food

Rhubarb rhythms

After eleven years of living in this beautiful corner of Sheffield, I have learnt the rhythm of spring in our woods. It goes like this: celandine, wild garlic, wood anemone, bluebell.

IMG_3099

Celandine

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Wood anemone

We’re into wood anemone time at the moment, and the wild garlic is also thick on the ground. Soon it will be time for a bit of foraging but first I need to pay homage to that other great harbinger of spring in Yorkshire: forced rhubarb.

rhubarb

I’ve written enthusiastically about this delicacy before, and a couple of years ago I posted this recipe for sharlotka, which I still rate highly. However, when we were in Edinburgh recently, some lovely friends produced a brilliantly simple rhubarb dessert that I just have to share here. Delicious results from very little time in the kitchen, and also including a hidden ginger nut – what could be better?

I’ve tweaked it a bit, drawing on a recipe for rhubarb syllabub from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, which is one of my go-to books when I’m trying to decide what to do with a vegbox, or a glut of vegetables from the garden. Highly recommended.

Sam and Claire’s rhubarb and ginger layer

To serve 6

  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 6 stems young pink rhubarb, about 500g
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 gingernut biscuits
  • Greek yoghurt

You will also need six ramekin dishes

ingredients

stewing

Warm the orange juice and sugar in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Cut the rhubarb into thumb-length segments and cook in the orange juice with the zest, cardamom and star anise for 8-10 minutes, then cool. Reduce the liquid by lifting out the rhubarb pieces and boiling the juice until it becomes syrupy.

Put a ginger biscuit in the bottom of each ramekin and spoon the rhubarb over the top. Finish with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and refrigerate before serving.

finished1

Tastes as though it took ages.

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For my children: clementine cake

A long time ago I had an idea that when our children left home I would give them a recipe book with all their favourite meals in. Like many parenting resolutions, that one didn’t work out too well (I lost heart when the few I had written up fell victim to a computer that erased my hard drive.)

Still, better late than never but this time I’ll write them out here, away from bolshy hard drives and in a place where others might enjoy them too. It’ll be an occasional series of ‘inheritance recipes’, those meals that became a regular feature of our life together while we were all growing up and that perhaps they will want to pass on to their families in the future.

The first is the one that always says to me that Christmas has arrived in our home. The kitchen fills with warm, citrusy aromas that gradually waft up the stairs, heightening the sense of anticipation as the Big Day gets nearer.

It’s Nigella Lawson’s clementine cake and I’ve been making it every year for more than a decade. Like many of our family’s favourite recipes, it comes from her first cookbook How to Eat. Published before Lawson was regularly on television, the book is full of dishes that you want to make again and again, and that actually work in the context of your everyday life.

I regret the one-dimensional portrayal of Lawson that has developed since she became a TV star. I actually bought How to Eat all those years ago because I was intrigued to find out what kind of recipes a Booker prize judge would write (she was on the panel in 1998).

I wasn’t disappointed. I love the way this book is written. It’s intelligent but down to earth, competent but not threateningly so. The language is as enjoyable as the food. ‘Purple-sprouting broccoli is avoided by those who think that good food has to be fancy,’ she writes. ‘Clearly they don’t deserve it.’

Of a baked custard she says: ‘When you eat it, it should be just warm, soft and voluptuous, like an eighteenth-century courtesan’s inner thigh; you don’t want something bouncy and jellied.’ I do wonder whether this one sentence sowed the seeds for the way most people seem to think of her now, but in context it is a brilliant description that conveys exactly what the cook should be aiming for.

Like a lot of Lawson’s recipes, the clementine cake is expensive both in terms of the ingredients and the length of cooking time. Foodbanks and hunger have, rightly, been in the news almost daily for the past week and I hesitated before I cooked it this year.

But to my mind some occasional feasting is an important part of what it means to be human and in the end I decided that something that is so resonant for our family, not to mention delicious and easy, should continue to be part of the way we celebrate Christmas.

