Category Archives: Sustainability

Make your own organic cheese, then put it on pizza toasts!

It’s really easy to make fresh cheese just with whole milk and lemon juice, a pan and a teatowel- that’s it! Follow my tutorial here to make the cheese, then before you hang it up to dry fully and shape it for cutting, nick some of the curds out to enjoy it straight away with these quick and easy pizza toasts. They’re made extra delicious with the rewarding feeling of having made the cheese yourself.

1. Take your cheese curds freshly rinsed and squeezed dry from the cheese cloth, they should look like this…

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2. Spoon some into a bowl and mix with chilli flakes, herbs and olive oil. This is also great with chopped capers and lemon zest!

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3. Cut large slices of bread

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4.  Top with tomato paste

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5. Add fresh tomato slices and sprinkle with sea salt

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6. Top with your fresh, homemade organic chilli and herb cheese

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7. Add olives then place under a hot grill for a few minutes, the cheese won’t melt but the top of the bread will toast, the cheese will brown a little and the olives will smell devine.

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8. Add fresh basil and enjoy!

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Making organic paneer

7160310722_32905aa198Today I made myself some cheese! This recipe is easy peasy, there’s no rennet, and you don’t need anything but fresh organic whole milk and something acidic (vinegar, lemon or lime juice). I set out to make Paneer, but stopped before shaping the cheese curds to enjoy some ricotta-like cheese with chilli flakes, herbs and olive oil.

This Indian cheese (Paneer) isn’t mature or ‘cheesy’ tasting, it’s very plain and doesn’t melt, this is because with matured cheese, like cheddar, rennet is added which further breaks down the proteins in the curd, forming a single mass which matures over time and melts under heat. Paneer doesn’t include rennet (from India, this cheese can be consumed by the vegetarian hindu population of the country) so it doesn’t mature well and doesn’t melt. But it does make a great creamy fresh background for strong flavours like curry, chilli or oregano.

So what’s the advantage of making your own paneer? Well first of all it’s fun, secondly it’s cheap (4  pints of milk makes a good bit of paneer and at only £1.69 for 4 pints of organic wholemilk, I think it’s at least £1 cheaper than the same cheese in the shops), thirdly it means you can make your cheese organic- I’ve never seen organic paneer in the shops.

So here’s how you make it, AND how to use it straight away on tasty pizza slices!

So you need:

4 pints of whole organic milk

Between 100 and 140ml of acid (vinegar, lemon of lime juice- I recommend the most tasteless, so rice vinegar or similar is good).

Here’s what you do:

Put the milk in a large pan

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Heat the milk until boiling and then turn it down to a simmer.

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Add the lemon juice or vinegar,  in small amounts until the white cheese curds split away from the green whey, don’t add more acid than you need to, just because you don’t want the strong lemony or vinegary flavour. It’s worth mentioning it looks gross at this point but don’t let you put that off.

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Drain the curds through a cheesecloth or piece of muslin, squeeze out all the whey you can (don’t spend a lot of money, a clean teatowel or piece of sheet is fine). It’ll look like this…

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Rinse the cheese curds in the cheesecloth to get rid of any acidic flavour,  then tie the cheese cloth into a parcel and rinse the cheese again, or soak the cheese in cold water, just to get all the lemon/lime/vinegar out.

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Squeeze the cheese again to get out as much liquid as possible.

Now it should look like this, soft crumbly curds.

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At this point hang the cheese up to drip out the last of the liquid.

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When the cheese has been hanging for a few hours and most of the moisture is gone, cut open the parcels, shape the cheesecloths with the curds inside into a block shape and wrap in more cheesecloth if available. Then squash with something heavy to form the cheese into a block.

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My version of something heavy- a cast iron pan filled with jars of garlic and coffee!

My version of something heavy- a cast iron pan filled with jars of garlic and coffee!

Before hanging it up, if you just can’t wait- nick a few of those curds out and add dried chilli flakes, dried herbs and olive oil, you can eat this smeared on bread or make into tasty pizza slices (see my post HERE 🙂 )

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We want ugly veg!

