The power of saying ‘I don’t know’

There is much we don’t know about.  While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about.  It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things.  Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.

The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart.  I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates.  So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything.  Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know?  I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher.  It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid.  There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude.  It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!

It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge.  Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else.  Most people are keen to talk and tell you something.  So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen.  It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues.  Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality.  But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life!  Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.

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anxiety in children

I have children who always seem to be anxious about something or the other.  My older son used to have many anxieties and had counselling.  My younger son is now doing his school exams and constantly studying or revising. His only method of relaxing is texting and seeing his friends from time to time. In his anxiety about the exams, he started revising during his school lunch breaks and forgoing eating and meeting his friends in the break or after school. I tried to get him to relax through conversations over dinner and asking him about things other than exams.  But he seemed very averse to the whole thing and told me that I didn’t understand ‘modern exams’.  I also enrolled him into a service that offers telephone counselling on anxiety issues but he refused to speak to them. I told him he should join some local sports which would help him with anxiety issues.

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Anxiety by Edvard Munch

Talking about this situation with a friend over lunch, it struck me that I was asking my son to do things I didn’t do myself. I was constantly talking about work or working all the time without breaks, I didn’t meet up with friends regularly enough and never did any sports myself.  I spent many sleepless nights due to anxiety over various things (last night I slept for about three hours!).  My two children were only reflecting the anxiety I felt myself and were modelling themselves over me.  But what a terrible role model I was. Social media has made our lives difficult when we see people being successful and earning money, having millions of followers and having public profiles. Although I don’t think anyone tries to become like these lucky people (and they are lucky); we also want to achieve smaller victories in our lives.  But what if we just tried to be happy and not ambitious?

I have just started re-reading the ‘One straw revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka.  Fukuoka was a scientist turned farmer who started a farming revolution by doing nothing.  He was laughed at and ignored for over 25 years until people noticed that he was growing far more crops that way using no insecticide, no fertilisers, tillage and no ‘wasteful effort’.  This morning as it turned 5-00am and the skies became light, I started reading the book after having failed to sleep. In the book, Fukuoka says bluntly, ‘There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile, meaningless effort.’  I realised that we overdo everything- work, thoughts, worries, money, relationships- when we could just relax and be happy.  In trying to overdo everything, we get anxious.  Realising this at dawn today after a night of no sleep was rather ironic but enlightening.  Fukuoka’s terse words reminded me of the movie ‘The fault in our stars’ in which the lead character, Hazel Grace, says that in reality as we die, everything we do dies with us.  Though again quite a sobering thought, it really means that we are not that important in the scheme of the universe. If we just let go of our own importance, relaxed and became happy without trying to accomplish and over achieve, we would be happier beings.

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So this morning, I tried some ‘no or little work’ gardening following the advice of Fukuoka and my son joined in.  He then went to a see a friend for lunch and as he left, I joked, ‘I hope you don’t talk about exams!’ He laughed and waved goodbye.  In his writing, the Buddhist monk Nichiren advises his follower, a typically hot headed alpha male samurai warrior, Shijo Kingo, ‘Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies.  Drink sake only at home with your wife….Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life.’ I had smile as I realise that often I enjoy what is there to suffer and suffer what is there to enjoy! But it is actual so much simpler just to enjoy life.

Making a good gift for your child leaving for university

The main premise of this blog post is about creating value using beauty, goodness and benefit.  So I was wondering how to make a suitable gift for my son who is leaving home for University.  In the UK, this is the time of departures for Universities, of leaving the nest and so emotionally this will be a sea change for us and him.  I wanted him to have something that was homemade and practical.  It was his birthday as well this month.  So I made him a cook book and a ‘cooking tool kit’.  It was in the form of two things- a cookbook (the software as I call it) and the toolkit (the hardware!)- plates, utensils, tools, etc.  It took me almost a year of planning and making, so here are the steps-

  1. The cookbook– This is actually a photo album that I found in a charity shop.  In it are my cooking, healthy living, and money saving tips, his favourite recipes and photos of him cooking as a baby and child.  I did a cull of photographs which was something I had to do anyway and found a treasure trove of photos that reminded me of the recipes that he has always loved. Of course, coming from mum, the tips and recipes have corny titles! So the making the recipe book also served many other purposes.
  2. The toolkit– Over the year, I ‘retired’ several items from the kitchen and cooked without them, just to get used to not having them.  These included cooking and serving spoons, bowls, pans, etc.  I rang up my son’s University and asked them what facilities he was going to have in his kitchen and based on what he liked to cook, I added some new items- either from charity shops or bought at sales.  Some items had even been picked up from the street!  Some items were repurposed from ready meals such as the china bowls from an environmentally responsible brand that makes chilled food and glass shot glasses from a French yoghurt brand.  These ready made food items were also reduced so this made for a double reduction!  Some items are also ones that came from my University days thirty years ago.  Most items can be used in at least two different ways, for example the wooden tray can be used as a serving tray, a rolling board and a chopping board.  Obviously this took a lot of planning and thought.

