Eat up your greens…

Refusing to have veg with my pub meal (because it’s horrible), I was taken to task because, while I write about eating cheaply, I don’t mention vegetables.

There’s a reason for that – vegetables are so cheap as to fall outside my cheapness parameters (my only advice here would be to buy decent potatoes – very cheap ones are horrible). That, and because an awful lot of people don’t like them.

But what of the “5 a day” I hear you ask Continue reading

A balanced diet – is it a myth?

In the Guardian, their resident doc was asked by a parent for advice about her six-year-old, suddenly wanting to be a vegetarian – should she feed him vitamin supplements? Amazingly, these days, the doc trotted out the official line about nobody needing vitamins when they get a balanced diet. The doc also said that 6 was too young to make a reasoned choice about becoming a veggie, and the mother should Continue reading

Sprouting seeds, Part 3…

October 1 – I now have my vermiculite, a 500ml bottle of organic seaweed fertiliser, which will probably last for ever, a batch of seed labels, so I don’t forget what I’ve sown (not a problem right now, but it may be later), and a write-on-anything pen, for the labels, the type of thing you use on CDs. All from here. Prompt, next-day service, at the seemingly universal rate of £6.95.

Having little idea how much vermiculite is compressed when packed, I bought 10 litres, which has filled all three trays with plenty left over.

CAUTION! If you have any sort of respiratory problem, use a face mask when handling vermiculite, or do it quickly and hold your breath, it’s quite dusty. Some sources recommend wearing gloves, too, but I think that’s overkill – I didn’t bother – just wash your hands afterwards.

I’ve not used vermiculite on its own as growing medium before, as back in the days when I had a greenhouse I’d mix it 50-50 with potting compost, so I’m not sure how it will behave. The first job, then, after filling the trays, was to thoroughly wet the vermiculite. The propagator has a capillary pad in the base which absorbs water and feeds it to the trays.

So all the trays are well wetted, as is the capillary mat, and any excess poured off. What I want to see now is how quickly it dries out so that, once it’s planted up, I’ll have an idea how often it needs watering. There’s lots of info online about growing the seeds, but nothing about the preparation.

To my mind, although it’s labelled “fine”, the vermiculite is pretty coarse, so I’ll blitz what’s left in the food processor (it won’t harm it, it’s quite soft), until it really is fine, and use that as a top-dressing for seeds that need to be covered.

Tomorrow’s Thursday, which is pub day (though if I feel as crappy as I do today, it’ll be lounging around doing sod-all day), so Friday, or at the weekend, I can get my first crop sown. The plan is to sow the large seed tray with alfalfa and hemp (mixed, or half-n-half, dunno which yet), and the 2 small ones with broccoli and mustard, to sharpen up the mix, all of which should be ready in 6-7 days.

The fertiliser, incidentally, is recommended for micro-greens as they’re grown just a little beyond what the nutrients in the seed can support – it won’t be needed until beyond the cotyledon stage. They’ll still grow without it – they’ll grow better with it.

Looking at my set-up (photos when I have some plants to show), I think it might be feasible to grow some of the lower-growing lettuces way beyond the micro stage, especially in the summer, but that’s for next year. Over the course of the winter, I’m going to see if I can get a work-top offcut which, just sat on top of the chest of drawers, would double my growing space.

Right, watering. Whatever you grow will need water, and I discovered long ago that plants, especially seedlings, do best with water at the ambient temperature. In my greenhouse I kept a 10 gallon polypin of water under the staging. This had the dual feature of providing water at the same temperature as the growing plants and, during the day, it stored a useful amount of heat which it gave up during the night. For my seeds, though, I’ll be content with a 6-pint milk container – well washed – kept in the same room. Use lots of warm water and a bottle-brush if you have one, no detergent.

Note: A polypin is a polyethylene beer cask – I made my own in those days.

And that’s it for the time being – more as and when…

Sprouting Seeds (Part 2)…

Well, as I mentioned last time, I’ve bought a small sprouter for, er, sprouts, and now I’ve got a much larger propagator for growing micro greens. It’s the Sankey Growarm 300. Originally I’d planned to pay £29.99 for one (plus £7 p&p), but with the month-end bills looming, meaning cash is short, I searched Google rather more assiduously, and found it here for £19.99 (same p&p). The tenner saved will buy me a bag of Vermiculite as a growing medium (or seed compost – I’m still undecided and I’ll probably go with a mix of both). I’m still trying to find an online source of vermiculite, too – or, at least, one where the postage costs doesn’t exceed the cost of the product. No joy yet. While I’m waiting, it’s possible to grow some seeds on damp tissue – shades of school-days – so I can get production underway without delay.