Image credit: PropogandaTimes on CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image credit: PropogandaTimes on CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I just finished reading a report on the amount of food wasted globally from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The report has been featured in the press because of the stomach-churning statement it makes- that up to 50% of the worlds food goes to waste!

In the third world and newly developing nations this is largely due to inefficient harvesting and transportation, in late-stage developing nations spoilage and poor infrastructure present problems (its well-known that India wastes up to 1/3rd of its food) and in developed post-industrial societies, where transport, storage and processing facilities are efficient, food is wasted through retail and consumer behaviour.

For some reason this type of food wastage is especially appalling, because it is not accidental wastage but behavioural, intentional waste. The report states…

“Major supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance. For example, up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way.”

Up to 30% of our veg gets chucked away because it’s ugly?! Not even ugly, but perhaps the wrong coloration, size or shape, or have blemishes, scratches or are in the wrong stage of ripening.

So who’s to blame here the UK supermarkets or us British consumers? Surely the supermarkets wouldn’t reject vegetables unless we wouldn’t buy the imperfections? If we have to pay 70p for a pepper, and one is half the size of the other than that lack of standardisation will leave the little pepper unsold and the supermarket out of pocket, the little pepper wasted anyway. But for items sold by weight this theory holds little traction and even in the pepper scenario if stocked correctly someone would pick that little fella up.

Previously the supermarkets could hide behind regulation; EU restrictions on appearance and varieties of fruit and veg were in place. But with the EU restrictions lifted in 2009, why haven’t we seen more wonky veg? I recently visited an Italian supermarket it was great to see the knobbly peppers and varying sizes and shapes of aubergines.

Also I just don’t believe as consumers we’d reject the ugos.

In 2012, after our crummy weather and terrible harvests, Sainsburys accepted some of the misfits.  Director of Sainsburys food Judith Batchelar even said that consumers were definitely Pro-ugo…

“This may mean a bit more mud on peas or strawberries that are a little smaller than usual, but our customers understand and love the idea.”

So why not all the time?

I think we’d actually enjoy a bit of variety as consumers, I’ve never known anyone to waste their time rifling through tomatoes for that perfect sphere of light red and last year we grew “Black Krims” (possibly the world’s ugliest tomatoes) on the plot.

“Black Krims” are heirloom tomatoes, originally from Crimea. They are a green/purple/brown colour and grow with a folded appearance, sometimes even engulfing their stalks, and have characteristic splits in them, yep, splits and scars on their skins.

Here is quite an attractive Black Krim courtesy of Marshall Astor on flickr….

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CCSharealike license

So, you get my drift, these tomatoes ain’t pretty, but they’re so sweet and tasty, we loved them and we’re growing them again this year.

I think consumers would buy ugos, like Krimmy above, and American supermarket ‘Wholefoods’ has embraced this philosophy, proudly displaying their bounties of heirloom tomatoes and even blogging about them, their scars and their imperfections.

So the next time you’re in the supermarket pick the most misshapen carrots you can find, maybe over time the straighties left in the pallets will force the supermarkets to stock more wonky ones, or just lament the wastage and celebrate your own ugly veg, like mine…

My yummy "ugly" veg :)

My yummy “ugly” veg 🙂

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A tiny harvest

The pots outside our one bedroom flat (which is without garden 😦 ) are flourishing with potato, courgette and tomato plants today (the few that survived the awful beginning of the summer we’ve had that is).

Tomatoes,squash, courgettes and some scraggly peppers and dwarfed aubergines- using every square inch makes plants flourish!!!

Tomatoes (which need some shoots pulling out)

Maris P’s in a pot!

Also, our allotment, despite not being tended for about 4 weeks has produced some lovely courgettes to join the couple from our pots: F1 Tristan, Black Beauty, F1 One Ball and F1 8 Ball.

Our first harvest for the year is a small bundle of these lovely fruits!

8 ball courgette! YUM!

What a handful!

A tiny harvest

We celebrated our crop, and the lovely (short-lived) weather, with a barbeque (or two) at the allotment…pure bliss!

Chopping onions for the veggie burgers

Our homemade BBQ- a shopping basket, some bricks and coals- with halloumi kebabs and Quorn best of british sausages- nom nom

Quorn burgers, Quorn sausages, frying onion in tin foil, and halloumi and veg kebabs!

