Life in plastic

I had a hankering for a vegetarian curry in the evening and some spiced apple sauce to stir into my breakfast porridge. I got off at the last-but-one subway stop to my apartment so I could buy the supplies I required: a couple of apples; a bunch of coriander; a sweet potato and cauliflower.

The picture below shows the amount of plastic used to wrap all the produce. Especially unnecessary are those styrofoam nets around the apples. I know, I know, keeping things in plastic keeps them fresh for longer. And plastic producing companies argue that it lightens the load for transit purposes, thereby enabling more products on fewer journeys, saving the world in that way. And the irony is that plastic is a good product. Cheap, durable and versatile, it has myriad uses, from the dashboards of millions of cars to the containers we use for our lunch boxes.

We’ve seen it too as a massive moving carpet of filth across the Pacific Ocean, choking up the water and the life within. We’ve read about tiny particles of the stuff that contaminate our drinking water supplies meaning serious health risks. Plastic, we can confidently say now, is bad news.

We can make lifestyle choices. We can carry around our own shopping bags and re-usable water flasks, we can try to shop in places which don’t offer plastic bags or drink without using a plastic straw. We can compartmentalise our waste so that plastics are deposited into the appropriate boxes where available. This is all good. We feel better about it all. We feel less guilty.

What? Wait, guilty? Where did that come from? After all, it’s not our fault that a very large percent of products are made of some form of plastic. The stuff is everywhere. As consumers, ourselves a product of the times, we are trapped into buying it. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.

Because we are beings blessed – or cursed – with a conscience, we feel it being pricked with every news article, shocking docu-reveal and plastered image. That conscience leads us to question our own activities, we secretly blame ourselves for the predicament. And so either we forget about it all – someone will work something out won’t they – or we start to change the way we live our lives.

And the plastics industry helps fuel this sense of individual responsibility. Plastic is petroleum-based and an essential by-product of the fossil fuels industries. In response to the growing environmental crisis, a by-product of mass disposable consumerism, littering initiatives were funded by this industry who, having shifted the onus onto the individual to do something about it, did not cease the production of the damaging materials.

Nowadays, gratifyingly, it is more than just individuals who are taking action. Bill McKibben writes recently about the divestment of funds from carbon-intensive companies, signifying a huge realisation from a vast variety of former investors including, amazingly, the Rockefeller family.

Like the Pacific trash vortex, however, the real issues lie even further underneath the surface. It is, as William Catton points out in his groundbreaking work, Overshoot:

‘…easy to succumb to the temptation to vilify particular human groups and individuals …”if only those_____ weren’t up to their nefarious business…then history could resume its march of millennial progress…'”

The journalist and activist George Monbiot, while directing a lot of his ire towards those ___________ in power, is even more concerned with the insidious all-pervading nature of consumerism.  Whatever we consume, he says, is already too much. The planet cannot give us any more than it has. Richard Feinberg, of the Post-Carbon Institute, echoes this by saying we need to become ‘conservers, rather than consumers.’  We use too much of everything. A simple life, with dependence on localised resources, seems to be one of the solutions.

It is with this in mind I have made at least one serious resolution. That is to cut down by at least 75% my weekly intake of animal protein: meat, fish, eggs, dairy. This means that during the course of seven days I am allowed a maximum of five meals including some or all of these ingredients. Monbiot calls for total global veganism, his principal beef with animal grazing, however I am not yet convinced such an extreme is necessary. A collective cutting-down will itself have positive effects, as outlined comprehensively here. All food for thought.

With this new dietary regime in place, I will endeavour to be a bit more regular with my posts as I am forced into further experimentation very much out of my comfort zone. Experimentation also involves what to do with food waste, stuff I’d normally discard. To this end I have already started using sweet potato skins and apple peel, crisping them up in the oven with oil and cinnamon, for moreish snacks. I am also trialling the utilisation of rotten satsumas as compost for my window-ledge plants.

Happy to say while this post was being composed I was also working on a rather delicious warm salad which fit my new profile.

The inspiration was a roasted chick-pea soup I had for lunch the other day in a cafe near work. Roasted chick-peas eh? I could see them being the main player in a kind of lightly-spiced melange. The one I have fashioned and devoured included these ingredients:

  • chick peas, two tins, drained
  • one carrot, diced and left raw,
  • one cucumber, ditto carrot
  • one tomato, ditto above
  • one head of sweetcorn
  • broccoli
  • mixed nuts and seeds (cashew, pumpkin, sunflower)
  • ras-el-hanout
  • smoked paprika
  • coriander, one bunch, chopped

I roasted the corn and the pulses at the same time, although the former I wrapped in foil with some thyme, garlic rub and oil. The chick-peas I laid out on the tray, glistening with salt and more olive oil. Temperature 200 degrees. It all took about twenty minutes and everything was ready together. As soon as the pulses came out of the oven I sprinkled them with the paprika. Meanwhile I blanched the broccoli until tender in boiling water, chopping it up into florets. After scraping the corn off the husk I mixed it all up, throwing in the nuts and seeds – lightly crushed and toasted in a pan – and the herb. The final addition was the ras-el-hanout mixed with a little oil. As is my wont, I have made enough for a couple of meals.

