A plant-based feast for dinner. 

I wanted to push the boat out and make something really nice for dinner: It had to be healthy and a bit celebrational, a feast for the senses. I managed to buy some aubergines, one for each person, so I made a dish of zata’ar aubergine, salads and flatbreads. The main part of the dish, the roasted aubergine, is something my son thought up, having seen a version suggested by the chef Yotam Ottolenghi. (The original uses buttermilk or yogurt, so here is my plant-based  version!) Zata’ar is a lovely blend of strong herbs with a middle eastern flavour. These days it’s not too difficult to find in supermarkets and shops, and using a liberal sprinkling takes this dish to another level.

First of all, the flatbreads: I made a yeast starter with warm water, dried yeast and a teaspoonful of sugar and left it to ferment for ten minutes, then I mixed it into two cupfuls of strong flour, a pinch of salt, the juice and zest of a lemon (I love zest, so I put a whole lemon’s worth in, but adjust to your tastes), some chopped rosemary, two tablespoons of plant-based yogurt. I added a little water until it became a firm dough, kneaded it for ten minutes and left it for half an hour. (If it seems too slack or sticky, add a bit more flour. I’m assuming you have flour. I’ve improvised with oats milled in a food processor or gluten-free flour or rice flour, but strong flour gives best results if you can find some.)

As well as the dough for the flatbreads, I made the aubergine dressing in advance; I poured boiling water on a cup full of cashew nuts, then after ten minutes I drained them and blended them with coconut yogurt, the juice from half a lemon, a good sprinkle of zata’ar, a tablespoon of nutritional yeast, and a pinch of salt and pepper. A pouring consistency is ideal so a little plant milk or yogurt can be added if it seems too thick.

I roasted the aubergines, halved and with several knife-scored cuts in the flesh (with a bit of olive oil massaged in) in the oven on 180°C .They become brown, soft and unctuous after thirty minutes, but it’s a good idea to check their progress after twenty. They shouldn’t need more than forty minutes! Once they are cooked, and a sharp knife goes easily into the soft flesh of the aubergine, sprinkle them with some lemon juice and keep them warm. 

While the aubergines were roasting, I made a couple of salads: a coleslaw with red cabbage, carrots, raisins, walnuts and onions in some plant-based mayo and lime juice; a leaf and tomato salad with lemon juice, oil and zata’ar dressing, and an oil and balsamic three-bean salad with a bit of chopped chilli for some warmth, a small drained can of sweet corn, chopped red onion, chopped peppers and a few fresh herbs (parsley or coriander), with some pomegranate seeds on the top.

The bread, once risen, is divided into six portions and each one is rolled out flat then fried in a very hot pan with very little oil, turning once, so that it is puffy and brown, cooked on both sides.

To serve, put the flatbreads on a large plate alongside the salads. Serve up two roasted aubergines per person, smothering them with the cashew dressing and decorate the top with an extra sprinkling of zata’ar and few pomegranate seeds. Everyone can serve themselves as much or little salad and flatbreads as they like with their aubergine.

It is really delicious, it smells heavenly and it’s an easy meal to cook and prepare. And, like so many of my recipes here, goes just perfectly with a nice, full-bodied red wine too… Happy cooking!

 

Banana Bread  recipe – because we’re all making it

Apparently, during the lockdown, everyone is becoming an expert at making banana bread. There are lots of recipes for plant-based banana bread; some are crumbly and light and some turn out a bit rubbery. I love the idea of using up overripe bananas as they are so nutritious.This recipe makes a delicious, airy banana bread that slices well, stays fresh for several days and is nice by itself or spread with plant-based butter.

You will need two bowls or a bowl and a blender. In the larger bowl, put 250 grams of plain flour, a pinch of cinnamon, a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda, 70 grams of brown sugar (or more if you have a sweet tooth), a pinch of salt and you can immerse some blueberries in the dry mix. 

