Cooking with opinions: Making a mark in an area of noise and bluster

It's been a long time between meals on this blog. Hello again.

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Much has changed in my life since I last wrote. I am no longer working as a nutritionist and cookery writer. Instead, I am now studying a Masters of Research, in other words, learning how to be a researcher. I am of course still fascinated by food and am studying the sociology of nutrition, cooking and recipes. I am tumbling towards the end of my first year, trying to write a research proposal for my 2018 thesis. It is an unexpected, wonderful, joyful, utterly overwhelming and quite baffling experience, which at the moment involves a lot of sitting with uncertainty - something I am not particularly good at. 

Some things remain un-changed though. I still think about vegetables a lot and the mild beetroot obsession has not disappeared. I still live with my lovely partner, beautiful (but slightly ageing) cat and we now have three chickens. Unfortunately, the vestibular migraine has also stayed with me.

However, the transition to student and researcher means there will be a change in the focus of this blog. I'm hoping to post more frequently, but there will probably be less healthy eating advice, fewer recipes and maybe not as many tips on including more vegetables in your daily eating - there are quite possibly enough of those already. Instead, there might be more exploration of the underlying drivers of the way we eat and an examination of the questions and problems that beset student researchers. I'll probably be talking more about what I'm reading and thinking, especially as I develop my thesis. To be honest, at the moment, I don't have a clear sense of what I'll be posting. However, I feel the need to write more and to write here. To get all the thoughts swirling round in my head onto a page (of sorts) and maybe get some feedback. Hopefully some of you will still find this all interesting.

I'm going to start with the text of a short presentation I gave a couple of months ago, at a researcher conference. The conference theme was making your mark and I was part of a panel on questions in research practice


Cooking with opinions: Making a mark in an area of noise and bluster

NewMac conference presentation: July 2017

I am a Masters of Research student half way through my first year, so I haven't started researching my thesis yet. My world is made up of coursework and assignments and I have not yet fully defined my thesis topic. Instead, I'm in the intriguing, luxurious and slightly anxiety producing position of thinking and dreaming about research possibilities without having to actually do the research. Yet.

My central question today though, is how do you research, let alone make a mark, in an area where everybody has an opinion? And where those opinions can often be loud, indignant and highly partisan?

Food and cooking are a highly contested space. There are government bodies, influential lobby groups and big corporate interests. There is also money to be made from recipe and diet books, weight loss empires and medical interventions. It is an area in which dieticians are accused of constantly changing their minds, Politicians decry nanny-state interventions and cookery book writers can be accused of endangering public health and even have their books withdrawn from sale. It is an area where there are loud and insistent voices, plenty of agendas and public confusion.

It is also an area where researchers' work can be emblazoned across the media, discussed loudly and dismissed with passion and invective.

Photo by Arnaldo Aldana on Unsplash

Everybody eats, therefore everybody has experiences with food. I've been a nutritionist and cookery writer for 15 years and I can tell you that people, in Sydney at least, love talking about food. I am well used to meeting new people and having them tell me intricate and involved details about everything they eat, their sibling's bizarre food intolerances, the friend who went on a juice fast and has never felt better. And then have the person ask for advice on whether they should "go paleo" or become a vegan. In the past, these conversations have often alerted me to the strength of new food fashions. When three people at a party tell you they've been eating quinoa or having a green juice every day, you know a new food trend is happening.

Food is crowded with emotions. While food is fuel, it is rarely just fuel. Food and cooking are also about family, tradition, culture and connections. Food is imbued with emotion from pleasure and excitement, through to anxiety and guilt. With strong opinions, vested groups and the potential for money comes dodgy science and misinformation. All of these combine to make food and cooking a highly contested space, where it's hard to know what people actually do in their own home and what they think about it?

I have had some people advise me to ignore the certainty, opinion and loud voices. Instead, to concentrate on what I'm doing and block out the confusion and hot air. Which may well be good advice. However, I also find myself thinking but . . .

I wonder if there aren't some golden nuggets in amongst the noise, if you listen carefully? Or if the noise itself isn't interesting?

