Archive for June, 2009

New Study into Aspartame

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Artificial sweeteners are one of my food paranoias that, in my view, rank up there as one of those danger signs hanging over modern living; they are something that purport huge health benefits versus the issues supposedly attached to natural sweeteners, like sugar.  So it is a great start that the Food Standards Agency is starting a study into aspartame.  I know it’s not a study that will look into the safety of aspartame, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Visit the Food Standards Agency and register if you want to be part of the study:

The Healing Powers of Home Baked Cakes

Monday, June 29th, 2009

I (Sophie)  was recently convalescing at home and by about the second week (apart from getting frustrated about not being out and about and having very little voice) I was very privileged to receive three delicious home made cakes.

The first was a delicious rich chocolate cake.

The second a dark chocolate pavlova  from Forever Summer by Nigella. This was incredibly light and delicious and just disappeared in seconds – although I had to fight my seven year old for the end – apparently convalesence is no argument for getting the last piece!.

The third was the delicious carrot cake – already mentioned in our recipe section, under Sally’s carrot cake – this one was made with angelica rather than orange but the effect was wonderful and generally improved family health.

Flowers are fantastic and those received were certainly much appreciated but the unexpected delights of a home made cake cannot be surpassed – just a little slice here and there I’m sure did wonders for my speedy recovery!  Many many thanks to the cook, Sally – I have to say there was absolutely nothing left over. 

(Whilst I was contacting my friend Sally for the recipe information for the blog – she admitted that the feel good thing wasn’t just one way – “the whole thing about making and giving someone a cake has a real feel good factor too”.)

So if you know of anyone not feeling 100% – it’s worth thinking about…


I’ve just read Rose Prince’s article in the Telegraph Magazine (Saturday 27 June 2009) where she’s talking about Picnic Perfect – her comment on home made cakes? “remember that a homemade cake is a love letter to everyone”.

The West in decline, the rise of the East

Sunday, June 28th, 2009


There are 2 recent political events that hint to a major shift in the global geo-political structure:


·         The victory of the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tigers after 20 years of civil war in a overtly aggressive final push;


·         The victory of President Ahmadinejad in the elections in Iran recently which are almost certainly a result of a biased election process.


In both cases, the so-called first world or developed world moaned, complained and whined but both the Iranian and Sri Lankan governments simply ignored the views of their supposed betters.


This is simply because neither country needs to pay any heed to the views of the Western world, nor does the USA or the UK have any leverage.  The question is how did this happen?


In the case of Sri Lanka, they have sold a plot of land at Hanbantota to China to build a base for China’s Navy.  China has the money, China has the manpower, China has the military might.  It now is moving away from its traditionally internal looking political attitude to looking outwards for the first time in over 500 years. 


It wants first and foremost to protect is new found economic might.  So, like the British with its global empire, it is beginning by a desire:


1.       to protect its ability to trade through protecting its merchant fleet and keeping the shipping lanes open;


2.       it is looking to protect its access to base commodities like oil from the Gulf and also look at its (currently unsuccessful) deal with Rio Tinto and new discussions with Anglo American;


3.       it is looking to invest strategically by buying key technologies.


In the case of its low level military expansion it has acquired sites in relatively weak countries – Bangladesh, Burma Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka then got military hardware in the form of guns, ordnance and six F7 jet fighters which allowed it to move on the Tamil Tigers.  So when China is providing over $1 billion and the UK £1.25 million and the USA $7.4 million, who cares what the so-called Developed world thinks.  Britain and America are simply impotent.


Iran has oil.  The price of oil is now relatively high, so the Iranian state has its own cash resource.  It does not need tax monies to finance itself as the governments do in Europe and America.  As a result, it does not need to listen to its people when it makes a political decision, which in this case seems to be to “elect” its incumbent President at all costs and who cares about auditable legitimacy.


The oil states have so far confined themselves to economic imperialism for the simple reason that the Gulf States do not have genuine depth of population, but Iran does.  So in the same way that Nigeria can happily tear itself apart with internal fighting financed through oil, Iran can ride roughshod over the democratic system it has put into place to give itself legitimacy.