In the blender/ the other bowl, put two ripe bananas, a teaspoonful of vanilla paste, a tablespoon of cider vinegar, four tablespoons of light oil and 60 ml of plant milk – I use oat. Blend or blitz the wet ingredients and then mix the liquid blend into the dry one. Add a bit more milk if the mixture needs loosening a little. It should resemble cake mix, not too thick and not too sloppy. Pour it into a greased loaf tin.

Bake it for 40 minutes at 180* and then check it. The banana bread  may need another ten minutes. It’s done when a toothpick comes out clean.

Let it cool then slice it and eat it.

Now here’s the really interesting part. Making the banana bread sing takes a bit of imagination and any ingredients you have at the back of the cupboard. I found some crystallised ginger and some preserved bitter orange peel. I added these ingredients, chopped, to the basic recipe and it really created a very delicious and special loaf. So, basic banana bread plus anything lying at the back of the shelf that needs using up takes this recipe to the next level. 

Playing about with the ingredients is half the fun. It’s nice to make a crunchy topping with a few smashed up oats and walnuts, a bit of brown sugar and a few blitzed seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin.

If you like, you could also add grated lemon rind, pecans or walnuts, or cocoa powder and chunks of chocolate, or raspberries or blackberries into the flour bowl before you add the wet ingredients, whatever takes your fancy. Put all the mix in a greased loaf tin. Press a few of the berries or nuts into the top of the mix so that they don’t all sink to the bottom.

There’s no end to what you can add to this basic recipe. Toast some sunflower seeds or some almonds and add them to the dry mix: any crystallised fruit goes really well in this loaf. This isn’t just one recipe, it’s so many. Mix it up and play around with anything that needs using up, within reason.

You can make a sophisticated banana bread with a whiskey marmalade filling spread through the middle and topped with plant-based cream cheese and icing sugar frosting. You can make it wholesome for the kids by adding a few ground linseeds or some raisins. You could make it decadent by adding chocolate chips, toffee chunks, bits of cinnamon biscuit, pieces of pear or apple. Have fun. Choose your own favourite.

 

A couple of things I’ve learned from lockdown 

These are interesting but difficult times as the country, indeed much of the world, learns to deal with Covid-19, and it will be fascinating to discover at a later date how we’ll all emerge from the current state of lockdown. There are things happening now that I’d never have thought possible several weeks ago, before all of this started. For example, I didn’t imagine that a local shopkeeper would be mugged for some toilet roll. He’s fine, as it turns out – he hurled the mugger onto the street by the scruff of his neck! In fact, I felt a bit sorry for the assailant who’d reached a crisis point of panic, faced with the insecurity of having to deal with the prospect of a lack of toilet hygiene. People are anxious now about normal things they took for granted two months ago.

I didn’t imagine there being a time when I wouldn’t be able to see my friends or family whenever I wanted to but, all of a sudden, we can’t. I didn’t imagine living in a world where there was no football on telly. I had no idea how lonely some people might become in such a short time and it didn’t take long to realise that I share responsibility for others’ welfare. I now message and ring friends more regularly and that I try to find nice things to do to make others’ lives better. Some have lost jobs or are still working under intense pressure. I know some feel lonely or stressed or in need of human contact or unsure about the future as, indeed, we all do. But how suddenly grateful have we become for all those things we took for granted.

All people manage anxiety and deal with problems in different ways and it’s not fair to judge those who deal with the situation in ways we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, I have been inundated with friends who want me to share hugs on Facebook or post a photo of something silver; others have asked people not to send such requests. It’s about trying to reach out but being safe at the same time – there are plenty of scams attached to opening chain mail, and plenty of fake news being bandied around on WhatsApp.

I live in a place where it is possible to roam about outside without meeting another person and, because it’s a rural area, those I do meet by chance can stand at a distance and even chatter before we move on. I’ve noticed how much people want to socialise now. I met a great couple in the woods while I was collecting firewood (culling herbs, listening to birdsong…) who simply wanted to pass the time of day with another human. I would have invited them round for a cup of tea but… of course, that’s for future times.

