Writing about food

I’d promised myself I would post something on this blog at least once every month, but last month failed to do so. My excuse (also to myself – nobody else is holding me to this target*) is that I’ve been writing, mainly about food, elsewhere. Visit Leeds Living to see where most of my energies have been directed. You can search ‘Thomas Chalk’ to find articles by me, or of course you can have a look at whatever’s current on there by whoever has been writing most recently.

* Not least because hardly anybody is reading this blog. Hello to those who are.

 

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Using up bits and pieces: butternut squash pasties

Not all cooking is planned. Sometimes there are things that need using up and you work around those. I have former colleagues from nearly a decade ago when I was a support worker who still refer fondly to what I called ‘fridge clearing soup’ (but that’s a different blog post).

I saw a chef on TV today repeating the maxim that first you go shopping to see what ingredients there are, then you write your menu. Today’s cooking was like that, except that instead of the finest seasonal produce and staged conversations with market traders while I lovingly fondled their produce, I had stuff in the fridge that needed using and a trip to the reduced price section of a supermarket. I’m responding to what’s available, true, but to call this ‘seasonal cooking’ would be like calling shoplifting ‘foraging’. Between working full-time, maintaining a social life and writing pieces for an online magazine (but that’s a different blog post, or rather a whole different website), I’d ended up with bits and pieces and no plan.

I’d acquired some ready-made puff pastry after a supermarket thought it was a viable alternative to filo in an online order (this was for a supper club, but that’s also a different blog post, and a whole different blog – I was just the sous chef). It had gone a day or two out of date. My fridge has of late been getting a touch funky with the smell of a cheese I picked up in the reduced price section of another supermarket a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to make a start on using it before it grew legs and made a bid for freedom. A trip to the reduced price section of yet another supermarket today yielded some peeled, sliced butternut squash.

In the true Ready Steady Cook spirit, I took these items that fate* had presented me with, combined them with some storecupboard** ingredients and got cooking.

* By ‘fate’ I mean disorganisation.

** I don’t think Ready Steady Cook’s ‘storecupboard’ included the onion, garlic, white port, tinned pulses and spinach that I also used; but these are indeed things I can generally be relied upon to have in (yes, including white port, at least at the moment: it lives in the fridge while I try and work out what else to do with it as there are lots of better things to drink).

 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH PASTIES
Makes four

  • 200g butternut squash, cut into roughly 1cm dice
  • An onion, finely chopped
  • Salt, pepper, dried thyme, nutmeg, mild chilli powder
  • A splash of white port (at a guess I used around 50ml)
  • 320g puff pastry sheet
  • 100g cheese – whatever needs using up before it develops sentience and declares your fridge a sovereign state
  • Something to glaze the top of the pasties – I didn’t have any eggs and there wasn’t much milk in the house, so I rubbed some yoghurt on with the back of a spoon and dusted with just a little chilli powder

butternut squash pasties under constructionI made a larger batch of the squash mix than in this recipe, and so have some leftovers in the fridge to use up. The Sisyphean cycle continues.

Over a medium heat, fry the squash in a wide pan with a lid on, stirring occasionally. The lid will encourage the squash to steam. Once it is just soft, set aside in a bowl and fry the onion in the same pan with a good pinch of salt and a little chilli powder until it is just soft. Add to the squash with a heaped teaspoon or so of thyme, a generous amount of black pepper, and some freshly grated nutmeg. Deglaze the pan with a splash of white port, allowing this to reduce by about half, and add to the squash. Mix everything together and leave to cool for ten or so minutes. Put the oven on at 200°C. Take the pastry out of the fridge to warm up a little.

Cut the pastry sheet into four pieces. Put a couple of tablespoons of the squash mixture on one half of each piece of pastry, lay on the cheese, add a little more of the squash mix, then fold the other halves of the pastry over. Crimp the edges, feeling free to make a neater job of it than I could be bothered to. Glaze. Pierce a couple of slits in the top to let steam – and, it turns out, some of the oozing melted cheese – escape. Bake for around 35 minutes.

