The Austerity Pantry Revisited

About a year and a half ago, I posted on an an experimental approach to food in Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry.

I had challenged myself to pare the contents of our pantry down to 35 items including herbs, spices and beverages. It still seemed extravagant in the face of this family’s meagre week’s worth of groceries.  Having switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons with comparative ease and a minimum of fuss 20 months earlier, I was keen to see what other possibilities opened up:

  • To eat a nutritionally sufficient, wholesome diet at a much lower cost
  • To eat a delicious diet without recourse to rare and exotic ingredients
  • To align our diet to global norms rather than those determined by our gluttonous society
  • To prove it possible to eat well on £15 per head per week
  • To save money by buying ingredients in bulk that would definitely be used
  • To cultivate an enjoyment of a simpler palette of tastes
  • To remove fatty and processed foods from the menu altogether
  • To flirt with the tantalising possibility of going fridge-free
  • To minimise trips to the supermarket

Well …

I have to admit a number of additional ingredients and indulgences have crept back onto the shopping list in the intervening months due to bad habits and convenience,  but not due to necessity. I also discovered a couple of new delicious dishes that didn’t fit the restricted pantry. Nevertheless, there seemed to be something attainable here that just slipped away.

Three particular areas were especially challenging:

Bread – I wanted to commit to only consuming bread that I had baked myself. The plan was to get a sourdough going that would not require yeast to be replenished as one of the 35 items. In reality, sadly my life is too hectic for sourdough and bread products on supermarket shelves proved irresistible.

Spices – These are relatively cheap and add instant variety, and 25g of most things lasts a good while, so the spice rack was never really reduced.

Staples – Under the heading of  “rice”, I managed to sneak in four different varieties (that’s cheating), and I  started exploring quinoa. I have since decided that quinoa is a “no-no” because it has become stupidly expensive and the poor Bolivians who grow it can’t even afford it.

However …

 

Bean Slop and Polenta

Bean Slop and Baked Polenta

I was recently summoned to view the multicoloured spreadsheet of household finances that my wife painstakingly keeps in order. It was there in black and white (or rather pink, green and blue) that I have failed on numerous promises to bring the wayward grocery bill under control. A few hours later, my reflection in a shop window provided an unwelcome reminder that the mirror on our landing is unreliable and distorts my wayward girth in a flattering way, too.

It is time to recommit to “The Austerity Pantry”.

This time, I am anchoring it to a rolling menu of eight or nine basic evening meals with porridge for breakfast and  soup or jacket potatoes for lunch. For the curious, this is how it looks at the moment:

  1. Lentil hotpot
  2. Pasta and sauce (generally prepared with leftovers)
  3. Chilli beans with rice
  4. Savoury rice (pilau)
  5. Chick pea curry (type and strength varies)
  6. Roast vegetables with polenta or couscous
  7. Bean slop (this is somewhere between a soup and a casserole and goes well with leftover polenta)
  8. Lentil dal
  9. Risotto (with mushrooms or whatever vegetables are to hand)

In theory, this regime can be sustained on a monthly bulk-buy of pulses, staples and spices, supplemented with a weekly selection of local organic veg … and a fridge is not really needed …

WIN!

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Beating the Blues with Oats

Rolled oats

Happy Fuel

I tend to get the blues every October. It sneaks up on me. I’m half way through the month and wondering why my energy levels are shot and I’m going round in circles feeling quite miserable and unmotivated. Then I remember: it’s just October. Usually I’ve pulled things around come November. However, this year I had an exciting and productive month. The secret, I believe, is oats. So here I’m republishing something I originally put up on Triond a long time ago.

Small Changes for Health

People who are successful at making lasting improvements to their health are those who have good habits father than a tendency to go “all out” for one thing or another without being able to sustain it in the long run. It is the simple things you do every day (like brushing your teeth) that have a cumulative beneficial effect on your ability to fight infection, maintain a safe body weight, and stay well. It is said to take 21 days to form a habit and just 4 to break it so you need to be determined. However, most of us try to bite off more than we can chew and change too much in one go – setting ourselves up for a fall .There are simple things that you can introduce gradually into your daily routine to reap lifelong benefits. Pick just one to do every day and when you have got that down, add another one into your daily practice.

