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Hail king cauliflower!

Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that seem to be back in vogue all of a sudden due, in part, to some bad publicity. It recently hit the headlines when a supermarket received criticism for selling ‘cauliflower steaks’ (thick slices to you and me!) for more than the cost of buying a whole cauliflower! A case of ‘clever’ marketing – and the need for the consumer to shop sensibly, if ever there was one.

In these days of trying to eat more healthily and to consume less meat, the cauliflower has got quite a lot to offer. In my youth, I was not a fan. It was usually served soggy and grey having been overcooked or slathered in a tasteless cheese sauce. It’s only recently that the dear old cauli has been recognised as having a lot more potential.

I think its texture has much to do with its resurgence – it is substantial and can stand up to pickling, pan frying, roasting and even barbecuing. You can marinade it whole and roast it for a rather impressive looking vegetarian meal, or go completely the other way and break up the florets into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles couscous to create cauliflower ‘rice’. This is a really clever option as it creates a low calorie, healthy, low-carb meal or side dish and has only about a quarter of the carbohydrates of traditional rice.

While cauliflower has a distinctive taste, it also takes up other flavours well. I particularly like it in a curry as the florets stay firm and it tastes great with curry spices. The idea of steaks is a clever one – cutting big slabs of cauliflower and then cooking them in oil and herbs creates a lovely main course. Cauliflower cheese, when made properly – pre-cooked cauli mixed into a rich cheese sauce and then sprinkled with extra cheese and browned under the grill – is a super comfort food.

Cauliflowers are available pretty much all year round, which makes it extra useful when so many other veg have given up for the winter. Predictably, supermarkets demand their cauliflowers white and pristine but look out for cheaper creamier coloured ones from a greengrocer or farmers’ market. As long as they are clean and firm, they are perfectly fine. Of course, cauliflowers don’t only come in white… there are purple and orange varieties and the stunning looking Romanesco with its lime green pointy florets that look like some clever architectural design. It’s not strictly a cauliflower but is closely related.

Sadly, growing them yourself is not that easy and you need to be a pretty dedicated veg grower to succeed. They need plenty of space, a rich soil and then a cage or netting to try and keep cabbage white butterflies and greedy pigeons away! It’s one of those veg, like sweet corn and asparagus, that I find it easier to just buy when I fancy them. But if you want to have a go at growing them, you’ve still got a few weeks to get them planted. You’ll find lots of advice on how to grow them online, as ever the RHS website has it covered.

 

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“Rhubarb rhubarb!”

I do enjoy Gardener’s World – an hour of delightful diversion, relaxing and thoroughly good for you. Whenever Monty Don so much as mentions a plant that I have in my garden I instantly feel as if this makes me a Proper Gardener. So, imagine my excitement last Friday when he was talking about picking your first rhubarb of the year and went on to say how a breakfast of stewed rhubarb and yoghurt was one of the most delicious breakfasts you could eat… that was just what I had tucked into myself earlier in the day! The combination is so yummy (a top culinary term!) the creamy yoghurt and tart rhubarb – and what’s more, it makes you feel virtuous as a healthy breakfast choice.

I think rhubarb is a bit like beetroot or avocado, a very distinct taste and you either love it or hate it. I love it, and it is so easy to grow! Our rhubarb is only about three years old (you shouldn’t harvest from it in the first year), but it is huge! Wrestling the stalks off the plant can be quite hard work (you have to carefully pull and not cut) and the enormous leaves need to be cut off and put straight in the compost bin, as they are poisonous. Unfortunately, people have been poisoned after eating the leaves. This was a particular problem during the First World War when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source!

Rhubarb is such an easy thing to grow and you get so much back from it and I, for one, like its rather exuberant appearance. Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable but it is treated as a fruit, despite its tart flavour, you really can’t eat it raw and must add sugar. It goes well with ginger and strawberries… as well as custard and cream! And let’s be honest – is there anything more wonderful than a rhubarb crumble? Do you like rhubarb? If so, what do you make with it? Do share!

Rhubarb grows in two crops, the first arrives early in the year and is ‘forced’, or grown under pots, or those lovely tall terracotta forcers made especially for the job. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ around Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford is renowned for its production of delicate forced rhubarb, grown by candlelight inside sheds… I saw a TV programme on it once – fascinating!  You can read more about it here.

Forced rhubarb is a lovely pale pink, with lime green leaves, and it is the more tender and delicately flavoured of the two crops. The second, called main crop rhubarb, arrives in the spring and is grown outdoors and is what most of us have sprouting in our gardens. Its stalks are a deeper red, tinged with green, and its leaves a brighter green. It has a more intense flavour and a more robust texture than the forced crop.