I am delighted that everyone is now saying openly that they are fully behind the NHS workers: whether it is an opportunity for weekly applause or for supermarkets to allow vulnerable people early access to shops or for publishers to give away free novels, it is good that indispensable key workers are in a spotlight and that we are all united in appreciating what they do. 

More importantly, if and when we return to normality, it would be good if their work could be rewarded by better pay and conditions. They deserve much more than a retracted promise on the side of a bus and a few well-meant words of recognition for the immense job that they do.

Lots of other people deserve credit too: teachers, police officers, care workers – how tough must it be to work in a supermarket or a shop at these times. I’ve always been in awe of postal and delivery drivers who bring communication, food or goods to our doors and, in these difficult times, it has become normal to wave thanks to someone as they rush out of the gate, having left the parcel on the porch.

I wrote to my MP six times about better pay and conditions for Amazon delivery drivers before the lockdown; sadly, she never found the time to replied to me. I live in hope that things will change for the better for all key workers who have done so much for society during these hard times. Our representatives have a responsibility to step up and make that happen.

The rest of us have probably found a daily routine which is so repetitive that  we can’t tell one day from another. I received a great poem from a friend of mine recently that simply repeated words like ‘wake eat phone eat phone TV phone sleep’ on many lines, suggesting that for herself and possibly other people in lockdown a routine was emerging which didn’t necessarily inspire challenge and opportunity.

One thing which is really important is that we use this time to try new things that will  improve our lives, taking us away from humdrum repetition and boredom. We need to make each day as meaningful as we can.

People are reading more, cooking from scratch more often, spending more time planting vegetables in the garden or making quality time to talk with their families, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many things people are doing that are inspirational.

One friend is learning to play the guitar; another is crocheting blankets for homeless people; another is learning Italian; another is painting each day. I’m writing another novel – I wonder if it will be finished by the end of lockdown. One thing is for certain – none of us know exactly when that will be or what it might look like. 

And that is my point. We wished for more time with those we love; we wished for a cleaner planet, more leisure time, to be able to work from home. Now that we have the chance to make some of those things a permanent part of our lives, how can we integrate them into a future world that we’d most like to live in? How can we turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity?

The most important factor is that we all come through this period of time as healthily as possible, through staying indoors, through being sensible about contact with others, sharing resources, shopping carefully and wisely, talking to others at a distance and keeping those who are alone as safe and happy as possible.

But when the dust clears, we may have the opportunity to make the world better. We can care more for isolated people than we did; we can try to see the positives in new situations and try not to spread fear and negativity; many people can now work from home, spending less time travelling to work in their cars,and we can appreciate all the friends and family and freedom that we already knew we appreciated but perhaps we needed to remind ourselves.

For many people, these are times of fear about our own well being and that of those we love; fear of the unknown and a panic and anxiety about things we’d taken for granted which is, in the case of some people, so powerful that it sends them into the streets to accost the shopkeepers. 

However unprecedented this may be,we can channel what we have experienced to bring about improvement. We can use the situation to spread cheer and solidarity, to practise neighbourly behaviour, to be kinder, more appreciative of others and to find ways to retain both quality of our own lives and ways to improve the lives of others. We can find better ways to care for the planet, which appears to have become healthier after just a few weeks of lockdown.

Whether it is baking for the lady next door or giving away free books, distributing food parcels or phoning someone who lives alone, we all have the chance to move forward and make the world a better place for us to share. Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times. It would be nice if, out of a bad situation, we could create the best of times for everyone making such great sacrifices now, especially those who have been so profoundly undervalued until this lockdown. We owe them so much.

Book and a bite: jackfruit tortillas 

I made this when we were getting a little low on ingredients in the house. We did have a packet of tortillas, a tin of jackfruit, and a few vegetables. With a few salad leaves and some rice, it served three, but could have served four!

Rinse and drain the jackfruit and place it in a bowl. Break it up. Add some tomato puree or sauce, a bit of sriracha or chilli sauce to taste, and some liquid smoke if you have some; you could add a bit of brown sauce or barbecue sauce or soy sauce, some garlic and some seasoning. Mix it all up and spread it on a baking tray, then bake it in the oven for 20 minutes at 180°C.