Start the Day with Oats

Oats are a natural antidepressant. When I was growing up, many of my wider family were polo players. A couple of days before a polo match, the ponies’ feed would be switched from barley to oats. Those stable boys knew how to make a horse lively! It worked, the horses would be as high as kites. We can enjoy the beneficial effect of oats every day. Oats work in three ways to improve your mood:

  1. Regulating bowel function by providing a source of fibre. Most of us don’t realise how miserable our bowels make us when they are not working properly but they have been consistently linked with mood. Even if things feel alright down there, your body can still be under unnecessary stress when digestive processes are sluggish.
  2. Boosting up the production of serotonin – one of the “happy” neurotransmitters. Many antidepressants work by acting on the serotonin system. Oats are a natural answer. Vitamin b6 found in oats is an essential raw material for the production of Tryptophan, an amino acid that is an essential stage in the manufacture of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depressive symptoms, interrupted sleep and craving for carbohydrates and can be a particular problem when you are not getting enough sunlight.
  3. Balancing blood sugar and energy levels. While oats are being digested they release energy to the body on a slow and sustained curve for several hours and so provide a more useful supply of energy through the day. This is preferable to a “sugar high” that causes stress to the body’s systems and results in those cravings for more carbohydrate. In my own experience, if I have a decent bowl of oats at about 9am I can easily last until 2pm before feeling that I really must have something to eat again.

It doesn’t matter how you get your oats, raw by the spoonful, as porridge or even by switching to oatmeal based bread and other cereal products. Of course, big organic rolled oats with bits of hull stuck to them would be my ideal choice. For me, the best practice is to start the day with a bowl of oats and to redouble the benefit you can receive from this, take a tip from ancient tradition: Ideally oats should be soaked overnight in water (or a non-dairy milk). This makes them more digestible as enzymes will have begun to get to work by the morning and a tiny bit of fermentation enhances the nutrient content.

Try a daily dose of oats for a week and see if you notice the difference in your mood.

Foraging Friday: Comfrey

Comfrey is the name of one of the very loveable main characters in William Horwood‘s “Duncton Chronicles” series of fantasy novels about moles. From an early age, these books in many ways shaped my love for the English countryside and the things that grow in it as well as the powers that lie under it.

Symphytum x uplandicum

Image via Wikipedia

Comfrey is a very special plant. It would seem that there is nothing which tradition has not held at some point that it cannot heal. Both the roots and the leaves have been used for centuries for their reputed medicinal properties.

However, if you are not an apothercary, this humble plant at least deserves a place in your next sandwich. The leaves have a distinctive flavour and make a versatile vegetable, raw or cooked. The flowers are sweet and delicious, too. For me, this plant tastes of riverbanks in the summer (which is where it is generally found) and I would often wander off to find some when out picnicking because it works so well just by itself, between two slices of bread. Yes, the uncooked leaves are hairy but this makes for an interestng texture and shouldn’t put the forager off.

Delicious fritters can be made by dipping the fresh leaves (stalks and all) in a light batter and quickly frying on both sides. I think it makes a great substitute for “seaweed” in some recipes that require seaweed as it has seaweedy slipperiness about it when cooked.

It is worth noting that Comfrey has been one of the plants at the centre of a long running debate among herbalists about the potential harmful effects of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and it should probably be avoided for caution’s sake by anyone with a liver disorder. I would encourage people to read up on it if they are concerned and to make an informed decision about eating a lot of it. To err on the side of caution, I limit to occasional use and go for younger leaves which contain lesser concentrations of. In any case, it has been eaten by humans for many more years than Big Macs have.

So, it’s hairy, it goes slimy when you cook it and it may contain some pyrrolizidine alkaloids – why touch it? Because it’s yum. At least try it once.

Comfrey – The Facts. Nice informative overview of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids debate from Garden Web.

Personal Experiment: Going Soap Free (it’s the new “clean”)

Soap

Soap? N.I.M.B. (Not In My Bathroom).

I’m trying this as an experiment. I am on day 5 of using no soap or shampoo, just water, to wash and shave with. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows how fond I am of natural plant based and home-made soaps.

Why give up soap?

From the top of my head, I think people might want to give up soap for two reasons, which they might place in a different order of importance. For me it is primarily the first reason and the second reason is like the icing on the cake.