IMG_9679These items were then packed into his dad’s old rock n’roll box.  The final toolkit looked like this when packed.  All neatly tidied up into boxes and bags, using tissue and paper and strong bags I had saved up.

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I know that some items might not come back and I am happy with that. Life is about loss.  There are items I haven’t put in, deliberately- I need him to make some effort too which I I know he will.  At least I know I have set him up, food wise!

Let me know if you’ve done similar things for your child when they headed off to University.

Why I don’t need apps to reduce food waste

Recently many apps have been in the news for reducing food waste- it seems in the digital age, we need our smartphones to tell not not waste food and share food.  But food waste is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the past, nothing really went to waste, despite not having fridges or freezers.  In my village, food was cooked fresh and as there were no fridges, it was stored for a few hours. Usually most of it got eaten, if not by us, it was distributed to the rest of the village.  Anything leftover after that was given to the cows, dogs, chickens, ducks and compost heap. I never saw any rotting mounds of food anywhere and generally everyone looked happy and healthy.  Even when we went there for our summer holidays of two months, we put on weight as we were generally malnourished in the city. I have also lived in communes and villages in the UK and have not seen wasted food.

So it seems food waste is an urban problem, which is where these apps come in. I also see many homeless and hungry people in the cities all over the world.  So there are people wasting food while there are people wanting food, similar to how I see there are people with second homes while some have none.  It isn’t an equitable world.

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We’ve had people sleeping here and foraging food from these rubbish bins

I’ve given to food banks and donated to charities which distribute food to the poor, and helped at soup kitchens which I think is a better way to do things.  Apps don’t really solve the problem of poor people going hungry, they are for the rich. So I think for those of us who have more than enough, there could be ways of reducing our waste.  This could not only help our bank balances but also the environment.  Here are some ways that I have done so-

  1. Using up all bits, i.e. roots to shoots cooking-  Some of my recipes use the broccoli stems, carrot leaves, beetroot leaves, potato skins and stems of greens such as summer greens, cabbage, etc.
  2. Using water left over from boiling pasta and vegetables- these make useful and healthy soup stocks and the pasta water is also very useful for mixing flours for bread and chapati making.
  3. Many preserves and pickles come in olive oil or salted water and these can be re-used.  The sardine or anchovy olive oil can be used with pasta or bread- it makes lovely base for bruschetta.  The salted water or brine can be used in the preparation. I’ve also used up the lemony mixture in the preserved lemons bottle in a chicken bake that had a Moroccan twist.  The vinegar that comes with olives has been used for ‘washing’ lamb that makes the strong smell disappear.
  4. I’ve saved up the fat from cooking bacon and burgers and used those for further cooking.  Sometimes I’ve added the pasta water to the hot pan with the lovely bacon fat and then put that away for freezing. The beauty of this is that the starch in the water soaks the fat away and it makes it quicker to clean.
  5. I use bits of bread to make croutons for soups and spicy mixes to sprinkle over baked potato, cabbage and spinach.  Birds can also have leftover stale bread
  6. Seeds and lentils can be used to make bird feed if you don’t want those.
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    Spicy Indian preparation with carrot and beetroot leaves, along with bits of broccoli stems and carrots

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    Even the stems of the lettuce can be used to grow more!
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Pasta and vegetable water are always in my fridge and freezer to make soups and bread

Sometimes I’ve used a tiered cooking arrangement that soaks away the fat and cooks food with it.  You see, my way is the lazy way to cook and clean!

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The fat from the sausage cooks the green below and saves them from being scorched.

I also carry ‘doggy bags’ for uneaten foods at restaurants and events- I’ve been told that much of the food at events gets thrown away after four hours because apparently that is when the food goes off.

Remember the best way to stop food waste is not to have food waste in the first place.

