Ways of Wild Garlic

Nobody is lucky to be in a lockdown. I think of families jammed into a small apartment at the top of a high-rise or people stranded abroad in hostels, unable to reach their homeland. There are those forced by circumstance to cohabit with people they might not ordinarily wish to or those without much contact at all with anyone. In any circumstance we must try to make the best of things, now more than ever.

Relatively speaking I am one of the lucky ones. I am in the countryside, surrounded by acres of open fields and woodlands. My parents’ house has a garden too. I am social distancing, like everyone, but with much more space.

And it’s Springtime. The hedgerows sparkle with the flowering gems of this season: periwinkle, stitchwort, dandelion, celandine, wild strawberry, vetch, bluebell, primrose, daffodil, herb robert, marsh forget-me-nots, coltsfoot. Among this colourful abundance is hidden other treasure too, evident not by its purple, white or yellow flowers but by its subtly pervasive scent.

Wild garlic. Not exactly out of sight either. On my walks I’ve come across whole pastures of the plant by roadsides, in forested glades and on grass verges. It is the perfect opportunity now to maximise the harvest of this ubiquitous allium in the kitchen. Members of the onion family are well known for building up immunity in the body and apart from anything else, it is a lesson on how to use the natural resources which are around us, rather than relying on produce from further afield. 

In the spirit of community sharing I called upon friends and neighbours in the village to contribute their recipes, tips and ideas for making the most of this ubiquitous allium. This post will include I hope quite a comprehensive resource on what to do with this plant otherwise known as ramsons.

General preparation: Good overall advice from Jayne: ‘…wash the leaves thoroughly, snap off any harder stems…Wild garlic is best added towards the end of cooking the dish, so you retain the flavour and “bite” of the leaves…’ 

As Pesto: Probably the most common and versatile method. Easy to whizz up a batch if you have a food processor or blender. Experiment with ratios of wild garlic and basil, or just go with the former alone. Similarly try different nuts rather than pine nuts; walnuts seem to be a favourite alternative in the community. I also insist on  a squeeze of lemon in my pesto. You can leave the cheese out for a vegan alternative or if you want more of a French ‘pistou.’

Ingredients: wild garlic (big handful); pine nuts (lightly toasted in a pan); good grating of parmesan cheese; olive oil (generous glug); salt and pepper; squeeze of lemon. 

Method: put all ingredients into a blender or ground by hand in a pestle and mortar until you have a rough paste and everything is combined. 

Uses: so many: as jacket potato or sandwich filling; pizza topping or with cheese on toast; accompaniments to meat or fish; with spaghetti etc. 

img_1838

In Soup: Another classic. Feel like a proper forager by adding some nettles. Follow the same principles of prep for these too.

Plenty of easy soup recipes on the internet and in cookery books. For example this one. Sara D suggests substituting wild garlic for the leeks and almond milk for the cream – ‘honestly totally delicious’ she says, and who am I to disagree. 

With Eggs: The garlic leaves fold really nicely into all manner of egg dishes. They can be a substitute for the spinach in Eggs Florentine, for example, if you fancy a posh breakfast. Why not I say. Otherwise as additions in scrambled eggs or an omelette they are ideal. One of my favourite things to do is make more spaghetti with pesto than I need in order to make a frittata the next day. 

You chop up the the remaining cold pasta, combine it with one beaten egg, more cheese (if you like a lot of cheese – I like a lot of cheese) and some salt and pepper. In a shallow pan melt butter so it starts to froth. Then, on the lowest possible setting, add the frittata mixture and flatten it out into a kind of cake shape. Now, don’t touch it for at least 20 minutes until you see the edges begin to crisp. Flip it over –  it should have a beautiful golden crust – then repeat on the other side. Super savoury and tasty.

With Rice/Grains/Pulses: Hannah says she added some leaves to a risotto. That’s a great idea. As Jayne recommends, putting them in towards the end is the best thing to do. Apart from risotto, we can experiment with other similar dishes and ingredients such as pearl barley, spelt and lentils. 