So here goes, kids: inheritance recipe #1

Nigella Lawson’s Clementine Cake
From How To Eat (Chatto and Windus, 1999)

4-5 clementines (about 375g weight in total)
6 eggs
225g sugar
250g ground almonds
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

Boil the clementines in plenty of water for two hours. (Put the lid on the pan: the year that I didn’t, it boiled dry and I spent a couple of hours on Christmas Eve trying to remove caramelised clementine from the base of a very expensive pan your great-uncle Lyn gave us as a wedding present.)

Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the pips. Pulp the whole lot, including the skins and pith, in a food processor. (Apparently you can do this by hand but get a food processor if you can afford it: it’s the one kitchen gadget I wouldn’t be without.)

Preheat the oven to gas mark 5/190 degrees C. Butter and line a 21cm Springform tin.

Beat the eggs, then add sugar, almonds and baking powder. Mix well, adding the pulped oranges. Here’s a good Nigella sentence: ‘I don’t like using the processor for this, and frankly, you can’t baulk at a little light stirring.’ Hear, hear.

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for an hour. A skewer should come out clean. After about 40 minutes, rest a piece of foil or greaseproof paper on the top of the tin or the cake may burn. Cool in the tin.

clementine cake

 

don’t bash Jack Monroe – just shop like her

Imagine what would happen to supermarkets if we all bought everything we needed from their most basic range, topped up with a few treats from the ‘about-to-go-out-of-date’ shelf and a little free range meat when we could afford it.

That pretty much describes the shopping habits of Jack Monroe, one of the most talked-about cooks in the country, whose meticulously costed recipes, developed when she had less than £10 a week to spend on food for herself and her son, have won her a book deal, a couple of Guardian columns and now, controversially, a role in a Sainsbury’s ad campaign in January.

There’s a wearying predictability about the vitriol that has been heaped on her, the accusations that she is ‘selling out’, the cries of ‘shame’.

Really these kneejerk reactions have completely missed the point.

I am no fan of the supermarket and in my dreams every suburb and housing estate has a regular market selling locally grown, seasonal food, alongside a few independent and ethical traders whose businesses contribute to a thriving local economy.

As I said: in my dreams.

Until that day we need to face the fact that our food system is very, very broken and make the best we can of what is on offer. And if we really care, we will also call out the multiple injustices inherent in the industry and support alternatives as they emerge.

I don’t know exactly why Sainsbury’s have asked Jack Monroe to front their campaign but I’m absolutely certain it’s not because they want people to shop as she does.

As I understand it, her role will be to demonstrate how to use the leftovers from a roast (free range) chicken.

Are Sainsbury’s really anticipating that the result will be a decline in chicken sales because people are suddenly making better use of the meat? That’s not how businesses work.

No, supermarkets just want to get us through their doors because they know that most of us, once we are there, do not stick rigidly to a Jack Monroe-style shopping list but are easily lured towards special offers, ready meals and bogofs that bring them the biggest profits and are the worst offenders in terms of promoting waste and perpetuating low wages for producers.

Fellow shoppers, it is up to us. We all have a choice. Even inside the supermarket we have a choice.

What Jack Monroe has shown us with her recipes and her campaigning is that even if you only have a tiny budget it is possible to take back some of the power that is concentrated in the hands of a very few retailers.

I think it would be hilarious if the result of the ad campaign was that we all started cooking our own food with ingredients from the supermarket basics range and making our own lasagne instead of buying the ready version.

Sainsbury’s will be banking on us not doing that. But in the end Sainsbury’s doesn’t control how we spend the money in our wallets – we do.

 

 

things that keep me awake

I don’t often write poems and I certainly wouldn’t expect to be inspired by a councillor in a suit reading statistics from a Powerpoint slide.

Although it wasn’t so much inspiration as just a gut-wrenching feeling that everything is so, so wrong and that everywhere we look in this country people’s lives are being ruined by deprivation that really doesn’t need to happen.

I went to a public meeting that Sheffield council called for people who were interested in talking about a food strategy for the city.

