Pierce Penniless and the vegbox

Not long ago the River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was famous, notorious even, for his red-blooded approach to meat eating.  At a time when most people’s meat came in polystyrene trays from the supermarket. Hugh was out there fearlessly slaughtering his own pigs and even tucking into roadkill.

Then he shocked everyone by bringing out a book extolling vegetables, and a very fine book it is too, with over 200 recipes and not a shred of meat in sight. The reason? Well, as someone who hates factory farming and fears for the future of our fish stocks, he realises that we need to eat far more vegetables and much less flesh if we are going to stop damaging our planet.

I love it when my studies connect in unexpected ways with other parts of my life. It’s one of the advantages of being a mature student, I think – the upside of having to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. I am doing a wonderful module this semester on Renaissance literature and could not help thinking of HFW last week when the set text was Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil by Thomas Nashe. More than 400 years ago, Pierce was saying stuff about the English diet which chimes remarkable closely with Hugh’s thoughts on the subject.

It is not for nothing that other countries whom we upbraid with drunkenness call us bursten-bellied gluttons, for we … eat more meat at one meal than the Spaniard or Italian in a month. Good thrifty men, they draw out a dinner with sallets (salads) … and make Madonna Nature their best caterer.

It gets worse. We are, says Pierce,

‘such flesh-eating Saracans that chaste fish may not content us but we delight in the murder of innocent mutton, in the unpluming of pullery (poultry), and quartering of calves and oxen. It is horrible and detestable; no godly fishmonger can digest it.’

Since our family started getting a weekly veg box, we too have been proving that ‘Madonna Nature’ is the best caterer. In fact, veg has played such a starring role at the dinner table that I’ve barely needed to go near a butcher or a fishmonger, godly or otherwise. It’s not that we’ve turned vegetarian, but rather a shifting of emphasis. As HFW says, it’s quite liberating not to have ‘a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the agenda, making everything else feel like a supporting act’. It’s also loads cheaper, which is pretty amazing given that our veg is now organic and delivered to the door.

The contents of the box got used up with unusual speed this week so I don’t have a photo of the beautiful curly kale or the little fat carrots that were so fresh I could smell them before I even cut them. Here’s some romanesco instead – unfortunately not in season at the moment, but surely one of the most stunning vegetables in Madonna Nature’s treasure chest.

romancing the sprout

Some of my best days in 2011 were spent in the wonderful west Yorkshire town of Todmorden. I wrote here about my most recent visit and about the incredible edible project. You really can’t spend much time with Todmorden folk without becoming inspired to do more with vegetables and, more importantly, be honest about how your food choices affect the world around you.

Over the Christmas break I got to thinking about how our family could eat in a way that has less impact on the environment and is more sustainable in the long term. Growing more of our own food is an obvious first step and I have some plans in that direction, but for now it is January and there’s not much in the garden.

So I decided we should go back to having a weekly veg box, something we used to do but abandoned because I had an idea that it was too time consuming. I know organic parsnips with the mud still on them are much better all round than the anaemic, plastic-wrapped variety you get in the supermarket, but back when I had just started a degree and was juggling it with work and a teenager crisis, I felt I couldn’t cope with anything extra. If anything is worse than a shrink-wrapped courgette in Tesco, it’s a mouldy organic one looking at you accusingly from the bottom of the fridge. (Though I’ll admit it’s a close run thing.)

I hope to return to the issue of time in another post. I don’t think you can get away from the fact that doing things in a sustainable way often appears to gobble more time than the convenience option and may well actually do so. But speed can be overrated, I think. Just as I’d rather pay a few pence extra for fairly traded bananas, so I think I need to be wiser about how I spend my precious time.

Anyway, the first veg box arrived from the excellent Riverford. A stunningly beautiful red cabbage and some fabulous purple sprouting broccoli sat alongside more homely offerings such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks.

No problem deciding what to do with any of those, but I have to admit I was temporarily stumped by the bag of Brussels sprouts. The two teenagers who still live at home are definitely not picky eaters, but they really do not like sprouts. In their entire lives, they have never managed more than one at a time, and that is with the Christmas dinner. There was only one option – I would have to cook the sprouts for my Friday night ‘date’ with Julian.

This Friday tradition goes back to when our children were small and we couldn’t afford to go out and pay a babysitter too. It’s a great excuse to splash out a bit on posh food. Sometimes I get sea bass or tuna steaks from the fishmonger; sometimes we indulge in home made tortellini from the Italian deli. What we do not expect to eat is anything as homely as a Brussels sprout. But I love a challenge and what’s more I knew my amazing Leith’s Vegetarian Bible (now out of print, but there is a newer edition) was unlikely to let me down.

Enter the Brussels Sprouts Gratinée. Let me tell you, this did not look promising. But I put that down to the sprouts and all our prejudices about them. In fact – and as is usual with the Leith bible – the taste was excellent. Crunchy sprouts and a crispy, cheesy topping contrast perfectly with the creamy, paprika-spiked sauce and the smooth potatoes. Add candlelight and a glass or two of red wine and I promise you the humble sprout can be transformed into the food of romance.

Brussels Sprouts Gratinée

Sightly adapted from Leith’s Vegetarian Bible by Polly Tyrer

450g Brussels sprouts

350g unpeeled potatoes

1 teaspoon paprika

a pinch of cayenne pepper

200ml crème fraîche

50g wholemeal breadcrumbs

1 dessertspoon of butter, melted

15g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Switch the oven to 200 degrees C and grease an ovenproof dish with butter. I used a round one; the base has a diameter of 21cm.

Trim the stalks and outer leaves from the sprouts. I didn’t bother making a little cross in the bottom, although I know some people say you should. Cook them in boiling salted water for just five minutes. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the potatoes into even sized shapes and cook in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes. They should be just tender. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the sprouts in half and slice the potatoes. Mix together gently and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Stir the paprika and cayenne into the crème fraîche and season.

Put half the sprouts and potatoes into the dish. Spread over half the crème fraîche. I found this a little tricky, but a bit of coaxing with a palette knife did the the trick. Top with the remaining vegetables, then the rest of the crème fraîche.

Mix the breadcrumbs with the melted butter. Stir in the cheese and parsley and spread on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes, by which time the vegetables will be hot and the crumbs crisp and brown.