Like a lot of you, the past few weeks have been quite busy for me. During the summer months projects, commitments and even ideas are somehow allowed to drift along on a warm breeze of school holiday-enforced hiatus. But come September the metaphorical whip is well and truly cracked. Many of you are by now up to your eyes with summer-interrupted deadlines and the daily scurry between work, family and after-school activities – and all points in-between. Maybe like me you are also vowing to shoehorn in a little extra exercise, or add in a ‘self-improving’ evening class. Time is not elastic, but we do our best to strain at the laws of physics nonetheless. I participate, therefore I am.
My additional soupcon of activity this week was giving several nutrition workshops at the 22nd annual Scottish Conference of Cancer Support Groups (SCCSG). To be completely honest with you I was not wholeheartedly looking forward to it. I am used to my cosy number with the Maggies Centres: making food and discussing nutrition and cancer in the comfort of small groups. And my ‘target’ audience is clear: for the most part those going through treatment and their carers. The SCCSG audience was going to be hugely mixed and much larger and less intimate than my usual 6-8 person groups. And in a hotel conference space, not among the architectural nuances, squashy sofas and natural light of the Maggies’ Centres. You are right, I am spoiled.
But, as is often the case with my fears, they were completely misplaced. This truly amazing conference sees delegates from all over Scotland gathering annually to update their research knowledge, share ideas, discuss common concerns and generally share and discuss ideas for helping those affected by cancer. All of the groups provide a vital service that just isn’t possible within the confines of the NHS. Every single person I met volunteers their time and skills to help others. In other words, good people. Inspiring people. Selfless people. And they wanted to listen to me. Wow.
Despite my initial reservations at being able to entertain/inform three large groups of people for one and one-half hours at a time, I think it went well. There was clapping (small groups don’t clap, so this was new to me). On a personal level it was good to have broken out of my comfort zone, and of course to have met so many amazing people. I just hope that I expanded my groups’ knowledge and got them excited about all of the benefits of eating well. Even as I fade from their memories hopefully they will remember my Michael Pollan-nicked and tweaked motto: Eat Real Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.
For two days my stone age flip-chart and I extolled the virtues and benefits of a plant-based diet. I shouldn’t have been nervous about talking on this subject as it is something that we as a family practise on a day-to-day basis. We eat meat occasionally, but mostly it’s about the plants – the stuff that grows in the ground or hangs from trees. If it’s edible and available, we’ve probably tried it. I’ve never really gone in for the let’s- make-vegetables-taste-like-meat idea. If I want meat I’ll have a bit. I want my food to be true to what it is. Not an analogue of something else, as if it is a lesser option.
A case in point is chili, or chilli as we spell it here in the UK. I haven’t had a good beef based chili in a while but I remember my mother’s ground beef one. It was outstanding. Slow-cooked on a low peep for a few hours, vegetable-less save for onion and garlic, and if she was feeling a bit wild, a green pepper. But she also made a mean vegetable chili which, as she became more health-conscious, was the one she always made for herself and my Dad (little sis and I had flown the nest by this point). It tasted of gorgeous beans and vegetables sassed up with half a dozen spices and a little brown sugar. No hint of meat. Delicious.
Years ago she told me a sweet story of her first attempt at making a meal for my Dad when they were newly married. Why she was still trying to impress him at this stage is anyone’s guess, but she was, bless her. Anyway, she set about making his favourite meal, chili. She bought the best meat she could afford, lined the counter with appropriate little bottles of McCormick’s spices and got to work. Everything browned up nicely and smelled wonderful so she served up a big ladleful with some rice for my father, standing back awaiting praise. Praise did indeed come, but apparently it was false. While my father tucked in, all smiles beneath his trendy 60s moustache, my mother sampled hers and nearly expired with embarrassment. She had used cinnamon instead of chilli powder. Tablespoons of the stuff. My father abhors cinnamon. Truly hates the stuff. We blame those darn McCormick’s jars of old – they all look exactly alike. To this day, I always double check my spices as I have almost done the same thing myself. I wonder if spice blindness is hereditary?
Today’s recipe uses some of the spices my mother used in her chili: allspice being the rather unique one that I think works really well here. I often serve it with cornbread – homemade as we don’t get mix packets here (heck, we don’t even call cornmeal, cornmeal), but sometimes with some oven-baked plain basmati rice. I don’t tend to serve it with two starches unless it is for company, so they can have a choice. The only other thing you may want is a salad or even some steamed broccoli. For leftovers the following day I served the chili over steamed shredded kale and it was really good. The nip of the kale complements the spices beautifully. I will be doing that again, for sure: a great trick if you are cutting back on excess starchy carbohydrates. I like my cornbread too much to forgo it so will be having chili over kale and next to cornbread. I’m greedy that way.
Heat the olive oil in a large, lidded saucepan. Saute the onions over a low heat until translucent, about four minutes (you can sauté in a little bit of vegetable stock rather than the oil). Stir in the other vegetables, garlic, oregano, cumin, coriander, allspice and ancho chilli, and sauté for one minute before adding the stock, tomatoes, tomato paste, aubergine/eggplant and beans. Bring to the boil, then turn down to simmer. Allow to bubble away for 20 minutes before stirring in chopped coriander (save a little for garnish), juice from half of the lime, and any seasoning. Fish out the chilli and serve the black bean chilli topped with crème fraiche/sour cream, extra lime and a big wedge of cornbread. I find chilli is even better the next day, but cornbread is best on the day it is made. Serves 4