Sunday thoughts: post-retreat edition

Hello, and happy Summer (to those of you who count it from 1st June – I am still undecided)!

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Man, have I been looking forward to writing this blog post… Since my last post about six weeks ago, I have handed in my last assignment at uni, sat my last exam, celebrated with Icco‘s new vegan pizza offering and a long-anticipated visit to Yorica, then almost immediately got my head back down to concentrate on the final bits and pieces – kit lists, medical forms, payment receipts, playlists, shopping lists – for the first ever fitness and wellbeing retreat I have hosted (co-hosted with Ben and our yoga teacher Jay) in the south of France.

To say I’m not good at dealing with unknowns would be a vast understatement, and the retreat planning was full of them, so that last week leading up to the retreat was tinged with an undercurrent of stress. I pictured myself breathing a sign of relief when it was all over, but in reality the week went so well and – most surprisingly – I had such an amazing time running it and looking after our guests, that I had no desire for it all to end. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to stay in the venue for a couple of days after our guests left, so that we could unwind and reflect on the week together (and enjoy the sun, and finish delicious leftovers), because it is clear that had we headed straight back to London and what has turned out to be a busy week of work, I would have struggled to take the time to slow down.

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So when this morning, after dragging myself out of bed early to get to Jay’s Sunday morning yoga class, I arrived at the train station only to find out that all trains in the direction I needed to go in had been cancelled due to emergency engineering works, I was actually quite excited to head back home through the sleepy streets with my coffee still warm in my travel mug, and enjoy some much-needed quiet time writing with no distractions. It’s the perfect grey, wet, but not cold, quiet Sunday morning for it, and I hope you’re making the most of it too.

Thought for food

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Our typical breakfast: selection of fresh bread, homemade jams (thanks Mum!), chia-oat pudding, fresh fruit, soy yoghurt, and a berry smoothie

I had imagined that prior to the retreat, we would have thoroughly tested all of the meals we planned to serve, written out the recipes, calculated exact quantities and made our shopping lists. None of that happened. And I think that’s partly why the food turned out so well: we were able to be flexible, adapt to what we had and what we could find, taste and adjust and improvise and decorate and serve with love. I also could never have anticipated what people’s favourite dishes would turn out to be:

  • Chia overnight oats: loosely based off Angela Liddon’s recipe, this breakfast staple was probably the star of the show. Ben had wanted to layer them up in individual breakfast parfaits, but I argued that people may not want any or might want to adjust components and ratios in their parfait, so we served them in a bowl as part of a spread with plain soy yoghurt, fresh fruit, and berry compote. I was a little worried that it may look a little too unappetising and outlandish for our non-vegan guests, but after the first day one guest told us he was looking forward to his chia pudding at breakfast, and by the end I think everyone had asked for the recipe!
  • Sweet potato lentil soup: we had brought a tonne of red lentils with us, and I thought what better way to enjoy France with its fresh bread and warm weather with its crunchy salads than serving them with a hearty soup, thus making it a full meal? I’m not even the biggest soup lover, but even I was more enthusiastic than Jay and Ben, who argued that our guests might feel they were being underfed if soup was served as anything more than a simple starter. Well. Holy wow were we wrong – my humble soup that has no recipe, that had its lentil content roughly double about halfway through because “it doesn’t look like enough, does it?”, was perhaps the most popular dish of the week and was even requested again! Unfortunately we did not oblige as we were committed to not serving the same dish twice, but I will try and make it again soon and note down the quantities, so I can share the recipe with the guests and on this blog.
  • Chilli (and all other tomato sauces): another unexpected star was Ben’s chilli; a humble concoction of beans in a rich tomato sauce, served with brown rice expertly cooked by Jay, and a silken tofu sour cream. To be honest, everyone raved about all of Ben’s tomato-based sauces, which were perfectly rich and tangy and filled with summery tomato flavour. I love how easy it is to make good (vegan) food!
  • Lemon drizzle cake: I was a little nervous as the last (also the first) time I made this loaf cake (from the recipe on this page), I don’t think I followed the recipe but couldn’t remember what substitutions I had made. This time, I did – and it almost all disappeared while I was round the back cleaning the coffee machine!
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Taco night: cabbage and carrot slaw, wholewheat tortillas, fajita peppers, refried beans, pulled jackfruit in homemade BBQ sauce, Violife cheese, tofu sour cream, and guac!

