Overheard In The Salon – “You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Hair Salon NeopI had my hair cut last week.  This is only worthy of mention because it’s at best a bi-annual event for me.  Sitting there in your tinfoil bonnet, of course, there’s nothing to do except listen to the other customers and staff, or flick through weeks-old celebrity gossip magazines.  I chose the former.  Here’s the highlight of what I overheard, between two of the hairdressers during their tea break –

“So, they’ve said about processed food, you’re only supposed to eat one rasher of bacon a day”
“What? Bacon’s not processed food?”
“Yeah it is.  The bacon in the pack in your fridge, that’s processed food.  But if you get it from a butcher’s, it’s not.”
“You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Donner KebabIn the news that morning, the reports of a big impressive prospective mortality study involving analysis of participants’ consumption of processed meats.  It’s an odd category, that they’ve chosen – to include all cured and salted products, sausages, donner kebabs, but not all burgers.  Confusing enough that my hairdressers had a fairly poor grasp of the parameters, anyway.   Better perhaps if they’d restricted themselves to cured & smoked products, or gone wider and included all meat products that don’t arrive on the plate as recognisable pieces of whole muscle protein, without intervention beyond cooking.  For me, there are too many variables.

Cured meats contain salt in quite large quantities – of course they do, they’re salt-cured!  So does a bag of salt & vinegar crisps.  They will often contain nitrites – but then so does celery.  Mince-based processed meat products are generally higher in fat – they’re made from fattier cuts, and extra is often added as a bulking agent – but it’s perfectly possible to make a sausage from just minced pork shoulder, a bit of rusk or breadcrumb and some herbs and seasoning.  And it’s also perfectly possible to eat a very fatty, salty, meat-based meal that isn’t ‘processed’ in the slightest.

As with all giant lifestyle studies, the confounding factors are going to be enormous, too.  Do people who eat more processed meat eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, statistically speaking? Probably.  Are they heavier or lighter smokers or drinkers than the comparison population?  Attempts will have been made to correct for all of this, of course, but these are pretty blunt statistical instruments.

Mortality studies are always a problem for me.  I hate to break it to you, but your risk of mortality, my risk of mortality, the lifetime risk of mortality for everyone (and everything) currently alive on this planet, is 100%.  So you start looking at timeframe-mortality risks.  1 year.  5 year.  20 year.  The main risk factor for timeframe mortality?  Age, obviously – if you’re 80 going into a 20 year mortality study, things aren’t looking so good for you coming out the other side.  Then genetics – the intrinsic, inherited factors in your biology over which you have no control.  Then, I suppose, occupation and activities – if you’re a commercial deep diver, an alaskan crab fisherman, or like to race motorbikes or fly small aircraft, then these are going to have some effect.  A very very *very* long way down the list is what you had for breakfast!

Processed meat selectionMy hairdressers are right, though, about supermarket franken-bacon.  Give me proper dry-cured smoke-smoked bacon or ham any day, rather than the nasties that come in supermarket packs, injected as they are with a brine already including a ‘natural’ liquid smoke extract (no, really) among many other exciting additives.  Say no to that nasty leakage of milky phosphate water, and get some decent stuff from your local butcher (surprising an idea as that might seem to some!).  Say no to reconstituted ‘ham’ all gristle and mis-matched re-formed fat and muscle fibres.

If you needed any more reasons to want to avoid processed ‘junk’ foods, after the ongoing horsemeat-adulteration saga, look no further than this absolutely horrifying NYT article on The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.

Of course we should all be trying to eat a balanced diet, mostly of fresh, local, good quality ingredients.  We should probably all, in the affluent West (and increasingly affluent East) be eating less meat, if we want to feed the world and pass the planet on to future generations in any kind of state at all.  But there are so many better reasons for that than trying to extend our survival.  Do it for the sake of good food, good flavour, and do it for the health of our environment.

