Christmas Wishlist for Foodies – Buy Cheap Buy Twice

I never really believed in the old adage “Buy cheap, buy twice” until we managed to kill a coffee machine every year for three years running!  We gradually moved up the price scale each time (admittedly the very first one was a £20 machine so we had quite a way to go to get into the luxury range), until we found a coffee machine that has now lasted three years and is still going strong.  I do get embarrassed though when someone asks the price, but in the long run it has saved us money by not going out to get our coffee-fix.  Considering my first ever job was a barrista for a not very well known chain of coffee stands (usually found in train stations), I have had a long-term love affair with all things coffee.  My husband has also had a long-standing reliance on caffeine given that he is a hospital doctor – between the two of us we make that machine work hard!

Sometimes it really is worth the extra spend on something that will last and save you time… or at least that’s what I tell myself.  Here are some of my top picks which are definitely worth the extra spend.

The coffee machine – DeLonghi Prima Donna

  • Don’t buy the fitted models – you’ll move and have to leave it behind, or it might break before the next kitchen refit and there is no guarantee that the newer models will fit in the space.
  • Do think about counter-space – some of the top models are quite tall, so may not fit under your cupboards, and since many require you to load them with water/beans from the top, pulling it out and pushing it back will increase the likelihood of damage (either to the machine or your counter-top).  An integrated bean-to-cup model enables you to choose your beans (and buy them in bulk), and grinds them for you, saving you the hassle of having a separate grinder on the counter.
  • Do think about cost-per-use – the pod style coffee machines lock you into using their refills, which can get quite expensive if you are not interested in learning how to fill your own pods.
  • My top pick: the DeLonghi Prima Donna (Amazon.co.uk link). 

The Food Mixer – The Kenwood Chef

  • Try not to get too influenced by form over function – the best models will last for 30 or more years (my mother still have two Kenwood Chefs that she was given as wedding presents – one for each of her marriages – which are still going strong 30-40+ years later).  Look for fully metal gears as these motors will last, while those not made out of metal will likely break if you leave them on too long too often.
  • Think about the attachments available – you may not want to make pasta or mince meat now, but you might in the future.  Pick the model with the best selection of attachments.
  • Think about who is going to clean it – one of the major reasons I picked the Kenwood over the KitchenAid is ease of cleaning.  The Kenwood has simpler lines making wiping it down after use a doddle, while a friend who has a KitchenAid regrets her choice as it is constantly getting dirty and takes that bit longer to clean.  You could always get a cover to  minimise the mess though…
  • My top pick: The Kenwood Chef Major Titanium (Amazon.co.uk link)

The Food Blender – The Vitamix

  • Think about what you may make – the better models have the most powerful motors which won’t burn out on long blends.  The cheaper ones may need time to cool down in between bursts of activity so you may be hanging around twiddling your thumbs – or you may break it!
  • Think about noise levels though – these machines are LOUD.  If you live somewhere with noise restrictions think about whether those neighbour relationships are good enough to withstand this…
  • My top pick: The Vitamix Blender (Amazon.co.uk link)
  • Second choice: The Berg Commercial Blender (Amazon.co.uk link)

The Toaster – Dualit New Gen

  • Four slices of toast at a time and a warming rack for buns/pastries – this does the job of something a lot cheaper, but feels far more solid than the previous £40 toaster we had…  This is definitely a luxury not a necessity, but such a lovely luxury…
  • Amazon.co.uk link

The Slow Cooker – Crock-Pot Slow Cooker

Things still on my wishlist to try:

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Frugal Fridays: A glut of bananas

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Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to be organised, you end up with more produce than you can get through before it goes off.  Today, that happened to be bananas that ripened faster than usual – I had 9 bananas needing to be eaten immediately.   Here is what I did with them:

  • two were immediately blended with 400ml milk for two banana milkshakes
  • two were sliced and frozen in a freezer bag for a frozen smoothie at some point in the future
  • the remaining five were sliced thinly and baked in the oven at 100 degrees C for three hours to be banana chips for snacks

The Science of Ingredients: Serotonin and Tryptophan

The Educated Foodie Science Graphic PNG

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a hormone found throughout the body, mostly in the gut and in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system).  In the digestive system it helps the smooth muscle contract and so eases digestion.  In the brain it helps regulate mood, among other things, and is known as the happiness hormone as it contributes to a general feeling of well-being.

What has the research found?

