Super-yoghurt: is it worth it?

I follow food trends wherever I can, although I must say I don’t usually follow them to the point of trying all of them. But it’s interesting to see the trends.

The interesting food I’ve seen recently is Skyr, which is a so-called ‘super-yoghurt’ apparently from Iceland (although the website quickly informs us that it is made in Germany). I saw some big billboard ads that made it seem traditional (apparently it has been eaten for hundreds of years) and yet very healthy too. The main statement about its nutrition on the website is that it is “fat free, reduced sugar, high protein”.

I wanted to see what the fuss was about so I thought I’d get myself some and treat myself to a super-snack.

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Taste Test: Try Using Chopsticks

Chopsticks

I’ve always been interested in understanding and experiencing food from other cultures in an as authentic a way as possible (albeit no doubt through the heavily filtered/hampered(?) lens of a British set of tastebuds). So when, a few years ago, I was given a nice set of Chinese chopsticks, I decided to learn how to use them and attempt make the action as intuitive to me as using a knife and fork. Why not make it second nature to eat eastern dishes with eastern cutlery?

Five reasons as to why I decided to take on the chopstickery way of life:

 

1. Pragmatics and practicalities: It’s a good skill to have

From a Chinese friend’s New Year party to a pre-cinema pit stop at Wagamama, from time to time we’re issued with chopsticks, or at least the choice of sticks or forks. Facing this question and swaying by natural tendency toward the knife and fork, can generate within me a feeling of slight embarrassment or even apology. Maybe it shouldn’t and I ought to confidently and unashamedly opt for the western approach to eating. Rightly or wrongly, not choosing chopsticks conjures unease and forces me to sheepishly justify my selection of cutlery to the (probably totally ambivalent) waiter. Maybe the positive way of phrasing it is that choosing chopsticks (if only to myself) shows that I’m making the effort to join in with the culture, the cuisine of which I’m consuming.

 

2. Authentics: Eating with chopsticks provides undeniably a more bona fide experience

Okay, arguably at some less than authentic oriental eateries, I’m not really taking part in a faithful cultural experience, rather flavour that is tampered with and diluted for a British audience, so here I’m really talking about your more bespoke, less mainstream establishments. Wouldn’t it be a great, and would not my experience be enriched, when eating at a small family run Japanese restaurant, if I were to learn a few Japanese phrases, ask to eat something a little more unusual and eat with chopsticks? Taking a positive engaged approach to eating like this, leaves me feeling pretty good and the chopsticks played their part.

 

3. Speed of Eating: Very practically, chopsticks mean eating fractionally slower

Again there’s a caveat: lifting the bowl to the mouth and shovelling probably speeds up the process and although rather ungainly, is not a culturally illegitimate way of using chopsticks. However, I’m assuming that most of us would at least start with bowl fixed to the table, politely using chopsticks delicately and independently as ‘pincers’ rather than a ‘shovel’. When adopting this technique, the capacity (in comparison to that of a fork) is small and so I find myself eating at a slightly slower rate, particularly if I’m eating something like noodles or rice. There are a number of reasons pro eating slowly but from a purely experiential perspective, eating more deliberately in this way means I actually tend to enjoy the food more.

 

4. Taste: Using chopsticks makes food taste better

Does it really? Yes. Eat the same Chinese dish twice, once with chopsticks and once with knife and fork, and I’m convinced that the former approach tastes better. Everything else may remain consistent; ingredients, method of preparation, your tastebuds etc. but as the experience is different, at the very least chopsticks provide an enhanced taste experience. Part of it is a confidence/mindset thing, ie if you haven’t bought into using chopsticks regularly and stick to using knives and forks, then you might not be able to gain the experiential benefit and feel only the unfortunate sense of inconvenience when using sticks. Make using them habitual and I’m convinced you’re taste experience will be enhanced.

 

5. The bigger picture: Chopsticks are not merely cutlery, it’s what they represent 

An enhanced experience doesn’t necessarily mean a better taste you might argue. This is where I want to touch on a philosophy or theory which I’m convinced of by virtue of experience (if not via biological fact or by chemical formulaic reasoning):

Taste provides experience and experience affects taste

Few would argue with the first half; if something tastes good it follows that the experience of eating it is enjoyable. However the second part of the sentence is perhaps not so easy to accept, surely unless I’ve burnt my tongue or have the ‘flu taste is fairly absolute so how can it vary depending on what is essentially a feeling or state of mind? I see the reverse engineering behind this equation: I propose that my experience of or associated to a meal will feedback to the tastebuds almost physically affecting the taste.

