Anti-Allergy Soup

For a few months I’ve been following The Doctor’s Kitchen channel on YouTube.  This is presented by Dr Rupy, a Londoner of Indian ancestry who shares his intuitive way of cooking combined with maintaining health and his medical knowledge.

CauliWatercressSoup

Generally my hay fever takes the form of a headache that just won’t go away.  I have to ask friends if the pollen count is high and then I realise that is the cause.  But this year I had no symptoms early on but when it struck I got the whole itchy eyes and runny nose thing.  Right on cue Dr Rupy has a video on foods that help suppress hay fever, and an associated recipe on his website for Cauliflower and Watercress soup.

He made the point that watercress is in season at the moment.  Well it might be, and maybe it’s not the best way to buy it, but Sainsbury’s are charging £1.50 for an 80g bag.  The recipe calls for a large handful, which is translated as 150g.  That was going to make it a bit expensive so I tried it with one bag, or 80g.  It made a pretty good soup, but it lacked something for us.  I repeated the recipe a few days later, doubling the garlic and onion and added some mixed herbs.  I also tweaked the method to make it a one pot recipe.

Ingredients (serves 2):

4 cloves Garlic finely chopped
4 Spring Onions chopped
250g Cauliflower finely chopped
500ml boiling Water
0.5 tsp Salt (I use lo-salt)
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
80g Watercress
0.5 tsp dried mixed herbs

Method:

Fry the garlic and onions in a little oil, just until they are looking transparent.  Don’t let them brown – so keep the temperature low.  As soon as they are done add the mixed herbs and pile in the cauliflower.  Remember you can use the stalky bits of the cauliflower and some of the leaves too.  If you do then put them in first and stir-fry them a bit before adding the chopped florets.  At the water and bring it all back to the boil and at the salt or lo-salt.  Let this simmer for 20 mins.

When the cauliflower is quite soft add the watercress to the top of the pan and cram the lid back on.  The watercress will steam and wilt in about 3 minutes.  I added a little back pepper at this stage.  Remove from the heat and zizz the lot in the pan with a stick blender adding more water to reach the consistency you want.

Pour into bowls and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.  It makes two generous servings.  That’s it – serve with fresh, home made sourdough bread – naturally.

So did it fix my hay fever?  Hard to say, because I also resorted to antihistamine tablets.  It was a smashing soup though and one we will choose to repeat as long as we can get watercress.

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Vipassana Course – Take Two

MeditationHall

Meditation hall and gong

Yesterday I returned from sitting the ten day vipassana meditation course for the second time at Dhamma Dipa.  Apologies to those who have been trying to contact me – I think I’ve dealt with the backlog of messages now.  You can read about my first experience here.  To summarise: it’s ten days plus the evening of the day before and the morning of the day after.  Nine and a bit full days are spent in Noble Silence, which means not communicating with other students even by gesture or eye contact.  About ten hours each day are spent sitting in meditation.

It was tough the first time – why put myself through it again?  Well the answer to that is complex.  To start with it is recommended to repeat the course once a year.  I didn’t feel the need to do that.  However, after two years I began to appreciate the privilege of having ten days in which to focus on nothing else but meditating.  My own practice has been steady at most mornings for a short meditation and then about three afternoons per week to sit for one hour.  I was starting to feel a little stale with it so this was an opportunity to refresh and deepen my practice.

So was it tough the second time?  Yes but in different ways.  Knowing what to expect certainly helps.  My existing practice meant that I don’t find it difficult to sit on the floor for an hour – although that can still become painful when repeating it hour after hour with just short breaks.  Old students are asked to practice in a slightly different way to new students and this requires even more focus and sensitivity. This was frustrating at the start, but I did get it eventually.

The main aims of vipassana are to train us to:

  1. Recognise the changing nature of everything, that some things are pleasant and some unpleasant but either way they don’t last forever.
  2. To realise that our bodies respond to events with sensations which we find pleasant or unpleasant and that we can break out of old patterns of reaction by treating all sensations with equanimity.  This leaves us free to act rationally rather than react out of habit.
  3. To see that the stream of internal dialogue that we have is not our ‘self’.  Neither the sensations we generate nor reactive habits we have are the self either.  There is no need to identify with them.

S.N. Goenka, the teacher, explains that many students get caught up playing games with the sensations.  It took me almost to the end of the course to realise that I had also fallen into this trap.  It had become relatively easy to deal with the pain of sitting still, and to feel connected to most of my body with sensations that if not pleasant, were at least not unpleasant.  The danger is in becoming attached to that state – to cling to it, and to crave it when it disappears.

