Monthly Archives: August 2008

Seasonal Recipes: Blackberry Slump

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I don’t usually make desserts, so this season’s blackberry glut has been a challenge for me. I’m not a fan of sugary-sweet “treats”, and blackberries require a fair bit of sugar to bring out their flavor. I’m also suspicious of most dessert recipes, which often taste too sweet for my liking. Is this an American thing? Has our reliance on corn syrup acted as a kind of “sugar heroine”, forcing us to use even more sugar in our recipes to obtain the intended effect? Case in point: I recently made a rhubarb pie from a recipe at allrecipes.com. The recipe came with 4.5 stars and loads of great reviews, but my friends and I in London all agreed with the result: it was so sugary that we couldn’t even taste the rhubarb. Such a shame! I definitely don’t want my blackberries to share the same fate.

That’s when I came across this recipe for Blackberry Slump, what BBC Food calls “an American version of a blackberry cobbler”. I’m not exactly sure what makes this an “American version”, because it isn’t made with the usual flour-based cobbler top. Instead, the pastry is made with polenta, a very coarse corn meal, and toasted hazelnuts, both of which give the cobbler a wonderful texture. Think cornbread soaked up with sweet delicious berry juice.

And what about those berries? Guess what – not too sweet! This recipe uses mainly peaches and their juice to sweeten the blackberries. The fruits compliment each other well without turning into one contiguous mass of fruit mush – both the peaches and the blackberries retained their unique delicious flavors. I cooked these as individual portions in my new little ramekins. They freeze well this way and can be easily reheated in the oven.

Lightroom-2.jpgThe only thing I change from the original recipe is the ratio of cobbler to fruit. The BBC Recipe results in a one-to-one cobbler to fruit ratio. I prefer more fruit, so am providing the recipe here with only half the cobbler topping. Of course, you could always double the fruit instead and have plenty of leftovers for later. =)

The ultimate way to eat this dessert is with vanilla ice cream. Mmm. Vegans in the audience, I’d be curious to know how a vegan cobbler top would work, replacing the butter with oil and the milk with soy milk. Any takers?




Blackberry Slump



The original recipe on BBC Food uses twice as much cobbler topping. I thought this was too much so halved the amount here. Feel free to adjust the proportions of both to suit your tastes!

INGREDIENTS

550g blackberries
411g can peach slices in fruit juice drained and 5 tbsp juice reserved
2 tbsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp lemon juice

FOR THE TOPPING

75g polenta
88g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
13g butter plus extra for greasing
1 tbsp caster sugar
25g hazelnuts skinned, toasted and chopped
100ml milk


  1. Heat oven to 375F/190C/fan 170C/gas 5. Lightly butter a 1.7 litre ovenproof shallow dish. Spread blackberries and drained peach slices in the bottom of the dish. Mix together the caster sugar and cinnamon, then sprinkle over the top and pour over the lemon juice and the reserved juice from the peaches. Bake, uncovered, for 10 mins until the juices begin to run. Remove the dish from the oven and set aside.


  2. To make the topping, sift the polenta, flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture is the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and toasted nuts and mix well, then stir in the milk to make a soft, sticky dough.


  3. Increase oven temperature to 430F/220C/fan 200C/gas 7. Drop spoonfuls of the dough over the top of the berries, then return to the oven for 15 mins until the topping is golden brown. Serve hot with cream, custard or ice cream.




Seasonal Food: Blackberries

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I always thought that the old cemetery across the road was just another neglected London landmark. That it may be, but amongst its overgrown shrubs and creepy crawly vines are blackberry bushes galore. Say what you will about foraging for food in a cemetery, but I feel pretty darn lucky. Their luscious fruits are just beginning to ripen and I suddenly find myself with more blackberries than I know what to do with.

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The skinny on blackberries




  • The blackberry season is from late July to early October

  • Blackberries get kind of gross after a day or two, so eat them straight away or freeze them

  • Blackberries are rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C and ellagic acid, and their seeds contain high levels of omega-3 and -6 fats, protein, and dietary fiber

  • Superstition in the UK holds that blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas (29 September) as the devil has claimed them, having left a mark on the leaves by urinating on them



I have a few months before season’s end, and I’m all about a.) hoarding blackberries in my freezer and b.) experimenting with as many blackberry recipes as possible while there are still fresh blackberries to be picked. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I like the idea of a blackberry vinaigrette for salads. Even so, I really want to try my hand at jam, and I can’t resist a good cobbler. Here are some other recipes I look forward to experimenting with:


Blackberry recipes





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Readers, I need your help! Do you have any blackberry recipes you can recommend? Send em’ over! I’m dying to try them!


Weight Loss for Nerds: Treat it like an RPG

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In this commentary in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson equates the Weight Watchers program to a role-playing game (RPG).


The Weight Watchers program is designed precisely like a role-playing dungeon crawler. That’s why people love it, stick to it and have success with it. And it points to the way that we could use game design to make life’s drudgery more bearable.