Firstly, people give up soap because it might not be necessary and, therefore it is one less thing to consume. It is like another area of my life that I can take back from the powers of consumerism that want to convince me that “you have to buy this” otherwise you are going to stink and have no friends. It never occurred to me that soap might not be absolutely necessary, although I discarded shaving foam and shampoo a couple of years ago when I figured out that they are basically soap that is given a fancy name so you think you need to buy it to do a job that soap does very well. But does it really …

The second reason is that it is probably much better for your skin. The bare naked truth is that soap dries out your skin. We all know this. This gives the cosmetics companies the chance to sell us moisturisers to undo the damage that their soap did. Some soap bars and products now have moisturiser added in to counteract the effect. But what if our skin is never getting the chance to establish its own balance and all the time we are rushing to buy another product to try and replace the natural functions and qualities of our skin that took millions of years to evolve. Cosmetic products create a need for themselves when they interfere with the body’s normal way of providing for itself.

But don’t you stink and have no friends?

No … and nor do the numerous other people who have also gone soap free, including:

Paleoblogger, Richard Nikoley of Free theAnimal, all-round-lifehacker, Sean Bonner from BoingBoing, and the two vegan tweeple who woke me up to this in the first place, Ronda Vanderzanden (@funerealwaif303030) and Kristiina Stromness (@MsKristiina282828).

How do you get clean?

With water, the most glorious element on the planet, also known by chemists as “The Universal Solvent”. I get clean using water and scrubbing.

Scrubbing brush and flannel have made a triumphant return to me cleansing arsenal. Finally the annual flannel, that appears half way down the Christmas stocking, is getting a regular outing.

One of the ways soap functions is by leaving a dirt repellent layer on the skin that supposedly means you stay cleaner for longer. This may mean that being soap free requires that washing/bathing is more frequent.  I can easily get away with missing a wash for a day or two when I have a layer of soap on my skin and I can use various other products to smell sweet – but being soap free does give an excuse to indulge in getting wet more often (that being once a day).

Basically, to get clean, I have found I have developed almost a ritual that makes sure all of me is scrubbed in a certain order starting with a clean flannel on the face, and ending with the … ahem … areas.

Actually I was shocked, when I took my first “soap-free” bath, how much gunk was left in the water. It was as if I had had a proper wash for the first time although this may have been more to do with the very thorough scrubbing that the lack of soap.

What about hair?

Yep, hair can do fine without keratin enhancing super shining shampoos with “advanced molecular science” (oh, may we be delivered from shampoos with “science” in them). I guess I can’t speak for people with long hair but I have it on good authority that it is a bit odd to start with until everything settles down.

Received wisdom from those who have gone before also advises that it may take a couple of weeks for the body to balance out generally. So a little perseverance is required.

Complimentary practices for soap-free hygiene.

I think that going soap-free is not just a case of giving up soap. There is a more conscious approach to hygiene that can be explored here as to give up soap is to give up one of the crutches that has helped us to “feel” clean for years.

Firstly, diet plays a massive part in what is secreted on the surface of our skin and how we smell. I am not a physiologist but anyone can wake up to how true this is with the help of their own nose. We all know garlic comes out in the sweat but since giving up dairy products I have become sensitised to the fact that everyone else smells of cheese – literally – because of the dairy they consume. However, raw vegans (people who only eat uncooked plant matter) consistently report that they can discard with deodorants because their sweat is virtually odourless. I am monitoring this at the moment, subsisting on a plant diet as I do, I have almost entirely discarded deodorant products although I do occasionally use an essential oil.

Drinking lots of water also becomes much more important, the idea being that a well hydrated body will be better at eliminating toxins and sweat will be less concentrated.

Secondly … re-think clothing. Feet are not smelly, it’s socks and shoes that are the problem. Some of the clothing we wear, shoes being the best example, provide a close moist environment for bacteria to grow so it is little wonder that feet smell. Going barefoot as much as possible will actually lead to hygienically cleaner feet. Wearing looser clothing made from natural, breathable fabric also makes hygienic sense.

Other plus points to giving up soap

Apart from sticking up two fingers to The Man and making a bid for healthier skin and hair, there are a few other advantages to giving up soap:

  • No more “soap scum” on the side of the bath or shower
  • Saves a few quid a year
  • Contributes to a reduced demand for wierd toxic chemicals and the industrial processes that make them
  • Burn more calories washing/scrubbing
  • Declutter your bathroom from a whole lot of junk

Milk Monday: Why Aren’t You Vegan?

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I get asked why I am vegan. This was more common when I first transitioned into abstaining from animal products. Nowadays I am more likely to get what seems like polite and accommodating indifference. I sit at tables longing for someone to pop the question and give me permission to discuss something that is very close to my heart. I don’t know why the opportunity is so rare, I get the impression that veganism is still considered to be a bit extreme and I also live in fear of putting people off by claiming a moral high ground – which it is hard not to do.

