A chef unearthed
Make the link between growing and cooking
The Ecologist, October 2007
I used to be a terrible cook. Ask any of my old housemates or former girlfriends. When I went to university at the age of eighteen I had, like plenty of men of my generation, been spoiled by my mother. I’d hardly ever cooked anything, except beans on toast, tins of soup and cakes – and that was at junior school. At university, forced to improvise on a miniscule budget, I lived on beans, toast and pasta, usually mixed with something called pesto, which one of my posher friends had introduced me to and which I regarded as extremely exotic.
And for the next decade, nothing much changed. I expanded my repertoire of pasta recipes from one to perhaps three. I learned how to do a stir fry. But that was about it. People kept giving me cookbooks for Christmas in a series of desperate hints, but the hints were never taken. I was young and free, and there were far more important things to do than learning how to make risotto. Plus, cooking generated washing up and there was no way I was even going there.
Nearly fifteen years on from my graduation, and I still don’t do the washing up unless I am threatened with physical pain. But I can cook. I don’t claim to be Gordon Ramsay (perhaps that’s why I’m still married) but I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. I have a small but manageable repertoire of proper dishes, and it’s expanding. I have cookbooks that are thumbed and pencilled. I have a growing file full of scraps of paper printed with recipes downloaded from websites. I make my own jam, chutneys, pickles, liqueurs and beer. I even have an apron, which I only wear when everyone is out because I would like to stave off middle age as long as possible.
There is one simple reason for this turnaround: I started growing my own food. Until I was 30, cooking was a tiresome but necessary evening task. At 30 I got my first allotment, and cooking became an adventure.
This is an aspect of food growing that, if you ask me, is not touched upon enough; what happens to the food once you’ve yanked it out of ground or popped it from the pod. Growing your own food has never been more popular in Britain . You can’t open a magazine without reading about allotments or organic gardening. At the same time, we are overpopulated with celebrity chefs (surely it must be time for a humane cull?) Few people, though, join the dots.
One of the best things that growing your own food will do to you is improve what you eat – and make enjoyable the experience of creating it. The reason is that you will have a real, almost religious, connection with your ingredients. If you have sweated for months to grow delicate yellow corn cobs or sweet, delicious peas, you are going to want to use them: every one of them. You are not going to want to waste a thing.
So you are going to want to learn how to turn it into something splendid. And you’re going to have to learn a few different ways of doing it, because you’re going to be faced with what we veg-growers affectionately know as ‘the glut.’ From November to March, not much grows. From March to June, you plant and sow. From July to October, everything comes at once: this is the glut, and however much you try and stagger your sowing times, you will not avoid it. In June, you will have lettuces coming out of your ears. In July, it will be peas, potatoes, carrots. In August, sweetcorn will be ready. So will the beans, beetroot, artichokes and courgettes. Next month, with the potatoes still coming, squashes and pumpkins will be ready. The beans will still be at it too. After a few months of this, you'll be longing for winter.
I've developed three basic strategies for dealing with the glut. The first is to learn to produce foodstuffs which last. Last year, for example, I made green tomato chutney. It's quite common for tomatoes to get blight, a fungal disease which prevents them from ripening. If you leave them on the vine, they go brown and die. But if you pick them early, while they’re still green, you can turn them into fantastic chutney. I also pickled beetroot and made jam out of strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants. I made ice cream out of gooseberries, more chutney out of marrows and marmalade out of onions. Best of all, I preserved blackberries and plums by dropping them into whisky and gin respectively.
The second strategy is to learn how to store what you don't immediately want. The most obvious way to do this is to freeze your excess. Unless you have a very big freezer, though, this is not going to be good enough on its own. Plus it's boring. So I bought myself a book (see below) which taught me how to hang onions, store carrots in boxes of sand, keep potatoes without them sprouting, and – best of all – clamp my roots. If you want to know what this means (it's less painful than it sounds), and I suggest you buy the book too.
Finally, though, there is nothing else for it but to think of imaginative ways to cook what I have. This requires something of a mind shift. The standard way of cooking in these seasonless times is to find a recipe you like, then go out and hunt through the supermarket for the ingredients. Want to cook asparagus in December or leeks in June? Never mind what’s nature’s up to – Tesco will provide. It’s a way of working which is blind to where you are and what the weather is doing.
If you grow your own, you learn to look at things differently. First you look at what is abundant – then you work out what to do with it. As you read this, for example, I might be working my way through a cheese and potato bake, a courgette risotto, an autumn casserole (herb dumplings included), or a beetroot soup (with or without bacon). To finish, I might have blackcurrant ice cream. Then I might wash it down with some plum gin.
I need to stop now; this is actually making me hungry. Tonight, in a nod to the old times, I think I might knock up a pumpkin pasta with rosemary. No pesto required.
- How to store your garden produce , by Piers Warren (Green Books), is an excellent little guide.
- The ever excellent Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage website has a great section on seasonal recipes. Sensitive vegetarians might like to beware: www.rivercottage.net/SeasonalRecipes/Default.aspx
- Vegbox Recipes is a good site about seasonal cooking. It even helps you identify veg you’re not quite sure about. http://vegbox-recipes.co.uk