Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Food and Opera

Food and opera have always had an affinity with each other. This is especially the case for Italian food. Put some Puccini on the stereo and that spaghetti just tastes better somehow.

At the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) in Cardiff Bay, food and opera are being combined both off and on the stage.

Last October, ffresh Bar and Restaurant celebrated its second anniversary in the WMC and its inclusion in The Good Food Guide 2012. This year, they are making the most of being under the same roof as the Welsh National Opera (WNO), with members of that resident company performing at special Supper and Song evenings.

On 3 February, members of the WNO chorus sang extracts from the company’s Spring Season (Beatrice & Benedict, Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata), while diners ate a 3-course meal that included salmon fishcakes, roast pork belly, and chocolate fudge cheesecake. After drinks in the bar and starters in the restaurant, Laura Pooley (pictured), Sian Meinir and Meriel Andrew, dressed in evening gowns and feather boas, performed a selection of arias, trios and duets accompanied by James Southall on the piano. They returned between the main course and dessert for a second set.

At the St David’s Day Dinner (1 March), diners will be entertained by harpist Katherine Thomas and soprano Gwenllion Evans. They will perform popular Welsh songs and songs by the Cardiff-born composer Ivor Novello (whose statue can be seen outside ffresh). Executive chef Kurt Fleming has created a menu full of Welsh ingredients. There will be cockles and laverbread to start, followed by roast rack and braised shoulder of Carmarthenshire lamb with faggots, mashed potato and glazed carrots. The dessert will be a bread and butter pudding with a Celtic twist, using Bravelli’s Brecon gin marmalade and Penderyn whisky crème anglaise. The restaurant is used to sourcing Welsh ingredients, through its pioneering Wales the True Taste partnership.

On May 11, the WNO Chorus return to ffresh for Dinner with Puccini, when they will be performing highlights from La bohème and Madame Butterfly. As with all the Supper and Song evenings, a three-course dinner, half a bottle of wine and entertainment costs £39 per person. These evenings are planned to become a regular feature at ffresh.

Meanwhile, food often adorns the WNO stage. Acting Deputy Stage Manager Katie Heath-Jones shared some secrets concerning how food is prepared for several opera productions in a recent WNO podcast. Although fake stage food is used, there’s often plenty of real food on stage too. In the café scene in La bohème, for instance, fresh chicken breasts, fresh French baguettes, bacon, brie and grapes adorn the table. Mimi eats a crème caramel, although the red wine is actually a famous brand of blackcurrant squash.

Regular grocery shopping trips are therefore part of the stage manager’s routine. In their Richard Jones production of Hansel and Gretel, setting up the food takes around 3 to 4 hours beforehand. There is a table groaning under the weight of black forest gateaux, jelly, profiteroles and other desserts. During the show it is thrown around the stage, and so there is also a long and messy clean-up operation afterwards.

La Traviata has a dinner party scene featuring chicken (though the oysters are fake), bowls of spaghetti are served in The Barber of Seville (although that steam is smoke put underneath the bowls just before they come onstage), fish was served in a previous Tosca production (actually a mashed banana), and champagne flows in Die Fledermaus and, to a lesser extent, in other productions. The champagne is either a non-alcoholic champagne, selected for the satisfying pop it gives when opened, or fizzy water with a bit of food colouring.

When Elijah Moshinsky created a new production of Beatrice & Benedict in 1994 for WNO, food became a character in the opera. It was both cooked and consumed onstage. The director’s instructions were for spaghetti and Napolitano sauce to be cooked onstage and served to the chorus and principals, while the auditorium should fill with the aroma of garlic. Cooking the meal was the responsibility of the stage manager.

The set features a kitchen, seen through a back window on the terrace of an elegant Italian villa. A cooker and a hob are situated just offstage from this. The original tomato sauce recipe was supplied by a member of the chorus, but because it was a secret recipe from his Italian family it was never written down and now cannot be replicated.

Beatrice and Benedict was revived a couple of times at the New Theatre, and is now being staged at the WMC for the first time. It starts with a feast and there is plenty of food on the table, but on the first night the pasta did not appear: glasses of champagne were bought out for the chorus instead. There was apparently some pasta cooked by the side of the stage, but with the much greater size of the arena and modern air extraction systems no aroma reached the audience. This is one aspect of the production that did not successfully transfer from the New Theatre.

When real food is bought onstage, each individual chorus singer has to be catered for in terms of allergies and other needs. There are also obvious considerations concerning the best food to eat while singing. Opera singers can get hungry while on stage: Pavarotti famously had a bowl of parmesan to hand in case of emergencies. The leftovers, after the chorus has finished, are apparently quickly snapped up by the crew.

