Let me tell you about me and food. If you follow my Instagram feed, by now, you’ll know I love eating it, I love cooking it, I plan my days around it and I’m forever photographing it. My tooth is sweet, which is unfortunate as I have a bitch of a gluten intolerance meaning many sticky, stodgy puddings are off limits. But my refusal to accept this keeps me searching for good alternatives and, when I find them, it’s like angels harmonising. I follow the 5:2 diet (not to lose weight but to maintain it) and, while I’m careful to keep this hidden from my daughter, (her already severe food phobias need no aggravating) I’m in it for life because five cheat days are easier to get on board with than just one. What can I say? I’m greedy. Don’t judge me on that; if you’re going to judge me on anything save it for the processed packets of ham I’ll occasionally grab on the go. Oh yes, fake food is my guilty pleasure: cheap cheese, Heinz sausage and beans – I’m not even averse to a tin of chicken madras. In fact, bar offal and maybe the kind of posh fish you have to debone yourself in fancy restaurants, there are few things I’ll turn my nose up at.
That said, food has become too functional lately. Falling into a trap of rustling up the same meals week in week out, the pages of a Jamie or Nigella *might* be consulted at the weekend but mainly I gravitate to a handful of lazy go-tos. You’ll know the ones I’m talking about: chilli, balti, spag bol – I suspect they’re on your list too. Stir-fry, pad-thai, shepherds pie? It might seem like a varied selection but these hackneyed choices rotate with rabid regularity. At least they did, until the other night when I pulled out a butternut squash & sage risotto (easy and well nice) and the wheels of a dinner time revolution were in motion.
I’m taking the piss slightly, but good grub doesn’t just put love in my tummy, it puts a big smile on my face. So, before this great menu overhaul, I needed to change to the way I shopped. Watching a conveyorbelt of groceries pass before my eyes at the checkout, I analysed my purchases, and it struck me how familiar everything looked. Turns out I ALWAYS fill my trolley with exactly the same items – don’t get me started on the online shop with its conveniently memorised one-click favourites. And when you couple an imagination deficit with a borderline obsession for getting your five-a-day, you might find, as I did, that not only do you keep making the same old dishes, but your whole repertoire tastes the same because you’ve chucked all the veggies into all the things. How the hell did I not notice this before?
So, after bagging it all up I promised myself that the contents of those carriers would not see the bottom of the basket the next time I shopped. I would, instead, pick ten things I don’t normally buy, to make a bunch of meals I don’t normally make.
A week of uninspired eating came and went. And when the fridge was, once again, reduced to a pint of milk, a broken shelf and half a bottle of Advocat from last Christmas, it was time to replenish. Leeks, aubergines, split peas, chorizo, Frankfurters, gorgonzola cheese, green pesto, minced lamb, maize couscous, pardon peppers and peppered mackerel made the cut. But what I was going to do with it all, was anyone’s guess.
Tipping the lot onto the counter at home, arranging a still life that was in no danger of becoming a modern day Cezanne, I took a photograph, put it on Instagram and pitched for inspiration.
Now, this isn’t a recipe post. If you want to know how to make a Mac’n’cheese Google it, (then gasp at how much fromage is required to give it any sodding flavour. Incidentally, my version chucked in hotdogs, which I’d highly recommend).
What I’m hoping to demonstrate is that it’s very easy to get into a dinner rut. I didn’t even realise it had happened. And for someone who puts as much emphasis on, and gets as much pleasure out of what goes in their mouth (oh come on, Bakeoff gets away with it) it’s criminal not to be make every last morsel an event. I may not have pulled off seven showstoppers: the chorizo, pork cassoulet wasn’t my cup of tea, and, on mackerel night, I didn’t even clear my plate. But; in breaking from routine, taking pride in the way the food looked instead of dollopping it in a bowl thrust onto a tray destined for two meters in front of the telly, eating felt special again.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you take on something as monstrous as a Beef Wellington on a Tuesday. How tasty is a cheese an onion omelette when you haven’t had one in a while? A fish-finger sandwich. Tart it up with some tartare, some rocket and serve with potato wedges if you’re that way inclined. Variety is the condiment you can’t go too heavy on. But I know it’s easier said than done. Planning can be as all-consuming as cooking itself (note to a certain person who offers to play chef but expects recipe suggestions in an envelope, ahem). That’s why, with so much already heaped on our metaphorical plates, we keep coming back to the trusty spagbol. Because we can make it with our eyes shut, we can just about keep those plates spinning at the same time.
