Pass it on

I’ve developed a penchant for potato salads. Warm ones. The kind where the freshly-cooked spuds, still steaming from the pan or crisp from the oven, are immediately mingled with a selection of other ingredients, tossed with a dressing, then devoured.

The principal reason for this relatively sudden tuber-titillation is I’ve at last discovered a good source of them. Every Sunday in the basement of one of the large shopping centres near my workplace a market is held selling all variety of organic produce, from soaps to shoes. In one corner there’s a little – but bountiful – farmer’s market and one stall in particular always has a good tub of spuds. They’re the waxy variety and as such perfect for jumbling into a salad.

Back home, laden with brown paper bags (aside from the environmental benefits, the crinkle of these carriers is aesthetically superior to the slippery shuffle of plastic), I begin preparing the potatoes. Scrubbed and washed I then cut each along the diagonal, quartering those of slightly bigger size so all the pieces are of similar proportions.

Into a pan of cold salted water they go, with a sprig of mint, and brought up to the boil. The smell of mint and boiling spuds is evocative of summer days in Somerset and I think I add the herb for that reason alone. I either par-boil or fully cook the potatoes, depending what I’m going to do with them afterwards.

The first salad I made was a combination of the freshly-boiled potatoes, delicious peppery rocket and a kind of camembert (both these bought from the same market), all tossed together with quite a robust dressing of olive oil, salt and cider vinegar. The cheese melted superbly and the rocket had a snap to it that only the freshest variety has. Didn’t neeed anything else apart from a glass of white wine to wash it down.

After that I began to experiment more, with dressings – I’ve used combinations of all or some of: lemon juice, grain mustard, different flavoured vinegars and oils,  capers, olives, different herbs, sun-dried tomatoes. I’m planning an Asian twist soon, using miso and soy, among other flavours.

For my most recent confection I par-boiled the spuds, drained them, then returned them to the pan with a lid on. Here I shook them around, to rough up the edges. I was going to put them in the oven and I wanted that kind of crispiness this sort of treatment gives. While the potatoes were roasting in oil I made a basic pesto of basil, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and grated parmesan, all the ingredients whizzed up until I got a smooth paste.

When the potatoes were verging on being ready I added some small tomatoes, halved, to the oven. I have a thing about crisp potatoes and softening tomatoes cooking together. At the end I sprinkled over some dukkah – a spice and nut mix used in Egyptian cookery – just to lift the whole thing. I’d had a jar in my cupboard for a while and was looking for a good opportunity to use it; this was it.

Spuds and tomatoes on the plate, rinsed baby spinach ripped over  pesto drizzled on with a little more oil just to loosen things up. Once again, nothing more needed except a glass of chilled white wine.

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The force of habit

In his famous treatise on Habit, written in 1887, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote:

‘….we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives: put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.’

In short, when embarking on a new way of living, surround yourself with things that will help you embrace it fully. Gather up arms and defences. Keep reading about the subject in hand.

That’s why I spent time at home building a kind of digital library of recipes to refer to. It’s also why I’ve done things like download Anna Jones’ 7 Day Reset and peruse almost exclusively cookbooks like the excellent Bosh! for my culinary inspirations. It’s why I continue to experiment and write about recipes with very low or nil animal protein content. On my wall is a very handy (and very colourful) wall chart designed by Liz Cook detailing the essential sources of vitamins, minerals and other nutrition for those following a plant-based diet and, most importantly, where they can be found. On my bedside table, and in my electronic reading tools, are books and literature all about sustainable eating, the pros and cons of vegan living and myriad related subjects. I download podcasts. I talk about the topic to anyone who will listen.

Wall chart by Liz Cook. Part of a map of the Blackdown Hills. Artwork by Michael Tarr and Allan Jones, among others

Such is the case that, even in this relatively short time, the prospect of going back to my former dietary habit is inconceivable. Yet if you had told me a year ago that I would be pursuing such a change in lifestyle with so much relish I would have had you up as a fool and laughed you out of the room.

I feel as though I should detail some of the main things I’ve noticed since changing dietary tack:

  • That, as opposed to being limited in choice of what to eat, there is now a new world of abundance. My kitchen storage is full of all kinds of things I would never have entertained having before. Miso, all kinds of nuts and seeds, a plethora of different fruit and vegetables, various grains and pulses, the list goes on.
  • I am no longer concerned with sourcing decent quality meat. This used to be a problem. The chicken and pork here, especially, tend to be full of water. You end up paying a premium for something imported.
  • On a similar note as above, my choices of what to have for lunch or supper no longer revolve around the usual meat or fish with something else. I am much more prepared to be creative.
  • I’m cooking a lot more and taking more care when I do. As if the change in habit has led me to pay more attention to not only the preparation of the ingredients but also the best way to cook them.
  • I’ve lost weight. Or, at least, I’m not gaining any. A shirt I haven’t worn for almost two years suddenly, effortlessly, fits me. No, I’ve definitely lost weight.
  • Even though I set my parameters to fit a significant reduction in animal protein intake, rather than complete abstinence, a part of me feels guilty whenever I shave a little cheese onto a bowl of pasta.
  • Cooking is even more enjoyable than it was before, if that’s possible, and I spend a lot more time thinking about it and doing it.

