Author Archives: jonnyd2509

Good home cooking

There’s a certain giddiness in the air right now with the arrival of Spring.

Tolstoy describes it as, “the time of plans and projects”.

The author Margaret Attwood goes a step further by saying, “in the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt”

In short, it’s a time of growth, emergence and fresh engagement with life.

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of the Soul (the identity, the Self, “the spark of the Divine”, or however else you want to define it) and how this is linked to personal growth throughout the seasons.

The poet Rumi describes Spring as: “When ecstasy seems the natural way to be and any other out of tune with the season of Soul growth.”

This idea of careful building, strengthening and nurturing really speaks to me.

In the midst of life’s struggles and confusion the Soul is tough, savvy and self-sufficient and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

Spring is a time of building ourselves up after the winter months.

For me, food and family gatherings are an ideal way to go about this.

This is a recent snap from a birthday gathering in Scotland featuring the very best of comforting home cooked meals from various members of my extended family.

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Clockwise from top left - vegetetarian lasagne, macaroni cheese, salad and crudités, salmon dressed with tomato and lemon, meat lasagne, broccoli with sweet peppers and, finally carrot and coriander soup with sliced sourdough bread

…and that’s only one half of the table.

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A soothing winter salad

Artichokes are a vegetable I’ve written about before on this blog.

I described growing seasons, preparation and the different types of artichokes available to us (of which I won’t go into right now).

Nutritionally artichokes have an excellent profile: they are good for bone health (containing phosphorous, manganese, and magnesium), pregnancy (containing folic acid – which protects against neural tube defects in babies) and they are especially good for for your heart (by lowering blood pressure/cholesterol levels.)

I also commented on their deep, earthy flavour, which is even more pronounced when paired with mushrooms.

Well, here we go again…

Recipe: Warm artichoke, mushroom and spring green salad

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Ingredients

100g jerusalem artichokes, peeled and sliced
200g mushrooms, sliced
200g spring greens
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 apple, diced
50g hard cheese (parmesan or manchego), finely grated
1 garlic clove, finely sliced,
2 tbsp thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and cook the spring greens for 5 minutes hen turn off the heat.
2. Next, place a medium pan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Throw in the artichokes, turn down the heat and cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent them sticking to the pan.
3. Add the mushrooms to the pan and toss to coat in the oil. Cook for 5-7 minutes then add the garlic and thyme. Cook for a further 30 seconds before adding the cubed apple. Serve warm with a grating of cheese on top and some crusty bread.

What to do with left over pancake batter

This is my creative take on using up spelt pancake batter mixture from “pancake day” or Shrove Tuesday as it’s more traditionally known.

Oven baked Vegetable flan

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Ingredients

(For the batter)
100g spelt flour
150 ml almond milk
1 egg, separated (whisk the egg white until fluffy)
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp sesame oil

(For the mixed vegetables)
1 head broccoli, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
65g chickpeas
2 tbsp omega seed mix
50g tofu
100g spring greens with bean sprouts
5 spring onions,  finely chopped
1 tbsp each cumin, coriander and fennel seeds
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
A small bunch of mint leaves, finely chopped.
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 170 C. Mix the batter ingredients together and set aside in an oven dish.
2. For the vegetables, heat the oil in a medium pan over a high heat and fry the broccoli for 5 minutes, turning consistently.
3. Next, add the rest of the vegetables, tofu, garlic and seeds and cook for a further 2 minutes.
4. Combine the vegetables with the batter in the oven dish and bake
for 20 minutes.
5. Serve with a sprinkling of chopped mint leaves.

How to make your own Vietnamese spring rolls

As an extension of my blog post about living in Plum Village, a Vietnamese Zen monastery in France, I thought it would be worthwhile attempting to cook my own home made spring rolls.

Turns out to be relatively easy – not at all what I expected.

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Vietnamese spring rolls differ from both Chinese and Indian versions – in that they’re not made using flaky pastry, nor are they deep fried or crispy, but are instead made with rice paper and are usually steamed.

For this reason they tend to be fresher, more delicate and lighter overall.

It’s not unusual to pack the rolls with crunchy shredded vegetables, meat, seafood, aromatic herbs and sweet black bean sauce (or soy sauce) – along with some spongy rice noodles for an added carbohydrate hit.

Another inspired addition to these rolls are roasted seaweed sheets – which are packed with protein and add a subtle texture to the overall dish. These sheets are layered over the rice paper before heaping the meat or vegetables on top.

