Friday, 31 May 2013

Michael Pollan at the RSA - How cooking can change your life

Home-grown courgette
ready to be 'Cooked'

Michael Pollan seems to be everywhere in London this week.  Yes, he has a book to sell but you've got to admire his stamina.  Maybe it's down to all that good home-cooked food he eats.   Let me say at the outset, I have not read his latest book so this is not a review, but I am a Michael Pollan fan.  It's not that I see him as some kind of guru - though some do - it's that what he has to say so often makes perfect sense to me. His RSA dialogue yesterday was chaired by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, London,  who introduced him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  Pollan self-depracatingly pointed out that if he truly was, "then the world would look very different".

His latest book, 'Cooked - A natural history of transformation', is the latest in a series of books exploring our complex relationship with food.  He's sometimes accused of being anti-progress, idealistic and elitist, tags he brushes off lightly.  Pollan is the first to say - and he did again yesterday - that he isn't propounding any radical new thoughts on food, and he isn't trying to turn the clock back either.  Rather he feels that we should be teaching our children to grow food and cook so that they can make choices about food; get away from the mindset of "if it can be outsourced, that's what we should do"; cease to define leisure activities as being "what industry can't do for us".  We need to get the whole family involved in food preparation if we are going to have a healthy relationship with food.  In his own experience, if a child grows and cooks something then he will eat it and appreciate it.

'Cooked' is published at a time when the actions of the processed food industry and its relationship to government are under scrutiny, both in the UK and the USA, like never before.  Pollan propounds instead of feeling powerless in the face of big business, we can refuse to swallow their line that they are making life better for us.  By taking back control of our food, it becomes a political act.  It's what he calls this "middle link" - the processed food industry - that has most influence over our food and health.  They know that the additives they introduce into foods are "addictive" but it's not a word they like to use; they prefer to describe it as "craveability" or "snackability".

Statistics show that home-cooking in the USA has fallen by half since the mid-60's - and where America leads the UK so often follows.  Studies show there are lower rates of obesity in cultures where home cooking is the norm.  Pollan feels we lose contact with the basics of food production and preparation at our peril as home cooking holds families and communities together.  By cooking, as opposed to eating processed foods, he suggests we can break our dependence on corporations while at the same time improving the health and wellbeing our of our family.  This was re-inforced when Pollan revealed the suitably cynical advice given by Harry Balzer, a seasoned market researcher for the food industry, when goaded into answering the question 'what should people eat for good health' he replied "eat anything you want, just cook it yourself".

In 'Cooked', Tim Lang explained, Michael Pollan delved into the 4 elements - fire, water, air (bread) and earth (fermentation/bacteria) -  spending time practically learning about each and considering skills, knowledge and food progress.  He believes many of us fetishise cooking and readily accept we cannot cook because we cannot achieve the standards of professional chefs.  The food industry has demonstrated a phenomenal ability to capitalise on socio-political movements - witness the KFC marketing slogan from the 1970's which was targeted at working women - an illustration of a chicken 'bucket" emblazoned with the words "Women's Liberation".  Thereby redefining 'not cooking' as the progressive thing to do.  Today domestic knowledge is often disparaged as something not worthy of our time.  I should mention here that Pollan is clear that both genders have responsibilities when it comes to cooking and household chores, and so do children.

Asked the inevitable question whether he saw any correlation between class and cooking Pollan said he did, but the answer was probably not quite what the questioner expected.  He opined that real cooking historically came, and continues to come, out of peasant cooking because it's they who had/have to make the most of what's available to them.

On the role of the state, whilst insisting he held no sway at The White House, Pollan praised the efforts of Michelle Obama in championing food growing and healthy eating.  He pointed out however, that her actions so "freaked-out" the powerful food industry that they drew her into a conversation about "reprocessing" processed food and from there she was doomed to failure.  Nevertheless, her digging up of part of the White House lawn to grow vegetables remains a significant example to the world's most powerful nation.

When NYC Mayor Bloomberg faced escalating public health spending with 75% going on diet-related ailments (principally obesity and type-2 diabetes) he was advised the single most significant remedy would be to cut soda consumption.  Trying to ban 32oz soda cups he came up against the power of the fast-food industry.  Whilst legislation may be seen as futile (of course you can order a second 16oz cup, but at least you might stop and think whether you really are that thirsty) Pollan acknowledged that there is no silver bullet but the "nudge effect" can be valuable.

There was even a request for advice on kitchen design, and Pollen managed a thoughtful reply.  There should, he thought, be as much space for food preparation as possible so that everyone in the family can get involved.  On the subject of schooling he feels there are few things more important than growing and cooking and should be given more prominence in our classrooms.

With confirmation that we are 90% bacterial and 10% human, Michael Pollan feels we've figured out a diet for the 10% - those fats, sugars and chemicals which taste so good - but but not for the 90%.  He ended with the advice which will forever be attached to him - "eat food, not too much, mostly plants".  Still, in my opinion, excellent advice.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Asparagus in the raw

Raw Asparagus, pea-shoots and mint salad

Spare a thought for the asparagus farmer subject to the vagaries of our climate.  Yes, there has been indoor-grown asparagus for a few weeks now but outdoor grown - and, for me, nothing tastes as good - is struggling with our unseasonal weather.

Normally the asparagus farmer has six weeks of frantic activity harvesting the crop for market, then it's all over until next year.  Traditionally in the UK the season begins around St George's Day (23 April) and by mid-Summer's Day cutting should stop.  The plants continue to put up spears but these are allowed to grow into tall fronds which photosynthesise to build up nutrients for next year's crop.  In November the plant is cut back to ground level.  It takes about three years for an asparagus crown to become established and, if treated right, will will be productive for 10 years.  Quite an investment and hence the relatively high price of those bundles.  Asparagus likes well-drained, rich loamy soil - which rules it out for my heavy clay allotment patch.

Isle of Wight Asparagus

Asparagus needs warm, dry conditions in its final weeks, so it's no surprise that the outdoor-grown crop is late this year.  Last year it wasn't at market before the second week in May.  This year the delay to the season is even more severe.  By 19th May there was still little to be had in London, apart from a small amount from the Isle of Wight - always the first to arrive.  My favourite source is that grown by New Park Farm in Kent which is brought up to London for six weeks every years.  The care and attention they lavish on the crop is clear and I know of no other asparagus that tastes as good.

Freshness is key to taste so, when you do finally get your hands on it, don't let it linger in the fridge.  Those spears are packed with beneficial nutrients too - vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium and iron.

So how to make a little go a long way and get the most out of its special flavour?  When I get my hands on a bunch of asparagus my first thought is usually how I'm going to cook it.  Until last week, that is, when it was served to me raw.  Sliced super-fine, mixed with a few pea-shoots and dressed with a lemony vinaigrette and a touch of mint, it was the perfect way to eke out a few spears.  I've unashamedly stolen this idea from chef Steve Williams of 40 Maltby Street, though it's my interpretation.  It's as close as I can get to his vibrant, seasonal dish.

Raw Asparagus, Mint & Pea-shoot salad
(Serves 4 as a starter)

8-12 asparagus spears
A handful of pea-shoots
8-10 mint leaves
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

Snap the tough ends off the asparagus.  Cut a diagonal slice off the bottom of each asparagus spear then slice each spear as thinly as you can (see result in photo).  Add salt and pepper to the lemon juice and mix.  Whisk in the olive oil to emulsify.  Add the sliced asparagus and the pea shoots.  Serve.

Friday, 17 May 2013

First flush & a taste for tortilla


It's waiting time on the allotment.  Almost everything is planted - save for courgettes, squash and pumpkins - and tender stems are reaching for the light.  My two plantings of broad beans have germinated well and stand between  8 and 12 cm tall.  Looks like Chocolate Spot is going to scar the pods this year as some of the leaves already bear the distinctive marks.  Not a threat to the beans but not a pretty sight.  The peas we planted alongside are struggling, making my carefully constructed pea-stick arch look a little optimistic this year. I could plant again but late peas usually fall prey to pea-moth, no matter how I try to protect them.  I'll keep my fingers crossed that there are stragglers just waiting to emerge.  It's a time to take a breath, weed, weed and weed a bit more, and bide our time.

Spinach 'Dominant' & 'Bordeaux'

Still, we have spinach - vibrant green and reliable Dominant and beautiful, red-stemmed and veined Bordeaux which is much more prone to bolt.  Sown three weeks ago, it feels good to have a fresh crop to pick instead of searching for a few new leaves on the ragged, over-wintering, Rainbow chard.  

