Spices that make cheap cooking taste classy AND boost your health

I grew up in the north of England. Stew and dumplings. Meat and two veg. Bangers and mash. Beans on toast. I have to admit, I salivate just thinking about them. Thankfully, my mum is a classy lady and was always cooking up a storm, so she could turn a dull-as-dishwater meat and two veg into something really quite spectacular. Her secret weapons? Butter, cream and lard.

While my taste buds shall forever thank her, my gallbladder does not (and hers was sacrificed to the god of duck fat long ago). But she gave me a love of food and creating wonderful tastes. My secret weapon? Spices.

Apart from my dodgy gallbladder, I have also been broke and so my choice of amazing ingredients is somewhat reduced. Spices make a cheap cut of meat taste amazing. Spices lift a vegetarian dish from “rabbit food” to gourmet New York-hip-new-thing.

Some of my fave spices are Middle Eastern. It’s one of my favourite cuisines and is so thick with taste and variety. I came across a recipe that included a Moroccan Spice Blend. Instead of heading out to buy it, I googled what was in it and it turns out I had all the spices in my cupboard. 5 minutes later I gots me a jar of Moroccan spice blend and I’m good to go!

The thing I love about these most is all the health benefits of cooking with these. But first the recipe (slightly amended from the one I saw to account for my taste preferences):

Moroccan Spice Blend

  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3/4 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon allspice
  • 1/4 tablespoon ground cloves

You can use this as a meat rub or add it to lentil stews or whatever you fancy. Check this out though. Any of these spices has enormous health benefits.

  • Aid to digestion – Cumin, ginger, black pepper, cayenne, allspice
  • Anti inflammatory – ginger, cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves
  • Boost to the immune system – cumin
  • Source of iron – cumin
  • Heart health – ginger, salt, cinnamon
  • Aid to skin health – cumin, black pepper
  • Prevents/helps fight diabetes – cumin, black pepper, cinnamon
  • Protects brain function – cinnamon
  • Decreases blood pressure – coriander
  • Improves cholesterol levels – coriander
  • Boosts metabolism – cayenne

Please don’t take this as medical advice – it isn’t! This is me google-ating things as I use them more. The list above appears to be the general vibe of things on the interwebs. The main point here is that spices are good for you. They do things that our bodies clearly need them to do. Not only do they make my cooking taste more expensive than it actually is, it is making my body thank me.

I am gradually introducing all these flavours and blends to my kids. For me, cooking with spices adds so much depth and so much enjoyment to meals. I cooked with this Spice Blend tonight. It was so amazing I had to message My Mate Jessie to tell her that even the memory of eating it was making me happy.

Guess who’s coming round to dinner next? Because thats the point of food isn’t it? It’s to be enjoyed, and it’s to be shared.

Cafe style granola you can make at home

I’m a drama queen. I don’t have gallbladder issues, I have a gallbladder that practically exploded. Drastic measures required for dramatic times. When I google-ated what I should eat while in possession of a dodgy gallbladder, the main things were low fat and sugar and higher fibre content.

This helped to kick start my eat like a hippy regime (you see? I don’t change my diet, I eat like a medieval Tibetan monk). Fresh fruit and veg, brown rice, nuts and seeds and lentils n’stuff.

About the same time, My Mate Kathryn had given me a jar of her homemade granola as a gift. When I tried it my whole world changed. It was like my hippy-diet-heroin. Is that drama queen-y? No. I didn’t think so either.

Anyway, I stalked her until she gave me the recipe. I’ve eaten it with fruit and homemade yoghurt almost every day since. That’s not me being dramatic – that’s the actual truth.

I don’t know where she got the recipe, but here it is:

  • 6 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup whole meal flour
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • 2 cups mixed nuts
  • 1 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup linseeds
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 2 pinches salt

Mix all these dry ingredients together and then mix:

  • 2/3 cup coconut oil
  • 2/3 cup good quality maple syrup (the cheap stuff is too sugary and sickly)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
  • Splash almond essence (optional)

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and put it into an oven pan (the picture above is my mixture just before putting it in the oven). Put it in a pre-heated oven at 160oC for 60 minutes. Take it out and stir it through every 15 minutes.