Jayne cooked up a fantastic feast of a sausage and wild garlic oven baked paella. ‘…it had carrots, celery, green beans, mushrooms, peas, chipolatas, chorizo, vegetable stock…paella rice and wild garlic.’ Got to get that recipe Jayne! Should work well without the meat too. 

Other Ideas:   Sara D made a version of Colcannon, the classic Irish dish of mash and greens, substituting wild garlic for the traditional kale or cabbage, which might even be an improvement on this online masterclass

It occurred to me the one thing that hadn’t yet been tried with the leaves was to wrap things. Certainly you can find specimens which are long and broad enough to contain fillings. In the spirit of experimentation then I set out to make a version of the Greek staple, dolmades. This is a dish of stuffed vine leaves, traditionally served as an appetizer. 

I harvested about twenty of the biggest leaves I could find to use as the wraps. I made a simple rice dish as follows for the filling, taken from the above link:

 “Place the rice in a colander and rinse with running water. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat, add 1/3 of the olive oil and the chopped onions. Sauté the onions, until translucent (but not coloured). Add the rice and sauté for 1 more minute. Pour in 2 cups of warm water and half lemon juice and simmer for about 7 minutes, until the rice absorbs all the water and is parboiled. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the herbs, remove from the stove and set aside to cool down for a while. This will be the filling for the dolmades.”

I used about 130g rice and finely chopped parsley as the herb. I didn’t want to make too much in case it wasn’t a great result. 

Once the mixture had cooled I began to make the dolmades. It was a bit of a faff, to be honest. After some trial and error – and some cursing – I found the best method was to make a cross of two leaves (which I needed to blanch under boiling water for a second to soften) and then place about a teaspoonful of the filling in the centre before wrapping the leaves over, one by one, to make an envelope. 

After this I followed the cooking instructions as before:

  1. “Place the stuffed vine leaves (fold side down) on the bottom of the pot and top in snugly layers. Be careful not to leave any gaps between the dolmades to prevent them from cracking open when cooking.
  2. Drizzle the stuffed vine leaves (dolmathes) with the rest of the olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Place an inverted plate on top to hold them down when cooking and pour in enough water just to cover them. Place the lid on and simmer the dolmades for about 30-40 minutes, until the water has been absorbed and the dolmades remain only with the oil.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat, remove the lid and plate and let the dolmades cool for at least 30 minutes.”

They turned out to be pretty good, if I say so myself. Worth having a go at and perhaps experimenting with fillings. A good way to use up leftover risotto or other such dishes.

I hope you’ve found some inspiration here. I’ll update the page if anybody wants to contribute. Amazing the resources on our doorstep if we know where to look. Keep it local and keep resilient. 

 

 

 

Mostly Unproven

I have a few favourite things in the world. Somerset County Cricket club is one. Indie music from the late 80s/early 90s is another. The landscape of South-West England. Post-war British fiction. Cats.

Pizza is up there. Very close to the top actually. It was what weekends in Italy were all about, whether at the beach in summer, snacking on pizzette on white plastic tables, or else the Sunday night takeaway on the sofa with friends, watching Serie A. It is my takeaway staple, my not-so secret crush and my totally innocent pleasure.

I’m not exactly a purist either. I’ve been known to consume frozen varietes of many brands and drunkenly ordered it from the menus of the most scabrous eating establishments. I’ve eaten it when there were better things on offer, when I couldn’t be bothered to cook; I’ve had it for supper when I already had it for lunch.

I do however generally like to keep it simple and I am consistent in my ordering. Either a plain margherita, perhaps with added anchovies, or, when I was more of a meat eater, al piccante with spicy salame. One can gild the lily too much with those meat feasts and four cheeses. Like a good sandwich I believe a maximum of three key ingredients is all that’s needed.

