, or being guided through yoga or tai chi. I’ve even achieved a clear mind when swimming, looking at the bottom of the ocean floor or the tiles of the pool, and just focusing on gliding through the water while causing as little rippling as possible. Or I don’t know, go fly fishing. Just something quiet to take you away from the stimuli and scheduling of the rest of your life: away from mobile phones, television, computers, wifi, traffic, screaming children and loved ones asking when dinner is ready and where the toilet paper is kept. And by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’.
9. Eat a Carrot a Day
Yes, I am going to eat a carrot a day. I told you these were achievable resolutions. I could bang on for days about the health benefits of carrots , but here’s a new one for me. Raw carrots contain a type of undigestible fibre that binds excess oestrogen (and other toxins) and prevents them from being reabsorbed in the intestine. Instead, your body can then focus its resources on progesterone and thyroid (yay!), rather than cortisol and oestrogen (boooooo). And apparently all within just a few days of regular use. (Ditto for bamboo shoots, by the way, in case for some reason you prefer those to carrots.) Unfortunately, oatmeal – though also a good source of fibre – won’t do the trick. This is because oatmeal provides good food for bacteria. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the resulting bacterial endotoxins can put a chronic strain on the liver (liver processes toxins remember?), and divert its focus from storing enough sugar to process thyroid and other hormones….which could be the reason for the hormone imbalance in the first place.
And why do we care about too much oestrogen? Less oestrogen means less strain on the liver, less inflammation overall and improved thyroid health. Oh yeah, and boys, it also means less likelihood of you getting a nice set of moobs.
10. Bake a Cake
Not just one cake. Cakes on a regular basis. And tea too. Because what’s a home without a cup of tea and a slice of cake (in my case delicious almond, honey & orange Paleo cake) on a Sunday afternoon?
Somehow in London, Thursday has become the new Friday. As I walk home after work in the bracing November wind, most pubs are warm inside and are abuzz with City suits and secretaries at happy hour. I was reminded of this happy little video I put together in the summer, back when I enjoyed warmer days watching the bees at Bello Uccello apiary having their happy hour. How can you not be happy watching the little bees enjoying their verbena bee tea? I hope you enjoy it!
The world is full of them. I’ve eaten at disappointing restaurants in Paris, Monaco, Lisbon, Prague, Toronto, New York, Boston, Mexico City, Miami and a myriad of other obscure towns and cities across the globe. I am sorry to say that London is no exception and I have experienced rather a lot of disappointing meals here in the Big Smoke. In some places, the food was mediocre; in some, the food was awful. In others yet, the food was great but the service was awful. Despite the variations, they all can be described as disappointing.
I feel an almost civic sense of duty to record these episodes, not only as a warning to my fellow gastronomes and gastronomists, but as also as a way of saying to these chefs & front of house managers: Its just not good enough.
So, on the week we say a sad farewell to my favourite chef of all time, the late, great Charlie Trotter, and on a happier note, we also see Jamie Oliver accept his Honorary Fellowship from the RCGP for his work on childhood nutrition, I turn my eyes, stomach & pen to another celebrity chef: Marco Pierre White.
So, first off, let me say, my husband loves steak. I repeat, my husband LOVES steak. So when I wanted to treat him to a special meal out, I thought “Marco Pierre White Steak & Alehouse – how could I go wrong?”
When we arrived in this basement eatery, I was a little underwhelmed by the interior. I mean, it was ok. It just looked a bit like a tired, worn out, MDF, stripmall chain version of a decent restaurant.
I can sum up the rest of the visit in a single paragraph. The food was fine. The kitchen was slow. The service was slow. The orders were wrong – twice. The front of house were obviously not happy (or they made a jolly good effort to make themselves look pretty miserable) and the restaurant was severely understaffed – at many points there was not a single waiter to be found on the dining room floor.
Now – this bit is cruel – but being so close to Liverpool Street Station, the atmosphere reeked of train station pub – a bit Wetherspoons-esque. Also, the clientele were, well, mostly a bit of an odd mix. There were a lot of Essex couples (and by that I don’t mean people from Essex, I mean TOWIE wannabees), a few City secretaries on a night out, some oddly mismatched Internet first dates and a couple of wierd American tourists.
Three hours after entering the restaurant, we emerged, feeling both slightly poorer and in a vague state of shock.
So, I was thinking that Marco Pierre White might find my branding experience helpful and I offer him – free of charge - a new strapline which he is welcome to use on any promotional print or web-based material:
MPW Steak & Alehouse
“Come for the adequate steak. Stay because we’ll take an hour to get it to your table.”
You know, I can take or leave most sweeties. Cakes & cookies. Pies & palmiers. Trifles & tortes. Biscuits & brownies. I like them, but could easily live without them. I do have a sweet tooth but it its usually reserved for my one special love: ice cream.