With the global financial and economic crisis crippling the Western world in the short term and hobbling it in the long term, power has shifted eastwards.  China is in the ascendant and Europe is perhaps in permanent decline.  The USA will survive because of its size and its capacity to innovate and reinvent, but its sphere of interest will shift to the Pacific.  Perhaps it should even move its capital to the West Coast?


I don’t know where this change will take us.  However, I do know that the future politics of the world will be very different from the last 300 – 500 years; China and India are regaining their rightful places as the most powerful nations in the world.  Furthermore, countries like Britain must be very careful:


(a)     It must get its national accounts positive rather than constantly running in deficit as the cash-rich nations will not bankroll us forever, particularly as they become more powerful and more interested in themselves and West Coast of America; and


(b)     It must not become over-reliant on the East to do its manufacturing because they have now become the price-setters for much of our manufactured goods which will not be benign for much longer.


Recipe – Summer Vegetable Tart

Saturday, June 27th, 2009


A summery dish that I love making is a summer vegetable tart.  It is very simple to make and is delicious cold.  This makes it great to keep in the fridge for quick suppers during the week or to take to work as part of a packed lunch.


Like some of my other recipes it is a template that can be played around with to make a variety of similar meals, depending on what you’ve got available or looks good in the shops.  The basic recipe is a tomato based tart, which can be built on with additional ingredients such as aubergine and courgette.  Normally I make it with tomatoes and aubergine but sometimes I add courgette as well.


1          Fat aubergine

4          Ripe tomatoes

1          Courgette

2          Peppers (I am currently using a sweet imported red pepper from Spain and some locally grown small orange peppers)

1          Clove of garlic

1          Thick slices of good rye bread

Puff pastry


Salt & pepper (or Steenbergs Perfect Salt)

Olive oil


Preheat the oven to 180oC.


I am useless at making puff pastry so I buy it pre-made from the shops.  This is nice and easy, if lazy.  Defrost the puff pastry, then lightly oil the bottom of a roasting pan and lay the puff pastry on top of this.  If you want to be artful about this, do it in a circle.


Prepare the vegetables and keep separated: slice the aubergine into thin slices then halve, salt lightly and leave to drain in a colander for 10 minutes; finely chop the garlic; remove the stalks and seeds from the peppers and cut into strips and then cut these into 2cm lengths; thinly slice the courgettes, discarding the ends – I sliced them lengthways this time.  To prepare the tomatoes, plunge them in water to remove the skins and peel and then thinly slice them and halve.


Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the courgettes and fry these until they are lightly browned on the light green pulp.  Turn at least once.  Transfer these to a plate.


Now gently fry the prepared sweet peppers in the pan until they caramelise and soften.  Carefully remove from the oil using a slotted spoon, so preserving much of the oil.  Transfer these to a plate.


Whilst the courgettes are frying wash the aubergines and then pat them dry. Salting the aubergines, removes some of the bitterness – it comes out as a green liquid that looks a bit like washing up liquid.  Fry the aubergines, until lightly browned, turning them a couple of times.  Transfer these to a plate.


Now prepare the tart.  The way I do it is as follows: I do a row of tomatoes, then a row of aubergines with the aubergine slice slightly overlapping the tomato.  I do this until you reach the middle, where I do a row of courgettes.  I reckon you get 4 rows on either side of the middle courgette row.  Then I randomly sprinkle over some of peppers; if you have some left over, don’t worry as they’re great in salads.


Summer Tart

Summer Tart

Next I put the bread slices, parsley and garlic into a food processor and whiz these up to fine breadcrumbs and then liberally sprinkle these all over the tart.  Next gently pour olive oil over the breadcrumbs/vegetables.  Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until the pastry has risen and is light brown.



Cooked Summer Tart

Cooked Summer Tart

You can either eat this immediately with new potatoes and a summer salad, or I much prefer it cold and we eat it throughout the week.  At the moment, we are enjoying it at work for lunch together with a fennel salad.   

