Eating my way through Scotland

What better day to talk about food than the day after a huge feast? (I hope all my American readers enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving!) eemusings commented on a previous post that she wanted to hear more about the food I ate in Scotland. So it’s time to dish up the details. *hee, hee, hee*

I had one big constraint on my diet: I had to avoid cow milk, cream, and cheese. Way back in my late twenties I had realized that cow milk and cream caused problems for me, but a little lactose replacement usually helped. Unfortunately, earlier this year I found out I have diverticulitis. In the months since that diagnosis, I’ve discovered that eating lots of cow dairy causes enough irritation in my gut that it flares up. So it was important that I avoid cow dairy as much as possible on the trip. (I wasn’t the only person who had dietary constraints on the trip. My roommate and friend A was avoiding most high cholesterol foods like red meat and butter, as well as sugar. And there was a woman in our group that was so deathly allergic to gluten, beef, and eggs that she carried an Epipen.)

Before heading over to Scotland, I read up a bit about what types of foods I may encounter and developed a short “wish list” of things I wanted to try. Unfortunately, my cow dairy issue made it impossible for me to try cullen skink, which was a very popular (and delicious sounding) soup frequently on the starter menu. However, kippers and haggis were at the top of the list. I love oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and even anchovies. I’ve eaten canned kippered herring here, but it was nothing like the  kippers I enjoyed at breakfast many mornings. They were smoky, crispy, salty, and absolutely delicious!

Kipper

One of our tour guides suggested that those of us who liked kippers should also try Arbroath smokies, but the few times I saw them on a menu they had been cooked in milk. 😦

I tried haggis on my first night in Scotland and found it very good, too. Apparently the spices and seasonings used in haggis can vary quite a bit from place to place, and the restaurant where I first tried it used lots of warm spices. The richness of the organ meats and texture of the oats still came through and made it a truly memorable dish. On Isle of Skye I had vegetarian haggis with my breakfast. While still very tasty, the lack of organ meats made the texture and mouthfeel quite different.

I expected the food to cost more than it does here in the States and budgeted accordingly. Also, this was a luxury tour and the hotels where we stayed and dined reflected that. Eating dinner at the same hotel where we were staying was usually the most convenient option because we were in country lodgings and not cities or large towns with lots of restaurants in walking distance. There were a few times that I ventured out via cab to other villages or into town to dine, but often I just ate at the hotel with the group or with A, who usually just wanted to be “in for the night” after a day of activities.

Full breakfast was always included with our lodgings and it was possible to really fill oneself up, too. Typically there would be cold breakfast items on a buffet table available for self-service: pastries, cereal, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and fresh or stewed dried fruit. Cooked breakfast items on the menu always included oatmeal porridge, as well as egg dishes such as eggs Benedict (usually with smoked salmon instead of ham/bacon), scrambled eggs, or “full Scottish breakfast.” The latter usually included fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grilled tomato, and black pudding (blood sausage).

As much as I really need protein at breakfast to keep me going, that was way too much heavy meat for me so I never ordered the “traditional” full Scottish breakfast. Bacon in the UK was very different than the bacon in the US. It was much more like ham or the true Canadian bacon I used to get in Toronto.

I usually ordered eggs at breakfast, and my lack of critical questioning of the preparation method led to problems only a few days into the trip. I’ve been making scrambled eggs at home without milk for so long that I forgot that it’s usually standard practice to add it. At the Lake of Menteith Hotel I had been eating scrambled eggs with smoked salmon every morning for breakfast, and I had also knowingly cheated on my no dairy rule one night by eating sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

(But oh my goodness, the gloriousness that is sticky toffee pudding made me want to cheat again and again! The tour organizer also became a big fan of sticky toffee pudding, despite being a self-confessed chocoholic. Although she had traveled to the UK several times, she had never tried this dessert. I was pleased to convert her and vicariously enjoy it through her.)

By the time we arrived at our hotel near Inverness (the famous Culloden House just outside the city), I had realized the error of my ways and knew I had to increase my dietary vigilance. I went to bed that night with a hot water bottle (such a quaint feature to find in our room!) clutched to my aching gut, and a firm resolve to both not let any cow dairy slip past my lips and increase my intake of high fiber foods. Obviously, the apples I had brought with me and was consuming every day were not enough. Luckily, I discovered how delicious stewed dried fruit can be the very next morning at breakfast.