Which has always been a real shame for me, because most ice creams and frozen yogurts on the market are pumped full of either refined sugar (a toxin) or worse, aspartame (a neurotoxin). I also find that frozen dairy never sits that well in my tummy and as I’ve been experimenting with raw vegan recipes lately, I’ve noticed a trend amongst the food blogging community for throwing frozen fruit into the blender and serving it as soft serve ice cream. I’ve totally followed the crowd on this one. But why not? Its so much tastier and healthier…and MUCH easier to make than the process of churning homemade ice cream I remember from my childhood, which involved pre-freezing the metal canister, making a custard, then waiting AGES for the ice cream to finish churning around.
This recipe isn’t raw, as it has maple syrup and cocoa powder in it, but is vegan, it is free of refined sugars and is also naturally fat free.
I’ll admit…its not a great photo, but quite frankly, I was far less interested in food styling my dessert than I was in eating it!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 3 over ripe medium organic bananas
- 1.5 to 3 Tbs dark, unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably organic)
- 2 Tbs organic maple syrup
Peel 3 medium sized over ripe bananas, slice them into thin, round discs, placing them on a parchment covered baking tray – try to make sure they don’t touch each other, so they don’t freeze as a giant clump.
Once the banana discs are frozen hard, take them out of the freezer and toss them into your food processor along with the maple syrup and cocoa powder. If you want a milk chocolate appearance, like old fashioned soft serve – use 1.5 Tbs of cocoa powder. If you want a rich uber-dark chocolate appearance like an Italian gelato, use 3 Tbs of cocoa powder.
Whiz everything around in the food processor at high speed for about 2-3 minutes. It will be loud and crashy-bashy sounding, but at the end, you’ll end up with smooth, rich ice cream which you can either eat right away or put into a tupperware and freeze for a hard ice cream later on.
If you want to make it look like a soft serve ice cream for children, just pop it in a piping bag with a wide star tip piping nozzle and immediately pipe into the cone or dish.
Its so easy. Its so sweet. And its so healthy. Just give it a go…
After nearly a decade of living in London, I think its safe to call myself a Londoner now.
I make that rude and fed-up-sounding ‘tsk’ noise as I try to pass people who are walking too slowly in front of me – with the matching aggressive body language and irritated exhalation as I march past.
There’s the ‘don’t mess with me’ face as I walk down the street – to be fair I think I’ve always had that one.
I can also hold my own in the usual rugby scrum to get into the tube as it pulls alongside the platform.
Then there’s the commuter cross. That’s what I call when two or more commuters appear as if they’re set for a head on collision, but without adjusting pace or losing nerve, they glide past each other with precision perfect timing. With a slight hesitation of even half a second, there would be a bashing of arms or catching of feet followed by the domino effect of the commuters behind all crashing into each other. But true London commuters never make such a rookie tourist error.
If you want to see the commuter cross at its glorious ballet-like apex, make a rush hour visit to the interchange at Bank Station where the Waterloo & City Line travelator connects with the commuting tunnel leading from the London Underground gates towards exits 8 & 9. (Stop at the snack bar for one of their giant glazed donuts – I’m pretty sure they’re a million calories and fried in lard.) Its actually almost beautiful, as the dozens of commuters heading to the exits simultaneously diagonally criss-cross paths with the commuters exiting the travelator in the opposite direction – all gliding past each other – rushed but calm.
And then some salesman from Ipswich ploughs in with their wheelie suitcase and screws the whole thing up.
Images borrowed from:
After three weeks in the 30-odd degree sunshine of Guatemala and Belize, I have returned to an England which might not be unfamiliar to the Bronte sisters. Its late May, but there has been snow in some parts of the country. In London its 9 degrees Celsius and its raining; its been this way – more or less – over the last fortnight.
The good news about the cold, rainy weather – the only good news about the cold, rainy weather – is that I have an excuse to wear my new wellies A LOT and I get to eat porridge for breakfast every morning. (By now I would normally have switched to a bircher muesli for the summer) The café in my building makes excellent porridge. I know, I could make it myself at home for pennies – but for £2.50 I get a pot of porridge, a skinny cappuccino and a chat with Alvin, fellow foodie and café manager.
I had been desperately hoping to host a BBQ this coming long weekend. In anticipation of that, I had a builder come round last Saturday to construct a wooden deck in the back garden and I employed my husband to put together the John Lewis BBQ we were given as a wedding present last autumn. The rattan outdoor sofa set with matching coffee table has been artfully arranged on the deck and I’ve attempted to give the place that smack of Pottery Barn style with conch shells, pillar candles in glass hurricane vases and throw cushions…none of which have any business being outside in cold, wet English gloom. And as its now looking less and less like BBQ weather, I may be trading in prawn kebabs and sunscreen for central heating and comfort food. In fact, I might make some gingerbread.
