Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Body Nirvana

Since I wrote about when it clicked for me a year ago, it has continued to click for me.
I’ve clicked that I don’t need sugar in everything I eat.
I’ve clicked that wine isn’t necessary every day.
I’ve clicked that I can do yoga even though I can’t touch my toes.
I’ve clicked that I don’t need to be perfect.
Last week I clicked that my body needs to run, be strengthened and stretched.
Without trying to, I have clicked my way from a UK size 14 to a UK size 10.
And there was no suffering involved.

I’m more and more convinced that the best way to get into shape is through insight. 
And that you don’t get insights by being mean to yourself.
Sudden realisations and aha moments come when you get out of your way. 
It comes when you start seeing that you have created a reality for yourself for years and that “reality” is often just a figment of your imagination.  (With me, I was convinced I needed sugar in everything I ate, that I had to have wine to be mellow, and that I had to be perfect to be worthy.)

Having an insight is a bit like a butterfly landing on your hand.  It’ll come when you’re peaceful.
It’ll come when you’re listening out for the still, quiet voice that knows what’s good for you. 
It’ll come when you’re talking to someone who loves you. It’ll come when you feel safe and heard.
It’ll come when you stop running and trying and grasping and thinking and rushing.
It starts by being kind to yourself, instead of judging yourself.
It starts by having faith in yourself, by being grateful for everything you have and by looking after yourself.
It starts by stopping.
You could even start by cooking delicious food and enjoying it.
Let me know how it turns out.

Three things I cooked this week that were yum yum delicious:

Leek and potato latkes
6 largish potatoes peeled and grated
2 leeks grated
3 tablespoons flour
2 eggs
Half a teaspoon baking powder
Salt and pepper
Mix and place in a sieve and encourage water to leave the batter. You don’t have to go crazy. Gravity will do most of the work.
Fry in lots of hot oil

Michelle’s baked cod with crème fraiche and zatar
Dab bits of butter on cod fillets. Bake uncovered in hot oven (200 degrees) for 10 minutes.
Let fish cool down. Cover with crème fraiche and sprinkle with zatar.
Put back in oven for 15 minutes. Check fish for doneness. If cooked through take out and serve.

Thai chicken curry soup
One tin coconut milk
2 teaspoons lemon grass paste
1 piece of ginger (size of two thumbs) sliced small
3 kaffir leaves crushed
1 chicken breast per person eating – chopped up small
5 tablespoons nam pla (fish sauce)
2 tablespoons sugar
Half a lemon squeezed per person eating
A sprinkle of dried chilli flakes
One teaspoon per person Thai red curry paste
Mix white basmati (one a half cups) and wild rice (half a cup) and cook with 3 cups water.
Boil the chicken pieces in one cup coconut milk, kaffir leaves, lemon grass paste and ginger for four minutes. Add rest of coconut milk and boil for another 3 minutes.
For each person eating: in a bowl mix the lemon juice and the red curry paste. Add a ladle of the ckicken coconut mix on top. Add a half a cup of rice. Stir. Sprinkle with chilli flakes.
Add chopped coriander if you have it/want it.

Es gesunteheit.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

I love Yotam Ottolenghi

I love his two cookbooks (The Cookbook and Plenty) and his restaurant Nopi and how he tweets.  I love his way with sesame seeds, capers and Dijon mustard.
I love the recipes he publishes in the Guardian magazine.  I try them every week.

So last week while I was chopping up the ingredients for his Vietnamese Beef Salad, I thought about the difference between him and me.

His people are German and Italian.
My people are Litvak and Litvak.

He comes from a food tradition of refined abundance and I come from a food tradition of primitive austerity.

His people’s food traditions taste good, and my people’s food traditions drew the short culinary straw.
Chopped herring, helzel, ptchar and teiglach are foods that are hard to make and hard to love.

But that’s too bad.

This is what I’ve inherited.   It’s a tradition of simple food made from the cheapest cuts and two or three basic ingredients.

There were no preserved lemons in the stores of Dvinsk in the Nineteenth century.  There was no coriander or fennel seeds to be had in Pinsk. Though apparently there was flour, sugar and onions.  And whole chickens, un-plucked and unprocessed.

I don’t live in Dvinsk in the nineteenth century.  Like the great Ottolenghi himself, I live in London now in 2011, cooking with a wider range of ingredients and food experiences than my ancestors ever had.
I like how freedom tastes. But I wonder if I will be the last person on earth who knows how to make Kichel.

