Healthy Food (Nourish)

Liquorice and Lava – 3 nights in Iceland

April 29, 2016

 

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I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different.  When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland.  Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.

I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses.  We get enough of all those things in London.  However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.

I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason.  There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace.  It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream.  Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.

The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary.  It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital).  Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather.  I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view.  We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights.  As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.

One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…)  We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday.  What more could you ask for?

I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there.  I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet.  I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products.  I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept.  I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here.  Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day One (Friday)  – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði

Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight).  Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk).  Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry.  We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans).  We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen).  This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on.  We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more.  Worth it? Probably not).  If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together.  Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance.  Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish.  If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit.  We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here).  As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.

We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com).  I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland  – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’  The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind.  We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip.  I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day).  The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream.  Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM.  The bed was comfy.

Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik

We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool.  It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm.  Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains.  After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats.  And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside.  This was the best free breakfast I have ever had.  A real birthday treat.  Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik.  This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.

We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving.  Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us.  We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem).  The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel.  It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time.  It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive  bread).

Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple.  There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately.  It took no time to feel at home.  The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night).  We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare.  We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers).  It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket.  We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.

Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir

After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús.  We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit.  After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us.  All was sublime.  I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure).  If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.  We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…)  We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside.  After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir.  The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other.  However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next.  Luckily this happened several times for the better.  There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again.  When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car.  Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in.  Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe.  Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started.  Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic).  A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road.  We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.

After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated.  Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special.  Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds.  We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue.  And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.

Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport 

We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views.  We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world.  The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception).  It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place.  The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss.  Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog.  I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble.  They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings).  We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport  (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week).  Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.

All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special.  Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure.  There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple.  I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!

Summary of key suggestions:

  • Rent a car.  At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged.  And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…)  You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
  • Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas.  This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
  • Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises.  Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made.  I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
  • Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
  • Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
  • Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
  • Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
  • Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
  • Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
  • Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!

Hotels

  • Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
  • Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
  • Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
  • Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
  • ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
  • Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor

Restaurants

  • Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
  • Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
  • Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
  • Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
  • Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun  in Stykkisholmur
  • Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
  • Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
  • Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
  • The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
  • Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
  • Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
  • The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
  • Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)

Sites We Saw

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Hallgrímskirkja
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Kerið Volcanic Crater
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Skálholt
  • Strokkur
  • Library of Water

Health Food

Morning Pancake Meditation

February 9, 2016

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This year I am devoting myself to keeping record of a few of my favourite, revisited, tried and tested healthy recipes on my blog so I can make them easy to share with more lovely people.

No doubt, many recipes I share will be inspired by my good friend and healthy cooking inspiration Christopher James Clark, author of Nutritional Grail.  I met Chris (who would find it very funny that I initially spelled that Christ) way back when he lived in Crete and was the chef on a yoga retreat I was attending.  His healthy, macrobiotic meals were revolutionary for me.  They proved that healthy, whole-food cooking is delicious, satisfying and very accessible!  I returned home with a collection of his recipes and spent the next few months tackling each and every one one of them from his lemony-dill chickpea dish to his chocolate chip banana cookies (yes – I will soon post about those).  In recent years, Chris has focused more on paleo-inspired meals (adding high quality meat dishes to the mix) and you can follow his blog and Instagram account for daily, mouth-watering inspiration.

Today I am sharing his recipe for Basic Buckwheat Pancakes from Nutritional Grail.  This recipe is killer and I revisit it time and again especially when I’m taking a break from gluten and craving something ‘bread-like’ to bite into!  It’s also slightly fermented making this very easy to digest.  My preferred way to eat these is with tahini and a bit of honey OR a bit of avocado and tomato if I’m going for savoury.  My boyfriend slathers his with cream cheese and jam (not approved by me) – but the point is you can take some artistic liberty here.  I like to add a little lemon zest and some of my favourite spices (such as cinnamon and cardamom to the batter) to give them some extra zing!  I heat organic, cold-pressed coconut oil in the pan and enjoy the slow process of creating my stack.

I find pancake-making quite meditative and often practice Tadasana and steady breathing whilst waiting to flip each cake.  Chris estimates 2 minutes to let each side cook although for me it’s more like 2-3 minutes one side and 30 seconds the second side to ensure the pancake doesn’t fall apart upon flipping!  You can’t rush the process so turn it into a practice of being present – enjoy the sizzling sound of the batter hitting the pan, marvel at the little bubbles that form as the pancake cooks, enjoy the fragrance and satisfaction of creating a pretty stack.  Of course if that sounds a little too peaceful for your mornings, you could also do a sun salutation while waiting for one side to cook.

You can eat them nice and warm on the spot or save them for later to accompany a nice soup or ‘saucy’ meal – they’re great for soaking up juices or rolling up with nut butter for later consumption!

Please note that you’ll need to plan ahead roughly two nights ahead so you can soak the buckwheat one night and then allow for some fermenting the second night.

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups buckwheat, soaked overnight

2 tablespoons full-fat yogurt (I use Rachel’s organic greek-style yoghurt)

1 tablespoon molasses or barley syrup (optional)

1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)

2 eggs

Salt (I use pink himalayan or sea salt)

Butter

Cooking Instructions

Strain buckwheat and discard the soaking water.  Put buckwheat into the blender.  Add just enough water to make it thick, yet homogenous puree. Pour this puree into a nonreactive bowl and stir in yogurt and sweetener.  Cover and ferment 8 to 24 hours. Stir in all remaining ingredients.  Bring a nonstick pan to medium-low heat with a little butter.  Ladle 1/2 cup batter onto the pan and cook 2 mins per side.

Mangonana smoothie

June 12, 2015

IMG_3282Let’s get one thing straight here – I’m not a natural chef, nor would I ever boast any hidden culinary talent.  I do, however, absolutely love playing in the kitchen.  I do remarkably well when I follow a recipe, but sadly, I don’t have the same luck when improvising.  The same goes for my piano playing skills – stick a piece of sheet music in front of me (preferably Chopin) and I’ll get to work.  After days of practicing, I’ll perform something pleasant to the ear.  Ask me to let my hair down and free-style a jazz solo, and cover your ears – it won’t be pretty!  I like having a little guidance.

So I almost fell over the other day when I quickly dumped a few random ingredients from the fridge and cupboard into my blender and came up with…ONE OF THE MOST DELICIOUS SMOOTHIES I HAVE EVER TASTED.  Really – that’s how excited I was.  A fast breakfast fix on a rushed morning made both me and my boyfriend (willing to try anything) stop, savour and sigh with delight.  And then of course I had to get my iPhone out to photograph it because it was a shade of yellow I would happily paint my walls.

I’m not even a huge smoothie fan.  It’s not that I don’t think they are delicious and fun to make, it’s just that my constitution calls for warm meals and cooked foods, and cold mornings in London simply don’t leave me wanting non-local fruit and an icy belly.  It goes against everything I’ve learned studying Ayurveda and a bit of Chinese medicine through my visits to the acupuncturist to support my weak digestion.  Damp conditions in the body do not a smoothie-lover make 🙂  I normally steer clear.

