Archive for August, 2009

Back on the shop floor at Steenbergs

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I am currently working back on the Steenbergs shop floor as our chief blender, Alan, is on his annual holiday somewhere in Greece.  It is great fun to be back where it all began, blending the blends that I’ve created over the years and grinding organic black pepper.

There’s been a flurry from some of our raw materials customers for organic cracked black pepper, as we are one of the few businesses willing to do small amounts of these to bespoke sizes.

At Steenbergs, we begin with top quality, re-cleaned and steam sterilised organic black peppercorns from India or Sri Lanka.  We then crack these through our industrial-scale mill through a 1.5mm cut size.  At Steenbergs, we then pass them through 2 sieve meshes:  the first is large at 1.25mm to remove any oversizes that may have got through the spice mill; the second is 650 microns, or 0.65mm, to remove the fines. 

This gives a fairly consistently sized chopped organic black peppercorn as if it has gone through the coarse setting on your peppermill at home.  As the pepper falls through the check sieve it passes over strong permanent magnets that remove any stray bits of metal.  We pack these up into 20kg sacks, before running them through a metal detector that will pick up stainless steel, iron and other metals, checking for any other conductive contaminants.

The resultant 1mm chop is called cracked black pepper in the UK, crushed in the USA and butcher’s chop in Germany, where it mainly goes into salamis.

I love the intense smell of the ground black pepper, which gets into mouth and all over your skin – even though you’re fully togged up in protective gear (hygiene overcoats, hairnets, hats etc), it gets everywhere.  I suppose it is just a very aromatic dust.  I also find the motion of the check sieve really hypnotic and the finalisation of the quality of the grind truly satisfying.

The resultant fine ground pepper is further sieved through a 250 micron sieve to give an organic fine ground black pepper, and an organic coarse black pepper.

Today, I’ve also made some organic chilli powder, which we blend using a super-hot organic Guntur chilli powder from India, together with an organic paprika, halving the overall heat.  It’s still a pretty pungent, red hot chilli pepper.  For this, we use extra protective gear, including a face mask, goggles, latex gloves and protective arm covers.

Steenbergs is product of the day at Woman & Home

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Steenbergs Home Baking range of organic extracts, including organic Fairtrade vanilla extract and our natural almond extract, is featured as the product of the day at Woman & Home today.

Take a look at:

http://www.womanandhome.com/articles/food/buyoftheday/391623/home-baking.html

Not bad, eh.

Goethe and an afternoon walk at Harlow Carr

Monday, August 17th, 2009

We went as a family to Harlow Carr Gardens on the outskirts of Harrogate this weekend.  We go every so often to enjoy a quick walk in the gardens.  It’s pretty small and really quite genteel, which is just what you would expect for Harrogate.  I prefer the beautifully landscaped gardens of Fountains Abbey outside of Ripon.  I suppose I enjoy the green and rugged feel of the outdoors over the prettiness of beautiful flower gardens.

We had to queue for ages to get lunch for 5 at Betty’s at Harlow Carr.  It took about 1 hour, but then if you arrive at the busiest time (12.30pm) on one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year, then it serves you right.  In any case, it was chucking it down with rain outside, so we were better inside than out.  The food is okay at Betty’s, nothing especially brilliant; perhaps a bit overpriced for what you get, although the ambience is posh and the views over the gardens at Harlow Carr are decent.

We had timed it well as after lunch it had dried up and was warm outside.  It was a good time for a gentle walk in the woods, passed the flowering crocosmia, dahlias and toadflax.  We enjoyed the bright metal sculptures, such as a giant spade and a poppy poking out of the beds.  The kids wanted to follow a trail backwards, so we went to the Log Ness Monster, then a fern covered summer house, a log maze, walked passed some people watching a bee-keepers demonstration at the apiary and finished it off at the wonderful willow sculptures of a whale, a mermaid and a pirate ship.  I was gobbled up just like Hanuman was eaten up by Surasa, the sea monster, while searching for Sita in the sea between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

As we walked around the woods, we came across a lunar module made from recycled things from the house, ranging from a washing machine and a metal dustbin through to saucepans and mirrors.  It was commemorating 30 years since the first man on the moon.

