Sunday, 30 October 2011

Perfect hummus - it’s all in the detail

Most of my cooking is slapdash. I can’t be bothered with reading recipes, weighing ingredients, measuring or timing. It’s just a matter of throwing together a basic curry, chilli, goulash, pasta dish, savoury pancakes, salad, or stew with a range of vegetables, with nuts or seeds. Also, I don't like shopping enough to hunt around  for particular high quality brands, or speciality ingedients.

homemade hummus
With hummus though, little differences in the ingredients, and how you cook it, really affect how it turns out. I make great hummus, though I’m not sure how much is down to how I do it, or the fact that it is fresher than what is available in most shops. The addition of the lemon zest, from the lemon peel, gives the flavour a real zip. Also, I leave out olive oil. The tahini has plenty of oil in it, and olive oil has a strong flavour which I think dominates and conflicts with the other ingredients. Nutrition wise, hummus is great, chickpeas are low on the GI (Glycemic Index), which means that the energy is released slowly into the bloodstream. So it helps keep your blood sugar, and energy levels stable, reducing the risk of weight gain and diabetes. 


150 grams dried chick peas*
2 lemons - unwaxed (I like a strong lemon flavour, 1 lemon is fine if you want to reduce the amount)
100 grams tahini (about a third of a jar) – different brands of tahini vary in quality, the worst taste a bit like peanut butter, the best smell like freshly toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic

This makes enough hummus for a serving for about 8-10 people as part of a Mediterranean type lunch with bread, salads, olives etc. Any left over will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.


Soak the chickpeas in water for between 12 and 48 hours, use lots of water as they can expand to many times their size. I don't thin less than 24 hours is long enough for soaking, but over 48 hours and the chickpeas can start to sprout, changing the consistency so they won't go soft when you cook them. Drain, add plenty of fresh water, bring to the boil then simmer for between 1-2 hours, until soft. Chickpeas vary tremendously in how long they take to cook, buy them as fresh as possible. The less dried up and shrivelled they look, the better they will taste, and the quicker they will cook.

As you are cooking the chick peas, squeeze the lemons into a bowl and mix the juice with the lemon zest. Using the zest of the lemons gives hummus a fresher taste (that is why unwaxed lemons are best, and you will need a little grater for this). Finely chop the garlic and add that as well. It is best to make this mixture while you are cooking the chick peas, as the flavours from the lemon zest and garlic will permeate into the lemon juice, and the texture will be smoother as well. Do not add the tahini at this stage, as the mixture separates into a granular sludge.

When the chickpeas are soft, leave to cool. Do not add the other ingredients until the chickpeas are at room temperature, the lemon and garlic will lose thier fresh taste. When the chickpeas are cool, drain off most the water, but keep it as you might need to add some of this liquid to the hummus. Add the lemon juice mixture and tahini to the chickpeas. Blend thoroughly, adding some of the drained liquid gradually, if required, then fresh water if you run out, to get the right texture. A hand blender is brilliant for this.


Add freshly ground cumin seeds

Add freshly chopped coriander leaves

Leave out the garlic and add paprika powder to taste – the best makes have a hot, slightly smoky taste

Sweet hummus – replace the garlic with a small amount of honey, somewhere between a teaspoon and a dessert spoonful should do it. This sweet hummus is good served with fresh dates or figs as a pudding, or with dried fruit and chopped nuts as a very filling and satisfying breakfast.

* It’s OK to use tinned chickpeas, but I think cooked from fresh is much nicer. Soaking and cooking the chickpeas is a bit of a palaver, but the fresh version has a nutty taste which the canned version doesn’t.

Bradford chick peas
Chickpeas can be grown in the UK, but I've not found any in the shops. The young plants look really pretty. Here are some from a few years ago, in Bradford.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Russia’s air safety record – awaiting the turnaround

Russia’s air safety record has been dreadful in recent years, and a government programme to address the reasons for the high accident rate, announced earlier in 2011, has been slow to show positive results.

In 2006, Russia had the world's worst air accident rate, 13 times the international average. A total of 318 people died, a substantial proportion of the world total of 755 fatalities. Two Airbus crashes resulted in the accidents with the highest number of fatalities. On 3rd May, 113 people were killed when an Airbus A320, attempted climb out after an aborted approach to Sochi, rain and low cloud with poor visibility. The plane broke up in the water, off the coast of the Black Sea, near the border with Georgia. There were another 125 fatalities at Irkutsk on 9th July. An Airbus A310 took off from Moscow, Domodeovo with six equipment defects. The plane collided with a concrete perimeter fence and brick garages and burst into flames.