But it’s officially summer now in London and in May I was abroad in Singapore and Thailand where it was actually HOT.  With the heat comes a higher tolerance and craving for cold, cooling food and fruit.  In Asia, the abundance of fresh coconuts made coconut water my jet lag fighting hydration of choice ($1 compared to £4 in London for a fresh one) and juices and smoothies from the local market (hawker centers in Singapore) had me only too overzealous to try soursop, dragon fruit and guava concoctions made fresh from local produce.  So when my boyfriend and I walked by a local green grocer in our London neighbourhood selling crates of nearly too-ripe-to-sell mangoes for £2.50 the lot, we took them straight home to wash, peel, chop and freeze for when we decided to put our new Thai cooking skills to the test.

Well ahead of a Thai cooking fest (still yet to come), there was this slightly warm, slightly rushed June morning and that’s when I accidentally created the tastiest mango-nana smoothie ever, which has become a new obsession.  And I am starting to think that it’s little accidents like this that are the catalyst for a whole lot of creativity in the kitchen.  In the past I’ve found motivation to cook healthy meals after meeting a chef during travel or falling in love with a particular cookbook/recipe I came across.   But now that I’ve created something on my very own without any guidance (but lots of indirect inspiration from travel, and other taste adventures), I have more faith in myself.  And these days full of administrative tasks, if I can do anything without being online or staring at print, I’m all over it.  Hell, I’m even thinking I’ll dust the piano off and start writing some music…

So you probably want the recipe now, right?  Ok.  Only thing is I’m going to be a little vague here because I didn’t measure out each of the ingredients and, actually, I think that’s part of the fun in making a signature smoothie to fit your tastes – there’s a lot of alchemy involved.  And I never used to think one little ingredient could make a vast difference, but this recipe proves that to be untrue.  There is one key ingredient for ME, that makes this heavenly and adds to the fragrance, which is also an element of cooking that should not be overlooked.  I didn’t want to mention any particular brand names to keep it simple but will share my favourite coconut water for this in a later post.

Firstly, this smoothie needs to be COLD.  So you’ve got to use frozen mango and ideally frozen banana (but if just one is frozen, then you are good to go).

As far as the cacao nibs go, that’s essential to me, but my boyfriend (who likens the smoothie to the creamiest vanilla ice cream…but healthy…) feels they are superfluous.  I love the combination of the sweet smoothie taste (really it should be a dessert or a treat rather than a breakfast) with the bitter nibs.

Ingredients:

1 frozen banana

1 handful of frozen mango

1 cup coconut water (preferred brand below)

1 cup almond milk

1 large spoonful of cashew butter

1 spoonful (or several of if you like bitter like me) of cacao nibs sprinkled on top

Whiz it up in a blender and maybe add more milk, mango, whatever you want to make it just right for you.  It should be nice, cold and creamy and the nibs should sit on top as in the photo.  Yum Yum Yum.

I have quite a few other inspired recipes that I’ve tweaked and will get up on my new blog (exciting!) soon but this one is really my baby.  And I’m proud of it.  There are so many incredibly talented and inspirational food bloggers out there, and I won’t ever keep up with them, but every time I repeat a recipe and find that it’s part of a healthy repertoire, I will share it on my new site as a special food post and I hope you enjoy!

*Okay so now that this post has been up for a while I am announcing my preferred coconut water brand for this recipe – it’s Go Coco.  I was slightly concerned at first because even though it won a Taste Award, there were two extra ingredients in there that I wasn’t sure of: natural flavorings and citric acid.  I wrote to them and they immediately got back to me to assure me that citric acid was lemon juice added to preserve it and that the natural flavorings were part of their secret recipe (I assume to give it that extra coconutty taste and vanilla-like fragrance) but definitely 100% natural and nothing artificial.  So I am happy to keep using this in my smoothie recipe, because it really does enhance the taste and flavour. Thanks Go Coco!

Why I Cleanse

May 5, 2013

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A few years ago I embarked upon my first ever detoxification programme.  I don’t recall precisely what it was that motivated me to remove all toxic substances from my diet, but perhaps it was just that – an intuitive sense that there was ‘toxic overload’ in my body and I needed a fresh start.

It never ceases to amaze me how strongly the seasons influence my mood and appetite and Spring is a season I always associate with new beginnings.  I was born in April and have vivid memories of Easter-themed birthday parties, pastel-coloured paper plates and hunting for chocolate eggs amidst the yellow forsythia bushes in our garden.  The approach of April always instilled excitement in me for my birthday celebration, but now I look forward to it as a time to refresh and renew with a juice cleanse.

When you compare indulging in foil-wrapped chocolate eggs to depriving yourself of solid food for several days, you probably think it would be mad to prefer the latter.  But having now experimented with several different kinds of cleanses, I can honestly say that ‘spring-cleaning’ my body has played an essential role in my overall health and well-being, and worked wonders to help kick bad eating and lifestyle habits.

First of all, there are many types of cleanses and detox programmes out there, and let’s not be mistaken, some are conducted poorly, using the wrong method for one’s health needs, at the wrong time of year, with misguided objectives.  The purpose of this blog is not to give you specific instructions for cleansing, but rather to highlight why one might want to motivate themselves to embark upon a cleanse in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier, cleansing is an opportunity to refresh and renew your system.  It is also TEMPORARY.  In one of my favourite resources on how to lead a healthier, cleaner lifestyle, Clean, by Alejandro Junger, he defines a cleanse as a ‘distinct programme, done for a concentrated period of time, that puts the body in a more intense detox mode.  It has a start and an end date and a specific purpose.’

When I tell people I’ve just come off a cleanse (usually this is preceded by them asking me why I am glowing), they often respond: Oh God – how can you do that!?  Food is the source of life and happiness – I couldn’t survive without it!  Well, duh, neither could I!  Cooking is one of my greatest pleasures!  But while cleaning up our diet and our lifestyles in order to support our health should be something we strive to do on a daily basis, taking more extreme measures to actually rid our bodies of toxins is a very interesting, short-term experiment to get you thinking about what it is in your life, diet and environment that is literally polluting your body and mind.  In other words, defining, what is toxic to you?

In another great resource on cleansing, The 3-Day Cleanse by Zoe Sakoutis and Erica Huss, they define a toxin as ‘a poisonous substance that is harmful to your body.  There are man-made toxins such as pesticides and gasoline, and natural toxins such as those that result from the activities of daily living.  There are also toxins in the food you eat and the water you drink…If you don’t get rid of toxins in your body, they build up and damage cells and tissue, leading to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.’

Junger defines a toxin as ‘something that interferes with normal physiology and negatively impacts bodily function.  Toxins are of many different kinds, with totally different qualities, from an infinite number of different sources; just as varied are the complex mechanisms by which they cause irritation and damage.’  Later he adds, ‘Toxicity irritates tissues, damages our own cells, and kills other cells that we host in harmony and need for our health.’