Picture the scene; you’re at a dinner party, good conversation with friends, it’s Friday after a long week at work, your host cooked a range of tapas dishes to dig in and share. It tastes good right? Unless they’re a shocking cook or I’m being ultra critical. Conversely, I’ve had a rotten Monday, it’s raining and I’m by myself; the food is pretty tasteless, I certainly wouldn’t remember how good it tasted a week later. Surely that’s just an extension of what we already know about taste: it looks and smells great, so it tastes great. It’s coloured blue and usually it’s reddy orange; it tastes weird.

Good experience leads to better taste. Or at the very least the perception of taste is enhanced if I enjoy the experience more.

It’s quack medicine and at best and based on the musings of an experimentalist but embrace the chopsticks and eastern culture as you eat; enjoy learning how to use this form of cutlery, eat slow, enjoy the authenticity of the experience, ditch the knife and fork and you will tangibly taste the difference.

I have now got to a point where I am possibly using chopsticks as often as I would a knife a fork, or there abouts and although it has become a distinctly utilitarian part of my life, I genuinely believe that through the medium of chopsticks and what they represent, my food exploration has become much more varied, enriched and hopefully more authentic experience.

Better Bites: Black Bean Brownies

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series The great brownie experiment

My poor long suffering colleagues had another disrupted break time today as I walked around the office with my latest brownies in the line of experiments. ‘Eat this’; ‘Give me honest feedback’; ‘No, I won’t tell you what’s in it’; ‘Guess what’s in it’, ‘Stop having important conversations and pay me more attention!’

They are very obliging so I got lots of useful feedback. And lots of guesses as to the ingredients. Carrot. No. Beetroot. No. Courgette. No. Porridge oats. Yes, actually. Fig. No. Sweet Potato. Not this time. Potato. Again, been there, done that, no. In the end they got bored and we all got back to work.

Now the difference between these brownies and the last batch is that these ones actually tasted quite good. And they tasted of chocolate too. Result. They, like the last batch, were still gluten free, egg free, and added sugar free. They did have a bit of dairy in them, but that could easily be substituted. In case you haven’t read the title of this post (and who doesn’t love a bit of alliteration?) the ‘secret ingredient’ was black beans.

I’m not going to share the recipe just yet as I want to try out a few tweaks, but I will seek to do so soon. But I am very excited about my (late) discovery of black beans in baking produce. I feel like a whole world of baking opportunity and gluten free joy has opened up to me.

Watch out, colleagues, more black bean baked goods coming your way!

How not to sell me whisky

Now, I love a good whisky. In fact, it was one of the things that gave me the idea that starting a blog about food’s finest things might be fun.

I was therefore amused by the way that someone tried to sell me whisky the other day.

I was in a big warehouse store where you tend to buy things in bulk. Not whisky, though; you buy it by the bottle. And on this particular day they were giving out free (tiny) samples of a whisky that was on sale. I honestly can’t remember the name and I’m not interested in commenting on it here. Because it was the sales pitch that was the most fun.

“This whisky is really good! It doesn’t taste too strong.” Hardly an appeal to the senses, then. So I tried a bit, and sure enough, it didn’t taste strong. In fact, it didn’t taste of much. It was slightly sweet and alcoholic. But the trump card had not yet been played.

“You see, sir, this is a fine whisky. It is endorsed by David Beckham!” His hand rose with a flourish to point out the large poster of Sir Beckham himself, with an expression that certainly looked like he was being paid to endorse something.

At this point I carefully placed the half empty sample cup in the bin. The assistant looked at me with incredulity. “You didn’t like it? It’s only £22!”

Perhaps I’m not the target market, but neither celebrity endorsement nor lack of strong taste nor a low price point are the main things I look for in a whisky. And they shouldn’t be for anyone.

Image: “A Glass of Whiskey on the Rocks” by Benjamin Thompson – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

‘Come on you…ooo cake’

Sometimes I bake without using food colouring. This, however, was not one of those times. Lionel supports Harlequins rugby team so for his birthday I decided to make him a Harlequins themed Battenberg style cake. Fortunately, the Quins have a checkerboard with their colours in. Unfortunately these colours include brown and grey. Mmmm, grey cake.

I got hold of my tried and tested Battenberg recipe (adapted from BBC Good Food), along with some pink, blue and black (for the grey) food colouring, and some cocoa for the brown section. (If one needs to eat brown cake then it should at least be chocolate flavoured).

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Breakfast Challenge Day 2: UP&GO

So the second day into my challenge, it was time to shake things up. It was inconceivable that a decent breakfast would fit into something so small, but here is a picture of my proposed breakfast for day 2:

IMG_0097

Once again, I stuck to the rules from the start of the challenge. At 09.20 I opened up (with a straw) and tasted my breakfast.

