The force of habit

In his famous treatise on Habit, written in 1887, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote:

‘….we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives: put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.’

In short, when embarking on a new way of living, surround yourself with things that will help you embrace it fully. Gather up arms and defences. Keep reading about the subject in hand.

That’s why I spent time at home building a kind of digital library of recipes to refer to. It’s also why I’ve done things like download Anna Jones’ 7 Day Reset and peruse almost exclusively cookbooks like the excellent Bosh! for my culinary inspirations. It’s why I continue to experiment and write about recipes with very low or nil animal protein content. On my wall is a very handy (and very colourful) wall chart designed by Liz Cook detailing the essential sources of vitamins, minerals and other nutrition for those following a plant-based diet and, most importantly, where they can be found. On my bedside table, and in my electronic reading tools, are books and literature all about sustainable eating, the pros and cons of vegan living and myriad related subjects. I download podcasts. I talk about the topic to anyone who will listen.

Wall chart by Liz Cook. Part of a map of the Blackdown Hills. Artwork by Michael Tarr and Allan Jones, among others

Such is the case that, even in this relatively short time, the prospect of going back to my former dietary habit is inconceivable. Yet if you had told me a year ago that I would be pursuing such a change in lifestyle with so much relish I would have had you up as a fool and laughed you out of the room.

I feel as though I should detail some of the main things I’ve noticed since changing dietary tack:

  • That, as opposed to being limited in choice of what to eat, there is now a new world of abundance. My kitchen storage is full of all kinds of things I would never have entertained having before. Miso, all kinds of nuts and seeds, a plethora of different fruit and vegetables, various grains and pulses, the list goes on.
  • I am no longer concerned with sourcing decent quality meat. This used to be a problem. The chicken and pork here, especially, tend to be full of water. You end up paying a premium for something imported.
  • On a similar note as above, my choices of what to have for lunch or supper no longer revolve around the usual meat or fish with something else. I am much more prepared to be creative.
  • I’m cooking a lot more and taking more care when I do. As if the change in habit has led me to pay more attention to not only the preparation of the ingredients but also the best way to cook them.
  • I’ve lost weight. Or, at least, I’m not gaining any. A shirt I haven’t worn for almost two years suddenly, effortlessly, fits me. No, I’ve definitely lost weight.
  • Even though I set my parameters to fit a significant reduction in animal protein intake, rather than complete abstinence, a part of me feels guilty whenever I shave a little cheese onto a bowl of pasta.
  • Cooking is even more enjoyable than it was before, if that’s possible, and I spend a lot more time thinking about it and doing it.

 

Busy with risi

 

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I lived in Italy for nearly ten years but not necessarily in regions where rice dishes cause a big stir. But risotto is in many ways the quintessential meal of this blog. A mostly one-pot affair with plenty of wooden spoon action and time for rumination needed as the stock is absorbed by the grains. The joy of adding things to impart more flavour and texture. Music on, glass in hand, it is perhaps the perfect contemplatory supper.

I don’t remember exactly when I received this cookbook, either a birthday or a Christmas  present, but it must have been in the mid ’90s, around 1996, when I left University and, twenties, clumsy and shy, I went to London and tried.

Perhaps I’d shown some small glimmer of enthusiasm for stovetop shenanigans, although I can’t recall it, because my mother thought it was a good idea to make sure that, on the first step on the road to so-called independence (which led initially to Balham), I carried with me at least one volume of recipes. Actually I think I had a Delia Smith book too, and perhaps one other.

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Yep, Will, your ghost probably passed me at some point. Not a totally joyous eighteen months in England’s capital. I did start cooking though, for the first time in my life.

The risotto recipe was one of the first I really remember enjoying doing. I can’t link to it here but it was a creamy affair with a roast chicken substance. I remember Slater, considerably less hirsute in those days, pointing out his disfavour with the popular addition of white wine to the process, due to the alcohol’s tendency to linger unpleasantly on the palate. This is a rule I have followed since and frankly do not feel like discontinuing. Besides, if a bottle of wine is to be opened just for a soupçon then, my friends, that bottle is not going to stand idly by while I stand, stare and stir.