If I’m feeling belligerent I want to throw back the question, “why aren’t you vegan?” It seems odd to me that I should justify choosing not to consume certain things rather than asking others to justify why they do consume certain things.

On the rare occasions when I do get asked, I feel as if I have just a sentence or two to summarise a multi-faceted and very profound lifestyle choice and hook people into the fascinating conversation that may follow. The door is open for a moment to talk about non-violence as a way of life, about the glory and riches of a vegetable-based diet, to uncover the moral contradictions that appear on our plates and, hopefully, help that person to come a step closer to deciding to change one thing that will change a thousand other things for the better.

However, since that door opens very rarely I have to store all my openers somewhere, so please forgive me, dear reader, if I dump a few of them here. In all this I need to remember that I was once a fully signed up carnivore and a practitioner of polite indifference myself:

Actually, I’m not “a vegan” and I don’t consider that I belong to a certain category. I am simply someone who chooses as a matter of preference on a moment by moment basis not to participate in all that consuming animal products entails – for all sorts of reasons that I’d be happy to discuss.

Because I am an incurable epicurean hedonist and I have to confess that living animals give me a lot more joy than dead ones, and no amount of mint sauce is going to change that.

Because I am morally opposed to violence and the exploitation of all sentient creatures for the transparently frivolous ends of my own personal gratification.

Because I ran out of reasons not to be.

Because my body can get all it needs from delicious fruit and vegetables and no-one gets hurt.

Because I was vegetarian for a few weeks before I discovered that it was a meaningless gesture.

I don’t like violence in my food-chain or anywhere.

Because being vegan is probably the biggest single thing I can do to reduce my carbon footprint.

Because I can’t morally justify our use of animals.

Because if everyone isn’t vegan in ten years time then the world food crisis will be much worse and society will be sicker than ever.

Because meat is dead flesh, milk is for baby cows, eggs are a chicken’s menstruation and leather is somebody else’s skin.

Because I think consuming animals and animal secretions is wrong.

Because I wouldn’t eat or milk my dog or wear her skin, why should I do that to any other creature that has an equal interest in living and thriving.

Because I live in anticipation of a day when God says “nothing will hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9)

Because I think scripture teaches that the shedding of all blood is an extremely serious matter.

Because I think it is self evident that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak whoever they are.

Because being vegan helps me to integrate my beliefs with my actions in a concrete way.

I think most people would be vegan if they really thought through what our use of animals involves.

Because it is about a lot more than what we eat or wear. Veganism implies an integral commitment to non-violence and fighting all forms of oppression.

Because the only argument I can find in favour of continuing to consume animal products is that they taste nice and as an anthropologist I am convinced that taste is cultural and not chemical.

For people, for animals, for the planet and for my own health.

Because it is fun.

I guess that’s my starter for ten. Being vegan is very easy and simple, talking about it is difficult and complex. What would be your answer in a nutshell as to why you are or are not vegan?

Here are a couple of good websites about veganism that have some great resources:

Vegan Means

Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach

Foraging Friday: My Foraging Library

While most of the UK is under several inches of snow, there’s not much opportunity for foraging but people might be thinking of their Christmas wish lists so here’s a quick guide to the books on my foraging shelf.

Food For FreeRichard Mabey

Probably the most essential and popular book on wild food in the UK. Originally published in 1972, it has certainly stood the test of time. I have a very early hardback edition, from 1973 with a few colour plates and comprehensive line drawings. The more recently available editions of this classic are illustrated with full colour pictures that are more than adequate for identifying foods, although I would still recommend supplementary books if edible fungi is what you are after.

Mabey covers absolutely everything that you might want to forage, cut, dig, wade or climb for, including: shellfish, nuts, fungi, roots, herbs and vegetables, seaweed, spices, flowers and fruits. There’s a handy appendix on poisonous plants, too. He includes insightful comments on the history of the wild foods he describes and their uses as well as plenty of anecdotal material that will enrich any foraging expedition. All the usual suspects are there, from Samphire to Ceps, but this is a great book for the more adventurous who might like to try for Monk’s Rhubarb or White Mustard.

The book is a handy rucksack pocket size. The only things missing from this are more details on cooking and preparing and maybe some photographic plates – but you can’t have everything.