Recipe – Rediscovering Ratatouille

Thursday, June 25th, 2009


The other day, we had some visitors for a meeting at Steenbergs.  Our dilemma was not really about spices and herbs – that’s something we do, day in day out.  But what were we going to offer them for food.  We’re a small organic herbs & spices business, based in rural and very parochial North Yorkshire.  There aren’t any fancy restaurants around here and we tend to do all our own cooking – as what’s available isn’t always that great and usually overpriced, even if it saves on having to do the washing up.


What we cooked was a Mediterranean vegetable tart and ratatouille.  I have recently rediscovered ratatouille after I overdosed on it at University where we seemed to live on “rat and chips” (homemade and shallow fried, should you dare ask).


Ratatouille is simple to make, but time-consuming.  Even worse, it is easy to make horribly just by rushing it.  The classic mistake is to whack all the ingredients except the tomatoes together into a pan, fry it up quickly, then add a tin of tomatoes and stew for 10 minutes and serve.  That isn’t ratatouille even if it is perhaps rat; it’s really a vegetable mush.


No, proceed slowly and with a little bit of care and attention.  All the ingredients must be prepared and cooked separately, before being brought together as a beautiful symphony at the end.  The other thing is be flexible – use what’s in season or looks good in the grocer, together with what’s to hand in the kitchen.  I love it cold as well as hot.


2         Decent sized aubergines

4         Ripe red peppers (or other colours – I used a nice locally grown small orange pepper as well as a really sweet red pepper)

3         Courgettes

2         Large onions

4         Cloves of garlic

1kg      Ripe tomatoes

Plenty of olive oil – perhaps 150ml

Rosemary and thyme and parsley (at this time of the year, I used rosemary and thyme straight from the garden and left out the parsley)

Salt and pepper


Get a decent sized heavy bottomed casserole ready as you build up the ingredients.


Prepare the vegetables and keep separated: dice the aubergine, salt lightly and leave to drain in a colander for 10 minutes; finely chop the onions and garlic; remove the stalks and seeds from the peppers and cut into strips and then cut these into 2cm lengths; dice the courgettes, discarding the ends.  To prepare the tomatoes, plunge them in water to remove the skins and peel and then chop them up; some people remove the pips but I like the texture that they add to the sauce.


Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the onions and garlic until soft and just turning golden.  This will take about 10 minutes.  Take out and put into casserole.


Now gently fry the prepared sweet peppers in the pan until they caramelise and soften.  Carefully remove from the oil using a slotted spoon, so preserving much of the oil.  Transfer the peppers to the casserole.


Top up the olive oil if needed.  Next add the courgettes and fry these at a slightly higher temperature, until they are lightly browned on the light green pulp.  Turn at least once.  Add these to the casserole.


Whilst the courgettes are frying wash the aubergines and then pat them dry. Salting the aubergines, removes some of the bitterness – it comes out as a green liquid that looks a bit like washing up liquid.  Fry the aubergines, until lightly browned, turning them a couple of times.  Add the fried aubergines to the casserole.


Now add the chopped tomatoes, chopped herbs and some cracked/coarsely ground Steenbergs pepper and salt to the casserole.  Alternatively, season with some Steenbergs organic Perfect Salt seasoning.  Simmer gently with the lid on for 30 minutes.  I sometimes add a little wine or cognac to give the ratatouille an extra dimension – I used a rosé that Sophie’s enjoying at the moment.


Remember that ratatouille is not a hard and fast recipe, and everyone should have their own version and should also flex around the basic recipe using whatever is in season or looks good.  The key is to be patient and to use aubergines, onions and garlic as the base and then build it up.  Even though everyone thinks of ratatouille as a tomato based dish, it’s actually an aubergine dish and you can even leave out the tomato if you want.

Storing Spices & Herbs

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Why should I look after my spices & herbs carefully?


Nature in her bounty has given us an abundance of spices and herbs that offers us a massive range of natural smells, flavours, colours and textures that can liven up all your meals.  However, like all natural foods, you need carefully to store and handle your spices & herbs to ensure that you look after their natural aromas, flavours and colours.