While it’s absolutely true that the body has a natural detoxification system involving our very intelligent organs, unfortunately these systems can become impaired by the overwhelming amount of toxins we are exposed to today compared to our predecessors.  In Barbara Wren’s incredible book Cellular Awakening, she talks about this natural process and its many stages, including: toxicity being released into the lymphatic system, then toxic lymph draining into the blood, then blood passing through the liver (which filters out the toxins), then the liver excreting toxic bile into the bowel, and then the toxins being excreted from the body through the bowel.  When a body isn’t well (and these days, most are struggling), she says ‘toxicity can get blocked at any of the above stages,’ which is why sometimes we need to take more drastic measures to restore and re-balance our body’s natural detoxification functions.

On my most recent detoxification experience at a health and healing holiday retreat centre in the Philippines, I followed a 6-day juice cleanse where I drank 5 vegetable-based juices per day, supported by natural supplements including Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes, Blue Green Algae, Cold Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil, a Natural herb formula for brain function and an Electrocolloids Drink (to restore electrolytes), as well as drinking plenty of water.  Unlike self-proctored cleanses I had done previously in my home in London based upon research online and the resources mentioned in this post, the experience at The Farm was very different.  This is primarily because I was completely removed from everyday stresses, in a secluded, hot, and beautiful environment as opposed to cold, damp London.  Instead of having to prepare my own juices (which you can read more about in my blog post on My Kitchen Family) and think about appropriate timing, they were made for me.  I never experienced hunger or fatigue and I believe this was because I never experienced stress.  My days were filled with lounging by the pool, soaking up sunshine, reading good fiction, socializing with my best friend, practicing yoga, taking walks in nature, getting plentiful rest and enjoying some of the most incredible and indulgent detoxification treatments.  I was also under medical supervision the whole time and near to support should I experience a ‘healing crisis.’ My cell phone and computer were far from sight.

Cleanses don’t necessarily have to be juice-based.  In Ayurveda (ancient Indian science of life), doctors and therapists will prescribe regular periods of detoxification known as panchakarma, where you follow a very simple food-based cleanse, consuming mostly warm, cooked kitchadi (mung daal with many healing spices such as tumeric) that is also aimed at giving our organs a break and eliminating waste materials from the body.  My Autumn cleanse (I strive to cleanse twice per year) is inspired by this method as it involves warmer, more therapeutic foods and guidelines that are easier to follow in the London climate.

The most effective cleanses will also involve complementary treatments like colonics, enemas or colemas, which help to rid the body of the toxins that get released when we slow down our digestive systems and let toxins release.  They will also encourage techniques like skin brushing, hot and cold showering, Epsom salt baths,  castor oil packing and tongue scraping.  In the Philippines we had 2 colonics and 2 coffee colemas on alternate days, as well as daily spa treatments including coconut oil scrubs, charcoal treatment on the skin, skin Kayud treatment (scraping of the body with a seashell to improve movement of the lymph), Thai massage, Salt baths and coconut milk baths.  Cleanses don’t need to be done in such luxury, but my finding is that, if you can (I was lucky to find a generous discount for this one), it’s definitely preferable and more effective to cleanse in a peaceful and supportive environment, completely removed from your normal daily routine and surroundings.  Cleansing can be quite a challenging, emotional and intense experience and should not be taken lightly.  Chances are, the money you spend on doing it right will pay off in the end in terms of not creating more stress for your body and easing up payments on medical bills in the future…

So how do you know when you’re run down or need a clean canvas?  Start by asking yourself questions like, how do I feel when I get out of bed?  Energized or groggy?   What are your thought patterns like – negative or light?  How does your skin look – glowing or dull?  How does your body feel – heavy or vibrant?  How many times have you gotten ill in the past year?  Chances are, after a long winter of comfort eating, staying indoors, and possibly working too hard, most of us are in need of a re-boot.  Common signs of toxicity in the body are: Fatigue, Headaches, Bowel Irregularities, Allergies, Weight Problems, Depression, Anxiety, Skin problems, Sinus issues, Bloating after eating, Constipation, Muscle and Joint Pain, etc.  Sound familiar?

Is a cleanse going to solve all these problems instantly and eternally?  Probably not, but some people do experience this.  Everyone will have a different experience depending on their individual conditions and the degree to which they are leading a toxic life.  Will a cleanse build my awareness of what I can be doing to be feeling better?  Absolutely.  Whether you are embarking on a short cleanse or simply trying to clean up your act in small ways every day, keep in mind that changing habits and healing illness and toxicity in the body can take time and should be a lifelong objective.  So if you’re in it for instant weight loss for example, you might experience this as an immediate result, but you are depriving yourself of noticing and possibly experiencing the more profound outcomes.  Maintaining healthy weight, good skin, high energy, etc. is down to you carrying all of your observations and good habits with you to feel good all year round.

Here are just a few wonderful outcomes I have experienced from cleansing:

  • A massive awakening and renewal of my sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch (you become more sensitive to both the bad and good stuff – and thus more aware of sounds (like traffic) that are stressful to the system and textures (like cotton as opposed to polyester) that are more loving to your skin
  • A new awareness of toxic chemicals that sneak into our food and beauty products.  You  might taste the pesticides on your produce or be disgusted by the chemical scent of your body lotion for example.  I spring-cleaned my bathroom cabinets of all unnatural, non-organic products after my first cleanse and it made a huge difference to how I felt.  You might even start to make your own (check out my friend Amanda’s blog for a great recipe for home-made deodorant) as you increase your awareness of how the skin itself is a detoxing organ
  • A greater affinity for the fresh, alkaline, naturally cleansing foods that become abundant in the Spring and less cravings for the foods that you know slow you down (processed and refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, coffee, etc.)
  • Better portion control – when you remove solid foods from your diet for a period of time, you realize how little we savour and chew our foods and also how little we require to survive.  Transitioning from warm weather and the country back into colder, city environments, will naturally have you wanting more food and possibly warm foods, but you are unlikely to binge after a cleanse if administered correctly
  • You realize  how much of your day (and energy) can be spent thinking about, preparing and digesting food – suddenly your days become longer and less complicated when you remove this from your routine for a short while!  You might simplify your cooking moving forward
  • Your ability to listen and be compassionate might increase – my eyes and ears actually feel bigger after a cleanse and my mind less cluttered with toxic thoughts about myself
  • You feel more centered calm because you are forced to slow down and hit the pause button; you realizing taking things slow feels good
  • You start to really comprehend how the digestive system and our bowels work (miracle system!), which can result in you treating your body with more kindness by feeding it foods that digest easily and make you feel good – once you’ve finished a cleanse, you’ll be more likely to make better choices so as not to un-do all the good you’ve done
  • You realize how much we turn to food for comfort and how we use it to sustain ourselves through stressful situations and might start to explore other methods of de-stressing like yoga and meditation, exercising or partaking in more cultural activities
  • A higher appreciation and more focus on getting good rest and sleep, watching less television and exposing yourself to less toxic media!