Then take it out and shred it with a fork – it should pull apart nicely. Add some sliced onions and peppers and bake it again for 20 minutes. It shouldn’t burn but it should dry a little and the onions and peppers should be succulent and soft. Taste it and adjust the seasoning; add black pepper, make it hotter if you wish.

Warm eight tortillas and then divide the mixture between them. I added a dollop of coconut yogurt and some coleslaw made from red cabbage, onions, carrots, an old apple and a dollop of plant-based mayonnaise. You can play with this: if you have avocados or tomatoes or salad leaves or cucumber or plant-based cheese, they will work well with the jackfruit. Or it’s fine as it is, but the extra coleslaw makes it go further.

Roll the tortillas into a wrap, serve them with salad or vegetable rice: I mixed some cooked rice with garlic, onions, sweetcorn and cooked beans.

A spicy sauce, tomato sauce or a dollop of yogurt with lemon and/or mint makes this dish really special. I got my hands on some mole sauce (which my son brought us back from Mexico!) and a bottle of red wine: that sent it through the roof.

Twelve protagonists? Why not?

Recently an author-friend of mine said a novel she’d written had been refused by a publisher because there were four central protagonists, which they said was three too many. There is a template in romantic comedy that requires one heroine, someone with a problem that needs to be solved, one handsome male who might do something to resolve it, and other interesting or quirky subsidiary characters that help to make up a full and well-rounded story. I suggested to my friend that, although we have much more chance of success if we stick to the rules, they are there to be broken. 

When I wrote Five French Hens, I was aware that readers would have five characters to get to know at the beginning of the book, rather than the standard one or two, and I introduced them carefully so that differentiation wouldn’t be too problematic for most people.

I do have sympathy with readers struggling to assimilate a large number of characters. It happens all the time in books and in films. I adored The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but I had a hard time telling who was who among the townsfolk at the beginning of the novel. After a bit of perseverance, it all became clear. It was the same with the TV series Peaky Blinders: there were only so many men with variations on short-back-and-sides appearing on the screen before I had to ask, is he the brother or the son? But it doesn’t detract from what is a cracking series.

Lots of novels have multiple main protagonists, from Little Women to The Famous Five, and confusion is usually avoided because the characters look and behave differently (one could even be a dog?). They are often introduced separately or they interact together in smaller numbers at different times, which helps.

So when I started to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, I was intrigued by how she would introduce a cast of some twelve women without confusing her readers. The answer is, she does it very well, with a great deal of skill and panache.

The novel probably isn’t for everyone: I read reviews of it and some people were confused by the large cast of women. Others thought the scarcity of punctuation was difficult but I found it really easy to assimilate: after the first two pages, I didn’t need it and I didn’t look for it. In fact, the absence of full stops and capitals adds something to the style and the rhythm of the novel.

Initially, I wasn’t hooked; the character of Amma and her daughter Yazz were interesting enough but there were lots of peripheral characters to take on board and a lot of ‘telling’ about their pasts. For the first two chapters¸ I wasn’t engaged with the protagonists, although they were characters I felt some sympathy for, but there wasn’t much to distinguish them from lots of other people in the world and make them stand out for their own qualities.

But Evaristo’s master stroke is how she mingles the characters with each other throughout the novel, introducing one at an early stage as a subsidiary character and then putting her on the spotlight later to fill in gaps and then she develops each one as a flawed but fascinating individual. Suddenly, the novel clicked for me and became absorbing; the ‘telling’ of backstories became central to understanding the character and how she relates to others.

Characters such as Carole, LaTisha, Shirley, Penelope, Bummi, Winsome, Megan/ Morgan and Hattie are cleverly interwoven, each other’s mothers, daughters, friends, grandparent, so that by the time each one has her own chapter, we know her from a different context already and so her story comes into sharp focus, important and relevant not just to the other characters but to what she contributes to the world as it is now. Bernadine Evaristo shows that attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and culture have changed over many generations and are still changing. She makes it clear that change is ongoing and her observation of these changes and developments in women’s lives is pin-sharp.

