Planning food during a pandemic

In the days leading up to the COVID19 pandemic, photos of queues of people trying to buy food and that of empty shelves in supermarkets ( for some unknown reason toilet paper and pasta have been very popular!) have become the norm for a modern society used to having everything at the click of a finger (or a click on your computer screen). It is hard to get even delivery slots for food if you don’t want to shop in store.

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I saw this during early March when the panic buying had just started
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Within a few days, shelves were beginning to look like this!

I was also swept away by the societal urge or rather the herd tendency to stock up on food, although probably my shopping was nothing compared to the people who bought up shelves of toilet paper and even fought and got arrested over that.  I found that I had bought some extra onions and potatoes but its not too much of a problem to eat them.  Even then I have thought of some ways I could prevent myself from panic buying potatoes and onions or anything else.

  1. Make a food plan for each day and a grocery plan for the week: Write down a possible menu plan and what ingredients you may need. It is not always possible to find everything you need, so you have to be flexible about this.  Check if you really need to stock up a month’s supply of toilet paper or that you are a good enough baker if you are buying so much baker’s flour.  Food has limited shelf life and buying too much means you might end up having to throw it at the end.  There is a viral video of a man who stored hoarded items on top of his kitchen units, in the hallway, toilet and everywhere possible- creating trip hazards in the house and possibly, fire risks.  This also means that someone else didn’t get to have it- this is also selfish behaviour.
  2. If you really can’t find something, look up smaller stores: Many so-called ethnic or speciality shops have stocks of things not available in the supermarkets.  The last time, I looked they had toilet paper, pasta, bread flour and everything else- without the queues. Shopping at smaller stores helps them to keep going during the tough economic times. So it is a win-win situation.  I also learned some special recipes during my conversations when shopping.
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Smaller independent stores often have enough
  1. Look for long life items: These could be either dried foods such as rice, lentils, beans, etc. but also canned and frozen items.  I’ve no idea why people need so much pasta but I found that I could make many dishes by using brown rice for example- Chinese, India, Mexican, Japanese and Italian. Some fresh foods like onions, garlic, apples, and carrots also keep well for a long time.
  2. Freeze what you don’t need: I have prepared food and frozen cut vegetables that might not keep in the fridge for quick meals. I have also frozen herbs (I found some on sale or about to be thrown by the shop and reduced) and took them and froze these.
  3. Share buying with neighbours: Buying in bulk will be cheaper and you may find that food shops will prefer larger deliveries, rather than small purchases.  Bigger shared purchases also bring down carbon emissions by reducing numbers of deliveries.  In my building, people have also shared shopping duties for older or ill people.  Many hygiene experts recommend washing hard items like produce, bottles and cartons while cardboard boxes, paper and cloth if left aside for 9 hours or more will kill any lingering virus on them.

There are many guidelines about disinfecting stuff bought from the shops.  But washing with water remains the cheapest and the most effective.  I’ve been washing all hard things like vegetables, bottles and cartons- a good habit anyway.  Research from the US National Institutes of Health found that the COVID19 virus survives for longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces such as door handles, plastic-coated or laminated worktops and other hard surfaces. So it might be a good time to reduce the amount of plastic you have in the home!

The researchers discovered that copper surfaces tended to kill the virus in about four hours.  So I’ve been using all my Indian copper and brass plates.  Coronaviruses can also be inactivated within a minute by disinfecting surfaces with 62-71% alcohol, or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide bleach or household bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite. Higher temperatures and humidity also tend to result in other coronaviruses dying quicker, so if you can, wiping surfaces with hot cloths or using steam cleaner might be more environmentally friendly and even cheaper.

Finally the best tip is not look at supermarket queues and avoid social media or news stories about food scarcity.  It is estimated that in the UK, people have hoarded up £1billion worth of food while some may go hungry and there is enough in the supply chain.  Social media and news sometimes stirs up unnecessary fears.  Believe that you will find what you need or become resourceful enough to use what you have! As the Italian writer, Francesca Melandri, who has been under lockdown in Rome for almost three weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak, wrote, ‘First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do.

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.’

