Going commando in the kitchen

I use recipes. Some people think that’s a weakness, a sign of someone lacking creativity or confidence in the kitchen. A person who is afraid to take risks. Perhaps they’re right, but I have good reason to cling to my cookbooks, and to my scraps of paper with hastily scribbled recipes from Epicurious. It has to do with:

Usual Suspects

The film that inspired our affectionate names for really bad dishes

A) a particular dish I made several years ago;

B) the 1995 film The Usual Suspects; and

C) my husband’s disused degree in German from Exeter University.

Shizer Soße

Here’s how it went. At a time when I wasn’t cooking as much as I do now, I set out to make one of our staple meals: pasta with cheese sauce. But boredom struck – I wanted to mix it up, do something different. As the flour and butter gently sizzled for my white sauce, emitting its nutty aroma, I opened the spice cabinet for inspiration. Oregano? Paprika? Turmeric? Yes! A curry sauce! With pasta? Maybe not. My forehead wrinkled at the thought. I can’t remember the rest of the details, but there was a lemon involved. And an onion. Salt, pepper and, of course, the milk for the sauce.

The result was gray, thick, mucilaginous, and mixed with al dente fusili. I warned my husband that it didn’t look good. He was optimistic as always, but after a few bites admitted that, in fact, it wasn’t very good. I said it was sh!t. He said, yes, it is. It is sh!t sauce. Shizer Soße, he said, pulling up those German language skills from bygone days. He also thought the sauce was mysterious and evil, like the similar-sounding Keyser Söze – the mysterious and evil unseen crime lord from the The Usual Suspects.

Henceforth, terrible dishes were christened, for example, Shizer suppe, which was a memorable soup my husband made with tonic water instead of the recipe’s suggested spring water.

Since the sauce incident, I mostly stuck to using recipes. Now and then, though, I improvised. Once I prepared something to share with the book group I belong to, and mixed ideas from a few different recipes to create what I envisioned would be a festive pumpkin filled with spicy fruit. The actual result was a baked pumpkin filled with clovey, gray stuff, in which floated raisins and dried dates. My friend B asked if it was savoury or meant to be a dessert. I wasn’t sure. It was Shizerkürbispampe (sh!t pumpkin mush), and went directly on the compost pile.

The Taste for Civilization

The Taste for Civilization, a fascinating book by Janet Flamang, which tells us why we need recipes (at least some of the time).

Recipes are there so we don’t kill ourselves

Recipes, of course, aren’t foolproof and there are so many available online now (including on this blog) that it’s likely you’ll come across a few which just don’t work (probably also from this blog). That’s why I tend to rely mostly on cookbooks, where the recipes are at least (or should be) tested. Even if you’re more of a ‘going commando’ cook, though, it’s good to pay homage to recipes: they keep us from killing ourselves.

As omnivores, we can eat lots of things (unlike most other animals), so recipes are a “condensed survival guide”, according to Michael Symons in A History of Cooks and Cooking. “Recipes signal safe, proper, and delicious eating,” claims Janet Flamang in her fascinating book The Taste for Civilization.

My Shizer Soße  and freaky pumpkin mush weren’t unsafe to eat, but they were a waste of time and ingredients (as well as an assault on the palate). But cooks are like “scientists, developing cuisines through trial and error” according to Flamang. I’ve now spent a number of years cooking with my survival guides, and can at last call myself a cook/scientist in the kitchen.

This recipe is an example of one of my more successful experiments: a layered vegetable bake. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and bake, but the majority of that is unattended. Hopefully it works for you, and doesn’t get compared to an evil crime lord.

Layered vegetable bake

Layered veggie bake

The layered veggie bake with cheese: the crispy, cheesy onion rings on top are the best bit.

1 egg

¾ cup milk or cream (or a mixture of both)

¼ cup yogurt, soured cream or crème fraiche

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of nutmeg

1 – 2 cups each of cleaned, peeled and thinly sliced root vegetables: e.g., potatoes, rutabaga (aka swede), carrots, squash, leeks.

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 onion, sliced in thin rings

Preheat oven to 190C (375 F). Whisk together the first five ingredients and set aside.

Butter a large, shallow rectangular baking dish. Place a layer of vegetable slices in the dish, then sprinkle with some of the cheese. Keep layering vegetables and cheese until you run out of vegetables.

Pour the egg-milk mixture evenly over the whole thing. Arrange your onion rings over the top of the dish, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese. If you have any bread crumbs or sesame seeds around, sprinkle those on top, too, for added crunch.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for around 1 ½ hours, or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the foil and put back in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the top. Serve with a salad.

Fight for your right to parsnip

Last week I was inspired, infuriated and energized at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). This is the third ORFC to take place during the same week as (and right across the street from) the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).

