Is It Still Not Spring Beetroot/Walnut/Cheese Salad and Celeriac Soup

It’s still February, and you know what that means. Root veg, each claggy with mud, boiled and mashed and turning up everywhere, even salads. Salt, fatty pork, as sausages or bacon or cubes of pancetta, and the bitter twist of brassicas in your mouth. A seeming need to put cheese on everything. Really now, how much longer can winter last? Isn’t it bud and sun time yet?

 

There is some new green about, though. My winter leaves out in the garden – mizuna, spinach, chard – are bigger than ever, and last week we got the first fresh salad bag of the year in our weekly veg from Chingford. They got put to use when thrown together with baked beetroots, walnuts and crumbly Cheshire cheese, in a recipe I’ve bastardised from somewhere (possibly Nigel Slater?).

 

Wash three beetroots carefully and wrap each one in tinfoil, then bake in a medium oven for about an hour and a half. When they come out and have cooled, rub the skins off with your fingers. Don’t go touching any white curtains or cushions after: instead, find a child (or, in a pinch, a drunk adult), wave your sticky pink fingers at them and go ‘wooo-ooo’. They will probably be unimpressed. Slice the beetroot into forkable chunks and wash your hands. On top, crumble one third of a normal supermarket-size packet of Cheshire cheese, and finally a handful of broken walnut halves. Empty the washed salad leaves on top and leave the salad in layers, pink, white, brown and green, til you want to serve it, and then toss the whole lot together. I dressed it with a vinaigrette made of lemon juice, olive oil, half a crushed garlic clove, salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of grain mustard.

 

One celeriac is a good sized thing to include in your mashed potato, camouflaged as it is by being approximately the same colour and texture when mashed (although it never loses a little rootliness). This gives a vaguely sharp, herbal undercurrent to your potato cushion and makes it go well with a salty, fatty meat thing sitting on top. Two celeriacs is too much though. You cannot hide two celeriacs, even in a baby’s buggy or behind a curtain. Two celeriacs have to be soup.

 

Celeriac looks a little bit like someone crossed a swede with a squid. They are wrinkled, tentacley, vaguely sentient-looking. They might be a scarecrow’s brain, or the giant dimpled molecule of an element from another planet. Once you cut away their wrinkly skin, though, and slice up the white flesh underneath, they are innocuous enough, although their herbal smell sticks to your hands. Fry some onions with cumin seeds, ginger and garlic, and then stir in the diced celeriac and a couple of peeled, diced potatoes when the onions are soft, topping up with stock. Cook until everything is tender, then throw in washed garden leaves for a little green to break up the flavour: buzz it with a stick blender until the soup is creamy rather than chunky. Let it cool a little. Swirl in yoghurt, and crispy cooked bacon, broken up into fragments. Clutch the warm bowl in your hands, spoon the thick, savoury soup into your mouth, dream of spring.

Published in: on February 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook the Veg Bag, Round 3: Cabaret Dumplings

It has been cold here. Not touch-of-chill, almost March cold, not a cold that can be dispelled with a cup of tea and a shrug. I mean needle cold, cold that makes you huff into your scarf and swear a little and hurry because the faster you move the better a chance you have of outpacing it. Cold, man. As I left the house the other morning, tiny white flakes spun down in front of me, so sparse and delicate I actually looked at the tree behind me to see if it was shedding early blossom. It wasn’t, it was just the tightening sky warning us off looking forward to spring just yet, without giving the satisfaction of real snow.

I went to the cabaret that night with friends, and wore some fishnets underneath my sober black library skirt, because who can resist trying to dress a little bit in keeping with the action on the stage? Cabaret always feels like a conspiracy of coolness to me, knowing that you at a table sipping and watching in respectful quiet (as the sign on the door says: ‘Please respect our perfomers and SHUT THE FUCK UP!’) could be called on to be a stammering prop to the performers. I once went with a cabaret novice to a particularly rowdy night in north London, where within twenty minutes she had been hit by a flying glitter heel, inadvertently kicked off by the house drag queen. I wouldn’t presume to glitter heels or cigarette holders, but fishnet stockings don’t raise too many eyebrows in the reading rooms. They’re fun for a saucy hit of not-quite coverage, defining the shape of your leg and making it so you’re not quite unclothed. They are functionally useless for keeping out the cold, though, and the surface of my skin stung with the chill. After the show, I walked brisk and huddled with my friend to the bus stop, and boarded a bus home and, friends, do not tell the weird twin double act or the woman who threaded medical pipes through her nose or the amazing striptease artist who pretended to do her whole act drunk, wobbling with artless artfulness on six inch platforms, do not tell them I got distracted from them immediately by the late hour and the damn cold, and that by the time I was on the bus all I was thinking of was cabbage dumplings.

