Goo

I know a secret or two about goo. It won’t mind if I tell you.

Last post I said I was planning on a potato salad, Asian-style, which would include at least miso and soy. Well that came to fruition sooner than I had imagined, basically because on Sunday I was once again in the vicinity of the basement market and once again I bought a little rustling bag of potatoes.

I’d been thinking of pairing the spuds with some kind of thick-stemmed Chinese leafy green, carrots and spring onions. What I found on an adjacent stall to the potatoes was the bonus of some purple-sprouting broccoli – a rare thing here, especially given the season – so into another bag that went. The other ingredients followed.

Once home same process of par-boiling the spuds, with mint (just for the smell of it), and then dividing them up. This time I quartered them into smaller sizes because I felt the flavours I had in mind would lend themselves better to a lighter forkful.

Said flavours being a marinade of olive oil, sesame seeds, miso paste and dark soy sauce, all whipped up together into a kind of liquidy pulp and then smothered over the steaming potatoes. Into the oven on about 200 although I probably tinkered with the temperature a couple of times and left to cook until crispy, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile in a lidded flat-bottomed pan I had the carrots – four smallish ones – and broccoli (a fistful) cut into rough strips with about half a glass of water. Brought that to the boil the covered it and left it to kind of steam/boil on a lowish heat until tender. Removed the veg and chopped up into chunks commensurate with the potato sizes. Finely chopped the spring onions, I used three or four.

Now, the goo. I hadn’t anticipated the miso-based marinade to form such a mouthwatering smear of crispy but chewy goo. Sure, I burnt it a little, as the picture demonstrates, but there was a delicious sweet saltiness to it, something almost indescribable, something….umami.

Bundled all together in a bowl with a dressing of oil, teaspoon of soy, good squeeze of orange and generous grating of ginger. Surprisingly hefty for a salad, and not really a summer dish, but I’ll be making those potatoes again.

Crispy spiced cauliflower and chick peas

I think this dish might become my fall-back failsafe lunch or supper. I adapted it from a Waitrose magazine recipe – one of my Christmas cuttings – which I’ve included in this post further down. As the whole thing is cooked on a single oven tray there is scope for additions, different textures and tastes.

To the original basic cauliflower and chickpea foundation I decided to include a few chunky croutons – to help soak up any last drops of the delicious spiced oil in the tray – as well as some halved cherry tomatoes for an extra burst of moisture and flavour. I didn’t have any ground coriander although I realise I could have thrown in some seeds for a last minute citrus hit

. I used a squeeze of lemon instead. The following serving is for one person.

  • about half a medium cauliflower, stalks roughly sliced
  • three-quarters of a tin of chick peas (I’ll use the rest for something else, hummous perhaps)
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • two ends of a baguette, cut into chunks (any bread going stale will be perfect too)
  • handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil, a generous drizzle

Gather together the cauliflower and chick peas in a bowl, sprinkle the spices and pour over the oil. Massage everything together. Jumble the cauliflower and pulses on a roasting tray so you create a kind of vegetable forest with the odd small clearing. Put in a preheated oven on 200ºC and roast away for a good thirty minutes. There should be wonderful smells in the kitchen.

The chick peas and cauliflower should have crisped up nicely by now, should maybe even be catching slightly and show signs of charring. Now’s the time to add the bread and tomatoes, grind in some salt and pepper, once more mixing everything up, and cook for another five minutes. Add a little more oil if it looks too dry. The tomatoes will have softened slightly and the bread have a slight crunch to it.

As I said I just finished this with a squeeze of lemon although a coriander yoghurt, as per the original recipe, would also go down a treat.

Other things to potentially do:

  • carrots or parsnips (or both) cut on the diagonal and roasted together with the cauliflower (or instead of it)
  • sliced onions, added about halfway through the cooking
  • broccoli florets instead of the cauliflower, briefly blanched in boiling water before putting in the oven then finished with toasted sesame seeds

 

Chickpea and carrot tagine with homemade harissa

 

Some recipes for harissa call for peppers, others do not. I used one for mine simply because I had one. Other ingredients were:

  • coriander seeds
  • cumin seeds
  • tomato puree (I used Hunt’s paste)
  • two small red chillies
  • bunch of coriander
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • two cloves of garlic

First I got the skin off the pepper by blackening it on the hob flame then flaking off the burnt bits and getting rid of the seeds and pith so that only the flesh remained. I dry-roasted the seeds over a short flame before pounding them up in a pestle and mortar. To a container I added the chillies, garlic and coriander, all chopped, as well as a good dollop of tomato puree, the pepper, seasoning and seed powder, before glugging in some olive oil. Then it was a simple matter of whizzing it all up with a stick blender until smooth, I had an empty and sterilised jam jar ready and after I had spooned in the harissa I topped it up with olive oil. This should be done after each use to exclude the air and will ensure the paste lasts at least a month in the fridge.

