Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sugar - the New Demon

Two years ago I had a conversation with a medical member of my family about fat. We argued about what was the real cause of obesity in this country. He was still of the opinion that all fat should be avoided, particularly saturated fat. I told him there was new thinking on fat and that there was a very large study published which disproved the link between the amount of fat in the diet and heart disease. This study actually showed that countries such as Switzerland and France who had the largest intake of saturated fat and had the highest cholesterol levels had the lowest level of heart disease. The USA which had the lowest saturated fat intake and the lowest cholesterol levels actually had the highest amount of heart disease.

So what was going on? Why, when fat had been demonised for so long had heart disease, obesity and diabetes been steadily on the increase since the 1970s? It all began with Nixon. Rather than regurgitate the story, I have provided a link here which explains it better.

When fat is removed from a food it becomes tasteless and so sugar, salt and other enhancers need to be added to improve the flavour. Fat was so demonised that consumers developed an abhorrence of it. Sales of low fat, reduced fat and even zero fat products soared. Manufacturers realised they were onto a winner and could increase sales by stating even a naturally low fat food was low fat. Stating the bleedin' obvious so to speak.

Now consumers were consuming all this "hidden sugar" and were getting fatter and fatter and diabetic (interesting link here showing "The International Diabetes Federation, for example, which aims to combat diabetes, is a commercial partner of Novo Nordisk, the world’s biggest producer of insulin, and the food-processing giant, Nestle.") Consumers were cooking less and buying more and more processed foods. It was no coincidence that the mega food manufacturers were also getting richer and richer.

But now having demonised fat to the extent that the average person actually shudders at the mere mention of it, we are now in danger of demonising sugar.  While, who we should be demonising are the food manufacturers.

When you cook at home with sugar, you are in control. You know exactly how many grammes you have added. With processed food you have no idea and manufacturers have got very cute as to how they label sugar including, rice syrup, or even “organic dehydrated cane juice", invert sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin. The list goes on and on so much so that I as a food scientist am sometimes conned! So what hope does the average consumer have?

Intrinsically there is nothing wrong with sugar. It is the energy building block of life. All food nutrients are ultimately broken down to a basic sugar to provide fuel for every cell in the body. The less refined the sugar is the better it is for you. Your body has evolved to recognise and be able to digest and use sugar in it's natural forms. It tends to get a bit confused by modern laboratory refined equivalents.

The secret is to stop making cynical food processing manufacturers richer and as much as is practical and possible to avoid including processed foods in the diet. Moderation is the key.

We really are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water yet again. Instead let the dregs of tens of thousand baths drain down on cynical food manufacturers and may the fleas of a thousand camels infest their shareholders and may their arms be too short to scratch them.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Triumvirate Challenge

The triumvirate challenge. A challenge to make a meal from local, Irish ingredients from my three nearest supermarkets. Three supermarkets, Super Valu, Aldi and Tesco. Irish, German and British owned. I will select the ingredients, make the meal for two, matching wines or beers; whichever is appropriate, giving the cost and the verdict.

The Rules
  • The main ingredient will be Irish
  • All vegetables will be Irish
  • All ingredients will be seasonal
  • Value is paramount 
  • Where possible ingredients will be organic 

So what do I hope to achieve?

I live in a rural area where it is difficult to buy any ingredients out of the ordinary. I want to highlight how many Irish and seasonal ingredients I can buy. I want to see if there is a real difference between cost and quality. I want to see which supermarket offers the best of Irish. I want to see which supermarket offers the best value for all of the above.

1. Aldi (21/01/14)

Beef Cooked in Irish stout with Colcannon and a Gigondas 2012


Potatoes Irish €1.99/2kg
Carrots Irish 0.99c/1kg
Mushrooms Irish 0.99c/150g
Diced beef Irish €3.49/400g
1 bottle stout Irish €1.79/500ml
1 bottle Gigondas €14.99

Curly Kale on special  UK 0.39c (stated on receipt supplied by Irish supplier)

Store cupboard: Celery Irish organic, garlic Irish organic, onions Irish, Worcestershire sauce, my own pork head stock

Garden: Parsley and thyme

Cost per serving:
€3.73 for two very generous portions. It would easily feed four which would be €1.87. Obviously I am not including the wine in this breakdown.

