One of the things I miss about Europe is the small shops, the fruterias and the bakeries. The photo above is a fruteria somewhere in Italy, but when I lived in Spain, I would often step inside one to buy a couple of nectarines to eat as a snack while I walked around the city.  Going to the fruteria inserts you firmly into the community, disallowing you from taking refuge in the anonymity of the supermarket chains. The owners or shopkeepers are less likely to speak English, which forces you to practice your language skills. There aren’t any automated check-out lanes, and so you must interact with others in the store. Not only that, but the fruit and veg seem more colourful and fresh when bought from one of these shops than from one of the larger, chain supermarkets.

And the bakeries! How I miss popping into one to buy a baguette to eat with cheese and fruit for lunch, or soft wheaten roll to eat with my soup, or the miniature chocolate croissants to treat myself after work. You can be guaranteed that the bread and pastries are baked fresh, from scratch. You needn’t worry about what preservatives or other strange chemicals you might be putting in your body than you would if you got pre-made pastries at the supermarket.

The U.S. might have more amenities and convenience with its 24-hr supermarkets, with large selections and variety of prices, but I prefer the microcosm, the local community, that the European fruterias and bakeries offer. These small shops grant access to a community that values not convenience, but good food, good people, and a good life.

Photo: A fruteria in Italy.

On supermarkets

Here is a snapshot of reverse culture shock, a postcard if you will:

The setting is an H-E-B, the largest chain of supermarkets/grocery stores in Texas. This particular store is fairly large, even to Texan standards. The time is late afternoon.Enter: me. This is the first time since moving back to Texas that I’ve gone to H-E-B, and I’m doing it alone.

The last five years I have bought my groceries from Tesco Metro or Morrisons in a small town in Scotland. How small was our small town? Let’s just say that the surrounding villages didn’t even have grocery stores; they had to come “into town” to go to ours. I’m fairly certain the H-E-B I went to could have fit at least two Morrisons inside it, if not half a dozen Tesco Metros. I’m used to, oh, three or four fruits to choose from, five or so vegetables, and only one or two brands of everything else, with “everything else” being quite a limited selection.

Armed with my list, I went up and down the aisles and around and around the produce section and was successful at getting everything I needed. I asked for directions twice. I did have to compromise on some items. No Edam cheese, so I got Jarlsberg. No frozen raspberries, so I got frozen strawberries and peaches instead. There was only one size of baguette, so that’s the kind I got. When going to get a tins of kidney beans, I was faced with at least a dozen different brands to choose from, so I all but grabbed the first one that looked the cheapest and fled. Things like that.

One thing I got that wasn’t on my list was a bottle of cider. The whole experience in the store was overwhelming… and when I went to the alcohol section to get a bottle of gin to make a much-deserved G&T when I got home, there was none to be found. Apparently grocery stores in the U.S. are licensed to sell mostly only beer and wine? I never noticed before, having spent most of my drinking-age years abroad. I found the one brand of cider they sold, singly in bottles, and added one to my cart.

I drank that bottle of cider almost immediately after getting home. That wasn’t enough to recover from the H-E-B experience though, so later on I took a long hot soak with a cup of herbal tea, some chocolate, and a book.

It might seem silly or strange to anyone who has never spent a long time living and adapting to another culture. A supermarket is a supermarket, right? For the most part, yes — a supermarket will sell food in almost any country that has one — but what you find inside, what kinds of food, how the store is organised, the size and level of choice, that will vary from country to country, even from region to region within the same country. Even though this is my hometown and the H-E-B is one I’ve been to countless times before, I am still encountering a “new” culture. I have been away for half a decade; I have adapted and changed to a different culture which, right now, is more familiar to me than the one I grew up in. My tastes have changed dramatically from when I last lived in the U.S., so now I am left going up and down the aisles, looking for anything familiar, for food that I know that I like and will eat, and again, learning to adapt to what my new culture has to offer — this time in reverse.