The propagator is 52cm x 42 x 25 high, and is designed to maintain a temperature of 21-26 Celsius ( a tad under 80 degrees max in old money). Of course, that depends on the ambient temperature and, being indoors, the heater is unlikely to be used once the seeds have germinated, unless we have a very hard winter. The heating element is moulded into the base, so is kept well away from any moisture. The investment in a cheap, segmented (not digital), timer switch will enable effective, if crude, temperature control, should I need heat for a long period.

The propagator comes with two 22cm and one 38cm seed trays and a handful of small plant-pots, which adds to its versatility. Using the trays will enable me to grow alfalfa and, say, hemp in the large tray, while growing two more flavoursome plants, like mustard and broccoli, in the two smaller ones.

I’m seriously considering using the heated propagator just to germinate seeds, then transferring the plants to unheated ones for growing on, thus ensuring a steady supply of greens, plus sprouts from the sprouter. Though as the entire growth cycle is pretty short this may be overkill – time will tell.

The sprouter (not to scale – decent images are impossible to find), with its not very imaginative name, is widely sold as the Being Fare sprouter (no idea what that’s supposed to mean, if anything). It’s 15cm high and the growing trays – actually three, not two as shown (the bottom one is a drip tray) – are 15cm square – perfectly adequate for one person. I bought that along with the seeds I mentioned last time (in Part 1, Food for Thought ), which are hemp, alfalfa, mustard, broccoli and golden linseed, to save you referring back if you’ve already read that page. Postage for that lot was £7.95 (getting anything by post these days is becoming less cost-effective with every postage increase).

The location – on top of a chest of drawers in my bedroom, gets good light from a south-facing window, while being out of direct sunlight. Covering the adjacent wall with kitchen foil will enhance light levels, and minimise the tendency of plants to lean towards a light source though, of course, just turning the propagator round is perfectly feasible.

Pictures of my first crop, plus details of what I did – right or wrong (though, really, if I get this wrong I shouldn’t be allowed out on my own!) – will be posted here in due course.

Food for thought…

An introduction to micro-greens and sprouting.


Where I live, buying decent, fresh vegetables is impossible. The main sources, Sainsbury and Tesco, are just too dull for words – greens that smell good while cooking taste of sod all once they hit the plate (NO – they’re not overcooked!); potatoes that are a flat-out fraud, as for years now, the Maris Piper I favour have had a substantial addition of cheap and nasty spuds that are as far away from Maris Piper as it’s possible to get – they look right, but they’re way too watery).

Of course, we all know that supermarkets select veg for appearance more than anything else, though I’m not sure how that accounts for main-crop carrots that are fit only for cattle feed or the compost heap. And so it goes, and I’ve had enough. (Yes, I do have the option of a corner shop, but his veg is the most boring Holland can produce – and it’s expensive – even the organic farm shop has veg so old and knackered I’d never even contemplate buying it.)

Starting in the next few days I’m going to start growing my own greens. Not having a garden, this will be a mix of sprouted seeds and micro-greens (also called “living greens,” though how you’d grow dead greens I’m unsure…), grown indoors.

Micro greens are a step up from sprouts, being grown on for a further week or so, depending on variety, and harvested when they get their first true leaves. You can grow pretty much anything you can sprout (though I’d give pulses a miss – they’re ok for sprouts but not much else), but unlike sprouts they’re grown in trays filled either with vermiculite or a 50/50 mix of vermiculite and seedling compost with, I believe, the latter giving the better results (vermiculite is inert, and on its own contributes nothing to the growing process but an ability to hold water. I’m tending towards the standard gardeners’ technique of sowing the seed onto seedling compost, then covering with a layer of vermiculite, which will keep the plantlets clean.

Normal seed trays are fine for the purpose, and pretty cheap, but if your home gets chilly in winter, a couple of heated propagators are a good idea, as seedlings don’t like the cold – stripped of the fancy names, all you’re doing is eating seedlings.

