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.

So it goes

 

 

 

What have I gone and done? Even after proselytising just the other day about the necessity for sticking to the script when it comes to certain dishes I am now guilty of messing things up, of free-associating, of going all stream-of-consciousness – on a salad, of all things.

It’s not just a salad either. Gloria wouldn’t like me calling it that, neither would she appreciate it if I left out cucumber from the recipe, despite my naive incredulity at its traditional presence as a key ingredient. I’m talking about panzanella, of course – the keen-eyed of you will have noticed the pictorial clues –  although given my experimentation I’m tempted to rename it as ‘canzanella’ for reasons which will become apparent.

Sitting at work I was, where I am wont to mull over the food preparation for the evening, a multi-stranded thought process encompassing the presence or otherwise of required ingredients in my store cupboard (singular), following that the detail of where I can purchase those items which, as I scan, are absent from my shelves. That detail involves a mental geographical assimilation of the city: the likely routes I am to take, which means of transport will be most favourable in each case, whether I go home first, how far I can totter on an overloaded bicycle, why there isn’t a magic shop very near to where I live where all the things I need are always available.

But half the fun is finding everything. I like a mini-adventure, a quest if you will. I knew that at home I had half a stale ciabatta, I want to say loafing about, getting staler. But I wasn’t sure if it had got to the point where even a douse of red-wine vinegar and oil wouldn’t revive it. That’s when, mid-afternoon, the clock ticking, I decided to augment the ‘salad’ with beans. Yes. Cannellini, borlotti. That kind.

The route home was made, as ever, by way of Twin’s where I was able to get the aforementioned vinegar as well as sundry other items. But then, arriving home, I realised I had no red onions and so a visit to the unfriendly greengrocer’s had to be made. The woman grunted at me as usual and by now our conversation exists entirely of my nervous half-smile and her throaty non-committance. I know my onions here, that’s for sure.

The bread was salvageable and, indeed, ideal. I soused it and left it to soak, before halving tomatoes, letting them macerate with salt, pepper and oil. I love the word macerate, it seems so violent-sounding for what is in fact an exercise in softening. A mix of lacerate and massacre. Meanwhile I cooked the beans – the horror, the horror – having decided that I wanted a more substantial dish than the original version affords. These I cooked gently with the onion so the flavours combined. Everything else could just be jumbled in together: the cucumber – yes – skinned and chopped, capers, torn basil leaves, all combined with the bread and tomatoes, both oozing delectable juices. I left the beans to cool before chucking those in too. In the end they didn’t really add anything except a little more bulk.

Probably the jury’s out on canzanella. Typing the word into a popular search engine reveals its popularity as a surname. There is also a B&B in Naples named so – the city I can vouch for, the establishment not – which makes me think that I haven’t just coined a word but merely appropriated it from some other context. Possible derivation from ‘canzone’ which means song, and so I get an image, ludicrously, of the old stereotypes of the moustachioed mandolin player at the window of some local Lollobrigida, the cicadas humming in the olive groves and everybody blissfully uncaring of economic meltdown, social deprivation and political corruption. Eppur si muove.

Assembly line

As the days get sunnier, the evenings warmer, I find I am less inclined to stand at the kitchen stove, stirring and ruminating. Much more likely to be sitting outside somewhere, watching the world go by.

Any cooking I have done recently has been of the quick and necessary variety: a swift dish of aglio e oglio perhaps, that failsafe combination of spaghetti, garlic, oil, parmesan, chilli flakes and, in my version, chopped parsley: steak or chicken breasts, grilled with seasoning and herbs and served with a salad. Indeed, it has become less about cooking and more about assembling. Jumbling things together that require little or no actual stove-time but just some judicious chopping, slicing and adding of condiments.

In an effort to ween myself off my diet of lunchtime sandwiches at work I’ve spent some evenings preparing large and fairly elaborate salads which serve not only as an effortless supper option but a ready-made lunchbox the next day. I took a leaf from the good people at Leon and adapted their Original Superfood Salad to something that I could replicate with what was at hand. I found some asparagus and mange-tout, walnuts, pine-nuts, feta, chicken and bundles of fresh herbs – basil, mint and parsley. The chicken I lathered in ras-el-hanout and fried until golden and sticky. The nuts I chopped and toasted lightly. The whole lot I threw into a bowl and mixed with oil and lemon juice. Turned out to be pretty good.

Next time I was a bit more ambitious and, to that end, possibly less successful.  Went for a meatball-based melange this time, with spiced aubergines, tomatoes and cucumber as well as those nuts and herbs. I used beef and meant to run some chermoula through it, though I forgot. Result was a little dry due I think to the predominance of lean to fat in the mince. Still it was a worthy and fairly tasty affair and the feeling of being able to produce it at lunch – look what I made – made up for what might have been lacking in flavour.

Oh, and I also made pesto. Quite a good vibrant one with plenty of salty cheese, the way I like it. I ate it over four days with gnocchi and nothing else. I didn’t make my own pasta because I couldn’t be bothered although I feel sure, as the days darken, you will find me once again hunched over the metal worktop, head in the simmer, mind on the boil. I think I will use these warmer months to experiment a little more, to post some more abstract pieces and I’m also preparing something musical which, I hope, should emerge soon….

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