Broccoli pesto pasta


It is unfortunate that the photograph makes this dish look somewhat boring, when it really isn’t. I chose this recipe because it reported to be easy and quick and it was a weeknight, so I didn’t want anything that would take too long. The flavours are subtle, causing one to savour each bite. I doubled the recipe, which made a lot, more than I was expecting. But the pasta is also great as a pasta salad. I’ll include both the recipe for the pasta and also for how we made it into a pasta salad.

Broccoli pesto pasta
(From BBC Good Food)

Serves 8

  • 800g penne, farfalle or conchiglie pasta
  • 250g broccoli, cut into florets
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 large lemon
  • 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
  • 6 Tbs pine nuts
  • 10 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 Tbs Parmesan (or grana padano), grated
  1. Tip the pasta into a large pan of boiling salted water and cook according to pack instructions. Meanwhile, bring a smaller pan of salted water to the boil, add the broccoli and boil for 4 minutes.
  2. Drain the broccoli and return it to the pan. Lightly mash the broccoli with a potato masher or fork. Finely grate the garlic and zest the lemon, then mix into the broccoli with the chilli flakes and pine nuts. Cut the lemon in half and keep for later.
  3. Drain the pasta and return it to the pan. Stir in the broccoli pesto and squeeze over the juice of 1 lemon. Pour in the olive oil and generously season with salt and pepper. Spoon in the grated Parmesan, toss the pasta well and serve.


IMG_8160Pesto Pasta Salad

Serves 2

  • 200g pasta, prepared as above
  • 200g salad leaves of your choice (we used mixed leaves one day, then rocket/arugula the next)
  • a handful cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • a handful of chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • parmesan (or grana padano) cheese, grated
  • lemon olive oil, to taste (can substitute olive oil and lemon juice)
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all of the ingredients into a large bowl and toss until well mixed. Enjoy!

Mango cream


Whenever F. and I have dinner together we try to have a dessert. Nothing fancy, just something sweet to finish off the meal. Since yesterday had the good news of a job interview and finishing my second penultimate-ready chapter, I bought some double cream, mango, papaya, and passion fruit yoghurt, and some mango chunks.

The problem with yoghurt is that it can be too sweet on its own, and that’s why we mix it with cream. The end result was somewhat plain looking, so I cut up the mango chunks and arranged them on top to make it look special.

Mango cream

  • double cream
  • mango, passion fruit, and papaya yoghurt
  • mango chunks

1. Whip the double cream to your preferred consistency. I like it just before it gets whipped, when it’s still liquid, but thickly so.

2. Mix in the yoghurt to taste.

3. Chop up the mango chunks into smaller chunks and mix in with the yoghurt cream. Arrange slices on top if you wish, but this is not necessary.

Simple, thicker and creamier than plain yoghurt, and delicious.

Pancake day!


Today is Shrove Tuesday — Mardi Gras, or, as we call it here: Pancake day!

The last few times F. and I made pancakes, we made American pancakes. Now it was his turn to introduce me to German pancakes.

Eierkuchen (or Pfannkuchen)
(a.k.a., German pancakes)
Makes 7

  • 250g flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 ts salt
  • 500 ml milk

1. Mix eggs, sugar, salt, milk in a small bowl. Put the flour in a larger bowl and slowly add the liquid mixture. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet and fry like pancakes.

Serve with apple sauce or with cream cheese.

Protein log results

The results are in and the calculations are done, and I’m surprised by the results of my food log the last three days for keeping track of how much protein I am getting in my mostly-vegetarian diet. Surprised, because I was convinced I wasn’t getting enough. I was wrong. To see the log, click ‘Continue reading…’ below.

Who knew that a 250ml glass of milk would give almost 10g of protein? Or that each slice of wholemeal bread would also have about 10g of protein? Even more surprisingly, that the scones Rebecca and I baked last night would have 4g of protein each?

Various sources agree that an adult female should get at least 46g of protein a day. I tend to get at least 50g/day. Rebecca and I also checked whether I was getting the important amino acids from protein, and I was. Pretty much, if you still eat dairy and eggs, you’ll be fine in that regard.