Photo by Glenn Edwards, courtesy of ffresh Restaurant.

My review of Beatrice and Benedict for Buzz:

ffresh, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay:

Katie Heath-Jones ‘Turning up the heat’ WNO Podcast (Jan 2012):
The second anniversary celebration dinner at ffresh:

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Creating a Community Garden 2

In a previous post (14 Jan 2012), I reported on the first stages of a project to convert an abandoned children’s play area into a community garden:

I will be posting regular updates on the Dinas Powys Community Growing Area, to keep residents of Dinas Powys informed and to help others seeking to transform wasteland into places where communities can grow their own food.

This project was initiated by Elizabeth Millard (Chairperson of the Dinas Powys Residents Group) and Councillor Keith Hatton (Plaid Cymru). They organized a second meeting on Saturday18 Feb at Murchfield Community Hall in Dinas Powys to discuss progress.

Rob McGhee is one of twelve Rural Regeneration Officers working for Creative Rural Communities (an initiative led by the Vale of Glamorgan council). He is in charge of Community Grown Food Projects (areas covered by other Officers include tourism, farm diversification, cycleways and footpaths). Rob was approached by Elizabeth and Keith a few months ago, and agreed that the Dinas Powys project would be ideal for Creative Rural Communities involvement. If you live outside the Vale, check to see if your local Council has an equivalent initiative.

Rob arrived at the meeting with plans he had drawn up for the site. The 940 square metres has been officially designated a ‘Community Growing Area’ on the plans and will have communal spaces and also individual plots. The larger plots will be a substantial 12 by 5 metres, while there will be a range of smaller ‘starter’ plots (with flexibility built in as larger plots can be subdivided). There will be some deep beds, which are easier for the elderly and infirm to cultivate. Wheelchair access will be provided, so slab paths will be laid at the entrance and around the site. The council agreed that an adjacent overgrown and abandoned council house garden could be incorporated, with the removal of a bramble-covered fence.

There will be one large communal storage shed for equipment (although individual lockers could be located within this shed). Keys to the double gate in the security fence will be supplied to local residents who garden plots, while a rota system will be established for caretaker keyholders to open the garden during certain hours of the day to allow access to everyone in the community.

Creative Rural Communities will supply funding to get the project started, although grants from other sources will be applied for to meet the full costs. The main source of additional funding is likely to be Tidy Towns (a Welsh Government initiative, described in the previous post). Rob will also help organize a community clean-up work party, to work alongside members of the local community in getting the site prepared.

Publicity is another area where Creative Rural Communities can provide assistance. More publicity is required in Dinas Powys, on the aims and timetable of the project, and on the specific inconvenience it may cause during the establishment phase. Due to the presence of contractor’s vehicles, for instance, the footpath between Nightingale Place and Sir Ivor Place will need to be closed for at least a month.

On the ground, three different contractors have already visited the site and given estimates for the costs of land clearance, removing the old wire fence, putting up security fencing, and supplying topsoil. Estimates of costs have been in the same ballpark, with one of the contractors having recently done a similar job in nearby St Andrews Major.

The meeting discussed a range of other issues, which may be relevant to similar projects. These including the need to cut hedges before birds start nesting, the determination of where cables lie under the soil (there is an adjacent electrical substation in this case), getting local schools involved, bringing water and electricity onto the site, and establishing a communal compost area. In the Vale of Glamorgan, compost is made from the Council’s kitchen waste roadside collection and is available for free if collected from the Cowbridge recycling plant (see link to previous post on recycling below).

Because this is a community garden and not a statutory allotment, there will be fewer restrictions on what can be done with the food (e.g., only a small proportion of food grown on an allotment can be sold). This makes for more flexibility and opens the possibility of regular produce sales, either on-site, at the Village Show, or via local shops and farmers markets, with some of the money feeding back into this project and other community activities.

At the meeting, Rob also handed out leaflets “fresh off the press” for Community Foodie: a new project (within the Creative Rural Communities sphere), that will be officially launched in March 2012, to identify, develop and support community food growing in the rural areas of Bridgend, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan. I will post on that, along with further developments in the Dinas Powys Community Growing Project, at a later date.

As these photos (which I took this morning) illustrate, a community garden should greatly improve the environment in this area; turning it from an ugly space where underage drinkers and drug users hang out, into a place that brings the community together by providing a recreational meeting place and a source of locally-produced food.