On it, there was a quote from Goethe which sounded really good.  On going home, I checked out the quote only to find out it was a common misquote and really came from a book (“The Scottish Himalayan Expedition” from 1951) by a Scottish mountaineer called William Hutchison Murray, within which he actually uses a loose translation from Goethe’s Faust made by John Anster in 1835 (lines 214 – 230).  Anyway the quote itself still stands as a good piece:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: 

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!””

Ignore the FSA and continue to believe in the best of organic foods

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

I have reflected further on the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) report on the nutritional and health effects of organic.  And I have 2 further thoughts, being, firstly, that the concept of the report is irrelevant, and, secondly, there is probably no practicable way of proving any difference between non-organic and organic on a purely chemical basis except for the impact of pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilisers on health. 

And finally just because government departments state that there are no differences between organic and non-organic and that chemical residues should be ignored because they are, in their experimental opinion, safe, but they have missed something or the technology for measuring differences and safe limits is still too imprecise – at an extreme end, smoking and drinking alcohol is legal but clearly unsafe while DDT and dieldrin were considered safe for many years, whereas they are now generally regarded as very unsafe. 

Or how about something more recent.  Our very own “Silent Spring” where the sound of honeybees has collapsed rather than songbirds.  Honeybee populations have collapsed across Europe and caused billions to die across the world.  The collapse in honeybee populations is linked to neonicotinoid based pesticides.  These have been banned in France for use on sunflowers and are now banned in Italy and Germany as well, while the EC has suggested tough controls.  But what does the British Government do, nothing.  In April 2009, Hillary Benn said: [there is] “no evidence the use of those pesticides caused the decline in bee numbers.”

Point 1: the FSA report is irrelevant

Let’s have a thought-based experiment.  Take 3 beef steaks: a cheap cut, a piece of beef that has been hung for 25 – 30 days, a slice of steak that has come from a rare breed of cattle that has been allowed to graze out on pasture and finally a steak from cattle that had been kept indoors with no light and fed on GM foodstuffs.  Now undertake a nutritional analysis of these based on 20 categories and compare and contrast.  At the same time, make observations on the colour and appearance, then cook in a light sunflower oil and taste, making notes of the taste differences.  I suspect that nutritionally they would be broadly similar and that there would be no statistical evidence for choosing one type of beef over the other, nor would I expect that you would find any evidence of better health properties of one form of beef over the other. 

Now take the results of each set of statistics and get hold of the raw ingredients, i.e. pure nitrogen, pure carbohydrates and pure fatty acids.  Put the relevant quantities in 4 separate bowls, mix them up and taste them.  Your taste buds are actually a much more sophisticated real-time chemical analyser than a laboratory and I doubt it would even taste of beef!

You can do the same with any type of food.  Think about vegetables – take a value potato from a grocery multiple, another from their specialist “Best of..” selection, another freshly picked from your garden and one that has been grown in a laboratory using  pure nutrients in a liquid medium.  Get the nutritional analysis and then cook them by simply boiling them in water and taste.

The point is that normal people do not make their purchasing decisions on the basis of a list of nutrients provided by a laboratory.  In fact, very few consumers actually even look at the nutritionals and ingredients on a pack, unless they are on a particular diet. 

It depends on whether food is a purely functional chemical experience or is actually a form of pleasure.  If it is purely a functional experience, then I suggest that you by the pure chemicals from a chemicals distributor, mix them up and add water – delicious?!  If there is even an iota of a sense of pleasure, then buy what your taste buds want and your ethics desire.  After all, your taste buds are probably a better judge of what a human being needs than a laboratory rat, as it is what has helped our race survive in the world.

Point 2: there is no practicable experiment to provide a reason to buy organic food over non-organic (if you exclude chemical residues!)

