Friday, 22 June 2012

A different approach

For cooks, ingredients are the building blocks of any dish. What we put in can seriously affect the end result, so we will scrutinise, debate, agonise and obsess over our ingredients. Some have majestic reputations and are heinously expensive (step forward, saffron), while others cost next to nothing yet taste like manna from heaven (pretty much anything very local and in season). But, whatever its beginnings, when we find something good - really, mouth-wateringly, undeniably marvellous - it gets under our skin and stays close to our heart, a well-loved element that we weave into the food we serve. Everyone has their own favourites and, once you start, the list can be never-ending, but here are some of mine: Madagascan vanilla pods (and pure extract), Maldon sea salt, Green & Black’s 70% chocolate, Colman’s English mustard (a condiment rather than an ingredient, but one I cannot be without), premium Canadian maple syrup, organic unwaxed lemons and limes (for their zest and juice, which I put in seemingly everything I make)… To me, these may feel like “essentials” but they are, I admit, luxury items. You could, let’s face it, cook perfectly adequately without them. It wouldn’t be like asking someone to cook without the real basics: butter, eggs, wheat, sugar, meat, milk…

Grilled Cornish mackerel on a bed of samphire
Yet these and many other ingredients are, of course, exactly what we are being asked to omit from our meals on an increasingly regular basis. The only allergies I was aware of as a child were few, far between and unintelligible. “I’m allergic to X, Y or Z” was usually a kid’s excuse for “I don’t like…” - for example one girl’s egg “allergy” that was very pronounced around omelettes and quiches, yet vanished as she scoffed ice cream (made with raw eggs), real mayonnaise or a rich chocolate mousse. But then I started to encounter the real thing - stories of tragic deaths from anaphylactic reactions to nuts, rampant eczema brought on by cow’s milk, debilitating stomach cramps after eating wheat. You can’t argue with the facts - if something is essentially poisoning you, stay the hell away from it. Then, after allergies, we learnt about food intolerances… and this is where things seemed to get out of control. Some people clearly learnt (or rather taught themselves) way too much. Self-diagnosed food intolerances are the bain of the medical community’s existence - and a real pain in the backside for the rest of us. If you can’t eat it, fine. Please don’t. And - as an omnivore and food-lover myself - you have my sympathy. But if you want us all to coo over how interesting and unusual your self-diagnosed intolerance to hula hoops is… well, as your personal chef, I will smile politely, make a note of it, ensure I work around it and - above all - keep hula hoops out of anything you eat. But, let’s face it, most normal people would just be thinking something along the lines of “shut up and get the hell out of my kitchen”.

Strawberries from the garden
But what about the bona-fide cases of food intolerances? Lethargic, bloated, pasty drips transformed into bright-eyed, bushy-tailed balls of perky zing after they have jettisoned something as basic - and previously considered so innocuous - as wheat or dairy (the two seemingly most common culprits)? Too bloody right you want to stick to the new-found way of eating, and all power to you.

To date, it’s mainly been professional necessity that’s driven me to learn more and more about diets, allergies and food intolerances - it’s unusual to cook for a group of people without at least two or three dietary requirements cropping up. But it’s the discovery of long-term health issues relating to certain foods that are really compelling me to delve deeper and start incorporating some fundamental changes into my own diet.

Crab, avocado & tomato salad with citrus & herb dressing
A recent set of requirements came through from a client prior to their stay that made me almost choke on my cappuccino. Due to a recent illness, her list of restrictions was daunting: no dairy, no white flour, no potatoes, no sugar, no red meat (and chicken only once a week), no oranges, no grapefruit, no mushrooms, no white rice… “Kill me now!” I cried. “What on earth am I going to feed this poor lady? Fresh air sautéed with a little spring water?” OK, I exaggerate, but things seemed pretty grim. Some alternatives were suggested: xylitol instead of sugar, coconut oil as a cooking fat, tofu as a protein. Plus I could include many staples that I love: red, brown and wild rice; lemons & limes; olive oil; fish; and heaps of fresh veggies, salad, herbs and fruit. Main courses and starters were going to be just fine - but what about desserts and tea-time baking? Many people with restricted diets just go without - but what’s the point of hiring a private chef if she can’t cook versions your favourite treats? So I trawled the internet and sent messages to friends asking for help. I found out quite a lot about xylitol and how to cook with it (substitute it in the same quantities for sugar, but don’t expect it to behave quite the same. One bit of advice: don’t bother with xylitol meringues. Total waste of time and resources. Trust me.) I discovered all kinds of things to do with coconut oil and bought about 10 kinds of alternative flours and almost as many alternative milks from a wonderful health food store nearby.

Chargrilled broccoli with garlic & red chilli
By the end of the week cooking for this lady and her family, I had discovered that - with a bit of experimenting and tweaking of recipes - it was possible to cook great food without the usual suspects, substituting all kinds of basic ingredients for things I’d previously never used (spelt, rye flour, coconut oil) or even heard of (xylitol). Most importantly, looking at the long-term health implications of ingredients like sugar and dairy, I have decided that it is definitely worth learning more about these new ingredients and moving away from some of my old faithfuls. I’m hopeful that change will spread far and wide - after all, food is a rapidly evolving culture; 30 years ago, vegetarians (not to mention vegans) were the dinner-party pariahs, provoking panic attacks in hostesses and scorn from fellow guests. But now, our herbivore friends are tolerated - and often admired. The more we learn about the ill effects of meat on our bodies and the environment, the more appealing a vegetarian or even vegan diet becomes (it’s just a deep-seated yearning for a juicy steak or crispy bacon that stops many of us from forsaking meat altogether). While there’s no denying that many have jumped on the food intolerance bandwagon with no proper diagnosis (and therefore questionable rationale), there’s much evidence to show that there are extremely good reasons for reducing our consumption of certain ingredients, or even eliminating them altogether, from our diets. Wholemeal loaves instead of white pappy bread, a drizzle of honey instead of spoonfuls of processed sugar, fresh fish instead of red meat. And, next time I spray my cappuccino all over the kitchen, it could well be made with almond milk.

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