(I have not printed her entire article but you can find it here)

Hope springs

‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

I’ve been very sad recently.  My childhood home in India which was locked up, had been burgled. Not satisfied with not finding much there (yes, we were very poor), the thieves then ransacked the place, even ripping apart the mattresses.  Even if a home has been a very humble place, with not many things there, it still has its memories. It was also my first home and a place I always went back to.  I learnt to walk there and play with the children who lived nearby.  Our school was nearby.  So many people came there.  The address is forever etched my heart.  My beloved uncle and my father both passed away there. That place was the centre of my universe for decades until I left but I always came back to it whenever I visited India from the UK. My British born children loved it too.

Then this burglary happened- totally out of the blue. I felt violated myself because my home was so intimately connected to me- it was who I was, it was my body. The mattresses that had been ripped apart lay on the same bed that my father had died.  I was angry and helpless. But there was nothing to be done. When I was praying, the thought came into my head, ‘You need to concentrate on yourself. There is nothing to be done by getting angry or upset’.  And then I read about the people in Australia who had lost everything in the recent bushfires- and precious things like their pets, photographs of their childhood, livelihood, etc.  Tragically some had even died trying to save their homes. I began to feel grateful that such physical evidences of my life were still there- photographs, mementos, and my memories too.  No one had been injured during the burglary.  I heard a woman say about her home being destroyed during the floods in the UK, ‘After all, it is just bricks and mortar.’  And I thought about all those people around the world who had lost homes, left their homes fleeing wars or other disasters, or were even homeless.  Suddenly I began to see a brighter side to everything- and really how lucky I was.

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Black mountain on fire, February 2020 (image: Wikimedia commons, Saritha Balram)

Then today, I saw this- a little tiny shoot of a cactus plant.  Cactus plants are quite difficult to grow at home from seeds but somehow this little thing had managed to sprout. I felt like it was saying to me, ‘Don’t give up hope.’  It is still a long way from becoming a proper cactus plant but I thought this little thing has struggled and found a way to come out of the dark sandy soil, so could I come out my own dark place.

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My tiny cactus plant!

Making energy balls

Having bought some energy balls which I use to ward off hunger when running late for lunch or dinner, I realised how easy it was to make them instead of buying them. Apart from not costing much, they also didn’t come in packaging that can’t be recycled.  So this is what I made today- it is easy and you can change the contents if you are allergic to nuts or another ingredient.  I also realised that the shop bought energy balls had too much coconut oil- an oil that is difficult to digest in a raw form and could be allergic for some. It is high in calorific values. So I have used less of it than in the shop bought energy ball.  The cost was about 67p as opposed to the shop bought ones which were £1.99 each.

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In the photo you can see all the ingredients except one- goji berries, raisins, mulberries, cranberries, cherries, crushed cashew nuts, chia seeds, maple syrup and couple of teaspoons of coconut oil (the white bits).  In this, I added organic raw cacao powder. Then I let my fingers work the magic. I found that it works much better for mixing if fingers are used- the body heat melts the oil and shapes the balls better than using an ice cream scoop.

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The best bit? It’s getting to lick your fingers after making the energy balls!

A very green Christmas

This year, I am pleased to say that it was the greenest Christmas I’ve ever done.  All the presents were simple and inexpensive or even free, and bought from small shops (as opposed to buying from a large online store which shall remain unnamed!), and wrapped in old paper from previous Christmases or in newspaper (the Guardian does central spreads which are worth using as wrapping paper!).  My cards were all homemade using leftover card, ornaments and paints.  The food was all home cooked as ever. I made my own cranberry sauce this year- it was extraordinarily simple and very tasty.  Finally, my fake Christmas tree and its ornaments – all of which have been going well for the last 16 years!

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Repurposed packaging- one of these is a packaging which came with a plant
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Home made cards made of leftover cards and paper
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Our 16 year old fake Christmas tree
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My homemade cranberry sauce was very popular

Increasing creativity through mindless drawing

When I was sketching in Venice in 2017, a small crowd gathered around me, watching.  As the crowd grew in size, there was even a person directing people.  At first, I felt very conscious of the people staring at me and then as I suffer from fear of crowds, I started feeling fearful. In an age when people use their smartphones to take selfies and photos, it must seem very archaic and time wasting to sketch.  But recently I discovered that it also helps others to watch people sketching.  There is a South Korean artist, Kim Jung Gi, who draws fantasy art and many people pay to spend hours watching him. It is said to be therapeutic, and induces a feeling of stillness and calm in the viewers.