 

 

 

Making your own cosmetics

Recently with the squeeze on my finances, I have been looking at how much I spend on cosmetics. I don’t mean make-up which I hardly use but creams- face, body and hands. I tend to buy the best I can- organic, locally made and without any additives.  The results are good- for many years worth of buying such products has been good for my skin as the skin is your largest organ and benefits from the best products used on it.  However, now with the financial imperative, I began to wonder if I could replicate that quality at home using organic ingredients and save money and time.

So here is my first attempt-

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I was out of face cream and looked around for what I had lying around. So here is what I found, all of which went to make this face cream-

One teaspoon of Neal’s yard Wild Rose beauty balm (you can substitute this with coconut butter and drops of your favourite essential oil)

40 grams of Shea butter (I have to admit this was 17 years old! and lying in a drawer)

One table spoon of organic aloe and rose gel (or use plain aloe gel as I did below)

I used a fork to whip these inside an old Neal’s yard jar and voila! I had my lovely soft nourishing face cream which smells of roses.

Then I used some of the Neal’s yard balm and added some scraps of lipstick and again, I have a tinted lip balm that gives me winter protection for my lips and cheeks.

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For this year’s Mother’s day, I again replicated this formula to make face creams for my mother and friends. I have photos of the ingredients in this one (you can use your own), along with the empty jars I’ve used.  This time the shea butter was not 17 years old!

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This what one of the jars looks like now- I placed the jars on the radiators so that the shea butter would melt slowly (as per my philosophy of least work, maximum value!)

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Making sense of yoghurt

My mother never bought yoghurt in India while I had always been buying yoghurt in the UK.  I was sort of okay with that until I realised how much waste I was creating and as we eat a lot of organic yoghurt at home, it was also costing us. So I looked at how I could make yoghurt at home.  Googling the topic I came across yoghurt makers, yoghurt cultures, thermometers and many other things that I need to buy in order to make yoghurt.  But I wondered how I could make yoghurt without buying any gadgets, like my mother did?  So I did some research and here is what I do.  I use my senses- eyes, touch and nose rather than gadgets to create this yoghurt.

The most important thing is the temperature of the yoghurt while setting- the starter culture of live bacteria need a incubation range of 110°F to 115°F or 43° to 46°C.  Most yoghurt makers say that you should check this temperature with a thermometer.  But what if you did not want to buy that either?  I read that skin starts to form on the milk at 113° to 122° F(45° to 50° C) when it is heated.  So what I do is heat the milk and wait until the skin forms.  Then I remove the skin and wait again for about 5-10 minutes. (I can test the milk temperature by putting a drop on my palm. If it is just bearably hot, then it is above my body temperature of 98° F or 37° C).  But I find that removing the skin thrice in about 5-10 minutes does the trick.

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I mix about 60 grams of organic yoghurt (I use Yeo valley yoghurt but there must be equivalent in other countries) with half litre of the warmed milk.  I then place the container in a wooden box and cover with blankets and towels. I also use an insulated glass panel found on the street, to cover the top.  About four hours later, the yoghurt is ready.  Make sure your container is clean and freshly washed, otherwise the milk will curdle when heated.  People who have had my home made yoghurt say it is delicious and my children do not want to eat shop bought yoghurt again! You can keep aside a bit of the yoghurt to make a starter culture for the next batch of yoghurt but after awhile you will need to purchase a small amount of shop bought yoghurt again as the culture starts to get ‘diluted’ with use.

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Cost of buying 1 kg organic yoghurt= £2.75

Cost of making 1 kg organic yoghurt by my method= about £1.28 (assuming 1 litre=1kg and taking into account some heating and the price of the bought yoghurt). Plus no waste. If not using bought yoghurt, then the cost would similar to the price of 1L milk from Tesco, i.e. around £0.97/ L

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The yoghurt is ready!

Mindful cooking and happy eating

I love cooking and even though I have a chronic illness and suffer from tiredness and pain, I feel it is something I can do and actually enjoy it!  So over the years, I have devised ways to cook well, easily and cheaply.  The money saving is essential because the ingredients I use are organic and fresh, and cost much more than conventional stuff. Also, obviously it has to be healthy cooking too.  So money has to be saved in other ways. So here are my top 20 tips. You may not agree with all of them and some of these go against ‘conventional wisdom’, so please feel free to comment below.

