Eat Food.

A lot of different things over the last year or so have changed the way I react to the world. Last year I became more interested in cooking, for example. It was still just one of those things you have to do; I wasn’t particularly enjoying it (although more so than before) and I certainly wouldn’t have said it was one of my interests. It didn’t help that I had a tiny cooker with a bottom-burning oven (the flame was on the bottom of the oven. It didn’t burn my bottom. I mean…oh, never mind.) and fairly basic equipment that hadn’t been updated much since I was a student a million years ago.

I also had the struggle with my faith and an increasing sense of social responsibility, which led me to Quakerism, which fostered my growing sense of social responsibility. And so on, in ever-spiralling ethical, fair trade, recyclable circles. I’ve also developed a fondness for bees, and quite like the idea of having a hive; ‘idea’ is as far as it’ll ever get as Beloved Husband is not that keen on the very expensive and laborious idea, so I’ll have to make do with a bee hotel. Yes, it’s a real thing.

We moved house, which gave me both a brand-new, squeaky-clean cooker (with a proper oven! Of a decent size! With a second oven on top!!) and a garden, with enough room to begin thinking about growing my own herbs and vegetables for the first time in my life. I also saw a doctor about my depression which gave me a sort of permission to start thinking of ways to help myself – including baking. Now that I have a proper oven, I threw myself into baking and found a) that baking and cooking are really, really therapeutic and b) that I can do it. I can make things that make people’s eyes glaze over and cause them to do that little hum of satisfaction. And baking led me to savoury, ‘proper’ cooking, and thinking about our diet as a whole, which has radically changed over the past couple of years, especially the last 5-6 months.

I will admit here that I am pretty badly overweight, but since I enjoy food it’s been a horrible struggle to motivate myself enough to diet. Paul McKenna’s book I Can Make You Thin has been a huge help, with its emphasis on a few simple guidelines, more to do with the way you eat than what you actually eat, and I’ve gained a huge amount of control over what was previously mindless comfort eating. I really notice the flavour of food more now, and get more enjoyment from smaller but tastier portions. I listen to when my body tells me I’m hungry and try to stop when I’m full.

Daniel being a Superhero!Then, bearing in mind that I’m already picturing cabbages growing in my wee garden  à la The Good Life, we found ourselves in Cornwall on holiday, very near the Eden Project at St Austell.

Wow. I think, in a slowburning kind of way, it might have changed my life. I can’t recommend a visit enough. The range of plants they have growing there is incredible and they hammer home (HARD!) the fact that there is more to food than how it ends up on your plate or in the supermarket. Seeing rice growing, or coffee beans, or cocoa beans, or chilli peppers, makes you think a little bit more about what you’re eating, and appreciate it a little bit more too.

So we came home, and little bits of things are ticking away in my head. Discovering I can cook, along with Andrew’s preference for savoury things, and beginning to read cookery magazines with real pleasure, has led me recently to plan much more healthy and varied meals. We’re even trying vegetarian meals once a week; this is a major thing for us!

Thinking about the source of food, a disappointment over Morrisons’ decision to reintroduce eggs from caged hens into their stores make me look into food sourcing. I’ve bought free range eggs, fair trade coffee, tea, bananas and sugar for years; I’m going back to my brief pledge of a couple of years ago to eat (wherever possible) fairtrade chocolate; and we’ve started buying organic milk.

Then I read a sample (thank you, Kindle) of the wonderful Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food, as well as his The Omnivore’s Dilemma  and I’ve just finished Food Michael PollanRules; yep, also his. These bits of writing have helped me bring together all the different influences on me over the past year or so and how I make changes for the better in our lives.

Basically, his rule is: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Genius!!

The key thing here is to realise that he’s talking about FOOD, not food-like, processed, substances. Richard Bertinet, the chef, has a similar attack on bread, calling shop-bought mass produced bread not bread but a bread-like substitute (yes, bread-making is on the agenda for the near future too). Michael Pollan extends this to all packaged and processed food, and it’s not until recently that I realised just how much of this I bought. He recommends buying fresh, whole foods and cooking yourself wherever possible. He tries to get us to evaluate the nature of our relationship with food, and by extension, with where food comes from ie Nature. It all comes back to our connection to our world and how we impact on it. And how awareness of Nature impacts on us.

Now, I’m not naive (ok, not THAT naive). I know that, particularly now, good whole food can be expensive, and we’re still in the position of having to watch where our money goes. We may well have to go back to eating cheap processed food. But I’m also discovering that with some planning, cooking proper food is actually, counter-intuitively, NOT working out as much more expensive. Seriously. Obviously, some things make a substantial difference such as organic veg, meat, etc. But on the whole, our food bills are little different to what they were 8 to 10 months ago and our diet is changed beyond recognition. I’m throwing out my rules on fats, nutrients and sugars; we’re having some treats, some meats and plenty of veg. I’m also looking at Mediterranean influences and flavours as that’s what suits us as a family.

I seriously recommend that people have a read of Michael Pollan’s work. I’m in no position to judge anyone’s cooking or lack of it or their approaches to food, but I know that I had very, very bad habits which are now changing.

Saved by Cake

I remember hearing about Marian Keyes having a bad time but beyond feeling sympathy for her, I didn’t think too much of it at the time. Then over the last couple of years my own problems kind of took over everything.

Marian KeyesWhen I saw a copy of Saved by Cake on the shelf in Waterstones, it drew me in first by the gorgeous cover with its retro colours and style. Then I noticed the author and remembered her having troubles, which led me to pulling the book down and reading the intro, and flicking through the recipes. I then spent the next two weeks either drooling over the pictures I had seen or feeling drawn to Marian’s brutally honest description of her depression and her warm and witty way of writing until I got the book for myself yesterday.

