Saturday, 28 February 2009

Fab winter warmer from the end of the veg drawer

This is almost turning into a food blog, but here's another delicious recipe that makes great use of leftover / slightly past-it veg. We had it for dinner yesterday and found it very filling and satisfying. Flippin' cheap, too. It works brilliantly with potato, carrot and parsnip as here, but why not try sweet potato, squash, celeriac, add a chilli, bit of ginger, some chick peas, spinach... use your imagination!

Winter warmer root vegetable and lentil casserole

Serves 4

A little sunflower or vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed or chopped
2 med baking potatoes, diced (I scrub them and leave the skin on)
3-4 carrots, diced
2 parsnips, diced
2 tbsp curry paste
1.5 pints/800ml vegetable stock
100-150g red lentils
fresh coriander, roughly chopped

Fry the onion and garlic for a few minutes. Add the root veg, curry paste, and a splash of stock, stir well, and cook for 10 mins, stirring occasionally. Add the stock and lentils, stir, bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer and cook (covered) for another 10-15 minutes. Take the lid off for the last few minutes to allow it to thicken, adding the coriander at this point to keep the fresh taste. Save some for sprinkling on top if you feel like being fancy pants.

Delicious with a dollop of natural yogurt, mango chutney, naan breads or chapattis (or pittas or tortillas...). It has a beautifully sweet-spicy taste with the freshness of coriander, and the comforting texture of root vegetables.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The right direction

A few days ago I commented on another blog:

If the government has to prop up industry in these lean times, why can’t it do it by supporting/promoting new recycling technology and manufacturing items from recycled materials? There must be so many relevant and useful skills suddenly out there in the job market - let’s use them!

Then today I read that there's to be a recycling plant specifically for disposable nappies and similar items. Based in Birmingham, it will take 36,000 tonnes of used nappies each year, recycle the plastic and fibres (making first tiles, and later cycle helmets among other things), and eventually also reclaim methane to use for electricity generation. It's not *quite* what I meant (the company is Canadian, and "creating 22 jobs" is not exactly mass-scale employment) but it's a start. The principle is there - let's make better use of a wider range of things we throw away.

Now, there is the argument that reusable nappies are better, and the counter-argument that all that washing makes them roughly equal to disposables (PDF). I've yet to be persuaded either way, and for me it's an academic question! But (and sorry if anyone finds this distasteful) the plant will also take incontinence materials - that's something I have never seen commented on before, but clearly nobody is suggesting "washables" for a problem that will surely increase with our ageing population. So while some see the plant as an annoying excuse for parents to continue to use disposables, let's look at the wider picture.

More initiatives like this, please...

(As a cyclist as well, I am not sure how well "It'll make cycle helmets" will help to sell the project, as that's another contested issue, but I guess the media like to grab on to quirky things for their headlines!)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Healthy carrot or parsnip cake

This one's for Mrs Green and her Abel & Cole veg box parsnips :)

This cake is brilliant! For a start it is fat, egg and dairy free, so not only is it vegan, but it needs no fresh ingredients (apart from carrots!) and has fewer containers to dispose of afterwards. As you simmer and steep the carrots, old ones work fine. You can also substitute parsnips for a more golden-yellow colour and subtler taste (I tried this and gave it out to friends - they all loved it and couldn't guess the secret ingredient!). All the other ingredients are store cupboard favourites, with lots of scope for variation according to taste. It's dense and satisfying and keeps well. It also cooks well as cupcakes or muffins. What's not to like?!

The original recipe is in cups as it's from an American book, the Moosewood Book of Desserts (Moosewood is a famed vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, NY). I have a set of measuring cups so I have never converted it to grams, but I recommend this website for ingredient-specific volume/weight conversions. I will try and make one of these and confirm the conversions soon!

Carrot or parsnip cake

2 cups [~250g] (packed) finely grated carrots (or pasrnips)
1.5 cups [~330g] packed brown sugar*
1.75 cups [400ml] water
1 cup [150-200g] raisins or other dried fruit (chopped to raisin size) - apricots and ginger are good with carrots, cranberries go well with parsnips
1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups [375g] plain flour
1 tsp cinnamon
0.25 tsp ground cloves
0.5 tsp ground nutmeg or fresh grated
0.5 tsp ground ginger (or grate a thumb size piece of fresh and put it in with the carrots)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder

*this is the original recipe amount of sugar, but it can be reduced (even halved!).