Having said that I’m going away tomorrow for a couple of weeks so I took the opportunity of using up a few things in my fridge which would otherwise not keep to put on my homemade pizza.

A pizza, moreover, made without yeast. I told you I wasn’t exactly a purist. I didn’t have any yeast anyway, only baking powder. The combination of flour, salt and baking powder doesn’t make a totally authentic pizza dough, but for a home cook – especially one pushed for time – it’s close enough. No need for any proving time as once the dough is made it’s ready to be rolled and topped.

The ingredients I felt would sit better on a ‘white’ pizza rather than a tomato sauce-based one. It ended up as more like cauliflower cheese on bread, but what’s not to like about that?

For the dough-making recipe I followed this link, but adapted the quantities to make one single pizza. So:

  • 200g flour
  • 1 and a half tsp baking powder
  • half a tsp of salt
  • 100ml water
  • 20ml olive oil

For the topping:

  • half a head of cauliflower, florets only (stalks retained for future use, they freeze)
  • one leek, sliced
  • 100g mozzarella
  • 25g blue cheese
  • 25g parmesan
  • a few spinach leaves, torn
  • palmful of fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • olive oil
  • dried oregano, enough to sprinkle
  • salt and pepper
  • smoked paprika, half a tsp.

 

Method to make the topping:

Blanch the cauliflower and leek in salted boiling water for a minute or two. Remove and leave to drain well and cool. Once the pizza dough is rolled, brush with olive oil and then arrange the vegetable mixture on top, leaving some space at the sides. Add the thyme, oregano, salt, pepper and grated parmesan, then the other cheeses. Sprinkle over the paprika, if using. Drizzle over a little more oil. Bake in a preheated oven at 200 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes. Add the spinach leaves after about 30 minutes.

 

 

 

Diplomatic Immunity

Welcome to the Year of the Rat. Perhaps appropriate this new Chinese year should start with global virus panic. Here in the Middle Kingdom there is a definite sense of unease: facemasks in shops have all but sold out and at the time of writing at least five cities are in lockdown mode with all exit and entry denied. And yet this time of year will see mass transit from most of other Chinese cities to all corners of the world.

What are you going to do? Stay at home all the time fearing the apocalypse, barricading yourself in and hoarding supplies?

I think fortifying yourself is the best prevention. That, and some prudence and common sense. Washing hands, general hygiene, that kind of thing.

People with a weak immune system are most susceptible. Good idea then to make sure your diet includes plenty of ingredients that can boost your system, such as these. You can almost feel the body crying out for it sometimes. I’ve got into the habit in the morning of foregoing my usual tea for a cup of hot water with a pinch of turmeric and lemon juice.

I made a simple lunch which featured a few key immunity boosters: garlic, ginger, citrus and spinach. It was to be a lentil-based stew, something I could do in one pot and stir from time to time, an action that in itself has – at least for me – psychological healing properties. So I was to be toughening parts both physical and mental .

Turned out to be really rather good. The initial zingy trill of thyme, lemon and ginger faded to warmer bass notes of chilli, smoked paprika and cinnamon. Texturally it was kept at least fairly interesting with chunks of carrot and sweet potato.

I used (for one person):

  • good handful of red lentils, picked through and drained
  • squeeze of tomato puree
  • big bunch of thyme
  • thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped
  • one garlic clove, finely sliced
  • hefty handful of spinach, rinsed, drained and chopped roughly
  • quarter of a large red onion, chopped
  • one carrot, cut into biggish dice
  • one sweet potato, ditto
  • half a vegetable stock cube
  • one bay leaf
  • quarter a tsp of chilli powder
  • half a tsp of smoked paprika
  • half a tsp of cinnamon
  • half a lemon, to squeeze
  • salt and pepper

In a pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil and then add the carrot, sweet potato, onion, garlic, ginger and herbs. Dash in a little salt. Cook everything until all the vegetables have softened, about ten minutes on a medium-low heat. Squeeze in the tomato puree and let cook for a minute. Then the spices and keep cooking for another minute. Now stir through the lentils, crumble in the stock cube and pour in about 400ml of boiling water. Let it bubble away, stirring from time to time, until the liquid has reduced, about fifteen minutes. Add more water if the lentils haven’t quite softened. Remove the herbs from the pan. Now fold in the chopped spinach, a spritz of lemon juice and check for seasoning. I found this was substantial enough to eat without anything else.