All 88 crew and passengers on board a Boeing 737 were killed in the worst accident of 2008. The jet crashed on approach to Perm, landing on the outskirts of the city, only a few hundred metres away from apartments and houses. The pilot lost control of the plane in ‘difficult’ weather conditions, and alcohol was detected in his body.

In 2009, Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that Russia's safety record was still ' well below international standards '.  CBC reports that IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. A 'hull loss' is when a plane is damaged beyond repair. This is almost three times the world rate. There were 15 air accident occurrences in 2010, four of them fatal, and a death toll of 122.

2010’s worst accident was on 10th April. All 96 crew and passengers were killed when a Tupolev, operated by the Polish Air Force, crashed on approach to Smolenk Air Base, in poor visibility due to rain and heavy cloud. Passengers included Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Chief of General Staff Franciszek Gagor, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrzej Kremer, several Members of Parliament, and Slawomir Skrzypek, President of the National Bank of Poland. The flight failed to divert flight to an alternative airdrome, and the door to cockpit was open with two passengers on the flight deck. Accident investigators speculated that the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Forces exerted pressure on the crew to continue to descent to Smolensk in spite of the risky conditions. The plane broke into pieces after crash landing over a kilometre from the runway, colliding with a large tree. IATA figures showed that the 2010 accident rate in Russia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, was 7.15 hull losses per million sectors. This is almost three times the world rate.

The Aviation Safety Network (ASN) is the best website for air accidents. There are detailed incident reports, photographs and maps showing the location of crashes, and interlinked database enable compariosn between the satefy recrods of different aircraft models, airlines, countries and airports. So far, for 2011, ASN has documented 14 air safety ‘occurences’ so far in Russia. Eight of these incidents resulted in fatalities, with a total of 119 people killed, and the information about the accidents listed below is from the ASN website. The country’s largest carriers have a good safety record. Critics blame the high accident rate on a proliferation of small airlines, inexperienced, flying old Soviet era aircraft, and second-hand Western models, and it is the case that old, Russian made Antonov, Ilyushin-76, Yakovlev and Tupolev planes account for the majority of accidents.

Another factor is lax enforcement of safety regulations, and, indeed, the tally of accidents even includes at least one incidence of an unregistered plane, and instances of crew being intoxicated by alcohol. Poor weather, predominantly heavy rain and dense cloud reducing visibility, is a factor in many of the accidents. But the underlying reason is that planes’ navigation systems and air traffic control are unable to deal with these conditions. Poor plane maintenance is another reason behind the high accident rate, with incidences of fires breaking out on board, and faulty navigation equipment.

Russia’s lamentable air safety record for 2011 began with a serious accident on New Year’s Day. Three passengers on board a Tupolev passenger jet died when a fire ignited in the rear of the plane and spread to the cabin, after it was towed to the runway for engine start-up. Then, on 20th June, there was another Tupolev accident, which reculsted in an accident with the most fatalities so far this year. The plane struck trees and crash landed on a highway on its approach to Petrozavodsk, killing 47 of the 52 occupants. Investigations revealed that the flight navigator had been drinking, with ‘a light level of alcoholic intoxication’, and the weather forecast was incorrect, impeding the ability to deal with severe fog.

In April, the Russian government committed to improving air safety standards, with an overhaul of air traffic control, new flight management technology to help air traffic controllers, a minimum of five new centres for analysis of air crashes, and new monitoring equipment on runways. But the following months have seen a catalogue of accidents. On 11th July a Antonov An-12 passenger plane, en route between Bogashevo and Surgut, reported an engine fire, and six of the 37 passengers were killed when the plane crashed into the Ob River.

On 9th August another Antonov An-12, the oldest plane in the Russian commercial fleet, a cargo plane, flying from Magadan to Keperveem reported a fuel leak and an engine fire and made an unsuccessful attempt to return to Magadan. The wreckage was found in Omsukchan the following day, all 11 were occupants killed.

