Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Ten Foods I Couldn’t Live Without

You may or may not know this – hell, I do love to share – but I am a bit of a Paleo fan, having low-carbed it like the ancestors for the past two years. One of the Paleo bloggers I follow is Mark Sisson, whose every post makes so much sense that I leap into the air each time I read one, give a rebel yell, fall to the floor to do twenty swift push-ups and then run downstairs to eat my body weight in bacon.

I am stronger, fitter and better-tempered when I eat Paleo. I have no blood sugar spikes and I no longer ache for my post-lunch nap. I still break for cake, but I like to think that my cake moments grow fewer and farther between as the years go by. As another sugar-free blogger, David Gillespie says, sugar is just for parties. Anyway, Mark just posted his 10 Foods He Can’t Live Without, and, in the interests of maintaining the high levels of TMI around these parts, here are mine:

1. Bacon

So good it’s called Paleo sugar. Love it. And following swiftly behind it are:

2. Eggs

So many ways to eat them, so many ways to love them.

3. Spinach

Preferably tiny little fresh leaves, all mixed up with:

4. Walnuts

Hmm. My nut of choice.

5. Cream

Just a little in my coffee, slightly more over my:

6. Berries

Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries. You name them, I love them.

7. Lamb chops

Sorry, to all my very dear vegetarian friends, but the lamb chop is possibly the zenith of all eating experience – crunchy, juicy, sweet and naturally grass-fed.

8. Leaves

Leaves in all their forms, from lettuce to pak choi, form the basis of what I eat. I have a minimum of two leaf-based meals a day and have been known to eat yesterday’s salad for breakfast.

9. Coconut

Milk, shredded, in chunks. There’s nothing like the coconut for its high-fat, low-carb goodness.

10. Chicken

Is my friend, in so many ways. In a salad, on the barbeque, on the wing; it’s all good.

These foods now form the basis of what I eat, and will continue to do so henceforth. I barely eat grains, rice, pasta, bread, legumes, root vegetables – all the things that the dietary gurus of the past century told us were essential to life and healthy living. I am fitter and stronger as a result. I am more alert. I can do 20 push-ups, rest and do another 20, I can lift heavy things, I have the energy to play with my children and I run and sprint. I take no medications, no vitamins and very seldom visit the doctor.

I have no pretence at being a Paleo guru and I resist the temptation to try to convert others, but I’ve found a way of eating that makes me happy and I’m sticking with it.

What are ten foods you couldn’t live without?


Season Your Reading

There are two things I love: books and food. I’m never happier than when I can combine the two.

In August I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s evocative and moving Tapestry of Love. It is set in the Cevennes valley in France and while it is a love story, it is deeply redolent of the landscape, weather, people and food of that area.  The paperback version of Tapestry of Love has been released and to celebrate Rosy is offering readers of Charlotte’s Web a series of recipes for the food that her characters cook and serve during the course of the novel. In the 15 pages of recipes, Rosy includes salads, aoili, stews and something I won’t be waiting for Christmas to make: Devils at Horses’ Heels.

As a taster, here is Rosy’s cevennol recipe for lovage soup: 

Potage à l’Herbe de Maggi  (Lovage Soup)

Serves 4

This thick green soup is served to Catherine at the al fresco meal shared by the inhabitants of La Grelaudiere in the Mériels’ orchard to celebrate the spring transhumance. It has the distinctive, astringent taste of lovage, a herb which in French is formally called ‘la liveche’ but which is known to many French people as ‘l’herbe de Maggi’ because it is a key ingredient in bottled stocks produced by the Maggi company since before the war.

If you do not have lovage in your garden (where I promise, once introduced, it will grow like a rampant triffid), then substituting parsley will make for a pleasant (though rather different) herb soup.

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

a good colander full of lovage leaves, rinsed and with any tough stalks removed

1½ pints of good chicken stock

1 oz butter

salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ pint cream (optional)

 Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the garlic, onion and potatoes and sweat, stirring, over a low heat until soft but not browned. Add the lovage and pour over the chicken stock, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until all the vegetables are soft, then blend in a food processor or with a hand-held blender. The soup should be smooth and quite thick, but if necessary it can be thinned a little with more stock, or with milk. If you like, you may add cream to make the soup richer – though that is not how Madame Mériel serves it!

Just mention in the comments if you would like the recipes and I will email them to you. You’ll be so glad you did!


Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread

The lovely Jeanne has tagged me to take part in Breadline Africa’s Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off. According to Jeanne, Breadline Africa is a:

South African-based charity that is seeking to put a lasting end to poverty South Africa (and further afield in Africa) by breaking the cycle of poverty and helping comunities to achieve long-term self-sustainability. Breadline Africa was founded in 1993 when a group of community and social workers in South Africa (who had first-hand knowledge of the uniquely African problems that they faced) formed an alliance with like-minded colleagues in Europe (who were well-placed to source donations in valuable foreign currency). Armed with this unique combination of skills, Breadline Africa has been able to raise funds in Europe and use their local knowledge to identify which small, ground-level projects in Africa are most likely to succeed with a financial boost.

On Blog Action Day, Breadline Africa launched their Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off campaign. The aim is to raise $1 million in funds for a project to convert shipping containers into locations for food production and distribution in Africa. It is hoped that these sustainable community kitchens will not only provide food such as bread and soup to those in need, but also opportunities for skills development within poor communities.

So how does the Breadline Africa Worldwide Blogger Bake Off Campaign work?

Quite simply: bake bread, give dough. You can sign up for the campaign, make a donation, upload your bread recipes and document your culinary adventures in the media centre to spread the word. Bloggers can go even further by downloading the Blogger Bake-off widget and tagging five other bloggers to do the same – which I have done. My five tagged bloggers are:

1. Alida of Here We Go … Again

2. Helen of A Was Alarmed

3. The Very Wise Mandarine

4. Herschelian of The 3 Rs.

5. Tanya of Just Me

And now, to the bread …

The thing is, though I bake, I don’t make bread. Being good South Africans, we barbeque or braai, all the way through summer. I have a way with salads, and desserts, and Germany’s Top Husband does his thing at the grill, but our repertoire has never included bread. However, two summers ago, I borrowed a South African beer bread recipe from Jeanne because it was just so easy. The original recipe called for thyme and cheddar cheese, but since neither were available to me, I replaced them with rosemary and Emmenthaler, bringing a lovely German twist to a South African recipe. Unfortunately I have never photographed it, but I assure you it looks and smells as delicious as it tastes. There are never any leftovers, because everyone ADORES it. Try it, and preen at your new-found skills!

The Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread Recipe


500g self-raising flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

125g Emmenthaler cubed

340ml beer

50ml water

1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary chopped

Maldon (or kosher) salt to sprinkle


Preheat oven to 180°.

Grease a small loaf tin.

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl.

Stir in beer, cheese, water, rosemary.

Mix until all the flour is moistened the dough forms a consistent mass.

Transfer to loaf tin, sprinkle with salt and place in oven.

Test with skewer after one hour and if it comes clean, remove from the oven.

Eat with large slabs of butter and thank me. Oh, and Jeanne too.

(PS After an hour’s struggling, I am giving up trying to upload the widget. I will return when I have more strength. But in the meanwhile, please click, donate, bake bread, vote for my recipe or do something to help raise people out of poverty. Thank you.)


Let’s Talk About Food, Baby

It’s clearly autumn. I’ve got visiting owls and the bakery’s got Zwiebelkuechen. When I walked past yesterday and smelt the delicious scent of baked onion, creme fraiche and bacon, I had a vision of all the festivals and seasonal foods that lie ahead of us – the Zwiebelkuechen of harvest time, followed by the pumpkins that may or may not mean Halloween, the November Laternefest and its cakes, and then all the delicious smells and spices of Christmas. In about three seconds’ time, I’m going to be sipping Gluehwein at a Christmas market, wondering what the hell happened to the year. Wasn’t I in Tuscany on the beach, like, yesterday?

Now it’s harvest time and the German new wines will be appearing soon. These are bottled – with screwtop caps – as soon as they reach 4% alcohol, but continue to ferment inside the bottle up to 11%, so they are deceptively strong. Germans serve their Neue Wein with a good hearty Zwiebelkuechen in order to counteract the unknowable amount of alcohol in the wine. We have to be cautious, you know? It’s apparently a very good pairing, if you like Neue Wein, which I don’t. It’s far sweet for me and brings on an instant headache (not the the fun kind that you earn after hours of drinking, but the depressing kind when everyone else is having a blast and you have to go home at 9.15pm).

