Since before Easter, I’ve been experimenting with the Dukan regime. I’ve lost over 10 kilos / 2 stone, and although it has slowed down it’s still dropping off.

There are several books you can buy – it doesn’t matter which one, really, as they do tend to repeat whole chapters. Or websites – the official ones and ones set up by followers / hangers-on / added value sellers. I’d been unsure about whether to try this diet – as a rule I avoid commercial “diet” advice, there are health risks attached to it, friends who’d tried it said it worked brilliantly but could be very restrictive and boring. What convinced me was doing the true weight calculator on the official website. Instead of the constant “9 and a half stone” target I get from the Wii / bmi based systems, Dukan suggested a working target of about 12 and half stone, which actually felt achievable, and a weight I would be happy at.

It is also clear, as is Lighter Life although few people pay attention, that once the weight is off you need a long consolidation / re-education phase to embed new habits.

You start with an Attack, which can vary from a few days to over a week. Doing the calculator will tell you how long yours should be. Low-fat meat or poultry, skimmed or fat-free dairy, fish and seafood, eggs, tofu, aspartame, odd bits of flavouring (garlic, vinegar, mustard, herbs, spices). That’s it. No fruit, veg, nuts, beans, grains, sugar, fat, salt. Plus a spoonful of oat-bran, and at least 1.5 litres of water (which if you’re used to healthy eating advice, is not actually a lot). You can count tea, coffee and diet soda in the water – anything to keep your kidneys as active as possible. Eat as much as you want, at least 3 meals a day. 20 minutes walking.

At first it sounds horrendous, but to a girl brought up in the calorie-fixated 70s, it’s really liberating. Grilled steak flopping off the sides of the plate? check. A tub of sandwich filling without the tiresome bread or salad? check. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast? check. Starbucks skinny latte with extra shots and sugar-free vanilla syrup? YAY.

I got into the habit of mixing my oatbran with a giant pot of fat-free greek yoghourt and some sweetener. Sometimes cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa powder, mint. Leave it to soften for about half an hour (or as long as you can keep the cat out of it), and it’s a really filling evening pudding. Or using oat bran and egg to coat chicken or fish to bake.

After your initial Attack, you move to the Cruise phase, where I am supposed to spend about 10 months, and during which you are supposed to lose weight slowly but steadily until you hit target. This alternates days from the Attack model with days where you can add foods from a short list of veg. It’s a very stupid and French-centric list.

For me, that’s been part of the fun. Isolating what is French prejudice and habit, and deciding whether to ignore it or not. Lamb is excluded from the protein list as being too fatty – but how much could you reduce by choosing older meat butchered differently? The text of the books waffles on about the Liver, that French health obsession. And it’s very misogynistic – almost any stage of a woman’s life or fertility cycle causes water retention, apparently. Vegetarians are grudgingly allowed to exist, but vegans can just naff off and die.

Rhubarb and tomatoes are on the approved list of veggies, but not strawberries which are relatively low in carbs. I can understand the logic behind not eating bananas, cherries, grapes etc which are very high in sugar, but allowing onions and red peppers which are around the 5/6% mark and not watery fruit which is about the same seems silly. Especially to someone like me who is far more likely to add a handful of allotment strawberries to a spinach salad than mourn a creamy sweet pastry.

There is also the wide variety of veggies / meat that he hasn’t thought of – goat, for example. Chillies, okra, tomatilloes, jicama, virtually anything “ethnic”. Luckily there are forums where people are discussing these – especially where there are halal / kosher issues with traditional French food. And websites publishing recipes adapted to local tastes and ingredients – I particularly like the ideas on DukanItOut but I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet.

So, verdict so far – successful, not boring, actually quite relaxing. Although there are some downsides – see the next post …

Bloody Courgettes

Yeah yeah yeah, I KNOW. But we only planted a few, although probably a few more than we thought we’d want in case of early death. And the little young ones were delicious, and we treated them with reverential care.

Now? Buggrit millenium hand and shrimp.

It didn’t help that J went away for a couple of weeks, and I Was Not As Assiduous in Allotmenting As I Might Have Been. My Bad. So now we have marrow-sized courgettes, and new ones coming all the time. We’ve had them every day in some form or another, and I’m fishing now for ever more exotic ideas.