And here are my key pieces of advice when considering a cleanse:

  • Do your research!  Don’t just jump on the cleansing bandwagon because someone told you they lost a lot of weight from a cleanse and you want to lose a few extra pounds fast.  Define your motivation and objectives and make them meaningful and lasting ones.
  • If you are doing a juice cleanse, ideally do it in the Spring months and somewhere warm – it will be less shocking on your system and you’ll be less inclined to dream about comfort foods!  Although keep in mind that a long-haul flight somewhere can be toxic and dehydrating to your body, so work in extra days on either end to ease back home and into the detox environment
  • Think about the right cleanse for your body and your needs – there are many different approaches out there and you need to choose the one that resonates with you the most.  Trust your own instincts in terms of level of severity, timing and length
  • Do your first cleanse under supervision of someone experienced and knowledgeable on the topic

Kimchi, Jujubes and Citron Tea

May 5, 2013

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Recently my eight-year-old niece Alex had to complete a homework assignment on the topic of her heritage.  Auntie Kate, she asked me, am I a little bit Korean?   You might wonder how on earth my ginger-haired, blue-eyed niece of Irish/Italian-American descent could be mistaken to believe her roots traced all the way to the Far East, but her intuition was not so naive.  Her Auntie Mandy (my sister) was adopted from Seoul, South Korea.

I recall that when I was Alex’s age, I was also curious about my sister’s origins and how that might play a role in shaping my own ethnic identity.  I was intensely proud of my talented and beautiful older sister Amanda (lovingly nick-named Mandy) and took every opportunity to boast my knowledge of her first nationality.  Silly school kids would assume she was of Chinese descent (the most ethnic restaurant we had in our small, American hometown was a Chinese-food restaurant run by a family with her same hair colour) and ask me if she spoke English.  She’s NOT Chinese! I would exclaim.  She is from South Korea and duh – of course she speaks English!  She’s American!   The only confidence I lacked was in knowing – where am I from?  And how can she be two nationalities and I only one?

Growing up in a family that has little knowledge of its ethnic origins (I blame this partially on my father who, despite his alabaster complexion, has stood by a belief  his late Auntie Hitty planted in him that we are exotically part Abenaki Indian and feared finding out that we were actually of standard Irish descent like most inhabitants of my town), I was far more interested in my sister’s background.  I too wanted to be linked to a place far far away and recall my parents inventing the possibility that I was actually Dutch to appease me.  This was after watching a film at Epcot centre in Florida about the nations of Europe in which I spotted a little blondie like myself in wooden clogs who could have been my distant cousin.

That worked for a little while until my 7th grade homework assignment came around (I was 12): prepare a dish linked to your cultural heritage and bring it into class to share with everyone.  No doubt the assignment was meant to inspire and remind all of us Americans that we are, in fact, descendants of Europeans, Asians, Indians, you name it.  A ‘melting pot’ or what was more politically corrected to be a ‘salad bowl’ of nationalities and ethnicities.  Unfortunately, all my mother and I could come up with based on our limited knowledge (or assumption we were of English descent) was fruitcake.  I was terribly disappointed by my rather dull contribution – no one touched it and it didn’t touch me – how could I be from a culture that put fruit in cake that didn’t really taste like cake?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I had some kind of advanced, refined palette for exotic and spicy foods at a young age.  Quite the contrary.  I was an extremely unadventurous and picky eater and spent the better part of my childhood oscillating between hamburgers, pizza, bagels, cereal and cake.  My father still reminds me of the embarrassing time my friend’s mother had to pick the peanuts out of their chunky (as opposed to smooth) style peanut butter in order to get me to eat lunch at their house – oh for shame.  But I do remember a curiosity about other foods, particularly the ominous jar of kimchi (fermented Korean vegetables – usually cabbage) that sat idle inside our refrigerator…

You see my mom used to organize little presentations at our school to teach my sisters’ and my classmates a little bit about Korean culture, since it was a very special thing in our town to have this kind of diversity and it would have been silly not to recognize it.  My sister would come dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok with beautiful embroidery and colours that had all the girls jealous and all the boys instantly in love.  You see, because aside from my sister, South Korea produces many beautiful and awe-inspiring things.  My understanding of the scope of this beauty, however, was minimal up until recently when I finally got to visit Seoul for the first time three years ago to see Mandy who has been living there for the past five years.

I was so struck by the beauty of Seoul and its rich culinary and artistic culture the first time I visited, that I planned another trip just this past April, this time bringing my best friend and fellow cohort when it comes to all things foodie.   Over the past two decades of my life, I started following in my sister’s footsteps by letting go of my fear to try new foods and becoming an adventurous eater.   This was aided hugely by living abroad in Italy and France and being forced out of my food comfort zone.  I also completely changed my diet to eat healthier, digestion-friendly foods after realizing the negative effect refined foods were having on my gut.  So by the time I got to Seoul, I was prepared to sample all of the many incredible dishes and treats that Korean cuisine has to offer (many of which boast health benefits), including all of the fermented (and initially off-putting items) like kimchi, as well as bibimbap, sambap, bulgogi, red bean paste, juk, duk, mugwort tea, citron tea, omija tea, jujubes and bingsu.  Suffice it say, there are few food items from South Korea that I don’t like and many things about Korean culture that I absolutely love.  My photo album from this trip consists mainly of photographs of food, a love affair gone wild and only just begun.

Just as my parents adopted my sister from South Korea over thirty years ago, I have adopted Korea through love for my sister and the enjoyment of Korean culture and food.  So in some way, it definitely feels like I’m a little bit Korean…and maybe my niece hasn’t got it so wrong.  If there is one thing that is for sure, it’s that food is a powerful mechanism through which you can learn more about a distant culture and country, but also yourself.  Even places criticized for their lack of fine cuisine such as Great Britain, where I have recently become an official citizen, have food culture.  There is certainly more to Britain than fruitcake (which I have grown to appreciate), but if my heart belongs to Europe and my passports to the U.S. and the U.K., then my tastebuds might always belong to Korea and I can only hope my parents are proud for growing a family with no boundaries for degustation even if they prefer to watch from the sidelines.

Happy 25th Anniversary River Café

September 11, 2012

Last week, when the sun shone consistently in London and temperatures were warm, was the perfect River Café week.  I know this not so much from being a frequent daytime diner at this famous London restaurant, but because for the past three years I have had the pleasure (and sometimes the jealous pain) to work in an office just above this riverside establishment, which serves the best of simple and traditional Italian cuisine.  My window overlooks the idyllic setting on the north bank of the Thames with a view onto the signature blue chairs and white awnings that protect ladies who lunch and their gelato from the rare but surprisingly strong sun.

Around 11AM during the summer months, the aromas of freshly baked bread from their wood-burning oven, grilled fish, and cooked vegetables and herbs from the garden waft through my window inducing a lunchtime appetite often far too close to breakfast and far too mighty for the minimal caloric requirements of my stationary desk job.  From my vantage point, I can intermittently look upon diners without them knowing, living vicariously through their primi and secondi dishes, their sometimes numerous bottles of wine, and divine dolce.  I can absorb the sounds of forks and knives tapping ceramic dishes and clinking wine glasses that conjure up memories of my summers living in Italy so palpable I can almost taste the olive oil.

