Wednesday, 3 December 2014

#NoJunk Savoury Christmas Gifts

Ah, 'tis the season to be doused in sugar! Sweet, sweet Christmas a season of candy canes, tree chocolates, chocolate oranges, chocolates, mince pies, chocolate Santas/reindeer/snowmen, a gingerbread house of course and some chocolates.

I mean you ARE going to eat sweet at this time of year, it will happen, but it doesn't have to be an out and out junk fest. It's also, if you think about it, the season of lots of tasty savoury stuff too, so, how about a few tidy suggestions for non-sweet homemade Christmas presents? Maybe just considering steering away from the truffles in this one area might give a few opportunities for junk-free deliciousness without descending into the sweet cliché.

In fact a recent study by Organix showed that people think Christmas is a great time to let little ones get baking as 86% of mums say they would prefer to receive homemade gifts from their children, and nine out of 10 (91%) say their children would enjoy making homemade foodie Christmas gifts for loved ones.

So, here's my top five savoury, junk-free Christmas present ideas that the kids can make:

1. Cheese Straws

Now, these don't last an age, but who doesn't love a cheese straw? And making them at home means you're probably not going to add half a to of salt to the recipe. Here's a rather lovely recipe from Organix which adds a bit of extra festiveness.

Batch 1
• 100g wholewheat flour (or gluten free alternative)
• 50g unsalted cold butter
• 75g tasty Cheddar cheese
• 2 tsps dried thyme
• 1 egg (or approx 3-4 tbsps water can be used instead)
Batch 2
• 100g plain white flour (or gluten free alternative)
• 50g unsalted cold butter
• 75g tasty Cheddar cheese
• 2 tsps dried thyme
• 1 egg (or approx 3-4 tbsps water can be used instead)

1. Preheat your oven to 200°C / 180°C fan / gas mark 6
2. Make up the two batches separately. In a large bowl rub the butter into the flour with your
finger tips, until it resembles bread crumbs (or a food processor can be used with the 'pulse
setting'). Stir in grated cheddar and thyme
3. Create a well in the centre and add whisked egg or water a little at a time, combining the
wet and dry ingredients to create a dough. Add enough of the egg/water so that the mix
comes together to form a smooth dough, that is not too sticky (if you have any egg left,
reserve it for brushing the straws before they go into the oven)
4. Knead the dough just a little to bring it together, then place onto a lightly floured surface.
Roll lightly into a rectangle and cut into 12 even squares. Repeat with the second batch (the
less the dough is handled, the lighter the cheese straws will be)
5. To create the plait, take one of the 12 brown squares of dough, and roll into a long thin,
even sausage shape with your hands on the worktop, (about the thickness of a straw). Do
the same with one of the white squares of dough. Now plait the two strips of dough
together. Finally, create a curve at the top to create a cane shape, and place onto a lined
baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of your dough, until you have 12 beautiful canes
6. For best results lightly brush each straw with a little whisked egg just before they go into
the oven. This will give a wonderful golden shine to the finished biscuit, but it is optional.
Bake for approximately 15 minutes or until golden.

2. Homemade Bouquet Garni

Okay, this one is a bit fancy pantsy, in fact I suggested last year in this article and it's a fully Guardian-ified idea,  but it's still a fun idea and the construction part is definitely fun for the kids to do. If the whole bundling thing is too much, you could still try drying your own herbs and making little pots of your own herb blends.

3. Oven-dried Tomatoes in oil

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

There are a million 'recipes' you can follow for this idea, but here's a simple one from the mighty Martha Stewart. Worth noting that by 'pan' they mean roasting tin and you definitely don't need the sugar, but the vibe is a good one. If you're planning to store and gie these as gifts, it's worth giving them a good dry before hand.

4. Marinated Olives

Marinate Olives Step 13.jpg

Buy a massive jar of those cheap black olives in brine from the supermarket, drain the brine and add olive oil - doesn't have to extra virgin or anything too fancy - and whatever deliciousnesses you can lay your hands on - garlic gloes, springs of rosemary, dried chillies. It all looks jolly pretty in the jar and is just a matter of filling jars, so fully tackle-able for the kids. If you DO need a picture guide, here's one from Wikihow - which I was thinking was a bit pointless, but actually might e a handy guide for the kiddies.

