A loaf and well

During our first lockdown in Belgium, in the spring of 2020, seeking to stay at home as much as possible, I picked up a new skill: bread baking. I’d never done it before, and had assumed it must be difficult and time-consuming. Of course, it’s no such thing – after all, bread-baking is one of humanity’s most universal and basic skills. If you can mix flour and yeast, and indulge in some really quite therapeutic kneading of the dough, then you can make bread.

There was only one problem: everyone else had the same idea. Everytime I went to the shops, whether they were large supermarkets or small artisanal shops, the shelves stocking flour were empty (ditto for the infamous loo roll shortage, of course, but strangely our survival depends less on that). There was also a bit of a blackmarket / barter economy springing up around yeast, with friends of mine offering loo roll in exchange for it. I’d managed to get hold of yeast, more or less legally, but not flour, until I spotted this unwanted bag in my little local supermarket.

Not really knowing what it was, I picked it up anyway. In Belgium, food has to be labelled in both French and Dutch (and sometimes German too), to reflect the official languages. This can be a help, and here there’s a clue in the Dutch: Speltmeel. So this is Spelt flour, an ancient grain in the same genus as wheat but a different species.

So I did a quick bit of research, and it turns out that Spelt is just fine for bread-making, and can be easily substituted for wheat flour. Even better, it’s somewhat more nutritious than wheat, easier to digest (with slightly less gluten, so it feels less filling) and has an interesting, nutty, sweet flavour. High in fibre and protein, it also is rich in quite a few vitamins and minerals. One thing that is a definite plus for me at this time of year, is that it can boost energy levels due to its complex carbs, which are digested more slowly and therefore give you energy over a longer period of time. I don’t know about you, but I could do with that, even in hibernation.

To make things more interesting, I added some of these black sesame seeds to top the loaf.

When the aroma of baking bread fills the home, you can almost forget the rather depressing grey, cold weather outside. I admit to one major error: this time, I forgot to grease the baking tray before sticking the loaf in the oven, so it was something of an ordeal to unstick it. But you can’t see the loaf’s bottom in my photo, so it doesn’t matter! Also, as I baked bread today, I feel no need to cook an elaborate dinner tonight: looks like it will be beans on toast and bread with butternut soup.

January calls for comfort food

January is a miserable month, in my opinion, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also the month of my birthday, so I need to make an effort to stay positive. It’s now getting too cold for gardening – we are hovering at zero degrees C or just below, without the upside of actual snow. To compensate, there is reading and eating, both essential for good winter hibernation.

So here’s a meal that really lifted my spirits this dismal Monday in January, and whilst being classic oven-baked comfort food, is a healthy version. If anyone’s looking to cut down on meat and minimise dairy, as well as increase fibre, I recommend it. The wholewheat lasagne pasta actually makes it even tastier, it got the thumbs up from my somewhat fussy 13 year old as well as my slightly less fussy but not-a-natural-vegetarian husband.

Healthy Veg and Feta Lasagne

The recipe if anyone’s interested (this serves 3 people):

  • 8 or 9 strips of wholewheat dry lasagne sheets
  • 2 finely cut shallots
  • 1 or 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • a generous handful of mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tin of whole tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons of dried herbs: herbs de provence, dried celery and sage
  • Salt and pepper
  • One pack of fresh feta cheese
  • Basic bechamel sauce: 1 tablespoon plain flour, 250 ml milk, 2 bay leaves

Method: Heat your oven to 180 degrees. Fry the shallots in vegetable oil until soft, then add the garlic and red pepper. Add the spices, then the mushrooms. When the veg softens slightly, add the tinned tomatoes, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste (just a pinch of salt, as the feta is quite salty). Allow to simmer while you make the bechamel sauce. Heat some vegetable oil in a pan, add the flour, then stirring quickly, add the milk, stir continuously to avoid lumps. Crumble one third of the feta cheese into the sauce and add the bay leaves. Allow to thicken.

Find an oven-proof dish, and add some of the tomato-veg sauce to cover the bottom. Layer 2 or 3 sheets of lasagne on top, then top with more tomato-veg sauce, followed by a layer of bechamel sauce. Continue to make layers in this way. For the third and final layer, top with bechamel and then place strips of the remaining feta cheese on top.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with a fresh green salad. We had watercress and tomatoes. Feel duly comforted!