Sure enough, on the ninth day, in the first session I was all cocky and feeling that I’d worked my way steadily though the course.  Unexpectedly I struggled to focus.  I felt something dreadful going on in the left side of my trunk and it was so distracting. My mind played every trick in the book to avoid even acknowledging the sensation. Only after an hour and a half of this did the realisation strike:  Oh, this is what he’s been talking about.  It was like coming to from daydreaming at the back of the class to find the teacher shouting “YOU BOY! YES, I’M TALKING TO YOU!”  Here was an unpleasant reality and it was my job to treat it no differently than the pleasant warmth from the blanket draped over my shoulders.

Woods

A path through the walking area

After breakfast I went for a short walk in the woods and admired the daffodils waving their heads again after several days of being blanketed by snow.  Returning to the hall for the next session with some apprehension, I found to my surprise that the sensation was barely there.  Lesson learned, I knew better than to rejoice as it continued to dissolve. Better just to observe, and to realise that I can be happy in myself in any case.

In the following session we practised metta meditation, which is a way of focussing outwards after the inward gaze of the previous nine days.  I find it akin to Quaker worship in the way that it turns the mind toward the well being and happiness of others.  With that done we were permitted to talk, and the course entered the wind-down stage.  It was good do hear the experiences of others, and to realise that they are all different and all valid.

Will I be doing it again?  Yes, probably.  One option is to volunteer to serve on a course, which means working in the background to help run the centre for the meditators.  It’s a way of expressing gratitude for the benefit of a course, by supporting others.  I think I would like to do that.

Meanwhile: may all beings find true love, true peace, true happiness.

 

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Please give me a Placebo

This morning an article was published on the BBC News website:  “Anti-depressants: Major study finds they work.”  Apparently there has been some debate about this.  “Scientists say they have settled one of medicine’s biggest debates after a huge study found that anti-depressants work.  The study, which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common anti-depressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than dummy pills.”

Pills

The BBC article came with a meaningless picture of pills, so here is my meaningless picture of pills.  They are multivitamins in case you are interested.

Well that would seem like good news.  Until that is you read a little deeper.  Then we find that “the study found they ranged from being a third more effective than a placebo to more than twice as effective.”

Just a minute.  If a drug is one third more effective than a placebo I think that means that in a trial where the placebo cures 3 people the drug cured 4 people.  So this means that for every extra person cured by the drug three other people are cured, but would have also been cured if they took a sugar pill, and would have suffered none of the side effects.

Even the most effective drug on the list of 21 studied was only “more than twice as effective.”  Given that they didn’t say “nearly three times as effective,” let’s assume that it was at best 2.5 times as effective.   That means that if 10 people could be cured by a placebo 25 people are cured by the drug.  In other words, nearly half the people taking the drug would have been better off without it.  And this is for the best drug available.

Now let’s be clear: depression is a terrible thing, and it blights the lives of some people, or even leads them to take their own life, and sometimes the lives of others too.  However, most of the data in the study came from trials covering just eight weeks of treatment.  If all of those people had been treated with a placebo for eight weeks a bunch of them would have become better with no side effects at all.  And if those that didn’t improve were then given the drug that would result in about the same number again getting better, albeit some weeks later.  Wouldn’t that be a great result?

For some reason giving people placebos is seen as unethical but I can’t quite work out why.  Sure, it’s important to address the needs of someone with suicidal thoughts as fast as possible.  We should trust the doctors to have some idea who those people might be.  Let’s also bear in mind that some anti-depressants have also been linked to increased risk of suicide and we trust the doctors to prescribe them appropriately.

All I can say is that if a drug is only twice as effective as a placebo, then for my own case, in a non-critical situation, I would much rather be prescribed a placebo in the first instance.

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Express Espresso

At the end of January David Leeper came to have a chat with me whilst I was stewarding at ArtSpring Gallery.  He explained that he has entered a coffee barista competition, and would love to have some coffee cups custom made by a local potter.  Well all that sounded lovely and he liked the sort of work I showed him.  The problem was that he needed them for 17th February.   Suddenly it’s starting to sound like one of those silly challenges on The Great Pottery Throwdown.

FreshlyThrown

Freshly thrown

I was careful to be frank with David about the risks.  Even if I made the pots the next day they would then have to dry, the bases would have to be turned, they would have to dry completely before firing.  That wouldn’t be quick in February – a week if we’re lucky.  Then they have to be glazed, inside one day and outside the next because they have to dry again in between the two stages.  Then the final firing.  A quick flick through the diary app on our phones.  Hmm, they would be ready a few days before the competition.  And that assumes that I don’t mess up anywhere along the way.

