I got Thyme on my Side

I would apologise to my many readers for the lack of posts lately, but I don’t really have any. Regardless, it’s been a while. Despite working in the exciting food industry, I can’t write about what I’m working on so he’s some thoughts on herbs.

Thanks to the weather lately, my amazing new garden is currently blossoming. I have flowers I’ve never heard of growing out of my ears and am having to learn a lot about dead-heading, pruning and compost. People my age are normally worried about other sorts of botanicals.

However, I’m exceptionally happy to have an abundance of every herb under the sun. So I thought I’d write a little about what I do when I have excess herbs. They’re at their best at the moment, soft and supple and full of flavour / aroma so don’t let them go to waste if you’re struggling to find ways to use them.

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In helping you decide what to do with all your herbs it may be worth remembering their flavoursome chemical compounds. You don’t need to know that basil contains a compound called Estragole or that there’s Deconoic Acid in coriander but it’s worth noting that they are normally either fat soluble or water soluble. Water soluble flavours found in fresh, leafy herbs are easily brought out in water, in drinks or sprinkled on top of dishes. Fat soluble flavours which come from woodier herbs need some sort of fatty base or solvent (alcohol) to infuse into i.e. rosemary in a casserole, they need much more time to release their flavour and can be quite bitter if eaten raw, unlike leafier herbs.

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Fat-soluble / woody herbs – thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, bay.

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Water-soluble / leafy herbs – mint, basil, dill, chives, coriander, parsley.

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Herby Ice Cubes – Probably the simplest thing you can do. Put some leafy herbs like mint (fruit works too) into an ice cube tray and pour water over the top before freezing. To make these extra cool, boil some water and leave to cool before using this for the ice cubes. This makes them super clear.

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Thyme Gin – I find thyme works well with gin but you could easily apply this method to make rosemary vodka or some other crazy concoction, go wild. Take a bottle of simple gin without a strong flavour and place in a saucepan. Heat until boiling then take off the heat. Fill the empty bottle about 1/4 full with some washed thyme and slowly and carefully pour the gin back into the bottle. Keep for a week and strain through a sieve before putting back in the bottle.

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Pesto – A classic and if you have a decent mini-blender, then one of the simplest things you can make with herbs. Basil, pesto, coriander all work well but so do roasted tomatoes and rocket. Two big handfuls of herbs, 1 small garlic cloves, a handful of grated parmesan, zest and juice of half a lemon, plenty of salt and pepper and a couple of tbsp of toasted  nuts (pine nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds all work well). Wizz this up into a paste using olive oil to bring it together. Store in sterlised jars or used straight away on pasta etc but also as a flavouring in mash, sauces and salad dressings.

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Rosemary Butter – Another thing you can do very easily in a blender or a pestle and mortar. Smash or wizz up some herbs, add some garlic and citrus zest and pepper if you like, add some softened, salted butter and combined well. Place this on some cling film and roll it up into a sausage. Keep in the fridge or even the freezer. Slice off a piece whenever needed to top a steak, jacket potato, steamed veg or use it for garlic bread.

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Mint Sauce –  Do it right and this could keep until the next lot of spring lamb comes along. In a small saucepan heat 4 parts white wine or cider vinegar to 1 part sugar. This needed be a lot. For a small jar you’ll need about 200ml of vinegar and about 4 handfuls of mint leaves. Bring the vinegar and sugar to the boil and simmer until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture begins to become a sticky syrup. Take off the heat and leaf to cool slightly. Chop the mint finely by hand or use a blender. Mix with the syrup and put into sterilised jars. This sugar syrup method helps suspend the meat leaves in the vinegar, rather than producing a separated mess.

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Bay Leaf Pancotta – An unusual one I’ll admit but using herbs in your desserts can bring a great depth of aroma. Simmer 1/2 pint of milk and 1/2 pint of double cream with 5 bay leaves and some a sprinkle of lemon zest for 30 minutes. Leave to infuse overnight. Reheat with 100g sugar and either a sachet of gelatine or 4 softened gelatine leaves. Make sure the sugar and gelatine have dissolves and place into individual jelly moulds or in a retangular plastic tub for slicing once set. This will take a few hours to happen to best done the night before needed. Serve with some fruit but nothing too strong or sour. This principal could be applied to a simple lemon tart also. Take any recipe and follow it as you normally would. However, whatever quantity of lemon juice it states, infuse this overnight with a handful of basil leaves. Basil has an aniseed perfume about it which matches the lemon very well.

