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.

Postcards Home

This afternoon I got a postcard … from myself.

About seven weeks ago, I was embarking on the four days of heady alternative reality that was Greenbelt 2011. The good folk of the Feig community based at Gloucester Cathedral held a Communion service in the midst of a lavish feast for what looked like about 200 of the contributors on the Thursday night prior to the start of the festival.

It was special… for me, there was a strange circularity about being in Gloucester Cathedral for the second time in my life. The first time I was there was nearly 20 years ago as part of a primary school residential trip, many miles away from my home in the Thames Valley – probably the first time I had been away from my parentals for more than a couple of nights. I saw the shadow of my thirteen year-old self admiring the cloisters, innocently unaware that life would bring me back there two decades later as a very much more grown person who was wondering (as I often do) what happened to the little boy in me.

These were the things turning over in my mind as I broke bread with many others I had never met before, that night. As part of the service, we were encouraged to choose one from the hundreds of postcards scattered about the interior of the Cathedral where the hard pews had been stripped away to restore it to its original medieval awe-spaciousness. We then wrote on the cards and addressed them to ourselves and “posted” them. I was delighted to come across a fragment of a favourite artist: Breughel.

Wedding Feast (detail) from P. Breughel the Younger (1564-1638)

Of course, for me, it is a picture of heaven/home – a place that has very much been on my mind as since a recent post from This | Liminality stirred my thoughts again on the matter and meaning of “Home”. But here is what I wrote to myself:

Hey, Seymour, I just want to say two things. Firstly, take some time to really look at this picture and notice the detail. Those guys are using a door to carry food! And check out the dog! I think you’ll like this – you should be the guy with the spoon in his hat – he’s giving it away but he’s ready to enjoy some of it himself, too. Secondly, that openess and laughter you had inside you this morning … I just want to remind you that where that came from was real. Don’t lose that 🙂

Yes, my eye was drawn to the chap with a spoon in his hat. He reminded me of a couple of lines from Mevlana:

“The people here want to put me in charge. They want me to be judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts. The knowing I have doesn’t want that.  It wants to enjoy itself. I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time I’m eating the sweetness.” (Tr. Coleman Barks)

Scientists demonstrate that when a string of certain length is sounded in the vicinity of other strings of differing lengths, all those strings that are the same length or other specific mathematical variations in length will begin to vibrate in harmony. This is a picture that plays a very full chord for me as I look at it afresh today. The people who, in my experience, give the most life to others are those who really know how to enjoy its sweetness themselves.

From the nobleman on the right to the cardinal on the left, the dog under the table, the cook, the bride, everyone is welcome. Let’s tear the doors off, bake bread and stir lentils until we are truly home!

To anyone at Feig who reads this: “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

To myself: send yourself a postcard every once in a while …

To everyone else: Which of these revellers are you?

Did I Mention How Much I Love Ratatouille?

This is a staple in our house. It makes excellent use of the sort of vegetables we get in our organic bag from Farmaround. My mother used to serve this as a side dish but it makes a great vegan main course, too. I am so fond of it that it would definitely be one of the foods I would opt for on an hypothetical “desert island”.

Here’s my take on the traditional french vegetable stew. This recipe makes enough for four substantial portions.

Ratatouille - cut the vegetables up chunky.


Olive Oil – 1 tablespoon

Onions – three small or two large

Courgette – one medium

Bell Peppers – two, red or green or one of each

Aubergine – one medium to large

Tomatoes – 3-4 fresh medium sized

Garlic – one clove

Worcestershire Sauce – 1 Tablespoon (vegan alternatives are available, I switched to using mushroom ketchup here.)

Dried Herbs: Sage, Oregano, Basil – one teaspoon of each

Pepper – freshly ground to taste

Vegetable stock – one cup from a stock cube


Use a wide bottomed saucepan with a lid or preferably a cast iron pot or casserole.

1. Put the pan or pot on the hob on a moderate heat and add the olive oil to start heating it.

2. Begin to chop up the vegetables, adding them in the following order and stirring after each addition: Onions (cut in half and then vertically into half rings), Courgette (in semi circles), Peppers (in strips), Aubergine (in quartered or halved circles), Tomatoes (cut into segments), and finally the Garlic (finely chopped).

If there is any left over for another day, this is my favourite way to eat it - cold, on a chunk of toast.

3. Stir in the Worcestershire Sauce/mushroom ketchup and the dried herbs thoroughly and add ground pepper to taste – just a few twists of the grinder will do. The vegetables should have started to soften.