The first thing that hit me was incredible sweetness to the flavour. I don’t mind sweet things too much but this was…too much. And it was incredibly artificial, with a vanilla taste that doesn’t really exist in normal food.

After that, it started tasting of oats – and in fact, there was an oat texture to it. At this point it felt a bit like a watery porridge, but not in a bad way. To be honest, it took a fair amount of time to finish the breakfast (4 minutes or so), mostly because it wasn’t entirely appealing to drink. The fact that it was through a straw also slowed things down.

As for initial feelings, apart from the overwhelming sweetness and vanilla taste, I was fairly satisfied by this carton of breakfast. I was actually pleasantly surprised that it filled me up a fair bit.

Later on, I started to feel a bit hungry a bit earlier, but not terribly so. Once again I was able to resist the temptation to buy anything more for my lunch without much difficulty.

Nutrition

Ingredients: Skimmed Milk (reconstituted) (43%), Water, Wholegrain Oat Flour (3.2%), Sugar, Fructose, Inulin, Soy Protein, Maize Starch, Milk Protein Concentrate, Vegetable Oils (Sunflower, Rapeseed), Minerals (Tricalcium Phosphate, Sodium Polyphosphate), Acidity Regulator (E332), Stabilisers (E460, E466, E407), Flavouring, Dried Cream Extract, Salt, Vitamins (D, C, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, B6, Folic Acid, B12)

Now, this ingredients list is slightly worrying. My suspicion is that it’s long because it needs to have a certain consistency and longevity given that it is in liquid form in a carton, but I am the kind of person for whom the longer the ingredients list, the more worried I get. It just doesn’t feel right.

Summary

On the whole I was impressed by how full I felt from this breakfast in a bottle. It was quick (though not that enjoyable) to eat (drink?), and it didn’t involve any faff or cleaning up. And it kept me full, even if I felt a little light-headed from the sugar rush.

However, at £1.39 per day, this isn’t great value for money. Perhaps buying it in bulk would be better, but unless it got down to about 70 or 80p, I don’t think I could do this long term – not unless flavour and satisfaction were improved.

Scores

  • Convenience: 10/10
  • Taste: 6/10
  • Immediate satisfaction: 7/10
  • Long term satisfaction: 7/10
  • Value for money: 6/10

Breakfast Challenge: Day 1 – Oatso Simple Cuppa Porridge

As any scientist would tell you, if you’re going to change things, it’s best to have a benchmark for comparison – a control result. And so with my Breakfast Challenge I have started with the trusty, dependable Cuppa Porridge to give me something to compare against others.

porr

The concept is simple: you put the porridge into a mug, and you add hot water, and stir, and hopefully you get tasty porridge in a mug which is easy to eat and clean (you eat it with a spoon).

As ever, I prepared it at 09.20, the reason for which I mention in my other post. And, as predicted, it was easy to prepare – just 2 minutes and I was ready to eat my porridge.

The flavour I went for was apple and blueberry – again a tried and tested flavour. They’ve done well to go for these flavours – they’re sweet and appealing but quite easy to get into a pre-prepared breakfast without tasting artificial. So the aroma coming off the porridge was already great, and I must say the initial feelings on eating it were of satisfaction. It was a nice, hot breakfast to have and really hit the spot when I was getting a little hungry.

In terms of consistency, the feeling wasn’t so much of thick, oaty porridge which you’d have to chew – it felt more like ready brek (does that still exist?). It was almost smooth but had an oaty taste to it. Not unappealing at all, and I suppose you have to make do with the fact that you’re not cooking rolled oats for 15 minutes.

I was able to eat it while working pretty easily in about 5 minutes, and was on the whole just right for my hunger at that point. Within a couple of hours, I was starting to feel hungry but I didn’t feel the need to buy anything additional to my veg box at 11.30 and my lunch at 12.30. Perhaps later on, I was feeling a bit hungry again, but not to the point of having to supplement the meals of the day.

Nutrition

Ingredients: Quaker Wholegrain Rolled Oats (63%), Semi Skimmed Milk Powder, Sugar, Natural Flavouring

Summary

On the whole  it was a great way to start the day. And at £2.59 for 5 packs, it works out at 52p per pack, which is pretty good value. And the great thing here is that I can have this breakfast wherever I am, as long as there is hot water and a mug. The only real downside was washing up the mug afterwards, which was a little tricky (especially if you leave it for an hour – the porridge formed a crust which was surprisingly hard).

Scores

  • Convenience: 7/10
  • Taste: 9/10
  • Immediate satisfaction: 8/10
  • Long term satisfaction: 8/10
  • Value for money: 9/10
  • Nutrition:

Breakfast challenge: Introduction

Breakfast is always a challenge for me. My stomach wants something big, filling and greasy with a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee. My brain, however, is telling me to get on with it and go out the door and get on with the day. My, er, sleep gland is saying “whatever, as long as it doesn’t take too long”.