The next project meeting at Murchfield Hall will be in late April or early May.

On the current schedule, Elizabeth, Keith and Rob are hopeful that the contractors can start work on the site sometime later in May.

Further information:
Creative Rural Communities is a regeneration and economic development initiative, led by the Vale of Glamorgan Council in partnership with various public, private and voluntary sector organisations.
Creative Rural Communities
The Old Hall, High Street, Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan CF71 7AH

Tidy Towns:

Free compost from kitchen waste (and how to obtain it in the Vale of Glamorgan):

Friday, 17 February 2012

Pieminister: Homity Pie

Homity Pie is a British open vegetable pie, made with potatoes, onions and cheese. It started life during World War II, when Land Girls working under rationing restrictions made pies from vegetables that were easily available in the fields. The word ‘homity’ was made up for the pie - probably a local expression relating to rationing.

The Pieminister recipe for Homity Pie - in Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon’s Pieminister: a pie for all seasons (2011; pp. 42-43) – comes via Crank’s, who they acknowledge as “veggie pioneers”. Following Crank’s revival of this pie, there are now several variations in recent cookbooks.

Wholemeal pastry is a feature of Homity Pie recipes (including Crank’s and Pieminster’s). Some recipes suggest that you can use readymade shortcrust pastry as an alternative, but I think some of the rustic charm of this pie would be lost without wholemeal. Pieminister start the recipe with the pastry, asking you to sift the flour into a bowl. With my sieve, all the wholemeal bits stayed in the sieve, while a fine brown flour went into the bowl. So I dumped all the wholesome bits into the bowl as well (I have it on good authority that sifting also lightens the flour, so I was not wasting my time). Butter, salt, grated parmesan and an egg yolk are also added. This wholemeal pastry handles well, especially after an hour in the fridge.

The unique feature of the Pieminister Homity Pie is the addition of sweet potato (instead of the more commonly used leeks). This is sort of G.I. Joe getting it on with the Land Girls or, as the Pieminister book says, added “hippity, dippity doo dah” jazz hands. When you first mix the bright orange sweet potato flesh into the pale potato, onion and crème fraiche mixture, it looks like a component from a different recipe. However, it soon begins to make sense.

The recipe calls for two sweet potatoes. I used two rather large sweet potatoes, and didn’t scrimp on the other ingredients either. Pieminister suggests this serves four. Well, for our family of four it did two dinners! This is a pie that can be served hot or cold, so it’s pretty versatile. Last night I served it warm (rather than hot) with a tomato salad, while tonight I’ll be serving it cold with a wider range of salad accompaniments.

The breadcrumb and cheese topping is the icing on the cake of a Homity Pie. I’m glad I got out my Ninja Express Chop (yes, another Christmas Present, just like the Pieminister book) to do the breadcrumbs properly. The chopped curly parsley in the filling also works well (other recipes specify different herbs or no herbs at all; although the canny Hairy Bikers also make their Homity Pie with parsley).

The Pieminister Homity Pie is a particularly rich take on the Homity Pie. There’s a lot of butter involved, for a start. It also takes a bit of time to construct, but is definitely worth the effort. It’s comfort food at its best.

Other Homity Pie recipes stress the easy, quick and cheap possibilities of Homity Pie. The River Cottage recipe, for example, stresses these virtues and notes that any leftover vegetables can be incorporated – in the spirit of the original Land Girl philosophy. The pie also freezes well.

Another distinctive touch occurs in the Elm Tree Foods recipe, where dried capers are added with the cheese. Some Homity Pie recipes suggest you can add meat, in particular, bacon. I am not sure you still have Homity Pie if you add meat (remember those Land Girls, vegetables and rationing). I think this is a pie that should stay veggie.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 14 and some conclusions

On the last day (Day 14) of my Change4Life Supermeals Challenge I cooked fabulous fish pie. I have been cooking all the recipes in the Change4Life Supermeals booklet, which is part of a Welsh Government initiative to help people prepare quick, easy and healthy meals on a limited budget.

Before my concluding thoughts, there’s the fish pie (recipe below) to consider. The recipe specifies a piece of Coley as the fish content. If money is very tight this would do, but I feel a mixture of white and oily fish is needed to make a fish pie worth the effort. Luckily, the tip for this recipe suggests you look out for fish pie mix from the fresh fish counter, which is cheap to buy. My fish pie mix came from Ashton’s fishmongers in Cardiff’s indoor market, and contained some salmon, tuna and at least three types of white fish.