When I started working in Germany, the first team after-hours get-together I attended was trumpetted as a “Neue Wein und Zwiebelkuechen Party“. The guy who organised it got quite excited about his party theme. You could have sworn he was going to be serving Moet and Beluga caviar, he was so thrilled. (Have you noticed that it’s always the same people who organise parties? Some people are party helpers, other people are party goers, and then there are the special souls who like to organise parties. They don’t seem to spend much time actually enjoying the parties; they are not usually the ones seducing the intern on the dance-floor or arranging group down-down sessions. Instead, they are restocking the drinks fridge, making sure there are enough knives and forks on the table and doing the music. I love party organisers. They provide the excuse for me to make desserts and then do a lot of dancing.) So after all the Neue Wein and Zwiebelkuechen PR from the party organising guy, I got quite excited about these exotic new foodstuffs and was looking forward to trying them. Sadly, they were not great. Zwiebelkuechen turned out not to be some fascinating kind of cake, but Quiche Lorraine (easily found in South Africa) and the wine was sweet, feathery and gave me an instant headache. I was underwhelmed.

However, the Zwiebelkuechen, with its crumbly crust and salty-sweet combination of bacon and onion, has grown on me. Today, passing the bakery, I was lured by its siren smell:

Zwiebelkuechen with feta and pepper salad

Now I don’t drink alone and I seldom drink at lunch-time, even at weekends, but somehow it was not possible to eat Zwiebelkuechen without drinking wine. I’m not so German that it had to be Neue Wein, so instead it was a tiny little glass – really, a tiny, tiny little glass – of rose.

I needed something to help soak up all that Zwiebelkuechen, after all.

And I wasn’t alone. I had three children with me.


Italy Unplugged

(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.


Eight Food Things

There’s a lovely food blogger in Seattle, called Tea, who writes the Tea & Cookies blog. She’s done a food meme, which I’m stealing, since I’m obviously not done with making people hungry and wanting to come and live with me. Those of you who’ve requested adoption might look to Tea, who is a seriously foodie food person. Compared to her, I’m an amateur, a dabbler, a mere hobbyist.

Eight Food Things:

What are your favourite foods?

Green asparagus. We recently discovered (thanks to Loren) that this can be grilled on the braai. A revelation! A quick weekday supper, now that we have our electric grill, is a steak each and a pound of green asparagus braaied to perfection. In Baden, where we live, the white asparagus is a kind of white gold, but in comparison to the green, I find it flabby and tasteless. Plus, it requires peeling which is a horrid bore. I’m a green Spargel gal.

Soft fruits – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. I’m eating them by the punnet at the moment.

Avocado, preferably squashed onto nutty brown bread with tons of salt and pepper. Apologies Herschelian, I know you loathe it.

What foods do you hate?

Offal in any shape or form – please no kidneys, livers, hearts or tongues. Don’t do ’em. The only possible exception is chicken liver pate, but only in very small doses.

The mere thought of eel makes me gag. That scary combination of two legless beasts – snake and fish – is too much for me. I’d rather eat grass.

Slimy, pink, overprocessed meats. As my children say, bah!

Foods you like but are embarrassed to admit:

Salty popcorn. There’s tons of it in The Post-Birthday World and it made me salivate. When I was a student, a friend and housemate introduced me to her family tradition of emptying a packet of Smarties into a cinema bucket of salty popcorn. I was immediately hooked on the combination of salt, sugar and chocolate. I won’t countenance sweet popcorn though.

Treats of my childhood: orange chips called Niknaks, Peppermint Crisps, Zoo Biscuits and marshmallow fish. These are things I always buy when I’m in South Africa.

Salami sticks. Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Strangest food you’ve eaten and enjoyed?

Warthog and crocodile. Warthog is like pork but better, and crocodile tastes like chicken.

Cooking failures that still rankle?

Nigel Slater’s Demerara Lemon Cake from his Kitchen Diaries. I made it recently in an attempt to move away from the Lemon Drizzle Cake, and it was an abject failure. The syrupy lemon slices that were meant to brown delightfully on top the cake sunk into the middle and the mixture near them remained raw. The whole lot had to be consigned to the bin.

The first meal I ever cooked for my husband, long before he was the husband. I called it Pasta Arrabiata, but it was really just pasta, tomato sauce and whole green olives. Very yucky. Bravely, risking never seeing me again, he told me he couldn’t eat it. I admitted I couldn’t either. We had toast instead.

Ingredients you don’t want to consider living without?

Lemons, olive oil, lemons, limes, lemons, flat-leaf parsley, lemons, chocolate, lemons, basil, lemons, cinnamon, rosemary and lemons.

Cuisine you’d like to know more about?

Moroccan, Iranian and Egyptian. I need to use up my stock of rosewater.