Frankly though, everyone seemed to really enjoy the food, talking about it amongst themselves at the dinner table, going back for seconds, going out of their way to compliment the chefs (us!), and commenting on how they could eat more vegan meals if this was what vegan food was like!

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My bowl on Day 0 (before the retreat had officially started): sautéed veggies, tricolour quinoa, green salad with avocado and cucumber, a rich tomato sauce, olives, and fresh bread

Food for thought

Everyone left the retreat with at least one “takeaway” – a loose resolution, one change they could make – for most, it seemed to be either cutting down on meat consumption or preparing a batch of chia overnight oats for easy and delicious healthy breakfasts. Turns out, I have several of my own, and this seems a good place to share them:

  • Every meal can, and should, be delicious and exciting. Too often, I think of breakfast or lunch as inferior to dinner, and not worthy of extensive thought or multiple components. While I do still enjoy my dinner being the heartiest and most complex meal to end the day, I really enjoyed piecing together breakfasts and lunches from a varied spread, and hope to continue doing so when I feel like I want a little more on my plate or when I have leftovers available.
  • Mise en place is easier and more efficient than it seems. For some meals, it is totally feasible to chop as you go and multitask – for most weeknight meals, to be honest, this works well for us as one is home ahead of the other and has a good hour to play with, which is ample time to get something chopped and in the oven to roast before tending to elements that can cook more quickly on the stovetop. However, getting into the habit of preparing at least some ingredients in advance – washing and drying a whole lettuce and storing it in an airtight container, for example, or chopping up a whole head of broccoli when you have some spare time, or pressing and marinating a block of tofu before the start of the week – can mean that you are more likely to serve your meal with a side salad, or chuck in an extra veggie, or feel that your Tuesday lunch is just as special as your Saturday night dinner (see point above).
  • Food doesn’t need rules. This is a more personal one, as I still catch myself trying to hold myself to “food rules” that even I know are meaningless. We were so busy during the retreat that frankly I didn’t have time to worry about what time it was when I was hungry and needed a snack, having enough energy to cook a meal or tidy up or teaching a class was clearly more important than a silly self-imposed rule about what and when to eat, and also cooking kills my appetite so even though I was rarely hungry I knew I needed to eat. And despite throwing all my rules out the window, everything was still fine, and I need to remember that.
  • I love mustard, and salad dressing deserves to be delicious. For years I’ve been trying to make myself like mustard: I’ve always loved the smell but never liked the taste! This happened with olives, and it’s a weirdly frustrating sensation, but since I grew to love them I knew I would with mustard, too. Since we were making a lot of salads for a lot of people I had to make decent dressings, and mustard plays a key role in a good vinaigrette. As above, going out of my way to make a vinaigrette (rather than my usual salad-dressing approach which is to drizzle some oil and some vinegar straight onto the leaves), proved ridiculously simple and so much better with the addition of mustard. I bought a jar of whole-grain mustard as soon as I went grocery shopping when we were back, and shook myself up a bottle of vinaigrette for easy salad dressing at all times (see mise en place point, above).

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I’ll leave you with those thoughts and this view of dusk setting in over the pool, hopefully I will be back soon with that soup recipe!

Transatlantic vegan food swap

Hello friends!

My last draft of this was saved three months ago, and this is what I had written:

This blogging thing is not on my side – maybe it’s punishing me for not having its back – and, truth be told, I spent well over an hour hunched over the keypad typing furiously away at a Sunday thoughts post last Sunday… then it was dinnertime, and I had written well over 1000 words and not even covered half the things I wanted to cover, and there was no way I was working way into the night on my Sunday night, editing and adding and searching for relevant but unrelated images and re-editing (sorry guys, it’s nothing personal, just a matter of principle). So I left it for another day… and as I returned to it tonight, half of my draft was missing. I’m never against a fresh start, but sometimes it’s just too fresh to start patching up again.

And now it’s three months later!

So without further ado, I give you a well-overdue blog post about all the wonderful treats that Amey winged over to me from California! Continue reading

Kitchen fun lately

Happy Monday to all long-weekenders and working-week-starters alike!