When I’m tired or overloaded, planning dinner gives me the same feeling as when you open your wardrobe and can’t find anything to wear. Too much choice is overwhelming and your brain can’t figure out whether it’s a shift dress or a jeans and wooly jumper kind of day. But let’s not lose sight of the hardship this is not. So, where do you start? Well, instead of defaulting to the spaghetti jar, I’ve found the calendar to be helpful with hints. Seriously. On the night of the American election we had Mac’n’cheese. Never made it before. On St Patricks Day: Irish stew: delicious. It was even a Halloween pumpkin patch trip that lead to the butternut squash risotto. You don’t have to do it all the time but I use it for ideas because I have heightened sense of occasion. My grandma’s retirement home isn’t ashamed of exploiting a noteworthy date – neither is Little B’s school. Frankly, if Burger King doesn’t offer you a Peking rib in a bap at Chinese New Year, it isn’t doing its job. There’s always a tenuous link where the calendar is concerned.
You might be thinking this is all very well in theory, but what if you’re trying to be HEALTHY. Doesn’t that limit your options somewhat? Well, yes, and no. I used to think being healthy meant mainlining veg into everything. If I’d stuck to a maximum of three vegetables in my stir-frys, perhaps they wouldn’t have all turned out the same sloppy, brown mess. Keep it simple. Healthy doesn’t have to be limiting. Although, in my new lifestyle shake up, I want indulgence. Not for indulgence-sake, but when I fancy it. And that’s why I restrict myself to 500 calories for two days a week so it’s not even a thought on the other five. And I run. Look, I’m never going to have a six pack because I’m never going to give up the chicken tikka masala, but this suits me fine because FINALLY after 36 years I have learnt moderation.
For some reason (and I’m not quite sure why) the insightful words of a not-altogether-well-known gourmet expert Linda Lusardi (don’t snigger) have stuck with me. In an interview after her Masterchef stint, she assured me you could have your cake and eat it. ‘Make rich food – no scrimping on the salt and butter – and you’ll fill up on less because you’ll finish your meal satisfied,’ she evangelised. Now, I’d understand why the wisdom of a former glamour model come panto favourite might be hard to digest, but don’t you see the logic? Of course if you gorge on stilton every day you’re going to be in trouble. But you have a better constitution than me if you’re still reaching for the Hula Hoops after you’ve snow-ploughed the cheese and biscuits. Besides, isn’t denial the worst trigger for a binge? I bring you back to variety. Even subtle substitutions keep things interesting: when I made spicy shepherds pie with a sweet potato twist, it made my day substantially better than if I’d made one with bog standard Maris Pipers.
Engaging your brain with your gut pays off – it has worked for me, anyhow. As I said in the beginning, it’s not just about giving your tastebuds a disco, it’s about the process. I enjoy cooking and I enjoy watching my loved ones feast on the food I’ve prepared. So what will I take from this going forward? I’m going to aim to not repeat the same meal in a month (unless, well, cravings). I’m going to routinely check the bargain shelf in the supermarket (had I not, I wouldn’t have found some ‘alternative’ sausages and therefore discovered the joy of venison sausage stew). A meat-free week beckons – challenge accepted: @turnbullnici. And when dining out and struggling to decide between two dishes, I’m going to take a photo of the menu and make what I don’t pick later on.
There were flaws to the experiment: I haven’t got through all my items yet, and blind buying ten things did mean subsequent trips to the shops once I decided what to do with them. But, again, no hardship: I get the same fuzzy feeling in Aldi as I’m sure others do in Tophop. It’s all about your personal values. Eating well matters to me so I’ve made myself better at it. And, in doing so, I’m also teaching myself how to chop like a ninja, *skills* (more on that soon: still practicing). Meanwhile, my tummy’s rumbling, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a slice of gluten free coffee and walnut cake calling out, telling me it’s lunch time. After I’ve taken a photograph, of course…