Wild Food For Free – Jonathan Hilton

This is a treasure and bang up to date, published in 2007, and packed with full colour photographs that show the foods in their typical settings. A double page layout is given to each food and the sections are helpfully divided by typical location, i.e. Woodland Plants, Riverside Plants, Garden Visitors and so on. The 250 pages cover plants primarily, although there is a well illustrated Woodland Fungi section.

The layout is very easy on the eye and each entry covers what, where and when to look for the foods as well as comments on taste and use and any cautions to be taken. A handy little blue box for each entry contains a “foragers checklist” of the most essential features to look for. The prize, though, is a recipes section to get the mouth watering with visions of “Watercress Soup” and “Parasol Platters”.

The New Guide to Mushrooms – Peter Jordan

Peter Jordan is the foremost mushroom guru of the British Isles and I would consider any one of his excellent guides (there are several) to be absolutley essential. This volume got me started in mushroom foraging. It contains over 300 colour photographs to aid identification and the book is divided into edibles and poisonous sections, with a thorough introduction to fungi foraging, picking, storing and equipment in general.

About 35 edible species are covered, with at least two pages for each entry, that will provide an excellent starting point in the repertoire of a forager. There are a couple of odd items that you are unlikely to find in the UK, like the truffles and matsutake, but this book is not exclusively for the British Isles. It is also too big to lug around in the field, but perfect to keep at home for consultation.

This book is full of sound advice that comes from a lifetime of safely foraging for and eating fungi. Peter Jordan’s sound motto was “if in doubt leave it out”. The species covered in The New Guide to Mushrooms are generally among those that would be easiest to identify for a beginner and he always includes some caution about specific poisonous look alikes to avoid.

An Illustrated Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Britain and Northern Europe – Geoffrey Kibby.

With a mouthful of a title, this book suggests that it is more of the kind of scholarly guide that I would recommend every forager keeps at home to check identification. It is still not completely exhaustive but this is more of a mycological work.

The species are divided by family and genus and details are included in each description such as the microscopic properties of the spores alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are not sufficient to get a positive identification but a book like this is vital to gaining a broader understanding of fungi and identifying less well known, yet often very abundant, species – edible or not. It is not written with the forager in mind but does indicate ediblity.

Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe – Roger Phillips

I don’t own this and it is hard to come by but I did have a friend who had one and it is worth its weight in gold. If you see one second-hand, snap it up!

Links:

Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms – my handy guide for beginners, please check this advice.

Other “Foraging Friday” Posts.

Foraging Friday: The Field Blewit

I have been delighted to find some of these in the field edges and verges this season as I have not seen them for several years. However, a word of caution: these mushrooms must always be cooked, never eaten raw, and some people do have an allergic reaction to it so try a small quantity if it is your first time. Nevertheless it is a popular mushroom and relatively easy to find and identify.

Field Blewit

Field Blewit by Girl Interrupted Eating on Flickr

You need to get out early to pick the Blue Leg or Field Blewit (Lepista saeva) because it is equally popular with grubs of various kinds. You are likely to encounter it growing alongside footpaths, on the edge of woodland, fields or roadsides as well as on waste ground – basically anywhere a bit “marginal” and a bit grassy. They will tend to appear repeatedly in the same place so you can go back for more if they suit you.

They are distinctive, large mushrooms, with a lilac, streaked tinge to the stem, which itself can be fairly bulbous, and a grey to brown pale cap. The gills are fairly dense and white. I need to stress again that these details alone are not enough to get a positive identification and it is imperative that a good field guide and preferably two guides are consulted if you have not picked these before. See my article on Picking and Identifying Edible Fungi for some more general guidance of staying safe. Blue Leg can be muddled with the poisonous Livid Agaric (Entoloma sinuatum) which has a much paler cap and a reddish/brown spore print and which will cause sickness.

Don’t be put off trying for this mushroom if you are prepared to take the right precautions, though, as the taste is exceptionally good and well loved by foragers. There is a good chance you will be able to find a local person who can show you these as they are so popular. You will notice a slightly perfumed and somewhat un-mushroomy aroma when you cut the fruit bodies and a nice nutty taste when cooked. Cleaning well, chopping and frying in butter with some onions is a good way to bring out the best of the flavour.

I’m indebted to Girl Interrupted Eating for the photograph, check out her Girl Interrupted Eating blog for some great Blewit recipes and other fabulous wild food resources.

You could also try cooking them The Traditional Nottinghamshire Way.