Food is not alone in this. I'm sure some of you have experience in areas which are also heavily contested. So, do you have any advice for a newbie researcher? How do you work and make your mark when you're surrounded by noise and bluster?

Are you eating the happy path?

Eating the happy path or delusional?

Eating the happy path or delusional?

My partner works in IT and he was telling me the other day about a programming concept called the happy path,

While the happy path might sound like a joyful and positive thing, in programming it's not.

The happy path is one followed by the constant optimist. If you program the happy path it means your software works beautifully, but only when everything is going well.

The happy path has no back-ups, fail-safes or contingencies, because nothing is going to go wrong. The happy Path assumes the data is correct, the system is bug free, the deadlines are achievable and the users are all well behaved.

Maybe it's programming for the delusional optimist?

All of which means, the moment something happens that's not in the plan, the whole system falls over. As this writers says about following the happy path: “the result is often brittle code that is unfit for purpose and difficult, if not impossible, to maintain and enhance.”

Now this strikes me as exactly many people's approach to the way they eat.

Being eternal optimists they come up with an overly ambitious plan and, rather than learning from previous mistakes, think 'this time it will be different'. This time I will cook every night, I'll eat clean, I'll start each day with a green juice, I'll stop eating chocolate, I'll cut out alcohol and bread. I might even go vegan.

The happy path.

While everything is going well - work is under control, the house is full of good food, the kids cooperate, you're getting a good night's sleep - the happy eating path is easy to follow.

But then something goes awry and you have no back-up plan or contingencies.

You have a bad week at work; your partner forgets to do the grocery shopping; the kids refuse to eat quinoa and kale; your period hts and you just want red wine and chocolate. Having made only one plan, the perfect happy path plan, you have no way of dealing with these eventualities and your whole way of eating falls in a crumbling heap.

As with software design, happy path eating has no way of dealing with errors, exceptional circumstances, failures and compromises.

Instead you can develop a way of eating and a mindset that isn't brittle, but is instead flexible and resilient.

A headspace that lets you have a bad day and a night off, without thinking you've blown it.

A freezer stocked with back-up meals, just in case your cooking plans fall through.

The freedom to fail, give in to chocolate occasionally and not give up.

The mindset that means it's okay to have beans on toast for dinner sometimes.

A willingness to surrender control and, no matter the initial mess and hassle, teach your kids to cook, so that in the long-term you get at least one night off from meal making.

It's time to realise “trips off the happy path aren’t exceptions, the happy path is the exception.”

Are you eating the happy path?

Questionning the obesity "epidemic"

        Image by ccsdteacher on Flickr

        Image by ccsdteacher on Flickr

I read a great piece of research recently. Entitled "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?"*, it looks at the figures on the obesity "epidemic" and concludes:

"the available scientific data neither support alarmist claims about obesity nor justify diverting scarce resources away from far more pressing public health issues."

Rather than an alarming growth in obesity, the researchers analyse the evidence and find a "relatively modest" increase in the weight of the population, but this small increase has been enough to shift more people into the overweight or obese category, even though they are only 3 - 5kg heavier than people of a generation ago. 

"In the US, to take a much-cited example, the so-called 'obesity epidemic' is almost wholly the product of tens of millions of people with BMIs formerly in the 23 - 35 range gaining a modest amount of weight and thus now being classified as 'overweight', and, similarly, tens of millions of people with BMIs formerly in the high 20s now having BMIs just >30. This movement of population cohorts from just below to just above the formal definitions of overweight and obesity is what public health officials are referring to when they point out that rates of obesity have exploded over the course of the last generation."

So what? People are still gaining weight, even if it's not as much as we thought, so shouldn't we be doing something about it? Well again, the researchers go against the prevailing view and say, maybe not. For starters, they claim the evidence for obesity being associated with health problems and increased risk of early death is weak at best, but they also question whether significant long-term weight loss is a practical or achievable goal for many people:

"Thus public health interventions designed to lessen rates of obesity and overweight are striving to achieve a presently unachievable goal of unknown medical efficacy."