新年快乐。恭喜发财。

Beans and Greens

Happy New Year to all my readers.

2019 was interesting and challenging in many ways and this year shows every sign of being just as much if not more so. 2020 will be for me a year of fairly significant change and I’m excited about the journey in prospect. Excited, yes, as well as apprehensive. This time next year I have almost no idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. All I have is a kind of idealisation and a desire for change.

A writer, I forget who, describes the revelation of a new idea for a story as something already perfectly formed, a butterfly freshly emerged from its chrysalis. However when it comes to writing the story itself she has to do one thing first: let the butterfly go. She has the wisdom and experience to know that any idea of perfection is an impossible one. What’s more, she has faith in her ability to let the writing journey dictate where the story will go.

I have a little life experience, perhaps even less wisdom; I struggle with faith in my ability. And yet the one thing I am certain about is that to deal with uncertainty one must keep faith alive. We can all only do so much. There is much – too much – beyond our control. Over the past year there have been times when, faced with global disasters especially involving the effects of climate change and the responses of those in power, life has felt overwhelming. What’s the point of trying if nothing improves?

But what if everyone thought it was all useless, a waste of time? We find strength in resilience, by sticking to our beliefs and not letting things get us down. We find friends, and with them, hope. Dark cannot exist without light. Every wave has a trough and a peak.

This year all I’m going to do is my best and see where it takes me.

__________________________________

Veganuary is a thing. It’s not a bad thing, per se, although I am always uneasy about these periods of purging. It’s like saying well, I’ve done my bit for the year, I am free now to live purely and guiltlessly, to float on a cloud of self-congratulation….until the next time my conscience gets the better of me. Veganism is becoming something of a fad in any case, a luxury only afforded in the west. There is now as much of an argument to remove almonds and avocados from our diets as there is meat.

I am more of a believer in the qualities of constancy and moderation. People who know me might struggle to stifle a chortle of disbelief here, and it’s true I am guilty more frequently than perhaps is prudent of various excesses, but I think these qualities can underpin a very balanced way of living, necessary I think for insecure times.

To that end I want to concentrate in this post on a real kitchen staple of mine, a dish whose key constituents appear on my table on a regular basis, always in slightly different forms. It’s my fall-back meal, the kitchen cupboard scramble on a busy weekday, the weekend lunch for an unexpected guest.

I took as my inspiration this fantastic recipe from Anna Jones, a vegetarian kitchen cook whose ideas are always full of creativity but emphasise flavour above everything. She incidentally also promotes a kind of vegan detox at the beginning of the year, but terms it a ‘reset’; the sensible emphasis is on looking after oneself rather than any grand notions of saving the world. We can’t do anything with an unhealthy body, let alone an unhealthy mind.

I basically followed her instructions and used her ingredients, with a few alterations.  I replaced the black-eyed beans with borlotti and the chard for another type of slightly bitter brassica, akin to cavolo nero, which I found in the local greengrocer’s. Instead of a leek I used a base of red onion and carrot – which I had in the fridge – and the ‘green herb smash’ was more of a pesto (without the cheese) with added pine nuts – lightly toasted – and no honey.

Turned out to be a very vibrant and deliciously warming lunch, just the thing for adding some energy into a fairly dreary Saturday. My version isn’t quite as colourful as hers but I bet it tasted just as good.

img_1786img_1787img_1788

The combination of beans and greens can be a base for many a simple, cheap and satisfying meal. Below is a rough recipe and ingredient guide with some suggestions on how to augment the dish. I do think though that apart from the obvious main ingredients, there should always be tomato to add richness and lemon to lift it.