I must admit I did break out the butter (for the first time during this challenge!) for the white sauce (rather than use low-fat spread), and also included a few halved hard-boiled eggs that happened to be in the fridge. We all enjoyed this one.

With the fairly large square pie dish I used, the potato amount specified was just enough to cover the fish mix, and I would usually add a bit more mash than this to make a thicker top (it’s not the most expensive component after all).

All 14 of these recipes worked for us. We preferred some more than others, obviously, and there were comments about it getting a bit samey, which was partly due to the sequence in the book (which I worked through in order).

One feature of all the recipes is that the children (aged 8 and 15) left empty plates. This is a result. In fact, the recipes are easy enough for this to also be a good recipe book to give to an older child to get them started on cooking. They could learn something about healthy food along the way.

None of the recipes lists salt as an ingredient. There should be enough salt in the food already, argues the booklet. I was surprised that I did not think any of the 14 recipes needed extra salt, and this will probably make me think more careful about the use of salt in dishes.

None of the recipes calls for sugar to be added. Only in one case - the sweet and sour sauce - did I miss any additional sweet component. I liked the way fruit was used, for flavouring and as a natural sweetness, for example, apples in the pork dish and the vegetable curry. This could have been taken further as a tip (e.g., dried apricots, pears, oranges).

We have a relatively low-fat diet normally, and therefore had no problems with the low-fat ingredients and lack of fatty foods. If I had done this challenge during the summer I am sure I would have noticeably lost weight, but the intense cold during the past fortnight had me reaching for the cake tin between meals. So, no discernible loss in weight!

Some of the recipes also lacked a bit of spice for me, but that was easily remedied, for instance, with a bit of chilli.

The recipe book has helped us keep grocery costs down over the past fortnight. This is because we have stocked up on basics for these recipes (e.g., pasta, rice, tins of tomatoes, tomato puree, tins of butter/cannellini beans, stock cubes, carrots and other standard vegetables, and cheaper cuts of meat and fish). We have not bought the more expensive ingredients that push up the grocery bill.

We (2 adults and 2 children) have been keeping scores throughout the challenge, and I can now reveal that the most popular Change4Life Supermeal recipes are, in reverse order, [dramatic Masterchef-style pause here]:

5. quick pitta pizzas (Day 2)

4. sensational spaghetti bolognese (Day 11)

3. 10-min chicken noodle dinner (Day 3)

2. hearty vegetable soup (Day 8)

1. easy vegetable curry (Day 13)

The dishes loaded with the freshest vegetables came out on top in our case. It might be worth noting that the vegetables came from our local greengrocer and a vegetable box scheme, and were quality produce (though, in line with the recipes, not breaking the bank). In comparison, the meat used in these recipes was not top quality (for cost reasons). An alternative strategy therefore would be to have meat less often, but go for something of better quality (e.g., organic free range chicken).

The Change4Life Supermeals recipe booklet aims to help you plan quick, easy meals on a limited budget. I think the booklet succeeds in this aim. It would be particularly useful for people who suddenly, for whatever reason, find they have to shop and cook for a family (or just themselves) on a reduced income.

fabulous fish pie
The ingredients: 700g potatoes peeled and diced, 425ml 1% fat milk, 25g low-fat spread, 25g plain flour, 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional), 100g frozen peas, ground black pepper, 300g Coley fillet (thawed if frozen) skinned and in chunks, 25g reduced-fat mature cheese grated.

The method: Preheat oven. Boil potatoes, drain and mash with 2 tbsp milk. Use rest of milk, spread and flour into saucepan and bring to boil, stirring continuously, stir in parsley. Place chunks of fish in ovenproof dish, pour sauce over, then top with mashed potato and then cheese. Bake in oven 25-30 mins until top is brown. Serve with steamed or boiled broccoli.

319 kcals per portion.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 13

For the penultimate dish in my Change4Life Supermeals challenge, I am cooking easy vegetable curry. Change4Life is a Welsh Government health-promotion initiative. Their Supermeals recipe book aims to help people plan quick evening meals on a limited budget.

I left the tofu out of this recipe (see below), but added more fresh vegetables. In fact, I added the whole cauliflower. I also added some broccoli that was left-over from a previous recipe in the booklet.

The tip offered for this recipe is to use any of your favourite vegetables, for example, peppers, mushrooms, courgettes. A curry like this is a great way of using whatever vegetables you have in the fridge or vegetable rack.

