Monday, 30 April 2012

Making life easier in the kitchen - cooking tips from Snig's Kitchen and beyond

I am always completely up front with the fact that I am an enthusiastic amateur cook with limited skill rather than any kind of expert. My presentation is certainly not going to win me any prizes! But I am always keen to improve.

So I have been thinking about small ways in which we all can improve our cooking, both in terms of the experience and the product. As a result I've been putting together a special page of cooking tips which you can find here:

Here are some other ideas I have picked up over the years:

Peeled and/or chopped potatoes have a nasty habit of going grey as they are exposed to the air. Soak peeled or chopped potatoes in water (fully submerged) to prevent this happening.

Don’t put salt on meat until you are completely ready to cook it. The salt draws out the moisture in the meat. That makes it more likely to be chewy. 

If browning/sealing meat for a casserole, stew or curry, get the pan hot before you start. Then brown in batches. If you put too much meat in the pan in one go, the uncooked meat lowers the temperature of the pan, meaning you won’t get the same searing and browning. The meat starts to cook through.

A really simple tip from Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food is to mix salad dressings in a jar. All you need is an old jar you got for free with your jam or what not. You bung all the dressing ingredients inside, lid on, shake up. It’s so quick and clean! You don’t have to look for a whisk which you then have to wash up. And any dressing which is left over can be kept in the jar and put in the fridge for up to 2 days

I recently asked all my friends, be they foodies or reluctant cooks for their cooking tips. I got some really great responses – both serious and humourous.

From Rowena Poole:
If you need a taper, a stick of dry Spaghetti does the trick.
To reduce tears when cutting onions, suck a teaspoon.
When chopping onions, don't cut off the end bits until the last chip. That's the worst but for the tears.

From Lisa Troughton:
Cold hands make great pastry.

From Michael Hubbard:
Keep it simple, good ingredients speak for themselves.

From Michael Chapman:
Avoid lean meat for most recipes - it will lack the richness of fatty meat.

And now for the not-so-serious ones.... which have a lot of truth to them!

From Michael Chapman:
Under No Circumstances go for a pee after chopping chillies.
(Perhaps more applicable to men than women, Mike!)

From Toby Harrison:
Always drink while cooking.

Watch out – I have a special guest post from Uyen Luu coming up in Snig's Kitchen to offer you even more great advice!

What are your top cooking tips? Please share them with me, I'd love to know!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Don’t panic! Food poisoning is nasty, but easily avoided

The consumer organisation “Which?” has caused what appears to be a major media scare with its report that 18% (or as reported today, one in five) chickens it tested had food poisoning bug Campylobacter. 

Read about it here:

“Which?” is a pretty well respected outfit. I greatly doubt that they wanted us all to panic and worry. I think the intention was to encourage the major supermarkets to ensure they and their suppliers worked to reduce the health risks to consumers.  But in the big media hoo-ha which has ensued, “Which?” have been accused of ‘scaremongering’. 

So let’s look at what this story is about, because there really is no need to panic.

Campylobacter? What is it and do I need to worry?

Campylobacter is a form of bacteria. It occurs naturally. It happens to dwell inside animals, including poultry. Remember those adverts for health drinks like Yakult and Actimel? Well, they have bacterial cultures which are designed to top up levels of ‘good bacteria’ living in your gut. Campylobacter is simply a not-so-good bacterium. (The singular of bacteria is ‘bacterium’; that was not a typo!)

It may help to think of Campylobacter as the ‘BBQ Bug’. Because the weather is warmer in Spring and Summer, the bug can multiply more easily, and it is many of the features of a typical BBQ party which can help cause food poisoning.

But there is NO NEED TO WORRY! There are few simple rules and techniques you can use in your kitchen and at a BBQ party to avoid food poisoning. I will deal with them later.

Why have I never heard of Campylobacter before? Is it new?

It isn’t new. It just hasn’t been the cause of major outbreaks of illness like the more famous bugs Salmonella, its unpleasant cousin E Coli (or Escherichia coli as it is known to its friends) or Listeria. 

What will happen if I get Campylobacter inside me?

You won’t feel very well and may spend a lot of time in the toilet. You are most likely to suffer vomiting and diarrhoea. You may also get stomach cramps. You are more likely to suffer these symptoms between 2 and 5 days of eating the affected food, although it could be a bit longer. It is highly unlikely to kill you, unless you have a weakened immune system or pre-existing illness.