I found it disappointingly difficult to source all Irish vegetables even for in season veg. in Aldi. The weekly special of kale was from the UK.

The Gigondas at €14.99 is relatively expensive but considerably more drinkable than many wines at close to that price.

Beef in stout with colcannon

2. SuperValu (23/01/2014)

Chicken and Leek Pie with a Macon Lugny 2011


1 Farmers to Market free range chicken Irish (frozen bought SV before Christmas for €9.19 on special)
1 Swede Irish 0.89 cent
1 mushroom medley Irish €2.69 ( a complete swiss 99.9% Oyster, with 1 Shitake and half an unidentifiable other)
1 Marscapone Irish €2.39 ( the Italian SuperValu one was €1.49)
1 net Brussels sprouts Irish €1.99
1 pack of leeks Irish €1.79
Macon Lugny €15.29

Store cupboard: celery Irish organic SV, flour (packed in Ireland?), butter Irish, olive oil Italian

Puff pastry homemade. 

Garden: thyme

Chicken and leek pie with creamed swede and Brussels sprouts

Cost per serving: Although I intended making a meal for two, it would feed four. The cost was €8 or €2 per portion. Realistically though, it would have served three hungry diners adequately for €2.67.
I still have the entire chicken leftover for another meal as I only used the two legs. And I will get 2 litres of delicious stock.

Verdict: A much bigger selection of Irish ingredients and also local Irish (as in Kilbeg Dairies Marscapone which is about 2 miles from me and the chicken which is reared about 8 miles away). I liked that. I did not like the mushroom medley which had the "unusual" mushrooms packed so that there seemed to be a lot more than there were with a strategically placed label!

The wine: initially I thought it was grossly overpriced as tasted it straight from the fridge. A big no no. It really only needs a light chilling or remove at least half an hour before opening.

3. Tesco (27/01/2014)

Fish Pie with Marrowfat Peas and O'Hara's Leann Follain Stout


Salmon Irish 2 darnes €2.99 each
Cod Irish €4.01/370g
Fresh king prawns cooked €4.17/125g (cooked in Ireland plant no)
Peas €1.09 can
Carrots .99/1kg
Potatoes €3.99/2kg

1 bottle stout €2.79

Store cupboard: Onion, leek, garlic, flour, butter, milk, creme fraiche all Irish, wholegrain Dijon mustard

Garden: thyme and parsley

Fish pie and marrowfat peas

Cost per serving: serves 4 very generously at €4.15 per serving or 5 for €3.32.

Verdict: I can't remember the last time I bought fish in a supermarket and was horrified at the price. There is a very fine fish shop in Navan where it would cost half this and it would be a lot fresher. The prawns although have an Irish cooked plant number, if you squint at the label for several seconds you can just about make out farmed in Indonesia/Thailand/China.  I did not want to cook with pork for obvious reasons (I rear my own pigs). The selection of lamb was very poor. I also found it really difficult to source Irish vegetables. Even celery was Spanish. Tesco was hugely disappointing.

O'Hara's Leann Follain - I didn't open it on this occasion (no alcohol mid-week) but I have tasted O'Hara's beers and stouts in the past and I have yet to have one I didn't love.

Overall Verdict:
This exercise has truly brought home to me how much food we import here in Ireland. I actually had to do a lot of searching and squinting at labels to buy Irish. Limiting the majority of ingredients to being Irish meant that dishes using pasta and rice were out. I'm not sure if the Irish brands of pasta are actually Irish but I do know they are rubbish and I would not cook with them. I found Tesco by far the most frustrating to shop in.

So although I always try my best to buy Irish and in season; if I had to shop solely in supermarkets I would find this difficult, particularly at this time of year. I will continue to buy vegetables (organic) in my local farmers' market, fish from my fishmonger, meat from my butcher and I will continue to cherry pick the rest from my three local supermarkets, prioritising Irish within reason.