TurnedBases

Based turned

On the plus side I had made some espresso cups some years ago and they held exactly the 4 fl. oz. he was looking for.  What’s more I already had batches of the glazes he liked made up and I’d used them recently so the risk of the glaze not working was minimised.  I had the right clay in stock.

I scaled up the cup I had made before to allow for the shrinkage of the clay in drying and firing and did a test run that night to work out what weight of clay would be right.  (Because of course I hadn’t written it down when I made them!) I turned the bases the next day and measured them to check that the size would be OK.  I wasn’t convinced – they looked a bit big.  Nevertheless I ploughed on and made a run, including some spares.  After a few days they were all made, turned, and brought into the house to speed up the drying.

InKilnUnfired

Glazed and ready to fire

The following week they were in the kiln for the first firing.  As soon as they emerged I lined one up next to the original and to my amazement it looked about right on size.  There is still a little shrinkage to go in the final, and highest temperature firing.  I glazed the inside with white and let them get touch dry before applying wax to the rim and the area of the side where the lip will rest.  The next day I sponged off any white below the wax line and let them finish drying.  The final process was to dip them in the grey glaze and wipe the base clean.

InKilnFired

Opening The Kiln

The next morning I loaded them in the kiln and programmed the glaze firing for 1200 Celsius.  I go for a slowish ramp up a short soak at top temperature and then a controlled cooling for a couple of hours before the kiln switches off and cools naturally.  The next morning I was able to take a few out provided I used oven gloves.  I marched straight down to Tonbridge Old Fire Station, where David runs the coffee shop 65mm Coffee.

EspressoArrayWe were both really excited to see coffee in them for the first time.  He made me an excellent espresso, and then poured two with added foamed milk in a fancy pour pattern.  David was very happy with the cups, and I was relieved that I’d managed to produce what he wanted and not ruin his chances in the competition.

Good luck for Saturday David!

InHand

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Stuffing Balls

StuffingBalls

With my mother now living nearby, for the first time in about 20 years we celebrated Christmas at home.  We retrieved the tree from the loft and decorated it and by some miracle the fairy lights worked.  With just three of us for dinner we settled on a large chicken, but to make it more Christmassy we decided to make a stuffing.  I grabbed a recipe from the BBC Good Food website and it turned out rather well.  So well in fact that we thought we would enjoy the stuffing as a meal on its own.

I like to make our own sourdough bread and there is often the end of a loaf left over.  Not enough for lunch with soup, but rather too much to just throw away.  Occasionally we will use it in a topping for baked fish au gratin but a new recipe to use breadcrumbs would be useful.

Last night I made the stuffing balls again.  I made half of the original recipe, adapting it a bit to use dried parsley as the fresh isn’t growing in the pot on the patio and I’d used the last of that at Christmas.  I served it on a bed of curly kale, and topped it with a little sweet chilli sauce.

Ingredients:

Serves 2

1 large onion, chopped very finely
25g butter or coconut oil
25g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
70g dried apricots, chopped into small pieces
100g fresh sourdough breadcrumbs – I used wholemeal
1 heaped teaspoon freeze dried parsley – you could add more
zest of half a lemon
1 egg
salt & pepper to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Small saucepan crammed with chopped curly kale
squeeze of lemon juice
drizzle of good oil – I used flax seed oil, but extra virgin olive oil would be fine too.

Method:

Dice the onion really finely, melt the butter or coconut oil and slowly fry the onion until it starts to caramelise.  Meanwhile make the breadcrumbs, chop the nuts and apricots.  Mix all of these in a bowl with the parsley, lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Once the onions are ready add them in too.  Finally add the egg and mix it all together.  Form the mixture into about eight balls and place in a shallow dish.  Drizzle them with half a tablespoon of olive oil and place in the oven at 180C fan.

Now prepare the kale, chopping it into small pieces if it isn’t already and putting about 1cm of water in the bottom of the pan.  When the stuffing balls are starting to brown on the top (about 15 mins) put the pan of kale on the hob.  Remove the stuffing balls from the oven, turn them carefully and drizzle them with the remaining half tablespoon of oil. Return them to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes.  This is about how long it will take the kale to reach boiling and cook.  Drain the kale and sprinkle with a couple of teaspoons of oil.  I used flax seed for the Omega-3 fatty acid content.  Squeeze in some lemon juice and stir it round.  Divide it between two warmed plates and top with the stuffing balls.  A little sweet chilli sauce, ketchup or relish sets it off nicely, but don’t smother it.

 

 

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Wat Day

WatBanPing1

The view as I opened my room door

This post has been delayed because, as I mentioned in the last one, I lost my phone on the way to the airport in Chiang Mai.  Once Song Kran festival was over and the post offices were re-opened the lovely BP and Lek at The Chiang Mai White House mailed it back to me.  It arrived a week or so ago but it’s taken me this long to get my act together, download the photos and write this post.