5.  Curry Kit

We made these a couple of years ago and it's an idea I love. You write out your favourite curry recipe and make a pre-bundled spice pack to go with it. Again, a nice job for the the kids could be spooning the right amounts of the of the different bits and bobs.

For more information and inspiration see Organix and, even if you can't manage a fully junk-free Christmas, how about a new year pledge?

Monday, 27 October 2014

#NoJunk Halloween - Is that even possible??

A no-junk Halloween.... hmmmmm?

Can there be any more of an oxymoron than no-junk Halloween? It seems that Halloween is just a sugar fuelled orgy these days. I say 'these days' like it was ever different, but I think that whilst sweeties have always figured pretty highly, it may be been in a more fudge and toffee-like way and less about gross, blue, brain-shaped sweets (real things, those). On the plus side, at least several of the truly terrifying food additives and colourants that gave use those unique manic highs as kids, are now on the banned substances list; but still, there is a ghastly array of crap on offer to kiddies at this time of year.

And it's all gone a bit super-sized hasn't it? I mean surely it used to be a few sweets shoved in pockets ... whereas now, there are buckets - actual buckets - that your kids are supposed to fill with sweets. I even saw one loot bag thingy that had a thermometer-type gauge on the side to show how full your bag was - or perhaps to indicate your likelihood of future diabetes, I didn't read it too carefully. Surely this is madness? *insert evil laugh here*.

But are you really - really, really - going to do away with anything junky altogether and go fully fruity virtuous? I'm not sure I am. Perhaps a little tempering is in order... So, here are some thoughts:

1: Is sugar evil? Should I be scared?

My first though/ excuse is this - is sugar really junk? Obviously there is approximately half a ton of it in any product, sweet or savoury, aimed at kids, but other than the tooth-rotting, calorie craziness of it - is is really toxic? And then these's the whole 'when is a sugar not a sugar' thing... seemingly healthy cakes that use half a ton on honey instead of sugar... Maybe the thing to do is go with the fact that Halloween will mean a day when your kids eat their entire weekly sugar ration in one day and keep it clean and healthy the rest of the week? How about this tasty little number I made last Halloween for example? 

2: Is there any point in Halloween if it's not all about the sugar?

I'd go with a big, fat yes on this one. Should you care to have a browse of my awesome Pinterest board called 'Healthy Halloween', you'll see that there are a number of awesome thing things you can create, without buying psychedelic mouse sweets (they exist BTW).

3: Will people stop knocking if I don't hand out the Hariboes?

They might, but perhaps that's a good tactic anyway... hand out the junk you've been meaning to clear out of your cupboards to other people's children, then twenty minutes before The X Factor is due to begin, start giving out satsumas and it'll all tail off - everyone's a winner.

4. Am I a failure at all things No-junk-ified if I give in and let the kids go trick or treating where I have NO CONTROL over what they get given on the dark streets at night in a world full of chemicals and sugar at other people's houses who might be using Halloween as an excuse to clear out THEIR cupboards.... NO CONTROL...

It's okay, even if you do end up junking it up a bit on Halloween, you can still make your own gaff a haven of sensibleness for the rest of the season. And, anyway, if you're signed up to the Organix No Junk campaign you'll know it's more about enjoying real food and making a few sensible switches - it is not supposed to be a fun killer. You can still be a wonderful No Junker AND have a good Halloween.

5. Phew - so the plan is?

Keep the sweets to one day if it's going to happen. I let my kids trick or treat early last year, then consume some of the haul, then give the rest away to later trick treaters :) Don't let the sweet-eating spread the days or weeks around Halloween.

Get the kids to cook - keep them interested in the seasonal side of Halloween - just after harvest, tons of great veg around, especially pumpkins and squash - including cool interesting ones:

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

#NoJunk I hate Lunchboxes

I hate lunchboxes. Thought I should just share that fact before I write this post. For someone who is normally pretty enthusiastic about food I have an irrational hatred of school packed lunches. HATE THEM.