So, what to grow? All the usual salad leaves are up for grabs, of course, plus radishes and onions, and you can grow things like beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, celery, carrots – their seedlings are all said to be very tasty. Garlic seedlings are said to be excellent, too, but I’ve not seen any seed for sale. You can grow pulses in this manner, but once beyond the sprout stage they need to be cooked, and what I’m aiming for is vitamin-and mineral-rich raw food, loaded with beneficial plant enzymes, for salads. Grains aren’t worth bothering with, as they need to be juiced if grown on beyond the sprout stage, as they’re – obviously – all forms of grass. And while the juice is nutritious – think wheat grass – the juicers are pricey.

My aim is to provide myself with lunches this way, using bulk-sprouted seeds, like alfalfa and hemp, as a base, tarted up with the more tasty and upmarket micro-veg.

Normally, I can’t eat lunch, as food at midday makes me fall asleep for most of the afternoon, a problem I’ve cracked simply by not eating lunch. I’ve not eaten breakfast for years, either, and I do get hungry, so a light snack of a small bowl of sprouts and micro-veggies, in a light vinaigrette, should be just the job.

I’m awaiting delivery of my first order of a selection of seeds – I’m not over-fond of bean sprouts except in a takeaway – and a small sprouter:-

Hemp Seeds 500g

Alfalfa Seeds 250g

Black Mustard Seeds 100g

Broccoli Seeds 250g

Golden Linseed 500g

All organic except the linseeds, which aren’t for sprouting – though I might try them – they’re for blitzing in the blender and drinking, stirred into a glass of orange juice. In that form they’re an excellent laxative.

I think I may have erred on the side of caution with the sprouter, and should maybe have gone for a bigger one. Time will tell, though I think a couple of small ones – as I live alone – will be better than a single huge one. I’ll also need to modify the sprouter as, like so many of its kind, the tiers are poorly ventilated. Still, it’s not difficult.

Once I have my seeds, I need to take myself off to a garden centre for trays, vermiculite and compost – it’s not really economical buying heavy/bulky stuff online, as it ramps up the postage something fierce.

There’s a chest of drawers in my bedroom that gets a decent amount of light from the window, so this will be my growing area (a cheap piece of particle-board, placed on top, will extend the area by about 50%, if necessary). In fact anywhere I have a flat, reasonably well-lit space can play host to a small sprouter, or a sprouting jar.

Sprouting grains will give my bread-making a boost, too, as they’ll add flavour and texture, especially if I use contrasting sprouts, like rye sprouts in a spelt loaf, or beetroot and onion sprouts in a wholemeal loaf (that’d be great with cheese). Recipes will be posted here, too.

Go to Part 2.

More dietary drivel?

Eating two eggs a day could help to reduce cholesterol levels and promote weight loss, British scientists claim

I wonder if these are the same scientists who got eggs banned from the diets of many people, including me, because they raised cholesterol levels?

Anyway, it’s been accepted for a while that dietary cholesterol does far less harm than used to be thought, though I find it hard to accept that eggs – high in cholesterol – can actually reduce it.

I have to say that the report leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. For a start the research population was a mere 50 people on the egg diet, plus an undefined number not eating eggs, and any results from such a tiny group is statistically insignificant. And before you rush out to stock up on hen fruit, bear in mind that the eggs were eaten as part of a calorie-controlled diet.

And how were the eggs prepared? Does it matter? Dunno, because I can’t find the original research published anywhere legitimate, like MedLine – sorry, just sending out a press release doesn’t count, and that’s all I can find.

It is going to to be published in the European Journal of Nutrition, though. This is not to be confused with the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a high quality, peer-reviewed publication. Significantly, perhaps, the words “peer-reviewed” appear nowhere on the EJofN’s publicity, but they do accept “invited reviews,” though I’ve no idea what the implications of that are. I’d be more impressed if the research was published in the EJofCN, and subjected to the peer-review process; “invited reviews” are not the same thing at all.

Submitting it to MedLine, the BMJ, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, or any of the many reputable and respected medical publications, online or in print, wouldn’t hurt either (it is a medical issue, after all), but there’s no indication that’s going to happen any time soon, if at all.