Overall I would say SuperValu was best, with Aldi second and Tesco tailing behind.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Galette des Rois

Nollaig na mBan or Women's Christmas celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany has just passed. It is an
Irish tradition when women get together and celebrate all the hard work they have completed over the Christmas holidays.

A few years ago when I worked in a French Artisan bakery I used to see one of the pastry chefs making this creation with puff pastry and would stand and watch him. He told me about the tradition of eating it on the twelfth day of Christmas in France (the Epiphany). A trinket called la fève (originally a bean but now a trinket) is placed inside.The person who discovers it becomes king for the day. Bakeries in France sell these for the month of January and often provide a paper crown for the person who discovers the trinket.

I love stories behind cakes so I often intended to make one but I never did. Until now. I misread a recipe when making almond paste for my Christmas cake and so had a big ball of it leftover. In addition, three times when looking in the supermarket for icing sugar I picked up caster sugar instead. (Why can't manufacturers differentiate their packaging better?) So my almond paste was made with mostly caster sugar rather than fifty:fifty icing and caster. The resulting paste was rather gritty but was still fine.

I looked up recipes for Galette but there were very few and most began with "take a pack of ready made puff pastry". Grrrrr........

Making puff pastry is so simple and is probably a lot cheaper (and nicer) than buying it.

For the puff pastry recipe
200g plain flour sieved
a pinch of salt
200g butter cut into cubes
cold water

Roughly rub the butter into the flour. You don't have to make it resemble fine breadcrumbs as normal pastry recipes tell you. Add water slowly until you just gather the mix together.  Cover with cling film and place in fridge for half an hour.

Remove from the fridge and form it roughly into a rectangle. Roll it out to about three times it's length in one direction only. Fold the top third to the middle and then fold the bottom third over it. Turn it a half turn to the left or right and turn it over so the folds are underneath. Roll it out again in a long rectangle and repeat the process. Do this three times. You will have streaks of butter visible. This is the way it should be. Cover with cling film and place back in the fridge while you get the filling ready.

Frangipane recipe
75g each butter, caster sugar and ground almonds
1 large egg beaten (or two small)

I used my leftover almond paste for the filling but if you have none make a frangipane. Mix softened butter and caster sugar together. Add one large egg beaten. Finally add ground almonds.

Remove pastry from fridge and cut in half. Roll out half to approximately 1cm thickness and using the dinner plate as a template cut out the bottom layer. Place on a baking tray on top of baking paper. Spread 2 tablespoons of apricot jam within 1cm of the edge. Brush around the edge with water. Spoon the frangipane mix over the jam. You can add a trinket if you wish.

Roll out the second half of the pastry and cut again using the plate as a template. Place it over the filling. Press down the edges all around to seal. Egg wash the pastry and make cuts as in the picture. Do not go through the pastry, rather just mark it.

Place in a pre-heated oven 180deg fan for 35-40 minutes until golden brown. Slide onto a wire rack to cool.

Serve either warm or cold.

For sheer entertainment value click here for an episode of the Two Fat Ladies making one. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Broccoli and Blue Cheese Soup

I'm trying to avoid throwing away any food after the Christmas holiday. Food waste has become almost an obsession with me. I'm lucky here as I have pigs, dogs, cats and poultry so there is usually some species that will benefit. Anything else goes to compost.

I was starving today and was waiting for the bread pictured to bake. I rustled about in the fridge and found some tired broccoli and an opened piece of blue cheese. In the time taken for the bread to finish baking I had a delicious soup made.

Broccoli and Blue Cheese Soup Recipe

1 onion roughly chopped
1 small head of broccoli roughly chopped with stalks and leaves
1 clove garlic crushed
1 large stick of celery
About 500ml of good quality chicken stock
salt and pepper
a piece of blue cheese roughly chopped

Fry the onions, garlic, celery and broccoli in a tablespoon of rapeseed oil for a couple of minutes. Add the stock and season. Put the lid on and simmer for 10 minutes until the vegetables are just tender. Do not cook until broccoli is really soft or the soup will be brown and that awful taste of overcooked Brassica will be present.

Blitz the soup with a soup gun. Add the chunks of cheese and stir until just beginning to melt. Alternatively you can actually melt them in the soup and blitz them.

It is really delicious.