The brilliant thing about it is you can add many things, adapt it to your own tastes, using whatever you’ve got in the fridge or cupboards.

You’ll need (for one person), at least:

  • 1 400g tin of beans (cannellini, borlotti, kidney, black-eye etc.)
  • Half an onion
  • 2 big handfuls of chopped greens (purple-sprouting broccoli, kale, spinach etc.)
  • 1 tomato
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Might be handy, but not essential, if you also have:

  • Lemon
  • Tomato puree
  • Half a vegetable stock cube/ stock powder

COOKING INSTRUCTIONS:

Dice the onion and roughly chop the greens. Drain and rinse the greens. In a pan with a heavy bottom add one tablespoon of olive oil and heat over a medium-low flame, then put in the onion with a pinch of salt and fry lightly until soft, about ten minutes. Chop the tomato and mix with the onions, squeeze in some tomato puree if using. Let things cook together for a couple of minutes. Then add the beans with their liquid and let everything combine for another minute or two. Pour in half a glass of water and the crumbled stock cube if you have one, stir all together and bring the temperature up so the water is bubbling. Turn the heat down low and cover the pan with a lid. Let everything cook together for about ten minutes. Add in the chopped greens, making sure they have been properly washed and rinsed. Cook for another few minutes until the greens have started to wilt. Most of the water should have evaporated by this time although you don’t want it completely dry. Check if you need any more salt and then grind over the black pepper. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and serve.

For more people, just double the quantities of everything. To store, let it cool before putting into the fridge in sealed container. Should keep for a couple of days. Can also freeze any leftovers.

EXTRAS:

This is good just as it is, but you can add various things and change the quantities easily if you only want a side dish. Here are some suggestions.

  • At the onion frying stage add all or some of the following: pinch of chilli flakes or powder; chopped bacon or ham; palmful of chopped thyme or rosemary leaves; one bay leaf (remember to remove this at the end); sliced clove of garlic; diced stick of celery and/or half a carrot.
  • To finish, instead of (or as well as) the lemon juice, sprinkle over any of these: Worcestershire sauce; sriracha hot sauce (you need a gentle touch with this!); light soy sauce; a little grated nutmeg.
  • At the end stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley and/or some grated cheese, perhaps cheddar or parmesan, even smallish chunks of blue cheese will do. 
  • Have it as a side dish for grilled meat like sausages or chops.
  • Pile it onto hot toast or muffins for a more substantial meal.
  • Let it cool before stuffing the mixture into a tortilla wrap, perhaps with some chopped avocado and a little yoghurt.

Remember the idea is to get creative and have a bit of fun messing around, seeing what works and what you like most. The best thing about cooking is the journey!

 

Nuts to you

This last year has been an experiment. In January I made a decision to significantly reduce the amount of animal protein in my diet. The reasons were primarily ones of sustainability. I’d come to realise that the amounts of meat, fish, eggs and dairy I was used to eating was harmful not only to my physical health but also, more importantly, the environment.

How did I arrive at this understanding? Initially it was through reading people like George Monbiot, journalist and activist, someone whose voice in the mainstream carried notes of an urgency I hadn’t before properly registered. Suddenly I had these doubts in my head. I started to question myself, what I was doing, what I could do. Monbiot’s words scared me; not only to the extent by which human activity, especially in agriculture and fishing, was causing so much damage to the natural world but, more resonatingly, in terms of the psychological shift I personally would have to make and the dietary habits I would have to break.

Veganism and vegetarianism are to some dirty words. They are tags which carry a social stigma. There is a tendency in the western world at least to view people who eschew animal products as compensating for this absence with higher levels of self-righteousness. How much this is as a result of the accusers’ suppressed guilt at their own culpability and/or ignorance is impossible to define. However, what this situation demonstrates is that at least one problem which arises from polarised states of mind is conflict.

