Cooking without

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it’s usually about abundance

For me, cooking has generally been a positive experience – I don’t just mean that I enjoy it, but that it is associated with abundance (often from the garden) or a desire to cook with a specific ingredient or create a particular dish. In recent years, however, I have increasingly found my cooking constrained – dealing with restricted diets or needing/wanting to avoid particular ingredients. From my own perspective, this has been mainly related to making more ethical choices – supporting local producers, avoiding processed food, considering animal welfare, not using ingredients associated with habitat destruction and so on. But when I cook for others, there are other limits. Vegetarian cooking is never a problem – I used to be a vegetarian myself and anyway there so many wonderful dishes that don’t include meat that this, in itself, is never an issue. Gluten-free baking, on the other hand, is a challenge and this is something I have been exploring over the past few years as a result of cooking for one particular friend.

My most recent excursion has been into vegan cake-making. If you search the internet, you are overwhelmed by vegan cake recipes and so, at first sight, making a vegan cake seems entirely straightforward. However, the restrictions that I put on the ingredients I am prepared to use make it much more difficult. For example I never use margarine and many vegan cake recipes rely on this for both cake and frosting. Many recipes also make use of ingredients that have ethical issues linked to them – avocado, for example, is something I never buy because of the social problems and environmental degradation associated with the huge western demand for this fruit (you can read more here). And then there are ingredients like aquafaba (the liquid from cans of chickpeas or other legumes), which sounds great, but since I never use canned chickpeas, is not particularly something I wish to buy. And that’s before we get on to how I feel about food miles and the packaging certain ingredients have associated with them. Life is complex for the ethical cook!

So, when I offered to make a cake to take to yesterday’s tea party, my heart sank slightly when I remembered that the person whose birthday we were celebrating is vegan.  I put aside my happy hens’ eggs and organic butter wrapped in paper and searched for a recipe using ingredients that I had in my store cupboard. And finally I found a chocolate cake recipe that I was happy to make. I first tested out a gluten-free version and that was a bit dense, but the wheat flour one (modified a little from the original recipe) that I took to the tea party was light and moist and very easy to make. So, if you want a vegan cake, look no further…

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vegan chocolate cake

200g plain flour
200g caster sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
250ml water

Simply put all the dry ingredients into a bowl and whisk them together by hand with a balloon whisk to remove any lumps and get some air into them. Add the wet ingredients and gently whisk them together until they form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into a lined loaf tin (13 × 23cm) and cook for 45 minutes in a preheated oven at 180ºC.

I wanted to put some sort of frosting on the cake, but I simply couldn’t find a recipe that I was happy with, so in the end I made ganache. Usually this involves heating cream to just below boiling point and then, off the heat, stirring in very dark chocolate. Vegan dark chocolate is the norm, but a cream substitute is more of a challenge. I don’t use soya products if I can help it (for both environmental and social reasons), so I trundled off to the wholefood shop and examined the alternatives. In the end I selected organic coconut cream in a recyclable carton. I put a couple of dollops of this in a pan, heated it to below boiling, removed it from the heat and then stirred in chocolate until I achieved a nice gloopy consistency, before pouring it over the cake.

I was hoping to retain some of the coconut flavour, but sadly this was swamped by the dark chocolate. However, the verdict was good and I produced a moist and decadent cake despite all the limitations.

It’s certainly a cake I would make again… although not whilst we have an abundance of eggs!

Ruby Tuesday

Last autumn my friend @CambridgeGoats (not her real name) introduced me to the joys of steam-juicing and, as a result, I ended up buying a Mehu Liisa. By the time I got it, the only fruits that I had in abundance to juice were apples. We are still enjoying the results, although we’ve now consumed all the apple and ginger juice and there’s only plain apple juice left.

Today I decided to have a go with some of the red currants that have grown so well this year. I didn’t have enough to fill the whole basket, but as it was an experiment, I was happy to try with a small amount and to include the last of the frozen ones left over from last year (it’s always good to rotate your stock).