Bacon for breakfast

So relax, enjoy your good quality butchers’ or home-cured bacons, hams, salt beef and bangers, and kick the supermarket junk.  Choose fresh, choose seasonal, choose local, and choose foods grown and reared, prepared and cooked with care, instead of being manufactured in anonymous processing plants at the end of a convoluted international commodity supply chain, down to a price selected by supermarket accountants.  I don’t see that you can go very far wrong!

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Don’t be Sour – a dalliance with yeasted ‘quick’ bread

Regular readers of the blog (and those familiar with the intermittent Sourdough Saga series of posts) will know that I *love* my sourdough starter. It’s fair to say I love it like another pet, like a member of the family.  I feed it and care for it (and, admittedly, stash it in the fridge for a fortnight at the time – please note that this is not generally advisable treatment of household pets!) and in return it rewards me and feeds me with some of the very best bread I’ve ever eaten, anywhere in the world.  It seems a more than fair exchange for my time and effort!

Sourdough loaf selection

The beauty of a sourdough loaf, its rich deep flavours and developed texture, are the result of the long, slow, patient process of fermenting, kneading and raising, followed by a blistering hot (and preferably steamy!) baking oven.  My ‘big batch’ of sourdough bread makes two large loaves, or two smaller loaves plus some rolls or a pizza, uses 1.25kg of flour, and lasts us about 10 – 14 days, freezing the second loaf.  But making it takes about 24 hours, starting the night before baking with the creation of the sponge, followed by a whole day during which the dough has to be kneaded and shaped periodically, finally baking around dinner time.  It’s not a chore – to me at least! – but it does require a whole day at home, and of course I don’t always have that pleasure!  The trouble with getting used to really fabulous home-baked bread is that nothing that you can get in the shops comes anywhere close.

So, obviously, I needed a solution for good, home-baked, ’emergency bread’.  The sort that, if I needed to, I could start in the evening after I get home from work, and have baked and out of the oven before I go to bed – about a 3 hour window.  Yes, you could use a bread machine in that time frame (and we have done, in the past), but I find the bread too sugared and salty when made according to the instructions, and highly ‘unpredictable’ in its behaviour if you start deviating from the recommended formulae!

Sourdough loaves keep basically forever (she says, without a scrap of exaggeration!), in that they don’t go off the same way as yeasted loaves (they’re protected from mould growth, it turns out, by one of the fermentation products of linoleic acid – you can read the paper, in the Journal of Environmental Microbiology, here).  Sure, they go stale and dry with time and exposure to air, but they don’t go furry – and once they’re too dry to eat, you can turn them into breadcrumbs, so there’s no waste, either!  My emergency loaf needs to be a yeasted loaf, and obviously needs a smaller batch size, so that we’ll get a chance to finish eating it while it’s still at its best!

I asked around on Twitter (what did we do before Twitter, folks?) and the lovely Lisa (@Cookwitch) offered me her version of a recipe for Pain D’Epi, which looked like it might well fit the bill.  I was pretty pleased with my first attempt at it a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t think to take photos at the time (bad food blogger, no biscuit!).  We’re out of bread again, I was working this morning, and I fancied something nice to go with breakfast tomorrow, so I’m making it again right now.

As I make it, you want the following –

  • 275g of strong bread flour (white flour is traditional, and it won’t be a ‘Pain D’Epi’ otherwise, obviously, but use whatever you like – or a mix, if you have ‘rag-tag’ ends hanging around like I usually do)
  • 175ml of warm water
  • 7g sachet of fast-action bread yeast (the sort that comes in the little double-sachets of small yeast pellets, that you can buy everywhere)
  • A scant half-teaspoon of sea salt
  • A good ‘glug’ of olive oil

Start by combining all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together – you could use a whisk, but I’d use my fingers!  Now add the 175ml of warm water, and combine to form a dough.  Add a little bit more flour or water if you need to get the consistency right, just not ‘sticky’ but not too dry as a dry dough will make too dense a loaf.