3 eggs
1 tablespoon oil
Half a tablespoon salt

Two secrets: the dough has to be very thin. The baking has to be watched because it burns very easily. Beat yolk whites separately, and then fold the yellow into the whites. Add salt, oil and flour to a good rolling consistency. Beat well after adding the oil, then beat in the flour.
Roll out thinly and cut into rectangles and place on an oil tray. Prick all over with a fork and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 200 degrees until shiny and done.
Kichel are like crackers and are basically edible plates for chopped herring or chopped liver.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


When I was ten, I read a book called My Side of the Mountain.  It was about a child who runs away from home and survives in a forest by living off the land. I was so impressed with this story that I packed a sweet-tin with essentials. There was a safety pin, a pocket knife, salt and sugar in tinfoil wraps, some plasters, matches and a magnet.

I took my survival tin to school with me every day for over a year.  I kept it with me everywhere I went, until the sugar and salt came undone and made a mess at the bottom of my school-bag. 

I still have the pocket knife. And even though I am now a grownup, I still like to make imaginary lists of things I need to survive if I was to run away to a desert island.

These are my lists:

Ten kitchen tools I use every day:

Knife, cutting board, a frying pan, a pot, wooden spoon, Microplane grater, little whisk, spatula, peeler, juice squeezer.

Things in my kitchen at all times:

Butter, onions, milk, bread, lemon, sunflower oil, tinned tomatoes, eggs, barley, flour, potatoes, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, sugar, vinegar.

The real essentials that I try to carry with me:

They are love, memory, pleasure, hope, kindness and belonging.

The essential sense of belonging

I belong to the tribe of Litvaks who immigrated to South Africa over 100 years ago from cold, impoverished European Shtetls.

In my mind, I can see my grandparents on the boat as they land in Cape Town.   They are stunned at the beauty of Table Mountain.  They are relieved their long sea journey is over.  They are clutching leather suitcases that contain all their essentials: vests, socks, passports, photographs, prayer shawls, warm clothes and recipes for the food of their mothers.

The recipes are all that are left.

My grandmother’s teiglach

6 eggs minus one egg yolk
Two tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons brandy
Add enough cake meal or flour for soft, but not sticky dough.  Add a teaspoon of ginger.
Beat. Roll into little doughnut shapes and leave for two hours. (in the sun if possible)

Boil 1kg golden syrup, mixed with 3 cups of sugar and 3 cups of water.
Boil for ten minutes.
Lower them into the boiling syrup.
Leave them in for ten minutes.
Then uncover, wipe the inside of the lid to remove condensation,
stir quickly and then replace lid.
Boil for another 15 minutes with lid on. Stir again. Wipe again.
Replace lid and cook till brown stirring occasionaly. Remove from heat.
Add two cups of hot , strong black coffee, but not boiling.
Remove teiglach from pot.
Place them on wet board to dry and drain. Sprinkle with sugar.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Birth stories

What helped the most to prepare me for the birth of my first child?

Twenty years ago, every Wednesday morning, the Birth Unit of St John’s and Lizzie’s used to hold sessions to prepare women for birth.  I was lucky enough to be part of those sessions.
After yoga, we would eat a delicious, home-made lunch, and the pregnant women would listen to the stories of the women who had graduated to the other side.  The swollen, uncomfortable women would listen in awe to the experiences of women holding their tiny babies in their arms.
I learned that birth is intense and personal, and I heard stories of unique journeys to new lives and different selves.   
It also helped that I had experienced the mind-set necessary to keep going a bit more even when the exercise hurt. And, most important of all, I knew not take the pain personally.

What’s the pain like?

You know when you’re running or doing a press-up and you’re in that place where you can’t do any more and it hurts and you want to stop?  And then you hold yourself there and you keep going?
That’s what the pain is like.  Then it stops and you have a rest with no pain for a bit. And you recover and then you start again.  And as the pain builds, your ability to cope builds.
In the end, the last five contractions say, you feel like your head is coming off.
But it doesn’t start like that. No, it starts gentle and you think, look at me. I can do this. Now that stage is just the beginning and in no way resembles what’s coming.
It builds up and up and it breaks you down, till you are an animal, without politeness. The layers of up-bringing are stripped back and you are laid bare to your essential animal body. The pain is just a way to get you there, to the place where you don’t care and you can do what you need to do to get that baby out of your body and into life. It’s not pretty.

What helped me the most during the birth?

Focus was what got me through. Anything that supported my concentration helped me, which is why I needed complete privacy, quiet, dim light and a fully-functioning brain. Sometimes I needed help concentrating.

What was I concentrating on?