I also wonder by whom the research was funded. If it was independently-funded, that’s fine. If it was funded by anyone with links to egg production and/or marketing, that’s less than fine. Again, though, I can’t find out and, trust me, it’s not for lack of trying.

Am I going to increase my egg buying, tomorrow, to a dozen, based on this research? Nope…

Veggie update…

On June 27 I mentioned my return to vegetarianism, mainly on economic grounds. So far, this has worked out well, even though it’s been complicated by the fact that I have no appetite and I’m dieting to lose weight.

The first few weeks have been fairly expensive, as I find a veggie diet needs a more comprehensively-stocked store cupboard than a meat-based one. Today, however, I achieved my aim of reducing my food bill to a sensible level – a whisker over £8 which, apart from some fresh veg, will see me through the week.

There are some other bonuses from my whole-food veggie diet, in that I have far more energy, less stomach trouble and, on the whole, I’m sleeping better. Yes, I know this style of vegetarianism has fallen from favour in recent years, but I like it and it seems to suit me and, unlike the lighter and more modern veggie diets, getting adequate protein is very easy, without over-reliance on cheese or eggs. To see what I mean, compare the Cranks style of vegetarianism (remorselessly whole-food based), with that of, say, Yotam Ottolenghi, whose leafy, lightweight, recipes can have an absurd number of ingredients and still come up lacking in essential nutrients, like protein (or even, in my case, fail to be anything I’d actually like to eat!). I’m intrigued – Ottolenghi writes a vegetarian column for The Guardian, and I’ve just had a look at his restaurant page, assuming the place would be a hotbed of modern vegetarian cooking. It’s nothing of the sort – the place is as omnivorous/carnivorous as any other, which strikes me as very odd.

{Update: There’s also a hugely beneficial side-effect. Quite a few of my drugs cause constipation (mainly my anti-inflammatories and analgesics), which has been a big problem for years, and prevents me from getting as much pain relief as I need. It’s also one reason I drink as much beer as I do (it helps). However, my whole-food veggie diet is high in fibre, which has had a dramatically beneficial effect on my constipation and this, alone, makes it all worthwhile.}

When I feel up to it – I’m often not able to cook – I’d planned to make red onion and mushroom burgers (Tesco allegedly sell these, but they’re always out of stock), but I’ve decided to make these in the form of “rock cakes”, and bake them instead. To the red onions and chestnut mushrooms I’ll add chopped nuts, cooked brown Basmati rice and a rather nice extra-mature Cheddar – just a touch, I don’t want the result to be essentially cheese-and-onion – and spiked with garlic, a little Cayenne pepper, and a good dollop of Small-chunks Branston Pickle (tastes way better than it sounds – trust me!), the whole bound with oatmeal, cooked with a little water, stirring well, until sticky, and a rare-breed egg. Looks pretty damn’ good to me, and has the advantage that it can be put together over two days, maybe even three, should it be necessary.

And tonight, for rather more instant gratification I’m going to bake some beer-mat sized Portobello mushrooms (which are just large chestnut mushrooms), with butter, garlic, pesto, plenty of the above cheese and a little olive oil infused with Cayenne. I’ll serve them on discs of wholemeal toast, so that none of the buttery juices escape. Cayenne, by the way, is lethally hot, and and mixing just a little with oil makes it easier to add a small amount just where you want it (if you don’t like olive oil, you can beat a little into some softened butter – it’ll keep well in the fridge.

Next week I’m making a mixed bean stew, loaded with fried peppers, red onions, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil – basic, but easy and tasty…

Updated update: Yeah, I know…

Anyway, as many of you may know – depending on how much else here you’ve read – I have wildly fluctuating ME/CFS (but the trend is remorselessly downwards), and severe COPD. These conspire to make the amount of cooking involved in maintaining a veggie diet pretty much unsustainable.

For example, a batch of half a dozen bean-burgers takes longer than is feasible, and it’s a two-day process (but I can never bank on having two good days together), whereas if I fancied a conventional burger I’d just open a packet. Ditto with sausages, though I’m getting very close to being able to produce a veggie sausage that’s actually a pleasure to eat – watch this space.