Anyway the research is available for free. For anyone occupied by public health questions, it makes an interesting read.

* Campos P, Saguy A, Ernsberger Pe, Oliver E & Gaesser G, "The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic?", International Journal of Epidemiology, 2006;35:55–60.

Cucumber Salad with Chilli & Lime

Today I have a basic cucumber salad recipe for you. Don't let the word 'basic' put you off, as it's very, very good - tasty, crunchy and quite delicious, plus it doesn't go soggy in the fridge overnight, so I often make a big bowl-full and use it to supplement my meals for a couple of days.

I've eaten this with a frittata; it's quite delicious for breakfast, piled onto a piece of toast spread with avocado; and I've also stuffed it into rice paper rolls, together with some panfried tofu. I reckon it would go well on top of a bowl of ramen soup, or tossed through some cooked buckwheat noodles and topped with an olive oil fried egg.

Cucumber Salad with Chilli & Lime

Essentially, to make this salad, I thinly slice the cucumbers, season with salt and add a pinch of chilli flakes, some lime juice and sesame oil. That is it. Ingredient quantities and proportions are very loose, so feel free to adjust according to your taste buds. These quantities make about enough for a side salad for two people, although I'd happily eat the whole lot myself.

Ingredients:

3 small cucumbers
Pinch of dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 fresh lime

The ingredients you'll need, together with a pinch of salt.

The ingredients you'll need, together with a pinch of salt.

What to do:

Prep the cucumbers: Thinly slice the cucumbers and place in a bowl - I use a mandolin to slice the cucumber, as it's faster and I like the really thin slices it gives. However, a knife and a tinge more patience would also work.

Add the rest of the ingredients: Add a pinch of salt to the cucumbers, together with the dried chilli flakes and sesame oil. Squeeze over the lime juice and then, using your hands, toss the ingredients together making sure the cucumber slices are thoroughly coated with lime and sesame oil.

Serve immediately or place in the fridge for up to 48 hours.

I love my mandolin for the thin slices it makes.

I love my mandolin for the thin slices it makes.

Cooking Notes:

I do find tossing the salad with my hands makes a difference. There's something about slightly massaging the ingredients into the cucumbers that makes the flavours more delicious.

There are loads of ways to vary this salad. I think some chopped coriander would make a lovely addition, as would a little grating of fresh ginger. A splash of shoyu instead of the pinch of salt would work and you could replace the lime juice with rice wine vinegar.

Nutrition Notes

  • Vegetarian and Vegan friendly.
  • Suitable for gluten intolerants and lactose intolerants.
  • Unfortunately, I think the pinch of salt is important, so I am not sure I'd recommend for those following a low salt diet.
  • Low in FODMAPs.
Using the cucumber salad in rice paper rolls is a very good idea.

Using the cucumber salad in rice paper rolls is a very good idea.

Why I stopped buying cookery books

Reading an article tweeted by Amanda, I realised this week I haven't bought a new cookery book for about two years. 

For someone who used to love nothing better than poring over a new cookery book, this has been quite a change in behaviour, but the article, titled 'Want to write a bestselling cookery book? Don't worry about making it any good', exactly summed up my apathy about most of the books currently available.

"Think of a title. Anything with “bible” in it is good, or any of the following: “ultimate”, “essential”, “fast”, “easy”, “delicious”. Don’t worry if the book doesn’t live up to these claims. The title is secondary to the cover photo. If you’re a woman, make sure you’re young and gorgeous. Be photographed in a flirty dress that hints at sexy and domestic in equal measure, while holding a tray of cupcakes in your perfectly manicured hands. It doesn’t matter if an anonymous home economist did the baking, your job is to pose. As you gaze at the camera, try to convey the sense that buying this book will give readers a glossy new allure."

Every time I browse through the cookery section of my local bookshop I'm left feeling uninspired and that I've seen it all before. Beneath the gloss and the healthy, yet slightly fey, glamour shots, there is not much substance and I want more from a cookery book than a "glossy new allure".