4. Make up one cup of vegetable stock from a single cube and pour it over the vegetables.

5. Place the lid on the pot or pan and reduce the heat to a very low gentle simmer for about half an hour. Stir once or twice during the cooking period.

6. Serve with baked potatoes or chunks of crusty bread and butter.

Ratatouille improves considerably by being left to stand overnight when it can then be re-heated or eaten cold, which is absolutely delicious.

If you like this, there are more of my recipes here.

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.

Foraging Friday: Chicken … of the Woods!

Pic of Chicken of the Woods
You might have to climb for these!

One of the most exciting things to find and eat at this time of year is Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly and aptly named “Chicken of the Woods”. Appearing from April and sticking around into November, this bracket fungus grows mainly on dead and dying Oaks in the UK. It is nice and easy to recognise but may be inaccessibly high for foragers without crampons. Look for the distinctive clusters of overlapping fans that are bright yellow, turning more orangey as the specimen matures. It takes a good while to establish itself before the fruit actually appears, but once you have located one of these, you will generally be able to revisit it for several years.


This is a great eater and it really does behave and taste a little like chicken when you cook it. It is important, though, if it is your first time, to try a small quantity as it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people – and it must ALWAYS be cooked. When gathering it, make sure you pick the younger yellow fans as older parts of the fruit are more bitter and tough.

A lot like chicken

When you get them home, clean them up and chop into slices. The mushroom will keep well in the freezer for later use. I generally blanch them before cooking them, to be sure that they are well cooked and to take any bitterness off. My favourite way to eat these is to make up a fairly heavy batter to dip them in and then fry up some “chicken nuggets” using oil that has been sitting for a week or so with some lemon rind in it to give it a citrussy edge. You can use it as you would use chicken in any recipe but make sure that it is always well cooked.


Please don’t use my Foraging Friday posts for identification purposes, get a couple of decent books to double check your identification. You are responsible for what you eat. Follow the guidance in my article on “Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms“. I won’t be held responsible for people falling out of trees, either (ahem).

"Chicken (of the woods) Nuggets"

Vegan Lemon Star Cake

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Vegan Sponge

It’s the weekend, let’s make a cake! This one is quick, cruelty free and delicious. I only call it a Lemon Star Cake because this time when I made it I arranged some lemon rind in a star on top. This is a straightforward vegan sponge that you can modify with your own fillings and icing as you will. I fill it with golden syrup while it is still warm, just to take it to the next level of gooeyness; but, hey, mess around – vegans are great improvisers, we have to be!


2 Cups of white self-raising flour
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
1 Cup of caster sugar

1 Cup of canola oil (I use canola, it’s a wonderful colour, but vegetable or sunflower oil is fine, too)
1/2 Cup of apple juice (I’ve used orange juice here, too, it comes out a little more citrussy)
1/2 Cup of water
1 Lemon (the juice thereof) or about 2 tablespoons of pure lemon juice
1 Tablespoon of grated lemon rind (from the aforementioned lemon)
1 Teaspoon of vanilla extract

You will need a seive and two mixing bowls, a whisk and a couple of cake tins greased with your animal-free grease of choice, or lined with greased greaseproof baking paper…

1. Grease up your tins and start to preheat the oven to 160c, which is 230f in old fashioned numbers.
2. Use the seive to seamlessly sift the flour, bicarb and caster sugar together into the larger bowl (if one is bigger than the other).
3. In the other bowl, mix all the other ingredients well together, including the lemon rind. If you want a “star” on top of your cake, spare a few strands of rind here.
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the liquids in, combining smoothly with a whisk until you have a nice smooth gloop.
5. Pour equal amounts of the gloop into each of your tins and transfer to the oven.
6. Leave them to bake for 24 minutes and then check them. You are looking for risen in the middle and turning golden. If they are not turning evenly you might want to swap the position of the tins or something. If you are unsure about the middle being cooked, slip a skewer in and see if it comes out with any gloop on it. If the tins are particularly deep, they may need a little longer. You may need to bake for another 3-5 minutes or they could be ready – use your judgement. Probably better to err on the side of well done (as long as it’s not burned) than soggy in the middle.
7. Hoy the tins out and leave to cool for a few minutes until the tins are not too hot to handle but the sponge is still warm.
8. Tap the sponges out to cool and get going on your filling/icing.

Suggested fillings: golden syrup, jam, humous (just kidding).
Suggested toppings: Seive a light dusting of icing sugar on top of the cake, or make up a glace icing with icing sugar, warm water and a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice (add the liquids to the sugar until you have a smooth paste that sticks to a spoon).

Any arty flourishes you want to finish with are up to you.

Right, no excuse for making cake from anything that comes from a chicken’s backside any more. Enjoy!