This variety of aroma and flavour comes from the volatile oils – that is natural chemicals – that naturally occur in spices & herbs, albeit more delicately in the latter.  The adjective “volatile” indicates that these chemicals evapourate from the spices and herbs, hence giving off the natural aromas that you associate with particular spices.


So, for example, clove essential oil comprises eugenol (70 to 85%), eugenol acetate (15%) and β-caryophyllene (5 to 12%); eugenol is, also, found in bay leaves, cinnamon and nutmeg, and is similar in structure to vanillin, which is the main volatile in vanilla beans.


However, you want to control the release of those volatile chemicals to ensure that you get the maximum flavour into your cooking rather than generally to perfume the air.  Similarly, poor storage of brightly coloured spices can result in a rapid deterioration in the vibrancy of the spices – in fact, if your spices are left out and do not lose their brightness, you should chuck them out as they probably contain additives (it’s one of those ironies of modern life that, for example, we as consumers have become so brainwashed into thinking chilli powder should be consistently bright red, such that when it is orange we complain and so the industry starts adding colours to maintain our expectations etc etc).




What is the best way to store spices?


To reiterate: the flavours and aromas from spices and herbs come from the volatile oils within the products.  These volatile compounds evapourate into the air in normal conditions.


Spices and herbs must be packed in high-barrier, food-grade materials.  This will keep the flavours in the spices rather than perfuming the air and cross-contaminating your other products – try smelling many of the supermarket vanilla beans and you will note a delicate curry aroma on them!


We suggest the following ways of storing your spices and herbs:


·         Glass jars with good quality lids or hermetic seals (Kilner style jars)

·         Stainless steel or tin containers with good tight lids, eg an Indian spice dabba


We advise against storing your spices and herbs in thin plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters, nor do we feel that ziplock-style plastic bags or aluminium foil containers are particularly good.  These packs are all allowing the volatile oils and, therefore, all those aromas and flavours to escape.  You will note that we have also shied away from plastic as we find that they can taint your spices & herbs, especially chillis and turmeric, nor are they genuinely recyclable.


When you get your herbs & spices, you should store them in airtight containers, out of the light and away from heat.  For our bulk customers, we recommend that they should be stored between 6oC and 17oC.  If they buy your spices & herbs in plastic, cellophane or aluminium foil bags, you should immediately decant them into a sensible type of container immediately.  If you want to display your spices and herbs in your kitchen, you should put the rack in an area away from direct heat or sunlight – it is best to put the herbs in a cupboard. 


In our kitchen, we have the spices and herbs that we use all the time close at hand with everything else hidden away in a cupboard.


How long should I keep them?


Firstly, do not keep spices, herbs, salt and sugar beyond their “best before” date – they are given for a reason rather than out of commercial necessity.  While they will still have some flavour after then, most of the volatiles will have evapourated and much of that complexity and depth of flavour will have dissipated.  We are often told how much stronger our spices & herbs are than our competitors – that’s because they are fresher.


Secondly, use your nose and your eyes.  To survive as humans, we have developed an excellent sense of smell and sight.  So look at the spices and herbs and give them a smell, if they still look okay and have a good intense aroma then they should be okay.  However, if there is little flavour left, or the colour has faded, or if there is a rancid or mouldy look and smell, chuck them out.


Finally, we blitz our store-cupboards at least once a year and throw out all those items that are old.  It makes one quite humble and improves on your general housekeeping to realise how much you have wasted!


How to Buy Spices?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


The first step in getting the best out of your spices, herbs, salt and sugar is like in everything to buy well.


This can best be summed up as:


(i)                  Buy the best you can afford – price is generally a pretty good indication of quality as long as the packaging is not too fancy.  We are often told that Steenbergs spices are expensive, but quality will out and that’s what we are about and not purely price – however, Steenbergs spices & herbs a good value product.  But even then, you do not need much spice or dried herb in each meal – may be a pinch or two – and you are going to get a lot of use out of a 50g (2oz) pack of spices and its going to cost you less and last a lot longer than a bottle of wine or a smoothie or a bar of chocolate.