This is old fashioned Nova Scotian gingerbread. I’m fairly sure it came off the back of a packet of something or other sometime back in the 1950’s because my best friend Sarah’s grandmother’s recipe is exactly the same as my own grandmother’s recipe.
Hot Water Gingerbread
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup Crosby’s fancy molasses (Brits – you’ll need to use dark treacle here)
1/2 cup hot water (near boiling)
6-8 Tablespoons melted shortening (Not butter. Shortening.)
1. Mix dry ingredients.
2. Beat egg and add molasses, sugar and hot water.
3. Combine the dry and wet ingredients.
4. Add shortening
5. Pour in 8 by 8 inch square cake tin.
6. Bake 350 for 45 minutes.
Sarah’s Mom says that this recipe doubles really well (their family is much bigger than mine). Also the old, dark metal tin which used to belong to Sarah’s Nana has gone missing, so if you see it, please send it back to her.
Last week I went to a wedding breakfast. Literally. The ceremony was a short registry office affair which Mr Harris and I witnessed at Chelsea Old Town Hall at 9.15 and by 9.45 we were seated in Chelsea Quarter Café, perusing the menu.
I thought of saying to my husband, “see, we could have done it like that!” but then thought better of it. When Mr Harris first proposed to me, I had suggested a registry office affair, followed by lunch with a few nearest and dearest. I envisioned myself in a chic Italian Jackie O-style ivory cocktail dress ensemble with ¾ length jacket and a birdcage veil. But that suggestion (the registry office ceremony, not the dress) went down like a cup of cold sick. And so, we did it all. The long ivory dress & morning suit. The Church of England ceremony. The silver Daimler. The John Lewis gift list. The ridiculously expensive floral arrangements. The champagne reception with live jazz pianist. The three course Livery Hall dinner, complete with speeches, specifically designed to induce stress to the bride and groom and halt digestion of the large meal just consumed. We had day guests. We had evening guests. And we all danced the night away to the band before my husband whisked me away to a chic Clerkenwell hotel.
But back to the wedding breakfast. The happy groom suggested ordering a bottle of champagne (perfectly reasonable, I thought) until his equally happy, but 5 months’ pregnant new wife gave him an incredulous glance and we all opted for freshly pressed juices instead. Probably for the best, as Mr Harris was on a tight schedule – he had to get to Corrigan’s of Mayfair for a client’s retirement lunch by 12.45pm. (A broker’s life is a difficult one, you see.)
The groom & I both ordered eggs Florentine, served with the thickest and yellowiest hollandaise I’ve ever seen in my life. But not thick or yellow in a horrible, fake way. It was delicious. Mr Harris, ever the traditionalist, went for eggs Benedict. And the bride went for a sausage & egg butty. It was all excellent. I downed the last of my ginger, apple and carrot juice as the groom took care of the bill, and by 11.30 we had all wended our way to Sloane Square tube station and said our goodbyes.
As I made my way home on the tube, I thought about how relaxed and pleasant the whole affair had been. I wondered why more weddings weren’t like this. I thought of the newlyweds, and I silently cheered “well done you two”.
Dear readers… I wrote this post nearly two weeks ago, but my laptop died somewhere along the way. I hope you enjoy the memories of the London snow & the recipe for pastitsio (regular, vegetarian & gluten-free versions)….
London has been blanketed in a rare covering of snow these last few days and from what I can see, its only us owners of large dogs who dare to don our arctic gear and bravely head out into the 2 inches of snow. It gives me a chance to show off my new down coat from UniQlo – a Christmas present from my mother. Despite the fact that I am constantly cold in the general London state of damp, I feel oddly warm when out in the snow; so after this morning’s excursion through Peckham Rye Park, Gwenny (the dog) and I elected to spend some time in the front garden brushing clear the walkway of snow, just enjoying the quiet as the snow continued to fall.
Cold weather requires some serious carbs and in anticipation of today’s serious snowfall, I spent yesterday morning dragging Mr Harris through Waitrose to get the ingredients for a pastitsio – something I had never made before. Having spent the last 25 years as a pescatarian, I also had no idea how it was meant to taste either. I normally turn to Vefa’s Kitchen whenever I decide to try a new Greek recipe, but on this occasion I decided to try Rick Stein’s version.
Here’s Rick making his recipe:
First of all, let me say that to anyone who describes this pastitsio as a ‘Greek lasagne’ – you are doing pastitsio a severe injustice. Its actually nothing like a Greek lasagne, except that both involve ragu and pasta in a sort of layering system. Ok, so I can see why you would describe it as a Greek lasagne, but I can’t tell you how much infinitely better pastitsio is. Sorry to any Italian readers, but its true.
