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Reducing meat in your diet

If you want to cut down the amount of meat in your diet, follow these handy tips

When I wrote my new book, Make Do & Cook, (you can buy it here for £9.99 plus postage), one of the things I wanted to focus on was stretching meat.

Meat is greatly beloved of the average Brit - only something like 2 per cent of the population is fully vegetarian - but Brits also tend to eat way too much of it.

Meat in moderation is a good thing in the diet - it gives you essential fatty acids, iron and a boatload of vitamins, but it's also the major source of saturated fat in the diet (around 45 per cent of ALL fat in our diet comes from meat) and an excess of this is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke. 

Meat is also expensive when compared with similar sources of protein such as pulses (you can easily feed a family of six on a 99p pack of chickpeas, for instance), and it has a serious impact on the planet, with much good agricultural land put to beef production that could be better used for cereal production.

If you don't want to give up meat altogether but would like to reduce it, there are easy ways to cut it down fairly painlessly.

* When making something like a stir-fry, risotto or pasta, dice the meat and cook it separately, then scatter the dice over the top of the dish. This fools the eye (and the average carnivore) into thinking they're getting more meat than they actually are. The separate meat is usually best fried with garlic, onions and some herbs or spices for flavouring - don't just cook it on its own. 

* In stews and slow-cooked dishes such as chilli or boeuf bourginon, substitute a percentage of the meat with chickpeas or kidney beans (tinned, if you're not up to the routine of soaking and boiling them). Start out gradually by substituting a quarter, then a third, then half. Chickpeas and kidney beans have a satisfying 'meaty' texture and will soak up the flavour of the meat. NB: if you're not used to eating pulses, it is very important to go gradually or you'll get terrible flatulence. This is something that disappears as your digestive system begins to produce the necessary enzymes to break down the pulses, but it puts many people off pulses at first if they're not used to it.

* Use a small quantity of very flavoursome meat such as smoked chicken or bacon bits rather than larger amounts of blander meats to flavour a dish - one classic recipe I've included in my book is poulet fumé aux lentilles, where the basic dish of lentils, carrots and onions is flavoured by smoked chicken. 

* Use large quantities of herbs, spices, onions and garlic to build flavour in dishes rather than relying on meat. For instance, a pasta sauce tastes just as good when made from lots of onions, garlic, tomatoes, a dash of cayenne and a teaspoon of muscovado sugar as it does when it includes beef. 

* Eat from smaller plates, place the meat in the centre and pile up the vegetables and starch components of a meal around it. Brits were traditionally taught to think in thirds: one third meat, one third veg, one third starch, but meat should really be no more than a quarter of the dish and if you arrange your food in the traditional way, the lack is noticeable. 

* Eat vegetarian one day a week and build up to two days if you can. We usually have a veggie meal on a Wednesday, with two other days being set aside for fish, and I might try to sneak another veggie meal past the DH later in the week too. But Sunday is often a blow-out roast to make up for it.

Make Do & Cook by Patricia Mansfield-Devine is available now as a paperback for £9.99.

Or choose one of the e-book editions, available for all popular platforms including the Kindle, Sony Reader and (soon) the Apple iPad, with prices starting at $9.99.

» Find out more at WebVivant Press »



Store cupboard standbys

Trust me to invite people over when we haven't done the shopping this week.

We've got friends over for dinner tonight. What am I? A masochist?

Periodically at Montcocher, we decide to have an 'eat the store cupboard' week. This is a week when we try not to buy anything at all from the supermarket but instead clear out the fridge, freezer and store cupboard. Very sensible, then, to decide to have new friends over for the very first time at the end of such a week, when we're practically down to dog biscuits and mustard. 

It's not as if the house isn't also looking like a pile of shite, after a long winter of woodburning. There is dog mud right round the sofa and cat mud on every bleeding surface (we had a major storm last night and the cats have trodden it in everywhere). So why do I add to my woes by having to whip up a three-course meal from stuff we just happen to have in?

Still, necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and I'm quite pleased with the menu I've managed to cobble together for tonight. 

* Vodka-tonics or a red pineau (all we've got in - all the Xmas booze is gone, most of it courtesy of just one of our guests). 

* Starter: meli-melo of lardons, roquefort, dates, cornichons, salad, chutney, celeri remoulade and crab apple jelly in a chilli dressing. This is a sure sign that we've run out of crisps. Also ham, smoked salmon, prawn crackers...

* Main course: Thai coconut chicken and chickpeas, marinated in garlic, black pepper and olive oil, with turmeric, nuoc nam and cinnamon. Fried rice with red pepper and onion. Steamed green beans. Frankly, it's either that or spuds. Or the dead rabbit that's in the freezer and which I don't have time to defrost. Or pasta. Mostly, pasta. I can stretch the two fillets of chicken to four of us by using masses of chickpeas. 