(ii)                Buy little and often – bulk buying of spices and herbs is rarely worth it in the end.  How many of us have had to clear out those old packs of spices & herbs that lurk in the corners of your cupboards, or bought that extra pack of dill seed because we could not find it hidden in the back of a cupboard or did not know whether we had some back home.  So you should buy as much (or as little) as you think you are going to use in a 12 month period, or the smallest pack size that you can find.


(iii)               Buy a good brand from a reputable retailer – it’s no different from buying good quality vegetables, fish, meat or wine.  Unless you really know what you are doing and have the time & energy, few of us are going to start a small-holding and prepare all our foods ourselves, and like all foods, quality comes down to good stocking. 


Only the specialists and larger outlets are going to be able to source the good quality products and get the stock turn right.  So chose a well-known specialist brand and buy online or find a decent local stockist, whether it’s a large delicatessen or a multiple grocer. 


Next you should check that the packaging can look after the aroma and flavour of the spices and herbs.  Don’t fall for the romantic notion of buying spices and herbs from the exotic bazaar in Cairo or Istanbul or for scooping out your spices from bulk bins, as most of the best quality spices & herbs are bought and sold in Europe and North America.

Some of the books that have inspired us

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Both of us (Sophie and Axel) are avid readers of books – both fiction and non fiction. This is the first in an ad hoc series of books that have made us sit up and think. We would be interested in hearing books that have influenced you and also your views on the books chosen here.

1) “Not on the Label”: what really goes into the food on your plate by Felicity Lawrence.

This was an interesting book not least because of the different things we both got out of it. There was one particular chapter on salads which equally appalled us both but for different reasons – Axel, because of the complete lack of nutrition from the pre washed via chlorine salads, and Sophie because of the complete lack of hygiene and sanitation and living habitats of the workers.  After reading this book, I tried an experiment at home; I took a packed of prepared vacuum-packed washed salad from Morrisons and Sainsburys (I rarely, if ever, go to Asda, Tesco or Waitrose because they are not near us) and the same salad ingredients from our local grocer, The Fruit Basket, and put then on a plate in the kitchen and waited to see how long they took to go off.  The leaves from the supermarkets started turning brown on the first day and were rotten within 3 days whereas the leaves from the local grocer lasted a full 10 days.  What this tells me is that much of the food that is chilled and/or packed with inert gases is simply controlling or delaying the rot of the physical structure of the food, while the goodness is probably just decaying inside the cells.  Perhaps we are kidding ourselves about the nutritional value of the chilled and gas-packed foods.

2)  “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson.

Sophie quite by chance discovered this book when visiting a friend who is a keen fundraiser for a school in Namibia.  Sophie happened to see it and picked it up intrigued by the title which relates to one of the customs of the Balti people, then bought it for Axel as a birthday present.  The book is a celebration of what can be achieved through pioneering grit and sheer determination, particularly when you realise that Greg Mortensen is an American and Baltistan is in Northern Pakistan just beside the Afghanistan Border.  He was even kidnapped for a time.  It is incredibly humbling and has taught us more about the political and social issues of the Middle East, inspiring us to direct our personal charity towards education in the developing world.  Find out more at or buy the book.

3) “Imperfectly Natural Women” by Janey Lee Grace. 

 A few years ago a friend of ours came to lunch and mentioned this book which had been given to her by her sister.  We were intrigued and bought a copy soon after as it appeared to be very in line with our own personal aims – and so it is. Janey Lee Grace appears on many TV and radio items including Steve Wright in the afternoon (Radio 2) and is great at pointing the way and the pitfalls of living a greener (but fairly normal) life.  Since we first read this book we’ve met Janey Lee Grace and have often been interested and inspired by our research.  She’s since then written two other books – Imperfectly Natural Baby and Imperfectly Natural Home.

Recipe – Making Real Lemonade

Thursday, June 18th, 2009
As you walk along the long aisles of soft drinks in shops, it’s like hunting for a needle in a haystack to find real drinks that aren’t made with chemicals and don’t contain artificial sweeteners.  Even such national treasures as Schweppes Tonic Water are now adulterated with artificial sweeteners.  
There’s something wrong about using ersatz chemical sweeteners and we do everything to avoid them for our children and ourselves; while we have no proof for it, we have the feeling that some time over the next 20 years, scientific evidence will show that these artificial sweeteners are bad for health.  Our basic principle is that if you cannot make it at home, be wary about it.