Because part of my desk job is entertaining clients, I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of experiencing many delicious 2 or 3-course lunches there myself, none of which have ever failed to satisfy my hunger, delight my tastebuds or provide a feast of colour to my eyes.  Yes, I’m that girl covertly taking photos of her food with her i-phone just like I took photos of my Easter basket when I was little to preserve the beauty of what would soon be devoured graciously in front of me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such consistent satisfaction from one place, such incredible hospitality and flawless service, such authenticity and humbleness where, because of the celebrity clientele and attention of the press, there could instead be a massive ego.  I have no doubt that this is because the River Café, originally the canteen for the neighbouring architectural firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), was dreamed up by two women with a sincere love of functionality, food and Italy: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.  While Rose sadly passed away recently due to cancer, Ruth still owns the restaurant and can be seen throughout the day dressed in her white chef’s outfit, checking on her staff and guests, maintaining a presence not dissimilar to an Italian mamma who never wanders far from her kitchen.

On the wall next to the bar, there is a framed black and white photo of Ruth and Rose sat at what one can only assume is a table outside some sunny Italian trattoria or ristorante, perfectly content in their sundresses and at home in one another’s company.  There is something really special about that photo to me.  It manages to tell me a lot about two women I hardly know, their friendship, and the heart and soul behind the menu.  It also reminds me very much of photographs taken of my dear friend Tamara and me on several holidays to visit what we affectionately refer to Italy as: The Mothership.

I met Tamara roughly 8 years ago before moving to London from New York City.  She, like me, was partaking in a summer programme in Urbino (the Marche region of Italy) in an effort to soak up all things sunny and Italian before the summer ended.  When it came time to introduce ourselves to the rest of our advanced level Italian class, we chuckled when our bios seemed to mirror one anothers’ perfectly – two Franco/Italio-files with undergraduate degrees in romance languages, penchants for foreign films and literature and futures in London.  I had just come from a few weeks volunteering on organic farms in Abruzzo to perfect my Italian and Tamara was on a generous summer holiday from her role at the French Institute (Cine Lumiere).  It didn’t take long before we became two peas in a pod, accompanying each other on shopping trips for fresh peaches and ricotta cheese, spending afternoons sipping campari sodas in the sun and taking small hikes up the hillside to drink prosecco and munch on crisps while watching the sunset.  High on the bliss of Italian life (and pizza), we knew we would maintain the friendship (and try to maintain the essence of Italian living) when we were back in London in September.

Tamara in Verona

Me sat opposite Tamara

Two Springs later Tamara had now become one of my closest friends and, upon my 27th birthday in April, she gifted me two small cookbooks:  The River Cafe Pocket Books: Salad & Vegetables and The River Cafe Pocket Books: Pasta & Ravioli – explaining that they were the byproducts of one of the best Italian restaurants in London and sure to provide ongoing motivation to cook the way I had learned on the farms in Abruzzo, despite the lack of fresh ingredients.  She said, ‘one day when we’ve saved up, we’ll go to the restaurant ourselves,’ but for my first five years in London I could only know River Café through its brilliantly concise recipes that Tamara and I would replicate on the occasion of the ‘Italian film nights’ we hosted at our respective Battersea residences.  I continue to reference these books today – they are the perfect kitchen companion and capture the simplicity of Italian cuisine taught to me by the Italian mammas who ran the restaurants at the agriturismi where I worked.  I recall asking nonna Mirella after every delectable dish I tasted – yum – what have you put in this?  The answer was always the same: un po’ d’olio d’olive, un po’ di sale, un po’ d’aglio e basta!  A little olive oil, a little salt and a little garlic – and there you go!  My favourite recipe in the books?  Zucchini Trifolati – courgettes with a little basil, a little mint, a little garlic, a little olive oil (okay, a lot of olive oil) and there you go!  Heaven.

In 2009 when I was looking for a new job, I received a phone call for a role at a media company situated above the River Café – have you heard of it? At the time I couldn’t register that the River Café actually existed beyond the pages of my cookbooks and I mistakenly confused it with Riverside Studios, a cinema/arthouse just down the river.  I couldn’t visualize a restaurant sharing the location of an office and assumed the recruiter accidentally modified the name.  It wasn’t until my interview in the board room that I looked out the window and realized where I was.  My interviewer saw pure delight wash over my face as I admired the view and he mentioned that it was a great restaurant where they often took guests.  Let’s just say when I had to make a decision about the job, this was on my list of pros.

Three years later and I feel I have accumulated enough dining experiences – both actual and vicarious – to truly understand what the River Café is all about.  However, I am well aware that my 3 years pales in comparison to the 25 witnessed by the creators who on Sunday celebrated the longevity of a restaurant that continues to attract a crowd of devoted clientele.  I have no doubt there were many ups and downs along the way and that the result of many years of hard work has produced something potentially very far from the original intention. The history can be felt; the fine tuning of every last detail has not gone unnoticed – it’s something that can only be achieved with time and dedication.  Whatever the plan was, it has worked for me.

I feel blessed for the many times I’ve been able to choose a starter consisting of fresh greens from the garden, unbelievable raw mozarella or grilled calamari, a main of Scottish scallops or sea bass accompanied by vegetables or beans cooked in authentic Italian fashion.  I feel honoured to have dipped many a slice of bread in olive oil as pure as gold and spoiled to have experienced the wickedly decadent chocolate nemesis on more than one occasion.  But beyond even the experience of the restaurant, I feel lucky to have worked within a little pocket of London so carefully carved by the architects who modified the space, that it has become an oasis far from the chaos of the city.  I feel lucky to have taken my lunch breaks by the garden, at a picnic table or on a piece of lawn nestled within an area of London that feels like it’s bordering Italy.  It’s a space that inspires taking deep breaths, feeling fresh air, and appreciating life.  I love everything about it, including the nifty bike park where I can nestle my bike safely throughout the day in a what looks like a happy bicycle daycare facility.  Yes, in the summer months more than any other time, the River Café and its surroundings is a space that nurtures you and inspires healthy living, just like Italy.

So it’s on the occasion of The River Café’s 25th anniversary that I want to thank Ruth and Rose and the architects (Lord Rogers) who created this Londoner’s Italian piazza just outside my window.  We share a six-year history together, but your relationship with London started far ahead of mine.  When I came into work on the Monday morning after your big day, there was a silence outside, reminiscent of the winter months when the outdoor seating hibernates until the next year (and when I am less aware of the beauty beneath me).   The celebration that took place the day before left a visible and energetic mark.  You’ve set an amazing example that will inspire me (and surely countless others) in my future endeavours.  I hope one day there will be more restaurants like this one and more spaces in London that instill a higher appreciation of local food, urban nature and community, but for now you are one of a kind.

My Kitchen Family

August 28, 2012

The new and improved kitchen

The other day I was online chatting with my chef friend Chris about my kitchen family when it occurred to me that I have a favourite kitchen child.  I like to think about each appliance and new addition to my kitchen as part of a growing progeny of careful research and experimentation with different methods of eating and preparing food that serve me and my health needs best.  Perhaps it’s because my juicer was the first born that it holds a very special place in my heart.  Perhaps it’s because investing in a juicer (the good ones are not cheap) came at a pivotal time in my life, when I realized even more profoundly that I could take my health into my own hands.  Whatever it is, I love my juicer and no matter what trouble it may or may not give me in the future, it’s my baby.