Plus, you know what, I have enough cookery books. I don't need anymore. I have two shelves of cookery books, that are mostly well thumbed and splattered with food. I've cooked many recipes from these books and yet I'm still finding gems I haven't noticed before; still being surprised and astounded by the writing; and still marveling at the craft, care and love of ingredients in these books.

Two shelves of cookery books that I love. That's enough for me.

Friday night pasta

In our house, Friday night is pasta night. It's a tradition that's been going on for years and years and it just doesn't feel like the end of the week without a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine.

R usually cooks on Friday night and his pasta is covered with a rich tomato sauce, flavoured with garlic, olives and oregano, that takes well over an hour to cook.

If I'm in charge of dinner, then I want something much, much simpler.

My version of Friday night pasta is a one pot pasta, made with fresh tomatoes and spinach. It's a recipe I spotted on the clever Lottie and Doof's website and it originally comes from a Martha Stewart magazine, of all things.

Crammed into one pan it's hard to believe this can make a delicious meal...

Crammed into one pan it's hard to believe this can make a delicious meal...

It's a clever recipe, where both the pasta and the sauce are cooked in one saucepan. It seems to break every rule of pasta cooking and I'm sure I can hear the purists tutting already, but it's really, really good. The pasta exudes a starchiness, which combines with all the vegetables to make a delicious sauce.

My version, of course, has a lot more vegetable than the original - 340g of tomatoes and a bit of onion just doesn't cut it for dinner in this house. So I've upped the amount of tomatoes I use, added in some spinach and I also sneak some lentils or chickpeas in there, for extra veg and protein. All of this can be done, with no negative impact on flavour.

I love this meal, love how it tastes and love the simple alchemy that occurs in the saucepan.

One Pot Pasta with Tomato & Spinach

To make this meal you just pile all the ingredients together in one pan, add in some water, cover with a lid and then leave to cook slowly, for about 10 minutes. As with all my favourite recipes, it's very flexible - as long as you have tomatoes and pasta, you can make this meal. I frequently add in frozen spinach instead of fresh, swap between chickpeas and lentils and use garlic instead of onion. In the picture above I've added dried oregano, but at other times I'll sprinkle in some dried chill flakes, chopped olives or capers for extra oomph.

Makes 3 - 4 serves, depending on your appetite. I always make extra, as it's quite delicious the next day.

The main ingredients for One Pot Pasta

The main ingredients for One Pot Pasta

Ingredients:

1kg tomatoes

1 onion

1 large handful fresh spinach - see notes below

150g pasta

1 cup cooked or canned lentils or chickpeas

1 tablespoon olive oil

Extra flavours - see notes below

100g feta or parmesan

What to do:

Prep the vegetables: Wash and then roughly chop the tomatoes. Add these to a large saucepan (with a lid). Cut the onion in half and then thinly slice each half. Thoroughly wash the spinach. Add both the onion and spinach to the tomatoes.

Add the rest of the pasta & sauce ingredients: Add the pasta, lentils / chickpeas, olive oil and any flavourings to the pan, together with 2 cups (500ml) of water. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook the pasta: Cover the saucepan with a lid. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has thickened. I use a pair of tongs to turn the pasta a few times, during cooking, to prevent it sticking.

Serve with the feta or parmesan sprinkled on top.

Not the prettiest meal, but quite delicious.

Not the prettiest meal, but quite delicious.

Cooking Notes:

You don't have to be careful when chopping the tomatoes, a rough chop is fine. The original recipe uses cherry tomatoes, which would be lovely, but a kilo of regular tomatoes is generally so much cheaper than a kilo of cherry tomatoes, so the regular tomatoes win.

If you don't have any fresh spinach, you could also make this with a couple of nuggets of frozen spinach

I always add some kind of extra flavour to this meal. Either a tablespoon of dried oregano, a large pinch of dried chilli flakes, some chopped olives, a spoonful of capers, fresh basil - all are delicious.

This meal keeps really well in the fridge overnight - the flavours meld together and it's quite delicious the next day. I wouldn't freeze this meal.

It's also quite delicious topped with a poached egg!

Nutrition Notes:

  • Suitable for vegetarians

What's your Friday night go-to meal?