The arguments for eating meat derive mainly from personal health concerns. Meat is rich in protein, amino acids and several micronutrients. We ‘need’ it, we say. It is ‘good for us.’ If this is the case, then how much do we need? Surely not the amounts currently ingested across the world. Overconsumption is a consequence of a misplaced mindset. Western diets, full of processed meats, are partly to blame for this, as is globalisation. Countries get wealthier, with the unhappy trend of those poor diets spreading. There is also what I’ll call the ‘meat-and-two-veg’ mentality, people being brought up – with all good intentions of a balanced diet – to understand their meals as always having to contain some kind of animal protein. And meat tastes good, useless to deny it. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has written eloquently about his own complex and very human attitudes to meat-eating, especially his experiences of craving meat even as a long-time vegetarian.

But meat production has devastating consequences for the environment. Even aside from the animal welfare argument, there is enough evidence to show that a serious reduction in our meat consumption can only have beneficial effects for the world we live in and share with all manner of other species. What small health gains are produced by meat-eating are completely overshadowed by the negative effects:

  • Biodiversity Loss. 80% of the world’s arable and pasture land is taken up by growth of animal feed. These regions in many cases were once diverse ecosystems, for instance soybean plantations in Brazil have replaced the tropical forests there.
  • Inefficiency. Ruminants, especially sheep and cattle, are poor at converting the plants they eat into nutritious food for us. For instance seven kilos of grain are needed to produce a single kilogram of beef. All that land used to grow the feed is therefore largely wasted; we’d be better off eating the soybeans ourselves.
  • Carbon Footprint. Meat consumption produces greenhouse gas emissions in three ways. Deforestation for the benefit of agriculture releases the carbon trapped in the trees and underlying soil into the atmosphere. Ruminant animals produce methane and also from their manure when it decays.
  • Water Footprint. Beef requires four times as much water to produce as protein-rich pulses, like lentils. Pork requires twice as much. Water is wasted in meat production due to irrigation of the land described above. Manure also contaminates water sources.
  • Soil Conservation. Degradation comes from intensive grazing, meaning bare, exposed soil. Unhealthy soil means nothing will grow, rendering land useless for agricultural purposes.

(data taken from https://www.globalagriculture.org)

Eating meat is ‘good for us.’ This strikes me as a particularly anthropocentric view of the world, one in which human wellbeing is of more importance than anything else. Putting ourselves before the rest of the natural world places us in a position of supreme seflishness.

I believe it is right to say that when we are born we come out of the world, not into it. Our aim should be to ensure not that the human race propagates but, simply, to appreciate what we have right now. We have a duty to respect the world in which we are living but as consumers we have decimated global resources for our own gain. Humans have a better chance of perpetuating as a consequence of correct environmental action action but it shouldn’t be the overarching motivation for change. After all, it is our self-interest that has caused the problems we face today, why then turn back to it as the stimulus for improvement?

But I haven’t given up meat completely, or fish, or dairy. Why not, when the case put forward above is so compelling? Well the experiment this year has been to find a balance between sticking to a sustainable diet and continuing to enjoy what I cook and eat. Nourishing all senses, feeling good about what I’m eating in mind, body and soul. I think that by and large I’ve come to a satisfactory compromise and it’s been interesting getting there.

There is a word for the diet I basically follow. Flexitarian. I dislike labels in general but this one is as good as any. Essentially it’s a plant-based diet with occasional and minimal injections of meat and fish. The EAT-Lancet Commission is a comprehensive scientific review of how to eat healthily from a sustainable food system; this is basically what I follow although the amounts of meat and fish I consume are even less. Their dietary suggestions in terms of amounts are slightly unrealistic I think – we need more than that a day – although we can bulk up on fruit and veg. If people criticise me for what they might term as sitting on the fence then so be it; I’ve already explained why living to extremes in my mind is unproductive.