This was a substantial and very tasty meal (kids portion photographed). It scored highly with the whole family. I’ll tell you our favourite Change4Life Supermeals tomorrow, when I report on the last recipe – a fish pie.

easy vegetable curry
The ingredients: 2 tsp vegetable oil, 1 large onion chopped, 1 eating apple cored and chopped, 1 garlic clove crushed, 2 tbsp Balti curry paste, 2 sliced carrots, 400g tin chopped tomatoes, 150g cauliflower or broccoli broken into florets, 200g tin chickpeas drained, 160g marinated tofu pieces, 300ml reduced-salt vegetable stock, 200g brown (or white) long grain rice, 50g frozen peas, ground black pepper.

The method: Fry onion, apple and garlic. Stir in curry paste. Add carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower/broccoli, chickpeas, tofu, peas and stock. Simmer, partially covered 30 mins, adding extra liquid if necessary. Cook rice.

453 kcals per portion.

For further information from Change4Life:

Friday, 10 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 12

It’s Day 12 of my Supermeals Challenge. I have been trying out all 14 recipes in the Change4Life Supermeals health-promotion booklet. All the recipes are quick, easy and can be made for around £1.25 a head. On the menu today: sweet and sour chicken.

A quick glance down the ingredients (see below) tells you that this isn’t strictly sweet and sour chicken, which would necessarily include vinegar. However, it is a very pleasant chicken stir fry, with a good range of textures. I liked how fresh-tasting it was, with the wedges of tomatoes and pepper working to good effect with the pineapple.

I used basmati rice (mainly because I bought a massive catering bag for £4 recently); the smell when you first open a big bag of basmati is not for everyone, but it’s definitely my rice of choice for dishes like this. I also added a combination of red and yellow pepper chunks. This is a colourful dish and you feel good just looking at it.

The tip in the Change4Life booklet suggests you could try making this recipe with turkey or lean pork instead of chicken. The emphasis is on reducing your fat intake.

The whole family enjoyed this healthy stir-fry dinner. I’m going to try the recipe again, although I will probably turn it into a tangy sweet and sour with the addition of cider vinegar, soft brown sugar, and a bit of powdered ginger in the sauce.

sweet and sour chicken
The ingredients: 150g long grain brown or white rice, 227g tinned pineapple rings in natural juice, 1 tbsp cornflour, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 1 tbsp reduced-fat soy sauce, 2 tsp vegetable oil, 300g chunks of skinless chicken, 1 thinly sliced onion, 1 red or yellow pepper chopped, 3 sliced celery sticks, 2 tomatoes sliced into wedges, ground pepper.

The method: Boil rice. Cut pineapple into chunks, mix juice from tin with cornflour and stir in tomato puree and soy sauce. Heat oil in wok or large frying pan, add chicken and stir fry. After 4 mins add onion, pepper and celery. After 4 mins add tomatoes and pineapple. Add stirred pineapple juice mixture, stirring until it goes thick and hot. Season with pepper, and serve over drained rice.
295 kcals per portion.

For further information from Change4Life:

A Supermeals poster identifying the excuses people find for not adopting a healthier diet: http://blog.workingwordpr.com/what%E2%80%99s-your-excuse-for-not-eating-healthily

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 11

It’s taken eleven days to get to the sensational spaghetti bolognese on my Change4Life Supermeals Challenge. This is one that most people would have predicted to be among the 14 recipes, being such a popular pasta dish.

The Change4Life booklet provides a good, quick-and-easy, and health-conscious Spaghetti Bolognese recipe (see below). Everyone really enjoyed this one, which I served with a grated hard cheese and a tomato salad.

My main suggestion is that you could replace the courgette with celery, which is a more typical Bolognese ingredient. I added a chopped stick of celery (from a plentiful supply in the fridge). The courgette went in too, although I felt it worked against the richness I seek in a spaghetti sauce.

The recipe suggests a cooking time of 20 minutes, but if you have time it might benefit from a little longer. I tend to cook two versions of Spaghetti Bolognese: one along these quick, easy and inexpensive lines, and a more luxurious version using pancetta, wine and nutmeg that I let simmer for a couple of hours to enhance the texture and the blending of flavours (see link below).

The 300g of spaghetti in the recipe is exactly equivalent to a 4 person serving, according to our free Vale of Glamorgan spaghetti measure (3 + 1 through the holes).

The recipe offers as a tip (Italian food purists look away now) that you can use any pasta shapes you like and swap any of the vegetables for your favourites.

sensational spaghetti bolognese (lower case from the recipe book by the way).