There is a really good diagram on page 7 entitled “Figure 1: Conceptual framework outlining factors affecting nutrient variability”.  You don’t actually need to see the diagram, save to know that the research authors have postulated 5-6 categories of factors that influence food that is produced and a further 8 factors that impact nutrient make-up of the food on your plate.

And that’s the point, it is a vastly complex area of science that may only result in marginal differences in each individual chemical.  Many of these marginal changes may be statistically possible in random variation or from changed weather patterns or different breeds of plant or animal etc etc.

It is perhaps just a glorious bureaucratic exercise in finding the wood and missing the trees and then failing to see that you have a mixed wood with flowers and insects, frogs and mice, birds and deer.

I have often pondered on whether you could ever successfully use pure science adequately to explain such complex biological systems.

Use this thought experiment.

I give you 3 cubed pieces of stone-like material, 1mm x 1mm x 1mm.  I ask you to analyse it chemically and to give me the results in 10 categories.  Now I give you another 10 pieces of the material from the same area, but this time they are in triangles of 1mm x 1mm x 1mm and 10mm deep.  Once again I ask for chemical analysis.  In fact, I will now give you 2000 bits of material 1mm x 1mm x 10cm deep and you can do any form of chemical or physical analysis of the bits of material.

Now bring back the results and give me your conclusions.

Your results will be very noble, done with lots of conviction and hard work.  They will show that you understand how to use lots of very expensive kit and do statistical analysis etc.

But what they will not be able to tell me is what it is, so I will show you.

Now stand back and look at the bigger picture and it is very big and complex.  It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as painted by Michelangelo, which has been restored a few times since he first painted it.  No experimental system would have got the big picture and it is only the big picture that matters, not the detailed minutiae of chemicals or physics.  It is the way Michelangelo put together all those differents shapes and colours onto the roof within the centre of the Roman Catholic faith in Rome that matters.

It is the same with organic food, Fairtrade products, free range products and well made food.  It’s the whole story that matters, not the individual bits.

Conclusion

The FSA’s approach is like that of the British in building the British Empire.  Divide and rule, create rules and get the conquered people to stick by them on pain of military retaliation.  Looking back on what was once regarded as right and proper, we see much to be ashamed of. 

Times change, opinions change, the world turns and moves on.  Bill Clinton and the 2 George Bushes ignored global warming as a provable phenomenon, but Barrack Obama has it at the centre of his thoughts. 

Organic farming is better for the earth, it produces better food than conventional farming and is significantly better for the planet than GM crops.  For those who believe that we are stewards of the earth rather than owners organic farming is the only possible creed.  We must persevere in our belief in organic in the face of those who would try to dissuade the rest against that viewpoint.  We must continue to have courage in our convictions and defend those views without any cowardice.

Photo ops at Steenbergs

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

I am slightly apprehensive about having had my photo taken this week.  We have been suppliers of spices and sea salt to Tanfield Food Company since they were established a few years back.  They make ambient convenience meals in a pouch under the brand-name “Look What I’ve Found” and for Marks & Spencer and a few others. 

Look What I’ve Found is the brainchild of Roger McKechnie and Keith Gill who founded Phileas Fogg in the 1980s and so creating the premium adult snacks marketplace.   They came up with the idea of Phileas Fogg after being made redundant by one of the large crisp companies, just like Sophie and I started Steenbergs after being made redundant – there’s hope after failure, or at least nothing more to lose!

They wanted a photograph of me for the front label of a new mixed peppercorns sauce that they are doing based on a blend of our finest peppercorns from India and Africa.  Having your photo taken is one of those weirdly artificial times when your face freezes up and even humour makes it impossible to relax and it becomes hardly possible to catch that elusive smile, and this photo was taken while leaning on a fence beside a reed bed system for cleaning the sewerage. 

I suppose I should be flattered that they think our spices are great and that my mugshot won’t detract from the product, but I am still a bit nervous about having my face staring down at me from a supermarket shelf.  But let’s hope that in the future they will be able to say that Axel Steenberg’s face was the face that sold more than a thousand packets of peppercorn sauce!