I had some large Savoy cabbage leaves, you may recall, and a good few onions and the previous night I cooked them up with a very old bag of sushi rice left over from times of previous conceit, and most of a tub of cottage cheese. I started off by setting the rice to steam, and slicing the onions into bows and frying them in a cast iron frying pan til they were brown and pliant. Once they were both cooked, I put the rice in the pan along with salt, pepper, and cottage cheese and stirred until the rice was shot through with savoury threads of onion, and so filling and good I had to stop myself eating it by the pillowy tablespoon.

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Rice and onion

I picked out some of the small fragments of porcini mushroom from an open packet, and poured boiling water over to rehydrate them. After letting them soak for 10 minutes or so, I put the mushroom fragments in with the rice mix and added powdered Marigold bouillon to the liquid. With the cabbage leaces clean and unfurled, I spooned the rice mixture (helpfully clinging to itself) into each one, forcing a good amount in before folding the cabbage leaf around it. Here are the cabbage babies, plump and snugly tucked up:
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I didn’t have any toothpicks or similar to seal them with, so they stayed open-ended where not packed in tight. Over these, I poured the hot mushroom stock from the porcini, so that it covered the dumplings with a little room to spare. They went into the oven for 45 minutes and came out sturdy, salty and perfect for a cold winter evening with a slash or two of chilli sauce.

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I ate two bowlsful and there was still enough left over when I walked in off the night bus, legs slightly blue under my fishnets, to warm my hungry late night self.

That concludes the veg box cooking for last week. I put the potatoes to one side, because I’ll always find a use for potatoes before they go off. That left only the purple sprouting broccoli. As tempting as it is to boast that I did something exciting with that, it would be untrue: I steamed it all and ate it with two boiled eggs, half a can of anchovies and two slices of bread and butter, and it was perfect.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook The Veg Bag, Round 2: pickled turnips and savoury cabbage

My veg bag last week had a turnip in.  Turnips confound me, a bit.  Root vegetables which you cannot boil, mash and eat with butter on top?  White radishy things you cannot slice, raw, into a salad? All wrong.  If I had £400,000, it is safe to say that I would not buy my dream turnip (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm  Comments (4)  
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Cook the Veg Bag, Round 1: Stuffed Peppers and Cheesy Leeks

Hang on a pepper-stuffing minute.  What’s all this with the capsicums?  Capsican’t, more like.  Since when did peppers appear in your hearty cool-weather English veg bag, all full of roots and brassicas?  Well, they didn’t.  But come on, have a heart, I don’t live by vegbag alone or I would never get to eat bananas and who would begrudge anyone a banana?  I haven’t gone full Barbara Kingsolver, not yet.  So in between buying cheese elsewhere and getting my veg, I got a bowlful of red peppers from the market on the corner.

There was some beef mince – or at least it was called beef mince, oo-er – in the fridge which housemate had been intending to make chilli “or something” with.  Instead, we fried it with one large finely diced onion, a thumb of peeled, chopped root ginger, half a bulb of garlic and two handfuls of mushrooms, seasoning it heavily.  At the same time, we boiled half a mugful of pearl barley until it was soft, then drained it and mixed it in with the seasoned mince, creating a mealy, savoury mixture that, housemate noted with approval, looked a lot like haggis.  This, we filled the beheaded peppers with and stuck them in the oven. 

You need something fresh and green with a pepper full of barley beef, though, something a little bit squeaky and slithery on the teeth.  But it was cold and we had been drinking beer all afternoon, so it seemed like cheese was necessary too.  I washed the leeks and then sliced them and then washed them again, and rinsed them (goddamit leeks, you filthy green bastards) and fried them in a sparse dab of olive oil til they were softened but still squeaky-crisp.  Then I took them out of the pan and made a slow little roux with butter and flour, adding milk gradually til it just covered the pan bottom.  It was hopelessly lumpy but let’s pretend that didn’t happen.  Once there was a liquid base, I scattered in cheap grated cheese til it thickened, then stirred the whole thing into the leeks, sitting in an ovenproof dish. On a whim, I added some cloves of pickled garlic from a jar, which was an excellent idea – they were crunchy and sharp and alleviated the heaviness of the cheese.   There was more leek than cheese, but you wouldn’t call it health food.  This went in the oven alongside the peppers.

Those were some pretty cheesy leeks after all.  Take a closer look, at them and my unclean oven door:

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The peppers came out great: the fluffy barley absorbed both the greasiness of the mince and all the warm, bright flavours (ginger, garlic, a bit of chilli) we had thrown in it, and sweet pepper communed happily with salty, alliumy, tangy leek.  I’d make either dish again by themselves, or with something lighter.

Ingredients from veg bag: onions, mushrooms, leeks.

Ingredients not from veg bag: barley, mince, red peppers, garlic, ginger, white sauce and cheese.

Verdict: YUM.