If you read this, I hope it has inspired you not to waste your herbs, to try and preserve them or at least try something different with them. They should be a main feature in your cooking this summer when many of us have more thyme on our side.

 

 

 

Free-from Chocolate Cake

While my mum has been gluten-free for a while and a couple of years ago added dairy to the list of things she can no longer tolerate, my sister has recently announced she is vegan. As the baker of the family and someone trying to get in practice for when she makes her own wedding cake, the task of whipping up free-from birthday treats always falls to me.

Most recently I found a recipe online for a vegan chocolate cake and tweaked it to be gluten-free. It turned out to be fantastic with a dairy-free choccie buttercream so I’m putting my version on here to share with people 🙂

Obviously this could simply be made gluten-free by using the eggs, it can be simply dairy-free by using the eggs and normal flour instead of gluten-free and if it needs to be all-out free from anything delicious then follow as below.

  • 280g gluten-free flour (or normal)
  • 340g sugar
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 120ml sunflower or vegetable oil
  • 1 ripe, mashed banana (or two eggs)
  • 250ml water
  • 1 1/2 tsp cider or white wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 150ml soya milk
  • 150g dark chocolate (dairy free)
  • 250g dairy-free margarine
  • 50g icing sugar
  1. Mix the flour, cocoa, sugar, bicarb in a large bowl.
  2. Mix the banana or eggs, water, vanilla, vinegar and oil in a jug.
  3. Combine the two and mix well.
  4. Divide between two round sandwich tins and bake at 180C for 30 mins until slightly springy to touch.
  5. While cooking, make the buttercream. Heat the soya milk and chocolate in a small saucepan on a low heat. Stir occasionally to help the chocolate melt. Once it has melted, mix to combine well. Leave to cool.
  6. Beat the margarine and icing sugar until fluffy and slowly pour in the milk and chocolate mix. Mix well and set aside. Don’t chill it or will go too hard.
  7. Once the cakes are cooked, turn out onto a cooling rack and leave to cool.
  8. Sandwich the two cakes together with some of the buttercream and use the rest to lavishly cover the rest of the cake.
  9. Or alternatively, carefully ice the cake evenly all round and use a pallet knife or scraper to get rid of the excess.Chill this until firm and cover with fondant icing.

 

The food fraud farce

An early example of mass food fraud comes from the First World War when the UK food supplies were rationed. Flour producers, bread makers and general grocery sellers were known to bulk out their products with cheap non-food grade ingredients in order either to sell them cheaper or to try and make more of a profit. Bread makers started adding chalk and other horrendous white powders to their bread in order to stay competitive as early as the Victorian era. In this day and age, one might be forgiven for thinking the age of THIS kind of food fraud is over but in January 2013, Tesco beef burgers were found to contain 29% horse meat.

Food fraud apparently costs the UK alone £11bn a year, that’s around £424 per household. Below is an infographic on food fraud describing what food fraud is exactly, some examples of it and the top products for fraudulent sales. All credit goes to New Food Magazine and their website from which I took it; it’s a brilliant summary of what’s going on in the food industry.

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While this pictures states that there are often difficulties in detecting food fraud, the horse meat scandal highlighted how it has become easier and easier to analyse food composition. Olive oil can easily be tested to determine whether it is truly “Extra Virgin” or not and analysing the DNA of meat and fish items can check for adulteration or false labeling (i.e Cod when it is actually Bassa or Pollock).

So why is it still going on? Some say it is because of the consumer demand for products that are just so easy to fake. While I’m sure this has an impact, my take on it is that there is just too much incentive for the fraudsters in the first place. Or rather, there is a lack of incentive NOT to. To support this, I’ll simply leave you with a few facts surrounding the horse meat scandal and the lack of action taken to ensure it won’t happen again.