WatBanPing2

Wat Ban Ping

 

Every day as I set off to the massage school I was entranced by the sight of Wat Ban Ping glistening in the morning sunshine over the tree tops from the balcony.  I decided on my last day that I would visit.  It turns out that the wat (temple) is a relatively new building as the original was damaged by fire and rebuilding was completed in 2008.  It has been rebuilt with glass mirror mosaic on the fascias, hence the sparkle I saw each morning.  I sat in the meditation hall for a while.  Outside in the grounds it was quite busy as they were hosting a medical information event.

 

WatLokMolee2

The Buddha statue in Wat Lok Molee

I then wandered on to a much older wat, which BP mentioned was his favourite.  Wat Lok Molee is just outside the old city wall to the north.  According to Wikipedia its exact age isn’t known, but it must have already been in existence in 1367 as it is mentioned in a charter from that year.  The current meditation hall was built in 1545 and it is mostly undecorated teak.  This wat was also busy as as the monks were attempting to run an event for lots and lots of mini-monks – young boys of, I would guess between 5 and 8 years old.  All in their orange robes they looked  the part, but their attention span was clearly that of young boys and they had to be constantly corralled by their teachers into a separate pavilion. It reminded me a lot of a Sunday school outing.

The chedi behind the meditation hall has a small Buddha set into an alcove.  There was a wire leading up to this and there is a ritual whereby one can pull a little scoop of water in the shape of a bird up the wire.  Provided you pull it slowly and carefully it will get to the top where it tips up and bathes the Buddha.  This may have bestowed blessings on the participant.  What it certainly did was provide enough water for a fine crop of weeds growing out of the brickwork.

WatLokMolee1

The meditation hall and Chedi of Wat Lok Molee

 

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Thai English

The assumption of many Thais is that all Westerners will speak English and not Thai.  They are generally right, and many of those who do try to speak Thai mess it up spectacularly.  What the Thais very often don’t recognise though, is that although their English might be better than any foreigner’s Thai, they are not necessarily easy to understand.

In Thai there are a limited number of ways a syllable can end.  Any vowel sound is fine, but there are only a limited number of consonants that can come at the end.  Even though the word may be spelled with a letter that would normally make an S, or D sound, when in a final position the sound will be like T.  What’s more, although the T is formed with the mouth it isn’t actually spoken.  Such things happen regularly in French for example, but they are rare in English.  Nevertheless, the Thais think the same rules should apply so the ends of English words or syllables are often ignored.

For some reason Thais find the R sound hard to make.  Goodness knows why, it’s not that they don’t have lots of words with an R in them.  There are plenty and in theory the R should be rolled in the way the northern Scots do.  But even educated Thais, if they are not trying to make a good impression or reading the news on TV, will substitute an L sound or ignore it completely.

There are only a few consonants that can appear together in Thai.  GR is found, though it will generally be said GL given the above dislike of R.  But if the letter of S in Thai (of which there are four) and the letter for L appear together then they will automatically insert a short unwritten vowel.  So naturally enough they thing the same should apply in English.  So ‘slowly’ will be pronounced ‘sa-lowly’.

Today, as I was packing my bag in my room I got a call from reception.  “Execute me, when will be checking out of your loom?”  now the service wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t so bad I’d want to kill someone.   I walked to the local metro station, went a couple of stops and then joined the train to the airport.  The second train was quite busy and a few stops along the driver asked over the speakers “Please move in the train so passengers can get in.  Thank you for your copulation.”  I’m not sure the young chap with the his nose already in my armpit wanted to get that close.

Inside Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi Airport

I was typing this sitting at Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi airport. (An inspiring building as airports go.) A young Thai woman approached me asking if I had time to complete a survey for the Thai Tourist Board and I agreed.  Her first question was “Are you here on holiday?” and I said no, not really, it was a study trip.  “Ah, mean holiday?”  OK, here goes I thought, so I tried “mai chai krap, mah sip ha wahn laew rian nuat thai krap.”  Which was my attempt at saying that I’d been here 15 days to study Thai massage.  She thought I’d said neua (meat) rather than nuat (massage) but once that misunderstanding was corrected she looked at me blankly and walked away without saying anything else.  So much for Thailand being the land of smiles!  Maybe I accidentally thanked her for her copulation.

Two uneventful flights, another hasty dash across Muscat airport and some uninspiring airline food later and I’m home in Tonbridge with my bag mostly unpacked.  A great trip but if feels wonderful to be home with Lovely Husband again.

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