This is also another process which I think is made easier with a gas cooker. That flickering wisp of flame needs a steady hand and eye because, during the stock-pouring procedure, it is important the liquid doesn’t over-boil. One needs a solid simmer so that everything comes together properly. And anyway it is a pleasure to watch it all happening in its own time.

The stock I made last time round was defrosted, arborio rice ready – the packet nicely weighted in my right hand – the cold roast chicken unsealed from its temporary home of clingfilm and brought back to room temperature. There were also some button mushrooms knocking around I might have bought with something else in mind but, hey, nothing like over-egging the pudding. I had parmesan and parsley from Twin’s, a cold beer to hand and music playing, probably this.

The practice is so pleasurable I was almost sad when I realised the last ladleful was approaching and that, after a few minutes and a sprinkle of seasoning, the dish would be ready. Making risotto basically just consists of standing over the hob, doling in the stock when any liquid currently in the pan is almost evaporated, making sure the rice doesn’t get stuck. To say that the grains have to be al dente is to add another question to Sybil Fawlty’s round on Mastermind.

Apart from the parsley and parmesan I added, suddenly nostalgic for Italy, some chopped sun-dried tomatoes if only to recreate the colours of the bandiera italiana.

Here’s some more nostalgia to enjoy with your risotto. Here, here, and here. Un abbraccio forte a tutti I miei amici italiani. Spero di rivedervi presto x

Taking stock

Once again at the kitchen confessional. This is my tenth post. Where have I been and where am I now?

I have a habit of starting things but not seeing them through, so that they end unsatisfactorily,  sort of limp to a finish. A failure to commit leads to an unnatural death perhaps.  This shortcoming, as I see it, stems from an ingrained notion of self-doubt, a lack of faith in my own ability. It also comes from a desire to seek others’ approval and a focus on their potential expectations, as I imagine them. So a reason, maybe the main one, for doing this blog is to explore both of those things. Publishing online raises the stakes. There is an audience so I am aware my writing and my ideas are being scrutinised. It’s been interesting to notice how, as I publish, I am concerned (or not) with wanting to please anybody who might be reading, looking at that desire to somehow satisfy a vague and vast collective (and possibly extending my readership at the same time).

Yet the spectators remain, somewhere. I should take care with my prose, and write as well as I can, while remaining true to the ethos of this project which is to be creative using cooking as a springboard. To see where I go and enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing.

During the week or thereabouts between posts ideas simmer away on a low bubble. Last time I mentioned my spice project and what I got up to this time can be an extension of it. I have to follow my instincts and go with my gut. The body rules the mind in my case anyway.

I reckon no self-respecting home kitchen cook can be without a decent stock, freshly-made or ready to defrost. This I found out to my cost recently when I attempted a chermoula-inspired chicken dish which had all the promise of full flavour but was let down by an insipid liquid finish. I used water (bottled – tap water is a no-no here) with a stock cube crumbled in. And while the finished dish looked appetising, rich in red pepper, sweet potato and tomato (judge for yourselves below) all the taste had actually been washed away.

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Appearances can deceive. This was not a delicious dish.

So on Thursday I did things properly. I bought four chunky chicken legs which I roasted in my little oven with lavish slatherings of lemon, chermoula, perfect salt, thyme and rosemary. Once these were cooked I removed all the flesh to use in the next two days’ cooking and put the bones along with shreds of skin and meat and of course all the fragrant, lemon, herb and spice rich juices from the roasting pan into a saucepan. I added a carrot, celery and an onion, filled to the brim with water and let the whole thing putter away for a couple of hours on a low heat. The apartment was filled with its aroma all day and I felt better for having done this.

Some of the meat I have already used. Once, in a curry which I ate with my last flatbread, then, the next day in a well-stuffed sandwich which I took to work. I had intended to make a mayonnaise to accompany the chicken in its bread-cased heaven and yet, having followed this simple video for instructions, I managed only to make a yellowy and ultimately tasteless liquid. A case perhaps of over-frothing the eggs and/or getting the oil-egg ratio wrong. Anyway a lesson learnt.

This evening the last of the chicken will go into a risotto and, yes, that stock will play a major role.

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That stock, looking stocky, ready for its chance to simmer and shine