I’m still curious whether there might be a nutritional contributor to my tiredness, but I’m getting more convinced that the main culprits are physiological and occupational. I am a PhD student in the final year of her PhD. I have rheumatoid arthritis. These two things alone are enough to make anyone tired!

Continue reading

Follow-up log

After talking with Rebecca about my Food Log, we speculated that although my calorie count is healthy, I might not be getting enough protein. So I am going to keep another log will calculate at the end how much protein I was getting each day. I suspect I’m not getting enough, but… no adjustments will be made until the log results are in.

Why am I doing this? Because I want to be healthy. I have a lot to do and a lot more that I *want* to do and I want to have the energy and the strength to do it. I have been told by a few different sources that the next 9 months will be the most difficult in my life (to date) as I work to FINISH my PhD thesis, submit, and prepare to defend it. I have to eat, so I might as well eat well and make sure I’m getting the nutrition I need to perform my best.

Tune back in on Saturday for the results of the Protein Log.

Butternut squash with couscous


Last Friday, my friend Joanna came over with the bottle of Croatian wine she bought last year on our holiday. I was in charge of dinner, and F. and Elena were joining us. It had been one of those days where everything I touched went wrong, and that didn’t end in the kitchen.

I was going to make a butternut squash recipe from BBC Good Food, using paquito and butternut squash. It involved cutting the squash in half lengthwise and roasting it. Only, the paquito squash broke in half the other way while I was cutting it, thus throwing out the idea of using the squash as bowls for the rest of the recipe. Time for a new plan.

So, after roasting the squash, I scooped all of it out and cut it into chunks (at which point F. came and saved the day by taking over cutting the squash), replaced the lentils in the recipe with couscous, and subsequently forgot to add half the spices. Meanwhile, I decided that for dessert I would make Divine Rhubarb Crumble, using the rhubarb I canned a year and a half ago, and replacing the strawberries with apples and leaving out the rosemary and the lemon — Okay, it wasn’t the same crumble at all, except for the crumble topping.

It was pretty crazy in the kitchen and I’m so glad F. was there as sous chef. Dinner was delicious, the wine and company were good, and it was a success all around. Huzzah!

Butternut squash with couscous
Serves 5
(Adapted from BBC Good Food)

  • 2 small butternut squash
  • olive oil
  • 150g couscous
  • 2 onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • a pinch cayenne pepper
  • 175g goats cheese, crumbled
  • 40g pine nuts
  • 3 tbsp chopped mint
  • 3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 lemon, juiced

1. Heat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Wash the butternut squash and carefully cut it in half lengthways. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and fibrous centre and discard. Put the squash halves on a baking tray cut- side up, drizzle with 1 tbsp olive oil, season and roast in a hot oven for approx 35 minutes or until the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

2. When the squash is cool enough to handle scoop out the flesh, then roughly chop the flesh and put it in a bowl.

3. Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan, add the onions and garlic and cook until beginning to caramelise, about 10 minutes. Add the spices and cook for two minutes more. Add the couscous, reserved squash and 200ml of hot water and simmer for 8 minutes (until most of the water has been absorbed). Remove from the heat and stir through the goats cheese, pine nuts, herbs and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Serve with plain yoghurt and a mint leaf for garnish. Enjoy!

Tip: What to do when your dinner is essentially “mush”? Put couscous and squash mixture into a mould, such as a small bowl, and upend on a plate. Magic. Works for rice or any kind of “mushy” meal.

Food Log

Last week I said I would keep track of what I eat each day and calculate the calories. I also wanted to put the full nutritional details — protein, sugars, vitamins, etc. — but that would have taken far too much time! Because most of my food is prepared by myself, I had to use this Recipe Analyzer in order to determine the nutritional value of my home-cooked food.

See the full food log by clicking “Continue reading…” below.

As you can see from the food log, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet. My average calorie intake is 2126 calories per day, though I think the numbers are somewhat skewed because I ate much more than usual on Wednesday because F. and I were hiking in the snow.

At any rate, it was an interesting experiment. No wonder I’m always hungry by 11.30 AM — I need to find something to supplement my hearty porridge at breakfast!

Continue reading