The ingredients: 300g lean minced beef, 1 large onion chopped, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 400g tin tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 2 tsp dried mixed herbs, 1 red pepper chopped, 200g mushrooms, 1 medium carrot finely chopped, 1 medium courgette chopped, 150ml reduced-salt stock, 300g dried spaghetti, ground black pepper.

The method: brown mince and add onion. After a few minutes stirring, add the rest of the ingredients (except spaghetti), boil and simmer 10 mins. Cook spaghetti and serve with the sauce.

431 kcals per portion.


You only have one day left (Friday 10 February 2012) to register if you want a free Supermeals booklet.

Other ways of approaching spaghetti Bolognese:

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 10

I am on Day 10 of my Supermeals Challenge, in which I’m cooking all 14 recipes in the new Change4Life recipe booklet. Most of the dishes have been cooked for evening meals, but I prepared the haddock with cheese and tomato topping for lunch (recipe below).

I used smoked haddock for this recipe, and served it with a bit of salad (including grapes) and buttered bread. I’ll be doing this one again.

The booklet passes on the advice that fish should be eaten twice a week. There’s a fish pie to come.

I like smoked and oily fish for lunch. Typical quick, easy, and omega-3-rich lunches for me include grilled kippers with bread and butter, and a tin of pilchards heated and served on toast. I always have a dollop of horseradish sauce with my oily fish at lunchtime, because I like the combination and it stops the fish repeating all afternoon!

The Change4Life Supermeals booklet offers some lunch tips: Why not eat leftovers from your evening meal as a lunch the following day? When making packed lunches use wholemeal, seeded or granary bread as healthier sandwich choices. When eating out look at the calories information on the menu and choose lower calorie options.

haddock with cheese and tomato topping
The ingredients: vegetable oil, haddock fillets, tomato paste, thinly sliced tomatoes, ground pepper, grated reduced-fat hard cheese.

The method: preheat grill and grease baking sheet. Arrange fish fillets on sheet. Spread on tomato puree. Top with tomatoes and ground pepper, and grated cheese. Grill 6-8 mins (until fish is flaky). Serve with green vegetables and rice or boiled potatoes.

172 kcals per portion.


You still have a few days to register with Change4Life online, before Friday 10 February, to get your own free bilingual Supermeals booklet.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 9

On Day 9 of my Supermeals Challenge, I cooked the sausage and bean stew.

This recipe (below) was quick, easy and inexpensive to make; in line with the aims of this Change4Life health-promotion campaign. The result was a nutritious and satisfying meal.

I used a tin of tomatoes rather than the passata. When I added the potatoes (and they were large medium-sized ones) the mixture needed more liquid, so I added a splash of stock (made from the chicken carcass from the sunday roast for use in tomorrow’s dish). I used cannellini rather than the butter beans, thinking the smaller beans would work best in this dish.

I served the stew with plenty of freshly-made crusty bread (from our breadmaker).

The meals in the Change4Life booklet have a similar feel to them, as they use a lot of the same ingredients (e.g., tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, onions, stock) and are low on spice. However, once you’ve done them the way the book suggests, they could be repeatedly cooked with slight variations to prevent them becoming too monotonous.

To spice the sausage and bean stew, for instance, you could do a variation with spicy chorizo sausage (fry thin slices with the onions). I like adding bay leaves when I cook dishes like this – cheap if you have a bay tree in the garden or in a large pot outside. Substituting mint for the basil would give the dish a whole different complexion. Indeed, the booklet’s tip for this recipe is to try adding chopped courgettes or other vegetables with the potato (and thereby getting more of your 5 a day). Get creative!

sausage and bean stew
The ingredients: 2 reduced-fat sausages, 2 tsp olive oil, 1 large onion, 2 cloves garlic, 400g passata or a 400g tin chopped tomatoes, 410g tin of cannellini beans or butter beans, 2 medium potatoes (peeled and cut into small cubes), 2 tsp dried basil or mixed herbs, ground black pepper.

The method: preheat grill and grill sausages. Heat olive oil and fry onion and garlic. Add passata/tomatoes, beans, potatoes and herbs. Simmer 20 mins. Slice sausages and add.

229 kcals per portion.


You still have time to register with Change4Life online, before this Friday (10 February), to get a copy of the Supermeals booklet. The booklet is bilingual (English and Welsh).

Monday, 6 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 8

Over the weekend I cooked two more recipes from the Change4Life Supermeals recipe booklet. These are recipes for quick, easy, inexpensive and healthy meals; I'm trying out all 14 of them. On Saturday lunchtime I cooked hearty vegetable soup and, on Sunday, the sunday roast.