There is another way that ‘mindless’ drawing can help- this is with increasing creativity.   Just like sleeping on problems and dreams can help with solving problems, using drawing (especially organic shapes) can help with problem solving and increasing creativity.  The Nobel Laureate, polymath, poet, musician, painter and author corrected his texts by doodling over mistakes.  His wooden seal with his initials is also of an organic shape.

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Even when feeling tired, I have found that doodling and drawing can be done when reading is too difficult.  These drawings are no practical use but to me, they are part of my creative self.  I’ve given myself two different rewards each day- when the weather is bad, I draw, and when the weather is good, I go out and take photos.  Sometimes I draw without my glasses and sometimes I use both hands (I’m right handed). It’s always good for me to see what I create and how well I feel after that.

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Organic shapes just joined together
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Who is she? Why is she smiling?Why are her eyes closed shut? I don’t know- she came out of my head after a busy and tiring day. Maybe I’d like to be her!ption
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One of the good weather days when I photographed this spectacular sunset

Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Why you shouldn’t throw out milk

Quite simply because you can cook with it!

Here is my Indian paneer (Indian cheese) recipe that I made for lunch. I had two small bottles of milk which my son sniffed and said, ‘Mum, it’s gone off!’ and proceeded to tip one down the sink.  I managed to stop him in time.

My family never used shop bought paneer but paneer is now widely available outside India.  Even in India, you can buy commercially made paneer.  The commercially made paneer is quite hard and strangely enough softens up during cooking. If the food goes cold, the paneer goes hard again!  Apparently paneer doesn’t like being refrigerated or being cold, but I am guessing there must be other ingredients in the commercial product to keep it fresh that make it behave in that way.  Anyway, the homemade version is very easy to make and tastes lovely. It doesn’t go hard, soft, hard!  And there is no plastic waste.

I took the milk and boiled it, squeezing a few drops of lemon juice in the pan with it.  Soon, the milk had curdled up.  Then I tipped the entire thing on to bowl covered with a fine cotton cloth and the liquid (called whey) drained away into the bowl, leaving me with the paneer on the cloth. I brought the ends of the cloth together and squeezed it tightly.  The fresh paneer was ready.

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Fresh home made paneer
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Paneer being drained using fine cotton cloth
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Paneer after the whey has been drained out. You need to squeeze out as much liquid as possible (some even put a heavy weight on it) and leave it to chill.  Then you can either cut it into cubes or crumble it.

I dry fried teaspoon each of cumin and coriander, and couple of cloves and inch cinnamon stick and a tiny piece of red chilly in a wok.  After a minute, I took the wok off the stove and crushed all the spices using a pestle.  Then I put a table spoon of rapeseed oil and put the paneer in the wok along with a teaspoon of turmeric and two teaspoons of dry ginger (fresh ginger is very nice but since I am trying to use up all my dried ginger, I used that).  One tablespoon of dried mango powder and salt to taste. I fried this mixture for about five minutes.

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Paneer pieces being fried with the spices

I added half a cup of water and one cup of frozen peas.  I also added a tablespoon of tinned tomatoes.  After about 10 minutes, the paneer dish was ready.  And it was so tasty! (The photo below was taken on another day when I decided to cut up the paneer pieces so that it cooked quicker.  It was even tastier as the flavour of the sauce had penetrated the paneer more)

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Don’t worry too much if your home made paneer is not cube shaped!  This is way tastier

What of the whey left behind?

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Whey is nutritious- don’t chuck it!

Whey is full of protein and dried whey is used by people wanting to build muscles. It seems stupid to throw it away because I am not interested in body building. It has a pleasant taste, especially if lemon juice is added but personally I don’t like it, although many people do.  So I used it to make the chapati (Indian bread), using the whey instead of water to make the dough. And that turned out to be a hit too.  Certainly a zero waste lunch!

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Indian fried bread made with the whey and a mix of organic spelt and plain flours, with added poppy and ajwain seeds
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And here is another version of the bread without frying, just cooked on a frying pan with no oil.