Over the year my meat cravings have reduced to the point where I no longer consider it when doing the grocery shopping. I have it occasionally, maybe once a month, because I can feel my body calling for it. Fish is a slightly different kettle of, er, fish. When I was in the UK I ate mackerel, simply because I knew where it had come from. In China the vast majority of fish comes from farms; these can be sustainably run, as I’ll explain in another post another time, but at the moment I prefer to avoid any seafood altogether. I can’t remember the last time I ate eggs. Forms of dairy I’ve also relinquished; I drink nut milks, don’t use butter in cooking (except very occasionally when making a roux or similar), I substitute regular yoghurt for a coconut variety.

Cheese however I will and cannot compromise on. I can happily find alternatives for meat but to my mind nothing replaces cheese in terms of flavours and consistency. So there.

 

Nuts for you

sdr

No two chestnuts crack the same way. Let that be my motto for the week.

A distinctive winter feature here is the roasting of chestnuts, often accompanied by the (loud) cries of vendors. Most communities have a shop selling fruit and vegetables with one corner devoted to jars and baskets of assorted nuts and seeds. The chestnuts are roasted in a large round steel barrel and sold usually by the half kilo. That’s how much I bought, costing me about two pounds sterling.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission the recommended intake of nuts per day is 50g, which amounts to a couple of handfuls. I certainly wasn’t going to eat half a kilo of chestnuts in one day (the shelling alone would have tipped me over the edge) but then I suddenly had a thought: what if these are actually not classified as nuts, in the same way as almonds are technically seeds and peanuts legumes?

Yes. They are nuts. As nutty as a Nuthatch hatching nuttin’ but nuts. And they are good for you too, a healthy source of carbohydrates and various essential minerals. In the end I prepared about 250g, along the way developing the aforementioned motto. Why. Don’t. They. Crack. Luckily they did before I did.

Tis the season of pumpkins and squashes so it made sense to me to combine the elements. First thing I made was a soup, the squash roasted with chilli and coriander seeeds and then cooked down with the chopped nuts in bay-infused stock until reduced enough to blend. A palmful of lemon thyme leaves stirred in at the end lifted the dish. It was good enough and warming, the spices and herbs combatting the natural sweetness of the main ingredients.

Somehow it didn’t quite hit the spot though. I wanted something more robust and hearty. I took inspiration from Italian cuisine, especially the famous Ferrarese dish cappellacci di zucca, which uses pumpkin puree as a filling for ravioli.

So I made a puree of my own by roasting squash pieces with salt, pepper, a little chilli powder and sprigs of lemon thyme. Once these were ready, about twelve minutes in a hot oven, I put them in a pan with enough vegetable stock to cover and reduced the mixture until it had conglomerated enough to be able to combine with an electric hand mixer. Result: nice silky smooth puree.

Meanwhile I shelled the nuts – about 50g or so – and then grated them into a bowl. Rooting around in my cupboards I came across some dried porcini mushrooms. Time to turn up late Autumn factor to eleven. These I soaked in warm water for about thirty minutes (note somewhat staggered timing here; I was making it up as I went. Obviously if I had found the mushrooms earlier I would already have put them to soak). I cooked up some conchiglie, not due to any aesthetic reasons but because it was the only pasta I had. Anyway, I figured, the natural cups made by the shell shape would hold the sauce I made quite nicely.

With the pasta almost ready I chopped up the mushrooms and fried them with a little oil, garlic and some of the soaking liquor (again, hindsight allowed me to reckon that the squash stock could have been augmented with the mushroom liquid, if only I’d thought of that. If only). Anyway I heated up the puree and tipped the cooked pasta into it, stirring until thoroughly combined. On went the mushrooms, then the grated chestnuts. I finished with dots of goat’s cheese, which turned out to be a surprising salty necessity.

img_1780-1

Great flavours – at once sweet and earthy, rich and tangy. Texturally not too bad either, although as I was eating it I figured the ingredients might all work better together in a lasagne of sorts. Waiting on a mushroom delivery. Watch this space.