Back to soft drinks – we love real lemonade; not the fizzy, soda water that’s been flavoured with industrial citric acid and perhaps a twist of real lemon, to aid the marketing.  No, I mean freshly made lemonade from lemons, water and sugar.  If you do a taste test of one to another, there really is no comparison; everything’s different: colour, taste, texture.

We make 2 versions of lemonade, which we give below.  Both of which are worth the effort.


Quick iced lemon 

1                      Unwaxed lemon
2 – 3 tbsp          Sugar, to taste
850ml (1.5pts)   Ice and water (about 600ml/0.25 pint water if using ice, or all water)
1                      Free range egg (optional – see note below) 1.       Wipe unpeeled lemons and cut into quarters, being careful not to lose any juice.2.              Put the diced lemons into a blender together with the sugar and egg.3.              Strain and serve immediately.

Old fashioned lemonade

3                      Unwaxed lemons
3 tbsp               Sugar
1.1 ltrs (2pts)     Water, freshly drawn then boiled
1 sprig               Mint, freshly picked is ideal (I prefer apple mint to spearmint for this)
Glass-full           Ice cubes (optional)
1 or 2                Extra slices lemon (optional) 1.       Wipe unpeeled lemons and cut into dices, being careful not to lose any juice.2.       Put the diced lemons into a jug together with the sugar.3.       Pour on boiling water and leave for 15-30 minutes until strong without becoming bitter.4.       Strain.5.       Put the mint into a serving jug with ice and the slices of lemon and leave to cool for and hour before serving. 

Note: we like to add the egg to the quick lemonade as it gives extra body and froth to the lemonade.  However, if you have been told not to eat raw egg or are wary of doing so, please just exclude it from the recipe.

Recipe – Elderflower Cordial from the Hedgerow

Monday, June 15th, 2009


Sunday morning found me walking along a small cutting down to the River Ure hunting flower heads, or corymbs, from elder bushes.  The common elder flowers in June and July over about a 6 week period.  It is fairly widespread, being a bird-sown weed and is best found on wasteland and in hedgerows.  I try and find trees that are fairly hidden down rarely-used lanes or in woodland as these are less covered in the fumes and dust from traffic.


I carefully collected a whole basketful of these sweet wine smelling white flowerheads.  You need to try and minimise the number of insects on them and yet find those that are flowering – that is not in bud – and where the petals are not falling off.


I then like to make our own elderflower cordial.  It tastes a lot nicer and more flowery than the shop bought cordials, although I never make enough so we need to resort to one of the brands later in the year.


My recipe is as follows:


24         large elderflower heads (or as many as you want so long as it’s more than this)

4          large unwaxed lemons

1.8kg    granulated sugar

1.5ltrs   water


Slice the lemons moderately thinly, discarding the ends, and put the slices into a large stainless steel pan.  Pour the granulated sugar into the large pan.  Add the water.  Bring this sugar solution gently to the boil, stirring occasionally to ensure that the sugar dissolves fully.  This is your sugar solution.


While the sugar solution is heating up, sort through the elderflower heads, getting rid of any insects by gently shaking the corymbs over a bowl,  This ensures that you don’t lose too many of the little flowers as you can then get rid of the insects that fall in and keep the flowers.  I also clip off any excess stalk and any remove leaves.


Bring the sugar solution to the boil, then remove from the heat.  Add the flower heads and stir into the sugar solution.  Put a lid on the solution and leave to steep for at least 24 hours.  We leave for about 3 days.


Strain the cordial, then bottle in clean bottles.  It should be stored in the fridge as it does not last long.  We use plastic bottles that have been saved or glass bottles with screw on lids.  We part fill the bottles and freeze them; you can take them out the freezer and defrost as and when you want them.


To use, simply dilute with water.  A little cordial goes a long way so do not put much in a glass.