On 22nd August one person was killed, and three seriously injured, when an unregistered Antonov An-2, a single engine bi-plane, operated by a private woodcutting company, was damaged in an accident on an island near Lake Choigan-Hol. Just six days later, on 28th August, an Antonov An-2 crash landed in the Krasnodar district when. The plane was on an illegal crop spraying flight, and one of two crew members was killed.

Forty-four people were killed in another serious accident on 7th September. A Yakovlev crashed 2 kilometres from the runway, on the bank of the Volga River on the climb out from Yaroslavl-Tunoshna Airport. The fatalities included several members of the Yaroslavl ice-hockey team, and the flight was destined for Minsk for a match. After this disaster, President Medvedev stated he would expedite the overhaul of the aviation industry, and move swiftly to reduce the number of small airlines operating in the country.

Time will tell if the improvements will be implemented as thoroughly and quickly as Medvedev promised. Since his statement, there has already been an incident. On 9th October, another Antonov An-2, carrying out agricultural work, crashed to the ground, again in Krasnodar. The pilot narrowly escaped. This was the third Antonov An-2 accident in the space of a few weeks.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

No wonder children’s teeth are falling out

No wonder children's teeth are falling out
Ruining children's dental health
 Every so often I pop into local shops to find out what awful products are being promoted to children, in the guise of ‘food’. This is some stuff from the past few months. In the middle of this photo, well, its like a baby’s dummy, inside the blob of clear plastic is a red sweet, it was shaped like the teat of a dummy but it melted back in May during some of the hottest days we have had this year. As you can see, it comes attached with some plastic teeth, maybe in a misguided effort to help children out when their teeth crumble into pieces after eating rubbish like this. There was also a Halloween version with purple gums and pointy teeth. I should have reported it to Trading Standards but if I go down that road, I could become dangerously obsessed. It’s all tied up with complicated definitions about whether labelling is correct. Can we not have some sweeping, over-riding regulations that stipulate that products which are sold as food, are actually, well, FOOD.

The bag of sweets, they look like coloured polystyrene foam, and the texture is what I imagine polystyrene is like as well, just heavily sweetened. They are in the shape of toothbrushes and sets of false teeth. Maybe the company is trying to be helpful by reminding children to brush their teeth, or it’s a rare example of honest marketing in children’s food, as they will need false teeth if they eat this crap. Yet, it has the audacity to have a health claim on the packet, that it contains 'NO articifial colours'. Yikes, it reminds me I haven’t been to the dentist in ages, and this gives me the motivation to make an appointment. Will take these products along and ask what for an opinion.

Food products, apparently

This next photo. Finally I am able to eat Toxic Waste. I read an article about this – yes it is a confectionery product - being launched in the UK about five years ago, in The Grocer magazine. This is a wonderful publication for keeping up with new food and household product launches, advertising campaigns, store openings, commodity prices, and retailers’ involvement with and reaction to government policy on issues like healthy eating. I saw the advert for Toxic Waste about five years ago, and stores were preparing a launch marketing campaign, but only found it on the shelves a few months ago, in Cornwall. In the interests of research I tasted it. The tin is full of little grey pellets, a colour like you might imagine something truly dreadful emerging from a waste pipe, probably illegally. It tastes truly disgusting, very sour, but underlying that it is very sweet, and the first ingredients on the list are sugars. That is the secret with all the gross out sweets, the main ingredients are sugars, sucrose, glucose, corn starch etc.

The pink tube thing on the left is a whistle, that does not even work, filled with nauseous neon pink coloured powder. And on the right, a spray on sweet. There is spray on cheese in America. It looks a bit like the yellow foam spray for filling up holes in household walls. Gross out food for kids is nothing new. Jelly Babies are a bit weird really, and I remember gobstoppers, which were huge and as hard as a ceramic ball, took ages to melt in your mouth, and left your tongue coloured a virulent green or purple colour. It is fun, I know as child I loved it. But maybe this needs looking at, with the problems with so many children’s unhealthy diets. They just seem to get addicted to junk food so easily, and awful, over-processed products help them on the road to developing an aversion to real, fresh food. There are some photos of hilariously bad examples on the Flickr group Unnecessary Consumer Prouducts and Questionable Foodstuffs. Sustain's Children's Food Campaign does excellent work on issues including marketing to children, learning cooking skills, and improving school meals.

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