Foods you’ve hated but have grown to love?

Peas! I used to swallow them down with water as a child, or gather them in my mouth and later spit them in the loo. Now I love the little darlings.

Tomatoes – South African tomatoes are watery and floury compared to the firm, juicy, sweet European varieties. Barely a day passes without me eating a tomato.

Underdone beef and lamb used to make me shiver with horror, but now after 15 years of hanging around with my husband’s family I have grown used to pink juices. Especially good with tons of mustard.

Current kitchen conundrum?

Space. My three kids really want to help in the kitchen, and I really want to encourage them, but the kitchen is so small that I feel claustrophobic when one other person is in there with me. One day I will have an enormous kitchen with a farm table, lovely chairs, a sofa, a huge workspace and bookshelves.

If this grabs you, consider yourself tagged!


Cream the Butter and Sugar

These are my five favourite words in the English language (apart perhaps from “let me take the children” or “you go and lie down”). All my favourite recipes start with these words. I love the action of putting sugar and room temperature butter into a mixing bowl and taking a fork to them. I could use my mixer, but there is something inexplicably satisfying in doing it myself. My kids are getting pretty good at the action too, which does remove some of the fun for me, because then I have to do something dull like sieve the flour or line the tin. I want to be creaming the butter and sugar, kids. You do the boring bits.

I had a bake-a-thon this weekend. First of all, it was raining on Friday and there was a gang of hungry children rattling around the house. I love baking on a Friday; filling the house with good smells before the weekend starts. I made Bindi’s Tangy Yogurt and Oatmeal Muffins. This recipe does not involve any creaming of butter and sugar, but they are so good and packed with such wholesome ingredients that they have the same psychological effect. I love watching the children eat them and all the while I’m thinking “you’re eating oatmeal, oatmeal and plain white yogurt, and you don’t even know it”. It gives good smug. Bindi suggests putting banana in them. On Friday I did plain chocolate chips.

Then on Saturday we were invited to a very South African event – a braai and a rugby match on TV. I was asked to bring a salad but because my salad recipe did not start with my favourite words, I also spontaneously made a batch of shortbread to take, which we ate with fresh strawberries. Shortbread contains no yogurt and no oatmeal, but it does contain a ton of butter, which you cream along with a ton of sugar. I used the recipe from Cook with Jamie, which he describes as the “best shortbread in the world”. Jamie recommends using some lemon or orange zest for extra zing, but I scraped out a vanilla pod instead and made vanilla shortbread. It was delicious.

Today we were also invited out for lunch and I promised to bring dessert, because I knew that would mean I could cream the butter and sugar again. This time I had some “help” and we made our family’s favourite cake – V’s Lemon Tea Loaf. Although V is American, this is actually a British lemon drizzle cake, but a superior version thereof. When the cake is hot from the oven, you spear holes in it with a piece of dried spaghetti (I love that part too) and then pour over a sticky syrup of lemon juice and water. When you eat it, it’s moist, sticky, soft and delicious. We had it with fresh raspberries and cream. I felt both were extraneous. The cake speaks for itself. It requires no back-up.

Having been deprived of creaming the butter and sugar by my kitchen assistants (who sweetly offered to wash up afterwards), I took the chance while they were out of the kitchen to make some biscuits from How to be a Domestic Goddess. There was absolutely no need to take anything more along to our lunch, but because the helpers had deprived me of my chance to cream the butter and sugar, I was forced to get my fix. I chose what she calls “Granny Boyd’s Biscuits”, which contain all of four ingredients – butter, sugar, flour and cocoa. I was able to quietly and meditatively cream the butter and sugar all alone in my kitchen. The biscuits turned out well. As Nigella says, they are dark and smoky and would go nicely with vanilla ice-cream.

So. All that sugar making you feel sick yet? Me too. Let me leave you on a lighter note, with the salad I took to the braai. It’s one I’ve been looking at for a while in Nigella’s Forever Summer and I at last got to make it. The main salad ingredients are feta and watermelon, which you chop into large chunks. You slice a red onion very finely and let it seep in lime juice. Then you pour the onion and its juices over the feta and watermelon, adding chopped fresh mint, flat leaf parsley leaves (not chopped), black olives and some olive oil. It’s scarily delicious and looks beautiful. Eating it on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a winter rugby scene on the TV and wet German hills outside made me think of Greece. I believe they have sugar there too.