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Published in: on February 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook the Veg Bag

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am lucky enough to live in the distribution area of a good,. cheap organic vegetable provider, namely OrganicLea, who do many overlapping things supporting community food production and healthy eating.  One of these things is a weekly organic veg bag, which subscribers pay for every month and collect from pickup points around Waltham Forest.  For about £11 a week, I get a bag of veg slightly too big to comfortably carry, all grown organically within a shortish distance – Essex and Norfolk rather than, say, Tanzania, and a fair proportion from Chingford, too.

The Organiclea bag comes as-is, without the consumer placing an order about what they specifically want.  There is a ‘no-potato’ option, although why you wouldn’t want weekly potatoes I have no idea.  Sine the ones we dug up in the garden ran out, we never have enough and get through them really quickly.  This results in two things I like: constant surprises and a challenge every week to cook the veg in interesting ways.  Sometimes there’s veg I don’t care for, and my housemate eats it.  Sometimes there’s leftover veg that gets eaten by bacteria before it can get eaten by us, and it goes in the compost.  (Sometimes I actually truly can’t be bothered scrubbing the mud off all the little kinky bits in curly kale before it wilts).  However it works, though, there’s a lot less wastage and transport and packaging costs than there would be in a larger operation which relied on every carrot being cosmetically perfect and every potato pre-scrubbed.

Here’s the contents of my veg bag from last week, laid out and given a bit of a scrub.  Ain’t it pretty?

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There you have: potatoes, carrots, onions, half a cabbage, a violet turnip, leeks, mushrooms and purple sprouting broccoli. I’m afraid this photo is out of date, though, because this veg has been demolished: the mushrooms, carrots, turnip, leeks and onions are no more.  The cabbage is starting to look nervous.  The potatoes are hiding behind their dirt, conscious that they very well could be next.

So what happened to the veg?  Stay tuned to find out.

Published in: on February 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

This post has been shown to contain over 60% rant, or, why blaming the poor for eating bad food is nastier than a horseburger

Let me tell you what I had for dinner last night. No, really, it’s important. I made potato wedges with the organic purple Cara potatoes from my veg bag, rolled around in olive oil and herbs and chili flakes and roasted, with diced red pepper and crumbly curd cheese thrown in at the last minute. I ate it with leftover cauliflower cheese from the night before. I’d walked ten minutes up the road to pick up my weekly veg bag, and it contained a cauliflower bigger than my head, so I invited my friend round and steamed the cauliflower in the electric steamer, made a cheese sauce with plenty of cheddar and mustard, and then combined the two and put them in the oven to get crisp on top and gooey inside. We ate it with steamed greens and grated carrot and beetroot and slices of homemade oat bread, which I’d taken out of the breadmaker that morning. This evening, I’m planning to pick up some white wine vinegar so I can pickle the rest of the beetroots, doing the golden ones first so their bright sunshine-yellow doesn’t get drowned out by the pink of the others, and while the oven’s on to cook the beets and sterilise the jars, I’ll probably heat up the cheese, leek and onion pie I made earlier this week and have it with garlic-fried cabbage and the rest of the potato wedges.

Let me tell you some of the reasons why I do this, this endless cooking. There are lots of reasons, but here are few. I have a lot of control over my own time. I work the hours I want to, and I don’t work very many of them because fortunately, the hourly rate for the things I do is now quite high. No-one depends on me to get fed or bathed or put to bed or helped with their homework, so I can spend a whole evening cooking and preserving and talking to my friend, and no-one thinks less of me for it.

I know that there will be £45 in my bank account at the start of every month, to pay for my organic veg, not to mention the rest of my groceries. I can pick the bag up once a week from the pickup point ten minutes’ walk away, and not have to think about choosing or paying for different vegetables or where to get them from. I don’t have to get a bus, or two buses, or drive a car, or get a lift, to go to an adequate shop. On my way home I can stop and pick up extra things – bananas, red peppers, apples, avocados, nectarines – from one of the four pound-a-bowl stalls within ten minutes of my house, where they are sold much more cheaply than in the supermarkets. Often they throw in a little extra, a couple of plums or an apple or two, as a little thank-you for buying from them. Yesterday, the guy on the corner gave me an extra bowl of bananas (green ones, admittedly).

At home, I have an electric steamer and a breadmaker and a big freezer and a liquidiser and a gas hob and my rent includes the price of the utilities I use, so I’m not worried about keeping the oven on for an hour and a half. My housemate’s often away just now, so I invite my friend round because you may as well cook for two as for one, and if it were just me I’d probably eat oven chips and a fried egg.

