Deciding what to eat

There’s been a short hiatus while I have been on leave away from the Hebrides. I’ve been in Brighton for the last ten days, and we’ve eaten out like kings and queens. I had the opportunity to take my mother out, as well as my husband and two daughters, and we spoke about food. These are discussions we have had many times over the years. This Christmas, out of seventeen people, five of us will be looking to reduce our meat consumption in some way. One vegan, one occasional vegan, two vegetarians and a lapsed vegetarian.

SO we talked, about definitions and choices, about misconceptions and fallibility, about the times we have been offered fish as the vegetarian choice, about the vegetables roasted in duck fat, about the reasons for our choices.

Reasons:

Why reduce meat consumption? One of our vegetarians has chosen to reduce meat consumption for animal welfare reasons and a rejection of the meat industry. This includes battery farming, high intensity breeding, high antibiotic use, transport of animals to large slaughter houses, as main factors in the European meat industry. I know this doesn’t apply to croft-raised animals, but it does apply to the meat on the shelves of our shops.

The vegans amongst us are arguing that the focus on animal protein is overlooking the origins of hunger, about sustainably feeding our world population of seven billion people without destroying environments. The land required to be turned over to agriculture to produce animal protein is far higher than that required for vegan diet. Hebridean livestock are fed imported sheep-nuts and other feedstuffs, and contribute to this dilemma.

What about fish? Sustainable fishing and the use of fishing quotas is a hot topic – just consider the fall-out from the book ‘Shetland’. The authors raise the issue of the commercial trade in fishing quotas, and allude to practices that evade true control of sustainable fishing. I find it so hard to weigh up the politics and impact of the fishing industry that I feel guilty if I don’t know the provenance and fishing method used when I eat fish. Was it farmed? And what was the farmed fish fed on? Has this contributed to falling stocks of sand-eels, falling populations of sea birds? What about the antibiotics, the environmental fall-out on wild stocks? Was my fish line-caught? Or trawled? What was the by-catch; was it dolphin, or an endandered species? What about the ropes and gear that remain in the sea, shedding plastic and entangling larger animals? Were our scallops dredged, with massive collateral environmental destruction?

How should we support local economies? There are many people in our communities who depend on food for their livelihoods; the crofters, the fishermen, the salmon farms, the restaurants and shops and cafes. The people who prepare our food, who choose local produce, whose artistry makes sublime meals, their skill deserves attention.

Personally I don’t think there is one answer that fits every situation every time. Better, more independent information at the point of purchase seems sensible, but this would need to be well-researched, easy to understand, quick to read. More widespread debate about the politics of food at every level of our society would help drive change.

Some changes have already taken place: eating veal has become less popular over the last fifty years, and food labelling has also improved. Most menus include at least on vegetarian choice for each course, and these choices are more innovative than they were. Fast food restaurants indicate which dishes are vegan or vegetarian, and we are encouraged to speak to staff if we have questions.

I am encouraged that we can continue to raise the agenda, to improve our understanding of the environmental impact of what we eat, and how to eat well without compromising our principals.

Pumpkin, ginger, and potato gratin

I’ve had this recipe for years and years. I think it is best with a firm squash or pumpkin, like butternut squash.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 lb pumpkin or squash, cubed
  • 1 1/2 lb potatoes, boiled for 15 minutes and cubed
  • 1 oz grated ginger
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom seeds
  • 1 oz butter (omit for a vegan version)
  • 3 floz olive oil
  • 1 oz wholemeal breadcrumbs

METHOD:

  • Melt the butter and the olive oil together and add the ginger, cumin and cardamom, and start to fry, for around 30 seconds
  • Add the potato, pumpkin and fry for another 10 minutes, until the pumpkin is softening and the potatoes are starting to brown.
  • Season with salt and pepper, put into an oven-proof gratin dish, and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.
  • Place under a hot grill for a few minutes, until the top is crisp and the interior is bubbling.

Mexican rice

I have no idea if this recipe is Mexican at all. I got it from my friend Kay, who I think got it from a book called the Vegetarian Epicure which I have never chased down yet.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 large onions
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 floz olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper
  • 2 cups of white rice
  • 1 1/2 pints of tomato puree (I use canned chopped tomatoes which I blend, or you could use passata)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 14 floz water

METHOD:

  • Chop the onions and garlic and lightly fry in the oil.
  • Add the ginger, coriander, cloves and pepper, and stir for 30 seconds
  • Add the rice and stir, cooking until the rice seems to be turning clear and beginning to brown
  • Add the tomato puree, salt and water, and simmer for 25 minutes

Pork and tomato hotpot

This was one of my mother’s standard recipes, very delicious, slightly sweet and sour, and best served with rice.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 lb lean pork, diced
  • 1 oz fat
  • 1 oz flour
  • 1 lb onions
  • 1/2 pint stock
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp dried tarragon
  • 4 tbsp soft dark brown sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 dessert spoon of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 lb chopped carrots
  • 1 can of tomatoes.