You can buy both from Chinese supermarkets.

The recipe below is for vegetarian Vietnamese spring rolls. Bon Appetite!

Ingredients

  • 2 – 4 12 x 20cm round rice paper wrappers
  • 2 – 4 Roasted seaweed sheets
  • 2 –3 baby gem lettuce, sliced thinly
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 5 spring onions
  • 1 tsp each coriander and cumin seeds
  • a small handful of mushrooms
  • 100g bean sprouts
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 4 – 5 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • a small handful of coriander, finely chopped
  • some pickled ginger
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Soy sauce, for dipping (optional)

Directions

For the rolls

  • When you are ready to make the rolls, dip one of the rice papers in a bowl of hot water, moving it around until the whole wrapper is soft – about 10-15 seconds – then drain on a plate.wp-1454659865393.jpg
  • Place a roasted seaweed sheet on top of the rice paper whilst it dries.

For the vegetables

  • In a pan, over a medium heat, add some olive oil and cook the mushrooms for 5 minutes.wp-1454659874578.jpg
  • Add the garlic, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and cook for a further 1 minute.
  • Throw in the carrots, bean sprouts, spring onions and baby gem lettuce and cook for 1 minute.
  • Sprinkle over the coriander herb.
  • Remove the pan from the heat.wp-1454659716888.jpg
  • Place some lettuce on top of the seaweed / rice paper sheet, followed by the vegetables and some pickled ginger. Don’t overfill or they will be hard to roll.
  • Lift the edge of the rice paper wrapper nearest to you over the filling and, holding the filling in position with your fingers, start rolling up tightly.wp-1454659709841.jpg
  • When you’re about halfway, fold the ends of the rice paper in and over the filling so that it is completely enclosed.
  • Keep on rolling tightly until the whole rice paper wrapper is rolled up. To serve, cut the rolls in half on the diagonal and serve with a soy sauce dip.

Veg box delivery services

I was reading recently that sales of Organic food and beverages in Europe and the US are on an upward trend going into 2016. This is great news.

As some of you may know Scotland has some of the best produce in the world – particularly, in my view, when it comes to the organic root vegetables – largely due to the quality of the soils.

With that in mind I’ve been thinking recently about East Coast Organics – the fresh veg box delivery service and farm from Pencaitland in East Lothian, Scotland. They provide us with a fortnightly delivery of the freshest and most delicious vegetables – nothing like the bland, treated stuff you’d buy in supermarkets.

In choosing a well-run service I was inspired by their business model, sourcing and commitment to ethics and sustainability.

Organic vegetable box

Their produce is grown in 10,000 square feet of polytunnels giving the company a wide potential for growing organic vegetables; such as carrots, beetroot, kale, mushrooms, spinach, leeks, garlic, onions and peppers – to name a few.

We always receive always a nice heap of wrinkly biomass with all sorts of earthly surprises – such as the occasional snail nestled in a head of broccoli – or salad leaves which are often “on-the-turn” before we’ve even opened the bag e.g. the lettuce can sometimes be quite mushy – but who cares: it’s only a lettuce!

The carrots and beets are often caked in soil – having been freshly pulled out of Mother earth. Supermarkets in the UK are restricted from selling “wonky carrots” to the consumer due to some harsh EU regulations on vegetables – with the vegetable box this rule simply does not apply. Also, I personally feel much healthier; there’s a certain vitality that comes with knowing that your vegetables haven’t been heavily treated with insecticides.

We do, however, reach a slight saturation point with the amount of potatoes in the veg box each week. I like a variety of carbs during the week and so, although I love roast tatties, it’s not going to fly night after night.

Overall, the service saves time on the ‘big food shop’ for the convenience of home delivery. It also helps to circumnavigate supermarket supply chains which often involve enormous air miles and spoilage.

On that note I’d like to invite you to sign up for a service with East Coast and check it out for yourself.

Plum Village

Having just returned from a monastic retreat in Plum Village over Christmas and New Year with my wife Georgina I have since felt the need to write up my notes.

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Plum village is a monastery situated in South West of France. The community is run by Vietnamese monks (brothers) and nuns (sisters) and was initially founded by the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982.

The Community run annual meditation retreats for up to 700 people from all over the world.