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Last week I mainly worked really hard at reducing the amount of thinking I’ve been doing. I submitted the coursework for my Dietary Assessment module last Sunday evening, with a bit of an anti-climax as the finished product didn’t come anywhere close to reflecting the amount of effort and thought that I put into it, so it was hard to totally unwind with any sort of satisfaction. Rather, the tension in my neck and the buzzing in my head ebbed away slowly last week, and a relatively warm and gorgeously sunny day off on Friday left me feeling more relaxed than I can remember being this year. And if a long bank holiday weekend isn’t the time to embrace that, then I don’t know what is…

Turns out that my go-to ways to stop thinking are: train relatively hard; do all the housework; and cook. Only one of those is really any fun to read about, I’m guessing, so let’s get straight into how dusty skirting boards can get when you’re not paying attention.

Kidding. I’m obviously here to talk about food.

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Let’s start with turnips, because that is what was giving me the evil eye every time I opened the fridge, but then I promise I’ll talk about chocolate. I consider myself pretty a unfussy eater: as long as there is no animal involved in the production of my meal, I will eat whatever plants you give me. But I just couldn’t get excited enough about turnip to make that instead of the sweet potato, white potato, broccoli, aubergine, or any of the other vegetables that arrived in our vegetable delivery (we use Farmaround), so the turnip got wrinklier and wrinklier and pushed ever further back in the fridge. I even went so far as to peel and chop it, ready for roasting, before the faintly cabbagey smell put me off and I put the prepared turnip cubes in a plastic container and pushed it to the back of the fridge again.

I even Googled “how to make turnip taste good” but that didn’t bring up anything novel. I have roasted turnip many times, thank you, and it still tastes distinctly of turnip.

So I can’t tell you how I came to the idea of a curried turnip loaf, but that doesn’t matter because the important thing is it was delicious. I may never make turnip any other way again.

I rarely use recipes for anything, so I can’t give you one for this, but this is the gist:

  • turnip, cubed and lightly sautéed in a pan with oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes (I hope you’re not throwing that stuff out!)
  • turnip transferred to baking tray (or loaf pan to save washing up), covered in vegetable stock, and left in a warm (180ºC ish) oven while you get on with more fun kitchen tasks like making vegan creme eggs – stirring occasionally is recommended
  • softened turnip transferred to food processor with remainder of an open can of chickpeas and the majority of the aquafaba, a bit of cumin, pinch of turmeric, as much curry-flavoured salt as seems reasonable, and some of the white pepper that you never use, and blended until scraping the processor down becomes too tedious
  • a sprinkle of oats mixed with the textured turnip-chickpea mash to absorb excess moisture, and some frozen green peas for colour
  • everything smashed firmly into the previously used loaf tin and returned to the oven for as long as you have to spare, or until the top dries out slightly

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To be honest, I had planned for many other add-ins, or at least a mango chutney glaze, but I liked the mixture so much straight out of the food processor that I decided to leave well enough alone for once (though this does taste great with mango chutney, or any chutney, I would imagine). Grated potato would probably work well to firm the mixture up, and some cashews would undoubtedly be a nice pairing. Parsnip and/or lentils would be great too – in fact, I keep referring to this as my “parsnip-lentil loaf” when it contains neither parsnips nor lentils. Either way, let’s not avoid cooking with turnip forever.

Right, I promised chocolate!

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Everyone seems to be making vegan creme eggs these days, and on the eve of my seventh veganniversary I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to add another treat to my repertoire.

Ignoring the first attempt in which I mistakenly thought I could somehow substitute granulated sugar for icing sugar in the fondant recipe, I based mine off this one, but added way less icing sugar because I just got a bit scared of adding any more (though I’m not entirely sure, as I didn’t measure because… I’m not sure why). I also didn’t bother with the yellow portion of the fondant, because we all know it’s not a real egg. I also didn’t roll and dip my fondant because it didn’t firm up enough – presumably because I didn’t add enough icing sugar – so I used our previously never used chocolate mould and made about half a dozen batches of teeny little creme egg cubes over the course of two days. And a couple of freeform splats where I got too optimistic about the firmness of the fondant.

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I mentioned a failed first attempt involving granulated sugar (in my defence, I did attempt to process it into powdered sugar first, but didn’t have much success and decided to plough on anyway). It’s important because that failed start turned into one of the best cakes I think I have ever made (not an overstatement; I just don’t bake very much and I certainly don’t bake very well).