Rhubarb is a fruit (or vegetable!) that has many health claims attributed to it. As ever, I think we have to take some of these with a pinch of salt – or spoonful of sugar in this case! Rhubarb is packed with minerals, vitamins, organic compounds, and other nutrients that make it a good healthy option. Some of these components include dietary fibre, protein, vitamin C, vitamin K, B complex vitamins, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Every serving of rhubarb provides 45% of the daily value in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and can limit neuronal damage in the brain.

And if you’ve ever wondered why we use the term ‘Rhubarb rhubarb’… it goes back to 1852, when the theatre company of English actor Charles at the Princess’s Theatre, London would say the word rhubarb repetitively to mimic the sound of indistinct conversation in any crowd scenes, the word having been chosen because it does not have harsh-sounding consonants or clear vowels. So there you have it!

 

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Cookery for the ‘Middle Classes’!

Sorting my book collection is rather like painting the Forth Road Bridge – it’s a task that never ends! OK, so it’s rather more interesting than the paint job and sometimes, as happened last week, I come across a gem of a cookery book I didn’t even know I had!

I can only guess that this ancient coverless book was one of my Mother’s. It has the wonderful title of: ‘Miss Tuxford’s Cookery for the Middle Classes’. Can you imagine how a title like that would go down in 2018?!

Miss Hester Tuxford M.C.A first published this book in 1925 and several updated editions followed. In the edition I have (dated 1933, I think) she tells us proudly in the preface that the book has so far sold upwards of 200,000 copies – which is a very impressive figure indeed! I haven’t been able to find out any more about Hester Tuxford online, which is a shame, as I rather like the sound of her. She lived in ‘Westwood’, Tattershall in Lincolnshire, but that’s as much as I know.

Offal: Awful!

The book itself is fascinating as a piece of social history. Compare this to a contemporary cookery book and it is hard to believe that only about 90 years have passed since Miss Tuxford was writing her recipes. It seems much longer…

Back then, meat was a staple of all meals – and almost every part of the animal was consumed – from offal, to head to feet! The number of recipes featuring tripe is quite terrifying, including options to stew it, fry it, put it in a pie or make a tripe ragout. Equally, the range of meat eaten would make most of us excuse ourselves from the dining table pretty rapidly – including rabbit, pigeon and rook. Rook pie, anyone?

Miss Tuxford manages only a small section on vegetables and, from the outset, she makes it clear that they need to be treated with caution. She writes:

‘RULES FOR COOKING GREEN VEGETABLES
Green vegetables should always be cooked with the lid off the pan to allow all poisonous gases to escape that are generated whilst cooking. A little salt and a small piece of soda should be added to the boiling water before placing in the green vegetables. All vegetables should be well soaked in salt water for an hour before cooking.’

The section on puddings and sweets is extensive and includes such gems as Puzzle Pudding, Honeymoon Cheesecakes and Canary Pudding. Fortunately, the latter refers to a yellow lemon sauce rather than poor little baked birds as in the Rook Pie! There are no less than five roly-poly recipes and many more substantial puddings, most of which involve a large amount of lard and margarine.

It’s all very well for us to marvel at this stodgy fare but between the wars, life was pretty spartan. Central heating was a luxury and domestic appliances were not that commonplace, nor was car ownership, so calorie-rich meals were essential for warmth and physical energy. Most vegetables were what you managed to grow yourself and many would have been root vegetables. None of the exotic fruits and vegetables that we enjoy today were around, such as avocados, butternut squash and blueberries. Britain was a much greyer place.

Reading Miss Tuxford’s book certainly made me reflect on how fortunate we are today with the food and comfort that most of us enjoy. If you come across a copy of this book, or any others from that era, it really is absolutely fascinating reading…

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This year’s food fashion…

OK, I confess I am no great fashionista, but when it comes to having ‘fashionable’ colours for our food, I do start to wonder if we haven’t all gone a little too far… The colour for 2018 is, apparently purple (there’s even a precise Pantone colour specified). This has also transferred to our food, and purple veg is all the rage. Hmmm.

Waitrose’s head of fresh produce is quoted as saying: “Social media has changed our relationship with food – we’re sharing pictures of our dishes more than ever before and as a result, our shoppers are looking to add vibrancy to their plate. Purple food does just that.”

