Friday, 22 February 2013

Cherry Pie (from our photo archives)

Brushing with water and sprinkling a little demerara sugar on the pie just before cooking  gives a nice brown, crispy finish.
I found these pictures on my laptop, which I took back in August 2012. My daughter doesn't like cake, so for her birthday she usually asks for a sweet pie of some sort. (The year before, she asked for pear and emmental pie.) Unfortunately, I didn't note down my recipe at the time, but I can remember that I made white shortcrust pastry using vegan margarine as the shortening. I used cherry pie filling from a jar (ooooh cheat!) supplemented by some stoned and halved fresh cherries. As it was a special occasion I made an effort to make it look pretty, hence the pastry decoration of cherries and leaves on the top- see pictures below. A glaze of demerara sugar and water before baking finished it off.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Microwaves: the pros and cons

We now have a microwave sitting in our kitchen!

So what's all this about?

I would like to think I can readily embrace new technology: I'm here now writing this blog on my laptop, I use a digital camera and a mobile phone, I have no qualms whatsoever about using IT at work and I'm open to getting my head round all the new techy stuff as it's invented- YET there's one piece of equipment that's actually not new at all (it's been around since at least the 1980s) that I just haven't embraced fully, and that's the microwave oven. 
I've worked in kitchens where they use them, but then I didn't have to eat the food that came out of them. I even (briefly) owned one that I had inherited about 20 years ago, but it only ever got used by me for defrosting and the odd jacket potato. I was happy to find out when I met my husband that he too shares my deep suspicion of microwave cookery, so imagine my surprise when I got home from work a couple of weeks ago to find a brand new microwave sitting there on the worktop! He explained that it's part of our energy-saving drive, and the idea is that anyone who misses a mealtime can reheat their dinner quickly and cost-effectively without it going all brown and crispy. Okay, I can understand that.... and I have even used it myself to melt chocolate. But its arrival has forced me to look at the issues surrounding microwave ovens- after all, this is the 21st century, so modern microwaves must be safer than the early ones...right?
Take a look at what I found out:
  • We're not even sure how microwaves cook food! Microwave radiation cannot break up atoms or molecules like x-rays or gamma rays, so it is not thought to damage DNA of living things. But as microwaves heat, they can harm or kill at high energies. That's why microwave ovens on the market must operate at or below strict limits.It is most commonly believed that belief is that molecules in the food, particularly water, begin to rotate rapidly as the alternating electric field passes through. This rotation is thought to add heat to the food.However, there are some scientists who have do not take this view, suggesting that there could be some other kinds of interactions between the microwaves and the particles going on.
  • Microwaves don't actually cook from the inside out, as commonly thought. The water molecules on the outside heat up first.
  • Metals become dangerously hot in a microwave... not true! This may surprise you, but the only reason you get those scary-looking sparks if you put thin metal like as fork or foil in a microwave oven is because metals reflect microwaves rather than absorbing them. The thin metal acts as an antenna, thus producing sparks.
  • It is true that microwave ovens are an energy-efficient way to heat food, however. This is because it takes less time to cook the food, and the microwaves are focused directly on it. As part of  energy-saving measures which should include factors like low-energy lighting and laundry, using a microwave could save you money- especially if you are in the UK, where the worrying news has just broken that there will be a shortage of power generated for some years to come, resulting in higher fuel prices.
  • You can't heat oils in a microwave. They just don't heat well because the molecules can't move around like water molecules do.
  • Never heat plastics in a microwave- they release toxins into your food! That little "microwave safe" tub I bought last week is going straight in the bin, then... Tests have shown that food heated in even so-called "safe" plastic containers contain harmful levels of Bisphenol A. It's safer to use glass or ceramic containers in the microwave.
  • It's dangerous to boil plain water in a microwave: it can become superheated, and erupt out of its container when touched, causing serious scalding. It is advised that if you have to boil water, put a wooden spoon in it to encourage cooling bubbles to form (just like when water boils more naturally).
  • Microwaves don't heat evenly. This could be a real hazard for meat-eaters, as food poisoning can result from the presence of bacteria.
  • Can microwaves alter your food? -Maybe; on a subtler level than current science can detect. If you bear on mind that the Ayurvedic and Chinese wellbeing systems recommend cooking food on a wood fire as the healthiest way that is most in harmony with the elements, then (in modern versions) on gas and finally with electricity, you can see the microwave ovens will come last on the list, as not recommended. Any kind of cooking will chemically change your food, and some scientists think that there is a danger that microwaving changes proteins into potentially harmful substances. (Research is ongoing.) The opposite view is that the shorter cooking times will preserve more nutrients.
  • Do microwaves really leak radiation? This is the big one for me; I heard horror stories years ago about a waitress who stood in front of a microwave behind a counter who, when examined for kidney problems, was found to have partially cooked one of her kidneys...! (I don't know to this day whether this is true or not.) The fact is that nowadays we are exposed to potentially carcinogenic radiation, not only from natural "background" sources such as radon in the earth, but also from power lines, mobile phones, planes, computers, clock radios etc. as well as (possibly) microwave ovens. You just can't separate out all these sources. Microwave ovens are made not to leak; it is true, however, that over time the seals on a microwave can wear and radiation leakage can occur. This is supposedly well below harmful levels in itself, but this should be factored in with all the other radiation sources in your environment. The fact that you can buy radiation testing kits for microwave ovens makes me deeply suspicious.
The conclusion? There are a few possible benefits, but from my research I found that these are outweighed by the possible dangers. As with most things in this world, I think "proceed with caution" is probably the best approach.