Marshmallow anyone?

Despite the poor weather these few barbeques and relaxed times have made me feel very summery indeed. To make everyone else feel a little more summery and satisfied in their agricultural endeavours in the city, you may enjoy this farm and town paper animation set to Vashti Bunyan’s Diamond Day- what could be more summery?

By the way, we used the tiny harvest to make up the layers in a delicious vegetable lasagna, where instead of a layer of bechemal sauce I make a creamy layer of courgettes cooked  in garlic, herbs and cream cheese to place in between layers of quorn mince, passata and basil.

Colourful courgettes

YUM! Part of the tiny harvest cooked

Creamy courgettes in lasagna!

Finished lasagna, topped with ricotta and spinach, then gran padano and breadcrumbs for a twist

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Big Food at Work

Image Credit: Original image by Todd Hryckowian at flickr.com, with enhancements by Lizzy Parisotto, PLoS.

It’s rare that my interest in (/slight obsession with) food features in my workday- other than at lunchtime that is!

However,  PLoS Medicine (the medical journal I work for) has published a series on “Big Food” corporations- so my work and my interest in food industries have happily collided this week.

The PLoS Med series describes Big Food as “the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power” and explains why this market power needs to explored, especially “in the health arena” (as bloggers such as Yoni Freedhoff and Travis Saunders show).

Utilizing two well known guest editors, Marion Nestle (of Supersize Me, foodpolitics.com, and ‘What to Eat’) and David Stuckler (author of ‘Sick Societies’), the series jumps in with both feet in its first weeks presenting key articles from Stuckler, Nestle, Rajeev Patel and Lori Dorfman and is accompanied by an Editorial from the PLoS Medicine Editors, with Marion and David.

The series makes for excellent reading (whether or not you’re a clinician), one of the most powerful statements I’ve taken away is the straightforward introduction to Stuckler and Nestle’s piece “Big Food, Food Systems and Global Health” (text bolded by myself):

“let’s begin…with a blunt conclusion: Global food systems are not meeting the world’s dietary needs [1]. About one billion people are hungry, while two billion people are overweight [2]. India, for example, is experiencing rises in both: since 1995 an additional 65 million people are malnourished, and one in five adults is now overweight [3],[4]. This coexistence of food insecurity and obesity may seem like a paradox [5], but over- and undernutrition reflect two facets of malnutrition [6]. Underlying both is a common factor: food systems are not driven to deliver optimal human diets but to maximize profits. For people living in poverty, this means either exclusion from development (and consequent food insecurity) or eating low-cost, highly processed foods lacking in nutrition and rich in sugar, salt, and saturated fats (and consequent overweight and obesity).”

I’ll be reading the series with pleasure as it moves along- and the best thing is I can get away with reading it at work 😛

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Growing in the urban environment- Self SuffiCITY!

Today I watched a really interesting video (it’s embedded at the bottom of this post) made by the Dervaes family who live on an urban homestead in California. I don’t  agree entirely with all of their views but find their story and lifestyle extremely inspiring.

Inspiring words

So the parts I’m not sure I totally agree with in the video are those about GM crops, I think maybe GM is handled differently in the UK than it is in the US where it seems to have made its way into food products and restaurants without any prior warning or openness about it or its processing that is totally wrong. We have laws stating that GM products must be made clear to the consumer so they can make the choice about what they want to purchase. Like with vegetarianism I believe if the global population doesn’t want GM foods and where GM foods lie is made known to them they won’t  buy them and then the markets will make the choice- a vote every time you buy and eat, that’s my attitude to meat too.

I do believe GM has the potential to have a good role on our planet, working with nature instead of against it for the benefit of mankind and our environment. Such as if drought resistant crops are developed that work effectively with nature then terrible events like the Horn of Africa mass starvation last year might not have occurred. Perhaps I need to find out more about GM and why it’s good or bad (please feel free to leave views here if you are more in the know than I) but I definitely don’t feel against it just because it’s ‘unnatural,’ many scientific endeavours which have brought wonderous discoveries to our world could be categorised as such- such as prostheses, robotics, medical tissues and now the wonders of grown meat which could potentially create a real impact on climate change and carbon-poor and environment leaching animal farming practices.