Kneading your doughNow give your dough a really good knead on a floured work surface.  Set aside 10 minutes to do this, and really give it the time and effort.  This is a single-levened bread, so this is the one and only chance that you get to develop the gluten in the flour and consequently the texture in your final loaf.  Once the dough is starting to develop a silky, elastic texture, rather than just feeling like play-dough, add a generous glug of olive oil and continue to work this in.

Shaped loaf in tinOnce you’re happy with the texture, shape your loaf, and either put it in an oiled and floured 1lb loaf tin, or shape it as required and place it on a sheet of oiled baking parchment on a good thin metal baking sheet.

I would guess that this batch could also make about 8 reasonable-sized dinner rolls, though I haven’t tried this myself.  The traditional form of the Pain D’Epi, as you might infer from the name if you’re francophone, is in the shape of an ear of corn – you can see the finished effect, and how you achieve it (surprisingly straightforwardly, using scissors!) here.  It’s a great tear-and-share shape and I really must try it some day!

Covered with oiled cling filmBut back to my loaf, which is sitting in its much more traditional British loaf tin.  Cover the tin loosely with oiled cling-film (PVC-free, please, especially if you’re using it with oily food), and put it somewhere warm.  Mine is going by the fire this evening – because yes, we have the fire going in what, really, is mid-March. Isn’t that depressing?

Allow it to rise for an hour or two, depending on temperature, until it has at least doubled in size (and filled the tin nicely, if you’re using one).  The initial preparation and kneading takes about 15 minutes, which means that I can usually squeeze it in while dinner’s cooking.

Risen loafOnce the loaf is nicely raised, score the surface with a sharp knife in a pretty pattern of your preference (or construct ears of corn, if you’re feeling flash!) and put it into a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees centigrade for about half an hour – it will rise some more in the oven, if you’re lucky (though not anywhere like so much as I’m used to with the well-developed sourdough) and is done when it’s a lovely golden colour all over and the base sounds hollow when you tap it.  I tend to take tin loaves out of their tins and return them to the oven for a final few minutes to get a nice crispy crust all over.  Free-formed loaves may benefit from being taken off their baking sheets and placed straight on the oven rack, in the same way, to make sure they’re not at all soggy-bottomed!

Baked loaf, coolingOnce your loaf is baked, take it out of the oven and allow to cool on a wire cake-cooling type rack if you have one – I only bought mine very recently, and always used to use a cold oven rack I’d taken out before starting to bake the bread, which unsurprisingly works just fine!  Revel in the lovely smell of fresh bread that now permeates your house, and look forwards to the morning!

Overall, this is a really quick, useful, ’emergency bread’ recipe, that seems to work very nicely with all sorts of flours (today’s loaf was made with some malted granary bread flour I had sitting around at the back of the baking ingredients shelf).  It’s streets ahead of anything you can buy from the supermarket or corner shop, though it doesn’t quite stack up in terms of flavour and texture against slower-fermented yeasted loaves that you might make at home, or buy from a good artisan bakery.  Texture wise it does tend to be a bit ‘cakey’ and edges towards being a little on the heavy side, which I ascribe to the single kneading and rising cycle and lack of opportunity for gluten development.  Still, these are knit-picky complaints when you consider how quick and convenient it is to make, and how much nicer it is than any of the commercial alternatives!

Finished loaf

I wrote, back in June of last year, after my first successful sourdough loaf, that “the bar for ‘good bread’ has just shot skywards in our household, and I suspect things may never be quite the same again.”  I was right.  I’m such a bread-snob now!  But this is good, quick, simple bread, and definitely earns a place at our table.

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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Living in Glass Houses – DIY greenhouse build

I have to admit to having wanted a decent greenhouse for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my grandmother’s neighbours had a beautiful greenhouse and vegetable garden, which I used to admire from over the fence, and I suspect my life-long enthusiasm for the glass-house springs in part from this!