I served these with butter beans and spinach cooked with some garlic and caraway seed. I added a dash of wine vinegar to the bean dish, but it could have done with more: the pasties have a good deal of sweetness; this works well with the pungency of the cheese, but the plate would have benefitted from an additional something to bring sourness. Pickle would have done the trick. Indeed, I have a nearly-empty jar lurking in the back of the fridge…

butternut squash pasties ready to eat

Cultural appropriation

I’ve been reading and thinking about cultural appropriation over the last couple of weeks. This was first prompted by my being given the – wholly erroneous, in my opinion – title of “the King of Curries”; and then by the coincidence of my writing a blog post about making a cheating version of rice and peas using a jerk spice mix, and (perhaps two or three days later) of Jamie Oliver getting grief on social media for selling a product called ‘jerk rice’.

“Reading about” cultural appropriation has not resulted in a meticulously-researched blog post complete with references; rather, I have dipped into a range of internet source materials, variously understood, half-understood or misunderstood them, and will proceed to riff on them with flagrant disregard for accuracy and authenticity and attribution. This is because I am a deeply postmodern blogger seeking to ironically embody ‘cultural appropriation’ through highly arch and meta writing, and not at all because I am lazy and can’t be bothered to go back and retrace my googlesteps. (More seriously, there are better blogs and articles out there than I can write; go and seek them if you are interested. You will find lots to agree with and lots to disagree with. You will hopefully find perspectives and ideas that would never have occurred to you. You will read many times over about how chillies originate in the Americas, not Asia. You will encounter the unironic use of the words “snowflake”, “Social Justice Warrior” and “butthurt” more than is necessary.)

Depending on which corner (or wing might be a better word…) of the internet you are reading, cultural appropriation is either a disrespectful or downright thieving adoption of elements of one culture by a more dominant culture, a continuation of colonialism; or a self-righteous, invertedly-racist misrepresentation of the natural cross-pollination of cultures that has happened since time immemorial when one group of early homo sapiens decided to copy the way another group of early homo sapiens wore their mammoth fur loincloths on a jaunty angle. I’m being simplistic here – most arguments on both sides are somewhat more subtle and nuanced than this. Though not all of them.

Much as I would love to be able to offer final arbitration on the subject – and the view from up here in my ivory tower does give me such wonderful perspective – it’s arguably not my place and definitely not my area of expertise. Rather, this blog post offers a few thoughts and fewer conclusions on the subject of culinary influence, appropriation and authenticity.

 

RICE AND PEAS

but is it rice and peas

Rice, and beans (aka peas)… it’s got rice and it’s got peas, but is it ‘rice and peas’?

The collective objections to Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice were threefold: ‘jerk’ is a marinade for meat, and as such there is no such thing as ‘jerk rice’; the central ingredients of a jerk mix are scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, and neither were used in the rice; and jerk is a part of African Caribbean culture and Jamie Oliver has no right to appropriate it for his own commercial ends.

Dawn Butler MP asked in a tweet whether Jamie Oliver actually knows what jerk is, and argued that it is not just a word you put before stuff to sell products; perhaps, she suggested, Levi Roots should give him a masterclass. I found a Levi Roots lesson on making jerk chicken and rice and peas. In his song at the end he suggests putting his Reggae Reggae sauce on, amongst other things, rice and peas. Reggae Reggae sauce is based on jerk spices (though it doesn’t use “jerk” in its name, in contrast to Jamie Oliver’s rice). So while ‘jerk rice’ may not be a thing, rice and peas and jerk spices are clearly an acceptable match, at least to Levi Roots when addressing an audience on behalf of a student housing company.

Reading about jerk rice, I found that Jamie Oliver had previously got grief for his recipe for joloff rice (a West African dish); and If I remember correctly, he has also been berated for putting chorizo in paella. Jamie, mate, step away from the rice!

On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be too much suggestion that culinary traditions are the sole preserve of the communities that spawned them, nor a lack of recognition that culinary traditions are near-always influenced by the ingredients and ideas of others. The objection is much more to ill-informed versions of things that seem to be claiming to be ‘the real thing’. As long as I don’t try to claim that my rice and peas dish is ‘authentic’, there shouldn’t be a queue of detractors lined up to berate me for it. I was under no illusion that the ‘jerk spice’ mix I used would pass muster with anyone steeped in the traditions of Jamaican cooking – it was a convenient way to add a bit of flavour to a dish cooked away from home with limited resources.

 

NOT THE KING OF CURRIES, NOR EVEN THE MINOR ROYAL OF CURRIES

A few days ago I sous cheffed for my second time at a Messy Cook supper club, and on the menu card that went out with one of the courses at this cheese-based edition of the supper club, Cath dubbed me ‘the King of Curries’. On the one hand, this is not an entirely serious bestowal of the title by Cath, but on the other it would be fair to say that to a great many of my friends I am heavily associated with cooking curry, and cooking it well.

curry at supper club

The curry course: malai koftas, saag paneer, and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and herbs. Photos by John Kane and Sofyanah Ramzan.