Typical schedule

5:15 am – Wake Up, get dressed

6:00 am – meditation (45 minutes) + readings and recitations from the Plum Village texts (mainly containing Buddhist Suttras, discourses and allegorical insights)

7:00 am – breakfast (in noble silence)

9:00 am – working meditation (1 hour)

11:30 am – walking meditation (30 minutes)

12:30 pm – lunch (in noble silence)

2:00 pm – (optional Dharma sharing)

3:00 pm – Dharma talk by one of the sisters

6:00 pm – Supper (in noble silence)

7:45 pm – meditation – with readings from the Plum Village daily chanting book

9:00 pm – Rest (noble silence until 9:00 am the next morning)

Christmas and New Year celebrations

We enjoyed Christmas and New Year with around 700 people – including Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people.

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The Food

20151223_125703I felt so energised by the quality of the food. The vegetables (broccoli, beetroot, carrots) were especially well cooked, vibrant in colour and texture and there were masses of tofu/bean curd, spring rolls and sticky rice or noodles in keeping with Vietnamese cuisine.

We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in Noble Silence – including until the washing up had been done – allowing us to truly appreciate the eating experience. I always enjoyed sitting close to some of the monastic sisters during breakfast – just observing the care which they applied to every. single. mouthful. I feel so much love and gratitude to the sisters and especially the cooking staff. Plum Village is extremely well run and there are lots going on behind the scenes.

Breakfast would offer a choice of oat or rice based porridge, brown bread, sliced baguettes with an array of toppings and adornments; from pumpkin 20160103_180919_resizedseeds and crunchy almonds to dates, kiwi fruit, sliced apple, banana, lashings of tahini dressing (pureed sesame seed paste) and powdered nutritional yeast.

Lunch would typically be tofu, vegetables and salad leaves. Supper was often soup or broth with leftovers from lunchtime.

It seems strange, however, that I’ve returned from France without having had any wine or cheese (Plum Village being a stritly vegan and non-alcoholic retreat community)

Dharma Talks and discourses

For me, the Dharma talks (or Buddhist sermons, if you will) were one of the highlights of the retreat. I found the messages to be very subtle but extremely profound. The talks were attended by people from different nationalities and were held in either French or English (and translated accordingly).

It was brilliantly organised and the translations were seamless.

I do not profess to know a lot about Buddhist texts and am not officially a Buddhist, but I felt a deep resonance and meaning from every talk, reading and recitation. From the Buddha’s perspective the 3 things that matter most in life are:

“How well did you love?

“How deeply (into life) did you go?

“How fully did you Let Go?

Surely this is a guide to living for anyone; no matter their background, race or religion. The Dharma Talks at were given by the monks and nuns themselves and ranged in theme:

  • Understanding the nature of craving, impermanence and desire;
  • How to cultivate gratitude, patience, equanimity, compassion, imagination and awareness;
  • Being mindful and fully aware by living in the present moment as fully as possible;
  • Being open, taking a walk every day, remembering to breath;
  • Appreciating other people (the ‘otherness’ of the other) by seeing them exactly for who they are and not who we want them to be.

The images below, “Discourse on Love”, were taken from one of the textbooks of discourses.

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The atmosphere of the community was very amiable and the French countryside got more picturesque as the days went by. I think the influence of the environment and the relaxed vibe of Plum Village allowed me to absorb the messages from the teachings

31st December 2015 (New Year’s eve)

The talk was offered by brother monastic Thầy Pháp Đăng who opened with the message,

“This is the time to be with loved ones and to calm our minds and our hearts”

The main theme of the Dharma talk was, “Why is there often so much Darkness in life? And how do we awaken from this darkness?”

We were given the following five steps towards cultivating an enlightened mind:

1) Beginner’s mindset – cultivate a mind that is open, fresh, curious and therefore can creatively adapt to circumstances;

2) Mind of gratitude – cultivate praise for our parents, farmers, society, our food, our teachers, friends and other loved ones.

3) Lucid mind / Clear mind – appreciation for things, “as they are and not as we would like them to be; no controlling or aversion (“I hate the rain”); dropping all previous knowledge (“emptying ourselves so that we may begin anew)

4) Mind of Love – I was asking myself, what is Love? For me, love is many, many things. It is: the capacity to bring joy, happiness and peace to yourself and others; to extend ourselves towards the needs of another; to accept another person without projection, expectation or control; and to accept that to love is an intention, an action and a choice.

5) Mind of Silence – cultivating a mindset free from fear; not resorting to ‘false refuges’ when we are fearful, angry, upset or lonely (TV, mindless internet browsing and the fridge).