I think we just have to be given as much information as possible about our food, where it comes from, what’s in it and who created it. The best way to do that would be with an awesome set up like the Devraes, or like our own little plots, gardens and allotments.

The Dervaes are an inspiration. I live in Cambridge, in a one-bedroom flat, no garden, currently overrun with plants, and have an allotment plot about a miles’ cycle away so love learning more about optimising space. I would love to keep my own bees, chickens and goats and the Dervaes model of using every inch of space for water efficiency and soil quality is fantastic and looks extremely effective-  I’ve heard of this termed ‘forest gardening’ before. The idea of being self-sufficient by selling on produce to local establishments is an inspiring one, what a great idea!

Here’s  the video if you need some afternoon inspiration with a cup of tea before grabbing your trowels!

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Seedlings, rhubarb, a hail storm and grow your own work/life philosophy

This week has been a really busy day on Murphling farm (I’m a Hickling; he’s a Murphy so you can see how we got there).

Last weekend we went up to the allotment to double dig over a second big bed, it was hard going in the traditional mix of English showers and sunshine; the squashy mud stuck to our boots like the world’s grossest platform heels and pulling bind weed roots out of the blocks of earth was much harder in damp conditions. We weren’t making much progress, worried we were just chopping up and redistributing the weed roots and finally gave up when an unexpected shower of hail and rain came. We took shelter in the shed, before pillaging as much of the massive rhubarb plants as we could for an after-dinner crumble.

Nice weather for ducks! Ice ducks?

Emergency rations!

Backpack full o' barb

We took arrival of some new seeds! We’re definitely not the first out of the box this year so are still germinating seedlings at this point- it’ll be a late harvest for us, but we like to remain relaxed about growing, fitting it in when we can, rather than make it a chore.

We’re now growing 15 varieties of tomato (just for funsies), adding Tigerella, Yellow Currant, Golden Sunrise, Black Cherry and Tomatoberry F1 to the list in my previous post. As well as some sweetcorn, Earlibird, and some acorn squash, Winter Table Queen.

New Seeds!

We realised we needed to get seeds into soil fast, and after delay due to the late evenings I work and busy social weekends James and I just turned the flat into a potting shed one night at about 9pm! It looked like a murder scene with black plastic all over the floor but it got the job done without too much mess.

Murder scene? Or urban nursery?

Indoor nursery in a one-bedroom- da jungle is massif!

Which brings me onto my question for any interested readers of this post; I was wondering if there are any bloggers/readers out there who have allotments, or grow their own food- how do you balance this with working a 9-5 (or 10-7/8 in my case)? I see loads of these blogs about people with amazing smallholdings, allotments and back gardens but it doesn’t say anything about whether they work or not and what they do for money.  Are a lot of people fully self-sufficient? If you are then maybe that’s why you all get your beans in in time when we’re still digging in April!

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Germination Station!

The flat is currently the germination station (and yes, I came up with that nifty name myself).

The tomatoes that had germinated in my last post about the allotment are now tapping on the roof of their propagators, and are displaying their first true leaves. Soon I’ll transfer them from their seedling cells to 7 or 11 cm pots in the potting shed or the plastic film greenhouse we were given.

The bell peppers (we’re growing an orange F1 variety called Ariane) have just germinated in the last two rows of one of the propagators full of tomato seedlings, and I don’t know if anyone else has tried to grow peppers or other mediterranean vegetables in the UK, but it’s a massive relief to see them germinate at all! That said, we grew paprika peppers last year and they were a huge success, with reams of beautiful red peppers which we dried and ground into spice in a coffee grinder (another post on this to follow soon).

Ariane sweet pepper micro seedlings

Strings of paprika peppers drying in the sun!

The courgette varieties we’ve planted so far have mostly germinated, we’ve planted F1 One-Ball (and yes,  that is a funny name), a Yellow round courgette, F1 8-Ball a Green Round Courgette and Black Beauty, a normal green long variety we grew last year. We also bought a variety called F1 Tristan, which we haven’t sown yet.