I can heartily recommend the vegetable soup. It’s a recipe I will be using again. With a good combination of chopped fresh vegetables and a well-judged amount of pasta, it’s far superior to the usual standby of tinned soup.

The tip in the booklet for this recipe is that extra soup keeps in the fridge 3 days or can be frozen for 3 months. We had no left-overs.

I have been noting the calories per portion (from the recipe book) at the bottom of each recipe. This soup supplies 100 kcals a portion (compared to 2500 kcals recommended per day for a man or 2000 kcal for a woman). We had it for lunch, with seconds. It kept the cold at bay during an afternoon at the soccer.

All the recipes in the Change4Life Supermeals booklet have low calorie counts, so (if you’re not eating too much between meals) these recipes would be useful if you’re on a diet. I think I am losing weight (I’ll have the data at the end of the challenge – don't expect Supersize Me!); although I am also taking an alcohol break for a few weeks, so that will also be a factor.

We cooked the sunday roast in a similar manner to the recipe book. This is very like how we usually do our family Sunday roast (although we would usually have Yorkshire Puddings).

Roast chicken can be fed into other recipes for a couple of days, such as the chicken noodle dinner I cooked on Day 3 of this challenge.

hearty vegetable soup
The ingredients: 1 tsp vegetable oil, 1 chopped onion, 2 small chopped carrots, sliced leek, 2 sliced celery sticks, 400g tin tomatoes, 1 litre vegetable stock, 1 tbsp tomato puree, 50g sliced green beans, 50g frozen peas, 40g dried pasta shapes, 1 tsp dried mixed herbs, ground pepper.

The method: heat oil and fry onion, carrot, leek and celery for 4 mins. Add tomato, tomato puree, stock, beans and frozen peas. Bring to the boil and add pasta, herbs and pepper. Simmer 15 mins or until pasta is cooked.


Register with Change4Life online before this Friday (10 February) and you can get your own free Supermeals booklet.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 6

I am cooking all 14 recipes in the Change4Life Supermeals booklet, which promotes healthy eating through quick, easy and inexpensive family meals. The sixth recipe in my challenge is pork with apples and celery.

This is very like a meal I often cook, although I would normally use a can of cider, rather than a stock and apple juice mixture, and mix in some Dijon mustard as an ingredient. However, I cooked the recipe as given (below), and it was very good. Pork with apple, sage, onion and celery is a great combination.

I served it with the mashed potatoes, as in the recipe, along with some seasonal purple-sprouting broccoli.

Additional vegetables could accompany a number of the recipes in the Supermeals booklet, if you want to ensure you get your 5 a day. Fresh fruit and vegetables are available at wholesale prices from around 300 Community Food Coops that operate on a weekly basis across Wales: http://www.ruralregeneration.org.uk/

pork with apples and celery
The ingredients: 750g potatoes (cooked and mashed), 2 tsp vegetable oil, 1 red apple (cored and sliced), ½ tsp caster sugar, 400g lean pork fillet (sliced), 2 tbsp sage, 1 onion (thinly sliced), 2 celery sticks (sliced), 150ml reduced salt chicken or vegetable stock, 150ml apple juice, ground black pepper, 4 tbsp semi-skimmed milk.

The method: roll pieces of pork in sage, fry in oil. After 3 mins add onions and celery, after 10-15 mins add apple juice and stock and simmer. Add pepper. Fry apple with sprinkling of sugar. Serve pork with the apple and the mash (total cooking time approx. 25 mins).

One portion supplies 327 kcals.


Register with Change4Life online before Friday 10 February and you can get your own free Supermeals booklet.

Day 1 (Introduction/tasty tuna and sweetcorn pasta)

Friday, 3 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 5

I cooked the best chilli con carne on Day 5 of my Change4Life Supermeals Challenge. Change4Life is a movement that’s aiming to help families eat better, move more and live longer. Their Supermeals booklet features 14 quick, easy and healthy recipes that can be prepared for around £1.25 a head.

The 'the best chilli con carne' recipe has rather an extensive list of ingredients (see below) compared to others in the booklet, and is not too far from how I normally cook a chilli con carne. I did add one extra ingredient: a chopped green chilli pepper. I served bowls of chilli with tortilla chips.

My tip for chilli peppers: pick them up when you see them reduced in price and put them in the freezer (where we always keep a supply) - they take up little room and thaw quickly. We also grow chilli pepper plants in pots on a windowsill during the summer, which look pretty and yield a good crop that can also be frozen.