Lifesavers have been:

Riverford Organics (who were our veggie box people until we got the allotment, and deserve splendiferous praise) maintain a recipe section on their website which is wonderful for me – it features new recipes for seasonal produce, a “what to do with the last … in the box” feature, and general hints and tips on dealing with fruit and veg. Currently on the stove is their Mexican One-Pot Courgettes, ready to be re-heated tomorrow with some pulled pork and cheese quesadillas. And there’s enough for another go-round later, as part of a Mexican feast along with some pork crackling and guacamole. I’m also thinking of offloading some of their bbq recipes at a birthday party this weekend.

The Penguin Book of Jam, Pickles and Chutneys by David and Rose Mabey. I’ve just nearly had a heart attack looking at where you could get a copy of this online, and you’re looking at a minimum of £40, even on Ebay. I feel I should point out that other books by the same authors are available. Jeez. I had a copy years and years ago, it vanished somewhere, and I found a very battered one for £1.99 in Oxfam last summer. It’s a slim little paperback, but it’s packed with shedloads of information, and excellent recipes. I’ve just potted up their bramble jelly, and used the pulp for a bramble cheese to go with the Wensleydale at Christmas. For courgettes, I’ve started this very evening a thing called “marrow mangoes”. You peel a giant courgette, cut in half lengthways and deseed it. Then you stuff the insides with onions, ginger, spices etc, tie it back together and steep it in vinegar for a week or so. Take it out, cut it open, chop the marrow and bottle it with a hot syrup made with the steeping vinegar. Won’t be able to report on success with this one until Christmas when it will be just ready. I’m also tempted by their marrow and pineapple jam, which looks easy and cheap for something quite unusual.

As usual the Dr Gourmet website has a twist, this time in the form of Zucchini Pizza Crust, which I am saving for the final stretch. Literally a giant disk of grated courgette held together with the minimum of egg and flour, baked until set and crisp and then baked again with pizza toppings.

I’ve started doing a thing I call a Roast Traybake – putting a variety of veg and some small joints of meat (chicken thighs, pork or lamb chops) in a shallow tray, drizzling with oil and appropriate seasonings, and bunging it in at Gas Mark 4 for an hour or so. “Appropriate seasonings” have include a paste of garlic, lemon juice and tarragon (with some chicken); cumin, coriander and oregano with some tomatoes and pork; mustard seeds, fenugreek and ginger with some lamb. Courgettes always feature – in lumps or slices – but we’ve also had peppers, carrots, big runner beans, tomatoes, and onion wedges. Beetroot and turnips will be joining in soon as we start harvesting them.

Hiding shredded or grated courgettes in things is also useful. I don’t bake, usually, but even I am contemplating muffins or cakes based on carrot or beetroot recipes, with added or substituted courgette. Having watched the bread episode of the British Bakeoff, though, I know to make sure it’s well dried before it goes in, or a soggy mess is the most likely result. I’ve been adding them to green salads, sandwiches / wraps, or yoghourt / hummus sort of things for dips and dressings.

John is back from The Allotment with a new batch, and assures me that while the green ones have gone into remission, the yellow ones are coming into their own. Aaaaaargh.

Happy World Book Day

There’s a meme going round about Book Day, and I’ve done it elsewhere for general reading books. It needed tweaking a bit for this, so here goes:

The cookbook I am reading for pleasure: in the downstairs loo are several books about cooking in the tropics, or books that I picked up in Australia last year. Currently I’m enjoying Masterchef The Cookbook (Vol 1).  It features popular recipes by contestants, and some of the dishes the chefs challenged them with.

The cookbook I love most: this is really really difficult. The first Madhur Jaffrey, Nigel Slater? Ones with narrative or without? Something that introduced me to a whole new world, or is the perfect reference for the classics? Aaargh. Then there are the self-published ones from groups of friends, that include recipes I’ve eaten, and the voices that I heard describing them. The Christmas ones that have helped me form my own traditions. In the end, having dweebled all day, I have chosen The Wholefood Book by George Seddon. I was given it for a birthday present at university over 30 years ago, and have constantly been amazed at how every time I revisit it, recipes with modern twists and trends spring out at me.  And the essays are full of advice on using fresh, local produce, reared organically and with respect.  I’m not saying I’d trust all the recipes – it’s not a Jane Grigson or even a Delia – but most are interesting and simple. Deffo one that comes down off the shelf over and over.