It is an important novel on many different levels. Firstly, it reveals something about women’s lives, how experiences of the world have improved over time and how women are perceived now in a fairer and more equitable way: things are changing; they needed to change; the change is not yet complete; things are not perfect yet for these women but they have, over time, achieved a little more in the way of independence and they have been assigned some measure of higher status; at times they have been listened to and their needs have been addressed. Change is good, but there is still a long way to go; there are still difficulties that need sorting out.

It is an important novel because it tells us about the world as it is now for each of its contrasting protagonists and their story is told freshly, honestly and with style. Furthermore, a novel with multiple protagonists tells the story of many women who, for their own different reasons, deserve to be listened to. It’s not just a simple story of one women whose problems will be easily resolved by a new partner and, while that can in itself be a very valid story, Evaristo’s insistence on defying heteronormative expectations and telling the stories of a dozen strong and exceptional women defiantly living their own lives is to be applauded, celebrated and read. 

She’s come a long way from Mr Loverman (which I adore) and produced a winner of a novel which is remarkable and ground breaking. Evaristo proves that when it comes to protagonists, less isn’t necessarily more.

‘Any leftovers’ Pizza

If you have any strong white or wholemeal bread flour and you’re making bread, here’s a useful meal you can make from the leftover dough and anything that’s lying in your fridge or larder. The bread is simply half a cup of warm water, a teaspoonful of (brown) sugar and a tablespoonful of yeast in a bowl, left for fifteen minutes somewhere warm and then added to the flour with a pinch of salt. I’d probably use half a kilogram of flour, more if you’re feeding a hungry group or making lots of bread. You can also add other things to your bread – I always put ground linseeds in bread as it adds useful vitamins and oil.

Mix the flour and yeast liquid together and continue to add warm water a little at a time until the mixture becomes dough-like. If it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. Knead it vigorously for a good ten minutes.

Leave the dough somewhere warm to rise for 50 minutes. Divide it into rolls, a loaf, bread-stick twists, whatever you like, but leave some over to make pizza.

Roll out the pizza and put it on a greased baking tray. Spread some tomato puree over it and any of the following you may have left over in the fridge or the cupboard:

  • Plant-based cheese
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes – tinned is fine.
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweetcorn
  • Plant-based chorizo, sliced. (I make my own – recipe to follow soon)
  • Pineapple
  • Peppers, any colour
  • Chillies
  • Courgettes
  • Jackfruit, tinned, shredded and baked in the oven in a nice tomato and chilli sauce
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Tofu chunks
  • Herbs such as thyme, oregano, mixed herbs – fresh or dried

You might want to drizzle a little olive oil on top and add olives.

Bake the pizza in a hot oven, 180*,  for 30 minutes. Check it after twenty.

It’s ready to serve with a green salad or a carrot and red cabbage and onion coleslaw and, if you’re really hungry, bake some herbed polenta or sweet potato chips in the oven at the same time. Flip them over after 15 minutes of cooking.

In the absence of  a football game on TV, I’ll be eating this while reading a good book ….

Really good creamy ravioli with a rich tomato sauce: plant based recipe

The pasta is flying off the shelves at the moment, so here is a quick and easy ravioli you can make at home with flour, water and oil! It tastes out of this world.

First, for the filling, soak a cup of cashew nuts in boiling water and leave to one side for ten minutes or so.

Then, onto the ravioli. Take a cup of plain flour and, if you have it, half a cup of pastry flour. If not, one and a half cups of multipurpose flour is fine. Add a pinch of salt, 3 tbsp oil, and add a little water until it becomes a pliable dough. It shouldn’t be sticky. Knead it for ten minutes – if you don’t, the pasta will be rubbery at the end. Put it in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, drain the cashews and blend them up with some garlic, herbs (thyme, parsley and rosemary are ideal!), some salt and pepper, the juice of one lemon and some of the lemon‘s zest and, if you have it, a tbsp. of nutritional yeast (it is optional, but it’s a great addition to your kitchen if you have it – it has a delicious nutty, cheesy flavour you can’t get from anything else).