‘Curry’ is a term that is frequently used as a shorthand for food of the Indian subcontinent, and doesn’t begin to describe the rich complexity of the regional styles and traditions of this vast area. Again – there are better places to read about this than my blog; I make no claim to in-depth knowledge of these cuisines and their interconnectedness with wider cultures and histories, nor to any sort of ‘authenticity’.

In a previous post I’ve written about learning to cook and getting my love of spices from my dad (there is a longer version of this waiting to be written, about the spice cupboard at my parents’ house, and my favourite shop in Hull, Indian and Continental Stores, but that’s for another time). I am just a guy who loves to make tasty food, and who is told by the people he cooks for that what I make is delicious. I am inspired by food others have cooked and I have eaten, by food others have cooked and I have read about or seen on the telly, but most of all by twenty-some years of using spices, exploring the heady world of aromas and flavours.

It could be argued that I am a very British cook: British not in the cliched sense of over-boiled cabbage, but in the sense of being part of a long tradition of taking influences, magpie-like, from all over the place. Historically this is intertwined with colonialism, and the economics of modern global trade are still rooted in massive inequality and exploitation. As my curries have featured at a supper club (indeed, at two) where there were paying guests, does that count as cultural appropriation? Does my position in global socio-economic inequality remove my right to be part of the to-and-fro exchange of ideas and influences and ingredients that is inherent to just about every cuisine on the planet – be that highly-formalised ideas of the ‘right’ way to do things, or the home cook making something for dinner with whatever needs using in the fridge and the veg basket?

 

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE, AND YOUR LIMITATIONS

In another previous post, I reference cooking an epic curry feast which included a goat curry. My friend and colleague Aaron, who cooked this feast with me, is mixed race, and grew up eating curry goat made by his Jamaican grandmother. He asked if we were going to make curry goat, and I said that as I have very little knowledge of Jamaican cuisine I wouldn’t dare attempt it as there was no way I could make it like his grandmother. That I don’t really know how anybody’s grandmother would make a goat curry in India, Pakistan nor Bangladesh was not a concern, as neither would any of my guests come with expectations. But it felt that making a poor version of a dish someone at the table would know, would have a strong sense of familial, and perhaps cultural, connection to seemed like a bad idea.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that all grandmas in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would cook goat curry the same way. Quite possibly the same is true of curry goat.

 

AUTHENTICITY

‘Authenticity’ is a word that has come up several times in this blog post, and also came up quite a lot in the things I was reading about cultural appropriation. One point that was made several times is that there is arguably a fetishisation of ‘authenticity’ around [amongst other things] food. Think: the caricature of the [white, British] hipster expounding with claimed authority on the authenticity of whatever the latest food trend is to catch their eye; the stereotypical [white, British] gap year student who spent a few months backpacking and now denounces any mee krob that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-enlightened global-tribalist cherry-picked understanding. (For the record, ‘mee krob’ popped into my head from who knows where – I had to look it up to find out that it is a Thai noodle dish.) The key objection is that the knowledge of what is ‘authentic’ tends to be held in isolation. There is no understanding of – no interest in – the wider cultural resonances of the dishes; there is a voyeuristic quality to the restlessly-acquisitive seeking of the latest ‘new’ find. ‘Authentic’ experiences are tokenistically collected like ‘my Asian friend’.

 

IN CONCLUSION. OR NOT.

I’ve written far too many words in this blog post, and have failed to offer anything that might be a coherent position on cultural appropriation. Nor have I offered a defence of, or alternatively an apology for, my own cooking. I don’t especially feel that anybody is asking me for these, though (possibly because there are only about two of you out there reading my blog!?)

 

Peperoni alla suocera

I love to eat mezze-style, lots of interesting tasty dishes to mix and match and dip into (with a spoon or bread, that is). An array of the raw and the cooked, with lots of herbs, spices, lemon… food that neither knows nor cares if it is European-Mediterranean, North African, Persian, or, as is generally the case, a bastardised mish-mash of all three. Last week, cooking for friends on holiday, Cath and I included sweet potato patatas bravas [patatas dulces bravas or boniatos bravas would seem to be contenders for the title of this dish, using the internet].