Well, I suppose it makes a fun news story, but I’d prefer to look at the nutritional benefits of purple veg rather than how it looks in a tweet! In fact, there is more to purple than the vibrant colour and purple foods are said to be full of natural health benefits with densely packed nutrients and antioxidants. The benefits of antioxidants have long been discussed and are known to fight disease, help keep you looking younger, reduce inflammation and are generally good for you.

Essentially, the darker the colour of a food, the higher the content of antioxidants and nutrients will be. Then, all we have to do is convince our brains that this is the case! I recently bought some purple potatoes (they were on special offer!) and they really were a deep purple colour. While I ate them, my brain kept saying ‘this doesn’t taste right’ because I was somehow expecting the distinct taste of beetroot! As potatoes go, they were fine, but I won’t be rushing back for more.

So if we want to try purple veg, what is there to try? Aubergines and purple sprouting broccoli are ones we are probably all familiar with, but what else?

Purple Sweet Potatoes
While the standard sweet potato is packed with health benefits of its own, the purple sweet potato is even better for us. Also known as Okinawan potatoes, these brightly coloured spuds taste just like their orange cousins but are also filled with anthocyanins, which aid digestion and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Acai Berries
Acai Berries have become all the rage in recent years, and now they look set to get even bigger. It is claimed that they are good for heart health and provide cardio-protective benefits to our cells, and lower the cholesterol levels in the blood stream.

Purple Asparagus
Originally from Albenga, Italy, the purple asparagus is rich in vitamin B, which improves, skin, hair and nails. It’s also meant to be good for the immune system, as it’s rich in vitamins A, C and K.

Black Rice
Once described as the ‘forbidden rice’ due to the fact it was produced on a much smaller scale than brown or white grains, black rice has a whole host of health benefits. It’s high in iron and vitamin E, which has been known to fight ageing and combat heart issues, and it has a mild, nutty flavour.

And there you have it. Sadly, none of these options is cheap, so I may well let fashion pass me by (again!) and stick to my greens. In my eyes, green is good.

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Burns’ Night cometh… the mystery of the haggis!

While wandering down an aisle in the supermarket last week, my mind on other things, I came to a sudden halt and I found myself staring at some alien looking things in the meat department. After the initial shock, I realised I had come across a pile of haggis, all ready for Burns’ Night on 25th January.

In my younger days, the prospect of a Burns’ Night Supper was quite fun as it usually involved plenty of energetic Scottish dancing and a jolly evening perfect for livening up a cold and grey January. But haggis? It has never been high on my list of likes. Oh, be honest Joanna, it’s high on your list of dislikes! But the whole Burns’ Night Supper always sounds so wonderfully wild and Scottish that it appeals to the romantic in me. Served alongside the haggis you have the marvellously named ‘rumblethumps’ (potato, cabbage and onion) or ‘neeps and tatties’ (swede and potatoes), followed by the magical sounding ‘Clootie dumpling’ (a suet and fruit pudding). If all that wasn’t enough to fill you up and keep you warm through a freezing Scottish night, you can always add a few drams of whisky!

As decreed in Burns’ great poem, the haggis is slit with a dagger!

So what is haggis? It is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach although nowadays, an artificial casing is often used. A cheap dish designed to waste nothing and use up scraps and offal; it isn’t something many people would choose today as they try to eat less meat. But if you want to enjoy the whole Burns’ Night atmosphere there are lots of vegetarian haggis (haggi?) on sale and plenty of recipes online if you want to make your own.

Haggis is Scotland’s national dish, thanks to Scots poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ of 1787, a Scottish dish through and through, you would think. But wait! The name ‘hagws’ or ‘hagese’ was first recorded in England in 1430! And it gets worse…

There’s evidence to suggest that the ancient Romans were the first known to have made products of the haggis type. Even earlier, a kind of primitive haggis is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. The well-known chef, the late Clarissa Dickson Wright, said that haggis “came to Scotland in a longship” (from Scandinavia) even before Scotland was a single nation. So that’s another ‘tradition’ shattered!

We looked for the reclusive wild haggis but couldn’t find any photos, so here’s a gorgeous Highland cow instead!

Even though there may be evidence that the Scots didn’t invent haggis after all… they have come up with an alternative history that I think sounds perfectly reasonable. The wild haggis is a small Scottish animal, a smaller hairier version of a sheep. According to some sources, the wild haggis’s left and right legs are of different lengths, allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides that make up its natural habitat but only in one direction. It is further claimed that there are two varieties of haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain (as seen from above) while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties live happily alongside each other but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance and fall over!

PS. According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believed haggis to be an animal

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