Now make your pasta sauce. Sauté some chopped onions, garlic, some red pepper a mushroom and add a few herbs – the same ones as before are good. Add 3 tbsps of tomato puree or some passata – a tin of chopped tomatoes will do – and a little bit of water. Thicken it all up with a tbsp. of cornflour to make a sauce. I find a glug of red wine or something else like some blackcurrant liqueur elevates this sauce to the next level. Let it sit and those flavours will develop!

Roll out your dough until it’s long and thin. Put spooned dollops of the cashew mix (I usually get about eighteen – less is fine) at equally-spaced intervals on one half the dough. You want half of the dough to be covered with these dollops, because then we fold the other half over. Seal the edges with water. Then cut out the ravioli with a ravioli stamp or a small pastry cutter or even an egg cup.

Then we are ready to cook them! Bring some salted water to the boil and drop the ravioli into the water a few at a time, depending on the size of the pan. After anything from two to four minutes of boiling, the ravioli should float to the top. Make sure you don’t under cook them – it’s better to give them 30 seconds too much rather than 30 seconds too little! Take them out, drain them and combine them with your herby tomato sauce.

Serve in a bowl and sprinkle your delicious ravioli with a plant-based cheese, a vegan Parmesan or maybe some fine nutritional yeast. The ravioli are great served with salad – I particularly like adding sliced pears and walnuts to a green salad with this dish.

The filled ravioli work really well with the sauce. However, you can use the pasta recipe to make spaghetti or other pasta shapes. Dry them for a while or cook straight away.

I find four ravioli each is enough but I’ve seen people eat twice that amount… Enjoy!

Chocolate Celebration Cake – (Plant based)

In these times when people might want to cheer themselves up with an indulgent cake but there are no eggs available, this plant-based, chocolatey Victoria sponge is a great substitute and easy to make. It’s a recipe I use all the time and, although you can jazz it up by adding your favourite extra ingredients, it works well without the chocolate as a vanilla sponge. It also makes a really good birthday cake.

First of all, you need two mixing bowls. In a large one put 500 grams of plain flour, a teaspoonful of baking powder, a teaspoonful of bicarb, 350  grams of sugar, a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of good drinking chocolate or cocoa. In the other bowl, put 300 millilitres of oil (I use a mix of olive and sunflower), a big teaspoon of vanilla paste, two tablespoons of cider vinegar, 400 millilitres of plant milk (I use oat) and whisk it all together.

Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix together. Add a little more milk if the mixture is too stiff: it should look like any other unctuous cake batter. Divide the mixture between two sandwich cake tins. Bake the cakes in a 180* oven for thirty minutes or maybe a little longer, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Leave to cool.

Level the cake off so it sits up straight on a plate. (I’d use the spare sponge bits to make plant-based tiramisu… soaked in Kahlua.)  Sandwich the cake with buttercream and red jam – cherry, raspberry, whatever you like. The buttercream is made from three tablespoons of plant butter, mixing icing sugar in bit by bit until it is the right consistency to be thick and spreadable. Add vanilla paste to it if you like and a pinch of salt.

Cover the top of the cake as you please – a dredging of icing sugar, raspberries. My favourite covering is to make a ganache by melting a big bar and a half of good plant-based chocolate, letting it cool a bit and mixing into it three good tablespoons of coconut cream from a tin, ideally left in the fridge overnight so that the coconut cream is super thick. You can use the rest for a Thai green curry, a satay or a chickpea and butternut squash madras. If it’s bitter chocolate, you may want to add a dash of maple syrup.

Once the topping has set, after about half an hour, you’re ready to dive in and devour it! It’s a huge cake, it will feed a dozen people. It should last in a cake tin for a week or, if you prefer, it will do for one or two cake-starved bookworms for a couple of days, or perhaps just one extra-indulgent evening!