Combine carrots/parsnips, sugar, water, fruit and vanilla in a saucepan - bring to the boil, simmer for 5 mins, remove from heat, cover, sit for at least one hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 300F / 150C / Gas 2. Oil and flour a 9-10" round pan or equivalent.

Sift flour, spices, salt, baking soda and powder together into a bowl. Stir carrot/parsnip mix into dry mix just until no dry traces are left.

Pour into pan, bake until firm and a skewer comes out clean - about 1 hr.

Cool in pan for 10 mins, then invert onto a plate. Dust with icing sugar.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The great salad shame

Just read this interesting article in the Observer, containing the shocking idea that in Britain we import twice as much salad as we actually eat. That's a horrendous and stupid amount of waste, the equivalent of half of what we import AND anything that we produce ourselves. It just made me do a genuine double take when I read it and I had to share!

The article also includes a part that links to the post I made the other day about professional kitchens and food waste. With regard to the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign:
...while British house-spouses have clearly mislaid the poker-work sign that said "Waste Not, Want Not", it [is] pretty obvious that they [are] not the chief villains. Wrap puts the total of food waste at 20m tonnes. Three times as much food is wasted by retailers, processors and manufacturers, including agriculture. But the easy option is to put the blame and the pressure on the consumer. Industry is a much trickier target.
My first reaction is that I hope thatthis information is not seen as a reason for people to think "oh well, so why should I care about my food waste?" and carry on binning stuff. But on the other hand, I do agree - why are these campaigns always directed at the household when there is so much to be done on a commercial and industrial basis? Switch off campaigns, recycle more, waste less food... these all apply to businesses and organisations just as much as to consumers. But they apply at the sort of scale where a bit of thinking and leadership could make massive differences to our overall impact on the environment. Are there similar schemes and campaigns at that level? Let's hear more about innovations and successes beyond the household scale, and let's fix good "green" behaviour into life everywhere, not just at home.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Another winter soup from leftovers

This recipe came from a classmate in my German class, and when she served it to us at a get together we were all hooked. It just goes to show that keeping a few herbs and spices in the store cupboard can lift an ordinary use-it-up soup into something really special.

Potato soup with caraway seeds

2 medium potatoes (or equivalent of small ones), peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2tbsp oil
1 pint vegetable stock
0.5 pints milk
1 tsp mixed herbs
1 tsp paprika
0.5 tsp caraway seeds (if you have the time to toast and lightly crush them, even better)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a saucepan and saute the vegetables and spices until the onion is transparent, then add the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Blend to a smooth consistency, and thin with a little extra milk, if desired. Adjust seasoning to taste and reheat to serving temperature.

Recipe time! End of the week minestrone

Inspired by Mrs Green's yummy tomato and chickpea soup recipe the other week, here's what I had for lunch. It just so happens that we had done our weekly shop and so had all the ingredients fresh, but it's something that would work really well at the end of the week when there are only a few slightly wizened carrots and some floppy celery lurking in the salad drawer.

Tinned tomatoes (maybe with herbs), beans and stock cubes are top store cupboard items and to be honest you could add most sorts of veg to that and make a good soup! One of the best ever investments we made was a big cooking pot - I swear we use it 6 times a week for stew, soup, curry, chilli, spag bol.... you name it. You can probably tell we are of the "bung it in the pot" cooking school rather than nouvelle cuisine!

Minestrone soup - serves 4 hungry people or 6 polite ones :)

1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, well smashed
2-3 carrots, diced small
2-3 sticks of celery (including leaves if you like), chopped
8-10 outer leaves savoy cabbage, shredded
(of course, you can increase or decrease the quantities of all the veg according to what you have)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin beans (cannellini, black eye, whatever you have)
600ml (ish) stock
salt, pepper, mixed herbs to taste

Optional additions:
2 rashers bacon, chopped - or any leftover cold meat e.g. chicken, ham
2 tsp pesto (really makes a difference to the flavour)
4 sun dried tomatoes, chopped
handful of pasta - small shapes are great - good use for broken spaghetti!
fresh herbs - we had some sage left over from another recipe
croutons made from stale bread

Sweat off the onions and garlic with a little oil, the pesto, and a bit of water or stock if needed to keep things from sticking. Add bacon (if using) and cook through. Add carrots and celery and some more of the stock. When the carrots are starting to soften, add the rest of the stock, tomatoes, cabbage and beans, dried or fresh herbs, pasta and any other ingredients you're using. Simmer for 10 minutes or so, check the softness of the veg and the seasoning, and cook longer if needed.