How to Go On Holiday and Gain (X) Kilograms

First, go to France. Go directly to France. France is the land of flaky delicious pastries, and little flans, and yummy custard things adorned with fruit, and tartes, and all number of things you don’t know the name of but at which you very successfully point. France is also the land of baguette filled with cheese, sundried tomatoes and the world’s best salami. It’s the place where you stand drooling in the yogurt aisle of the supermarket, trying to make a decision about whether you should have coconut or lemon yogurt for your mid-morning snack. It’s the land where you eat moules mariniere within sight of the blue sea, bobbing white yachts and dark green pine trees. The land where you eat a herb omelette served with green beans and artichokes on top of a mountain, while smelling the perfume of rose and lavender. The land where you lick at a cone filled with purplish fig ice-cream while you traverse the alleyways of a famous yellow fishing village. The land of ice-cold pink rose, of nougat and black olive tapenade with its sinewy undertow of anchovy.

Then, you should be lucky enough to have the world’s kindest hosts, who are not only interesting, well-travelled, charming, open-minded and welcoming to you and your large family, but who can cook superbly. We ate duck breast with hasselback potatoes, and slow-cooked Easter lamb with root vegetables, followed by an enormous Pavlova adorned with strawberries, mango and kiwi-fruit. Thanks to Sig, Tittin and the three princes for opening their hearts and their home to us, as well as introducing us to their beautiful corner of France. It was wonderful meeting you at last.

Then you should conjoin two families of five for the Easter weekend, and ensure that the mothers don’t talk in advance about the amount of chocolate both are buying, so that the Easter lapin (Tittin and one of the princes) had an enormous sack of chocolat to distribute under the lavender bushes and lemon trees. Have one mother seduced by SIZE of chocolate rabbits and the other mother seduced by VOLUME of chocolate ladybirds so that the combined AMOUNT of chocolate is enough to keep small children – and their mother, freshly out of chocolate rehab – bouncing off the walls for some days.

Bid farewell to your lovely friends and repair to a beach resort where there are three beach restaurants offering pizzas, pastas and numerous tempting desserts in easy walking distance. Actually, make that easy crawling distance, if you have drunk too much rose while watching your children cavort outside your beach hut. Make sure that these are casual places where you can eat barefoot and where your small, squeaking children are welcome to be as small and squeak as much as they want to.

Then, bring on the bad weather. Closet yourself in a beach hut the size of one of your bedrooms at home with your children and the remains of the chocolate stash. Finish the chocolate stash, firstly ably assisted by your kids and later, by your husband and a bottle of rose, once the babes are sleeping.

All this eating, and the sudden onset of summer here in Germany (30° today) has made me self-conscious about the need to lose some weight. It was a lot of fun putting it on, but now it, and the remainder of the Christmas speck which doesn’t seem to have got the message yet, has to go. Lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables are on the menu chez Charlotte’s Web from here on.

While we were admiring the crowds of Saturday shoppers in Antibes, where human X-rays were buying huge custard-filled tartes and legs of ham to take home to their no doubt enormously fat husbands, Lily made a lovely remark. She said, “I am looking at all these ladies, and they are not very pretty. Not one of them is as pretty as my Mummy.”

Kids. You have them for a reason, you know.


What Cooking Means to Me

What is it about cooking? When I left home at 18, I could just about make a salad and boil an egg. As a student, I made bland budget tuna casseroles and soups. In my early married years, I made pasta, pasta and pasta. And then at some point a culinary explosion happened in my consciousness and I developed a genuine interest not just in eating good food, but in cooking it too. Perhaps it was moving to London from provincial Germany and being amazed by the variety of foods available. Around that time, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater were starting to publish their cookbooks, and the way they wrote – unintimidating, gentle, with clear instructions – spoke to the kind of direction I was needing in the kitchen. My skills needed to catch up with my tastebuds.

The planning, purchasing and preparing of food takes up an enormous amount of my time. I don’t resent it. It’s a daily pleasure, not a daily bind. I like the idea of the slow movement, of selecting lovely fresh ingredients, taking them home, and preparing something delicious to feed my family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s just the kids eating I do trot out certain standards – the faithful fishfinger, sausage and mash, pasta with pesto – but I do try to push their eating boundaries often.

With so many people posting about their delicious Christmas and New Year meals, I couldn’t help thinking about how much cooking means to me. It’s gone from being a dull necessity to something approaching a craft, but more than that, as it encompasses a whole range of things that are important to me.