  1. Eat between the hours of 8-00 am and 8-00pm.  Apparently this the optimum time for food to be digested properly as the body clock starts slowing down. In fact, it starts to do that by 6-00pm but as I usually don’t finish work by then and have to cook from fresh, the food is not ready until about 7-30pm.  Try to make your first meal the biggest and the last one the smallest and don’t snack in between.
  2. Oil is one of the most expensive ingredients, so use it sparingly. It is also healthier to use less oil. On the other hand, I use butter and ghee for cooking too. I have found that these ingredients add a richness to bland starchy foods such as pasta, potato, breads and rice so that you end up eating less of such foods. A dollop of butter in pasta sauce adds amazing flavour.
  3. Put a lid in the food that is cooking- it makes it cook faster, save energy and therefore cheaper, and the flavours get locked into the food by doing so.
  4. Eat seasonally and fresh- so that the ingredients will be cheaper and have more flavour.  More flavour also mean that less salt and other condiments will be needed to make the food more tasty.
  5. I don’t agree with the concept of mise en place, i.e. getting all the ingredients ready and then cooking, for all types of cooking.  Stir frying is one example where this technique would be useful.  But the leaving the chopping until you are ready to cook is better as the ingredients are fresher.  I often let the oven or pan warm up while I am preparing the vegetables.
  6. We don’t eat ready prepared desserts anymore. Not only are they expensive, wrapped in plastic but also do not taste nice.  We might have healthier desserts such as fruits or my homemade yoghurt or even a piece of dark chocolate.
  7. This trick I learnt from my grandmother- no more than three flavours together.  This gives such a clean but tasty flavour.
  8. We have at least one component of the meal that helps with digestion as I have real problems. So we can have yoghurt or fermented vegetables (kimchi) or sauerkraut along with the main course.
  9. The bulk of the food is vegetables, with about 30% meat or other protein.
  10. Clean up as you go along, putting away items in the dishwasher/sink for washing and removing peels and other waste from the work surface. It makes tidying up later much easier.  One pot cooking is marvellous- so much less to wash up and also saves money.
  11. I cook in steps. So I might marinade something a day earlier or defrost something couple of day earlier and so on. Some of the cooking such as gravy or fried vegetables might have been made earlier.
  12. Always have something in the freezer that can be defrosted the day before so that you can eat as soon as you can, instead of rushing to get a chilled meal from the supermarket.  It has been many years since I’ve had a supermarket meal and now if I have a small mouthful, I realise how ghastly they taste.  I suppose our tastebuds get used to such food and only until you’ve had a good long break, that you realise that these foods have no flavour at all- mostly salt and sugar to give it some.
  13. Find ways to reduce food waste.  So I use the potato skins, broccoli stems, bottoms of lettuce, carrot or radish leaves, etc. (I will put some recipes later on).IMG_4358.JPG Even with meat, there is hardly any waste- only after using the bones to make broth, I throw them away.  I don’t have a big composter (I have a home made composter which can only handle a small amount each time) or a garden, but our bodies are the best composters.  Avoiding buying foods that have parts that need to be thrown away is also good.  But some are inevitable such as lemons and bananas. So I will use the skins of the lemons for making washing up liquid or lemon zest. Banana skins can be used for polishing shoes and wood but I don’t like the smell and these skins tend to be my biggest throw aways. If you have a garden composter, then you can be a bit more wasteful.
  14. You can wash out ketchup, jam and sauce bottles with water and add that flavoured water to soups or curries. Then your bottle is also ready for recycling. Soups are nourishing and filling- you tend to eat less if you have the liquid and solid together as with soup.
  15. Many bloggers advise buying in bulk. I live in a flat and there is little space to store sacks of grains or pasta. Also I have found that spices lose their flavour if kept for too long. So buy little and often. It might be more expensive but it is better value.
  16. I have problems cutting hard vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. So I bake them whole and make soups or mashes out of those.  The seeds can be dried and eaten.
  17. This is a great trick I learnt- if some of the ingredients have been in the fridge and freezer, take them out so that they are at room temperature before you cook them. Not only does it save energy but also improves flavour.
  18. I get my vegetables and meat delivered from the farm- local, seasonal and fresh. This saves me trudging from the supermarket carrying bags of shopping which I can’t really do.  It is also expensive. I can plan out the meal for the week depending on what I receive- so it also saves time and money.  Also there is less packaging to deal with as these come with hardly any and if they do, they are taken away by the delivery company. One less thing to do!
  19. I try not to have drinks with food. I keep them separate.  Juices can be expensive. Water is good enough!
  20. Finally, try to eat mindfully with those you love. My uncle used to say that food eaten in good company always tastes better!