  • It is still unknown how long consumers were unwittingly eating horse meat in replacement of beef.
  • During testing of suspected products, not only was horse meat found in beef products, pork was too. Given this is a religious issue for consumers, it is surprising there has been no investigation into how pig meat ended up in products and who is to blame.
  • The USPCA suspected around 14,000 horses were slaughtered per year in Ireland alone since the start of the recession in 2008. Where did they all go?
  • Up to 50,000 horses were reported unaccounted for across Europe, leading up to Horsegate in early 2013.
  • March 2015 saw the ONLY horsegate related prosecutions so far and what looks like will be the last. Peter Boddy and David Moss, the owner and manager of a slaughterhouse were fined a total of less than £30,000 while Moss received a 4 months prison sentence (which has been delayed by 2 years by the way).

Admittedly, horse meat in beef products has not been considered a real hazard to human health but in 2008 an adulterated milk product in China let to 6 deaths and 300,000 sick children. Had the horse meat scandal posed a real risk to human health or life, I wonder if recent investigations might have been a little speedier? Either way, the lack of prosecutions over what happened is hardly a deterrent for future fraudsters.

I’d run a mile for that!

The Royal Society for Public Health have recommended that food and drinks should be labelled not only with the calories, fat, sugar etc within the food, but also how much exercise it would take to burn off the calories consumed by eating it. The theory behind this proposition is that people underestimate how long it takes to burn off calories. For instance, it would take an hour of running at a steady pace to burn off the calories in the average sandwich meal deal from a supermarket. While I understand these suggestions are a measure to try and put food into context within every day lives, to help people make better choices, I believe there are some fundamental issues with the idea.

First and foremost, I feel this would promote the idea that we need to burn off all of the calories we consume each day through exercise. While this is not incorrect, it leaves out some crucial information. Every day our bodies require a certain amount of energy to keep going about their business: to get out of bed, to walk, to breathe, to pump blood around the body and to the heart. The amount of energy needed depends on the person; their build, their genetics and their daily physical activity (which includes exercise). It is known as the Basal Metabolic Rate, BMR, i.e. the rate at which the body uses energy to maintain everyday functions. This energy must come from somewhere. To maintain a steady weight, a person must consume the same level of energy (calories) as their individual BMR, in the form of food. If not from food, it can come from energy stores in the body i.e. fat stores. This is therefore the principal of trying to lose weight; consume less energy than your BMR and your body should start to use up its fat stores.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for everyone doing a little more exercise and combining this with a healthy eating lifestyle but I don’t feel that promoting the attitude of “Oh I can eat that because I’m going to the gym later” is the answer to this. Compared to a few years ago, the UK population is far more aware of other things they should watch out for in their food; fat and saturated fat, sugars and salt, not just the calories. Obviously calorific content is related to the levels of fat and sugar in a food but we shouldn’t be reverting back to the days of low-carb, low-fat calorie counting diets which left the nation piling the pounds back on after a couple of months. With the help of social media and the internet, dieting and healthy eating has moved on since then, let’s embrace that.

Back to BMR for a second as it helps explain my biggest frustration with this recent labelling advice. Should this go ahead, imagine a label that states you need to walk 48 minutes to burn off a muffin. You, as an average consumer cannot take that information as absolute. There are far too many caveats. As BMR changes depending on the person, the number of calories burned through different types of exercise changes too. As a rule of thumb the heavier you are, the more calories you will burn through exercise. Therefore I ask the Royal Society for Public Health who they propose to base the new labelling scheme on? Men or Women? Healthy, average individuals who are not representative of the demographic that would pay more attention to the label as they are looking to lose weight? Or would it be based on the growing number of obese people in the UK, the people the government would be trying to help which such a scheme? It would most likely be based on a female of ideal weight, consuming the recommended 2000 calories a day and performing the recommended 20 minutes of exercise a day. Either way, the scheme would be be useless for rest of the population.