I spent all evening reading every single recipe (when I was allowed to; Emily shows every sign of inheriting my penchant for cakes and insisted on looking at every picture herself. Two or three times…) and trying to restrain myself from rushing straight out to Sainsburys and buying a list of ingredients and cookie cutters (do read her take on cookie cutters. I love it!) a mile long. I decided to limit myself to trying a recipe a week (well, maybe two…) and this morning bought the ingredients for the first one to do some time this week, probably at the weekend.

Then this afternoon I went to a parent and toddler group. Now, I’ve mentioned my social anxieties before. They make these groups a particular kind of torture, and I’m serious, I think I get through the entire group without more than 5 words spoken to anyone except Emily. I spend all the time I’m not talking feeling miserable and anxious about not talking and it all goes horribly wrong. Emily goes home bouncing because she’s had time with new toys and I go home ready to burst into tears, every bad feeling about myself confirmed again and again. So this afternoon when I came home, I thought ‘Why not, let’s give Saved by Cake a go,’ and did the Blondie cupcakes (white chocolate and macadamia nut…).

Now, there’s a funny thing about baking as therapy. I do have a tendency to comfort eat, but that’s the weird thing. I found baking these cupcakes (and most of the cooking I’ve done over the last few weeks) unbelievably calming. I feel much better and I’ve only had half of a cupcake (just to test, y’know). It’s not the end result that’s the point of doing this, as nice as it is; it’s completely about the process.

It’s not like I’ve just discovered baking through Marian Keyes, I’ve been increasingly keen on cooking and baking over the last couple of years and it’s picked up madly since we moved house and I got a really nice oven (my last oven was no good for baking as the flame went under the floor of the oven and burned the bottom of stuff before the top was cooked. I daresay a good cook could have managed with it; I’m not that cook). I’ve done a few nice cakes lately, mostly plain sponges with cream and strawberries, and a couple of packet mixes – highly recommended for a quick and cheap cake fix eg for Sunday tea as they’re very light and tasty and did I mention cheap? But Marian Keyes’ book has opened up a whole new world of flavours and possibilities, both classic and traditional as well as more exotic like Chocolate, Cardamom and chilli tart, and it’s totally about the process, like I said earlier. If you want a cake for the sake of eating it, buy a packet mix or even a ready made one. If you want to bake and be Saved by Cake, buy this book and start exploring.

And incidentally, her simply wonderful voice shines through and has made me into the latest Marian Keyes fiction fan. Now I’m off to snuggle down with a Blondie cupcake and a novel.


Brownie Bites

Hello! Did you miss me? I know I missed  blogging, writing, tweeting and facebook-ing over the past couple of weeks. One of those times where life just completely takes over. Underneath the chaos caused by decorating, cleaning, and de-cluttering I could sense the laptop sitting there all alone and unloved, calling me. But I’m back (hugging laptop then realising that actually that’s quite weird).

One of the side effects of having some time away from writing is I’m all fired up again now, champing at the bit to get going again, which feels great. Even better is the feeling that I want to get back to my novel – at this stage in previous novels I’ve given up by now and moved on. It’s really satisfying, knowing that this time I want to see this through, and that I really think I can. I also have ideas firing off for both short stories and the next novel, and I’m getting a second lease of life for my picture books so I’m raring to go! My blog challenge is also still standing (see here if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and another post, on The Passion of Football, will be coming soon. Finally, in the whirlwind guide to my writing so-called life, I’ve recently been introduced to 6 Minute Story by @rebeccaemin. Basically, you sign up (using your Twitter name if you like, so if you check it out look out for me – rebeccaebrown) and on being given a prompt you start writing, with a timer counting you down for six minutes. Yes, it’s that complicated. Very challenging though, and I recommend anyone give it a go! My very first attempt is here – be kind!

Anyhoo, the reason I called this blog post “Brownie Bites” is because I have discovered a new passion. Economy Gastronomy (click here for the Amazon

listing) is a fabulous cookery book giving easy to cook meals that look fabulous but are really economical to do. Hence the title. And my favourite recipe, which I’ve made about 4 times in the last week or so, is Chocolate Brownie Biscuits. Except I prefer to call them Brownie Bites because, well, it just suits them better. Anyway, try ’em and see. You won’t regret it.

And why have I, of all people, taken up cooking? When the phrase ‘Can’t cook, won’t cook’ pretty much summed me up? Well, I guess I’ve grown up a bit. I used to resent cooking. I didn’t have any particular talent or enjoyment from it, and no interest really in learning. Recently though, having two children has matured me in more ways than one. I’ve felt responsible for providing a good home for my family, and that includes food. I let my son down a lot when he was weaning by almost completely relying on jars and pre-prepared baby foods. Now he is an incredibly fussy eater with virtually no inclination to try anything new, and regularly going off the things he did like. I know toddlers go through these phases, and I can’t be sure 100% that it’s because of how I approached his first foods, but I know I didn’t give diet and nutrition the importance it should have had. Now I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that cooking is just one of the things I need to do so I’d better get on with it, I’ve invested in a few kitchen tools and got some help off my mum and this book to do some decent food.

And you know what? I’m loving it. I’m enjoying cooking, I’m enjoying providing good meals and seeing my husband’s face when he tastes what I make him. I’m loving baking biscuits instead of buying them. I’m usually a fad person – I’ve had loads of interests that have burned fiercely then died away to nothing, so there’s a chance this will too. Except that it’s too important to let drop completely. Emily started eating solids today, and before I know it she will be eating proper food, and I owe it to her and to myself to do the best I can to provide her with decent stuff.

So, I’m off for a cup of tea, and a fresh-baked Brownie Bite. Any takers?