The outbreath was my salvation. In the face of the rising pain of the contraction, I breathed out slowly and consciously through pursed lips.
For my first two births, I also moved my hand in circles over my thighs as I breathed out. I did four breath circles on the right side, then four breath circles on the left side. I also kept my eyes open for half and closed for half. Weird I know, but it helped me visualise and find my place in the contraction.  I knew when I was half way and how far I had to go.
And in the bliss of the no pain between contractions, I was so relaxed I think I fell asleep sometimes. I used that time to recover and prepare myself for the next one.

What made things go faster?

It helped being in deep water and for two of my births, having my membranes broken.

How it looked on the outside?

I was quiet and concentrating intensely.  I probably also looked quite silly.

How it felt on the inside?

I had complete faith in my gifted obstetrician Yehudi Gordon, in my skilled midwife Patricia Scott and in my powerful body.

This is the birth story of my first, precious daughter:

Two weeks after my due date, I had mild contractions one night that went away during the day. When it really hurt the next night, I went to the hospital. I was only one cm dilated so the hospital sent me home again. We didn’t have a car, so we went by taxi.

What followed was a night of terrible pain alone in my bed. I coped by doing a complicated breathing dance (see above) but I panicked sometimes, forgot to breathe and then it all fell apart.
At seven the next morning I insisted on going to the hospital. When we got there, I was fully dilated. 

At 12.40 I pushed a tiny baby girl out into the world. In between, through the standing and the squatting, through the pool and the bed, through stage 1 and stage 2, through the pain and the panic, I kept breathing.

That was 18 years ago.  Last Sunday afternoon, she went to University.

I’m still breathing.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

What your child with ADHD wishes she could tell you

Dear Mom,

You’re never going to fix me.

All the shouting, lectures and punishments in the world, are never going to make me learn to be organised and focused.  I’ll never be person who doesn’t lose things and follows things through, the way you want me to.  
It just makes me feel bad about myself when you do that.

I can feel bad about myself without any extra help, thank-you.  I live in a world of competent, well-organised people who seem to know where their things are and what they’re doing at all moments. At school and at home, I compare myself daily to these perfect creatures that never seem to put a foot wrong.

I can feel you get irritated when I lose my bus-pass (again)  I can see your disappointment with my performance at school.  I know you get worried when you think about my future.  I know you think that if you don’t fix me, I’ll wonder around in a lost, fuzzy cloud forever.  You worry if you don’t teach me to take responsibility for myself; I’ll never function properly as an adult.  
But you’re so busy worrying about me and trying to fix me,  that you don’t give me what I really need.

So how can you help me?

Get my medication sorted, please.  (And don’t have any second thoughts about it. The pharmaceutical industry has really come through for me on this one.)
Encourage me to exercise regularly, to eat properly and get enough sleep. (Because weirdly, that’s what I really need)
Teach me about Mindful meditation (and do some yourself).
You know that one thing I do really well? The singing or writing or dancing or playing the guitar or acting thing that I am really good at. Facilitate that for me to the max.  I need to do something I’m easily good at (and one day, I could make a living out of it. You never know.)

But this is the most important thing you can do for me: show that I’m loved, even though I make mistakes.
Tell me that I’m loved as I am now, unfixed. Convince me that I am loveable as I am, without the grades and prizes my siblings bring home. 

Be willing to let go of who you think I should be, and see me for the wonderful creature that I am.
For a moment today, let go of your vision for me, and see me as I really am.
See the party-bringing, buzz-seeking, gifted, interesting, unique and loveable phenomenon that I am. 

Let go and let love.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

After Kohellet

When I was 16, a friend of mine told me she was so depressed she wanted to end her life.

So I wrote her a letter describing all the wonderful things in the world – a baby, a kitten, chocolate, the colour of the ocean and other 16 year old girl things.

I spent ages on the letter and gave it to her with much sincerity.  But I don’t think it made much difference.  As things turned out, although my friend was very depressed, she didn’t kill herself. 

She went to hospital, and when she came out she went to university, graduated, got married, had children, made friends, made new friends, changed careers, changed cities and has had a life richer than either of us could have imagined.

Not everyone is so lucky.

This week, in our community, a 14 year old girl took her own life.

Mothers around me are hugging our children tighter and we’ve stopped caring about homework or exams or even tattoos anymore.

And I realise I should have written a different letter to my friend forty years ago.