The big snag is that veggie convenience food is the most egregious crap, as I’ve said elsewhere, and if it’s Quorn-based it’s expensive crap too. There’s no veggie equivalent to just throwing a frozen, battered fish and some chips into the fryer, either. Bottom line – there’s too much damned work involved.

There are two alternatives – become a part-time veggie, as and when my health permits, or just give it up. I favour the former option, as there’s no doubt vegetarianism has some health benefits, and part-time is better than not at all. This week, though, my shopping is certainly going to verge on the carnivorous. Ah well, we all do the best we can, and karma can go screw itself!

Veggie or vegan…

I have to say, as an omnivore, that my diet sucks – not least because buying the quality of meat that I actually want is way beyond my budget, and my food bill is getting out of hand anyway. I also need at least one large meal a day, because otherwise my anti-inflammatories make my stomach bleed without food to buffer them. Simultaneously, I also need to watch my calorie intake to lose weight (exercise isn’t an option).

The answer to these quandaries is, I think, a return to vegetarianism. I was a veggie for about 15 years, from the mid eighties, before lapsing. This wasn’t an ethical decision – my then wife wanted to be a veggie (though I didn’t realise at the time it was because she was anorexic), and as I cooked, I decided following suit was no hardship, and it avoided cooking different meals for each of us.

My wife got me to write down my recipes – something I’d not done before, or since – and I eventually noticed that, without even trying, we’d slipped into a vegan diet. These day, that’s unlikely to happen, as I’m pretty fond of the extraordinarily versatile fromage frais and crème fraîche , (hard to find last time round, as was fresh tofu), which will improve the mouth feel of many veggie dishes, and a veggie diet can use a little fat (as long as you dont go berserk with cheese and eggs).

What tipped the balance was the Observer’s restaurant reviewer, Jay Rayner, being persuaded by his editor to try a vegan diet for a week – and pretty much failing, on the whole, though he did come up with some inspired vegan meals, which tipped the balance for me.

Being a veggie will make life a little more difficult, as some products – fresh tofu, and the more unusual vegetables, like tiny, flavourful, aubergines – mean travelling to Liverpool which, trust me, is no fun at all. The city centre is a giant building site and parking is almost impossible (public transport is out – I can’t walk well enough). On the other hand, a lot of stuff is now obtainable online – which simply wasn’t an option last time round – and I should be able to find a decent farm shop for veg and fungi.

It would, for me, not be too hard to become a dietary vegan, though I can’t be doing with all the rope belts and plastic shoes stuff, by cutting out dairy and eggs. I do get through a lot of milk, for drinking – sooths my drug-abused stomach – but I actually like Alpro soya milk, so that’s not a problem. What is a massive problem is getting Sainsbury’s to put the bloody stuff on the shelves – the milk section seems to be stocked up by half-witted trolls. For pity’s sake, these oiks are too stupid to make sure they put 6-pint containers of milk, often putting out extra 4-pinters by mistake – I’m sick and tired, over the years, of the repeated arguments over this.

The soya milk problem is a nation-wide Sainsbury’s snafu – they re-stock according to zones so, if zone A just needs, say, 4 or 5 packs of butter, but zone F is utterly devoid of soya milk then, bugger it, zone A gets the attention and zone F stays empty until its time comes around. That’s the explanation I got from the Dairy Products manager at my local Sainsbury’s, though I’m forced to wonder if a person without the initiative to over-rule such a mind-bogglingly stupid system when the need arises is the right man for the job.

I had planned, this year, to start making my own sausages, but my flat is just too warm to do that safely – keeping the meat cool during processing is critical, apparently. However, I’ve long harboured a desire to make a vegetarian sausage which is actually a pleasure to eat – those commercially available are truly awful, and veggie haggis is an abomination. I have a recipe – my own – for marinated, deep-fried tofu, which is pretty damn good (the marinade, after removing most of the water from the tofu – otherwise it’s like boiled snot – is a mix of mushroom soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce and veg stock, with a little garlic salt and some white wine vinegar), and it would make a good base for a veggie sausage, with minced cooked grains and pulses and a little greenery in the way of fresh herbs, the whole bound with egg. My idea is to use synthetic casings, poach the sausages to set them, then strip off the casings (which aren’t veggie, they’re made from beef collagen), before frying them. The principle will work, though the actual recipe will need tinkering to get the right taste and texture. I’m not aiming for a meat substitute, but it has to taste and feel right. That’s where commercial veggie sausages fall down. They either try to emulate the look and taste of meat – as with Quorn – or are overtly vegetable. Either way, for me, they all fail miserably on both taste and texture. I think I can do better.

