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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.

Tocana – a Transylvanian autumn treat

20 Oct
Gogosar is the Romanian word for rounded peppers, compared to the long, pointed ones known as ardei

Gogosar, the sweet capsicum you find in their natural shape and colours in Transylvanian markets

This is a fabulous foodie treat that hasn’t yet escaped its home cuisine in Transylvania (Romania). Tocana is a relish of the last summer vegetables, for sale in the market for buttons in October as the autumn takes hold and winter beckons. [Zacusca is a close relative, made by roasting the vegetables rather than cooking in oil like a confit.]

Housewives buy 20 kilo sacks of peppers and aubergines to cook and put in jars for a reminder of summer in the depths of a harsh winter, with smaller sacks of onions and carrots grown in the smallholdings of rural Transylvania.

Sweet with a hint of smoky bitterness, full of flavour and colour, the autumn peppers (ardei and gogosar) from the south of Romania and imported from Turkey are a far cry from the pretty but tasteless peppers you find in British supermarkets, grown in Dutch polytunnels without benefit of mineral-rich soils and southern summers. These aren’t perfectly shaped, uniformly coloured things, but organic vine fruit folded and twisted and coloured by the sun, grown without the synthetic encouragement of agrotechnology; the difference in taste is so marked that they might be different species altogether.

Tocana, the Transylvanian foodie secret that is one of the treats of the year

Tocana, organic, simple, naturally colourful and bursting with late summer flavour

So – tocana. A simple recipe, but cleaning and chopping takes time, so it’s best done as a family, or with a group of friends; if you’re on your own put some music on and surrender yourself to an annual ritual of aroma and maturing textures. Then you have the delicious reward of warm tocana for supper, and the looking forward to helping yourself to a jar of tocana from time to time through the long, frozen winter.

This is a dish of such rich summery colour and flavour that I’m amazed it hasn’t been swiped by savvy chefs in Britain, or exported by canny Transylvanians. An opportunity for you to make a coup, and worth every minute of preparation.

Ingredients

5kg red peppers

1kg carrots

1kg onions

800g tin of tomato paste

1 litre oil (sunflower or another mild-flavoured oil)

seasoning to taste

NB You’ll need a big pan for this amount, and several large jamjars. If you live in a northern climate, peppers might be prohibitively expensive in these quantities, but the 5:1:1:1 ratio of ingredients is easy to scale down for an occasional dish.

How to do it

Clean and deseed the peppers, skin the onions and peel the carrots. Chop the veg to a fine dice in a food processor (stop short of a paste) and put in a large pan (a jam pan is ideal) with the tomato paste, oil, salt, black pepper and/or cayenne, and if you like, a little sweet paprika. (Better to add a little seasoning and add a little more if needed, rather than overdoing it all at once.)

Cook over a high heat until the mixture is bubbling. The veg release plenty of water, so once boiling, turn the heat down and leave to cook (stirring often to stop burning) for a good couple of hours, until the water has evaporated, and the mixture is a thick, rich, glossy red conserve. Adjust the seasoning if you need to, then let it cool to blood temperature.

While still warm, put into sterilised jars and seal thoroughly. It should last for weeks, if not several months, in a dark place. Eat with a spoon straight from the jar, or if you want to be a bit more civilised, serve with toast or oatcakes. You can use it as a sauce for pasta, or as a relish with cold meat or cheese.

Let’s demand Jaggery!

27 Sep

I read a recipe for Goodi Huggi from Namita’s Kitchen today which included jaggery. Never heard of it, so hit Google, and this is what I found on the  Sugarindia site:

A solid block of natural, simply produced jaggery (sugar)

A block of Indian jaggery

Jaggery or “Gur” or whole sugar is a pure, wholesome, traditional, unrefined, whole sugar. It contains the natural goodness of minerals and vitamins inherently present in sugarcane juice & this crowns it as one of the most wholesome and healthy sugars in the world. It Mexico & South America, it is also known as panela.

Jaggery, being a wholesome sugar, without doubt is rich in the vitally important mineral salts: 2.8 grams per 100 grams, that is to say 28 grams per kilogram, while only 300 milligrams per kilogram is found in refined sugar. Magnesium strengthens the nervous system & potassium is vital to conserve the acid balance in the cells and combats acids and acetone. Jaggery is very rich in iron, which, a composite of hemoglobin prevents anemia.

So why are we being sold fancy sugars and sugar substitutes instead of this simple, natural, healthy and cheap-to-produce stuff? Because there’s no profit in it? Because… why on earth not?

Refining – even filtering out the ‘unwanted’ bits – can remove the very substances that keep the balance of health in foodstuffs. I’m not saying that diabetics could chuck their regimes and munch jaggery to their pancreas’s content, but we should look very hard at the refining and processing of basic foodstuffs. All right, all foodstuffs.

Who’s with me? And where can I get hold of jaggery? (in the UK, Romania, Hungary, Germany or Belgium)?

Weed salad

27 Jul
All picked less than 10ft from the back door - weeds and home grown lettuce

Goose-foot orache, comfrey, red and white clover, vetch, woodruff, ox-eye daisy flowers, basil, thyme, chives, feta and salami; with a lemon and olive oil dressing

It’s been a bad summer for growing things here – two weeks of wind and rain when the seeds were just planted, then unrelenting sun ever since. Result – lots of seeds never germinating, and anything that did start growing has not thrived. Except, that is, for the weeds. Hurrah for weeds! Many of them are good to eat, most are packed with nutritional goodness, and some are both. One of my favourites is goose-foot, which is a form of orache which grows with abandon on turned earth – building sites, dug over gardens, and so on. Another is Good King Henry, which is a relative, and grows happily in meadows and fields. A third is comfrey, which I thought was good for healing wounds and feeding other plants until I picked one of the pretty purply-pinky-mauvy-creamy flowers and ate it, just to see. Delicious, sweet with nectar, and so pretty. More than just a decoration on top of the salad – a distinct honey flavour.

I picked about fifteen fresh new tips of goose-foot, and two leaves from each little lettuce plant (cut and come again type); I cut a few chives and basil leaves, and added one spring onion (from neighbour’s garden) and an inch or so of cucumber. A slice of feta and a few slices of salami, a dressing of olive oil and freshly-squeezed lime juice, with cracked black pepper.

Delicious, very cheap, as easy as it gets, and capital H, capital EALTHY.

Arabella FullofLife photo of self-seeded garden orache or goosefoot

Goose-foot or orache, self-seeded and growing abundantly in lime-rich soil.