I’m not sure if the challenges I was having finding greens and vegetables (prepared without cream) was due to the posh menus at the places we were staying or if this was typical of the Scottish diet in general. On the one hand, I admired the fact that the restaurant menus reflected the season, with lots of root vegetables accompanying the mains. On the other hand, I desperately missed greens and salads. I had expected to find kale, at least. Indeed, I did see kale growing quite thickly in fields in the southern parts of Scotland, yet when I was talking to one of the friendly Scots later in the trip about those fields she said they turned the sheep into them during the winter.

Besides growing lots of kale for animal fodder, the southern areas in Scotland also cultivated a lot of fruit, especially berries. We noticed hoop houses filled with dwarf fruit trees and bramble fruits, and our bus driver told us that strawberries and raspberries were heavily cultivated in the area. Once we entered the highlands we saw mostly animals (sheep and cattle) grazing instead of cultivated fields.

But back to the meals!

Breakfasts were not only ample, one could really feast during lunches and dinners, too. I noticed that many restaurants offered two to three course fixed price meals for lunch and early dinner, just like in Spain. I took advantage of one such special at a restaurant in Inverness. The concept behind The Joy of Taste — a restaurant operating by principles sounding very much like a co-op — intrigued me, so I took a cab from Culloden House into Inverness to enjoy a delicious dinner by myself. My starter featured seared calf liver served over a bed of delicious salad greens (yay!) and my main course was duck served with lots of broccoli, courgette, and saffron potatoes. Dessert was a polenta cake made with honey and bramble berries. That was one of my more memorable meals in Scotland, although the relatively low cost was offset by the price of the taxis I had to take to and from Culloden House. (I stretched out my enjoyment of Inverness that evening by walking along the River Ness for a bit before returning to the hotel.)

That wasn’t the first time I had duck while in Scotland. It seemed to be the more popular form of poultry in the country. The menus frequently featured beef, lamb, pork, and fish, but rarely offered chicken. Considering how ubiquitous and popular chicken is in the US, I found this rather remarkable. Another difference between US and Scotland was in the cuts of pork. The most common cut of pork I saw on menus was not chops, but fresh pork belly. (Although I did enjoy a starter of some braised pig cheeks at Cross Keys pub in Kippen).

Scotland is a land with an extensive coastline and many, many fresh water lakes and streams. (I was constantly amazed at the number of gushing springs and waterfalls I saw from the window of the bus as we drove through the Highlands. There was water everywhere.) Fish and seafood of all kinds were plentiful on menus. I dined on fish and chips twice during my trip, but tried to keep my consumption of fried fish minimal. Salmon — both fresh and hot or cold smoked — were also featured quite a bit. I suspect most of it was from the fish farms we frequently saw along the sea lochs and coastline and not wild caught, unfortunately.

As we arrived on the west coast, we found that the local specialty was langoustines, which were tasty little crustaceans, although they took a bit of work to eat.

Langoustines!

Oh, and as for beverages, I enjoyed both ales and wine with dinner, but of course enjoyed the whisky the most. 🙂

Evening libation

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Playing with my food

I haven’t felt like writing much these days, so I just haven’t done so. Instead, I’ve spent my spare time doing things with food.

With all of my hobbies, it seems I get into these phases where I want to spend more time on just that one thing and barely spend time on anything else. I’ve gone through such phases with knitting, gardening, reading, writing, and even exercising. (Oh boy, I could sure use a bit of extra energy around that last one right about now, too!) I’m a firm believer that food is important in one’s overall health and have been dealing with some health issues in the past few months, therefore much of my food experimentation has involved making dietary changes that will hopefully lead to better health outcomes.

Since I was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis several months ago, I’ve been trying all sorts of things to fully recover. Not doing much exercise has led to me putting back on some weight that I really, really don’t want, so it’s important that I get my foot (thankfully, only one foot is still achy) completely better. So, in the interest of helping myself loose weight and decrease inflammation, I’ve started a no-grain diet.

That’s right, I’m trying very hard to make sure that no grains at all pass my lips: no wheat, no rice, no oats, no rye, and no corn. Having a pantry well-stocked with various noodles/pasta, flours, and crackers has made it a bit tough at times, but I’m doing fairly well. I’m also trying not to eat potatoes in an effort to keep my glycemic load at optimal levels.