This method of juicing is single-step – it produces hot liquid, which can be drained straight into hot, sterilized bottles, ready for storage once cool.

The juice is very tasty and a beautiful ruby red colour, as you can see from the first bottle.

Now, I wonder how it mixes with white wine… or fizz…

Relishing a fruity bargain

Every summer I make a trip or two to buy some exotic fruit and hunt for edible bargains. Early on Friday mornings, throughout the year, a fruit and veg supplier sets up his stall in Newcastle Emlyn and, amongst the standard green grocer’s fare, there are many bargains to be had. You can’t guarantee what he will be selling off cheaply and the best bargains need to be cooked or eaten quickly, but it’s always worth a visit. In the past I’ve bought very cheap nectarines, tomatoes, mushrooms, mangoes… and I’ve brought them home for bottling.

So yesterday, rather than my early morning swim, I had an early morning shopping trip. The best bargain I found was organic pineapples – two for £1. The tops were looking somewhat worse for wear, but the fruits themselves seemed generally sound, and I bought four. I also managed to get some peaches, although they didn’t have any big boxes and I will be returning in the hope of finding some more later in the summer.

Earlier in the year we were served pineapple and chilli relish at a restaurant and I had managed to recreate this at home with tinned pineapple (which, until then, I hadn’t bought for years). The fresh ones, along with the current abundance of home-grown chillies meant that it was the perfect time to make a larger batch of this relish. I simply chopped the pineapple, added a little sugar (to help with the preservation) and water, and cooked it up with chillies. First I added a Hungarian black, then a Romanian yellow and finally two lemon drops before I reached the desired heat. The addition of three chopped red chillies that have no heat (a disappointment from 2015 and stored in the freezer) added a little colour and also a visual signal of the contents (lest we should accidentally mistake it for something to eat for dessert). Into hot 0.25l Kilner jars and twenty minutes in a hot water bath, and the relish was ready for storage. Very easy.

This morning I bottled some of the peaches. The flesh is pale, but the syrup is a beautiful pink colour:

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bottled peaches

And finally I’ve making a few jars of peach, lime and red currant jam. We are not big jam-eaters, but it is nice in a Victoria sponge. We’ve got loads of red currants this year and still haven’t used up all last year’s crop, plus I found some lime halves in the freezer with their zests removed (having been used in a lime drizzle cake a while ago),  so I thought I’d do something creative. Peach jam does not set without the addition of pectin, so I am hoping that the currants and lime will be sufficient.

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peach, red currant and lime jam

I love food preservation – opening one of these jars in winter will be like bringing summer into the house.

Those pesky pesticides

Having written, the other day, about growing your own food to avoid unwanted chemicals, I’ve been doing a little more thinking. A friend asked me whether washing vegetables in dilute vinegar would help reduce pesticide residues more than washing with water alone. My initial thought was that, even if this did work, it would only help with surface residues, not pesticides that the plant had absorbed. I did do a bit of reading around and I didn’t find an answer to the original question but I did come across an interesting piece from Cornell University, entitled Can you wash pesticides off your fruits and vegetables? They note that various heat treatment (e.g. pasteurisation, canning and frying) have been found to reduce pesticides, as have milling, brewing, baking, malting and wine-making, but that drying and dehydrating can increase pesticide levels. Their conclusion:

Washing your produce certainly removes pesticide residue from the outside, but there’s no clear data showing whether it reduces pesticide exposure compared to consuming organic fruits and vegetables.

So, it does seem that the safest option is to grow or buy fruit and vegetables that have not been exposed to pesticides in the first place. At this point, it’s worth noting that some pesticides are acceptable in organic systems, so buying something that is labelled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean that it is pesticide-free.

With home-grown produce, you need not worry about pesticides if you know you have not applied any. This means that when it comes to preparation, cooking and storage, you can relax and do what you like.