I should have said this:

Sometimes you’ll be hurt and sometimes you’ll heal.
Sometimes you’ll be strong and sometimes you’ll be broken.
Sometimes there’ll be abundance and sometimes you’ll have nothing.
Sometimes you’ll laugh and sometimes you’ll cry.
Sometimes you’ll dance and sometimes you won’t be able to.
Sometimes you’ll get the guy and sometimes he’ll break your heart.
Sometimes you’ll find what you need and sometimes you’ll be lost.
Sometimes you’ll be at peace with yourself and sometimes it’ll be war.
Sometimes you’ll love him and sometimes you’ll hate him.
Sometimes there’ll be pain and sometimes there’ll be pleasure.
Sometimes you’ll feel bliss and sometimes you’ll feel bleak.

Nothing is forever except love.  And although you don’t always see it, you are connected in all directions.  You are so loved.  And life gets hard, yes it does, and you feel lost at times, oh yes you do, but it passes. And waves come and they go.  And time passes.
And life can surprise you. 
Truly out of the blue surprise you in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine.
So hang on. A day or a decade.
Let life and let love.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

salad for lunch

Yesterday a friend came over for lunch.

I tucked into my standard lunch of tuna and toast and a cup of tea.
She said she wanted a salad.
“That’s not what you should be eating” she told me, pointing to my sandwich.
She sliced up tomatoes for her salad and said:  “This is what you should have.”
(Which I thought was interesting because I have noticed that people who habitually have salad for lunch generally struggle with body image)

My friend knows a lot about dieting.  She’s pretty much an expert.  Ask her about how many calories are in an egg, for example, and she’ll ask you fried or poached.

But I know something that she doesn’t know.
I know how to eat in a way that honours my body.

She has spent her life believing that salad is the answer and that dieting is the only way forward. And that her desire for food is the thing that she must conquer. And that she is a failure because she cannot conquer her desire.  And that if she tries harder, she will be successful.

She has another choice. She could let go.  She could stop trying and berating herself for failing.
She could stop believing in magazines that tell her how Jennifer Anniston achieves her bikini-body. 
She could tear down the eating-plan taped to the wall in her kitchen. 
She could stop trying the Dukan diet or the no carbs after 5 rule or the substantial protein for breakfast rule.
She could stop having salad for lunch and buying bags of sweets to eat in the car.
She could make life easy for herself.
She could live with ease in a world of alluring food.
She could eat only with dignity, and never with shame. 
She could accept that only she is responsible for what goes in her mouth.
She could have the pastry or not have the pastry, without a drama.

She could stop believing them, and start believing herself.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


On Thursday afternoon, while running down the aisles for a quick food shop, I asked my daughter to choose the breakfast cereals. She was taking ages so I doubled back to see what the problem was. She couldn’t decide between Cookie Crisp (40% sugar) or Frosted Flakes (41% sugar) or a new one from Kellogg’s called Krave (30% sugar)

The boxes told the whole story. They looked yummy, fun and sugary. I told her another story. I said no.

There was a stand-off in the cereal aisle at Waitrose. As I was paying, I felt I had the right to the final choice. I choose Rice Crispies (10% sugar), Shreddies (14%) and Weetabix(4%)

The new guidelines by the US government want to limit cereals to 8gm of added sugar. (Froot Loops contains 12 grams of sugar a serving. That translates to 48% sugar)

I sympathise with my daughter. Sweeter is yummier. There is something about sugar that calls its sweet siren song. Just hearing the word fudge or chocolate is enough to make me want it.

Offer me a piece of cake or a slice of bread, offer my daughter chocolate spread or unsweetened peanut butter, offer my son ice-cream or vegetable soup, and you know which way the cookie’s going to crumble.

We want sweet before we even see any advertising. But it’s not good for us.
And it’s not good for our children.

I’m not asking for Kellogg’s to stop making Krave. I just want them to stop advertising it to my children. (In the USA the food industry spent nearly $2.3 billion to advertise to children.)

The huge advertising budgets of the food industry normalises unhealthy eating.  

There are no messages out there that say anything else in a language me and my daughter understand.   

There’s no fun TV commercial that says water is a better choice.
There’s no exciting on-line game for toast and peanut-butter.
There’s no beautifully illustrated billboard for oatmeal porridge.

And without messages that tell the other side of the story, it feels like I'm fighting a losing battle for what my children eat for breakfast.

Is there anyone out there on my side?

Friday, 15 April 2011

A free meal

I was in Cape Town last week and I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery by a photographer called Ernest Cole.

His pictures powerfully document the dehumanising effects of apartheid and the mining industry that funded it.

One picture particularly stopped me in my tracks.

The caption read:

Kitchen helper dumps food on men’s plates with shovel. Diet is nyula, a vegetable mixture, and maize-meal porridge served twice a day”

 I don’t know what Nyula is.  I’ve never eaten it although I lived in South Africa until I was 23.