I can’t claim to have the winning formula to help Brits make better food choices, but I do believe this idea to be completely futile. I also passionately believe that the best way forward is a culture of healthy eating combined with exercise, not one that promotes exercise as the solution to binging on the sugary snack items this scheme would quite obviously focus on. I know this would take time and that nothing happens over night but my recent research at work into dieting and healthy eating trends in the UK and the US shows a movement away from fad diets and towards the promotion of general lifestyle changes that could bring about long term solutions. So what would I say in the meantime? If the government really wanted quick results, why not follow in the foot steps of the tobacco industry? Label all of our food with harrowing images of the effects of poor eating habits; dental cavities from sugary foods, limb amputations as a result of diabetes and clogged arteries from high cholesterol. It may sound extreme but unless we change peoples attitudes to food, that is going to be our only option a couple of generations down the line.

Interested in calculating your BMR? Try this website. Bare in mind that this is a guide to show you how much energy your body needs without carrying out any exercise that day and may not be entirely accurate as it does not take into account your health status, i.e. health conditions or infections; your body has to work harder with these bothering it.

 

Rillettes: an Edible Gift

Every year I make most of my Christmas presents. With lots of grandparents, aunties, uncles and family-in-law-to-be, I find it much easier to make simple but edible gifts I know they will all love rather than hunting for something in the shops they probably won’t use. Not only is it cheaper, I think it means a lot more to my more elderly relatives.

Here is a list of recipes I’ve used in the past including fudge etc but this year I’m making my classic gingerbread along with Rillettes. Rillettes has the texture of a course pâté but without any offal such as liver. It is made by slow cooking pork and either rabbit or duck or similar. The meat is then shredded and potted ready to be spread on lovely bread and such. My recipe uses rabbit but it could also work well with duck, just use the same quantity of duck legs which you can often find on offer in supermarkets. This should make enough for  5 little 250g jars like these.

  • 300g rindless belly pork cut into big chunks. If you can’t find rindless, cut it off yourself and make pork scratchings as a chef’s treat!
  • 1 rabbit jointed into 4 legs and the mid-sections. Or use 4 duck legs
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground mace
  • zest of one orange
  • 200g extra pork fat (ask your butcher)
  1. Preheat the oven to 150C.
  2. Place the meat in a large roasting dish in a single layer across the tin. Add the bay leaves and crushed garlic cloves and season well with salt and pepper.
  3. Add 300ml of boiling water
  4. Cover the tray with foil and try to seal tightly. Place into the oven for 3 hours. About half way through you can take it and and give everything a bit of a shake around.
  5. After the 3 hours, leave everything to cool so you can handle it. Take the rabbit legs out and set aside.
  6. Take each piece of pork and mush with your hands into a big mixing bowl. Do this with all of the pork and the garlic (without the skin) and drain the liquid from the pan into the bowl through a sieve.
  7. Carefully remove the rabbit meat from the bones into a seperate bowl. I do this so I can look out for very small bones which easily get missed when the meat is so soft. As you take the meat off, pull it apart to make sure it is all of the same texture. Place this into the bowl with the pork.
  8. Add the orange zest, nutmeg and mace and mix well for a few minutes, you may find this easier with your hands. Taste for salt and pepper and add if needed.
  9. Once happy with what should be a lovely Christmassy flavour, heat the pork fat gently in a saucepan until melted. Sterilize your potting jars either in an oven or with boiling water, you can check out how to do this here.
  10. Place your mixture into your jars leaving half a centimeter at the top and smoothing it down. you don’t want any big air bubbles within the jar so use a knife or the end of a fork to push the meat down into all the nooks and crannies.
  11. Once happy, pour a little of the melted pork fat over the top of each layer to form a seal. Add the lids and leave to cool before placing in the fridge.

You can then make your jars look pretty with ribbon or nice labels. The rillettes will keep for about 2 weeks unopened and then for up to a week once opened, if it lasts that long.

So go on and make something for your family this Christmas, they will love you for it.

Seasonal Soups

As if Christmas dinner couldn’t get any bigger, most of us insist on a starter before the main event. Why not? It’s Christmas. Classic choices include Chicken Liver Parfait and Prawn Cocktail but my family often go for soup.

Soup is the easiest choice for a Christmas Day starter; it’s simple, it doesn’t involve any hob hovering, it can be cheap, it’s easy to make vegetarian and it can be made in advance, a day or two before, and heated up last minute. Ease and speed, however, are not the only reasons to choose it. Hot soups are a great way to line the stomach on one of the booziest days of the year, without being so filling that you don’t enjoy your Turkey and the flavour combinations are endless.