Most of the tender leaves went into the salad bowl and, next day, the remaining pickings were added to beaten egg, softened onions and fried potatoes for a tortilla.  I sometimes use chard or a few herbs (coriander is good) instead of spinach.  The Tortilla shown was served just-warm with a mix of salad leaves which, sadly, were not my own.  I doubt there is a prettier, fresher and more interesting mix of salad than that supplied by Chegworth Farm.  They are now my first stop whenever I can't glean what I need from my own plot of land.

Tortilla Slice

So, when is this egg dish a Tortilla and when is it a Frittata?  It seems the difference is in the finishing.  If you cook one side in a pan then slide it under the grill, you have a Frittata.  If you turn it out onto a plate and then return it to the pan to finish it, you have a Tortilla.  I prefer Tortilla and here's the way I make it.

(Serves 2-4)

1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and sliced or diced
4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful of spinach or chard leaves
4 eggs
salt and pepper

Gently soften the onion in 1 tbsp olive oil, then put to one side.  In the same pan, gently cook the potatoes in 2 tbsp olive oil until just softened.  Wash and blanch the spinach or chard leaves in boiling water for 1 minute then drain and refresh in cold water (if the leaves are very young you can skip this step).  Drain and chop the leaves roughly.  
Mix the eggs lightly, add the onions, potatoes, leaves and seasoning and mix together.  Heat a round sided 20cm frying pan with a little olive oil until medium hot before pouring the mixture in.  Cook over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes until it's firm enough to slide it out onto a plate larger than the pan (uncooked side up. Place the pan onto the plate and invert so that the uncooked side is now facing the bottom of the pan.  Cook for 2 minutes more before turning it out to serve.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Spring on Plot 45

Prunus Victor 2013

Just when we thought Spring would never arrive, we are suddenly overwhelmed with fruit blossom.  Here in London, ornamental cherry trees have flowered so spectacularly over the last couple of weeks that even the most city-hardened of us have been snapping away and indulging in competitive photo postings.  The blossom of the edible blossom is now tentatively unfurling along with that of plum, apple and pear.  On the allotment, our gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes have finished flowering and bear promising tiny green fruits.  From nearby hives, the honey bees, that last week covered the bushes in a frenzy of activity, have moved on to richer pollen pickings.  They play a vital role in pollinating our crops, making for greater yields, so it feels good that absolutely nobody uses chemicals here.

Gooseberry Invicta 2013

Apart from the currants and berries, which thankfully need little attention, you have to get up close to see signs of the last three weeks of hard work on the allotment  Trenches have been dug and both Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple potatoes are planted, carefully spaced to leave plenty of room for each to spread.  There they lie, buried so deep it always seems miraculous that the shoots can find their way to the surface.  Soon they will appear and before we know it we'll be earthing up the ridges to increase the yield.

The Summer raspberry canes are taking a buffeting in the strong winds today so I'm glad I got round to tying them in on my last visit.  The Autumn fruiting variety, Bliss, are sprouting lushly from ground level, reminding me I really should do some more weeding in that bed.

Garlic 2012

I survey the 8 metre long stretch of alliums and wonder if I got a bit carried away this year.  My over-wintering garlic and onion sets were practically wiped out by the cold and wet so I planted like crazy to compensate this Spring.  Garlic, shallots and Sturon onion sets all bear little green tufts.  As yet, who knows how the Long Red Florence seeds I planted are doing - a little temperamental but well worth the effort.

Chantenay Carrot 2012

Carrots and parsnips seeds are planted, though it's to be hoped we won't be digging up carrots quite as convoluted as this one from last year.  Clearly we did a very poor job of removing stones in the root vegetable bed.  Two sowings of broad beans and peas are growing away nicely.  I'm determined not to sow any more. Succession sowing is all well and good but, for taste, early is best for both of these crops.  Two types of spinach are growing well - red-stemmed Bordeaux and reliable Dominant.  Nothing beats those first few pickings.  Too much heat and the Bordeaux in particular will bolt as soon as I turn my back.  The first of the beetroot and the Rainbow chard are just beginning to germinate.

Borlotti Beans 2012

This year we've planted our climbing beans early.  String beans are probably the only vegetable which aren't popular in our household so they definitely don't earn their keep on this allotment.  Borlotti beans, on the other hand, are a favourite.  Pale green pods turn a thrilling speckled red before they're ready to be picked. Discarding their coats reveals pale green, pink or red/ivory speckled beans.  They need plenty of heat and this year I'm determined not to run out of summer before every last one is ready to harvest.