My lad started off with packed lunches before I realised that the packed lunch brigade were all judging each others' goodies. My mango-fiend of a child wouldn't eat mango from a lunchbox, because other kids said it was 'disgusting'. Ugh, depressing.

And the unpacking bit at the end of the day - the crusts, lightly nibbled pieces of fruit and general festering detritus to be chucked at the end of the day. Oh, and I've you've been insane enough to pack a yoghurt you'll have to pick through the compost to find the spoon No, no, no.

And the pressure - the crushing, emotional PRESSURE of the healthy lunchbox. And the fact that what most people think of as healthy, just isn't really. Flapjacks? Sugar fest. Sandwiches? Default to Marmite. Yoghurts? Sugar fest. Lunchboxes just offer so many opportunities to reach for the junk. So many pre-packaged 'easy' solutions, even the most educated of no-junkers might find themselves packin' the Pom Bears from time to time. In a recent survey for their NoJunk campaign Organic found that 61% of parents find that it’s difficult to make their child’s lunchbox varied and interesting and that for 81% samdwiches were the staple lunchbox food. Honestly, I'm surprised both figures there aren't 100%...

Here we are, September again and many parents are reaching for the bloody lunchbox. Anyone wanting to de-junkify their kids' food should check out the No Junk campaign here - it's all about keeping it simple and real. And really, this is the solution, keep it simple. So here's my solutions - I put the first in brackets, because I know it's not for everyone...

(1. SCHOOL DINNERS. Come on, they're even free for infants in the UK now. Put aside worries about whether they'll eat it or not and comfort yourself with the fact that they probably will, because you're not watching, and even if they don't - you'll never know - bliss.)

2. FOOD FLASKS. AKA - your lunchbox saving grace.

Food flasks are literally the answer to the healthy lunchbox conundrum. They are also easier to fill than a sandwiches. Honestly, trust me here - they are easier than sandwiches. You just microwave leftovers - last night's pasta, pop it in the flask and pack it up with a fork, bottle of water and a piece of fruit and BOOM healthy lunchbox done.

No junk, no effort.

Here's some things you can put in them:

1. Pasta. Obviously. Leftovers from last  night's dinner or cook some in the morning seeing a it only takes 11 minutes boiling while you do your morning stuff. Stir in decent pesto if you're pushed for time. Or throw a few frozen peas in the pasta water, stir in cream and cheddar cheese. Even olive oil and a finely chopped raw tomato or two will do the trick. If you're feeling very kind you could even pack a little foil twist of parmesan on the side.

2. Cous cous - just make in in the food flask by adding boiling water and a tiny bit of an organic stock cube. Then add your cous cous additions of choice, including most stew-based leftovers.

3. Soup - thick delicious soup and a roll. Lush.

4. Chopped up sausages, potatoes, veg and gravy - by which I mean, last night's tea microwaved of course.

My daughter had pasta based lunchboxes for pretty-much every one of her pre-school lunch days and somehow it's less guilt inducing than sandwich repetition. She has to have lunchboxes again for the first few weeks of term while they settle in and I'm telling you now it'll be pasta all the way until the blessed relief of the school dinner.

Those facing lunch packing - I wish you the very best of no junky luck! Keep it real folks!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#No Junk Perfect Picnic Pizzas

Everyone loves a picnic. But what is a picnic? Does any food eaten outdoors count as a picnic, or does it have to include hampers and flasks in order to qualify? Who knows. But what I do know is that picnics are ace and kids love them. We may not manage this level of awesomeness:

'Shove that under your feet,' he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
'What's inside it?' asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly;
'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'
'Do you really think so?' enquired the Rat seriously. 'It's only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast and cut it very fine!'

(This may be my favourite bit of Wind in the Willows)

- but picnic greatness is an achievable aim...