I heard these statistics. There were more too, but these were the really heart-stopping ones for me:

  • 30,000 people in Sheffield are malnourished.
  • 40,000 people live in food poverty.

Forty thousand people is more than the entire population of the town where my parents live.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking of all the people so nearby who were feeling hungry. In this very rich country of ours.

So I ended up writing a poem. I know it’s nothing special but it’s all the words I’ve got for this at the moment.

It’s quite hard to sleep
in a very rich country
when you have just found out
that tens of thousands
(yes tens of thousands)
of your neighbours
are going to bed hungry.

I grew up thinking
hungry people
came from other countries,
faraway places
where there are wars and famines
and other things we don’t have
in England
(like corruption).

Not in places where the supermarkets are rammed from floor to ceiling with food –

olives, chicken breasts, parsnips, Rioja,
onions, potatoes, nan bread, pesto,
aubergines, sausages, sugar snap peas,
white wine vinegar and sea salt crisps.

I can get all that at the end of the road
(they say a lot of it ends up in the bin).

Today a man with a red tie
said he was worried
about how it makes you feel
towards yourself
if you go to bed hungry;

about how it makes you feel
towards the place where you live
if you wake up hungry too.

The man with the red tie said:
there are sixteen food banks in this city
and we must never stop being angry.

savoy pesto

A spat blew up last week which encompassed the best and the worst of this country’s attitude to food. It particularly caught my eye because it involved kale, a vegetable that is on my mind at the moment.

Jack Monroe, the feisty and fabulous food writer and anti-poverty campaigner, snagged herself some bargain kale from the supermarket and had the frankly brilliant idea of whizzing it up into some pesto.

Jack, who knows a thing or two about living below the breadline, always costs her recipes meticulously. This one worked out at a princely 15p per portion.

She then published a slightly revised version of the recipe in her Guardian column: with spaghetti and a few embellishments, the whole meal still worked out at only 42p a head.

For reasons I still cannot fathom, this sparked a frothing fit of abuse from Daily Mail journalist Richard Littlejohn. You can read it in a screenshot on Jack’s blog here, and also her wonderful response.

I really do not understand why some people get so very, very angry at the suggestion that people on a low income might care about the food they eat. (I realise this is not all that contributed to Littlejohn’s apoplexy but it is a good part of it.)

As I witnessed in Bulgaria, this attitude seems to be a peculiarly British thing and is not, on the whole, the case in mainland Europe and beyond. Joanna Blythman describes it well in her excellent book Bad Food Britain:

In nearly every country in the world where the population is not on the brink of starvation, the selection and preparation of food is seen as a fundamental life-enhancing activity, a zone of existence where it is within every individual’s grasp to make each day that bit more pleasurable. Good food is seen as a democratic entitlement, so a labourer expects to sit down to much the same food as the business executive. The ingredients may vary in quality, but the menu structure and choice of dishes is essentially the same.

I’d been planning to go and buy some kale so that I could try Jack’s recipe, but then I saw in another interview that she had described it as ‘basically cabbage’ and I realised I could substitute some of the enormous Savoy cabbage that has been kicking around our fridge for a few days.

This is my version of Jack’s recipe. I added some flat leaf parsley because it was growing in the garden. It enhanced the taste and really rescued the appearance –  the Savoy looked rather anaemic once pestoed and definitely loses out to kale in the beauty stakes.

I used olive oil instead of sunflower because I prefer the taste but I realise that does make it quite a bit more expensive.

The chilli was a frozen one that I didn’t even bother to defrost – I only found out recently that they freeze well, which is useful as supermarkets often have quite large packs marked down on the nearly-past-the-sell-by-date shelves.

We had it on spaghetti and it was delicious. I would probably halve the amount of chilli if I was feeding this to children.

pesto

Savoy pesto

200g Savoy cabbage, sliced and washed
1 fat bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 chilli, sliced
100g strong Cheddar (any kind of flavoursome hard cheese would do), grated
150ml olive oil
juice of one lemon
100ml water

Pile everything into a food processor and whizz until almost smooth. Makes loads. Stir a generous tablespoon per person into hot pasta and eat, reflecting on the democratic right to pleasurable, life-enhancing food. Then go and try some more of Jack’s excellent recipes.