Dharma sharing and Q/A session

The dharma sharing allows us to come together and share whatever is in our heart at that time and to ask questions of the monastics on a range of themes.

An example of one of the questions from our group was:

Q. How do we come to know our purpose in life and find meaning – whilst living in a conditioned environment?

I thought the sisters responded very effectively to this question. They encouraged us to reflect, examine past actions and look for patterns in our behaviour.

The advice ranged from the profound to the more generic –

· Discern the “right effort” in all things and do not allow yourself to be governed by fear.

· Acknowledge your own personal authority / ability to choose

· Focus on something that truly matters

· Do not wait for permission to act.

I often think about living in our heavily conditioned environment and am reminded by C.G. Jung’s proverb that, “we walk in shoes too small for us…”

This is stating that most of the time we adapt to the voices around us, the demands of our environment, rather than being guided by an instinctual and driven internal nature which wishes embodiment through us and into the world.   20151222_142807

For me, we need to make choices every single day. Many of which are complex – meaning that we need to exercise discernment, humility and discipline. I think it’s important not to look for perfectionism in all things, something I struggle with daily, to know that options do exist in life and that we have the freedom to choose – instead of being led by the flock of opinions around us.

Back into the ‘real world’

Before leaving Plum Village – back to the real world (or the ‘Default World’ as Georgina artfully put it) – we were given the opportunity to share a reading or to sing a song as part of our contribution to the community. Georgina and I chose to read “Tripping over Joy” from Hafiz’ book of poetry, I Heard God Laughing, which seemed the most appropriate in terms of theme. It goes like this:

“What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?

The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.”

Whatever that may be I’ll leave you with the following wise words and wish everyone a Happy New Year.

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering: it will be happier” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

Chestnuts

Chestnut vendor When we were on holiday in Madrid a few years back I remember buying the most amazing roasted chestnuts (pictured right) – freshly roasted in vast cauldrons – from the many street vendors around the city.

They were dished out to us piping hot in small paper bags – often selling for as little as 1 Euro per 100g (a large handful).

Here in the UK, since the chestnut season is so brief (September to December) I think it’s always useful to take advantage whilst we can.

Types / availability

· Whole peeled chestnuts, canned or vacuum-packed, are available from most UK supermarkets. 450g fresh chestnuts (weighed in their shells) are equivalent to 175g dried, reconstituted chestnuts or 350g tinned or vacuum packed nuts.

· Canned chestnut purée, plain or sweetened, available in tins, is a godsend as it saves hours of preparation for use in pudding recipes.

· Chestnut flour (gluten-free and with a slight earthy smokiness) is often available from speciality food stores and delicatessens. This is useful as a substitute for flour in cakes (see below), pancakes or as a thickener for soups and stews.

Chestnuts roastedCooking with fresh chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts should be cooked and never eaten raw – due to their high acid content. I find the oven to be the most effective way of roasting them.

First, pre-heat the oven to 200 C / 390 F.

If you are using fresh chestnuts which contain the outer shell / husk then one of the most important steps before roasting is to cut an incision in the shell using the end of a sharp knife.

Alternatively you can roll your foot over them until they crack slightly. This prevents sudden explosions of chestnut shrapnel from inside the oven due to a pressure build up in the shell.

Next, place approximately 200g chestnuts on an oven tray and roast for 20-25 minutes.

Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts whilst hot – it’s impossible to peel a cold chestnut – to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the ‘tan’, which is bitter.

Alternative recipes

A great cake recipe of Italian origin is Montebianco – using chestnuts, chocolate and coffee, with layers of mousse, praline and almond meringue. Who could say no to that?Chestnuts aerial view

If you prefer something a bit more homely then I cannot think of anything more inviting than steaming ladlefuls of hot chestnut soup.

First, take 1kg fresh, cooked and peeled chestnuts (or 600g pre-packaged and vacuum-packed), 1 onion, 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 25g butter, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 litre stock and 1 tbsp brown sugar.

Next, In a saucepan, heat a the butter with the olive oil over a medium heat, then add the garlic and onions. Cook them for about 5 minutes or until they become soft and begin to brown.

Add the stock, brown sugar and bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and blitz with a hand blender until smooth, then adjust the seasoning to taste.

The soup is naturally creamy so there is no need to add cream.

Serve into soup bowls and enjoy.