Let's talk food

A quick chat about ingredients.
Or, Sorcha gets naggy.

Ok, so it’s time to have a chat about food. Eating is one thing the entire planet has in common. Every living thing, from plants to bugs to mammals, including us humans, have to consume some sort of food or we die. It’s a very simple fact. If we do not eat, we die. Now most creatures simply consume to survive, but we humans have taken it to another level and we no longer eat just to survive, but to enjoy ourselves as well. Mankind has taken the experience to all different places over the centuries, from the great banquets of medieval times to today’s convenience foods.

Along the way though we have lost something. Most of us are so far removed from the food on our plates that we have no idea where it has come from, why and how different foods are used together to create an appetising meal, and how what we consume effects us, not just nutritionally, but mentally as well.
Now a lot of people, far more experienced than I, with far more influence, have already said all there is to be said on the subject of organic food, and sustainable, cruelty-free animal husbandry (that’s raising animals to you and I) so I’ll try to keep this short.

I won’t use eggs that aren’t ,at the very least, free-range. Let’s face it, they’re pretty much the same price as caged birds at this stage. Yes, organic eggs are a little more expensive still. If I can afford the organic eggs I will always buy them. If money’s a bit tight I’ll buy free-range. I will not use eggs from caged birds. Ever. I will not hold it against you for not using organic eggs either if you’re watching the pennies (and who amongst us isn’t these days?) but please buy free-range. There’s no need to be cruel for the sake of the extra 3 cent you might save. If we all stop buying eggs from caged hens then shops will stop stocking them, it’s simple economics, and as consumers we have extraordinary power to influence supermarkets with our choices.
Now, onto fruit and vegetables. Again, if I can afford to, I try to buy organic. I know it’s slightly more expensive, and I’ll be the first one to hold up my hands and say that I buy organic only about 50% of the time. I wish it was more. But I do want you to think about it, and even if it’s only one thing a week, it’s one less dose of chemicals in your body. “What do you care about chemicals? You SMOKE!” I hear you say. Good point. But every little bit less is a break for your body. Care about your health, care about yourself, and you will reap the benefits.

The one thing I try to ensure to do with vegetables and fruit is to eat in season. I do this by growing our own, not that we’re anywhere near self-sufficiency, and when that fails/runs out/ or we don’t have the room needed I buy it. Don’t eat strawberries in January, wait until summertime when you can have either strawberries out of your own garden, or at least some grown within maybe a 15 mile radius of your home. Do you really want strawberries shipped in from Kenya? Can you imagine how long they’ve been sitting around waiting for transporting, being shipped, sitting in the distribution centre and then the back store in the supermarket before you get to pop them in your basket and bring them home? The same applies to every fruit and vegetable. Yes, I know the chances of my finding pineapple grown in Ireland are between slim and none, regardless of the season, so I don’t eat a lot of it. It becomes a treat, a luxury, to be enjoyed when local fruits are at a minimum. Look at the labels in your supermarket trolley, and I think you’ll be surprised how far some of your food as travelled. Eat local, eat seasonally, and you’ll be amazed how good it makes you feel. It helps connect you with the time and place you live in, something that is lacking in lost people’s lives in modern times.

Meat is another hot topic these days, and again I can’t order you to only buy organic, rare-breed meat from no more than 5 miles from your home or suffer the lash! I certainly don’t. I would recommend that you make a good friend of your local butcher, ask questions, seek advice, and if your butcher seems to know less about the subject than you would expect then go elsewhere. Let me put it this way; if you went to your hairdresser and asked for a particular haircut and they proceeded to tell you that they didn’t really know what you were talking about, but they’d give it a bash anyway I can guarantee that you’d be out of that seat like your arse was on fire before they’d even finished speaking. You should treat your butcher the same way. If they can’t tell you where the meat has come from, how long it was hung for, or suggest a way of cooking it then get out, get out! Likewise if the shop is dirty, or smells rank. If that’s what they show to customers can you imagine what you’re not seeing..?

Finally, let’s talk about cupboard basics. These are the things that you use time and time again in cooking, the things that help make life a little bit easier, and are great for knocking up a quick dinner when you’re tired and the kids are hungry and the dog still needs to be walked.