Take it out and let it cool completely. Then add about a cup of dried fruit. It can be whatever you like, raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried dates – whatever takes your fancy.

This makes a good big batch and even eating every day, lasts me a while. Extra bonus – because of the cinnamon and maple syrup, when you’re cooking it, it makes the house smell like donuts.

You’re welcome.

Are your reusable shopping bags as good as you thought?

One of the easiest ways to reduce our footprint on the world is to reduce our reliance on single use plastic. Single use plastic is everywhere. There are 10 million shopping bags used every day and 85% of them end up in landfill.

The big shops were pretty smart. The green bag was born – you know the ones we always call “calico bags” that they sell for $1 at the checkout? Well they’re not calico, they are non-woven polypropylene. That’s plastic. They’re also made from virgin (ie non-recycled) material. For the amount of energy and water and so on that it takes to make them, you have to use them 104 times to make a difference to the environment (or every week for 2 years). If you you use them 52 or less times (ie use them for 1 year or less), their environmental impact is greater than a single use plastic bag.

But at least it’s keeping single use plastic bags from landfill right?

True. And these bags can be recycled (and note that if yours have come to the end of their life, they can be REDcycled at any Coles store) but they do have to be shipped overseas to do it. You know why? Because in Australia we pay half decent wages (comparative to the rest of the world. The green bag seams need to be unpicked before they can go through the recycling process and that is labour intensive – so they get shipped to countries where people get paid rubbish wages. Ethical dilemma? You bet.

Based on that, green bags are totally out for me.

I’m ashamed to say I learned all this after I bought polyester washable bags. They aren’t bad per se, but they aren’t nearly the best I could have chosen. Not by a long shot. What I can’t do though is throw all my polyester bags away and go and buy new and environmentally better bags. As with any bags you have, the point is to re-use them for as long as possible. Then, when you have to replace them, you can buy rPet bags (that’s bags made from recycled plastic bottles) or any organic natural fibres like jute or cotton.

All bag materials have an environmental footprint, there’s still lots of water etc needed to make cotton bags. The main thing is to buy as best you can, with their end point in mind. If they end up in the ground, how long will they be there and how much damage could they do? At least any reusable bag keeps single use from landfill (or our waterways!). But when they do end up in the ground, at least natural fibre bags will degrade.

The best thing we can do is stay informed – and then we can make better choices. Our world is amazing, and we can all do something to keep it that way. Hey, how amazing would it be if we left the world better than we found it???

I used a by-product and it made my mate want to vomit

I love the idea of using “every bit of the animal”. If your not familiar with that term (and there’s no reason you should be) it came from The Olden Days when animals were killed by proper hunters. As The Olden Days turned into A Bit More Modern Days, people killed animals for trophies, or just for the hides and bits they could sell, and left the rest. It was the epitome of wastage.

I used to waste a lot. I still do, but I’m getting better. I look at my fridge and my cupboards now in terms of using “every bit of the animal” – ie using everything I have and trying not to throw anything away unless I have to.

Anyway SO, yesterday I shared a recipe for making cottage cheese (you can jump to it on this link if you want to read it 🙂 ). When I first made it, I noticed just how much whey drains off the curds. Whey is basically protein-y cheese water and from a recipe of 950ml of milk, you get about 700ml of whey. That felt like an awful lot of by-product that (by my logic) surely must have a use.

It does. And it’s a doozy. One thing I changed as part of this journey was chemical shampoos. I started using a natural hair soap after a tip-off from My Mate Kathryn. (If you’re interested, I got the Beauty & the Bees Shampoo Bar from Biome Stores. My hair journey into chemical and waste free-ness is a whole other story!).

If you’re chemical free in the hair department (or even if you’re not I guess), every so often, you wanna do a bit of a conditioning hair rinse. Apple cider vinegar is popular but it can be expensive.