It was roughly two Springs ago when I decided I wanted to try a juice cleanse.  A what?  A juice fast.  So you don’t drink juice?  No – you only drink juice.  Forever?  No, for a fixed period of time in order to detox.  Oh God that sounds awful – like apple juice from Sainsbury’s?  No, you make your own juice at home with lots of different vegetables and fruits and they’re really yummy, not from concentrate.  But what are you trying to detox, you’re the healthiest person I know?  And so the conversation tends to go every time I bring up this topic.  I had done some reading into the benefits of giving your digestive system a time-out by eliminating solid foods for 1-7 days and wanted to try at least 3 days of juicing to see if it would bring all those things people continuously report: improved digestion, better eyesight, reduced inflammation (bloating and puffiness), more energy, clearer mind, fresher appetite, etc.  My body was calling for it and a 3-day weekend around the Spring Equinox presented the perfect opportunity.  But how was I going to make juice without a proper juicer?

First let’s briefly look at WHY you would want to make your own juice versus drinking store-bought juice.  Firstly, you control the ingredients.  And as someone who strives to consume 90% organic produce sourced from local markets and prefers vegetables to fruit, this is a hugely attractive benefit.  Secondly, to truly reap the benefits of juicing, the juice needs to be freshly made and consumed immediately after juicing.  The juice you make at home is unpasteurized so bacteria will grow faster and the longer you leave it, the more its nutritional value will decrease (store-bought juice can contain loads of preservatives or sugar and most juices you find in the shops or on juice bar menus, consist predominantly of sweet fruits – in other words – a natural, but potentially detrimental sugar rush).  Thirdly, you’ll save money in the long run and in a city where pubs rather than juice bars grace every corner, you won’t have to venture far for a nutritional boost.

So without digressing too much onto the topic of juicing and detoxing (this will appear in a future post), let’s get back to how I chose my juicer.  In this instance, I consulted my yoga teacher and friend Linda who has accumulated a wealth of information over the years on health and well-being and who I knew had the same juicer for more than a decade.  I also consulted raw food Goddess Kate Magic  and the website of Jason Vale (a.k.a The Juice Master) and settled on a ‘masticating’ rather than ‘centrifugal’ juicer.  I was determined that my juices would be mostly green in variety and would serve first and foremost to promote a cleanse and then subsequently to create daily ‘medicines’ full of powerful, immune-boosting enzymes.  So a masticating version (literally chews up the vegetables to extract more than any zippy, centrifugal juicer can) was the way to go.  It was love at first sight when my ivory, Matstone 6-in-1 juicer arrived in my flat.  One flat move later, it still holds a special place on my counter (bench) as my very handy medicine maker whenever I need it.  Even though she often hibernates in the winter months when my body calls for warming, cooked foods, she’s unveiled again in the Spring for a very active few months.

My Matstone 6-in-1 making her first green juice!

About one Spring ago, I moved into a new flat in London.  I was heartbroken to leave my humble abode on the 3rd floor of a cozy block of flats in Battersea – a flat that not only witnessed my first juices, but also the first Thanksgiving I ever hosted (lovingly and comically re-branded Kates-giving by guests).  To soften the blow, I decided it was time to cough up a bit more on rent and moved into a 2-story cottage within the vicinity that had a kitchen about 5 times the size of my previous one and a garden about 10 times the size of my previous balcony where I grew a few humble herbs.  Now I could really go to town.

A new, bright, big kitchen meant I would inevitably use the space to host cooking workshops with guest chefs like Chris and eventually on my own – there were no excuses now.  It also meant I could really guilt my flatmate into learning how to cook.  I slowly built up a collection of standard kitchen necessities such as stainless steel pots and pans, various sizes of strainers and colanders, pyrex storage containers, proper cutting boards and knives, casserole dishes, glass jugs, mortar and pestle, scale, etc.  Finally a kitchen that didn’t come with a microwave – hallelujah!  But there was something missing.  While I had a reputable blender that was working perfectly fine, I had not yet invested in a food processor and I knew there was a machine out there that could fulfill both duties faster and better than anything else on the market…the Vitamix.  What’s that – does it make vitamins?  Well, kind of, but no, it’s like the Mercedes of blenders – I think it can blend gold if you want it to.  Wow – what do you use it for?  All sorts of things: salad dressings, juices, smoothies, soups, nut milks…It’s an all-in-one.  Nut milk?  Yeah – you can make milk out of soaked nuts.  Weird.  Was it expensive?  Yes. And so the conversation usually goes.  I knew Chris relied on a Vitamix to whip up his truly tasty dressings, nut milk-based smoothies and creamy soups and so we agreed I would purchase one upon his arrival in London.  As luck would have it, Whole Foods was having a sale.  I present you with a photo of its christening (we made chilled organic coffee smoothies with nut milk).  It’s now my second favourite kitchen baby.

‘CHRIStening’ the Vitamix

What I like about both of these kitchen appliances is that they were born organically from a need or growing interest at just the moment when I was ready to welcome them into my life.  Oftentimes we buy things because they sound good or promise results that we are drawn to, without actually thinking about how much time we have to devote to using them, practicing different recipes and establishing the role they will play in our overall kitchen family.  Remember that treadmill that sat in your basement for years that you used maybe 5 times?  It’s like that.  I feel lucky with these two.  They complement one another and each fulfill a unique, primary role – the juicer makes the medicine shots and the Vitamix is the overall time and money saver on items I consume in bulk (home-made nut milks cost a fraction of what they would in the shops and smoothies and soups are whipped up in no time before heading off to work in the morning).  They haven’t replaced my stockpot, slow-cooker, or steamers; nor have they replaced conventional and less effective forms of juicing and mixing – I still enjoy my hand-held lemon juicer and pouring blended milks and juices through a cloth bag to eliminate pulp.  There’s always a more primitive and meditative route if you have the time.  I reckon the next item down the line is a dehydrator, but I’m not ready yet.  I want to give each kid the attention it deserves before I divide my time further and I still haven’t made my own nut butters yet with the juicer – yup, it does that too.

Iced nut-milk coffee frappes

In later posts, I’ll blog about my favourite uses for each item and other healthy kitchen essentials in further detail, but for now I encourage you to think about how your kitchen and your kitchen family serves you and your health.  Do you have clear counter space as your canvas?  Do you have a wonderfully working oven that gets neglected?  A stove-top giving you sad eyes from neglect?  What about a coffee grinder that wants to have a go at some seeds but you’ve forgotten about it?  Is the lack of a blender preventing you from making healthy smoothies or making you spend too much on smoothies from Joe and the Juice?  Is a microwave promoting the continual, lazy purchase of salt-laden ready-meals and making your cookbooks collect dust (let’s not mention the fact it kills food)?

Don’t forget – a kitchen can be a playground.  It can also be a laboratory for your health.  And your kitchen tools and appliances can be like family if they work for you.  They’ll be burdens if they don’t.  As times goes by, my medicine cabinet becomes more and more bare while my kitchen gets fuller and fuller.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Invest in your kitchen family and you invest in your health and happiness.  If you’re unsure what you need next, think about attending a cooking workshop or find a style of cooking that resonates with you and see if they have a list of suggestions for appliances.  What does your kitchen family look like? How might it grow?