A book and a bite: plant-based recipes to lock down to…

I have big plans for lock down. The imposed isolation is for our own good and I’m going to try to turn the challenge into an opportunity.

I will do my usual amount of walking and going to the gym, which is just a bike and a running machine and a mat upstairs, and I have a pile of ten books I intend to read, a variety of novels from Margaret Atwood to Bernadine Evaristo, from Candice Carty-Williams to Madeleine Miller and Ross Greenwood.

My larder isn’t hugely stocked although I do have a few tins of beans and the wherewithal to make sauces and I have a few indulgent items like rose harissa and preserved lemons. It’s always useful to be able to make things taste nicer and a vegan pantry can often be quite different to a non-vegan one as we tend to have tofu and things that make bland food taste nicer. But, perhaps at the moment, there will be some plant-based-pantry goods available on line. I have enough veg in the fridge to last a few days and my neighbour has kindly given me some sprout tops, so my plan is to read, rest, eat and exercise, not always in that order.

(Oh and I’m going to write another novel too. I’ve written the synopsis, the first chapter, and a fairly organised plan. I reckon I can have fun with that one and finish before the really hot weather arrives…)

But nourishment is the important factor here – we can’t work and work out without something to sustain us and there’s a level of uncertainty about how we’re going to feed the family so here are some of my own ideas on how to throw some good food together. All my food is plant-based– I’ve been vegan for almost thirty years now and B12 tablets are a must if you’re going to follow plant-based eating but in the spirit of a lot of things not being available to buy online at the moment, here are some ideas which might help. I hope so. Enjoy!

Hummus. The best hummus is made from jars of fat chickpeas but any chickpeas, mixed with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil in a blender is food from the gods. I eat it as a dip with carrot chunks or pepper chunks or bits of cauliflower, if there’s any available, but more about that later. Bread sticks are brilliant with hummus – just whisk dried yeast, warm water and sugar together to rise for ten minutes, then add a bit of oil and some flour together and knead as dough. I add rosemary, fennel seeds or some lemon zest, let it rise for an hour, prove for another hour shaped into long twists and then bake for 15 minutes, flipped over after ten. It’s great with soup too.

Soup. Several onions, softly cooked for twenty minutes, makes great onion soup. Any onions, red, white, shallots, a mix of them all. Garlic or thyme or other herbs  help it taste nicer, as does a stock cube or a spoonful of miso. Blend with water and eat hot with bread sticks. The same applies to onions and sweet potatoes, onions and half a butternut squash, or parsnips and a pinch of chilli, or sweet peppers and a sweet potato. If all else fails, frozen peas, (mint!), onions, garlic and a bit of chilli makes an incredible soup. If you have a bit of stock, some miso or bouillon to add to it, even a spoonful of Marmite, the flavour improves.

Bake any stale bread with a bit of oil and garlic for a short while in the oven and throw the croutons on top. Add a pinch of paprika, cumin, cayenne or coriander to make all the difference.

Chocolate Mousse. Save the water from your tin of chickpeas. Whisk it for a while until it’s white and peaky like meringue. Melt your favourite chocolate – I have a salted caramel one that’s lovely – and stir it into the aquafaba (chick pea water). (If it’s really dark bitter chocolate you might need to add a bit of maple syrup.) Put it in bowls in the fridge to set. Often I crumble a cinnamon biscuit on top or underneath with a shot of liqueur, which is really decadent. Whatever you like…

Tagine. Any veg, cooked slowly in an oven or a crock-pot, especially with a teaspoon of harissa and a half a preserved lemon, chopped, is brilliant. I mean, any veg is good in a stew – sprout tops, broccoli bottoms (the bit that’s not the floret), old Brussels, the end of a cabbage, any beans, peas, potatoes that have seen better days, all are delicious. It’s good with rice, pasta, minty couscous. If you have no harissa then anything you can find – herbs, spices, sauces, miso, even half a pint of beer thickened at the end of cooking with a little cornflour will make it very hearty and delicious and nutritious. All that B12! Oh and if you’re really hungry, a bit of plant-based suet, flour, some herbs mixed with orange juice and skin makes great dumplings to add to the pot for the last thirty minutes.