I’ve never used Weight Watchers but I know people who have lost weight with the program, both through diet and exercise. Most of these people have been women – I wonder if Weight Watchers could gain a whole new market by targeting overweight gamers? Of course, this isn’t a marketing blog, this is a fitness blog, and this article highlights a very important point:

The key to getting fit is to have fun while you’re doing it.

Believe it or not, people can get as hooked on fitness as they do to RPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft.


I’m in awe of the sheer brilliance of Weight Watchers in adopting the word points as its metric for measuring food. The word immediately shoves the user into the semantics — and fun — of gameplay. You regard losing weight as an intriguing challenge, as opposed to a mere grind.



As J.D. points out on Get Fit Slowly, the one hundred pushups challenge operates on this principle.


…make the gradually increasing pushups into a challenge in order to motivate participants. It works.



It’s true. I’ve been having loads of fun with the one hundred pushups program and look forward to “beating my max” at the end of a set (if I can). It’s amazing how these little “semantic” tricks work to keep me motivated through each set. None of this feels like “exercise” to me. Sure, it feels like hard work, but it’s definitely not a chore. And isn’t that the point?

Exercise shouldn’t feel like “work”. Life is short, and we already spend too much time working and doing chores as it is. Shouldn’t we spend our precious free time doing things that contribute to our happiness? Exercise can be one of those things, the trick is finding a way to make it fun that works for you. Some use Weight Watchers, others keep a journal, others run with friends.

How do you make exercise fun?

Fun Way to Lose Weight: Turn Dieting Into an RPG [via Get Fit Slowly]

Vegan Oat-Nut Pie Crust

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I’m not 100% vegan, though the more I learn, the more I think that it may be the life for me. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with vegan desserts. I want to make yummy animal-free desserts made of whole food that’s as good to eat as it is to think. No funny stuff like food coloring or margarine or additives (to me this defeats part of the purpose of going vegan). No, I want to understand all of the ingredients I put in my desserts.

My first attempt at a vegan pumpkin pie was a bit of a failure, and my most recent attempt at a lemon-blackberry tart received mixed reviews. Despite all this, one recipe has been loved by all: the oat-nut crust from the Whole Food Bible.

This crust is like an oatmeal cookie in crust form. It smells delicious and tastes good by itself (this is a good thing, especially if what you put in the crust doesn’t turn out as yummy as you had hoped!).

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Vegan Oat-Nut Pie Crust


Makes one 9-inch pie crust

1/2 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup whole walnuts or pecans
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of sea salt
3 Tbsp canola oil
3 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C.

  2. Bake the almonds and walnuts or pecans on separate baking sheets until they are fragrant and toasted: about 8 minutes for pecans or walnuts, 10 minutes for almonds. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Raise the oven temperature to 375 F / 190 C.

  3. Grind the oats in a blender or food processor until they become coarse meal. Empty into a large mixing bowl.

  4. Grind the almonds and walnuts or pecans into a coarse meal and add to the oats, along with the flour and salt.

  5. In a small bowl, whip together the oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. Add to the oat-nut mixture and mix well. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes in the refrigerator.

  6. With cold, wet hands, press the crust mixture into a well-oiled tart or pie pan. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.



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Homemade Chapatis

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Chapatis are an Indian flatbread, much like a flour tortilla, and are typically eaten with dal and curries. As these are two of my favorite foods, I’ve been pretty keen to learn how to make chapatis on my own. Plus, they’re a pretty good substitute for flour tortillas. Tacos here I come!

Homemade ChapatisSo far, my experiments with home-cooked chapatis have been average at best. I don’t have a gas stove OR a cast iron skillet – two kitchen tools that are pretty darn helpful in firing up a surface HOT enough to cook the chapatis on. Instead, I’ve been using an electric stove and a non-stick pan. The chapatis are certainly edible enough, but I can never get them to puff up to the pillow-like proportions that the recipes describe.

Today I learned a trick from Mark Bittman: use the grill! Mark Bittman has a recipe and video that demonstrates how to cook chapatis on an outdoor grill. For lack of an outdoor grill, I decided to try it for myself using the stove’s grill setting (equivalent to a broiler), and turning the heat up as high as it goes. It worked marvelously! It was so exciting watching them puff up in the oven. They looked just like Mark’s and tasted fab with my lentil dal.

Grilled Chapatis Recipe
Grilled Chapatis Viedo

Four Days Without Caffeine

Monmouth's Flat White

As I mentioned yesterday, I gave up caffeine last Saturday and have been entirely caffeine free for all of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (today!). Why? I’ve been feeling fatigued lately and my sleep’s been rubbish. I wake up lots during the night. It’s annoying. So when Tim put me up to the caffeine-free challenge on Saturday afternoon (after my third cup of tea), I couldn’t resist.

So far, the experiment has been interesting. I can’t say it’s been terribly hard the way quitting smoking is. But I was surprised that I was enough of a caffeine addict to experience withdrawal symptoms: headaches, tightness in the neck and head, and noticeable irritability (sorry, Tim).