In general, this means that I consume lots of vegetables, fruits, and animal protein. (I can’t even imagine trying to eat this way as a vegan, although a vegetarian who is OK with consuming dairy and eggs would be able to follow this approach). For cooking inspiration, I’ve been consulting various books and websites that have recipes geared towards paleo dieting and low glycemic index eating (such as South Beach dieting sites), but I haven’t been sticking entirely within the parameters of those diets. I’m trying to come up with something that works for me and my body, and what works for others may not work for me. To make things just a bit more interesting, I’m also trying really hard to stay away from cow dairy, to which I’ve scored pretty high on food sensitivity tests.

Unlike traditional weight loss diets, I’m not counting calories or points nor am I consuming low or non-fat products. Some of the yummy meals I’ve eaten over the last week are:

  • Veggie “hash” of sauteed yellow peppers, onions, and black beans mixed with salsa and topped with a medium-cooked egg.
  • Grilled skirt steak with grilled zucchini and green onions.
  • Baked lamb shoulder chop with ginger-garlic roasted broccoli.
  • Chicken salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, mayo, and chopped apple over romaine lettuce.
  • Chicken “Marsala” (no marsala wine on hand, so I substituted sweet vermouth; also no flour or breading on the chicken) served over finely chopped, steamed cauliflower.

My snacks have been veggies with hummus or fruit mixed with dairy:

  • Watermelon with mint and sheep’s milk feta cheese;
  • Goat’s milk brie wedges with apple slices;
  • Goat’s milk yogurt with diced apricot or banana.

(Note: I am absolutely *in love* with a type of small banana called apple bananas. The only place I ever see them is an international market a short drive from home. These are not just “baby bananas” that can be found at the big chain grocery stores; they have a unique taste and texture that I find superior. The peel on the apple bananas has to be more brown than a standard banana in order for it to taste best, though, so if you are lucky enough to find them keep that in mind.)

I’ve been really enjoying my meals and the cooking challenges posed by the elimination of staples like pasta, rice, and bread. I’ve even been inspired to try some pickling, but I’ll save that experience for its own post.

Now to get an exercise regime started up again!

Control and comfort

I’m a control freak and I realize that. Digging deep into my life as I was growing up, there is an explanation for this. I won’t go into great detail here as I try not to get too heavy on this blog; I have a therapist for a reason, and that’s the proper venue for such revelations.

I only note this fact here to introduce the reasoning behind my nearly fanatical focus on food and exercise in the past few months.

I am NOT in control of what is going on around me these days, and I find that very stressful and anxiety-provoking. I am buffeted by the crazy economy and an internal reorganization at work; by a wildly changing mortgage market that impacts my ability to lock down a monthly budget on which to live, and; by the wacky legal system and it’s impact on my personal space/life due to divorce. (*STILL* no final agreement on paper or date for this to end and me to be living alone…arrggghhhh!)

One sure thing I CAN control is what goes in my mouth and how I expend those calories. So, my freezer is pretty much full of containers of the various soups I’ve cooked up nearly weekly over the past 2 months, as well as the fruits, veggies, and other freezable things I’ve put by such homemade crepes and bread. It makes packing lunch every day pretty easy, and it is a great way to make sure I am eating healthy, nourishing food.

I love soups, and I’m a big fan of beans and other high-fiber veggies. So when I ran across a recipe for Garlic Lover’s White Bean Soup I had to try it. This is gooooddd soup that’s really thick and stew-like. It’s vegan, but can be adapted for those who love meat. (I had some chopped ham on hand so I added it near the end.) I talked so favorably about this soup to my friends that I’ve been chided once already for not yet providing a link to the recipe. My friends, have at it and enjoy!

Today was a very special day for Chicagoans as our former senator was sworn into the office as president. Many of us took a break from work to cluster around the television on our floor (perpetually tuned to CNN and usually spewing dire financial news or disasters) to watch the key inauguration activities: Obama’s swearing in and his acceptance speech. I’ll admit that I was one of the people wiping tears from my cheeks. I still tear up as I see the replays of his speech on the news programs.