I grew up on a weird hybrid of Litvak Shtetl food, International Classics and Cape Malay dishes -
Spagetti Bolognaisse, sardines on toast, Tomato Bredie and Tzimmes.

It doesn’t really matter though. All food is basically just chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

What matters though is how we serve it and how we eat it.

It is dehumanising to have food dumped on your plate with a shovel.

Food prepared without care and slopped on a plate, feeds a sense that you are a person without value. 

This is food not eaten with a knife and fork, but with shackles.

And it makes me wonder about how food is served in prisons, schools, old-aged homes and institutions of all kinds. And what that says to the adults and children standing in-line, waiting their turn for their food.

I took comfort from another picture in the exhibition.  It was of three men sitting around preparing their own food. One is playing the guitar. There is no table or plates and probably no electricity either. 

The caption reads: “On Sundays many prefer to give the “pig’s food” a miss and will cook something themselves.  Whenever possible, the men go outside the compound to buy some extra food – corn meal, for instance – which they cook themselves”

It may still be just cornmeal, but these look like free men, and forty years later, in a black and white photograph it still shows.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Eight cruel truths about getting into shape


·         Dieting is cruel because diets don’t work and then you think it’s your fault.
·         The food industry is cruel because all they want is for you to buy more of 
their stuff so they make it easier for you to eat more food faster.
·         Scales are cruel because you are not good or bad depending on a number.
·         Magazines and television featuring too thin models are cruel 
because they stop you seeing your own beauty.
·         Diet Coke is cruel because water is better.
·         Snack shops are cruel because they tempt you with ice-creams, popcorn 
and muffins which spoil your appetite for supper.
·         Super-sized portions are cruel because no-one is going to stop 
eating halfway.
·         The way we live now is cruel because we don’t have enough time 
to cook properly and sit down at a table with plates and knives and forks 
and loved ones to enjoy food together.
The only way to get into shape is to decide to be kind to yourself 
moment by moment, 
starting with this moment.

Stuffed peppers

6 large red peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
3 garlic cloves crushed
3 cups cooked rice
1 tablespoons paprika
1 and a half teaspoons salt
1 tin chopped tomato
1 egg beaten
500 grams minced meat

Chop of tops of peppers and put to side. Clean out insides and put 
peppers in large cooking dish.
Fry onions till soft, add, parsley and garlic.   
Add meat and cook till brown. Add cooked rice, paprika, salt tomatoes 
and egg. Stir. Cook for twenty minutes.
Scoop mixture into peppers and put extra mixture around the sides.
Put the lids on and put dish in a 200 degree oven for 20-30 minutes.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How to get children to eat well.

Everything I know, I’ve learned from books.
Every meal I’ve eaten, I tasted first in words.

I’ve waited for breakfast with Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White): “Skim milk, crusts, middlings, bits of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them"

I’ve eaten dinner with Heidi (Johanna Spyri): “...hungrily beginning her bread, having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was as soft as butter."

I’ve made candy with Laura and Mary in the Little House in the Big Woods. (Laura Ingalls Wilder):  " Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow.  These hardened at once and were candy. Laura and Mary might eat one piece each, but the rest were saved for Christmas Day.”

I’ve shared potato latkes with the family in Ten and a Kid. (Sadie Rose Weilerstein):
“...soon the first pancake was sizzling in the hot fat. It covered the whole bottom of the pan. The children stood by watching and sniffing, each with an earthenware plate in hand."

This is what I learned as a child from hours of reading about lives far away from mine:
  • Sometimes you have to eat leftovers
  • Bread and cheese and milk equals a meal
  • You can't eat all your sweets in one go
  • Hunger makes food taste better.
  • There is not abundance for everyone.

That’s what I’ve tried to teach my children.

I cook whatever I think is delicious and serve it to them like they are the luckiest children in the world.  When they try something new and tell me they don’t want mushrooms or beetroot or lentils or whatever, I ignore them, giving them a tiny look of “are you joking me?” 

In the evening and in the morning, meal after meal, day after day, I show them what I know about food and eating. There is pleasure and conversation. There are rhythms and occasions. There are no short cuts.

Here is how I make potato latkes.
1 kg potatoes
1 onion grated
2 eggs beaten
30 g flour
Salt and pepper
Sunflower oil for frying
Peel and grate potatoes. Squeeze out extra water.
Mix all ingredients together.
Heat oil one finger deep.
Drop dessertspoons of batter into oil.
Fry. Turn. Fry some more.
Drain on paper towel.