In many dishes meat is just a texture that can easily be replaced. Here I used carrot and sweet potato, keeping the slices large. Here’s the list:

  • harissa paste (see above)
  • two large carrots
  • one sweet potato
  • one can of chick peas, drained
  • half an onion
  • one small bunch of both coriander and parsley, chopped roughly
  • two cloves of garlic
  • one tsp of turmeric
  • one tsp of smoked paprika
  • honey
  • bunch of greens – I used a type of Chinese spinach
  • quarters of lemon to serve

Slice the onion and garlic and gently fry in olive oil until soft. Meanwhile chop the carrots and sweet potato on the diagonal so that you end up with thick wedges. Add the turmeric to the onions and let it amalgamate for ten seconds. Do the same with the smoked paprika. Pour in a tablespoonful of honey. Then stir in a generous spoonful of the harissa and stand back to appreciate the wonderful spiced aroma in the kitchen. Next add the carrots and sweet potato, making sure they are caked in the sauce, then pour in enough water to half cover everything. Cook with a lid on a gentle heat for about 15 minutes. Add the chick peas, a pinch of salt and a little more water if necessary, put the lid back on and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Chop up the rinsed greens and stir into the stew. When they have softened put in the herbs, turn off the heat and let it sit for a minute. The result should be colourful and inviting.

Bread can be used to soak up the delicious liquor and a squeeze of lemon will lift the whole dish. Keep the harissa handy in case you want an extra heat hit.

Mushrooming

So far 2019 has been a flurry of house moving, getting back to work and dealing with both another gas leak and a bout of gastric flu. However I have managed to stay true to the promise I made at the end of last year, to seriously reduce the amount of animal protein in my diet for reasons of sustainability.

It hasn’t quite manifested as I’d thought. Originally I had envisioned a fairly strict regime, almost a timetable, with certain days and mealtimes being allotted for those ‘meat-treat’ moments. As it transpired the process has been a much more natural one. As my awareness of what I eat has slowly been nurtured throughout the past year, so I find myself acting on instinct. The whole concept of meat-eating now seems largely unattractive and although I am against the idea of extremes – ruling some things out completely is unhealthy for the psyche – I have encountered little or no opposition to what are becoming commonplace culinary habits.

You could say that my habits have mushroomed. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope In The Dark:

What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation. 

Solnit is making a point about societal and ideological changes in a global context, but the metaphor stands for personal lifestyle rejigging too. As I let the ideas I first read about over a year ago ferment inside me so their power grew to the point where, now, I am fully embracing a new way of cooking and eating.

Stands to reason I should include a mushroom recipe in my first post of the new year. Indeed ever since I returned to China I have had a craving for fungi-based food. I had the foresight to buy a few packets of dried wild mushrooms to bring back with me,  mixtures of chanterelles, ceps and horn of plenty, among others, and I’ve been scouring the mushroom varieties in the greengrocer’s – under new and friendlier ownership – finding selections of button, oyster and enoki.

Last night I followed an Ottolenghi recipe from his book Plenty. Before I came back I studiously went through all my mother’s cookbooks and magazines, taking photos of all the – mostly – vegan recipes I could find so I now have a ready collection to turn to. This mushroom ragout features both duck egg and sour cream, as well as butter at some point I think, but I omitted all these and to my mind didn’t make the dish worse for it.

A technique I learned was to cook the fresh mushrooms first in hot oil for a minute or two, not moving them around so that they browned on one side, before flipping them over to obtain an even golden-ness. The smell in the kitchen during this bit was heavenly and if I shut my eyes I could fancy that I was in fact frying a piece of steak. Once I’d removed the mushrooms I added half an onion, chopped, to soften with a bit more oil. I’d already put my dried fungi in to soak in warm water and I drained out the rich liquor to pour into the pan with a glug of red wine. I let the broth simmer with some thyme and a pinch of salt for about twenty-five minutes, after which I added all the mushrooms and reduced until I had a fantastic dark and glossy stew. I made croutons out of a baguette, toasting them in the oven with oil, salt and a garlic rub until crisp. Then it was a simple matter of stirring some chopped parsley into the stew and heaping it over the bread on the plate.

Absolutely fantastic this. I had thought to use polenta instead of the bread, cooking it then letting it cool before frying it up in wedges, but I couldn’t find any. It’s something I’d like to try in the future because I can see it working just as well.

 

 

 

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.

There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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