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s creative – I’m mixing flavours, colours, things that go well together on a plate. I discovered for our New Year’s meal that braised red cabbage and apple is a great accompaniment for grilled salmon. Salmon’s quite oily, and the red cabbage counteracts that heartily. Also the pink salmon and the purplish cabbage look beautiful together. I still love a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, because it’s a threesome that works on the palate as well as the plate. I love putting a wet mess of ingredients into an oven and taking out a cake an hour later. I’ve discovered recently that I can smell when a cake’s ready. I’ve got a nose for cake.

Another thing I love is the pleasure food gives, both to others and to myself. Thanks to Nigella, I taught myself to bake while pregnant with Ollie and now he sees the muffin tin and starts shouting “cake, cake”. He even ate the chestnut cheesecake I made at Christmas, despite its being brown and heavy with chestnuts and slightly tinged with rum. Lily adores soup, and begs me to make it for her. I made a shepherd’s pie the other night – a really bog standard English mince and potato pie – and my husband and father-in-law gobbled it up making appreciative noises all the while.

Cooking is an escape, but a legitimate one, because I’m feeding people. I can say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to cook a meal here”, but I can’t say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to write a blog post here.” I love pottering in my kitchen, browsing my recipe books, staring out the window in a half-daze, imagining our next meal.

Living in Germany, I’ve had to learn to love the challenge of sourcing unusual ingredients (things like coriander, mint, halloumi cheese, butternut squash, pitta bread, limes) in a country where supermarkets are small, focus on seasonal food and cater for provincial tastes. If I’m planning to cook something unusual, it takes time and planning to source things – if I can’t find it in the supermarket, I visit a grocer, order what I need and he provides it the next day. It requires forethought. When I first moved back here, I resented the fact that I couldn’t just walk into Sainsburys and say “Oh lamb would be good, let’s pick up some mint and couscous too” but now I find the slight hardship adds to my enjoyment when I finally eat the meal I’ve planned. It’s got to be character-building.

I like looking in the fridge, seeing what I’ve got, reading a recipe, making a match and producing something delicious. I like using things up. For instance, we had half a stale panettone left over from Christmas, and I turned that into a delicious bread and butter pudding for New Year’s Eve dinner. After Christmas, we were all feeling a little queasy from the rich meals we’d been having, so I used a couple of chicken breasts and some sticks of lemongrass to make a lovely, refreshing chicken broth. There is something of the happy homemaker in this, but I don’t deny, it gives satisfaction.

I love cookbooks. In the last few years, I’ve got a bit stuck on Jamie and the two Nigels, the latter both being great writers. A new cookbook that’s started challenging my repertoire is Moro, which is Spanish and Moroccan food. Jamie’s just inspiring – I still learn something every time I read one of his books. Tonight it was how to chop potatoes into matchsticks for rosti. I browsed through a friend’s Elizabeth David the other day and saw how well she writes. She does much less hand-holding than Nigella or Jamie, it’s a more seat-of-your-pants kind of cooking. I want to do some of that. Nigella’s taken me through my apprenticeship, but it’s time to graduate to bolder stuff.

I like that my repertoire and courage are growing. I’ve learnt that if you follow a recipe, you’re likely to have success, and this has given me confidence. My next step is bread. I want to start baking bread. If I can do cakes, surely I can do bread. Perhaps that can be my second new year’s resolution: in 2007 I want to write more and learn to bake bread.

I like the values that home-cooking instills. I’d rather make my kids a tray of home-cooked muffins than buy them the plastic ones filled with preservatives in the supermarket. I love that they are becoming brave eaters, and in our home there is a lot of praise for trying food. They are not required to like it, but they are required to try it. One will eat any soup under the sun, another adores pulses in any form, and my darling baby boy will eat anything his mummy bakes. We sit and eat with our children for at least one meal a day – usually lunch – we light candles, chat, gently impart some table manners and enjoy some family time. They know where their fruit and vegetables come from, they know that their bodies “need green” and they love their food.

I like sharing recipes and talking food. This I do with many of my friends, and also with my blog friends. I’ve made Bloglily’s spice cookies and they were gorgeous, and I’m going to make Kerryn’s white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries when I host my bookclub dinner in January. I’m planning to try Jen’s fudge once I’ve recovered from the Christmas excess.

Cooking is also an act of love, and a way to show caring. I’ll let Kerryn (who puts it beautifully in one of her comments) round up this long and winding post succinctly for me:

I believe strongly that food prepared with love has the ability to pass that love along. I try never to cook while angry and always try to add a dash of love for those I’m cooking for.