Dave, showing off his new greenhouse!

Apologies, incidentally, for the quality of the photography in this post – I made the mistake of thinking I had enough on my hands and that photos from my mobile phone would be ‘good enough’ rather than worrying about the SLR as well as everything else.  The photos took ages to tidy up and even now aren’t really up to my usual standard!

A little while after Christmas, while we were watching telly, I asked hubby whether we were really going to get on and build a greenhouse this year.  Yes, he agreed, we definitely were. So I did a bit of digging around, and had more or less decided that for what we required, a baby polytunnel was probably going to be more cost effective and sensible.  Then, deploying his superior (well, so he says) google skills, he turned up a 6ft x 10ft aluminium and polycarbonate greenhouse for about the sort of price I was finding for tunnels.  It seemed like a no brainer, so we got on and ordered it. It arrived a week or so later.

It’s been sat in the garden in two boxes since then, of course, because the weather we’ve had this winter can only be described as ‘not compatible with construction projects’.  As it happens, I’ve given up complaining about the weather for Lent (yes, it’s been that bad!), so I’ll spare you the details.  It finally started to dry out a little a couple of weeks ago, so we finally had a window to get going with the ground works.

The intended site for the greenhouse is on our ‘paddock’, which is a scrappy bit of ridge and furrow pasture land, most of which we planted for an orchard three years ago.  The grass is very established and the land isn’t level (the clue is in the ‘ridge and furrow’!). The only way we were ever going to get a level frame for the greenhouse was to dig a ‘slot’ for it out of the pasture grass to level it, and set a frame of breeze-blocks on which to rest the building.

You’ll need a good spade, a turf cutting tool and ideally, a mattock. We measured out the 6ft by 10ft rectangle and got to work.  Once we’d cleared the space, it occurred to us to consider in more detail the ‘6 x 10ft (aprox)’ size given on the greenhouse packaging.  It turned out the greenhouse was sized in something that could only be described as ‘metric feet’ by its German manufacturers.  Armed with the metric measurements, we enlarged the slot by a reasonably generous margin, and turned in for the evening, pleased with ourselves for having completely cleared the required space, and confident we could crack right on with building the greenhouse the following day.

The next day dawned cold.  Really cold – barely above freezing, in fact, despite being late February.  Undaunted, we put on our ski jackets and thick woollen socks, and headed back out to the greenhouse site. We’d gathered together enough lightweight breeze blocks to do the job – the sort that are made from a sort of concrete ‘froth’, a bit like an aero bar, and would float, if you let them.  Our sophisticated building and levelling tools were the spade and mattock from the previous day, a spirit level, and some string.  The blocks themselves were to act as ‘squaring’ guides, in due course.  And, as we hadn’t yet managed to pick up a bag of sharp sand, we had only the soil itself to use to pack the blocks straight and level.

Assembling the brake blocksThe first course of blocks assembled itself quite straightforwardly.  The mattock is a great help in cutting a clean trench, and then the blocks just go in one after another, with a check on level and height adjustment on each.  After setting the corner as square as we could using one of the blocks for reference, a couple of pegs and a length of string set the alignment for the next course.  Things were going well!

Two courses more or less complete, we wanted to make sure we had the right dimensions for the greenhouse, so we decided to get out the base from the kit and get that assembled for reference.  This done – and it was nice and straightforward (though it revealed that the assembly instructions were a ~50 page pictographic document, in the IKEA tradition) – we offered the frame to the greenhouse site, and discovered our slot was too narrow, given the width of the blocks.  In a stroke of good luck, we also discovered the base build could be bodged to use only whole blocks, which was a huge bonus.

Three courses placedCarrying on with the cut, measure, level, we had three courses installed.  We laid out, crudely, the blocks for the fourth course.  Inevitably, this is when you discover that, rather than a neat rectangle, and despite your most careful efforts, you’ve built some sort of trapezoid only theoretically known to mathematics. A bit of head-scratching and adjustments to the squaring, requiring a bit of extra turf cutting, and we put down the fourth course.