* Dessert: red wine and vodka syllabub with cinnamon almond praline topping and lavender shortbread. Syllabub, along with sack posset, is becoming my go-to dessert these days, working on the dictum that even if the rest of the meal's shite, a good dessert is all people will remember.

Actually, I think more people would make syllabubs if they knew just how easy they are - you just whip together generous quantities of cream, sugar and alcohol until it goes fluffy, spoon it into a glass, stick something in it like a cinnamon stick, a twist of lemon or a bay leaf (today it's bayleaves on account of, I've GOT bayleaves) and leave it in a cool place overnight. The sugary creamy topping separates from the liquid base, and I'm serving it in some purple glasses that look kinda pretty.

I didn't have any sherry, madeira or port to make it with, so I just used red wine and extra sugar, then added a bit of vodka. I also didn't have quite enough cream to fill up the glasses, so I made some almond praline this morning to top them off, and I made the shortbread after lunch today - they all went very flat, so they're more like biscotti really, which is probably better. 

* Coffee with pistachio halva. I knew that halva would come in handy at some point. I always buy it when Lidl gets it in, as it's the only sweet thing the DH doesn't like enough to raid the cupboard. Halva, like fruit cheese, lends a slight touch of exoticism to coffee, though - and it's been one of my standbys since I was a student. 

Right, only hoovering, floor washing, dusting and cleaning the loo to do before they get here...




Time were 'ard

Seventy years ago, Britain introduced food rationing and for the first time, everyone had enough to eat.

Woolton pieYesterday was the anniversary of the introduction of food rationing in the UK, and what a shock to find that Marguerite Patten, doyenne of cookery writers, is still alive and kicking. I've got a couple of her cookery books.

My parents both served in the war, but for those in civilian life, food rationing is one of the things they remember with the least fondness. Bad enough having bombs dropped on you, your kids sent away for safety, your spouse training in some army camp, without food itself being difficult to obtain. 

Well, that's the received opinion, but in my family, it's taken with a pinch of salt. One reason that food rationing was introduced, let us remember, was that when the general mobilisation took place, so many men were found to be unfit for service due to malnutrition.

The pale, spavined, rickety product of a 10-year economic depression - a time when many people suffered from anaemia due to lack of meat, there was no NHS so ailments went untreated, and most people did grinding manual labour - came as a shock to the authorities.

They instantly instituted a rationing programme to bring Britain UP to standard, as well as prevent waste and food hoarding. For my family, as for many other working families, they had never eaten so WELL.

Certainly the diet was boring. Without our massive empire to exploit, Britons suddenly had to grow our own food instead of nicking it from people we'd conquered, and we'd halfway forgotten how to do it. We learned quickly, though, and God bless the Ministry of Food's efficiency in ensuring its fair distribution and that the population didn't starve to death.

I searched online for articles about the subject yesterday and found a few of those gosh-wow-how-DID-they-manage-without-microwaves? type features so beloved of the tabloids as if we all slept on swansdown. In this kind of feature, people follow the wartime diet for a week, suffer the ghastly pangs of Diet Coke withdrawal and end by wondering how on earth people coped without mooli and garangal.

Well, they didn't all live on powdered egg and Spam, I tell you what. A lot of them did what my family did: they poached, they kept chickens on any spare bit of ground, or a pig out the back; they planted potatoes; they learned to stretch meat; they grew their own herbs, they made bread pudding and Poor Knights of Windsor. In fact, that's how I grew up too, in the 60s and 70s, eating pheasant full of buckshot, jugged hare poached by my dad's workmates and fish caught by the local Jehovah's Witnesses (don't ask me why - they had their own boat).

One writer, eating a Woolton pie (a kind of shepherd's pie with root veg instead of meat, shown at top left) proclaimed it as tasting like cheesy slime. No it bloody doesn't. A properly cooked Woolton pie is really tasty, but you have to know how to cook, not just take the top off an M&S ready meal. Ye gods. Have Britons really turned into such a bunch of wimps? Two rashers of bacon a week? A bar of chocolate a week? That's all we eat in this house to this day. 

Oh well, enough rant. It seems a far cry from then to Good New Days of today, when we chuck a third of our food in bins and leave it to rot.  So much cleverer than our ancestors, drowning in a sea of our own plenty...


The reluctant veggie

If you can't face the idea of full-time vegetarianism, think about being a veggie mid-week

If you do even the most cursory study into what you, personally, can do to save the planet and benefit your health at the same time, it becomes uncomfortably apparent that you should probably give up meat.

All in all, meat is a pretty bad idea. Animal fats are the biggest cause of coronary heart disease in the west. Cows and pigs bred for meat use up a huge amount of land that could be put to agricultural use. Obtaining meat involves slaughtering the animal, to its inevitable suffering. Acres of Brazilian rainforest are lost every day in order to put land to meat production - mainly for populations that are already obese. 

Well, we all know the math. 