For more on the products by Tanfield Food Company, visit http://www.lookwhatwefound.co.uk/.

Organic food has no nutritional or health benefits – my personal response to the Review Authors and the FSA

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

A couple of weeks back now in July 2009, the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) issued a press release together with the publication of a scientific review of the published science on investigations into the comparison of the nutritional composition and health benefits of organic and non-organically farmed food by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 

It concluded “that there are no important differences in the nutrition content of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food” to quote Tim Smith, Chief Executive of the FSA from his open letter defending the research.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: “Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”

Quite understandably the report, or more precisely the press releases from the FSA, was picked up by the UK press and reported on in the printed and broadcast media with people on all sides chipping in their two-penny’s worth.  Most of it was off-the-cuff and partial.  The headlines were understandably eye-catching: “Organic food is no better” and “Organic nosh is not healthier”.

So I felt, I should read the scientific review and come to my own conclusions.  And I have to say I am rather underwhelmed by the report considering the assertions made and believe that the FSA (and perhaps all parties) have been disingenuous and unfocused in their reponses.  I would question whether any of them, including the senior people at the FSA, have actually read the report or put ant sensible thought about how it should be publicised.  In fact, I believe everyone has been irresponsible and has damaged their own reputations, as well as the reputations of their bodies.

The report itself is neither a good piece of science nor a bad piece of science and its conclusions neither have merit nor dismerit.  Overall, the report really has very little to say and there is very little useful information to glean from it.  By itself and if it was in a less contentious sphere, I suspect it would have sunk without trace as a piece of useful academic procedure rather than actually having contributed much to the debate in its subject area – organic food.  It’s a 2.2 degree rather than a 1st, a C for effort rather than an A for excellence.

Having read the report, there is really only one rational conclusion from the review undertaken for the FSA and it is as that from the review of the research undertaken to date there is insufficient data available to make any definitive conclusions about organic or non-organic food.  Therefore, neither the FSA nor the organic industry can look to the review as having strengthened their hand. 

Furthermore, it was very disappointing that the review authors did not recommend that further research should be done to address the questions being asked.  They should have used this opportunity to outline the essential characteristics that such a research project and report should have to enable it to meet the stringent filtering process that they went through in whittling down 52,471 reports to 55.

The research paper

The research identified 52,471 citations and reduced these down to 292 that were potentially relevant.  Of these, a further 182 were excluded as they did not meet additional criteria while a further 26 were added after hand searching of reference lists and direct contact with authors.  In the end, 162 publications met the quality criteria set by the research team.  This was whittled down further to 55, or 34% of the 162, as meeting a set of “satisfactory quality” criteria.  The methodology seemed in general satisfactory, although I was not convinced by the exclusion of publications that excluded an English abstract as this suggests an overall lack of rigour and effort by the team.

Nutrient content comparisons were then extracted from the 162 studies yeilding 3,558 sets of comparison that “compared nutrient content in organically with conventionally produced foodstuffs”.

The research team then analysed the results for different nutrient categories detailing the number of comparisons and studies together with the result as to which mode of agriculture demonstrated statistically higher levels.

The comparative table yields the following results (Table 2 & 3: Comparison of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock” on pages 19-20 of the report):

  • In the all 162 studies comparisons, conventional won in the nitrogen category, organic in 9 categories with a draw in 23 categories;
  • In  satisfactory 55 studies, conventional won in 1 category (nitrogen) and organic in 3 categories, 27 draws and 2 no statistical conclusion possible.

Further analysis of the comparison table yields the following results (Table 2 & 3: Comparison of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock” on pages 19-20 of the report):

  • In the all studies section, there was an average of 65 comparisons per category ranging from 164 to 9 for ash.  This was from an average of 18 studies per category with a top level of 42 and a low of 5;
  • In the satisfactory quality section, there was an average of 25 comparisons per category ranging from a high of 80 for phenolic compounds down to 0 for trans-fatty acids.  These comparisons came from an average of 7 studies per category ranging from 17 studies down to 0.