I know that Obama is just a man and that he will likely make mistakes, but it is such a relief to have real hope for the direction of this country. This is also an area where I have no control, but it makes a big difference to have a person that I trust and admire in this position. And the fact that so many outside of this country responded with great enthusiasm to this event, too, gives me great hope and comfort.

Simply glorious

This weekend was perfect. The weather has cooled down, the humidity has dropped, and the rain has stopped. I spent as much time outdoors as possible. Yesterday that didn't amount to much, but today I was outside nearly all day.

I'm getting into a routine now: get up shortly after dawn, let the dogs out, fill up water jug, open garage, then venture outside. I open the secure storage bin where I keep the chicken feed and Grub container and make sure it's got a generous amount of food in it. Then I step into the side yard and open the Eglu door. The chooks are right there ready to rush into the run; it's sort of like watching a horse race when the gate opens!

They are giving me annoyed sounding noises that they are impatient to be out and about and that I'm too slow to give them their feed. Then, I open the run door and slip in the Grub container. They are at it immediately; you'd think they had been starved for days! As they gorge themselves, I empty and refill their water container. Finally, I slip them whatever little scraps I've pulled out the fridge: some trimmings from the celery, chopped up stale bread, etc.

This morning I was able to rouse Mark at a fairly early time (about 8:10 AM) with promises of a fabulous breakfast at Lula Cafe if he just got out bed and onto his bike. Today was the farmers market in Logan Square, and I was in desperate need of eggs. But if I'm going to Logan Square, then I must make a stop at Lula!

Although we didn't hit the road quite as early as planned, we still were able to secure a table at Lula with no wait. Amazing! I was incredibly hungry since I'd been up for 2.5 hours already and only had one cup of tea with milk. Oh, and I had just cycled 4.5 miles, too. I dug into a yummy scone and savored a cup of coffee as I waited for my main course: savory corn griddle cakes with amarillo salsa, pinto beans, creme fraiche, scrambled eggs, and pico de gallo. Ahhh!!

We got to the farmers market about 30 minutes after it opened and I nearly fell apart when I heard that they were out of eggs already…until I heard that there was another vendor that just might have some. Yes, he did! I scored one of the last dozen eggs. Hopefully, I will not have to be so cranky about getting eggs for much longer.

After loading up so much last week at the Green City Market, I didn't need too much. I picked up some bread from the nice bakery guy, some plums, a couple bells of garlic, some scallions, and a cut up chicken. The chicken is still defrosting, so we didn't get to eat it tonight. Tomorrow it's going out on the grill.

We cycled home and put everything away, then I let the chooks out to graze for the afternoon. The grass in the back yard was incredibly lush, green and long from all of the rain we've been getting. Mark cut it and used the mower bag to collect the clippings. I dumped these out for the chooks and they loved playing in them. They scratched, they pecked, they ate a bit.

Mostly, they just hung out in the shady part of the side yard and pecked at greenery. There are a couple hosta plants over there that look quite raggedy now! No big deal; if there was anything I was really worried about I would have protected it from their insatiable greed for green.

The dogs are still much too eager to make the acquaintence of the chickens. I haven't tried to introduce them to each other any more for now.

I had a bit of a scare this afternoon, too. I was relaxing on the porch with my knitting, and I guess that was too far away for the chickies. One of them — I think it was Selma, the smallest one — flapped around and ended up sitting on top of the fence! I was alerted to this by the dogs, who had been laying on the porch, but keeping a sharp eye on the movement across the driveway. As the dogs excitedly danced around me, I quickly but calmly stepped out onto the driveway – shutting the gate behind me so the dogs didn't follow — and as I approached the fence Selma was sitting on, she casually hopped back down into the yard. I may have do some wing clipping!

OK, enough about chickens for now. It's time to reveal my knitting progress. I have two finished projects to show today.

 

First, a pair of socks knit in Panda Cotton. This yarn is soft and scrumptious. Click the photo for all the pertinent details on pattern, etc.

 

Finally, the item I was referring to in my last post: an easy, but pretty shawl. Again, much more detail available when the photo is clicked.

After so many months where it seems that anything I knit was doomed to fail, it really feels good to have 2 finished projects that turned out so well. I've already cast on another shawl and started swatching for another pair of socks. So far, boht of the new projects feel very "right" so I'm hoping that the time of bad knitting mojo has passed.

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