I went to great pains to make two versions – mine was made with gluten-free corn penne and Quorn mince. Mr Harris’ version was made with tortiglioni and mince from some of Prince Charles’ horribly expensive aberdeen angus cows. I knew that all the extra work & additional expense in making two versions was totally worth it when my husband tried a mouthful of each and announced “yeah…actually, you can’t really tell the difference”. I suspect the reason for that is because of the incredibly pungent and yet extremely counterintuitive combination of Greek flavours: oregano, cinnamon & tomato. It gives that…what’s the Greek for ‘je ne sais quois’? (According to my Babylon translator that’s Δεν ξέρω τι.) Ok, so it gives that Δεν ξέρω τι to a lot of Greek dishes. It feels wrong, but as soon as the oregano liberates its fragrant oil and the cinnamon sticks start to soften and unfurl and release their flavours slowly into the sauce, the smell is distinct and the flavour does not disappoint. It tastes exactly as its meant to and all the oregano in the world alone cannot achieve it without the accompanying cinnamon.
A few pointers along the way. I will say that when making the white sauce, this is not the time for skimmed milk. I used a combination of whole milk and 2% milk. It needs to be rich, creamy, calorific and very nutmeggy. Also, tomato paste. It comes in metal tubes and they last for ages when kept in the fridge. Why buy a jar which will be half used and covered in a field of fuzzy mould next week? Unless you actually cook with it everyday, just stock up on tubes of proper Italian or Greek tomato paste and keep them in the fridge after they’ve been opened. I have included my notes on how to make vegetarian & gluten free adaptations of the recipe at the bottom.
For the meat sauce
4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 kg lean minced beef
200 ml red wine
500 ml passata
4 tbsp tomato paste
2 x 10 cm cinnamon sticks
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp dried oregano, Greek if possible
2 tbsp fresh chopped oregano
3 fresh bay leaves
For the pasta
500 g tubularpasta, such as rigatoni, tubetti or tortiglioni
2 eggs, lightly beaten
50 g Greek kefalotiri cheese or parmesan, finely grated
2 tbsp butter, melted, for greasing
10 g fresh white breadcrumbs
For the white sauce
115 g butter
115 g plain flour
1.2 litres whole milk, plus a little extra
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1. For the meat sauce: heat the olive oil in a medium-sized pan. Add the onion & garlic and fry until just beginning to brown. Add the minced beef and fry over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, breaking up any lumps with the wooden spoon. (If you’re making the vegetarian version, don’t add the Quorn here – just cook the sauce down on its own and add the Quorn at the very end)
2. Add the red wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon stick, ground cloves, dried and fresh oregano, bay leaves, 100ml water, 1½ teaspoons salt and some black pepper. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring now and then, until the sauce has thickened but is still nicely moist. Discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaves.
3. For the pasta: bring 4.5 litres water to the boil in a large saucepan with 8 teaspoons salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, taking care not to overcook as the pasta will cook a little further in the oven. Drain well, transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool slightly.
4. For the white sauce: melt the butter in a medium-sized non-stick saucepan. Add the flour and cook, stirring, over a medium heat for 1 minute. Gradually beat in the milk, then bring to the boil, stirring. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to taste.
5. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Stir 250ml (about one-fifth) of the white sauce into the warm pasta with the beaten eggs and half the grated cheese. Keep the remaining sauce warm over a low heat, stirring now and then and adding more milk if it begins to get a little thick.
6. Use the melted butter to grease a large, shallow ovenproof dish that measures about 23cm x 33cm x 7cm. Spread one-third of the pasta over the base of the dish and cover with half the meat sauce. Add another third of the pasta, then the rest of the meat sauce, then a final layer of pasta.
7. Spoon over the remaining white sauce. Mix the last of the grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the top. Bake for 40 minutes, or until bubbling hot and golden brown. This recipe makes 10-12 portions.
Vegetarian version: If you’re making a vegetarian version, exchange the meat for two boxes of Quorn mince, but don’t let it stew in the tomato sauce as you would with the meat. Just add it to the tomato sauce at the very end, just before you start the layering process. Be sure to use a vegetarian parmesan if you’re not using the Greek cheese.
Gluten-free version: I made my version gluten-free by using gluten-free flour in the white sauce, gluten free Dove’s Farm corn penne and gluten free breadcrumbs. I keep an inexpensive stockpile of gluten-free breadcrumbs by whizzing leftover slices of Sainsbury’s disgusting Free From gluten free white bread in the food processor, letting it dry out on a baking tray, and storing it in a large tupperware container, for future use.