A Perfect Cuppa

June 5, 2012

We’re all gluten-free, caffeine-free and sugar-free these days, but sometimes when the skies are gray, a good old-fashioned afternoon tea is the only way to go.

Tea holds a special place in many cultures, but in England it’s an institution.  Afternoon Tea is a delicate ritual that works best in prestigious venues, such as The Ritz or The Dorchester,  where one is expected to conduct herself in a dignified manner with the decor to match.  These kinds of Teas are best shared amongst a group of close girlfriends on a special occasion.  I hosted one of my first birthdays in London at The Wolseley – it was a warm and sunny April day and the dress code was floral prints.  We indulged in tea and scones – known as a Cream Tea – and I was instructed to coat my scone with a decent layer of butter followed by clotted cream and then finally fresh, home-made jam.  My best memory of this day was a gift granted to me by my friend Tamara – a set of River Cafe Cookbooks (the origin of a long love affair with the restaurant to be blogged about later) and the unusual treat of sunshine.  We were, however, drinking tea like tourists.

Traditional tea choices in England are of the black variety (and here the green tea drinker in me confesses that there is nothing quite as luscious as a cup of fragrant Earl Grey) served with a decent amount of milk.  But tea is not just reserved for special occasions.  There is also the office tea ritual.  Brits love and rely on their tea and biscuits (bikkies) breaks when the afternoon or even a mid-morning slump hits.  If you don’t take a turn at the kettle, you’ll quickly find yourself out of the loop in any working evironment.  Popular combinations are a PG Tips, Tetley or Yorkshire tea paired with McVitie’s Digestives or Rich Tea biscuits, served in a mug you’ve likely brought in from home (and never to be borrowed by anyone else)!

I’ll never forget attending a focus-group on biscuit consumption for a famous British biscuit brand.  The women interviewed spoke of the pleasure of biscuit eating in a way that sounded dirtier – and much more fun – than sex.  One women confessed to a nightly biscuit binge.  She would pull out a package of her favourite biscuits and eat an entire sleeve after the kids were in bed.  Luckily she didn’t have the waistline to reveal her dirty secret!  In terms of a guilty pleasures, biscuits are to the British what ice cream is to Americans, and a national right at that!

Then there’s the concept of the Builder’s tea – a strong cuppa with a good amount of milk and sugar to soften the blow – designed to accompany anyone through a tough task at home and a necessary offering to any maintenance man.  My colleague once told me that he’d do any menial labour project such as painting, so long as there was a cup of tea and biscuit by his side (note to self if I one day marry a Brit).  Later that day I passed a man mending his fence – perched next to his exposed bottom was a cup of tea ready and waiting.  When life gets difficult, the Brits get the kettle boiling and the biscuits out.

When I first moved to London, I plunged right into the tea ritual.  But soon I realized that the caffeine/dairy/sugar combo was not doing me any favours.  I struggled as I appreciated the ritual, but not the side effects.   It’s a habit that I suspect is exacerbating some health issues for tea-centric Brits too.  But like milk and cookies to Americans, it’s too far engrained in the culture to drastically change it now.  And why would you?  The news consistently supports the healthy aspect of a good tea ritual in terms of providing antioxidants.  What they don’t point out is that tea gets drunk often in lieu of water, in doses far greater and manners far less elegant than what was originally intended when tea ceremonies were first introduced.  When you’re sat at a computer all day drinking tea, that’s a whole lot of dehydration going on.

Nevertheless, when you live in a country where it’s cold and damp most of the time, a cup of tea is comforting and feels right (not to mention a healthier option when compared to the UK’s other famous past-time of alcohol consumption).  It’s normally an excuse to interrupt what you’re doing with a tiny and often sociable pause.  In my eyes, it’s also a whole lot better than the daily Starbucks consumed from wasteful disposable cups or the Diet Coke addictions one sees all over the U.S.  So if you’re in London, I would say that on at least one occasion you should put aside all refined food fears and tea preconceptions and get stuck in.  You’ll learn a lot about England from just one sip and you’ll probably like it too.  I’d check out this website for the best advice: http://www.tea.co.uk/.  You might never pair a cookie with milk again – sweet things are much nicer with a sharp cup of warm tea.

But if you’ve been consuming tea and biscuits your whole life (and the majority alone at your desk at work to get you through the day), I’d suggest experimenting with a week of herbal teas and afternoon fruit snacks instead and see if those headaches or IBS symptoms disappear (or if you’re masking discontent at your job)…there’s no reason to put your ritual to a halt, but modifications can be made to make this a truly healthy and even spiritual ritual that one can continue to practice on a frequent basis!

When this blog departs from a London-theme, I’ll talk about tea rituals I have observed in other cultures that helped change my approach to tea drinking…

Heavenly Vegetarian

May 24, 2012

My first year in London as a student was punctuated by a series of bad restaurant experiences.  I heavily relied on Time Out to guide me to the best spots, but sometimes I just wanted to pop into a nearby venue without the fuss of researching.  Well, if one thing is for sure, then it’s that London is a city where you must research before you eat.  And that’s not just to avoid ‘paying through the nose’ for food that looks like it’s fresh out of the microwave.  It’s to make sure you eat some of the best food on this planet, because London is home to some of the finest restaurants and most interesting cuisine I have ever experienced…if you know where to look.

Now, it’s a well known fact that Britain is a meat and potatoes loving country.  People also like their beer, their beer battered fish and their fatty chips.  And there’s a time and a place for that kind of eating in moderation (so long as you don’t leave out the mushy peas – my all time favourite British classic). But there is no time or place for poorly prepared foods that cost more than making a freshly made meal at home.  It’s a situation I want everyone to avoid.

Britain is also home to many vegetarians and it’s not hard to find a vegetarian selection – but beware.  What you might deem vegetarian in California could manifest itself quite differently here.  Most vegetarians I know here, while avoiding acidic meat, are not necessarily making up for that with a well-balanced alkaline diet.  Many abruptly gave up meat sometime around the Mad Cow scare, but haven’t dedicated enough time to understanding the complex balance of a heathy vegetarian diet or the science of cooking beans and pulses in a digestible way.   They tend to eat a lot of cheese and potatoes and this, invariably, is how vegetarian options will appear on menus:  starchy numbers consisting of Britain’s favorite vegetables: potatoes, peas, and carrots.  I have one friend I’ve deemed an ‘Italiatarian’ – she thrives on a meatless diet of fine, Italian-inspired pasta and heavily-cooked vegetable dishes (which she makes with the utmost of love, care, and precision so I let her get away with it!)  Her safest bet when it comes to choosing a restaurant where she can eat?  A good Italian venue!  But a former vegetarian myself, I was determined to find some inventive veggie cuisine in London and turns out I didn’t have to look far!