Growing up (there’s that phrase again – how much our attitudes to food are driven by how we grew up!) it would usually be some sort of healthy cereal like Weetabix or muesli. At university I ate in the college canteen – toast, sausage, egg, bacon each day all in a sandwich. Most days, anyway. And more recently I’ve been bouncing around different options – breakfast bars, cereals, porridge, toast, and…yes, McDonalds and even KFC breakfast.

So it was high time to get another one of my challenges underway. As my friend Mark would say, “it’s not a challenge if no-one is making you do it,” but ‘challenge’ sounds better than ‘series of reviews’, so I’ll stick with that.

What I’m looking for is a combination of:

  • How full I feel after eating it
  • How full I feel later on in the morning
  • How much it costs
  • How it tastes
  • How quick it is to make
  • Nutritional information (i.e. what it’s likely to do to my insides in the long term)

My default breakfast at the moment is Oatso Simple Porridge (either in microwave or cuppa porridge form), so I’ll start with that and compare it.

Obviously this isn’t a scientific study. The sample size is 1, and there are a lot of factors that could influence how I’m feeling breakfast wise: how much food I had the previous day; how active I was (and am); how much fluid I drink; how tired I am. But I’ll do my best to keep things as consistent as possible: I’ll eat my breakfast at 09.20 am, and then take ‘measurements’ until lunch.

Why 09.20 am? I get up and start work much earlier, but I found that if I eat when I get up I invariably get incredibly hungry around 10.30/11.00, and then end up supplementing my lunch because I think I’ll be hungry. I find that I can push through until 09.20 and then eat then as a kind of early morning break. Weird? Yeah, but it’s a psychological trick that seems to work.

Taste Test: Try Using a Teaspoon

Taste with a Teaspoon

The last time I followed a recipe was 3 years ago. My teaspoon is my recipe book. A reactive recipe book where ingredients and method vary greatly depending on how I feel. Depending on the day.

I might have a good idea as to what I want to achieve as I wok up my stir fry this evening, but I don’t want it to be limited to Nigel Slater’s Thai slant or Rick Stein’s Oriental perspective. Today it’s pork and noodles and I want it to meet the need of my taste buds. Today’s taste buds.

The meat is on the heat and I’m kicking it off with a little sesame oil. Once it’s sealed it’s time to add the first layer of flavour. Cumin, cinnamon, all spice and fresh ginger presiding over cayenne today. Like I said, I have today’s preferences in mind, and the order of the day is warmth and not heat.  One minute and the veg goes into the wok. I’m now thinking about sauce and the second layer of flavour: honey and light soy (that’s my stock). But I need to check that I’m following today’s ‘recipe’; I need my teaspoon. Stir and taste. I’m looking for sweetness, richness and the limited warmth of ginger and cinnamon (I don’t really need to taste the cumin, it’s serving a greater purpose, subservient to and supporting of the ginger).

I’ve only been adding a little at a time so I know that I’ll be in the right flavour ball park, but the balance isn’t there yet. The salt from the soy is permeating too strongly, more honey necessary. Stir and taste again. Good, better, it’s balancing out.

The noodles need to be added now, I’m conscious of time, the veg doesn’t need long. I haven’t added any more flavour since the last taste test but I’ve given it time to blend and develop so I’ll taste again.

Today is all about encouraging the warmth of ginger and it’s not coming through, so I’ll add a little more (I chopped it finely to give it a fighting chance of finding its way through the dish in a minute or two). Taste. That’s Layer Two complete.

Now a splash of rice wine vinegar, just a dash, enough to deglaze and add slight edge of sharpness (not too much or I’ll overpower the dish with acid). Taste. Dark soy for colour. Taste. Honey to re-balance. Taste. Perfect.

A stir fry like this will take around 7 minutes, typically I’d use my ‘recipe book’, around ten times. Probably around the same number of times a BBC Good Food website would be consulted and checked. Ok so my teaspoon is reactionary, experimental and maybe even a slightly risky approach to creating a dish but it was all the direction I needed and it’s given me the flavour of the moment.

I’m not advocating tearing up your “I’m Jamie Oliver and this is how I cook a three course meal in two minutes”. I’m not saying that the “Hairy Bikers’ guide to cooking in Geordie” can’t inspire. What I am saying is that the smallest of spoons can help generate the most exciting of dishes and create the fullest of flavours.

Next time you sizzle a stir fry, cook a casserole or prep a pasta sauce, try closing the recipe book and arm yourself with the humble teaspoon.