Perhaps gone are the days of the ultra grand picnic - you know the picnics you read about in children's books that always sound epic... those Brambly Hedge mice, for example, know how to picnic, Apple Blossom wine? Don't mind if I do. These days, however, cooking a fine raised crust pie may be a step to far for a kiddie picnic, a pre-packed junk-fest isn't your only option.
No Junk logo
Earlier this year Organix launched their ongoing mission to help families cut out the junk in their food - all those sinister-sounding pronounceables that seem to be tucked away in so much food these days. There are loads of tips, recipes and general positivity over at the Organix website, plus an option to sign up and get involved with the campaign.

There is a middle ground to be had though. Somewhere between the magnificence of a smoked salmon/champagne picnic, fresh from the wicker with proper napkins and the sweaty carrier bag of salty pork products, salty crisps and after-though sandwiches, grabbed at the local petrol station.

So, here's a suggestion. Get involved with the no junk campaign and try it out on a picnic. If you fancy something other than a sandwich, you could get the kiddlies to make these Perfect Picnic Pizzas. Perfect because they tick all the food boxes in one item, these and a few apples thrown in and you're pretty much done. Obviously, I'm ignoring the fact that outdoor eating does make you want cake... perhaps I'll post my recipe for junk-free tea loaf...

Recipe wise, these bad boys are easy. It's just a simple scone-style base, topped with whatever deliciousness takes your fancy. Here's how:

1. Weight 8oz of wholemeal self-raising flour into a bowl. Then pour in 2oz olive oil. Give it a good stir - this is instead of rubbing in a solid fat like butter. Now add milk or water slowly until you can squish it into a soft dough.
2. Roll pieces of the dough into balls and then flatten them onto a non-stick baking tray of some sort to make little pizza bases - no need to roll.
3. Smear on tomato puree, or spoonfuls of chopped toms from a tin. Add your topping of choice - keep it real folks. And remember, pineapple is okay.
4. Bake at 200 for about 10-12 minutes
5. Cool, wrap/box 'em up, grab the rug and go (even if it's only as far as the garden)

How to make a Bacon Bap from Scratch

Homemade bacon sandwich

Apologies for neglecting my blog lately, but on the plus side this does mean I've got lots of lovely recipes and ideas stored up for you. Not least this little project involving bacon. Everything you see in that picture is made from scratch, which I think is pretty awesome. Doesn't mean I'll ever bother making bacon again, but it was fun.

For the recipes and how tos, please see my full article in The Guardian:

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

4 Easy dishes the kids can make for dinner #NoJunk

One of the key messages of the #NoJunk campaign is getting your kids cooking, so this post is all about meals younger kids can make without using the hob. It's homecooking with the first hints of you not having to do it all and there's no junk in sight.

Sometimes asking your kids to help round the house is not all that successful.  Washing-up leads to tidal 
waves of suds, the hoover probably makes them cry and folding laundry turns into ‘soft play’.  However, there are some very good reasons why getting your kids to do some of the cooking has got to be a good thing.  From the labour-saving - there might come a point where you don’t have to do all the cooking. To the practical - your kids will become competent grown-ups who can feed themselves properly.  To the educational – all that measuring, weighing and general kitchen alchemy is all good learning.  To the emotional – the endearing and disproportionate pride they’ll feel in feeding you for a change.   

So, here are four simple suggestions for very first dishes your child can cook; you’ve got three all-in-one mains and one pud. There’s no hob involved, so all the construction can be done cold. Levels of independence and supervision are your call. Useful kit includes these brilliant serrated, but blunt knives, which even very small children can use safely (once they are past the eye-poking, chewing-things stage of course).

Salad actually has a lot going for it as a first meal for children to prepare; it is cold and instantly ready. There’s also something about the throw-it-in, chaotic nature of salad-making that appeals to kids.  Give them all the usual salad suspects to cut or rip up, then offer them a random collection of goodies from the fridge and let them create.

Or go for a more coherent approach and make prawn cocktail, provide cooked beef strips for this Sesame beef salad  or pieces of cooked chicken with a jam jar dressing: a splash of olive oil, wine vinegar, a squeeze of honey and a blob of whole grain mustard all shaken up in a jam jar.  

Fish Parcels

Parcel based cooking is great for children, because they get to create a complete dinner for each family member. This can be made with fresh or frozen fish, in fact there’s no need to defrost it first. You might need to sneak in and check the parcels are secure before cooking, or switch to foil which is easier to scrunch together.