Lastly, I just love food. I do. I think about it all the time. I’m good at cooking and I like doing it because people tend to like doing things that they’re good at, and I had a lot of free time in my twenties to learn how to do it well. I like supporting local organic agriculture, because birds and bees and soil quality are important, and most of all I like eating things from my own garden (or your garden), whose impact can be measured in food metres. The best kind of food is that which comes out of the ground and is washed and messed with for a few minutes and goes right on my plate. Every now and then – about every three weeks – I buy some food that used to be a living animal, but not very often because there is no good butcher near me and supermarket meat is pumped so full of water and hormones that it’s actually difficult to cook with, sometimes.

Do you know what makes me sadder and more annoyed than supermarket meat, though, sadder and more annoyed than individual plastic packets of cut-up fruit or pallid city eggs or beef so full of water that it leaches grey claggy liquid into my stir-fry and ruins it? It’s people who assume that everyone can do what I do, and if they don’t, then their choices about food are morally dubious, or stupid, or lazy, or just icky. Just nasty. And if they find out that their food has been contaminated with something else, then what did they expect? The problem is not the contamination or the industrial processes and lack of oversight that enabled it, it’s the fact that people don’t mind eating mechanically reclaimed meat from disgusting parts of an animal anyway. Because seriously, what’s in there is barely recognisable as cow anyway, and already disgusting. ‘Burger shown to contain ground up animal, eh? Shocking’. To which I want to say, fuck you, have you ever been poor?

I remember when a Findus Crispy Pancake was a fucking treat. It was an exotic thing, advertised on TV (which you spend a lot of time watching, if you can’t afford to do anything else, or you live somewhere where there is nothing to do) and it came in a brightly coloured box which was definitely more exciting than the potatoes in the shed or the cabbage at the bottom of the fridge. You wouldn’t want to live on them, but if you were a harried, tired mother who wasn’t actually interested in cooking but did want to give the kids an evening meal which they wouldn’t complain about, they were pretty ace – once in a while, because they were a bit expensive compared to vegetable soups or pasta with sauce. Know what else is good for that? “Beef” burgers. Potato waffles. Things you can buy in the little local shop, where the vegetables are old and manky and way overpriced, and keep in the freezer and not have to think about. Things that, at the end of a week’s careful budgeting, at the end of a day’s work, make it easy for you to choose them and store them in your tiny kitchen (where there probably isn’t room for a big fruit bowl or some extra jars for beetroot or a cauliflower the size of your head) and then cook them without spending a fortune on electricity (which might be supplied from a coin-op meter, and be in danger of running out just when you happen to have no 50ps on you and neither does anyone else) or gas (which, if you live in a tower block, you probably don’t have at all).

Oh, so it would be better, if people somehow feel they have the God-given right to eat meat, if they bought ‘cheap cuts’ which are much tastier if you know how to cook them right, and better for you and probably contain no risk of horse? Great. First, allocate everyone a good cookbook with guidance on how to safely cook meat, and how to take advantage of different cuts – or failing that, reliable internet access and a directory of useful sites. Then give them nearby shops where they can buy the rest of the ingredients to make that meal, affordably, at a time of day when they’re not working (How many people in the UK live in a ‘food desert’, with miles between them, and the nearest supermarket, and the streets or country around them denuded of shops where you can buy healthy food?). Then grant them an extra two hours to braise that lamb neck or simmer that oxtail down, and a clean, tidy kitchen to do it in. Get them to break the habit of eating what their parents gave them. Pay for the extra gas and leccy they’ll use, and then finally, convince their kids to eat it. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell them to enjoy themselves.

I think it’s this last point which gets to me. Clearly, not everyone has an electric steamer and a breadmaker and so on, like me, and not everyone lives in an urban area near lots of places to buy fresh fruit and veg very cheaply, but also, it’s very clear that not everyone likes cooking as much as I do. Not everyone cares as much about eating good food, either. However, if you’ve got money and you don’t like, or have time, to cook, there are a lot of options. You can pay for takeaway, or go out for dinner instead, or buy one of those lovely Waitrose ready meals, and even if people (by which I mean me) will judge you a little bit, this is not held up as evidence of a moral failing. Not everyone likes to cook! That is okay! Some people are fairly indifferent to food, and prioritise meals which are simple and quick, rather than complex and time-consuming. But if you’re poor and uninterested, and you actually would rather not spend your evening frying calves’ liver (very cheap) or mashing celeriac because you’re not much bothered, and you eat a frozen lasagne instead, somehow that is disgusting.

I don’t think it is the food that repels people but the wider ‘ugh!’ reaction that we have to the bodies and lives of the poor. We cannot actually deride people for poverty or lack of education, so we mock their doorknocker earrings, and sportswear and inconvenient children: we mock their prams (oh, the temerity not to have a car) and their lazy, unhealthy and frankly disgusting food choices. So who cares if unsafely slaughtered animals, loaded down with drugs ruled unsafe for consumption in humans, find their way into a burger? Let them eat horse.

Published in: on February 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm  Comments (31)