Since my (pretty-much chemical-free) garden is now at the beginning of its most productive period, I’ve already started preserving some of the bounty. I’ve made mint sauce, I’ve frozen some of the raspberries I’ve picked and I have some oregano hanging up to dry in the limery. There’s a small bowl of tomatoes in the fridge ready for conversion into passata, which I freeze if it’s only a small quantity or bottle if I have large amounts.

I love all the potential at this time of year. I know that by the end of summer I will be sick of courgettes, but now as I watch the first fruits swell, I can hardly wait for my first harvest. How about you? Is there something you love to grow and eat?

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2017 Courgette #1

What’s in your dinner?

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potatoes

At this time of year I feel particularly lucky to have access to growing space. We don’t have a very big garden and we have chosen to prioritise food production, so that means we don’t have flower beds or a lawn, just space for fruit, vegetables, chickens and compost, with some paved sitting space that we share with lots of pots of plants. We used to have more space for outdoor sitting, but the limery took that over.

My reasons are partly because I love growing food – being connected to the seasons, eating food fresh from the garden and clocking up food metres not food miles. However, I also like knowing exactly what sort of chemicals go into my food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish a ‘dirty dozen’ each year – a list of foods with the highest levels of pesticide residues. Although these data are collected in the US, the list is of interest wherever we live in the world. In 2015, the list was as follows:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry Tomatoes
  11. Snap Peas (Imported)
  12. Potatoes

Closely followed by Hot Peppers and Kale/Collard Greens.

From this list, we grow Peppers (hot and sweet), snap peas (we call them sugar peas or mange tout, I think), potatoes, kale and some apples. The bulk of our apples come from friends who do not use pesticides on their trees, and the other items on the list we eat rarely or not at all. Of course you can buy organic produce and avoid issues with pesticides (and we often do), but growing your own delivers so many extra benefits.

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red salad bowl lettuce growing in a container

One of my particular favourite crops is salad leaves. I don’t think that there’s any substitute for freshly picked leaves. By growing your own, you can avoid packaging, the threat of salmonella, exploitation of workers and the use of chlorinated water for washing them – all issues that have been identified as being linked to bagged leaves sold in supermarkets (details here). And you don’t even need a garden – you can plant cut-and-come-again varieties of lettuce, along with oriental greens in pots, in window boxes, or in trays on your windowsill. Let the leaves grow up and then harvest them by trimming with scissors and allow them to grow back. If you plant a few trays in succession, you can supply yourself with a regular harvest for several months. And honestly, the taste just doesn’t compare with leaves that have been encased in plastic for a couple of weeks in a modified atmosphere so they don’t go off.

Herbs are another great windowsill crop and it’s lovely to pick your own fresh seasonings, even if you don’t have space to grow anything else.

So, however small your space, I encourage you to plant something to eat – you won’t regret it!

Taking the biscuit

As you may know, I have been trying to cut palm oil out of my life. Palm oil has certain properties that make it a great ingredient for manufacturers and it can be tricky to avoid unless you cook everything from scratch, particularly since it isn’t always listed as ‘palm oil’ in ingredients lists. Anyway, I discovered a few months ago that it’s in most commercially-produced biscuits (including my beloved digestives). The answer, however, was provided by two friends: Sue sent me three recipes and Kate sent me one. Since January, therefore, I have not bought any biscuits and I have made all the ones we have eaten at home. This not only avoids palm oil, but also greatly reduces plastic packaging since most of the ingredients (including the butter) come in paper or glass.

The key to a good biscuit (rather than a cookie), according to Sue, is to use a hard fat. The choice comes down to butter or hard white vegetable fat. However, it turns out that the latter (e.g. Trex) is made from palm oil. So, I’m sorry vegans, but all the successful biscuits I have made have contained butter.

I’m going to share the four recipes here, for those of you who also want to make your own. The measures are in the original units in which each recipe was written, so there is a mix of ounces and grams.

Ginger nuts

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ginger nuts

 

8oz SR flour
2 heaped teaspoons ground ginger
4oz sugar (white or golden granulated)
3oz butter
4oz golden syrup
1 egg

Mix the dry ingredients, melt the butter and syrup, mix everything together. Shape teaspoonfuls into rough balls and press down a little, then arrange on greased baking trays with plenty of room to spread. Bake at 150C for 15 mins or until golden and becoming crisp. Cool on a rack and put in tin as soon as cold.

Shortbread Biscuits (Mr Snail’s favourite, especially dipped in chocolate)

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We love shortbread biscuits

200g butter (soft)
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g plain flour
50g ground rice

Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla, work in the flour and rice. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick, cut into rounds (or hearts) and bake at 160C for 15-20 mins.

Granny Boyd’s biscuits

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lovely and chocolatey

 

250g butter
125g caster sugar
300g SR flour
30 g cocoa powder

Cream together butter and sugar. Sift cocoa and flour together and work into mixture. Form into walnut sized balls and arrange on trays. Flatten slightly with the back of a fork. Bake at 170C for 5 mins then turn the oven down to 150C for another 10-15 mins. The top should be firm and the inside slightly squidgy – they firm as they cool.

Digestive biscuits from a Victorian recipe

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digestives

 

4oz fine oatmeal
2oz wholemeal flour
2oz white plain flour
2oz soft brown sugar
Quarter of a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
3oz butter
1 egg

Rub the butter into the dry ingredients and then add the egg. Mix well. Roll out to about 0.25-0.5 cm, cut into rounds and place on a baking tray. Bake at 190C for 10-15 minutes. Allow them to cool and if they aren’t crispy enough I put them back in the oven for another 5 minutes.

I would add another recipe to my collection of favourite biscuits and that’s Delia Smith’s chocolate chip ginger nuts, the recipe for which is here. These are very rich and very delicious:

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chocolate ginger nuts with chocolate chips

So, do you have a favourite biscuit recipe to share?

 

 

Not a trifling amount

I keep seeing stories in the (not-so-mainstream) media about food waste. Apparently 30-40% of all food produced globally is never eaten because it is “spoiled after harvest and during transportation, or thrown away by shops and consumers” (The Guardian, April, 2016). And this is something that individuals are, to a significant extent, responsible for. According to Climate Central “The USDA estimates 35 percent of turkey meat cooked at Thanksgiving gets wasted.” If you want to see some more detailed facts and figures for the US, there’s a fascinating report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that’s well worth a read. There are high production losses worldwide, but consumer waste is significant in North America, Oceania and Europe, as can be seen from this graph form the World Economic Forum:which-regions-waste-the-most-food_1024

Obviously, the less food that is wasted, the more people can be fed, but the issue goes much deeper than this: waste food in landfill releases methane – a greenhouse gas with a much greater impact than carbon dioxide; the land used for agriculture is land not supporting native vegetation, and thus adversely affecting biodiversity; crops require water, so if we are wasting crops we are wasting water. If you want to read more, I recommend the FAO report Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources.

Because food waste is something that we are almost all responsible for to some extent, it’s a problem that we can all do something about. And it’s a win-win situation – save the planet and save money.

So, when I made a disastrous batch of cupcakes last week, rather than compost them, I made a trifle…

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trifle before the whipped cream was added

This also helped to use some of the abundance of eggs that we have. I think Mr Snail is hoping for many more cake failures, since he loves trifle. See, avoiding food waste can be fun!

Coffee break

Over the years I’ve written a lot about tea – mainly about the hidden plastic in tea bags and my quest for plastic-free tea. I don’t often, however, write about coffee. This is, perhaps, because we’ve been buying coffee beans and making coffee in a cone with a washable cotton filter for many years now (long before we gave up tea bags… in fact since before I started blogging I think). However, I’m always looking for good coffee and any changes that can make it a little bit more eco-friendly. Recently we have been buying our coffee in the 1kg wholesale bags the roasted beans arrive in at the shop. This prevents the use of any extra packing, but still there’s a paper/plastic pack involved.