On the pulse, with the grain.

One of the key things I’ve learnt about getting creative in the kitchen is that the process of making starts with what is absent. If I had a large, fully equipped kitchen and a well-stocked larder at my disposal I daresay I would never have started this blog.

Limited preparation space and minimal cooking facilities. The unavailability of many familiar ingredients. The effort it takes to source a fresh bunch of thyme. Into this mix I am now stirring the challenge to cut out as many carbohydrates as possible from my diet. It’s a weight-loss thing. I figured on this with a combination of regular exercise and less alcohol.

At least two of those are going pretty well. Where I have to get creative is to think of alternatives to the usual sauce-moppers and solid textures. No longer will my fall-back be a rustling portion of fried potatoes, glistening with salt. Same goes for that lunchtime convenience of two thick slices of bread filled with whatever I can fashion from the fridge contents. No takeaway pizza. Rice and noodles are also out, which excludes me from about eighty percent of the dishes in this country. I’m making an exception, as a once-weekly treat, of pasta, although I haven’t been as tempted as I thought I would be.

Creamed white beans

An inspiration which crept on at me one morning at work and which possessed me for the rest of the day until I could not wait to get on with it. It provided the base for slices of medium-rare sirloin and kale.

  • tin of white beans (eg. cannellini)
  • half a medium onion
  • palmful of thyme leaves, chopped
  • grain mustard, spoonful of
  • stock – I crumbled in about half a vegetable cube to a jug of hot water
  • cider vinegar, splash
  • cream, about 50ml
  • salt and pepper

It was the soothing prospect of this which had me salivating. The vinegar provided a nice sour note, cutting through the richness, although I guess white wine would have done too. I added the chopped onion to a hot pan lubricated with a little oil and then after a few minutes, added the thyme and mustard. Vinegar sloshed in next with the heat turned up to let it boil. Back on the simmer I poured in the beans, well-drained to get rid of that cat-food tin smell. The stock covered the beans and basically I let it bubble away for about fifteen minutes while the rest of the meal was prepared. Near the end the addition of the cream and another couple of minutes’ cooking thickened the dish deliciously. I could probably just be happy with a bowl of this some other time.

Spiced lentil soup

A good late-season warmer. At least a hand-held blender is necessary for the final emulsification.  I eventually made enough for about five separate servings.

  • green lentils – I weighed in about four generous handfuls.
  • chilli flakes, a pinch
  • more stock, enough to more than cover all the ingredients – again, I generally just use cubes
  • one big onion, diced
  • garam masala, a good spoonful of
  • one squash, cut up into chunks
  • spinach or similar, thick bunch of
  • cream, about 100ml

There might have been some other ingredients, but this was essentially it. Always starts with the onion frying in oil until soft. I threw in the spices and chilli fairly early on in the process. Then the lentils and squash were introduced and allowed to take on all the pan flavours. The spinach was wonderfully cold when I washed it under the tap. In it went. Then the stock, up to the boil, cook till everything was soft and in with the cream and, after a bit of amalgamation, the B L E N D. This was my lunch out of a thermos for the next three days.

Chickpea stew

Not meant to stand alone this one although I daresay it could. In this case it was the base for a couple of pollack fillets which originally I’d planned to cook separately but in the end just bunged in with everything else. This recipe is the bastard child of an Aldo Zilli creation. The appropriation is, as ever, my own.

  • tin of chick peas
  • medium onion, chopped
  • capers, spoonful of
  • chilli flakes, sprinkle
  • stock, as for the beans
  • one carrot, diced into small pieces
  • bunch of coriander, chopped

Pretty sure Zilli uses sun-dried tomatoes in his dish. I compensated for the lack of those with the capers – the piquancy is needed in some way. The process remains the same. Onion and carrot, spice, chick peas, capers, stock, coriander, in that order. Cooked until most of the stock reduced to a thin flavoursome gravy. Particularly delicious contrast between the nutty pulses, still with a bite, the sweetened onion and carrot and the hint of spice.

No pictures for this post. How could I visually recreate the sensation of my splayed palm over the pan as it heats, or the squeak the spinach makes when the knife slices through it? How to replicate the rattle of pulses in the colander or the magical mingling of spices in the air? What photo can do justice to the longing I had for a dish of beans or the impatience over a pan of nearly-boiling water?