Anyway, this isn’t going to happen for a week, as I have some beef in the fridge that has to be eaten first, but watch this space for progress reports…

Arthritis nonsense…

The following was announced today:-

The correct diet and proper exercise routine should be adequate for managing arthritis, according to the UK’s largest organisation supporting arthritis sufferers.

Arthritis Care has therefore suggested that supplements only be used to enhance a diet where there are elements lacking and with the blessing of your healthcare team.

‘A lot of supplements are expensive and their effectiveness unproven,’ said an Arthritis Care spokesperson.

‘They can react with your medication so always check with your doctor or pharmacist for potential interaction with prescription drugs.

‘A fresh, healthy diet generally contains of all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed by the body.’

Arthritis Care suggests that omega-3 rich foods such as oily fish can help manage the disease and also recommends foods such as fruit, vegetables, pasta, brown rice and white meat.”

Rarely have I read such ill-considered nonsense. Almost no-one eats such a well-balanced diet in this day and age – if, in reality, they ever did. And, of course, people labouring under the burden of arthritis, as I know only too well, are not best placed to work hard in the kitchen, cooking meals from scratch with ultra-fresh ingredients – wherever you get them.

I quite agree that many supplements peddled for the treatment of arthritis are expensive and, very often, pointless. Anyone, for example, who believes a capsule of cod liver oil a day is benefiting them is deluding themselves. It does have some slight anti-inflammatory properties, but only in large quantities, sufficient to make you puke it right back out again. The same with oily fish; yes, it has benefits, but in amounts larger than would normally be eaten

I believe that everyone needs, at the very least, a good daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement, and they will NOT conflict with your meds. Experts – god preserve us – claim that supplements aren’t as good as fresh fruit and veg, but who get that these days?  Most fruit and veg is positively elderly by the time it’s bought, so screw the experts and take a supplements.

Supplements containing collagen are best avoided – it’ll just be digested, as is the natural collagen in red meat. You actually want collagen? Make a stew with shin beef – you’ll have the stuff in huge quantities, but it won’t do your arthritis the slightest good. Nor do I believe – and here research bears me out – that glucosamine and/or chondroitin do any good; these, too, will be digested. That research? Oh, it says that they are at least as good as a placebo which, effectively, means no bloody good at all. Very little that you can put in your mouth, other than drugs, will genuinely benefit arthritis.

I have a test for supplements – if, when I first take them, I feel better, that’s fine, but when I run out, and suddenly the next batch isn’t as effective (or not effective at all), then what we have is our old friend the Placebo Effect. It’s purely psychological – you feel better because you did something new. When it ceases to be new, its effectiveness diminishes. When that happens I stop taking whatever it may be – if it was having a beneficial effect, I should feel worse, if I don’t, I stop buying it. It’s a simple test, and works for anybody.

As for analgesia, I know people who refuse to take analgesic tablets (or any tablets), because they make them “feel funny”, or sick, so they never take them again. Foolishness. When I first took DHC I was high for a week, but I came down, persevered with them, and now there’s no problem. And it’s the same with most drugs – persevere and they’ll stop bothering you, wimp out and, well then, you get to live with the pain. I know what I prefer…

I have to admit that I remain unconvinced by the exercise argument – based on experience, I know full well that if I, for example, manage to go for a walk today, it’ll be a week before the pain and swelling in my knees subsides and I can walk again. Just how is that beneficial? Likewise, my hands hurt, and swell, when I type, but if it’s good for me, the more I type – and I type a lot – the less pain and swelling I should experience. That just doesn’t happen. It’s a nice idea, mostly promulgated by people who are pain-free, I suspect, but for me, at least, it simply doesn’t work. Never has.

The best things you can take for arthritis are analgesics for the pain, and anti-inflammatories, if you can tolerate them (they are one class of drug you should stop if they cause problems; I had to stop mine because they caused gastric bleeding, which is the usual problem). Just – please – don’t rely on your diet for vitamins and minerals; it’ll let you down.