For 4
·         4 handfuls of washed spinach
·         1 courgette, chopped
·         1 red pepper, chopped
·         A few cooked new potatoes for each person
·         1 tin of tomatoes
·         1 tsp pesto
·         Four pieces of white fish
·         A few basil leaves
·         Black pepper
·         A few black olives/ frozen prawns if you like

1.       Take four large pieces of baking parchment and add a pile of spinach to the middle of each. Then pile on the chopped vegetables and potatoes.
2.       Tip the tomatoes into a bowl and stir in the pesto. Pop a fish piece on top of the veg and spoon over the tomatoes. Add basil leaves, black pepper and olives.
3.       Seal up the parcel as best you can – I find the Cornish pasty approach the best.
4.       They can sit in the fridge for a few hours at this stage if that’s helpful. Cook for 20-25 minutes at 200, or less if they’ve sat in the fridge defrosting.

Chicken Parcels
Another parcel-based recipe, but because this one takes longer to cook you can put the potatoes in raw. Obviously have a conversation about raw chicken and get children to wash their hands carefully afterwards and consider using tongs to pick up the chicken. There’s no real need for a specific recipe, lots of things work in a parcel with chicken and potatoes, see what the kids think:
  • ·         Thyme, crème fraiche or full fat soft cheese, mushrooms
  • ·         Carrots, squeeze of orange juice, black pepper
  • ·         Same as the fish parcels above

These will need to be wrapped in foil and baked for about 35 minutes at 200 degrees, always check your breasts though, in every sense.

Pear Charlotte

This is a satisfyingly simple little pudding to put together, it’s just bread, butter, pear and brown sugar, yet it creates a pretty impressive looking pud. Even if it doesn’t end up looking impressive, it’s still going to taste good. Make sure you’re using very ripe pears though. You could peel them or not bother, depending on whether peeling is achievable for your kids.

·         8 or 9 slices of white bread, crusts removed
·         4 tablepoons of very soft butter
·         4 or 5 very ripe pears (you could even use a tin of pears…)
·         A few teaspoons of brown sugar

1.       Preheat the oven to 200. Brush the insides of a pudding basin with plenty of butter. Then spread the rest on the bread.
2.       Cut the bread into strips or pieces and line the bottom and sides of the basin with bread, try to overlap it a bit. Save a bit of the lid
3.       Chop up the pears and add them to the basin, layering them with sprinklings of sugar.

4.       Make a lid out of bread and bake until it’s golden and crispy. Serve with ice cream.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Totally Ace Chorizo and Lentil Soup/Stew

So, we are fully on with this NO JUNK CHALLENGE. And it's all going well - a bit like a food reboot for the family. It's a good reminder to get back to basics.

First things first, this recipe would still be lush sans chorizo, just stick in a teaspoon of smoked paprika if you happen to have any.

This is packed full of lovely, healthy lentils and vegetables. It is delicious. Just use veg the kids like and get them to cut it up – kiddy buy-in. As it turns out I managed to give this to Alex while he was at peak hunger, so he demolished it.

No-junk wise I used one organic chicken stock cube in a huge pan, so minimal salt, but you could go even lower with a low salt or no salt organic cube too of course.

In terms of a recipe, you don’t strictly need one. This one I made didn't have onion in it because I only had one onion left and it had gone manky. Key bits are:
  • Green lentils
  • A cooking chorizo if you're using one - check out Riverford's one
  • Tons of finely diced veg – I used peppers, a de-seeded red chili, celery, tomatoes, can’t remember what else.Get the kiddies to help chopping and let them choose what’s going in.
  • Plenty of garlic. Don’t be shy, you’re with family.
  • Parmesan to grate on top. Obviously not strictly required, but lush nonetheless.
  1. Pre-cook the lentils.
  2. Chop and sweat the chorizo and veg in olive oil.
  3.  Add the lentils, stock and water - a bit for a stew, more for a soup.
  4.  Boil, simmer, eat. (With Parmesan)
Here's Alex's review of the soup: