Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Kids These Days...

A third of young adults in the UK 'don't know bacon comes from a pig'.

They might spread it on toast every morning – but if you ask 16-23 year-olds where butter comes from, many don’t have a clue.

And when it comes to the humble bacon sandwich, a third are unaware its meaty filling comes from a pig – with three per cent believing cows produce it.

A third are also ignorant of where we get our milk and did not know that eggs came from chickens. Fifteen per cent think they came from a crop, a Linking Environment And Farming report says.

Caroline Drummond, chief executive of Leaf, said: “We sometimes hear that our food knowledge may be declining but this research shows how bad the situation has become.

“Three in ten adults born in the nineties haven’t visited a farm in more than ten years, if at all, which is a real shame for our farmers.”

Despite the 2,000 participants being shown a picture of a dairy cow as part of the multiple choice quiz, 59 per cent still failed to say where butter originates.

And the poor results come in spite of 43 per cent saying they know about the origins of the food they eat.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Root Camp After School

How do you get teenagers into a kitchen, cooking? They have increasing academic obligations; and social needs, and yearnings for independence.  These are the years during which the extra-curriculars are dropped - when music and sport teachers find their teenage pupils falling away.

Why would a young adult want to do Root Camp?  Another lesson, another commitment, another adult-led course…?  That is the challenge - to capture their interest and promote cooking into the realm of fun, or even 'a night out'.

Last month we launched our first Supper Club in my kitchen.  My kitchen isn’t small, but it is a domestic one, and only allows for six students - so it's cosy.  Also, I have an Aga - a very particular beast, which you have to know; pots must move strategically between hot plates, warm plates and simmering ovens, in a dance of sorts.  Not ideal for teaching. 
But, to some extent, we like it that way.  It's not a bad thing to manage difficult cookers and awkward spaces: after all, that's what most kids face when they leave home.  Student digs and cheap bedsits, shared houses all mean bad cookers, blunt knives and missing utensils.   We don't go as far as replicating the grungy atmosphere of cheap housing (in fact, we provide multiple chopping boards and knives, gadgets, and smart Root Camp aprons) but it's definitely not the stainless steel, multi-oven environment of the traditional cookery school.
The six students arrive in dribs and drabs, from their various schools - friends and strangers.  They partner up, put their aprons on, and are assigned recipes.  Any initial awkwardness in the room quickly dissipates.  There is a lot to do, a fact which immediately breaks down any shyness barriers.

Throughout the evening, there is friendly jostling for equipment and space, and fast-talking banter crisscrosses the kitchen.  Good collaboration is key: the vegetable stock is made collectively, with those making fish soup simply adding bones to their pot.

Mike's focaccia turns to biscuit - did he add cold water to the yeast?  We snap pieces off the loaf and it tastes good in a rusk-like way.  Mock criticism and good-natured competitiveness plays out between the teams.

Sylvain demonstrates how to chop an onion and the art of filleting a fish - everyone has a go.  The fish-gutting produces responses of disgust and fascination.

Sylvain remains unruffled.

The apple slicing for the tart seems relentless, while the amaretti crust is produced lovingly by Bel and Albi.

Petra makes chocolate sauce…

…while her partner Eli steals it.

Click here for the full menu

In retrospect, the menu was too ambitious.  We didn’t sit down for supper until 9pm, which was officially home-time.  Consequently, home-time actually turned out to be after 11 o’clock.  The lateness of the hour wasn’t school-friendly (or parent-friendly) which I regret.  But it was so seductively convivial around the table that I couldn't bear to break up the party.  And it was a great meal - especially the three soups.  We all had a small portion of each.

Next time we will make faster food.  Everyone in their pairs will prepare the same dish so that we can analyse the differences between them.  That will undoubtedly excite opinion and competitiveness - both good for developing the palate.  And streamlining the menu will leave time for washing up.  As it was, I was left with the mess.

Root Camp After School is about independence and learning to cook on the go, away from the formality and pressure of the school experience.  As Blaze said at the end of the evening: “who wants more school after school?” It is about socialising with friends and peers over chopping boards, steaming pots and a table strewn with tempting dishes.  In this way, Root Camp meets the preoccupations of this unwieldy age group in a positive and constructive way.

This is at the root of Root Camp.