Greenhouse base, complete

It had been trying to snow all afternoon, and we’d been outside for five continuous hours laying the foundation blocks. It seemed apparent that one of the corners (the back one, in this photo) was lower than it should have been, but we were running out of energy, and light.  We tidied up and came back indoors, and gave up for the weekend.

Pro-tip: you know you’re really, properly, cold to the core when you *start* shivering several minutes after you get into a nice warm bath…

Skip ahead, then, through a working week to this weekend.  Finishing the greenhouse was our main order of business.  The weather, at least, is improving – no snow this weekend and even moments of sunshine!

Fixing the base down onto the blocksFirst up on Saturday, completing the levelling of the base.  Easy enough with the base frame sitting on top to confirm our suspicion that the back corner was ‘down’.  We’d got hold of a bag of sharp sand, so correcting this by lifting the two sides progressively was pretty straight forward.

Then, after placing the base as square as we could on top of the blocks, we marked the fixing holes, drilled these out with a hand drill, and then after placing rawlplugs, screwed the greenhouse frame down into place.  (Hint – mark carefully, and then *check* – it’s annoying when the holes aren’t quite in the right place!)  Skip any holes which are really close to an edge, as the block will just crumble away. Note that we’ve used no mortar at all in constructing this base.  You could, of course, if you wanted a more permanent foundation.

Out of the ground at lastThe sun was thinking about coming out, and we were ready, finally, to get the greenhouse build out of the ground.  The construction guide is purely pictorial, and weighing in at 51 pictographic pages, is something out of a flat-pack-furniture-phobe’s screaming nightmare. In the end, it’s just a question of following the instructions, as carefully as you can.

Our greenhouse was manufactured by ‘Palram’ and is a ‘crystal clear’ (read vaccuum-formed, single-ply) polycarbonate glazed aluminium framed greenhouse.  We bought it via B&Q but their greenhouses are stocked by lots of different retailers.  We’d built a tiny (6ft x 4ft) polycarbonate and aluminium greenhouse in our previous townhouse garden, and I was expecting the same, two-ply corrugated polycarbonate glazing that we’d had before, and which we were very pleased with.  I can only surmise that the insulation properties of this single-ply material won’t be as impressive as the other option.  And handling the glazing panels, which seemed alarmingly lightweight, was a bit hairy in places.  That said, once complete, the finished greenhouse does seem reassuringly ‘solid’. So, time will tell!

Side panels installedBut, back to the build.  Proceed carefully according to your pictograms.  Those on the cover informed me two people would be required, and that was certainly the case – at various times this build would have been completely impossible to perform single-handed. I was expecting to assemble the four walls individually and then combine them, but this wasn’t the case – the whole thing came vertically out of the base, acquiring glazing as it went, and then the build continued up into the gables and finally onto the roof.

We made one mistake (repeated at all four corners), which gave us some trouble until we noticed what we’d done wrong – fortunately our efforts at mitigation only involved some very slight trimming of some edges of the polycarbonate panels, nothing with any lasting consequences. Hint – if there’s more than one possible hole you could screw in, check, and check again before committing (and stop that giggling at the back!).

I gave a few small blood sacrifices on the sharp metal edges of the frame while threading the glazing panels.  The instructions tell you to wear gloves, of course, but it’s impossible to do this while fiddling with the 120 pairs of small metal nuts and bolts that hold this monstrous Meccano set together, and in the end I gave up, and suffered the consequences.  Overall we felt that, at least where it came to the glazing panels, the manufacturing tolerances were probably wider than the assembly ones, which made things a bit tricky from time to time.

Greenhouse roof installedGetting the roof apex installed did require a ladder (at least for us – though we’re both a little on the short side!), which isn’t on the list of required equipment.  It would have been a bit of a nuisance if we hadn’t had one conveniently available!  With the sun setting, and the roof on – missing only the final fitting of the window vent, and the door – and after seven hours solid work, we gave up and went to the pub for a well-earned steak dinner and a couple of pints of rather nice Ringwood bitter.

