Sunday, 20 September 2015

Meditation and Mindful Eating

As you may have noticed from my almost-silence in the blogosphere, it's been a busy summer over here. Quite aside from the usual home and work commitments, we've helped my mother-in-law to downsize from a house to a one-bed flat, and I've been writing my thesis, and I've been on holiday with my mum (more on that trip later!). These things all add up to a shortage of spare time and a lack of breathing space, and I've been feeling quite overwhelmed, which is never fun.

So about a month ago, I started meditating. Adding an extra item into a hectic schedule might sound like a recipe for disaster, but setting aside a little (tiny!) block of time to be entirely present in my own head is a worthwhile endeavour. I've been using an app to track my progress, and I've just hit a thirty-day streak of daily meditation sessions, which I'm pretty sure is the longest I've ever done.

But sitting down to specifically meditate is only one part of the picture. I'm also trying to be more mindful in day-to-day contexts.

Mindfulness is kind of trendy right now (oh dear, I'm being accidentally fashionable), but the concept is an ancient one. If it's somehow passed you by, the basic idea is to pay attention to the moment you're in, rather than imagining the future or fixating on the past. It sounds simple but, as with so many things, it's easier said than done.

I find that attempting to eat more mindfully is a particularly useful tool, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, you have to eat, usually several times each day. If you're trying to create any new habit, one of the biggest dangers is that you just completely forget to do it, so it helps to have a reminder. If you manage to train yourself that eating is a time to be mindful, then you have a few mindfulness reminders built into your day for free (because your body is quite good at telling you when it's hungry).

Second, thinking about food has the incidental effect of making you think about your food choices. For me, this is definitely translating into healthier eating patterns. I've realised I don't really enjoy mass-produced cakes, for example, and that means that now I generally just don't take a slice. I avoid a lot of disappointment that way, but also a lot of empty calories. On the other hand, I can get a huge amount of enjoyment from a bowl of fresh vegetables or salad.

Which brings me on to my third point: eating mindfully is fun. If you're paying attention to each bite, you don't gulp your food, and that means you actually taste it properly. You probably do this automatically when you visit an expensive restaurant, where the food is the focus of your night, but imagine if you could get that same level of enjoyment from your morning cereal or your afternoon snack. Okay, it might not be quite the same, but personally I'm finding I get a huge amount more pleasure from food when I take the time to actually taste every mouthful.

Have you tried mindfulness, in a foodie context or otherwise? I'd love to hear about your experiences -- especially if you have any tips!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Avocado & Bean Salad

Avocado & borlotti bean salad

Goodness, I've been a hopeless blogger this summer. A busy period of trying to finish my thesis (nearly there, honest!), combined with a number of other commitments, has meant I just haven't had as much time as usual to come up with new recipes - or even write up some of my recent trips (although I'll be getting on with that soon, I hope).

Being ridiculously busy doesn't always leave much space for kitchen experiments but throwing together a new salad takes literally as long as is needed to prepare the individual ingredients, which makes it a great option.

Yesterday's creation was the product of a few different influences.

First, I've recently been sent an unexpected box of avocados by the Peruvian food board. This is utterly lovely of them, but Andy can't stand avocado, so I have to eat them all by myself. That's six whole avocados to just one Rachel... so I wanted to do something more interesting than my usual habit of just drizzling them with oil and pepper. (Although both oil and pepper did make their way into this recipe.)

Then there were some semi-dried herbs that have been sitting in my fridge for a couple of weeks, waiting for a suitable opportunity. These were a gift from Gourmet Garden, and they're a really cool concept: herbs that taste (almost) as good as fresh, rather than the papery dried stuff, but with a much longer shelf life. I'll definitely be buying more of these packets, especially the coriander.

Avocado & borlotti bean salad

And then there was the inspiration: I used to work in a group that had an annual Christmas bring-and-share lunch, and every year, someone brought an amazing salad of red kidney beans, red onion, and handsful of chopped herbs. This, I decided, would be amazing with the addition of avocado.

I used borlotti beans as I happened to have a tin going spare, but you could use any kind of beans - I think a mixture would work well, particularly with a few chickpeas.

Avocado & Bean Salad
Serves 2

1 large avocado
1 tin (400g) borlotti beans
¼ small red onion
1-2tbsp chopped coriander
1-2tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp balsamic vinegar
fresh black pepper (to taste)
a large handful of mixed salad leaves

  1. Dice the avocado.
  2. Wash and drain the beans.
  3. Finely dice the red onion.
  4. Combine all ingredients (except salad leaves) in a bowl and toss together. Season to taste.
  5. Divide the leaves between two plates, and top with avocado & bean mixture.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Graze in the Shops

Graze Goodness To Go

I've had a subscription to Graze boxes for ages, now, so I was kind of excited when I heard they were launching a new off-the-shelf range in supermarkets.

I got my hands on some early samples, and perhaps unsurprisingly I recognise most of the snacks from the subscription model. And thankfully, most of my favourites have made it through to the in store range -- presumably because they're among the most popular overall.

One of the best things about Graze snacks is the interesting combinations you get within a single portion box. A couple of my regular favourites are the herby bread basket (with mini bread sticks and croutons) and punchy protein nuts (almonds, peanuts, and chilli-lime cashews).

At the sweeter end of the scale, salted fudge & peanut cookie has mini chocolate cookies, salted peanuts, and mini fudge chunks. And the original fruity flapjack is a proper treat packed with dried fruit and seeds.