Magdalen College, Oxford

The site of this year's Oxford Real Farming Conference, Magdalen College

The ORFC is about innovations and activism related to growing healthy, tasty food without destroying rural communities, the soil and human and animal health. The OFC is about growing more food more intensively, and is sponsored by investment banks, agribusiness companies and pillars of healthy eating such as McDonalds.

Of course, the OFC wasn’t just a bunch of baddies meeting to decide how to make us buy more fizzy drinks and destroy local food markets. They allowed a few people to discuss things like sustainable agriculture. That was so nice of them.

Be a local yokel

While I could just hang my head and cry into my fair-trade coffee about the very depressing state of the global food system, I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on taking action.

Turl St Kitchen

Home of fantastic and affordable local and seasonal food in Oxford: Turl Street Kitchen. I ate here twice during the ORFC and am now officially addicted.

Some of the clear messages from the ORFC were to buy locally produced food and cut out the middle men (er, middle people) by buying from farmer’s markets or direct from growers (such as through a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm – find one near you in the US  or UK).

Another important message was to inspire people to go back to the land, especially young people, thus encouraging a generation of young farmers.

For the rest of us, we need to rediscover the “lost arts”: learning about the foods grown or raised in our region, cooking and preserving those foods, baking bread, sharing meals at home, and just generally getting back into the kitchen or garden (this applies to women and men).

Raiders of the lost arts

Part of rediscovering the “lost arts” involves learning about vegetables we’re unfamiliar with, don’t know how to cook, or dislike because we’ve had them badly prepared. This includes the mushy canned spinach you had in the school cafeteria, and Brussels sprouts, which I hated as a child but now adore (if they’re fresh).

Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats cheese bake

One local vegetable that has always perplexed me is Jerusalem artichokes. But today I had a scrumptious Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats' cheese bake at Turl Street Kitchen. I hope to try making a version of this at home.

Local eating requires local knowledge, something that’s been lost as the sources of our food have moved further and further away from where we live. A great way to learn is to ask the sellers at farmer’s markets how to cook the things they grow. You can do this at a butcher’s, too, if they’re selling locally produced meats (and find out how to cook weird and wonderful parts of animals that our ancestors coveted).

In an effort to inspire your adventures in the “lost arts”, I’m offering a hearty vegetarian risotto recipe using winter root vegetables. I love risotto, but when I think about making it I immediately remember the 20+ minutes I’ll need to stand and stir over the stove. Fortunately, this recipe is done in the oven, and I was impressed by how rich it tasted despite the lack of stirring.

Winter vegetable risotto

I’ve made risotto often in the spring and summer with spring greens, aubergine (eggplant) or courgette (zucchini), but I hadn’t experimented much with using the muddy root vegetables we get this time of year. The recipe I’m sharing is adapted from one at Waitrose.com. I substituted sweet potato for the swede (aka rutabaga — though sweet potatoes aren’t grown very widely here in the UK, so swede is usually a better option). I also added garlic, and used parmesan-style cheese instead of the special sheep’s cheese they recommend. Feta or another rich white cheese would have been very good, but I used what was in the fridge (try it with a cheese made locally!).

While it takes about an hour and a half to make this, most of that is with the dish in the oven, unattended. So it may not be a quick option for after work during the week, but perfect if you’re pottering around the house on a weekend.

What you’ll need

250 grams (about 1-1/2 cups) each sweet potato (or swede/rutabaga), celeriac and carrots

2 small red onions

Several cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

A handful of fresh sage leaves (or use a couple of teaspoons dried)

175 grams (or just over 3/4 cup) of Arborio risotto rice

150 ml (just over 1/2 cup) of dry white wine

500 ml (2 cups) of hot vegetable stock (I used a vegetarian bouillon)

100g (1 cup) parmesan-style (or other) cheese (try feta, or whatever’s local)

How to do it

Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F, gas mark 6). Wash and peel the vegetables and cut into 2-cm (or just smaller than 1 inch) pieces. Peel and quarter the onions. Peel the garlic.

Veg ready to roast

Sweet potato, carrots, celeriac, garlic and red onion, ready to roast. After 40 minutes or so, add other risotto ingredients and cook 35 minutes.

Place the veggies in a large, shallow baking dish or tin, toss with olive oil to coat, sprinkle over chopped sage. Place in the oven for 35-45 minutes, stirring once or twice during the cooking. Next, add the rice, wine and hot stock and return to the oven for 35 minutes, stirring once.

Remove from the oven and stir in the cheese (add a hunk of butter if you like it really creamy, a la Jamie Oliver). Add salt and pepper to taste.

The original recipe suggests you eat this with a tomato and onion salad, but it’s winter, and tomatoes are grown in summer. Instead, try this lovely recipe from the very tasty and creative blog Not Eating Out in New York: Raw carrot and parsnip salad.