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Free-form lunchtime delights

19 Aug

A friend commented on the food I’d produced for a sunny summer lunch a couple of weeks ago, that her mother would never have eaten the salad, as it contained raw peas and weeds. My friends, however, were more daring, and ate the lot with gusto.

salad, wildflowers, Carpathian Mountains, free food, foraging, nutrition

Weedy salad, full of vitamins, minerals and Carpathian sunshine

Salads are free-form food. Brought up in boring British kitchens of the 1960s and 1970s, where ‘salad’ was limp lettuce, soggy tomato slices, bits of cucumber and (in liberal circles) some grated carrot, I gradually realised that a salad could incorporate almost anything edible, from leaves to nuts, fish to fruit, spices, herbs and flowers. I went through a knickerbocker-glory phase of salad making, with layer upon layer of exciting ingredients in a huge bowl, delighting in the planning of it. But these concoctions took forever to produce, so these days I’ve scaled back a bit.

However, I now live amongst organic wildflower meadows, 1,000 metres up in the mountains, and my lawn is full of free and delicious greenery which gives me more nutrition than any shop-bought veg (including curly kale). What many call ‘weeds’, I call lunch. These are plants common to British gardens, so frustrated gardeners fed up of the unwanted leafy squatters in the veg patch: embrace them. Eat them. Ribwort and broad-leaved plantain, Fat Hen, wild carrot, Good King Henry, dandelion, chicory, caraway, chickweed, purslane, ox-eye daisy, smooth sow thistle, nettles, and the bane of gardeners, ground elder: all add texture and flavour to mild lettuce leaves or wilted spinach. Raw or steamed for 30 seconds, these are tasty, healthy and free-of-charge additions to your menu.

Back to salads. We know now that the more colourful the food we eat, the greater the health gains. Fruit, salads and veg come in the full spectrum of hues, and every colour brings different benefits. Raw is almost always healthier than cooked, so salads are the optimum eats.

So be bold. Experiment with different combinations. These bowls contain little heaps of: red cabbage (vivid purple when grated), tomatoes, crushed peanuts, peas (raw) from my garden, toasted sesame seeds, wild leaves (see list above), and spring onions. Topped with a wild carrot flower, and dressed with olive oil and a choice of lime juice or balsamic vinegar, they are filling, satisfying, pretty and delicious. Cheap, too, and easy – nothing clever required. Have a go.

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Mediterranean veg with seedy mamaliga (polenta)

2 Oct

When I get a visitor with food needs I haven’t met before, it’s a challenge I love. This week’s visitor eats meat, but has allergies to dairy and gluten. No dairy, no problem, but no gluten (wheat, oats, rye, barley) is a restriction I haven’t catered for yet.

Mamaliga, polenta, aubergine, red pepper, garlic, seeds

Colourful and flavoursome

Last night I made this and served it with late-summer Romanian yellow beans (and I had feta cheese crumbled on top).  There are endless variations you can try, including a bit of chicken or tuna grilled or pan-fried, any green veg such as Savoy cabbage, broccoli or chard; you can try different herbs with the polenta, different cheeses, either crumbled or melted on top… The choice is yours. But here’s what I concocted last night. [This long list of ingredients and instructions might look as if this post doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but I’d say it does – the recipe is flexible and forgiving, so unless you leave the polenta cooking while you have a bath, or don’t cook the Med Veg for long enough, it’s hard to go wrong. It’s not fiddly or over-precise, so it’s a good one for less experienced cooks.]

Seeded mamaliga

Mamaliga is the Romanian word for polenta, and is a staple food here. I find it – as normally served – like wallpaper paste, tasteless and gluey. but with a little extra something, then sliced and grilled, it becomes something altogether different.

Ingredients

300g maize meal or instant polenta

Boiling water

Big handful of fresh parsley (or 2 tablespoons of dried), chopped finely

Handful of sunflower seeds and sesame seeds

Toast the seeds till pale brown and set aside

Boil a kettleful of water and pour half into a large pan on full heat – when boiling, add the dry polenta/maize meal and stir vigorously (use a whisk to get rid of the lumps) for 15 mins or so (follow cooking instructions on packet), topping up with water as polenta thickens. Add the toasted seeds and the parsley, and a salt to taste – check seasoning several times. You want the polenta thick, but still pourable. When it gets to that point, pour it into a shallow dish and let it cool while you cook the veg.

Meanwhile…

Mediterranean veg

I call this Arthritis Relish because it consists of all the veg that do no good for arthritic hands – but they’re all so delicious I put up with a couple of days of discomfort.

Ingredients

1 aubergine (eggplant) –  cubed into 1” pieces, skin on.

2 red peppers (bell peppers) – chopped into bite-sized pieces

1 medium onion

2 or 3 fat cloves of garlic, chopped or crushed

2 large tomatoes, chopped

1 chilli pepper, chopped – with out without seeds, depending on how hot you want it

Herbs of choice – basil, thyme, marjoram or a Provencal mix

A teaspoon of a spice mix like Baharat or Ras al Hanout

Salt & pepper

How to do it

Put all the ingredients in a big pot with plenty of oil (extra virgin olive, for preference) and frazzle slowly for at least 45 mins, so the aubergine has softened thoroughly and tastes sweet and rich. Check flavours and adjust seasoning if needed.

When cooked down to a jammy chunkiness, take off the heat and keep the lid on the pan.

By now the polenta wshould have cooled and set so that you can slice it; cut a slice for each person and put them under the grill or in the microwave for a few minutes to heat through. (If you’re all cheese-eaters, a bit of grated cheese of choice goes well on top of the polenta slices.)

On each plate: a slice of polenta, a scoop of Mediterranean veg, something green and leafy, and perhaps some crumbled feta cheese or grated Pecorino, and a good twist of black pepper.

NB There should be polenta left over (it’s very filling) – a grilled slice works very well as breakfast, topped with scrambled, poached or fried eggs, mushrooms or grilled tomatoes. And/or bacon, if you’re so inclined.