The next supper club will again be in my kitchen with Sylvain in Queens Park (Click here for the next supper club menu) and the one after goes to culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun, a food writer and consultant on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.  Anna’s is a professional kitchen in Highbury, with designated prep space and multiple graters.  And no Aga in sight… (For Anna’s menu, click here)

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Vegan Has Left Home

I remember when my son Cato did eat meat (and dairy and exotic fruit too).  Actually two meat-memories come to mind.  The first was when he ate fois gras, and the pleasure turned him pink.  The other was when he ate two suet puddings one after the other, and shocked the bar owner who exclaimed, “Never in all my time as a landlord have I seen anyone eat two!”  That is in the suitcase of nostalgia now.

He decided to go vegan five years ago.  For him, this is a matter of principle – an environmental matter – not one of squeamishness or animal welfare.  Since then his dietary requirements have influenced the house.  And in my eagerness to provide, to express love, to keep him coming home, I stocked dairy-free delicacies, pounded spices and chopped herbs, found substitutes for cream and eggs, and extended my Asian repetoire.

Until recently, he lived on a boat fairly close by, and would visit regularly.  He would welcome a respite from his one-pot suppers, frugal shopping habits and scavenged ingredients – rescued from the bins of West London. Sometimes he’d come home with bottles of out of date olives, packets of chillies - all perfectly intact – offerings met by me with lukewarm enthusiasm.

Last August, Cato left for New York to do his PhD in Physics. He is entirely responsible for his daily wellbeing now.  He is, undoubtedly, cooking his one-pot suppers, ‘finding’ food, dragging unwanted produce from the outside of shops to his student flat.  Now I am free to cook anything and I can roam anywhere my taste buds lead me.

The fact is, while he was here, we all had to bear his principles to some extent.  At times this felt restrictive – endangering a spirit of spontaneity and fun.  Cato also doesn’t fly unless it’s important.  Work must be important to him – he didn’t sail to America.  (But what about his close relationships, are they not important?)  He refuses to fly for mere holidays, or family visits. He has left that to us, and his girlfriend, to zigzag the Atlantic for him, to be spontaneous and loving for him and - with our many carbon footprints, to sin for him.

Although I am now unleashed from the confines of his diet (and from slow travel too – all those expensive unwieldy uncomfortable journeys we’d make, just to have him with us!) I confess I miss the challenge.  It took us three days to get to Northern Albania, and five to return, and it was wonderful.  There is a healthy focus, and creativity, and a vitality in working within limits; and some confusion and disorientation in having the whole wide world to explore whenever, and at whatever speed, we choose.  There is another issue too:  How do I express love for my eldest son now that his centre of gravity has shifted, if not by setting down a plate of dhal and soya raita before him? 

Of course there must a way but it’s not by Skype, that’s for certain.
Cato was my inspiration for Root Camp and a good testament to it.  Not because he is a chef in the making, but because he is unafraid to cook, he forages (in his own way) and consumes with considerable thought.

Click here to find out why Cato is vegan.

This recipe is great, and dairy free.  It makes enough for, say - one celeriac remoulade.

Cashew-Sunflower Mayonnaise

1/4  cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup cashews
1/2 cup water
1/4 lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 juicy garlic glove, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup olive oil

Place all ingredients, apart from the olive oil, in the blender.  Process until smooth. Pour olive oil into it in a thin stream while blender is running.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Tyranny of the Veg Box

My Veg Box is a convenience and comfort.  Generally, I won’t know what’s in it beforehand.  It seems to land effortlessly on my doorstep – requires no shopping list, queuing, nor lugging kilos of potatoes.  I like that, it’s like receiving a present.  And then I’m left to buy the fun stuff – cheese, nuts and spices from the shops I pass and enjoy.

As the week goes on, The Box becomes a bit of a bully.  Once the aubergines and spinach, peppers, and winter leaves have been used up, I am left with the less glamorous stuff.  This week there are two cauliflowers lurking.  And they must be cooked, before more arrive in their seasonal frenzy with my next delivery. One must respond to those last remaining vegetables or they will become waste, and waste is so insulting - to the crop, the growers, to those who struggle to feed themselves.

This evening, my goddaughter and her boyfriend are coming over for a meal and French movie. Our French movie nights are almost a tradition.  Almost, because we’ve only done it twice before, when we watched Le Gout Des Autres and Jean de Florette.  Tonight will be Romuald et Juliette – a film I love. 

The cauliflowers have to fit into the evening somewhere.