The conclusion of the first part of the review was that “no evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content”.  The review authors then continued a little further on to state that “there is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”

The second part of the review sought to look at the “Comparison of putative health effects of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review”.  In this analysis, only 11 relevant publications were found and only 3 were deemed to meet the pre-defined satisfactory quality criteria.  The results were that “in conclusion, because of the limited and highly variable data available, and concerns over the reliability of some reported findings, there is currently no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs.”

My conclusions

I have my own views on organic and I could probably drum up conflicting evidence to the review done for the FSA.  Similarly, I could complain that the report did not cover “address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues…or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices”, but that would be going off brief.

There is really only one rational conclusion from the review undertaken for the FSA and it is as that from the review of the research undertaken to date there is insufficient data available to make any definitive conclusions about organic or non-organic food.  Therefore, neither the FSA nor the organic industry can look to the review as having strengthened their hand.  

Furthermore, it was very disappointing that the review authors did not recommend that further research should be done to address the questions being asked.  They should have used this opportunity to outline the essential characteristics that such a research project and report should have to enable it to meet the stringent filtering process that they went through in whittling down 52,471 reports to 55.

On the contrary, the review authors and the FSA have shown their bias by spinning the conclusions in the review document to make it appear that they have uncovered strong evidence to dissuade consumers from purchasing organic.  They are guilty of being disingenuous through their PR, not least of which is the release of this in the summer holidays when the FSA is guaranteed maximum headlines.  For example when Gill Fine says “that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food”, this implies and was spun by The Sun that the evidence shows that there are no health benefits, but what she means is that evidence was lacking and that the reviewers could only find 3 reports out of 52,471 reports that addressed health benefits and so were unable to draw any conclusions.

The review report can be seen as a waste of time and effort.  I do not think this is so.  Both sides, the FSA, the non-organic farming industry and the organic agricultural industry can draw a line in the sand and say that no-one has done valid research before 2008.  And were the Government interested in undertaking proper research, we can now sit down and determine: (a) the definition of organic; (b) the nutrients that need to be considered; (c) the health benefits that should be looked into; (d) the required characteristics of the research and the report for it to meet any quality thresholds.  The research can then begin in a number of studies across Europe and the World. 

Personally, I do not believe that the UK or US Government would welcome such research and that it will fall either to the EC or rich individuals to finance such research – so step up to the plate Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, the Goldsmiths or Rothschilds.

Recipes for Peppermint Creams and Chocolate Strawberries

Monday, August 10th, 2009

It’s been a weekend of baking and cooking for Jay’s birthday.  He had some specific requests for things plus we needed to get the sausages and baps for the proper “hot dogs”, ie not with boil in the bag frankfurters but real sausages and decent bread.  I know I should have made the sausages but I seemed to be baking for Britain in any case. 

There were also the games to prepare for; we went for very traditional games: egg and spoon, a sack race, three legged races, beanbag on the head race, a bucket and sponge race, followed by rounders after birthday tea.  We all love the good, old fashioned traditional games.  They are great fun and are a wonderful leveller which means that no particular person gets an advantage because of their height or age.  I hate those sports days where the tallest and/or most developed in a year wins all the prizes purely out of developmental reasons rather than necessarily ability, or maybe it’s simply that I never won and so am scarred with jealously!

Birthday cakeI feel it is really important to home bake as much as possible at a birthday and keep the artificial out as much as possible.  Yes, you’ve got to have the ubiquitous crisps and perhaps the odd packet of sweets, but you must under all circumstances bake your own cake.  It shows your love and appreciation of the people involved through giving up some time and putting that love into a gift of food; it’s like a devotional offering to show that you are so happy that someone has grown up and developed one more year in their journey of life and are ready to tackle the next year.  It says sorry for those times that you have been cross and off-hand with them during the year, and says that you will try harder to give more support during the next year.

