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. 

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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. 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.