This morning, after a more sedate Sunday breakfast, we got on with the finishing-up tasks. The window went in quite straightforwardly.  The door was a bit fiddlier but posed no major challenges (and is very thoughtfully designed, in fact). By lunchtime, we had a completed greenhouse frame and glazing.

Hubby had work to do this afternoon, so after a whistle-stop trip to Wickes, he got on with that while I cracked on with the inside of the greenhouse.  I was hoping, rather ambitiously, to finish this evening with the hard-standing for the staging installed, as well as a paving slab path, the staging fitted, and the borders initially dug-over with a ceremonial planting – perhaps a row of early carrots, or something – completed.

Laying the slabsLevelling the ground and installing the slabs was probably, in fairness, a good worked example of why you shouldn’t let amateurs do hard-landscaping!  The soil at the back of the greenhouse, where the staging was going, produced a rich vein of solid clay, the kind that would probably have made a victorian brick-maker’s month.  Again, we wanted to avoid concrete or mortar, so the paving slabs are to be laid directly onto a layer of landscape fabric on top of the soil, using some ‘pads’ of sharp sand to help level them.

Hard standing installedThere are gaps between my slabs, which I’ll fill with some gravel once I’ve remembered to buy a bag.  Eight blocks across the back of the greenhouse provide a space for some shelving, and then a five-block path runs between the two greenhouse borders from the door.  I’m hoping that the slabs will also provide some useful heat-sink effect to hold warmth into the evenings as the temperature drops.

It’s around this stage in the process, when you’re raking the soil under the pathway to a fine tilth, while treading your precious borders harder and harder, that you remember that gardening is about pretty flowers in the same way that house-building is about paint colours for the hall.  In the end, it’s mostly hard labour!

Greenhouse staging 'installed'Just as I was ready to give myself a big pat on the back and congratulate myself on a job well done, I realised I had a small problem with my (great, cheap!) greenhouse staging.  The pack, describing itself as 2ft 11in (x2) greenhouse shelving (and I’d measured the gap!!) turned out to have the ‘aprox’ behaviour in the, compulsory, unhelpful direction.  They don’t fit!  Until I decide whether I want to take a hacksaw to eight lengths of steel tubing, they’re installed at a rather ‘jaunty’ angle…

No ceremonial carrots, but three big pots of compost with my newly-arrived hop rhizomes in them, pending the preparation of their final planting site.  There’ll also be a water butt to collect the run-off from the roof and reduce the distance I have to walk to fill the watering can.

Completed greenhouse

I think we’re both, it’s fair to say, seriously pleased with our efforts, even though it’s been physically very demanding and taken about twice as long as we had imagined it would.

To finish, and following Ross’s example in his excellent barn door guest blog post, some summaries:

Costings –

  • Greenhouse kit, including base & glazing – ~£350
  • Breezeblocks – £32
  • Paving slabs – £32
  • Sharp sand – £1.81
  • Landscape fabric – can’t remember, it was in the back of the shed

Time invested –

  • Ground clearance ~1 day, two people (or a bit longer for one)
  • Installing breeze-blocks ~1 day, two people
  • Greenhouse build ~ 1 day, two people (if you get up sharpish or have more hours of light than we did!) allowing extra if you want to do silly things with paving slabs inside.

Lessons learnt –

  • Measure, then measure again. Then have someone else measure too.  Don’t trust the measurements on packets, especially when they may be ‘metric’ feet-and-inches!
  • Wear gloves, unless you want to discover quite how sharp the sliced edges of extruded aluminium components can be.
  • Consider the weather forecast.  It can be really *really* cold in February! And finally,
  • If there is more than one possible hole… insert your own joke here.

I can’t wait to really get growing!

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