The oldest cookbook I have: mmmm, is that oldest in terms of content, or the earliest one that came into my possession? Oldest content is in the Roman Cookery of Apicius, trans/ed by John Edwards. First that I actually bought with my own money may well be Cuisine et Gastronomie de Bretagne, by Louis le Cunff, which I got on a teenage holiday in Brittany. Not sure I’ve ever used either of them to cook from.

The newest cookbook: Again, most modern or the latest that I’ve acquired? Most modern is a tie between Ministry of Food – Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family Today by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, which accompanied the Ministry of Food exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and Our Family Table by Julie Goodwin. Julie was an Oz Masterchef winner, and I got a signed copy of her book in Melbourne last year. The latest one is also the winner of the next category:

The nearest cookbook: Apricots on the Nile, a Memoir with Recipes, by Colette Rossant. As yet unread. It wasn’t a deliberate purchase, Dad is having a big clearout and I got it in with a load of other books. It’s the nearest because it’s waiting to be catalogued.

The Fifth Quarter – an offal cookbook

I borrowed this from the library, hoping to find some recession-proof recipes. It's not brilliant for that, a bit too esoteric (Anissa Helou, the author, mentions her good friend Arabella Boxer which is a Big Clue, not to mention the foreword by Hugh Fearney-Wittingstall.). A lot of the offal is of academic interest as it's difficult to get, and many of the recipes are so ethnic they're virtually impossible. Brains and lamb tripe are not easy to find, but goose feet and abalone (at least one of which is endangered) are in the You're Just Avin A Larf category. As is Singapore Fish Head Curry. There were some good hints and tips buried in it though.

I had always thought of heart as a long-cooking casserole meat (although I've had cold smoked moose heart, which was gorgeous), but apparently lamb heart and liver make a good mix and can go on a bbq kebab or be grilled briefly. Lots of yummy Moroccan flavours.

You can hollow out a giant potato, bury a well-seasoned lamb kidney in it, and bake it. We're trying that one this week.

Kidney can feature in Chinese dishes, stir-fried and with a sweet and sour sauce. Liver salad with a Chinese sesame and garlic dressing.

There was also a recipe for Little Pots of Curried Kidneys which is basically a very mild extra-creamy curry sauce, with kidneys and onions fried in butter mixed in, topped with breadcrumbs and briefly flash-baked. Looks like a good breakfast, or starter, or lunch with kedgeree.

A Spanish recipe for pig's trotters simmered with onion, tomato, garlic, with added prunes and pine nuts, thickened with ground almonds and crushed biscuit. That would do for a belly pork or lamb breast as well, I would think.

It was an interesting book to read, difficult because there is a lot of text on darkly coloured pages. I wasn't sure whether the aim of it was to enthuse me or gross me out (tripe makes me heave at the best of times, but fish tripe?), but it's certainly given me a few ideas. I certainly wouldn't buy my own copy, though.

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The Cookery of England, by Elisabeth Ayrton

Book review – The Cookery of England, by Elisabeth Ayrton, paperback from Penguin 1977.

I think I've had this book since it first came out in paperback: I can certainly remember cooking recipes from it during the late seventies. It's one of my favourite sorts of cookery book – the recipes work, and there's lots of background historical material which is interesting in its own right. Ayrton worked with Special Ops in World War Two, where she might have run into Julia Child, and was married to Michael Ayrton the sculptor. I've seen his Minotaur at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it's very powerful and erotic. She wrote fiction, non-fiction centred on her academic specialism (archaeology) and some other cookery / food history books, although this is the only one I own. I see from Amazon that some of the others were reprinted in the mid-80s, and they would deffo be worth a look.

This one is subtitled "a collection of recipes for traditional dishes of all kinds, from the fifteenth century to the present day, with notes of their social and culinary background". The chapters are organised well, it starts with meat, then veers off through savoury pies (a chapter to themselves), and back via potted meats, brawns, galantines etc to poultry and game, fish, sauces, stuffings and forcemeats before even thinking about soup and veg. Desserts are split into hot puddings, cold sweets, and "banqueting stuff", then, of course, the savouries. Bread and cakes are a bit of an afterthought, and you're better off with Elizabeth David's Bread and Yeast Cookery for a fuller account. But the seed cake recipe is simple and excellent. I prefer this to the David Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, the recipes have been made more user-friendly and the text is more general.