Cauliflower, if you can still get it, broken into florets rubbed with chilli and a bit of oil and baked in the oven for 20 minutes is delicious. Even better, make a flour/water paste, dip the baked cauli chunks into it and then roll them in breadcrumbs, put them back in the oven and bake them again for fifteen minutes. Cover them with a sauce made from tomatoes and chillies and maybe some yogurt.

Jackfruit is often quite cheap as a tin will feed four and I don’t think the tins are selling out fast. Drain then shred the jack fruit and bake it in the oven, covered in a bit of Sriracha sauce or tomatoes and chilli for twenty minutes. I add anything I can find to it that will help it – onions, peppers, a bit of plant-based Worcester sauce or soy or liquid smoke. When it comes out of the oven, serve it in warmed tortillas. Add anything you like – a dollop of nut cream or cheese, some beans.

Cannellini beans. Drain them and add to fried onions and a mushroom, some pepper and a glug of ketchup and serve on toast. Better than commercial baked beans which may now be hard to find.

Cream cheese! Soak a handful of cashew nuts in boiling water for an hour and then drain them and blend them to a pulp with some garlic and a bit of plant milk or yogurt to get the texture you want. Macadamias work just as well if you have some in the back of a cupboard. Added cumin or any fresh herbs makes this really lovely on its own.

Add some of this cheese to a huge pile of sautéed onions and a small silken tofu if you have it; add a bit of plant milk to loosen it to a thick pouring texture. Use this to fill a pastry case made from some plain flour and non-dairy butter, bake in a medium oven for fifty minutes and you have a tasty quiche.

Salad. I love to get inventive with salad. If there are any green leaves, a bit of leftover rice, a tomato, a bit of cucumber, a piece of warmed bread cubed and sautéed with garlic, then it’s nice to mix it up with half an apple or a sliced pear, walnuts, raisins, coleslaw made from red cabbage, carrot and onions with raisins and mayo, and maybe some oven-roasted tofu.

Easy peasy ketchup is a mixture (to taste – mine is quite vinegar-heavy) of tomato puree, good vinegar (not malt – I like apple cider vinegar…) and sugar or maple syrup. Add a pinch of salt – (I love Himalayan salt) – or some garlic and it’s really special. I use it as pizza topping on a base made from flour, water and dried yeast. Add anything left over in the fridge: mushrooms, tomatoes, Plant-based cheese is ok on top and some herbs – parsley, oregano, thyme – will improve it.

Bread. Basically, it’s a teaspoon of dried yeast, a teaspoon of sugar and warm water, left for ten minutes, added to strong flour. I like to mix white flour up with rye flour, whole wheat, then add any (not all) of the following; linseed, herbs, sunflower seeds, toasted, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, herbs, rosemary and lemon zest, pureed beetroot (Mmmm!), sautéed onions, plant-based cheese, a drop of oil, garlic. Knead like for for twenty minutes – great workout. Leave to rise for 50 minutes somewhere warm, knock it back with your hands on a floured surface, shape into a loaf, rolls, batons, bread sticks, whatever you like. Leave for fifty minutes and bake in a 180* oven for as long as it needs. It’s done when it’s hollow when you knock the bottom of the bread. Brush the top with oil, oil and salt, oil and garlic, seeds, whatever you like before cooking.

And, to finish the day with a book and a tasty bite, take anything sweet you can find in the cupboard – biscuits, nuts, marshmallows, seeds, raisins and suchlike and add a melted bar of good chocolate, mix it up, put in a small tin, refrigerate for two hours and slice it up, and you have an almost guilt-free version of rocky road. It’s even better if you dry roast the nuts in a frying pan. Healthy-ish, sweet and the treat you deserve for all the work you’ve done keeping body, mind and soul together during this difficult time. Sending best wishes. X

Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!