Courgette plants

Sadly, the 8-Balls, which we bought from SimplySeed haven’t germinated. Their seeds have been generally very good, so this is a little disappointing. We’ve had one come up but he doesn’t look too well, with splotchy sickly looking leaves:/

Sickly 8-ball

More to come- we still have to sow more tomatoes, sweetcorn, acorn squash and pumpkins and no sign of the aubergines and chilli peppers we’ve sown sprouting anytime soon!

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Vegetarians are smarter!

I was interested to see the effects of a vegetarian/vegan diet on cognition, and as well as finding interesting data showing the importance of supplementing your iron and B12 levels when taking on a low cheese/egg vegetarian diet, to keep your cognitive levels high, I also found some other interesting studies.

One of the most interesting took a look at this question from the other side of the fence, did having a high IQ mean you’re more likely to be vegetarian? The answer seemed to be yes!

Admittedly this data is super old, and not worldwide in its consideration ( it’s a 1970s British cohort study) but interesting all the same as I had never considered this before: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1790759/

Looks like vegetarianism is the smart choice 🙂

Horn of Africa Food Crisis- What can be done?

The food crisis in the Horn of Africa has been devastating but with a worsening drought and increasing food prices, it can hardly be described as unforeseeable. In the immediate term, the UN is calling for donations to send assistance to the region. At a recent meeting in Rome, FAO chief Jacques Diouf stated “The required funding is lacking…If governments and their donor partners do not invest now, the appalling famine we are now struggling to redress will return to shame the international community yet again.”

The prices of staple grains such as sorghum and maize have increased as much as 200% from July 2010.  Wheat, though not at record levels, is at a 67% higher price than a year ago.  In addition, the price of milk, though lower than it was earlier in the year, is still higher than last year as well (source: the examiner).

The outlying reason for the famine is the extended drought season but other reasons for the increased price include reduced secondary season harvest yields, higher logistical costs (fuel, transport) and higher international commodity prices in the case of wheat.

Repeated articles in the media state ‘long-term solutions’ are required, but little details are given to how and what could be implemented long term.

Ban Ki Moon said in a meeting on August 10th that “We need to focus on practical measures – drought-resistant seeds, irrigation, rural infrastructure, livestock programs; improvements in early warning systems. ”

An huge injection of funding to develop sustainable irrigation systems, and to increase the availability of livestock and reserve seed supplies would obviously help here, but continuing the scientific development of drought-resistant seeds has to be one of the most important factors mentioned.

It could be seen that the public’s distaste towards GM crops could prove to be a hindrance to the progress of global food security, for example a ‘low-risk’ crop of GM wheat most recently being destroyed in Canberra in mid-July this year. Although that crop wasn’t being developed for drought resistance but for dietary reasons and GM crops have many negative aspects (a lot of the commercialisation of GM crops is done with too little testing and inadequate scientific grounding, hence why GM commercialisation is illegal in the UK until further research is done) , the international community will need to become more comfortable with specific uses of GM to help battle global food insecurity, 10% of global arable land is now growing GM crops and facing the positives and negatives of GM head on is going to be necessary to combat the rising global food costs (see DEFRA’s take here).

However, GM is also seen as having a negative effect on food security in terms of arable land and resources being used to support GM biofuel crops instead of food crops, meaning a higher import rate in those countries that are growing corn based bioethanol and a higher pressure globally on food supply (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/15/gm-corn-development-food-fuel?intcmp=239). It seems that the public availability of data makes the truth in this angle difficult to follow, it is not statistically been calculated how growing corn for fuel will affect food prices, rather it is thoroughly suggested by international experts that if fuel crops will gain a higher premium than food crops then fuel crops will be grown and food will become more expensive, as supply reduces.

It seems that some long term solutions would be:

-Developing new energy sources and further research into hydrogen fuel cell efficiency to reduce dependency on biofuels.

-Developing GM drought resistant crops unhindered.

-Community education on the ground about the collection and preservation of water, and the development of low-cost irrigation systems.

-The increased development of wells to tap ground water sources.

-A greater increase globally of vegetarian diets and diets based upon high-yield, locally available, resistant crops.

-An increased emphasis on the care and preservation of arable land globally.

Though, with none of the research based options here coming to the fore anytime soon, the only option we have for now is to donate what we can.