Levels of serotonin have been found to be linked with:

How do we ensure we get enough Serotonin?

It is a hormone which cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so must be produced within the brain.  This is where the food bit comes in – we must eat tryptophan containing foods in order to be able to produce serotonin in the brain.  Eating foods high in tryptophan ensures that we have enough of the building blocks to make serotonin for ourselves.

These foods include:

  • Dairy: yogurt, milk, cheese
  • Protein: beef, pork, turkey, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
  • Soy: tofu, soy milk, soybeans/edamame
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Whole Grains: oats, brown rice, wheat, wheatgerm
  • Nuts and seeds: hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fruit: mangos, dates, bananas
  • Vegetables: kelp, spirulina, potato skins
  • Cocoa: chocolate, cocoa powder

Alternatively, you can take a supplement of 5-HTP, although of course whether or not you believe in taking supplements is the basis for a whole series of posts!  If you do decide to take a supplement of it, remember to take it at night as it does make you feel drowsy…

Kitchen Kit: The Oil Cloth Apron


Apron_Miranda_smallApron_English_Rose_Duckegg_small

Images from the justwipe.co.uk website

One of the most useful tools around the kitchen is an apron – I’m sure I don’t need to explain why!  However, in recent years the oil cloth version, my preferred type, has apparently become really unpopular as it has become nearly impossible to find.   Every single one I see in shops is the basic fabric type which I don’t like at all.

The oil cloth apron is better (in my opinion) than the basic fabric type for three main reasons:

  1. It protects your clothes more – splashes from the hob/food processor/hand blender/sink don’t go through an oil cloth apron, whereas a strong splash will go through a fabric one and end up on your clothes underneath.
  2. It is far easier to clean – take a wet cloth and wipe it down.  It doesn’t need to go in the wash and it doesn’t stain (unless you have an old one with cracks where the fabric is unprotected – those cracks will stain).
  3. It doesn’t need ironing as it never goes through the wash!

The only real downside to them are that they do age – the oil cloth finish will wear thin anywhere where you habitually crease it (so don’t sit at the table in it) and the creases do eventually turn into cracks.  However, they probably last longer than fabric ones in terms of staining.  I love to cook with tomatoes and turmeric (not necessarily at the same time), the two worst staining offenders of all time.  So this is is a major consideration for me – it might not bother you if you tend not to cook with ingredients that stain.

In recent years, I’ve only found them in two places – either in tourist shops (with the requisite novelty patterns) or online.  One great place which I’ve repeatedly ordered from is www.justwipe.co.uk.  They offer a bundle of 10 for £50 or you can choose your preferred pattern for £9.99 each – with a range of patterns, including plain and seasonal patterns as well as patterns resembling ones from famous designers such as Orla Keily and Cath Kidston, there should be something you like.  Every few years I buy the bundle of 10, pick my favourite from the random selection they send to replace one of my worn ones (I have 3 on the go at a time – so there is one for every person who might be cooking at one time), and distribute the rest as Christmas gifts to people I know who like them – at £5 per apron, that’s a real bargain gift!


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Image from the justwipe.co.uk website

The Science of Ingredients: Caffeine

_44057447_coffee.203Image source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6945697.stm (cited later on)

Caffeine is part of most people’s everyday lives (especially mine!), for the most part deliberate, although there are many places where caffeine can be found which are rather surprising (such as chocolate and decaf).    Caffeine is naturally found in chocolate, coffee and tea and is added to cola, energy drinks, and medicines such as flu remedies among others.   Decaffeinated coffee still contains approximately 10% of the original caffeine making the name “decaffeinated” somewhat of a misnomer.  It is absorbed very quickly, usually within a few minutes, and acts to block chemical signals in your brain that tell you to feel sleepy – so you end up feeling more awake.  Unsurprisingly, it has been shown in various studies that caffeine can interrupt normal sleep patterns, and that abstinence from caffeine improves sleep for those who suffer from insomnia.

Caffeine is addictive and has significant withdrawal symptoms including headaches, depressed mood, irritability, flu like symptoms, and nausea.  Typically withdrawal symptoms last 2-9 days and have been reported in people who consume as low a daily dose as 100mg/day (one cup of coffee).  Enough evidence of this withdrawal has been found that it has now been included in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  It is possible to overdose on caffeine, with one man reportedly dying from eating too many energy mints.