Courgette Flower 2012

Soon we'll be planting a seed bed with leeks, Kale and Purple Sprouting broccoli to overwinter.  That leaves the courgettes, pumpkins and squash.  We'll plant seeds straight into the ground in late May then go into battle with the slugs and snails.

So, the really hard work is done.  That is, if you exclude the watering and weeding right through summer and a couple of biodynamic stirrings and sprays. We now have the pleasurable part to look forward to - birdsong, sun on our backs and, weather and bugs permitting, lots of home-grown fruit and vegetables to harvest right through to next Spring.  If we're lucky we may see some hollyhocks too.   from seeds gathered by the Friends of Arnold Circus.   Happy gardening.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Paris in May and La Table des Anges

Pear tree at
La Jardin du Luxembourg

Diaries were clear and May had arrived so what better than a day trip to Paris.  A wander around the Left Bank, an hour soaking up the sun in the Jardin du Luxembourg and a good lunch is a pretty good way to recharge the batteries.  Arriving the day after the May Day holiday meant the streets were less busy than normal.  The amazing mix of apiary boxes in the Luxembourg Gardens were abuzz as the honey bees made the most of the fleeting apple and pear blossom.

But where to go for lunch?  Meeting up with a friend in Paris confirmed what has been talked about for  sometime now - in France you can no longer take it for granted that the ingredients going into restaurant kitchens are the best, or that there is much actual cooking going on at all.  Which is why it's important to treasure those who are doing it right.  A visit to Les Fines Gueules in the 1st was tempting.  Then again Le Cristal de Sel in the 15th is always a good bet, but maybe it was time to try somewhere new.

It has long been my experience that if you take up a recommendation from the knowledgable Nick Lander you can't go far wrong, and this one was hot off the press.  I've included a link to his review which, as usual, is spot on.  La Table des Anges is located on my favourite food shopping street in Paris.  Rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondisement is bordered by the Gares du Nord, de l'Est and St-Lazare.  Snaking uphill  from Boulevard Haussmann, rue Lafitte becomes rue des Martyrs, and continues right up to the Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Montmartre.  The street is lined with with good fromageries, traiteurs, boulangeries, patisseries, restaurants and cafes, including Rose Bakery.  It's an easy 15 minute walk from Gare du Nord. Perfect for picking up a bit of shopping before hopping back on the Eurostar.

Brandade at
La Table des Anges
I'm so used to walking up rue des Martyrs and turning off on Avenue Trudaine to head for the Gare du Nord that we could easily have missed La Table des Anges. Head uphill towards Montmartre and look for a very understated restaurant frontage. The owner Jacques-Henri Strauss and his small team, including Chef Yan Duranceau are genuinely welcoming.  Duranceau left behind the far grander surroundings of Taillevent and Le Grand Vefour to cook at La Table des Anges. 

As soon as we sat down a small plate of charcuterie arrived to back up the smiles. We ate a frothy, creamy yet light Bisque de langoustine and an equally so Velouté d'asperges blanc.  A cast-iron pot of Joue de boeuf topped with a julienne of vegetables was flavoured with oriental spices.  The meat was meltingly tender and the rich broth demanded a spoon. A glass of Cahors went well, given that the wine was used in the dish.  A large portion of Brandade was perfectly balanced and topped with deliciously gritty polenta before being lightly grilled.  It was, without doubt, the star dish and a Sancerre Abbaye 2011 suited it well.  Two courses were filling enough - the owner assured us he did not like people to go away hungry - but we forced ourselves to share a dish of Fraise des Anges.  The glass of strawberry puree topped with a lurid green cream was, I have to say, a bit alarming.  The taste was nothing of the sort.  Sweet and fragrant fruit and, what turned out to be, a mint-infused cream was delicious as was a  little dish of, rather too cold, strawberry sorbet.  

We could have eaten two courses for 16 Euros each plus wine and been quite satisfied.  With one of us choosing from the à la carte and having shared a pudding, the bill came to 72 Euros including 4 glass of wine.  Go to La Table des Anges expecting a good, welcoming, neighbourhood restaurant, cooking carefully sourced ingredients really well and you won't be disappointed.

La Table des Anges
66 rue des Martyrs
75009 Paris
Métro Pigalle
Réservations: 01 55 32 24 89