How can it be avoided?

1.       Keep your fridge cold enough; Your fridge should be at a temperature of between 0°C to 5°C (or 32°F to 41°F). Please note that this will only prevent the bacteria from multiplying. Sadly, the little buggers are not killed in the fridge (or the freezer for that matter).

2.       Thaw frozen meat slowly; uneven temperature changes can cause the bad bacteria to multiply. Thawing in the fridge rather than by leaving frozen meat out in the kitchen or by soaking in hot water will be safer as the process will be even and gradual.

3.       Never refreeze anything you have thawed. Ever. As set out above, freezing doesn’t kill the bacteria. The thawed meat will be warmer than frozen, and once above 5°C, the bacteria will start to multiply again. Refreezing will just put the newly increased bacteria population into a sort of ‘suspended animation’ until they can come back at you with vigour. It is just not worth it!

4.       Wrap or box all meat and dairy products. Do not leave loose meat or cheese floating around your fridge. Please, please do not allow juices from meat to drip onto other items in your fridge. It is messy and will make you very ill.

5.       Keep cooked meat and meat products away from uncooked meats in your fridge

6.       If you are vulnerable (very young, very old, pregnant or suffering from reduced immune function), avoid any dairy products which have not been pasteurised. The pasteurisation process (which involves heating the milk used in the products to a very high temperature, maintaining that temperature for a given period then cooling very rapidly) reduces the possibility of the bacteria growing.

7.       Do not wash your meat. It doesn’t work in removing bacteria. It just means that you splash water droplets and bacteria all around your kitchen, which can result in everything being contaminated; your worktops, pans, utensils and other ingredients. Oh, and the floor.

8.       Cooking is what will kill the bacteria. You are aiming to get all meat up to a temperature of around 70°C (165°F). This is hot enough to kill the horrid beasties.

9.       Steaks and roasts made of red meat are the only meaty things you can eat cooked rare. And you still have to try to make sure that the pink middle reaches 70°C. Do not think of eating chicken rare; uncooked chicken is a major source of food poisoning. Mixed meat products like sausages cannot be eaten rare (as the production process will have mixed a whole load of potential nasties all through your sausages). There are similar risks to shop bought minced meat. Like steak tartare? Make it yourself from a slab of steak.

10.   Have 2 chopping boards; one for meat/fish and another for everything else. Wash them thoroughly after each use. If you have a dishwasher, get yourself 2 plastic chopping boards which you can just chuck in at the end of a cooking session. Wood will warp/split in the heat of the dishwasher. If you have wood boards, make sure you scrub thoroughly and allow them to dry completely between uses.

11.   Don’t eat meat products after the ‘Use By’ date (UK Readers).  After the ‘Use By’ date has passed, a food product is theoretically unfit for human consumption. ‘Best Before’ is literally about the optimum time to consume a food product. ‘Display Until’ is an indicator for the shop selling the product to remove from the display, usually for cosmetic reasons (ditto ‘Sell By’). ‘Best Before’, ‘Display Until’ and ‘Sell By’ dates can all be exceeded, but within reason. Don’t take too many chances.

12.   Make sure you cook things on the BBQ properly; the big mistake made is gauging whether the BBQ is hot enough to cook on or not. You will probably need to light your BBQ up to 30 minutes before you can start cooking. The coals should have had a really good chance to burn and start going white with ash. The biggest mistake made is putting the food on whilst the fuel is burning at its hottest, totally burning the outside of the food and leaving the middle nearly raw.

13.   Perfectly cooked BBQ meat has the following characteristics: it is NOT PINK, the juices run clear (no pink or red), the meat is steaming (piping hot) all over.

14.   Don’t reuse used meat marinade unless it is heated up to at least 70°C or until boiling. Don’t put it back in the fridge. Do not be tempted to use as a salad dressing. This is one of the easiest ways of giving yourself food poisoning! 

Do any of you have any other advice on how to enjoy your food safely?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Brain food

My students are in the middle of assessment season. It is tough for them. The course they study is only 9 months long, but has 6 exams and a host of other assessments. They are about to sit exams in civil litigation, criminal litigation and evidence, difficult and technical subjects with a massive syllabus to cover.