Read more:


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Twice-Baked Chocolate Tofu Cheesecake- vegan, gluten free

This cheesecake is great decorated with fresh fruit and more chocolate!

We love the idea of making vegan and gluten free versions of popular dishes- if you follow this diet because of allergies rather than by choice, then you will doubtless miss treats like cheesecake, and that is how this recipe came to be invented. Last year we posted a delicious chocolate pecan cheesecake that our kids made, based on a Nigella recipe. It contained a ton of full-fat cream cheese and Nutella, and was a chloresterol and sugar-laden hit! Then a little later I made a vegan, gluten free and sugar free strawberry tofu cheesecake, which gets lots of views, but I think it's just a bit too healthy to be really indulgent. This cheesecake, then, is somewhere in between. It could be sugar free if you use xylitol chocolate, as the base and filling contain date and maple syrup, but we loved the velvety sweetness of the dark chocolate. It is twice-baked because the base is cooked first, then the filling added and the whole thing baked again. As cheesecakes go, it is not a difficult recipe to make, but it does take some time because of the three stages (base, filling, decoration). We used a 26cm  (10 1/4") shallow springform cake tin, but if you want a deeper layer of filling, you could use an 8" one- or just double the filling ingredients ;)

1 1/2 cups (1 cup =250ml) millet flour (aka bajri/ ragi)
1 cup ground almonds (grind your own if you can, coarser than the bought ones, and with the skins on)
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal 
2 tabs date syrup
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
  • Mix all the ingredients together and press evenly into an oiled springform tin.
  • Bake for 190-15 mins in an oven preheated to 150C. Take care not to over-brown the edges.
200g medium-firm tofu (if you make your own like we did, use one litre of soya milk and press for about half an hour)
150g vegan dark chocolate, melted
2 large bananas
2 tabs tahini
1 tab maple syrup
  • Melt the chocolate. (Use a microwave or Bain Marie)
  • Blitz everything in a blender or food processor until smooth and creamy. (Alternatively, you could mash and blend by hand.)
  • Pile it on top of the base and gently smooth the top with a spatula.
  • Bake for about 20 minutes at 150C.
2 kiwi fruits
 a handful of fresh strawberries
 and/ or more dark chocolate
  • When the cheesecake is completely cool, decorate with a pattern of sliced fresh fruit.
  • You can also sprinkle on grated chocolate.
  • For an extra-special look, you could make chocolate curls or chocolate leaves (paint melted chocolate onto fresh rose leaves then peel off).

Monday, 18 February 2013

Iron Man Salad (not for wimps!)- beetroot and peanut

This attractive, vibrant beetroot salad is full of flavour and texture

This super-nutritious salad contains no less than four sources of iron: peanuts, raisins, beetroot and molasses- that's what you get for leaving your husband to finish making dinner after you've both been for a 5k run... I think he had the triathlon event in mind rather than the Marvel character though! But seriously; don't be put off by all the super-healthy ingredients or the fact that the beetroot is raw; believe me, it tastes really delicious! It's also a great showcase for beetroot, our ingredient of the month for February.

This recipe made a large bowl of salad, and we think it would be 6-8 portions. There is no salt added- with all these amazing flavours there's just no need.

1 large beetroot
1 medium carrot
200g natural peanuts, lightly toasted without oil
100g lexia raisins
For the Dressing:
1 tab extra-virgin olive oil
1 tab lemon juice
1 tab black treacle (blackstrap molasses would be better, but maybe you'd need less)

  • Grate the beetroot and carrot and put into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the raisins and peanuts.
  • In a separate lidded container (such as a jar), shake the dressing ingredients together.
  • Add the dressing to rest of the salad.
Warning: Eating this will give you lots of energy and a healthy buzz- use it wisely :)

We'd love to know what your favourite  pre or post-excercise foods are - please leave a comment- thanks.