So in this post I have taken some classic British soups and given them a seasonal spin. Adding some festive flare to your starter will set the right tone for the rest of the meal!

All recipes are to serve 4.

  • Carrot & Coriander *with Orange & Cinnamon*
Sweat 1 large onion, finely chopped, in a little butter or oil in a large pan. Add 2 cloves of garlic. Place in 4 large, peeled carrots, chopped into small chunks along with 1 tbsp ground coriander and 1 tsp cinnamon. Add 2 vegetable or chicken stock cubes and 1l boiling water. Add the zest of 1 clementine or small orange, a splash of lemon juice and simmer everything until the carrots are tender. Add a big handful of roughly chopped coriander and 50ml cream. Blend until smooth with a hand blender or liquidiser. Taste for salt and pepper.
  • Cream of mushroom *with Sage & Chestnuts*

Chop 300g chestnut mushrooms in small chunks (think tinned mushroom soup size). Sweat these down in a large pan with a little butter or oil. Once cooked, place in a bowl. Sweat 1 large onion and 3 garlic gloves, chopped, in the same pan. Add back 2/3 of the mushrooms to the onions along with 6-7 fresh sage leaves, chopped. Sweat for a minute or two and add 8 cooked, chopped chestnuts (often sold by supermarkets). Add 2 vegetable stop cubes, 1l water and simmer for 5 minutes. Add 150ml of double cream and blend until smooth with a hand blender or liquidiser. Taste for salt and pepper.

  • Roasted Parsnip *with Apple & Mustard*

Preheat an oven to 190C. Peel 4 large parsnips and chop in rounds. Place on a baking tray with a drizzle of oil and some salt and pepper. Roast until golden brown and soft. While this is happening, sweat 1 large onion and 1 clove of garlic in a large pan. Peel, core and chop 2 medium cooking apples and add to the pan along with the parsnips. Add 2 stock cubes and 1l water. Simmer until the apples are tender and add 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard with 50ml cream or milk. Blend until smooth with a hand blender or liquidiser. Taste for salt and pepper.

My favourite is the mushroom with chestnuts and sage. We nearly always do it in my house; the sage adds an almost meatiness and is just so Christmassy it would be criminal not to use it.

So please, go ahead a try soups this Christmas 🙂

Still thefoodstudent!

Since graduating in July, some people (those few who actually read my blog) have asked if I’m going to change the name of it, given I’m now no longer studying Food Science at university. The short answer is no. The longer answer may seem a little cheesy as it goes along the lines of “we learn something new every day” but the fact of the matter is I will always be studying food.

I think I am lucky enough to have entered an industry and a career with that possibility; to be learning new things about my field every day. Part of this centers around our reliance on technology and how advancements in it make things possible that might not have been before. For example, the automation of packaging in the food industry, making human resources available for other activities.

Another aspect of food which is constantly evolving is nutrition. Research into medicine and nutrition is frequently challenging our knowledge of the impact of food on our bodies and, more recently, our minds. Sugar has played a key role in the media lately with studies on the long term effects of high sugar consumption, and not just diabetes. News of changing guidelines on the foods we should be eating can be particularly difficult for food manufacturers as it is up to them to respond proactively for the consumer. This requires them to remain on top of relevant nutritional publications and any resulting legislation, in addition to day to day functions.

On that note, legislation on what food manufacturers can use in their products or how they are allowed to make them or important is also amended regularly, demanding the industry to react quickly to change ingredients.

There are many other factors that make the food sector so fluid, most involve consumer demands and market trends but I think the thing I enjoy most about the industry is how secretive it can be. I feel like a top level MI5 spy working on project under the radar that every day consumers would take for granted or be completely unaware of. This knowledge of the foods people eat every day makes me feel rather important, like I’m protecting national secrets for the greater good.

With ever-increasing, ever health-conscious populations, the challenges of supply chains and changing nutritional guidelines, as well as emerging technologies in the food industry, I don’t think I will ever be bored in my field. Nor will I ever stop learning about the exciting world of food.

Therefore, I have taken the plunge and bought the domain name thefoodstudent.com. It’s all still the same, but it’s all mine and it feels rather special now.