 

Doing runners

 

 

Recently returned from a trip back to the UK where there was only one concern for serious-minded people: what to do with the glut of garden runner beans?

My mother’s vegetable garden has been in runner terms the gift that keeps on giving. However many times my father goes down to water the plants he returns with an armful of long, green, rough-skinned beans. My parents have had them as a side dish for pretty much everything they’ve eaten for the last month. And they work very well, with just a minimum of additions: a little salt and pepper, a glug of olive oil perhaps or knob of butter. There’s something deliciously moreish about them, something to do with the slightly yielding bite in the mouth and slippery finish.

I smuggled a bundle in my luggage back to China. Not that they don’t have them here, or at least a variety. Unfortunately the selections in the greengrocer’s always tend to be on the pale and dry side, and unappealing for that. While on the plane, between sleep, dreams and the films on the small screen, I concocted recipes, imagined cooking in the kitchen.

What goes better with beans than other beans? Italian soups like minestrone are good examples of bean pairings and the idea of different genera together in varying shapes and sizes tickled my tastebuds as I tried in vain to get some sleep in the darkened cabin. In this case it would be Phaseolus coccineus paired with Phaseolus vulgaris, that’s runners and cannellini. A kind of warm slightly stewed salad-y dish.

Cannellini bean stew with runner beans. 

  • big handful of runner beans, prepared (rinsed, topped and tailed, sides trimmed and sliced thinly on the diagonal).
  • 1 x 400g tin cannellini beans (or any kidney bean variety).
  • half an onion, sliced.
  • palmful of lemon thyme, chopped.
  • generous pinch of paprika.
  • half a big tomato, or one medium, chopped roughly.
  • vegetable stock, about half a coffee cup
  • couple of bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • one clove of garlic, sliced thinly

 

First cook the runners by placing them in a largeish pan of salted boiling water. They’ll take about five minutes, maybe less, until tender. You want them slightly floppy but gently al dente. Meanwhile lightly fry the onions and garlic in oil in a flat-bottomed pan until softened then stir in the cannellini, drained and rinsed from the tin, and the herbs. Pour in the stock and let everything bubble and stew away on a low heat for about three to five minutes. Add the tomatoes and paprika, stir in well and let cook for another minute or so. Finally jumble in the runners and season, making sure everything is amalgamated. Remove the bay leaves. I let this sit for ten minutes or so before serving and you could even chill it in the fridge or eat it while hot. Some bread might be a good idea to, as the Italians say, fare la scarpetta. Basically to mop things up.

Allow me a whimsical digression. The above Italianism, and its translation, I think hold perhaps the key to the origin of a literary character’s name: Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta , protagonist of a series of crime novels. Fare la scarpetta, as already suggested, translates at least in culinary terms to a mopping up, bread used to wipe around the pan or plate containing the meal just eaten as a way of soaking up the delectable juices and flavours left behind. Furthermore the word che in Italian is often used in exclamations, such as che palle! (what a drag!) or che casino! (what a mess!). The forename Kay and che are homophones. So that, and this is just a theory, the name given by Patricia Cornwell to her US-born sleuth could translate as: What a Clean-Up! Suitable name for a crime-solver, methinks…case closed?

For the remaining runners the next day I made a simple ratatouille. The prepared beans went into a lidded saucepan with half an aubergine, chunkily chopped, a tomato similarly dissected, half a quartered onion, dash of tomato puree, bay leaves, garlic clove sliced, good scattering of dried oregano, generous glug of olive oil, salt and pepper. Lid on, low heat and everythig just left to cook gently for about forty minutes. Bread was the only other thing needed. And that cleans this one up.