What our children really, really love are the home-made sweets.  This is something people don’t perhaps make enough of, but they can be just so simple.  And they taste remarkably different from shop-bought junk.  This year I made peppermint creams, chocolate coated strawberries (part of your 5 a day, so that’s pretty cool), vanilla fudge and coconut ice.  I didn’t make marshmallows but have in the past, although they do have a very different texture to the shop bought, highly coloured things. 

Here are the really quick recipes for some of these:

Peppermint creams

450g    Icing sugar, sieved
125ml   Sweetened condensed milk (traditionally this would be egg whites but this seems safer nowadays)
Few drops of peppermint essence/extract
150g    Plain dark chocolate (I use Green & Black’s Cooking Chocolate)

  1. Place the icing sugar in a large bowl and add the condensed milk.  Mix together.  Add a few drops of peppermint extract and knead into a smooth even mixture.  Check the flavouring and add more if needed.
  2. Lightly dust a work surface with a little icing sugar and roll out to 5mm in thickness.  Cut into rounds and leave to dry on a piece of baking paper.  I use a small shot glass as this is a perfect 2.5cm diameter.
  3. A few hours later, melt the chocolate, then dip each sweet into the melted chocolate until about half covered and leave to set on baking paper.

Chocolate strawberries

20+      Strawberries, leaving on the stalk
50g      Plain chocolate

  1. Melt the chocolate, then dip each strawberry into the melted chocolate until covered and leave to set on baking paper.
  2. Do this simultaneously with the peppermint creams as it saves time and effort.

Recipe for Lasagne with Traditional Ragu

Friday, August 7th, 2009

As promised, here is the meat lasagne for the committed carnivores out there.  It uses an old ragù recipe from Bologna.

The ragù

4tbsp                Butter, or olive oil
700g                 Lean beef, minced
200g                 Chicken livers, finely chopped
140g                 Unsmoked bacon or uncooked ham
2                      Carrots, finely chopped
1                      Onion, finely chopped
4                      Celery sticks, finely chopped
3tsp                  Tomato purée
500ml               White wine
500ml               Beef stock
½ tsp                Steenbergs Fairtrade black pepper
½ tsp                Steenbergs Fairtrade nutmeg powder

Béchamel sauce

1 litre                Organic whole milk
2                      Steenbergs Organic bay leaves
¼                     Onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp                Steenbergs Fairtrade nutmeg powder
50g                   Organic butter
50g                   Organic plain flour, sieved

For the lasagne

400g                 Fresh lasagne pasta or lasagne sheets
3 big balls         Mozzarella, cut into small cubes
Salt & pepper to taste
1tbsp                Grated Parmesan
2tbsp                Butter

Preheat the oven to 180oC.  Prepare your lasagne dish by lightly greasing the sides with a sunflower oil.

To make the ragù: Cut the bacon or ham into very small pieces and brown them gently in a small saucepan with about ½ oz of butter.  Add the onion, carrot and celery and sauté them until lightly brown which will take about 10 – 15 minutes.  When browned, add the beef mince and turn it over and over until it browns evenly throughout. Now add the chicken livers. And after 2 -3 minutes add the tomato purée and the white wine.  Add the seasonings of pepper and nutmeg; you can add salt if you want but you must take into account the saltiness of the bacon or ham.  Add the meat stock, cover the pan and simmer gently for about 40 minutes.

To make the béchamel sauce: pour the milk into a large, heavy-bottomed non-stick saucepan.  Add the bay leaves, onion and organic Fairtrade nutmeg powder and gently bring to the boil and then take and some pepper and nutmeg.  Layer over this about a third of the ragu.  Continue to layer with pasta, cheese, ragu and then pasta until all the ingredients have been used up.  Finish with a layer of pasta and spread the remaining béchamel sauce over the top and dot some butter over this.  Cover with foil.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue baking until bubbling which should take another 15 minutes or so.  Remove from the oven and serve.off the heat just as the bubbles start appearing.  In a separate saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour.  Beat well with a wooden spoon and cook for 2 minutes.  Now this is the bit to be patient with, to ensure that you get a good smooth sauce.  Add a little bit of the milk to the flour mixture and combine really well.  When all the milk has been absorbed and the lumps are gone, add a little bit more.  Continue with this until all the milk has been added, blending in with your.