If you enjoy this blog, please do consider backing my Kickstarter campaign. We’re hoping to raise enough money to publish a book about Incredible Edible, a movement which is inspiring people all over the world to work with their communities to build a stronger, kinder, healthier future.

comfort by numbers

 There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Emily Dickinson

I am not good at winter afternoons, especially after the clocks have changed.

When the nights start closing in early I need quick fixes that don’t demand a lot of energy or thought.

Enter my soup formula.

A bowl of home-made soup when I am in for lunch at this time of year has become almost essential. It’s a hug in a bowl, a practically instant comfort food with no guilt attached.

It’s much cheaper than the posh cartons you can get in the shops and much more delicious than the canned stuff.

It’s also incredibly simple – so much so that I’ve reduced it to a formula.

1 onion, sweated in a little oil + I kg vegetables + I litre liquid + seasoning

x 30-40 minutes on the boil

=

soup

I think it’s quite hard to get this wrong. I have made lots of concoctions from odd combinations of veg that just happened to be a bit past their best and rarely had one I didn’t like.

You can tart up this basic formula all sorts of ways, depending on what you have in the house and how creative you feel. A stick of celery, chopped and added at the onion stage always improves the flavour.

The liquid can simply be water. If I have it in the freezer, I use chicken stock; most often I use Marigold vegetable bouillon, dissolved in boiling water.

I prefer smooth, thick soups so I always liquidise the mixture. I use a stick blender for minimal washing up.

These are a few of my favourite mixtures, the ones I go to again and again to bolster me against a grey winter afternoon.

Pea
The easiest soup in the whole wide world is a bag of frozen peas boiled in an equal volume of water for about 15 minutes and then liquidised. You can even skip the onion stage of the formula as the peas work fine without it. With judicious amounts of salt and pepper, this actually gives you several bowls of proper, comforting soup.

You can make it a bit more interesting by adding a handful of chopped mint, a swirl of olive oil or – a tip I read in a Nigella Lawson book – by boiling it with a Parmesan rind for a subtle saline kick that gives an added depth of flavour.

Butternut squash and/or sweet potato
Some chopped ginger sweated with the onion gives this added layers of warmingness.

A big handful of chopped coriander leaves stirred in near the end is also delicious.

Some home made soup, especially the ‘what I had left in the fridge’ variety, can be a rather uninspiring shade of khaki. This one is the opposite – it’s the shockingly bright orange of autumn beech leaves that more or less dares you to go on feeling miserable when you are looking at it.

Today's formula: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + i litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Today’s formula for lunch: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + 1 litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Carrot
This is sweet and earthy. I think it works best if you include a medium-sized potato in the total weight of veg.

A fat pinch of dried sage goes well. You can also use orange juice for part of the liquid, although in that case I’d omit the sage and use fresh, chopped coriander instead.

For an even more nutritious soup you can add a handful of lentils to this: it’s what I always gave our children when they were run down and sniffly towards the end of a long school term. You’ll need to increase the amount of liquid as the lentils absorb a lot.

Celeriac and thyme
I wouldn’t do this on a completely miserable day  because the celeriac can be a bit awkward to peel and you have to remember not to let the flesh stay exposed to air for too long or it goes brown. But it really is worth the (slight) extra effort. The secret is to add absolutely masses of fresh thyme leaves near the end of cooking. I haven’t tried it with dried but I think that could work as well. As with the carrot, I think a potato is needed to give the finished product a really velvety texture.

Curried parsnip
An old favourite that my mum used to make when anything spicy was considered quite daring in England. I use a tablespoon of curry powder, stirred into the softened onion, and about equal quantities of parsnip and potato. No longer daring, just comforting.

I’m always looking for new combinations – leave me some suggestions in the comments if you like!

 

the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.

5kEdinburgh

Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.

damsons

The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.