Other home-grown ingredients I used in this dish: tomatoes (boiled down during the summer glut and frozen in tin-equivalent amounts in reused Chinese take-away containers) and the garlic.

The main way my chilli differs from today's recipe is that I prefer a drier crumblier texture and don't add stock. For me, there's too much stock added here (I usually find there’s enough liquid with the tomatoes). So, if you also like a drier chilli con carne, cut down on the stock. I also cook mine for a little longer and get a richer sauce; although the point of the Supermeals recipes, of course, are they're quick, easy and cheap.
This Chilli Con Carne tasted good and got the thumbs up (the family is scoring each of the 14 meals out of ten and I’ll let you know our favourite at the end of the challenge). The kids are enjoying these meals.

Nine out of ten kids risk growing up with dangerous levels of fat in their bodies, according to Change4Life. This can cause life-threatening diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Change4Life produce a free Action Plan for kids:

the best chilli con carne
The ingredients: 300g extra lean minced beef, 1 large onion (finely chopped), 2 garlic cloves (finely chopped), 400g tin tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 1-2 tsp chilli powder, half-tsp ground cumin, 1 red pepper (deseeded and chopped), 150g mushrooms, 410g tin kidney beans, 150ml reduced-salt vegetable or beef stock, 300g dried basmati or long-grain rice, ground black pepper.

The method: Brown mince. Add onion and garlic. Add chopped tomatoes, puree, spices, pepper, mushrooms, kidney beans and stock. Boil and simmer gently (20 mins). Cook rice.

The booklet notes that this recipe supplies you with 488 kcals a portion.


Register with Change4Life online before Friday 10 February and you can get your own free Supermeals booklet.

Day 1

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Change4Life Supermeals Challenge Day 4

You can eat healthily on a low budget. That is the message behind the Change4Life Supermeals booklet, published as part of a Welsh Government public health initiative. I have arrived at Day 4 of my challenge to try out all 14 recipes in the booklet. It’s time for perfect pasta with tomato sauce.

I must say that pasta has probably come around again a little too quickly for our liking (although, as we discovered yesterday, the booklet is not designed as a day-to-day eating programme). However, if money was really tight, then I would probably go down the pasta route and we would be eating more pasta meals.

The recipe as written in the booklet (see below) is a basic pasta sauce, and if you were cooking this repeatedly you may want to vary it a little each time. For example, you could go to town on the fresh herbs to garnish or add an unusual seasonal ingredient. In February, fresh herbs in the garden are a little scarce (although I did harvest some potted oregano for this), so I went for the latter choice.

I added a dozen roasted chestnuts to this meal. With a slit cut in each, they were roasted in the oven for 20 minutes, shelled and halved, and added to the tomato sauce. These chestnuts were cheap, due to a shop clearing out seasonal food products. Chestnuts are more versatile than generally realised, being energy-rich and nutritious, and should not just be reserved to accompany sprouts for Christmas dinner. They work well to enrich a tomato sauce.

I served the pasta with a lettuce and tomato salad (with optional balsamic vinegar dressing).

A noticeable feature of this and all the recipes in the Change4 Life Supermeals booklet is the lack of salt added to the dishes, and the inclusion of reduced-salt ingredients (e.g., stock, soy sauce, gravy granules). This can appear almost excessive at times, but it does get the message across that you may be using too much salt when you cook at home. Excessive salt is not good for you. Raised blood pressure is just one of the undesirable outcomes.

In a panel within the booklet - Keep an eye on salt - we learn that three-quarter of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy, so you might be adding more salt than you realise. Change4Life suggest comparing the labels on different foods to help you choose those that are lower in salt. So far, I have not felt the salt missing from these dishes.

perfect pasta with tomato sauce
The ingredients: 1 tsp oil, 1 onion finely chopped, 1 garlic clove finely chopped, 400g tin tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 2 tsp dried mixed herbs, black pepper, 350g dried spaghetti, fresh basil or chopped herbs to garnish.

The method: Fry onion and garlic. Add tomatoes, tomato puree, herbs and pepper. Simmer 15 minutes until thick. Cook spaghetti and drain, serving with sauce and fresh herbs to garnish.

The perfect pasta with tomato sauce should contain around 343 kcals a portion (if you follow the booklet recipe – more if you start adding things like chestnuts).


Register with Change4Life online before Friday 10 February and you can get your own free Supermeals booklet.
Day 1 (Introduction)

Day 2 (Pitta Pizzas)

Day 3 (10-min chicken noodle dinner)