Serve with fresh bread, croutons if you like, maybe save some fresh herbs (if using) or celery leaves to sprinkle on the top if you want to be posh! :)

Monday, 9 February 2009

Food waste - the professionals' opinion?

Idly browsing, the headline 'A fish head in a bin makes me cry' caught my eye. Michel Roux Jr of Le Gavroche talked to the Telegraph about food waste in a short article plugging his new book (which seems to have nothing at all to do with getting the most from your food, except maybe via the anecdotes in the article).

However, being a bit of a Masterchef addict ("COOKING JUST DOESN'T GET ANY TOUGHER THAN THIS!!" *ahem*) I also find myself, if not crying, then shouting at the TV when contestants do the round in the professional kitchen. Why? For the slightest deviation from the chef's vision of a "perfect" dish, the entire plateful is binned. Expensive cuts of meat, fish, lovingly prepared vegetables... if the dressing has been messily squirted on or the cooking isn't absolutely correct, in the bin it goes. I get the impression this happens too with dishes from regular staff (just hopefully less often).

Now, I can see that chefs have a reputation to uphold, and many of the likely customers in top-end restaurants are going to be knowledgeable and expect high standards (after all, they are paying for them). But to what extent does this contribute to our food waste as a nation? Binning food because it's not absolutely perfect seems to me to be more of a waste, more pointless than binning something you forgot about in the back of the fridge. Do restaurants have food waste collections that do something useful with the discards? (Aha - some do. And there were other London options in 2007 - what about now I wonder?)

If a fish head in a bin makes him cry, what would Michel Roux Jr do with a plate of not-quite-perfect food from one of his sous chefs? That I'd like to know.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Progress check

I have been sadly neglecting my blog lately so thought it was time for a progress check. How am I doing with the low-waste habits?

The positive points:

- we are shopping at the local independent shops more often. This has cut down on plastic waste especially meat and fish trays, and we are much better at avoiding impulse buys. From the butcher in particular we are finding the produce much tastier, too. We try to cycle there and so it also keeps us fit! (Particularly cycling back with laden panniers :)

- we are buying some things in bulk to reduce packaging - yogurt in 500g pots and dried fruit/nuts weighed out to order and put in paper bags.

- most of the time there are home baked cakes/flapjacks in the cupboard instead of packaged cereal bars.

- I make a point of saving foil and miscellaneous metal (bottle caps etc.) as I know that can go to the recycling centre now.

Still needs work:

- we still buy some things in unavoidable plastic packaging: celery, spinach, cheese (occasionally), yogurt (although see above), pasta, rice. These last two could maybe be bought in bulk, but I haven't seen large packs of wholemeal pasta or brown rice anywhere.

- I am doing longer runs now and need to consume energy gels which come in foil/plastic sachets. I might try going back to jelly babies! But the gels are easier to eat on the move.

- we haven't yet invested in any reusable containers of a suitable size for buying meat, fish etc.

- I need to get another reusable water bottle for travelling. With the liquids regulations on planes, airports even seem to be reluctant to let you take an empty "disposable" bottle through security, so you have to bin it and buy another (cunning). At least at Luton they had recycling bins for them. I had a flyer from Jarrolds this week telling me about new recycled plastic water bottles, UK-made, that they are selling for £8. I can't find the flyer (think I recycled it :) so I can't give more details, but I will probably invest in one of those, to support recycled manufacturing and to help me avoid disposable bottles on the move.

I mention travelling as I was away in Poland this week. Breakfast at the hotel was one of the least waste-friendly operation I have seen in a long time! Although you could help yourself to cereals, juice and milk from large containers, and bread from open baskets, everything else (butter, jam, yogurt, cheese, pate, tea, sugar) was in single-serving plastic cartons with plastic/foil lids. The best effort I have seen was in Germany where everything was help-yourself from bowls and plates, ranging from sliced meat and cheese to yoghurt, cereal and nut/seed toppings.

Just a few thoughts. I feel quite happy with how we are doing, and think that to go further would mean some serious rethinking of the way we live and, particularly, eat. Maybe in the future when the current habits are really entrenched, we'll look at going further towards zero waste?