Oil would be my first port of call. There are loads of great oil books out there if you really want to get into the subject but I’m just going to cover the basics. For frying, both in the pan and the deep fat fryer, I use rapeseed oil. You can pick up organic rapeseed oil quite reasonably, it’s almost always produced within your own country (and if it’s not take that up with your supermarket!). Olive oil I use more for dressings, or for trickling over salads and vegetables, or indeed even for dipping chunks of bread into. As much as I can I try to buy extra virgin olive oil, and if I happen to get to Greece for a holiday I’ll always pick up some oil when I’m there (also saffron, which is MUCH cheaper in Greece than at home, so I buy loads). I also have a few flavoured oils knocking around, mostly gifts, and they do come in handy but I could survive without them if I had to.

Vinegar is another staple in our kitchen. All kinds of it. White wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, malt vinegar. You name it, I probably have a bottle of it floating around here somewhere. I adore tangy flavours, so vinegar is a necessity in my cooking. It’s also amazingly useful around the house, and if you like to avoid harsh cleaning chemicals you should definitely have a big supply of vinegar knocking around.

Spices and herbs are so much more accessible these days and a good thing it is too! Where possible I’d suggest growing your own, or at least buying fresh in the supermarket, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use dried herbs and spices myself. Fresh or dried they add another dimension to your cooking and no kitchen is right without them. Everyone has their own personal favourites so I can’t tell you what you should have in your kitchen, but you’ll know from the meals that you cook time and again what spices or herbs that you’ll need to have on hand. I find the bouquet garnis in the tea-bag a godsend, though I’m sure other cooks would have collective seizures at that thought. To each their own. One word of advice though, use fresh parsley. The dried stuff has no flavour what so ever, and smells kind of funky.

Flour comes in so many forms, and of course for people following special diets (gluten free etc) you need to be quite aware of what you’re using. Wholemeal flour tends to absorb more water than white flour so you need to keep this in mind if you’re converting a recipe from white to brown, or vice versa. The basics I try to keep around would be plain white flour (for pastries, batters etc), strong white flour (a must if you want to make bread), and self raising flour (for cakes). I also keep a selection of wholemeal flour, spelt flour, corn flour, ground almonds, ground maize and so on for knocking together brown breads and for using in place of flour when I’m making something that needs to be gluten free. I also keep a ready supply of baking powers, sodas and yeast on hand.

Salt sounds like an obvious thing to have in your kitchen, but scratch below the surface and you’ll find a huge array of options. I keep sea salt rocks in the salt grinder on the table, maldon salt for flaking into recipes, and a low sodium table salt for using in stocks, stews etc. Try a few different types as you go along and find the ones that work for you.

Dried goods can be so many different things, from fruits to pulses to pastas and rices. I keep a little bit of everything around, pasta and some leftover stew can be thrown together in no time to make a lovely filling dinner, rice and some leftover roast chicken in some Jamaican jerk sauce is a 10 minute snack, dried beans can bulk out a stew into something incredibly more-ish  and dried fruits can be whipped into a cake in next to no time.

Tinned goods fall into the same level of handiness as their dried counterparts. Who wants to spend the time chopping tomatoes when you can open a can of lovely fresh chopped ones? Ok, so if you’ve a glut of tomatoes in the garden then of course you’ll use them but if it’s the middle of winter and a storm if howling outside and you want a nice warming chilli then you’re not going to trek to the shop just for a few tomatoes to chop! Get a few cans in, buy organic if you can, and enjoy the fact that one step has been taken out of the work for you!

I’m sure there’s more but as I keep saying, you’ll get to know what it is that you like to eat and adjust what you keep in your kitchen accordingly. I would go off on a tangent about cheese but I know not everyone out there is the cheese hound that I am and since I rarely get to cook with it (my other half doesn’t eat it...sigh) all I do is scoff it with crackers and relish. Like everything else, buy the best you can afford, and enjoy it thoroughly.

That’s the main thing about cooking. Enjoy it. Cook what you like. Don’t think that you must cook this and you must eat that because so and so said blah, blah, blah. If your body needs it believe me it will let you know, and once you’re getting a little bit of everything then you shouldn’t  have to worry.

Eat. Survive. Flourish.