I am looking at the Casa Moro cookbook (Sam and Sam Clark) as I feel like that sort of southern Mediterranean food.  I look up ‘Cauliflower’ in the index. I rarely have all the necessary ingredients to hand for a recipe, so quite often I substitute or take short cuts or simply omit. Even when I’m cooking for a dinner party (and am at my most obedient) I won’t follow a recipe exactly. One has to be alert to The Moment while cooking, with all the senses engaged. And that’s why - despite my open-plan kitchen and its sociable, relaxed intentions, I can’t talk and cook at the same time.

I make Cauliflower and Coriander Soup served with a pool of caramelised butter on top.

Once made, I notice the bag of spinach.  Spinach is one of the easy vegetables – so versatile.  Quite often, I make a pesto with it for my 10-year-old.  Predictably, he doesn’t eat spinach.  In fact he thinks it’s a prerogative of his age to reject it.  But I blanche it and mix it with pine nuts (or walnuts), garlic, and olive oil.  It turns out bright green, and more of a generous sauce than a lubricating one.  We all know it’s not real pesto, even he.  But we don’t talk about it.

As it’s a Sunday, I can do something more ambitious - something to compliment the soup. I make Gozleme, a stuffed Turkish flatbread. You can make any kind of filling – potato, meat, or cheese – it’s really adaptable.  On this occasion, I make a simple sautéed spinach filling.  Gozleme would be a perfect dish for the Root Camp menu. It can be prepared in groups, and there’s potential for playfulness and creativity in the fillings. 

And so the day goes on.  Still in pyjama chaos, slipper-ed, bra-less, with glasses steaming on my nose; and wearing my grotty T-shirt and ancient sweatpants, I am hooked on conjuring more dishes.  Those poor courgettes - I should have dealt with them days ago (they lose flavour quickly once out of the ground, and there they are a little spongy to the touch.)  Guiltily, I sauté them in garlic, adding lemon juice and zest, and a sprinkling of basil leaves - a good topping for bruschetta.

It doesn’t end there.  There is a chicken that I’ve jointed, and what about pudding…?
But the point is, The Box is empty – I’m ready for the next.  And the box tyrant has been appeased.

* Veg Box: seasonal vegetables, picked and selected according to what is available.  The produce is as local as possible.  Mine comes from Riverford Organic. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Cassia's Christmas Kitchen

I don’t like Christmas.  I know I’m not alone in that.  For the providers in the family, it’s a pressure – all that required generosity, demanded all at once.

I don’t like bulk present buying.
I don’t like big family-only gatherings and frenzied unwrapping in a communal whirl - nor, if the other route is taken, individually, on the domestic catwalk.
I don’t like eating too much in one go.
Also, I am not a ‘roast meat’ cook.  I haven’t really got the timing, the resting, or the lukewarm thing.  The bird is always lukewarm by the time it has reached everyone’s plate.

Fortunately, my seasonal bad humour has seeped through the family, somewhat.  My daughter prefers to travel now – in spite of being a party animal, and loving presents.  My eldest son is a vegan and a physicist.  He is also anti-consumerist, takes his objections to the extreme, and disappears at Christmas.  His views extend to birthdays too, “What does it all mean, this marking of time? What is time?”

For the last few years, I have persuaded my family to go away and ignore it all - the cost of travel being our present to ourselves.  But Christmas appears in the unlikeliest of places - for example, last year, on the Skeleton Coast of Northern Namibia.  There, in the most remote and beautiful place on earth, gaudy Christmas stockings appeared, swinging on the wrists of waiters, as they danced around our table, singing carols in five-part harmonies.   There have been other such surreal pop-ups.  At least they are tacky enough to be funny.

So what is happening this year?  Why am I already making shopping lists and ordering the tree?  And why have I been to Ikea to buy tableware in bulk?

I haven’t managed to indoctrinate my youngest yet.  Nor my husband, who is naturally generous and warm, who loves gatherings and people and celebrations, and expresses uncomplicated joy at seeing his family – and is unafraid of marking time.  He also doesn’t cook, so none of that really bothers him.  His advice is to keep it simple, but that’s unhelpful; Christmas brings a crowd, so it’s never going to be.

Anyway, those two want Christmas. 
Which means we're doing the hosting this year.

So how am I going to make this painless?  Enjoyable, even?
I will not make turkey (nor goose or duck). 
I will mix friends in with family
And we will host off-peak, the 23rd - and lower expectations, or at least alter them.
We will not sit down to eat. 