Throughout there are easy recipes for things you thought either long gone or that you had to buy ready-made – crumpets, brawn, cheese straws. She's stuffed it with loads of recipes from long gone cooks, that we know more of in the 21st century than we did in the late 20th – the likes of Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton are much more in the common pool of knowledge now. Back in the seventies some of the recipes seemed radical or at least trendy, and looking through it again there are some that fit well with today's sorts of menus. Iced beetroot soup, syllabubs and flummeries, salmon roast with cloves, rosemary and orange, a gooseberry and ginger sauce for mackerel or pork. There's a recipe for stuffed vine leaves from the seventeenth century, and a chicken stew with pineapple from the eighteenth. She doesn't try to hide the appalling stuff – Sky Blue and Sinkers, the Cornish soup for children when times were hard: mix a little flour and skimmed milk to a paste, add as much boiling water as you need and cook for a minute or two. Give each child a bowl with a single piece of barley bread in it, and pour on your "soup". The bread will rise to the surface and gradually sink into the pale blue of the thin liquid. Hours of endless fun for the little ones.

Most of the recipes have been restructured to serve 4 – 6, or 10 – 12 where they are big dishes more suitable for buffet celebrations or Christmas. It's great retro-dinner party or holiday cooking. I remember causing a stir nearly 30 years ago with her duck in port – you soak cherries in port for 24 hours, then roast the duck, basting constantly with the port and adding the cherries for the last half hour. And there's another duck recipe with a sauce made from onions and cucumber macerated and stewed in claret.

Some of the material has not dated well, though, although it's authentic enough! The mini-chapter (about two pages) on curry lists a selection of accompaniments such as mango chutney and bombay duck (fine) then goes on to the classic set of little dishes you got with curry at home in the seventies – sliced banana, chopped apple, cucumber, tomatoes. We used to have dessicated coconut, and grated cheese, as well. But no mention of yoghourt, mint, garlic, or fresh chillies, even though all of these were available – maybe not easily.

Best of all are the instructions for plain baked meat – she's at pains to explain this isn't really roast meat, but without an open fire it's the best we're likely to get. Dredge the meat with highly seasoned flour or a special mixture for specific joints, put into a roasting tray on top of a bit of the appropriate fat, put a pat of fat on top, stick in a hot oven (Gas Mark 6) for 10 minutes, turn the oven down to Gas Mark 4, and cook according to weight. Rareish beef takes 17 – 20 minutes per pound, a four pound chicken takes about an hour. Given that the meat needs to sit anyway before carving, timings don't need to be precise as you can continue to keep it warm while you finish the veg. You get the crisp outside and pink inside on the beef, the chicken is golden but moist – it's never failed.


The Cookery of England (Penguin Handbooks)
Elisabeth Ayrton

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In Memoriam – Julia Child

The recipes that I use most are more for the winter – we have either her Chou Rouge a la Limousine (red cabbage braised with red wine, spices and chestnuts) or Endives a la Flamande (braised chicory) every week just about. But at some point this week we will have (not necessarily at the same meal !) Cotes de Porc Sauce Nenette (pork chops with mustard, cream and tomato sauce), Chou-Fleur Beurre au Citron (cauliflower with lemon butter sauce), and I have some halibut fillets which could use a Sauce Mousseline Sabayon. And some squid tubes I was planning to stuff and steam in a Coulis de Tomates a la Provencale (tomato sauce with fennel and orange peel among other good things). And the Foie de Veau Saute Sauce a l’Italienne recipe (calf liver with tomato, mushroom and ham sauce) will do very nicely for some chicken livers over pasta. If the weather does turning minging, I am also tempted by Laitues Braisees (braised lettuce) in place of salad. It means spending some time today preparing things, but it will be worth it. If you haven’t been pointed at it already in the last couple of days, I can do no better than send you to the Julie/Julia Project at http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html I am up to October 16 2002, and rationing myself to a month at a time.