Guess what???? My cheese water by-product makes an excellent hair conditioning rinse!!!! Apple cider vinegar – $heaps exxy. Cheese water – free!!!

My Mate Nissa thought it was a disgusting idea. I made her smell my hair to prove it doesn’t make it smell cheesey. My Mate Laura who is also chemical free bartered some cheese water for some essential oil and now she bugs me every other week for some more.

There are other uses for the whey, of course. It’s great to add to cooking soups and stews, you can add it to smoothies and shakes (because it’s protein water!), it’s great nourishment for plants (but make sure it’s diluted or it will hurt them), you can feed it to chooks and pigs with their feed and you can make ricotta with it (I am totally trying this next if My Mate Laura leaves with enough).

The massively valuable thing though, is that apart from a totally useful product, it is teaching me to always question what I can do with something that is apparently “waste”. This whole process of discovery is gradually training me to look at the world with better eyes.

I highly recommend making the cottage cheese and then exploring some of your own uses. Don’t ask me for any. My Mate Laura seems to have dibs on m’cheese water for all eternity.

It’s true, you too can make cheese!

“Blessed are the cheese makers”. That’s what we all know and love from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (personal fave). I never realised I could actually do it though.

In simplifying my life, I wrote a list of all the things I use/eat the most of. Cottage cheese was near the top of the list with hummus. I google-ated it because, how hard can it be, right? It turns out, not hard at all.

You need some cheese cloth (I got a half meter at Spotlight for a couple of dollars) and a candy thermometer (sounds fancy – it’s not. Also Spotlight for a few dollars).

Outside of that, the ingredients list is pretty simple:

  • 950ml full fat milk
  • 4 drops of rennet or 2 junket tablets (I used junket because it’s easily available at Woolworths or Coles in the section where they have custard and jelly and stuff, $3 for 12 tablets in the packet).
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 teaspoons of milk or cream or a mix of both and more salt to taste.

Step 1 – put milk in a saucepan and heat to 80oC over a low heat (warning, that’s not very hot so it doesn’t take long). While it’s heating, dissolve 2 junket tabs in half a cup of water. They don’t dissolve immediately so keep stirring the mug til it’s done.

Step 2 – take the milk off the heat, add junket to the milk and stir for a couple of minutes.

Step 3 – put a tea towel over the pan and go and do something else for 4 hours. Read a book (I’m reading a book on how-to-do-parenting-better and then went and saw a friend. You can also do some laundry, but…whatever).

Step 4 – add the half teaspoon of salt and slice through the curds a bit to break them up.

Step 5 – put pan on a low-medium heat and stir to let the curds and whey separate. This is something that gets easier the more you do it – not that it’s hard but you want to let them separate so you can see the clumps of curds and the yellow-ish whey. If you take it off too soon, you won’t have as much curd for the cheese. If you leave it too long, the curds can get quite tough apparently. I am still working this out but you can see here what it looks like when I take it off the heat.

Step 6 – put a sieve over a jug and the cheese cloth on top. Pour the curds and whey into the cheese cloth as shown below (extra points for those who can spot the wine glass for…well….wine. That is an optional extra just for fun-sies for Mummy).

Step 7 – put the whole thing in the fridge with a cover over it (I fold the edges of the cheese cloth over it. It you can cover it with a beeswax sheet or a plate. Then go and do something else for an hour or so. This lets the rest of the whey drain away. It also lets you catch up on any important TV shows you’ve missed.

Step 8 – transfer the curds to a bowl. Add about 6 teaspoons of milk or cream to loosen it up. I am still experimenting with this. All cream is too much. All milk is too bland. I am currently at 2 teaspoons of cream and 4 of milk and a small pinch of salt.

Transfer to air tight container and eat within a week.

Store bought cottage cheese at least $3 for 250g. This makes about 350g for about $1.50 ($1 for the milk and 50c for 2 junket tabs). So cheaper, healthier (no mass processing and preservatives) AND you get to say that awesome line from Life of Brian. Happy days!