The menu will be chosen for being a one-pot dish, easily assembled and slow-cooked; a dish that can maintain flavour, texture, attractiveness, for diners who will come and go over a couple of hours.
Tagine, I’m thinking - one fish, and one meat.  I’ll make harissa and charmoula, and maybe some flatbread.  Then, marinated oranges and chocolate sticky toffee pudding.  That has a little Christmas spirit, somehow - the prunes with the mutton, the preserved lemons with the fish, the cardamom in the oranges and the dates in the pudding - dried fruit and spices, and warmth.
And I will give myself two days clear, to make everything.
It will be a very early supper, so we’re not clearing up all night.

Christmas and its Eve will be free.  We shall watch films, go for walks and enjoy the unusual silence of the city.  And bask in the lights, and the scent of the Christmas tree.  I do love the tree.  And I love the carol In The Bleak Midwinter; so beautiful.
Yes, there is one more thing.  On The Day itself we will have a barbecue in the garden, just our little family - because that is a good Christmas memory from years ago.  Us huddled in the garden, wearing fleeces, and cooking up a carnivorous feast - plus some roasted veg for the vegan-child!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I'm Not A Cook, But I Cook.

I’m not a cook, but I cook.  And I usually won’t buy things I can make myself.  And if I’m in a restaurant, I’ll order something a bit cheffy, or an ingredient I don’t usually use.  More commonly, I open the fridge door and think, “Oh yes, that. I’ll get some feta, chorizo or cream to turn that into something”.  Quite often, my husband will dash out for lemons, the coriander, or pine nuts that will lift the humble veg into a dish.  I try to avoid Sainsbury’s Local, and buy herbs and pulses in the local Arabic shop.  But sometimes it can’t be helped.

On deciding what to cook, I go quiet, and imagine the kind of thing I’d like to taste.  Is it Italian-ish, Thai-ish, Engl-ish? Are my taste buds craving cumin, or basil, or a cheesy thing?  My appetite is influenced by any experience: a book, a place, the weather, a certain smell, memory – a combination of all sorts.  But I need that quiet moment before launching into cooking, even if it’s just a pause for breath.

There are so many kinds of meals.  The mad after-school dash of a meal, or a meandering weekend cook-in with music playing - or precise, strategic dinner party preparation.  They’re all important to me.  Being serenaded by my children’s piano practice can be pleasurable company while I cook, though I do bark long-range instructions from the stove.  Mealtimes underpin the day.  Work, leisure, everything moves around these recognised times when we refuel, meet and gather to eat.

Perhaps it’s obvious to say that feeding is giving, or even loving.  Being fed is being given to, or even loved.  A house that smells of spices, or bread, melted butter, fried onions is a warm inviting house.  A meal that has been thoughtfully prepared (even if it’s a roasted leek, cheese on toast, a baked potato – often the most perfect meals) is satisfying and nurturing.  It’s not that my children never have fish-fingers and oven chips – they do.  It’s not that I never snatch a peanut butter sandwich for lunch – I do, too often.  But fill-up meals aren’t the same, because they make little reference to crop, ingredient, or care, and just land clumsily on the plate.  Providing a home-cooked meal is a performance of sorts, and applause is wonderful.  I crave and enjoy it, even if it comes from just one other, or the friends of one’s children.  Did I really make the best spare ribs ever?  I’m flattered!

Eating together.  Of course that’s important.  We’ve been told that repeatedly.  We swap our stories, thoughts and beliefs at the table.  Cooking together.  I think that’s important too.  I’m not so good at it, admittedly.  I like to control the kitchen space, physically and mentally.  But I’m wrong.  There are many tedious tasks in cooking (especially if you don’t like equipment, as I don’t) and so how much more fun to have company.  There are communities where the shelling of peas, the shaping of pasta (I’m thinking of the streets of Bari in Italy, lined with women making it – together!) or the peeling of cooked peppers (Pristina in Kosovo – a group preparing for a party) is a shared activity.  I’m sure that’s a good idea.  In fact, I know it is, because I set up Root Camp, and I’ve witnessed the fun of it – in this case, between teenagers.

So now I have mentioned Root Camp.  I created Root Camp because I wanted to express some of my passion about food and eating.   I wanted young people to cook together, eat together, watch films together, go out in the field together, debate together, play together – to feed, and be fed – and find the pleasure in that.  Oh, and I wanted them to learn to wash up after themselves.