Their predicament has made me wonder whether there is any way of giving yourself the 'edge' mentally through what you eat. Just as athletes and sports people manage their diet for optimum physical performance, perhaps that is also possible to achieve the best mental performance.

So I've been doing some research. I've found that there is a wealth of research which shows the effect of diet on brain function. Often it is the case that the studies show that diets low in certain nutrients result in lack of mental abilities and even a higher risk of dementia, so it is question of reasoning that a diet high in those nutrients will assist your mental powers. In other cases, the improvement in cognitive power through the intake of certain nutrients can be proved.

This are some of the interesting facts I discovered:

Many products selling themselves as being good for memory and brain development tout the fact that that contain “Omega 3”. Omega 3 is a type of fatty acid, specifically a polyunsaturated one. They cannot be created by the body, so have to be part of our food intake. Omega 3 can be found in certain plants and in fish/ fish oils. Walnuts and linseed are a good source of Omega 3. Oily fishes are another good source, meaning mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon. Apparently human eyes and brains are made up of a large amount of these oils, so ensuring your diet contains Omega 3 oils will ensure brain renewal. There have been studies which suggest a diet low in Omega 2 oils can lead to a risk of Alzheimer's disease, another good reason for making sure you get your regular dose.

Minerals seem to be essential for memory recall and mental agility. Folic acid, iron and zinc appear to be the most important for brain function. Zinc can be found in pumpkin seeds, a great healthy snack, which will improve cognitive function and memory.

Iron is needed for the production of haemoglobin, which is the chemical that enables your blood to carry oxygen round the body. Without a good oxygen supply, the brain cannot function. Hence iron is very important for anything your might want to do with your mind. It is also thought that lack of iron can result in a listlessness, poor energy levels and an inability to concentrate; exactly what you don't need when trying to study for exams! What should you eat to keep those iron levels high? Egg yolks, red meat, lentils, red kidney beans and wholegrains. So the student classic Chilli Con Carne, served perhaps with some brown rice would go down pretty well here, wouldn't it?
Don't like rice? How about:

By the way, don't believe the hype about spinach; it isn't as high in iron as you may have thought. Popeye's favourite grub is not going to help. Don't believe me? Check out:

Vitamins also have an enormous influence on our mental powers. Vitamin B12 is said to improve information recall, as well as reducing homocysteine levels in the body, a chemical found in high levels in those suffering from dementia. Sources include milk, milk products, poultry and liver, although vegetarians and vegans may wish to consider supplements.

Vitamin C has been shown in studies to assist with memory and attention. Obviously, vitamin C can be found in all forms of citrus fruit.

Vitamin K improves brainpower and is known to improve thinking skills and can be found in broccoli. Now I know what some of you will say: 'But I don't like broccoli!'. If so, chances are you were served soggy, grey looking overcooked stuff as part of your school dinners. Try steaming it for 7-8 minutes. It is transformed into a whole new vegetable, with subtle flavour and al dente texture. I was a broccoli hater too, but learning how to steam it has totally changed my opinion.

Vitamin E is thought to improve memory. So eating foods rich in it may help prevent poor memory; nuts, seeds and wholegrains (time to bring out some muesli or better still sweet, crunchy granola!).

What you may notice from all the fascinating facts above is how varied the different sources of brain enhancing nutrients are. This makes perfect sense. A healthy diet ought to be varied, containing different sources of protein, carbs and some fats and oils. It should contain fruit and vegetables. Any diet which is good for the body is highly likely to be good for the mind.

So, if you are in the middle of exam fever, can I impress upon you the importance of looking after yourself. You need to study, but you mustn't overload yourself. Rests and breaks are needed, and they will help the learning and information stick. You need your sleep; all nighters are bad for you and you won't remember much of what you read when tired. It will do no good to eat your umpteenth Pot Noodle, because you don't have the time to cook or shop. Popping out to the shops to buy some fruit and veg will give you a break, some fresh air and a little exercise. Cooking a meal will give you a break from the books and get your mind working on a different challenge. How about making that chilli? You can make a massive pot and have 2 or 3 days dinners ready and waiting for you. As they say, a change is as good as a rest.

Get enough sleep, don't skip meals, keep away from those tools of procrastination known as 'facebook' and 'twitter', take breaks every hour or two and you will find the revision should come along nicely.

Good luck to anyone who is currently revising for exams, whatever they may be. I have my fingers and toes crossed for you all!