All of these suggest that caffeine is a really bad component in your daily cuppa.  Are there any actual positives of caffeine?  Various recent studies are suggesting that there are some good reasons to include caffeine in your daily rituals so you may be able to relax a bit.  One study showed that a cup of coffee before exercising can help you to exercise for longer than you would otherwise, while another showed that fat burning was increased following strength training after a cup of coffee.  Specific sources of caffeine have also been investigated, with green tea demonstrating a helpful influence on muscle recovery following strenuous strength training – although that was a study on mice and human mileage may vary.  Various studies have shown an improvement in cognitive abilities following caffeine intake, such as this one on information processing, and this one on the prevention of “cognitive decline” in ageing rats.  A further study has found increased life expectancy for those who drink moderate amounts of tea or coffee, although this comes with the warning that high doses may lead to increased anxiety-related illnesses.

The current advice from the Food Standards Agency in the UK lists a recommended maximum daily doses of caffeine of 400mg for adults, and 200mg for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive.  So how much is that?  While the table below lists standardised amounts these should be taken with caution as caffeine amounts vary hugely depending on the type of bean, how the beans are roasted and how they are served.  This makes for an interesting day of mental maths for most people doesn’t it?

CAFFEINE IN FOOD AND DRINK

• 1 mug of instant coffee: 100mg
• 1 mug of filter coffee: 140mg
• 1 mug of tea: 75mg
• 1 can of cola: 40mg
• 1 can of ‘energy’ drink: up to 80mg
• 1 x 50g bar of plain chocolate: up to 50mg
• 1 x 50g bar of milk chocolate: up to 25mg

So if you eat…

• one bar of plain chocolate and one mug of filter coffee, or
• two mugs of tea and one can of cola, or
• one mug of instant coffee and one can of energy drink

…you have reached almost 200mg of caffeine.

Source: Department of Health

Opinion: Horse Meat and Statistics

Princess Anne this week revived the horse meat scandal with her comments regarding whether horse owners would look after their horses more carefully if they could sell them for human consumption at the end of their lives.  The BBC commentary on it was one of the more considered pieces, which didn’t really blow it out of proportion as she does quite clearly state that she wanted the debate to be had not that she was definitely for it.  The horse meat scandal earlier on in the year took up a lot of time on BBC Radio 4 on my drive to and from work everyday and I kept hearing arguments for eating horse meat based on the idea that it is a perfectly normal thing on the continent.   I go to France at least once a year to stay with friends who have their own horses and it seems vaguely disloyal to contemplate eating one when there were four visible from the dining room and kitchen.  Especially when I’ve gone out and fed them the dry ends of the baguettes which they are so keen on…  

I’ve seen plenty of horse meat in the supermarket, so I had unquestioningly accepted this assumption about the frequency of horse meat consumption.  However, when seeing this graph on horse meat consumption, unexplained, in the article link above, there appears to be very little evidence to support any assertion that horse meat is a common behaviour.

_65855175_horsemeat_consumption304Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24952823 

Do you see the problem with this graph?

What this graph shows is that people in Belgium on average have approx 1.1kg per year of horse meat.  Given an average portion size of 150-200g, this is about 6-7 portions per year, or once every two months.  Belgians eat approx 30.4kg of meat in total per year, so 1.1kg being horse meat is a small proportion – certainly not making them prolific horse-meat eaters, or even prolific meat-eaters!  When teaching statistics to my students I always teach them that one number on its own is not helpful – generally you need several in order to get a proper picture of whatever activity is being investigated.   Further you need to convert the units into actual real-life units in order to give a even clearer picture.  What 30.4kg breaks down to is 202 days out of 365 days getting a single 150g portion of meat in that day, which is just over half the year.  Obviously there is a slight fallacy here as there will be a number of people not eating meat at all (vegetarians!) who will be bringing down the average for the whole country, and of course these numbers don’t give us the range or standard deviation in order to see if there are some avid meat consumers eating, say 400g per day, but still…

I think we need a campaign to teach people better statistics.  I’m not convinced that the people who are arguing for the consumption of horse meat as it is a common behaviour have actually looked at these stats – and if they have, they certainly haven’t been able to translate them into human behaviours.  Either way, I’m still not convinced that eating horse meat is necessarily a good thing – why don’t people focus on the benefits of horse meat over other types instead of going for the “other people do it so we should too” type of argument, which I think I’ve demonstrated is not as strong an argument as they might assume.