Today was different though. Despite another restless night’s sleep, today I felt fairly energetic. My morning swim was one of the best (and longest) I’ve had in months. And this evening I did 54 push-ups which burned like hell but mentally, I was up for the challenge (rather than being too tired to care). I’ve had no headaches and just a little muscle tension in my neck (but that could have been the swim kicking in). I probably can’t speak for my irritability but I think I’ve been pretty ace!

One of the coolest things I noticed is that I didn’t suffer the usual 3-p.m. “ack I need a caffeine break” crash that I’d become accustomed too. Bonus!

So now I’m past the headaches. And the cravings. I’m hoping my sleep will catch up with the trend and start showing similar improvement.

Addendum: I also just noticed that I’ve been more productive these past few evenings. Maybe this is purely the spirit of “change” shining through, but I’ve had a lot more mental energy to get on with writing and other “useful” things post-dinner. For a while there I was getting sucked into DVDs and books and dessert. Yummy, yes. Productive, not so much.

What’s on your spice rack?

Panch Phoran

Men’s Fitness reckons there are 5 seasonings that “you should always have on hand to make nutritious and delicious meals”: onion powder, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, garlic powder and oregano.

I agree with the cinnamon, oregano and cayenne, but I’ll take fresh onion and garlic over the powder any day. This did get me thinking about my staple spices, which totally reflect my dependency on Mexican and Indian food. Here they are, in order of importance:


  • Cinnamon

  • Oregano

  • Red Chili Flakes

  • Cumin Seed

  • Mustard Seeds

  • Curry Leaves

  • Turmeric

  • Fennel Seeds

  • Cumin Powder

  • Bay Leaves



What about you? What’s on your spice rack?

Spice of life: 5 seasonings you should start using now [Men’s Fitness]

Caffeine’s Contradictions

Birthday CoffeeHere I was all set to blog about my current moratorium on caffeine when I noticed this article in the New York Time’s, Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions. The article highlights a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which reviews the general findings of scientific research on caffeine. Inspired by the general public’s misguided information, the report aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding caffeine.

For instance, many folks believe that caffeine can aid weight loss, but so far there isn’t any research to back this up…


Although caffeine speeds up metabolism, with 100 milligrams burning an extra 75 to 100 calories a day, no long-term benefit to weight control has been demonstrated. In fact, in a study of more than 58,000 health professionals followed for 12 years, both men and women who increased their caffeine consumption gained more weight than those who didn’t.



The news isn’t all bad though…


For the active, caffeine enhances endurance in aerobic activities and performance in anaerobic ones, perhaps because it blunts the perception of pain and aids the ability to burn fat for fuel instead of its carbohydrates.

Recent disease-related findings can only add to coffee’s popularity. A review of 13 studies found that people who drank caffeinated coffee, but not decaf, had a 30 percent lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Another review found that compared with noncoffee drinkers, people who drank four to six cups of coffee a day, with or without caffeine, had a 28 percent lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. This benefit probably comes from coffee’s antioxidants and chlorogenic acid.



So caffeine might have some benefits, but I’m still not convinced that it’s an addiction worth keeping. I’ve been caffeine free for THREE MISERABLE DAYS (ok it hasn’t been that bad) and while I’m not exactly trembling for coffee, I have definitely suffered headaches and a tightness in the head that I can only assume is withdrawal. Do I really want to be dependent on a substance that makes me feel like poop without it? I’m excited to find out how I feel once this weird withdrawal period wears off. Sound sleep here I come!

Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions

Seasonal Food: Your Guide to Deliciousness

Lightroom.jpgConsider this the first post of many to come that focusses on seasonal food.

Most of us are sick to death of hearing why we should eat food at its peak season. But how about a reminder? When we eat with the seasons, we reduce the energy it takes to grow and transport food, we avoid paying extra for food that is scarcer or has travelled a long way, we support local farmers, and most importantly…

we eat seasonal food because it tastes better!

Ok, fine, we all agree it’s good to eat by the seasons. But how can we tell WHAT’S in season? Especially when the grocery store stocks everything under the sun from spinach to star fruit?

To help us in our quest for seasonal delights, Wise Bread has a great list of seasonal fruits and vegetables by the month.

UK-dwellers can find a UK-specific list at eattheseasons.co.uk.

It’s August, and here in London we’re enjoying our fill of blackberries, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, and all kinds of stone fruit like greengages and peaches! Coming up, I’ll be giving some of these fruits and veggies some special attention, with info and recipes and all kind of stuff to make you drool. Stay tuned!

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, By the Month [Wise Bread]
Food Seasons [UK]

Drink a lot of water while exercising?

You might be interested in this from Peta Bee at The Guardian:



“We evolved from hunters – we had to run and chase animals on the hot African plains. We didn’t have time to pause for a drink,” he says. “Physiologists developed an unproven hypothesis that to become even the slightest bit dehydrated during exercise would kill you. The sports drinks industry then used this bad science to market their products.” Runners have died from hyponatraemia, but Noakes says he “has yet to find a death from dehydration in the history of competitive running”.



The article talks about different rates of dehydration for different people and a bit about how to predict how much water you should drink based on your weight difference before and after running.

Link to full article