Blanch the pasta in salted boiling water for 3 minutes.  Drain.

Spread half the béchamel sauce over the bottom of the lasagne dish.  Layer one-quarter of the pasta over the sauce, overlapping them slightly.  Spread the pasta with half of the mozzarella and some of the grated parmesan.

Recipe For Vegetarian Lasagne With Spinach

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Personally, I have never been a great fan of lasagne even if it is one of those firm family and probably national favourites.  But then again, I don’t like spaghetti bolognaise.  I am in a minority of 1 versus several hundreds of millions of people in thinking that pasta and meat just do not mix.

So the idea of a vegetarian lasagne seems to me to be a good thing.  In fact, while Britain and America tend to eat lasagne based on the lasagne al bolognaise, many parts of Italy enjoy a vegetarian-style lasagne with aubergine (eggplant) and ricotta replacing the ragu.

Our recipe replaces the traditional ragu with a tomato sauce and a spinach and ricotta cheese filling.  For those of you that are interested the ragu should not be the British idea of a tomato flavoured mince but should be a more flavoursome, more substantial sauce, so I will include a version of this over the weekend for those committed carnivores.

Also, from a spices perspective, it is vital that you put nutmeg within the béchamel sauces as nutmeg is very important in traditional Italian lasagne from Bologna and I really like nutmeg, and sometimes a pinch of chilli or hot paprika, in white sauce.

Tomato sauce

½ tbsp              Olive oil
1                      Small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves            Garlic, minced
1tsp                  Steenbergs organic dried oregano
½ tsp                Steenbergs sea salt
¼ tsp                Steenbergs coarse ground pepper
3 x 400g            Chopped tinned tomatoes (we use Suma brand)
1 tbsp               Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Béchamel sauce

500ml                Organic whole milk
2                      Steenbergs Organic bay leaves
¼                     Onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp                Steenbergs Fairtrade nutmeg powder
50g                   Organic butter
50g                   Organic plain flour, sieved

Spinach & ricotta filling

340g                 Fresh spinach, trimmed
450g                 Ricotta cheese
2                      Large free range eggs, beaten
2                      Cloves of garlic, minced
30g                   Grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt & pepper to taste

For the lasagne

400g                 Fresh lasagne pasta or 12 lasagne sheets
3 big balls         Mozzarella, cut into small cubes

Preheat the oven to 180oC.  Prepare your lasagne dish by lightly greasing the sides with a sunflower oil.

To make the tomato sauce: heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy bottomed non-stick saucepan.  Cook the onion and garlic, stirring for about 5 minutes until translucent.  Add the oregano, sea salt, organic Fairtrade black pepper and tinned organic tomatoes.  Cook over a medium heat for 30 – 45 minutes until the tomatoes have become a nice thick texture.  Add the chopped parsley and set aside.

To make the béchamel sauce: pour the milk into a large, heavy-bottomed non-stick saucepan.  Add the bay leaves, onion and organic Fairtrade nutmeg powder and gently bring to the boil and then take off the heat just as the bubbles start appearing.  In a separate saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour.  Beat well with a wooden spoon and cook for 2 minutes.  Now this is the bit to be patient with, to ensure that you get a good smooth sauce.  Add a little bit of the milk to the flour mixture and combine really well.  When all the milk has been absorbed and the lumps are gone, add a little bit more.  Continue with this until all the milk has been added, blending in with your wooden spoon all the time.

To make spinach & ricotta filling: steam the spinach until wilted (if fresh) or if frozen heat through either in a saucepan or the microwave.  Drain, squeeze out any excess water and chop coarsely.  Transfer to a mixing bowl.  Add the ricotta, beaten eggs, garlic and Parmesan.  Season with sea salt, black pepper and a big pinch of Fairtrade nutmeg powder.  Mix well and set aside.  As an alternative you could use aubergine which has been thinly sliced and shallow fried, together with the ricotta and other ingredients.