I was interested, therefore, to read about an experiment examining the best way to pack roast coffee. Once roasted, coffee beans release gases and ‘mature’ for a few days, allowing the flavour to develop. If roasted beans are put straight into a bag and sealed, the gasses are trapped and the coffee develops a stale flavour. To address this, many good quality coffee brands are packed in bags with a plastic valve, but these valves are generally not recyclable.

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sustainable production, compostable/recyclable packaging

Interestingly, it turns out, after roasting, placing the beans in paper bags allows them to develop a good flavour. From an environmental perspective, this is good, as paper can be readily recycled or composted. So, this week I ordered coffee from Roasting House, who roast the beans to order and then pack them in paper bags. Of course, they do use a plastic pack to send them through the post, but they use biodegradable and recyclable plastic and I will reuse this anyway (I never buy new postal packaging and always keep a stash for re-use). It’s single material, which is far better than the plastic-bonded-to-paper packaging of the wholesale bags we were getting previously.

The company take their environmental impact seriously, aiming for zero waste to landfill, buying 100% renewable electricity and making local deliveries by bicycle. In addition, they source their coffee from farms that operate under sustainable practices. It’s possible that I am much closer to waste-free coffee now.

Meating up

We are very committed to supporting local producers. We buy hardly anything from supermarkets anymore,  choosing instead to frequent local shops or buy directly from farmers and growers. It makes sense in terms of sustainability and supports the community – socially and economically. When it comes to meat, however, there is another major reason for buying direct from producers – we can be sure that there is good animal welfare.

Over the years, we gradually moved to buying mainly organic meat, but more recently we have started trying to source as much as possible direct from small producers who are happy to allow their customers to visit and see their production methods directly. Many such producers are not registered organic, but are low-input and high welfare and, unlike larger producers, happy to answer questions about their systems and pleased to have engaged customers.

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good to find a decent producer

And so yesterday we found ourselves on a hillside up above Abergavenny with Martha Roberts and The Decent Company pigs. We met Martha at a smallholders’ gathering last year and decided that her approach was just what we wanted from a meat-producer. So, when she announced that her latest pork was available, I asked if we could come and collect some in person and see the pigs. What a joy it was to meet Nancy, Winnie, Minnie, Dora, Madge, Margot, Wilbur and the growers, plus Polly and her (unplanned) piglets and see them enjoying a free-ranging life amongst the trees and grass… not to mention mud.

We learnt a great deal about pig behaviour and it was a delight to witness them exhibiting it – rooting, rolling, nesting, squabbling, snuggling up together. Most of Martha’s pigs are Gloucester Old Spots (or crosses thereof), but the wonderful Madge is a Mangalitza. Part of me balks at cooing over piglets that I know are destined for the table, but they have a good life and would not exist at all were it not for their meat value. It feels right, to me, to meet my meat and accept the implications of eating it.

So, we had sausages for breakfast this morning and we felt very grateful to Martha for her hard work, high standards and allowing us to learn what goes in to producing the food on our plates.

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the end-product

By the way, I highly recommend Twitter for getting to know small local producers – many of them have accounts and post often about their animals, crops and products. Martha Tweets from @martharoberts and this link should take you to her account even if you are not a registered Twitter user.

A kale tale

At this time of year I start to be rather unenthusiastic about one particular crop, namely kale. It’s a great thing to grow – it provides fresh greens all through the winter from just a few plants and, when freshly picked, it is tender and delicious. But, it goes on for months and so eventually the novelty does wear off.

Yesterday, however, I was inspired. I had made bread rolls and had defrosted some of the delicious pulled pork that I cooked for the winter solstice; I picked winter salad leaves from the garden, made mayonnaise using eggs from the hens and opened a jar of sweet chilli sauce made from our home-grown chillies. However, I really wanted a bit of crunch. And then it dawned on me: kale-slaw. I shredded some kale (including some of the thinner stalks, grated a carrot, chopped the top of a sprouting onion and with the addition of some of the freshly made mayo – a tasty slaw.

 

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