The in store pricing ranges from 99p to £1.49. It's still cheaper per portion to get a weekly box, and personally I love the surprise of not knowing what's going to turn up, but this is a fun back-up option.

If you want to try Graze for yourself, you can get a free box of snacks without commitment (and more freebies later if you keep your subscription) if you sign up using my referral code: 9NZDYMVDP (I get a small discount too).

Graze Goodness To Go

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Salt & Pepper Stir Fried Vegetables

I used to get Chinese from a great takeaway in London (no, I can't remember the name, and it may not even be there any more -- this was over a decade ago). Everything was good, but my favourite dish was the salt and pepper tofu: crispy, dry-fried tofu pieces tossed in spicy seasoning that popped on the tongue.

To be honest, the "salt and pepper" name has always confused me a little. I'm sure there is salt and pepper in there, but that's true of many dishes. The most noticable flavourings in this one are chilli (lots of lovely chilli) and garlic.

Where we live now, our local takeaway offers salt and pepper calamari (which my husband loves), but nothing veggie with the same flavour profile, so I had to figure out how to do it myself. I was thinking of recreating the original tofu dish, but in the end I decided to go for a healthier option and use the same flavours in vegetable stir fry.

Salt & pepper stir fry

Salt & Pepper Stir Fried Vegetables
Serves 4

200g tenderstem broccoli
2 red bell peppers
400g shitake mushrooms
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
1 red chilli
1 green chilli
1tbsp sunflower oil
1tsp salt
1tsp sugar
1tsp black pepper
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp Chinese spice mix*
4 scallions

  1. Cut the broccoli into large florets; chop the pepper into bite-sized pieces; trim and halve the mushrooms.
  2. Cut the onion into thick slices and dice the garlic.
  3. Remove the seeds from the chillis and discard, before chopping the flesh.
  4. Combine the salt, sugar, black pepper, ginger, and Chinese spices in a small bowl.
  5. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and begin to stir fry the broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, and onion. Add the garlic after a couple of minutes of cooking.
  6. Add the mixed spices and chilli, and toss to combine all the ingredients.
  7. Continue to fry until the vegetables have softened.
  8. Chop the scallions and toss through before serving.

* I used the Chinese blend from Spice Kitchen which is made from liquorice, star anise, cassia, szechuan peppers, black cardamon, orange peel, and cloves.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

One of the best things about academia is the options it can offer for travel, to conferences and to collaborate. I've been particularly lucky in this respect: this month, it was a visit to Krakow for a project meeting. I took Andy with me and we decided to make a week of it, and see the city properly.

Around the same time, the lovely folks at Tinggly reached out to introduce me to their collection of gift experiences. And what a collection, seriously: there's everything here from motorbiking to Cambodian temples and underwater scooter rides in Mauritius, to whisky tasting in Scotland and Japanese cookery lessons in Tokyo. The beauty of the system is its simplicity: as the giver, you just buy a voucher (currently £45), and then the recipient can choose when and where in the world they want to cash it in. (As an aside, I think this might just be the world's most perfect wedding present: wherever the bride and groom are going on honeymoon, they can probably find something nearby to indulge in.)

Would I like to try out an experience from their range, they asked? Obviously I wasn't going to turn down a chance like that. I glanced at the interactive map, wondering vaguely if there was likely to be anything in Poland, or whether I'd just pick an English destination.

Wieliczka Salt Mine jumped out at me straight away: a tour for two, with minibus collection from my hotel in Krakow? Perfect.

I love visiting historical sites and learning more about how things were in days gone by... and aside from pure interest, it's also really great research for my books. I hadn't even really realised that salt was mined from rock, so I had a lot to learn on this trip.

The mines only fell out of use quite recently, when tourism proved to be more profitable than salt. Now they're set up as a walk-through exhibition, with life-size models illustrating some of the operation of the mines. You can even have a go at lifting a bucket of water using one of the original human-powered winches.

But the real shock comes when you emerge at the other end of your long walk through the tunnels, and discover you've covered only about 1% of the network. An utterly amazing day out, highly recommended to anyone visiting the Krakow area.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
An abandoned mine shaft

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Demonstration of floodwater being pumped from the mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine
More demonstrative reconstructions

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Excavation marks along one of the shafts

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Ropes and pulleys were used to lift salt from the mines

The Wieliczka mine, however, is not only (or even primarily) famous for its mining history. The true stars of the show here are the carvings made by the miners.

Since mining is a dangerous trade, the miners were traditionally a very religious bunch, and this fact is amply demonstrated in their underground churches and chapels. Not only are the chambers themselves hewn from the rock, but they're decorated with intricate rock-salt carvings.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the miners did all this in their own time, after a long day at work, just to show their dedication to their faith. Impressive stuff.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Looking down into the cavernous main church

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Christ on the cross, carved in salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
The altar and lectern are also carved from salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
A carving of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus

There's also a shop, right in the depths of the mines, where you can buy your own salt carvings, candlesticks, and of course, cooking and bath salts. I picked up a couple of flavours of seasoning: one with celery, and one with lovage. The prices are really reasonable, too, not hiked up for the captive market.

We took hundreds of photos; here are just a few more shots to give you a flavour of the mines.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Looking up into the galleries

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Salt-encrusted wood is well preserved against the ravages of time

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Even the crystals of the chandelier are made of salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
One of the underground lakes

Wieliczka Salt Mine
It used to be easier to tick off all the Unesco World Heritage sites: Wieliczka and Krakow city centre both made the first list

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Coloured salt crystals in the museum display

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