Blanch the pasta in salted boiling water for 3 minutes.  Drain.

Spread half the béchamel sauce over the bottom of the lasagne dish.  Layer ¼ of the pasta over the sauce, overlapping them slightly.  Spread half of the tomato sauce over the pasta and top with half of the mozzarella.  Layer another quarter of the pasta over this and spread half of the spinach & ricotta.  Continue to layer with pasta, tomato sauce, mozzarella, pasta and spinach & ricotta mixture.  Spread the remaining béchamel sauce over the top and dot with mozarella.  Cover with foil.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue baking until bubbling which should take another 15 minutes or so.  Remove from the oven and serve.

Eat More Greens

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

In recipes that people talk about and write about, there always seems a big focus on the extravagant meat dishes, a bit about fish and almost never that much about vegetables.  We certainly eat far too much meat for the balanced human diet and should think more about fish.

But we also neglect our vegetables – they’re simply that boring addition to meals that kids (and adults) need to be forced to eat.  Don’t forget your greens; eat 5 a day.  Perhaps it’s simply that the way vegetables are prepared is just so boring.

In Frances More Lappé’s classic book “Diet for a Small Planet”, which I am currently reading, she writes a chapter entitled “The Meat Mystique” and states that “All that I have said so far might gives the impression that the shift toward a meat-centered diet is an American craze.  It is not.  Throughout the world, more and more grain is being fed to livestock and people are eating more meat – at least, those that can afford it.”  She also has a number of myths about meat:

“Myth No. 1: Meat contains more protein than any other food”

“Myth No. 3: Meat is the sole source for certain essential vitamins and minerals”

“Myth No.8: Our meat-centered cuisine provides us with a more nutritious diet overall than that eaten in underdeveloped countries”

Importantly, you don’t need to become vegetarian to eat more “greens”.  You can just reduce the amount of meat that you eat and up the level of fish, shellfish, vegetables and fruit that you eat.

Currently, I feel that I am not getting enough fruit and veg.  I think it’s the weather; my body is saying it is summer but the weather is relatively cold and wet, so we are eating more wintry cuisine than perhaps is normal.

There is even some evidence that eating a vegetarian diet is better for your health than our meat-centric diet.  However, I must admit here that I am a failed vegetarian.  I was a vegetarian when I was younger for several years, largely for welfare reasons, but I missed the taste of roast lamb, so eventually I cracked.  My taste buds were more powerful than my conscience, so like most of us in the world I am very flawed.  But ever since then I have had a much reduced meat consumption compared to others and enjoy many meat-free days.

So why not try and have at least 1 day a week where you just eat vegetarian food?

Why not make a simple tomato salad for lunch and eat it with bread and cheese?  More like a ploughmans.  Or change your lasagne to a vegetarian lasagne.  Lasagne probably had much less meat in it than it currently has, even no meat.

Another thing we do not eat enough of is pulses.  Heart attacks are lower amongst the French than their fatty diet implies.  This is because they eat a healthier diet than the rest of the world during the winter months.  They include a lot of pulses within their wintry stews.  This is another thing that you should add to your diet.

It’s easy to add pulses to your diet.  There really is no more delicious vegetable dish than dhal and which true Brit doesn’t enjoy a curry once in a while.  Try and eat dhal within your normal diet.

Interestingly, I was once told that the reason that Indian Indians had a more nutritious vegetarian diet than British Indians is that they were able to digest their pulses better and take up a greater variety of nutrients from their pulses; the quack who told me this suggested this was because British Indians exclude asafoetida from their diet which he postulated actually helped in the take up of vital trace chemicals.  It certainly does help with digestion of pulses, but I feel that his views were highly speculative but harmless.

I’ll rustle up some vegetarian meals over the next couple of days and post them.  If anyone has any thoughts on good simple vegetarian dishes, please tell me.