The problem for the average Brit is that our whole cuisine is founded on meat. And most of us enjoy meat. There is something about getting your gnashers round a nice juicy steak that a carrot burger just can't match. But at the same time, most of us don't relish the idea of the animal suffering so that we can eat it. So we do that fancy mental two-step that enables us to carry on doing something we know at heart is morally reprehensible.

Our Christian heritage is also a problem. Unlike some other religions, there has never been a moral imperative in Christianity to avoid meat in the modern era. Fish on Fridays is an idea long-gone, and for many centuries, access to meat for many people was so rare in any case that choosing to avoid it was not an issue. People ate meat whenever they could get their hands on it.

That situation is markedly different in other parts of the world. Jains in India, for instance, abstain from all meat and fish on the principles of non-violence. They also don't eat eggs; honey; any vegetable that 'bleeds' like blood when it's cut; root vegetables, in case insects are killed when they're harvested; or after sunset - in case insects are fatally drawn to the lamplight. One way or another, I sometimes wonder what Jains actually have left to live on. 

However, the rich tradition of vegetarianism that results from these strictures, and is found elsewhere in the East, particularly wherever there is a Buddhist tradition, results in a fabulous vegetarian cuisine - something we lack in the west. Eating veggie meals becomes positively enticing when a big Thali is laid out before you.

I would therefore advise anyone who wants to cut down their meat consumption to look to other cuisines for vegetarian inspiration, especially Indian. And if not Indian, then Mexican, or Spanish, or French, or Italian - all of these traditions have excellent veggie meals, such as pizza, ratatouille, chilli, guacamole etc, which are eaten simply as part of the cuisine, not as poor substitutes for meat-based meals, as so much British vegetarian cuisine seems to be. 

You could start by having one veggie day a week. In this house, it's usually Wednesday - the mid-week meal - and we'll generally have something like a ratatouille or a non-meat chilli, or a chickpea curry.

Even if you never progress further than this and remain a meat-eater the rest of the week, you have just dramatically reduced your carbon footprint - and that's something worth aiming for.


A slightly grumpy Christmas?

Now that I've got the Christmas spirit in, perhaps I can get more into the Christmas spirit

Since I have five minutes to spare, thought I'd settle down for a pre-Christmas blog.

Most of us are having a bit of trouble getting in the festive mood, however. All over this area, people's heating systems have been breaking down. One friend has no kitchen heat while another has no hot water either.

Back in Blighty, my sister's new electric fire has finally arrived, after many delays, and the packaging has shifted and she can't get it open to install it. No snuggling round the woodburner for her, then, but rather a chilly Christmas, as she has no radiator in the room where this stove is supposed to go. Nor does she now think she will be able to make her trip to Germany after Christmas, as planned.

The Christmas parcel she sent me (one of three) arrived damaged and with some of the contents missing. No sign of the other two parcels, and this is the second damaged package in two days (when the post resumed). Since my sister wraps things tighter than Fort Knox, I am a tad surprised, but must assume that French Customs or someone enjoyed my tasty Christmas present of traditional English sweets from the covered market in Doncaster. 

Having been snowed in, here in rural France, for the past week, we are also feeling a tad fed-up with it now. In normal circumstances, I wouldn't mind, but being unable to walk very much, following multiple small surgeries, having infected stitches that needed removal urgently, all of my cats being ill with a virus and not being able to get any antibiotics, etc, the timing might have been better.

We have pulled one cat through the worst of her illness, we hope, but another now has an infected eye and there's no way we can get him the 23km to the vet in this snow and fog. We have antibiotic drops for him, and will have to hope for the best until hopefully the snow thaws tomorrow or the next day. 

The Black and White party that we planned for the 18th, for about 40 people, had to be cancelled because of the snow. We rescheduled it for the 20th and had to cancel again because of the ice - 16 people, including us, couldn't get out of their courtyards. We've now rescheduled for the 28th and just have to hope that the weather will break enough for people to get here. If not, we will officially call it quits and try to do something in the spring. 

And meanwhile, I am starting a nice cough, which I am hoping against hope won't lead to my usual bout of winter bronchitis. 

Still, yesterday, in the brief hiatus between black ice and a new snowfall, and after four hours of laying down branches, sand, straw, bitumen felt and carpet (none of which worked), we did at least manage to get out of our courtyard and I was able to get to the doctor, so we also did our Christmas shop. Foie gras, brioche, smoked salmon, leg of lamb with trimmings, raspberry mousse log, chocolates and Bailey's might go some way towards cheering us up.

And provided we stay put and wrapped up warm, let us hope that now, all will be well!




Pigs on the table and pigs at the trough

The so-called 'recession' is really beginning to bite, and there's no clearer sign of it than my supermarket trolley

I did the second shop of the week yesterday, and frankly it was painful. Since we downshifted to France, money's always been tight - not allowing much leeway for clothes, or books or holidays etc, but at least we've always been able to eat well. Now, with work fast disappearing into the ether and the strong Euro making our UK earnings sink to a pittance, we're also being hit by the third whammy of food pricing.