After a few trials and errors, I’ve managed to locate some great places for those nights when your veggie friend is in town or when you’ve overdone it at a steak dinner or Sunday roast the day before and want to give your gut a break.  The photos in this post are from my favourite vegetarian venue in London: The Gate.  Tucked away on a side street in Hammersmith and nestled above a quaint courtyard, The Gate is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.  It is a peaceful oasis (less quiet at night when they turn the volume up on the tunes) in busy London.  It’s located half way between the HMV Apollo and Riverside Studios so you can pair your veggie-tastic meal with a popular show or night of good cinema if you plan ahead.  I hear they’re opening a new location across from Sadlers Wells (arguably the best dance venue in London) in Islington, not far from Jamie’s Italian (perfect spot for those Italiatarians out there but not a vegetarian restaurant!).

If you’re up for the hustle and bustle of Soho, you can check out Mildred’s – another inventive vegetarian venue popular amongst the celebrity crowd (I had my ultimate celebrity encounter with Thom Yorke from Radiohead here), but with the queue to match.  You can’t make reservations and the space is small so be prepared to wait for a table and arrive early if you can to beat the weeknight crowds.  Not far from here on Wardour street, is a more informal venue called Vitao, formerly Vita Organic.  When I worked in Soho, this was my favourite lunch spot, hosting a huge selection of macrobiotic, live food meals and a creative list of beverages using all kinds of juices and nut milks.  This is a great place if you’re eating alone and just need a quick fix.

If you’re in the Covent Garden area and up for a stroll down Neal’s Street, then you’ll soon find yourself in a colorful courtyard of healthy treasures – Neal’s Yard.  Here you can find the delectable Wild Food Cafe, which features not only vegetarian but also deliciously raw selections (the olive and shitaki mushroom burger with coconut cheese is delicious as is the selection of raw chocolate made on site – check out the machine by the door!).

En route to Neal’s Yard, you’ll find Food For Thought – a teeny tiny venue well-known by all as a great place for lunch or early dinner.  There’s limited seating downstairs but sharing tables with strangers is normal and meals are usually eaten in haste so it doesn’t take long for a spot to become free.  If you’re lucky, you’ll nab the cove at the back – perfect for a party of two with a  bit more time to spare.  The best deal is the full plate of one of the dishes of the day accompanied by a generous salad.  If it’s a nice day, visit the ‘take-away’ counter upstairs and eat your meal outside on the Seven Dials pillar

In Northeast London, I’ve heard Manna is incredible, but I’ve yet to try it!  If you’re planning a day on Primrose Hill and a trip to the flagship Triyoga Studios for a class, add a visit here to your agenda and let me know how it goes!

I’ve mentioned Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall earlier – this is man I’ve previously seen butcher animals from his backyard (River Cottage) but whose most recent TV show, River Cottage Veg Everyday, champions interesting and inventive ways of preparing beautiful vegetarian meals!  He’s done a great job in reminding people that vegetarian food is anything but dull and the best medium to test one’s cooking creativity!

So these are just a few places to get you started on your vegetarian journey around London (I’ll do another post for those Italiatarians and omnivores like me too…).  The next post is on the topic of Markets in London – where even more veggie options await you!  So the topic will continue…

Ode to Jamie

May 21, 2012

If the U.S. has Oprah, then the U.K. has Jamie Oliver.  If you’ve just taken part in Jamie’s Food Revolution on the 19th of May by hosting a healthy dinner party or event or if you are lucky enough to live in England and have had access to TV shows like Jamie’s Dream School, then you’re aware that the scope of Jamie’s mission goes far beyond starring in wholesome cookery shows.  Like the Oprah effect in American society, everything Jamie puts his mark on immediately increases in value and magically seems to have a wholesome, friendly, Jamie-like quality to it (even his 8-inch chefs knife).

A passionate leader like Oprah, Jamie doesn’t just want you to start cooking with confidence, he also wants to change the way schools feed children, moms and dads feed their families, and the way you feed yourself.  He wants to see teachers inspire the most detached and delinquent of students; he wants to share his adventurous world travel experiences with you so you think outside the box.  Jamie doesn’t just have his TV shows, he has 15 cookbooks, a magazine, a few restaurant chains, the Jamie Foundation and has shops in London where you can learn to cook like Jamie and purchase the same kitchen tools he uses – at least on his shows (Recipease).

So is it any wonder that I, a passionate foodie and big dreamer, was immediately drawn to this incredible figure?  Over the past 7 years, I’ve followed as many of his TV programmes as possible of the more than 20 that have graced British television sets, bought several Jamie kitchen appliances and tools (my Jamie tongs are high up there on the list of practicality and usefulness), and indulged in the Jamie magazine on many a painful public transport commute, but it all started with my Jamie at Home cookbook.  A book brilliantly categorized by season that celebrates British cooking and produce in a way so cozy and heartily that just looking through it brightens even the dreariest of rainy British days.  Having tried and tested them all, I can confidently say that the quality throughout all things marked Jamie is consistently high (and no, I don’t work for him!).

When I say that my appreciation for Jamie is huge, it’s a massive understatement.  More than his endearing use of vocabulary like ‘gorgeous’ and ‘whack’ (as in ‘whack in some red chili pepper’ or ‘preheat your oven to full whack’), it’s the way you can tell he has literally poured his heart and soul into all of these projects because he really wants to see change in the nation’s health and eating habits.  He really wants us to ENJOY our lives and food.  And if that’s not what a leader and role model should do, then I might be living in the wrong world.

Knee-deep in Jamie mania, I may reference Mr. Oliver quite frequently throughout my posts.  Don’t get me wrong – this is not an obsession – I don’t abide by or necessarily agree with all that Jamie promotes.  We have a different cooking style (I don’t try to make 3 or even 2-course meals in 30 minutes – too stressful!), we have a different accent (although I credit Jamie for my adoption of the English pronunciation of ‘herb’ with an audible ‘h’ and the use of words like courgette (zucchini), aubergine (eggplant), and coriander (cilantro) – once you’ve lived in England for more than 3 years, you have to switch!), and I generally try to adapt his recipes to make them slightly lighter (especially on the pepper and cream – Jamie loves his pepper).  Jamie is an inspiration to build my own brand, create change in a big way, and to find work I can pour my heart into too.

I was even lucky enough to meet Jamie in person one day.  I nervously walked up to him, introduced myself and shared my appreciation of the quality and quantity of everything he does.  He gave me a firm hand-shake, a good 10 minutes of his time and couldn’t have been kinder.  I told him I was on a similar mission (and in my head I thought, next time we meet, I hope he’ll be honoured to meet me).

And while this post is an ode to Jamie, I should mention (and will elaborate on this further in later posts) the abundance of other inspirational chefs in the UK.  I am a big fan of British television, the talent and content it produces.  In Britain, it’s clearly the chefs that rule the arena of TV celebrity and other names like Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson have already built reputations overseas.  If you’re living in London, I would highly recommend tuning in to anything featuring Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Heston Blumenthal to name a very very few.

British cooking shows are a feast for the eyes; they are fun and beautifully shot, and always inspire me to keep exploring my surroundings and use the kitchen as a playground of possibilities.  Choose the cookery shows over ‘diet’ shows, of which there are too many and which grossly miss the point when it comes to highlighting health problems and solutions. But that’s a sad topic for another post.  This week, let’s just celebrate Jamie and be grateful that someone on this all too important mission is getting the attention he deserves!

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