A dish I return to frequently when cooking this sort of food is peperoni alla suocera. The proper Italian name would be peperoni agrodolce – bittersweet peppers – with the name I use being in honour of my ex-mother-in-law who first cooked me peppers this way. I remembered that I had a couple of photos on my phone from nearly a year ago when I was given a colleague’s excess of peppers from her veg box, and thought I’d put the recipe here.

This is not a time to skimp on the ingredients: cheap, thin-walled peppers lack the sweetness and heft to turn into a wonderfully rich, jammy dish. Better to find good peppers going cheap because they are reaching the end of their shelf life; or of course a friendly colleague whose partner doesn’t eat peppers.

peperoni alla suocera

Before and after: cooking makes the peppers soft, sweet, and slightly-out-of-focus…

I use around 9 or 10 standard sized peppers – a mix of red, orange and yellow. Cut these into large chunks. Care not a jot about the chunks being even-sized nor regular-shaped. Put them in a big non-stick skillet (mine is a foot across by two inches deep) with a lid. Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of oil and mix. You could sneak in a little chilli if you wanted.

Cook, covered, over a medium heat, stirring every five minutes or so. You need to tweak the heat so that when you take the lid off each time there is a little bit of liquid from the peppers collected, but not enough to completely cover the bottom of the pan. Ultimately it is a good thing if bits of them fry and go brown, but you don’t want to rush them. After about 45 minutes – or maybe more, depending on how high your medium heat is – you should have soft peppers, sticky with their own natural sugars. There definitely should be none with anything resembling bite. If quite a few pepper pieces have shed their skins, this is a good sign. You could try to pick the skins out, but I’d suggest this isn’t that sort of fancy cooking.

Cook for about five minutes more with a tablespoon or two of wine vinegar (or cider vinegar, or balsamic, or even pomegranate molasses). Stir the vinegar in and cook without the lid, steaming off any excess liquid so the peppers are sticky and glazed rather than wet. Serve hot, lukewarm, or at room temperature.

Cooking, not on gas

I’ve just returned from a holiday. We took a road trip to Wales and Bristol (and lots of points on the way to, from, nearby…). Much of the time was spent visiting people, but we also had a couple of days to ourselves, in a yurt in a secluded field just outside Llangenith. Cooking facilities were basic, but lent themselves well enough to a bit of pre-planned al fresco kitchen wizardry…

 

CAMPFIRE RICE AND PEAS WITH BAKED PLANTAINS

A few times recently I have made semi-cheating rice and peas. The cheating is the use of precooked, microwave rice and tinned beans. There are coconut varieties of the rice which work really well in this.

campfire rice and pea

Note the “pretending not to feel like a proud caveman” expression after cooking on open fire.

The plantains were peeled, and wrapped in foil with some oil and lime juice. I moved them around and turned them every so often to get them to cook evenly (half of one  of them stubbornly refused to do so for some reason, and was discarded – while not poisonous when raw as I have been led to believe, they are apparently not particularly nice). The blackened layer – which was not only edible but also delicious – came from a late-in-cooking stint on a smaller wire grill much closer to the fire to finish them off.

I fried up a couple of red onions until they were sweet and browned. I added some jerk spices – a mild dry spice mix rather than a fiery jerk marinade – and some chipotle paste. This smoked chilli paste was fortuitously given to me by my friend Liz when we visited her on an earlier leg of the road trip. A tin each of red kidney beans and black beans, with their liquid, were added and left to simmer and reduce.

The pan of water in the photos was heated and used to start the rice warming (at home it would have had a truncated stint in the microwave to get it most of the way hot). To say this was effective would be pushing it, in truth. The rice was mixed with the beans and the whole lot left to gently steam with a lid on on the edge of the fire. Two packs of rice and two tins of beans was far more than we needed, and a fair bit more than we ate, but there you go.

Rice and peas, baked plantains, and red wine from a self-consciously retro enamel mug. Hardly the caveman archetype of meat and fire, but hearty and tasty. I’d like to say it was so good that it brought a tear to my eye, but that was actually a shift in wind direction which blew campfire smoke at me.

 

HUEVOS CORNERSHOPOS

Breakfast the next morning (happy birthday Cath!) was a take on huevos rancheros. We’d had the real deal with Liz (she of the chipotle paste) a couple of breakfasts before.

huevos cornershopos

Baked beans, chipotle paste, eggs. Toast done over an open fire, somewhat miraculously not set alight nor turned to charcoal. Breakfast of champions.