 

Agonda

When you walk down the narrow strip of road dividing the beach in Agonda, Goa from the inland, there are various signs crudely affixed to posts and sides of shops advertising cooking classes. Sometimes there are detailed directions, email addresses and telephone numbers. Others, however, merely have an arrow. This was the one I followed, down an alley beside a wine shop. It led me to a simple house where a couple of Indian ladies were sitting outside. Seeing me one of them shouted something and shortly a sari-clad lady appeared who would turn out to be my teacher for the following evening; her name was Shami.

It was what I’d been looking for. Home-style Indian cookery with no frills. Something I could replicate at home, but also a different type of culinary challenge. The big takeaway I’ve got so far from my mostly plant-based diet has, not, as I’d perhaps feared, been its limitations but rather a horizon as wide and glorious as the one I could see from my beach hut. My cupboards and fridge are filled with a lot of new – to me – and exciting ingredients that a year ago I would never dreamed of having at home. I plan a separate post on that in the near future.

Meanwhile I showed up at 5 o’clock (‘any later the mosquitoes come’ she’d warned me) and met my cooking companions, a young Swiss couple who were travelling around Asia. Shami was assisted by her brother, Rafiq. We were to make several dishes: masala chai, aubergine masala, an okra side, cheese and garlic naan breads, coconut chutney, aloo gobi and of course Goan fish curry. It panned out that chef Shami did most of the cooking while we helped with the preparation,  the chopping and dicing, the rolling and some stirring. At the same time I made scribbled notes and took photos.

Labour-intensive yes, but very satisfying in that respect. I’m very fond of cooking that requires a lot of prior prep so that when the cooking is underway everything is ready to be added. I was fascinated by the cooking implements: the flat-iron tawa used to cook the naans, the rolling pin and raised board, the little contraption Shami sat on – a wooden block with a projecting serrated blade – which doubled as a fish slicer and coconut flesh extractor. I liked the way everything was designed especially for this type of cookery. It was a real slice of Goan home life, the kitchen half inside half outside.

 

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Back in Beijing I tried to recreate some of that southern Indian flavour in my own kitchen. The sun came out although the view across the road was not Agonda beach with the Arabian sea rolling in and cows lolling about the sand but rather a grubby and grey six-floor building used in part as a delivery depot. What I did have that was authentic were the correct ingredients. I’d spent time in a Mumbai market being gently ripped off by several storekeepers but what I brought back – garam masala, black mustard seeds, cardamom pods and, most excitingly, fresh tamarind – was still cheaper than anything I could have bought here, even if I had found it.

In all truthfulness my efforts were not so successful largely because, like a child with a new toy, I was rather over-eager with the tamarind and put in more than I should have to both dishes. It is a delicious ingredient but has a tendency to overpower. Lesson learnt. Still, I can testify to the tastiness of the food as I was there and will always remember how it was, there, in Shami’s inside-outside kitchen next to the beach in Agonda, Goa.

I took the fish out of the curry and used cooked squash instead.

To make Goan curry, Shami style:

  • flesh of half a coconut (I used 200ml of coconut milk and about a tablespoon of desiccated coconut)
  • two dry red chillies (I substituted fresh ones, deseeded)
  • 1 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • ten (yes!) cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • fresh coriander
  • sunflower oil
  • half a medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt

Blend the first eight ingredients with a cup of water until you get a smooth paste. Stick blender worked best for me. In a pan heat the oil then add the onion. Interestingly, I was taught to put the salt in next as it both takes the moisture from the onion and cooks it quicker. It works. When the onion is softened add the tomato, cook for a minute or so then dole in the spice paste, using water to make sure all the sauce is recovered. Bring to the boil then add your protein or vegetables and cook away on a medium heat for ten minutes until ready. This is a mellow, soothing curry although up the chilli ratio if you want a spicier hit.

Aubergine masala:

  • 1 large aubergine
  • 2 dry red chillies (again, I used fresh ones and kept most of the seeds this time)
  • six black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • thumb of ginger, chopped
  • half a medium onion
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp tamarind
  • espresso cupful of white wine vinegar (I substituted cider vinegar)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tomato, sliced
  • half a medium onion, chopped

Blend everything apart from the aubergine, tomato, salt and onion until you get a smooth paste. Chop the aubergine into large chunks and soak in water. Heat sunflower oil in a pan then add onion, salt and tomato as per the recipe above. After softening put in the aubergine, drained, then half a cup of water and cover. Cook until everything has amalgamated and the aubergine has lost its toughness. Spoon in the spice blend and a bit more water if necessary. Bring everything to a bubble. The result should be tangy, sweet and sour, deep with different flavours.

Cheese and garlic naan breads (recipe makes about ten naan breads):

  • 200g wheat flour
  • half tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 100g cheese (if using, a crumbly one is a good option here)
  • finely chopped garlic, as much as you like

In a large bowl and with floury hands mix the flour, salt and oil together with cold water until a dough forms. Then add the cheese and garlic. Rest the dough in the bowl for at least ten minutes, or even longer. Divide the dough into balls about the size of large marbles.

When ready to eat, heat a flat-bottomed pan on a high heat. I bought my own tawa but anything like your favourite pancake pan will do here. On a clean and dry dough-dusted surface roll out each marble into a flat circle, not too thinly. Fold each circle in half and then again so you get a pocket shape. Re-flour then roll out into a flat triangle. Dot the hot pan with melted butter or ghee (no point messing around here) and gently lower in the raw naan. Press down on it while cooking and brush the other side with more butter. Flip over and add more butter. Whole cooking time should not be more than about thirty seconds and both sides of the bread should be slightly puffed and golden brown.

 

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.