METHOD:

  • Set the oven to 170C, gas 3
  • Fry off the pork in the oil, and set aside
  • In the same pan, gently fry the sliced onions until they are soft, and beginning to brown
  • Add the browned meat with the flour, and stir for a minute or so.
  • Add the stock and vinegar, and stir well, then add the sugar, tarragon, seasoning and Worcestershire sauce, and bring to the boil
  • Add the carrots and tomatoes and bring to the boil again.
  • Transfer to a casserole dish and cook for 3 hours in the oven

Butterbean and tomato soup

This is a very easy recipe, can’t recall where it is from. I usually have these ingredients in the house, so I can usually make this.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 can butter beans
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 pints of stock
  • 1 bayleaf
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • olive oil or butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp honey or sugar
  • chopped parsley to serve

METHOD:

  • Gently cook the onions in the olive oil until well cooked, very soft.
  • Add the beans, stock, tomatoes, bayleaf and then simmer the soup for half an hour
  • Season to taste, with the salt, pepper, honey.

Serve with brown toast and garnished with chopped parsley

 

Green beans with coconut

I have three recipes for green beans with coconut. This is a very easy version.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 lb green beans in 1 inch lengths
  • 2oz grated coconut
  • 4 tbsp chopped coriander leaf
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 1 chopped green chilli
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 6 tbsp oil
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

METHOD:

  • Combine the coconut, coriander, asafoetida, green chilli and salt in a dish.
  • Blanch the beans in boiling water for 3 minutes
  • In the oil, fry the sesame and mustard seeds together with the cayenne pepper – after about a minute, the seeds will pop, so take them off the heat at that point.
  • Add the beans to the mixture, and cook on a low heat until they are tender
  • Add the coconut mixture, and serve

 

 

Turkey Risotto

Here is the traditional turkey risotto recipe ready for boxing day. It is adapted from Risotto! Risotto!

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 onion
  • 1 celery stick
  • 75g butter
  • 400g left-over turkey, diced
  • zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 200ml dry white wine
  • salt and pepper
  • 1.2 litres of stock or gravy from the turkey
  • 400g risotto rice
  • 5 tbsp single cream
  • 50g parmesan cheese, grated
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh parsley

The above quantities will feed 4 to 6 people. If you are cooking larger quantities, use multiple pans, with around 400g rice cooking in each pan.

METHOD:

  • Gently fry the onion and celery together in 30g of the butter, until the vegetables are soft.
  • Add the meat, cook through and then add the lemon juice and lemon rind, the wine and seasoning, and simmer together to create a tasty stew.
  • Add the rice, mix together, and then start adding the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly and keeping the risotto at a simmer. When the liquid has been fully incorporated into the risotto, add another ladleful.
  • After around 20 minutes, the rice will be firm but cooked, and the sauce will be creamy and coating the rice. Take the risotto off the heat, and add the rest of the butter, the cream and the parmesan. Give this all a good stir, and leave it to rest for a few minutes.
  • Serve on a warmed platter, garnished with parsley.

 

Maw Broon’s Cookbook

Here’s another go-to book. I was given Maw Broon’s Cookbook one Christmas, and I resisted it. It looks like an old book, whimsically recreating the basic meals of the 1950s, complete with hard-to read hand-written notes, and styled-in splashes and old sellotape. The biggest Christmas gimmick, I thought.

But the recipes are really good. They cover all sorts of basic recipes for clapshot, Eve’s pudding, jams and chutneys, roasts and stews, dumpling and the rest. If I have an ingredient that I have never cooked before, this is one of the books I pull off the shelf. If I want to recreate a dish my grandmother used to cook, this is where I will look.

The success of this book has spawned a whole series, none of which I have tried. On the basis of this one, though, I would be happy to give them a go.

Potato scones

A good recipe for left-over mashed potato.

INGREDIENTS:

  • Mashed potato, seasoned well with salt and pepper – around 250g
  • 50g plain flour
  • butter

METHOD:

  • Add the flour to the mashed potato, stirring it at first and then pulling the mixture together to form a dough the consistency of pastry. It doesn’t look like it is going to work at first
  • Roll the pastry out very thin, and cut into portion-sized triangles
  • Fry in hot butter, turn with a fish-slice to ensure each side is cooked to crispy brown. We used dripping this morning, in place of the butter.

Serve as part of a very ill-advised and delicious fried breakfast.

Risotto! Risotto! by Valentina Harris

I was trying out a recipe for mackerel risotto last night, and as I did, I thought of all my recipe books, I have a shelf full of them. Some have favourite recipes in, others are the ones I go to when I am looking for new ways of cooking basic ingredients. This book is one of the latter type.

Valentina Harris started writing recipe books in the 1980s, and by the 1990s she was on television, bringing authentic Italian cookery to us all. She was brought up in Italy, and is a well-regarded chef. I have also got one of her earlier books, about regional Italian cookery and food culture.

Risotto! Risotto! is a fabulous book. It includes a section on the start on making stock, and on the methods of making risotto. On to the recipes, every one I have tried is delicious. The range of recipes covers all sorts of basic ingredients, and the index works well. My favourites include asparagus risotto, beetroot risotto, fennel risotto, lamb and courgette, and the famous boxing day risotto, called risotto with a white ragu.

There is an updated version of the book on Amazon, but my old version is crammed with my favourite recipes and ideas, and available for 1 penny plus postage.