I wound up with a big bowl of creamed vegan buttery spread (1/4 cup), golden syrup (1/2 cup), and granulated sugar (about 3 cups), and wasn’t about to throw it all out. It sounded like the beginning of a cake, as opposed to cookies or muffins, and having just rearranged the cupboards (which seems to be an essential part of my baking process) I was confronted with a ridiculous amount of rosewater for people who don’t consume any rose-flavoured treats. Pistachios were an obvious pairing, and we happened to have a huge bag of them that an Iranian client had gifted us. I had recently read Amey’s annual NoRouz post and I guess it all clicked into place.

Drawing very loosely on Audrey at Unconventional Baker’s recipe, I added rosewater, vanilla extract, the juice of a clementine, some mixed spice, salt, baking soda, and plain flour. I also added a little extra rosewater, and a generous pinch of saffron, but I had no cardamom. I shelled pistachios until my thumb blistered and then ruptured, and I decided that was enough pistachios. It took about half an hour, or a generous 1/2 cup, in case you’re wondering – so if you have any recipes calling for more than that amount of pistachio, I would recommend purchasing the shelled variety (or getting somebody to help).

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Since my version was so different from Audrey’s, the actual baking was a bit of an anxious time, but it worked! It tastes elegant and not overpowered by rosewater, with a light crumb and just the right amount of pistachio. This would taste excellent with cardamom-scented whipped cream, and maybe a coffee on the side.

Earlier in the week, I had some carrots to clear out, so I made Dana at Minimalist Baker’s carrot apple muffins. I used chia eggs instead of flax eggs, grated apple instead of apple sauce, and I replaced the nuts with sultanas to be more Ben-friendly. These turned out pretty great!

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In non-cake-related news (but very much in clearing-out-the-cupboard-related news) I also made seitan for the first time! I’ve had an packet of vital wheat gluten sitting around for years, and I’ve been meaning to make the sausage from Vegan Brunch ever since the last time I made it, but I kept just not doing it. I had just made a batch of Zsu’s savoury broth mix from Everyday Vegan Eats so it seemed like perfect timing.

I loosely followed the Post Punk Kitchen instructions because I trust Isa Chandra Moskowitz on all things seitan, but with excess broth because I decided halfway through the process that I would only make a half batch (i.e. when I had actually found the vital wheat gluten and realised I only had enough for a half batch), with apple cider vinegar instead of lemon juice, and without the minced garlic because I had just noticed we were out of garlic. Miraculously (after after a LOT of squeezing excess fluid out) it worked out perfectly! Admittedly, the two pieces I ended up with look a lot like brains – hence no photos – but when you slice them they are firm and solid and were absolutely perfect in yesterday’s stir-fry.

Last but not least… I had some leftover melted chocolate so I took the liberty of covering Ben’s chocolate chip cookies with it. Oh my goodness.

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That is all. Have a happy week!

Sunday thoughts: 6th March 2016

You know you’ve been away from your blog for a little while when you don’t recognise the post editor (is that even what the bit where I type all my words in is called?) anymore.

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Mounds of seaweed amassed after severe weather in New South Wales, Australia

It’s obviously a bit late to be wishing you all a happy new year, but I do hope everyone has had a good start to 2016. I know it sounds like such a massive lie, but I have been thinking of anyone who reads this blog, and about what I could tell you that would add anything to your lives, and feeling both proud and a little ashamed with each notification of a new follower, as I don’t feel like I have provided a very warm welcome. So to anyone who has joined us in the last six months, and everyone who has stuck with me, an extra warm welcome and a super sincere thank you! Continue reading

Sunday thoughts: Vegan MoFo edition

Sunday thoughts are back! I hope you are excited as I am about this new development!

Although I will hasten to add that they may not be a weekly occurrence as they used to be, and that they may occur on days other than Sundays. I am trying to keep this space fun and intuitive, but I want to keep hold of the sense that MoFo gave me of having a little more thought woven into my brain cells than I may initially think.

So without further ado, some thoughts on September, these first few days of October, and my first Vegan MoFo experience!

Roast Crown Prince squash Continue reading

Vegan MoFo 2015: Day 29 – Vegan road trip supplies

So… There’s not really a good way to put this, but I’ve never been on a road trip.

Vegan MoFo 2015

I mean, I’ve gone from A to B in a car, with other people, and it has usually involved snacks, but not like a proper road trip where you PLAN stuff on the journey. So snacks are usually pretty low-key, and usually in small enough quantities that they are all gone by the time we pull out of the driveway (yeah, I get really excited about travel snacks). Continue reading