Friday 8 April 2011

Wild In The Kitchen

The Low Carbon Cookbook crew has been meeting each month now since last September. As well as cooking and sharing food, we’ve also been placing our attention on its ecological footprint, where the ingredients come from, how they are produced and how they get here. So far we’ve been gathering material and experience (including keeping a seasonal veg growers' diary) and in the coming months we’ll be starting to bring the book into shape. At the March meeting each of us spoke about a particular cooking oil we had researched. But not before dinner, which included a Spring salad of 24 wild, garden and fregan leaves, flowers and sprouts. And steamed alexanders.

“I’m sure you said you liked alexanders, Kerry.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say like…”
“No, but I have brought some along,” said Erik.
We looked at the slim stalks and our noses turned up ever so slightly though, brave and worthy foragers that we are, we tried not to let it show. Then we burst out laughing. And put them on the stove.

It seemed no one was terribly keen on the taste of alexanders stalks. I know I wasn’t. And I hated to admit it because they are a very low carbon food growing all over my garden and everywhere on the East Anglian coast. Well, Richard Mabey must have a secret we didn’t have.

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) are in the carrot family, and quite similar to angelica (in East Anglia they are often called angelica, in fact, which confused me when I first came here). The true angelica (Angelica archangelica) flowers much later in July and August. Alexanders are just coming into flower now with their yellow umbel heads and extraordinary honey-scent.

The flowers will later give way to hard black aromatic seeds. I have dried and ground these and used them sparingly in potato or vegetable curry. Like the seeds of many other members of the carrot family (e.g. cumin, coriander, celery, anis) they are pungent - you can get a sense of the taste by crushing one and smelling it.

The alexanders tasted quite good in the end and we ate them like asparagus (though they'll never be asparagus). The key is to pick only the young slim stalks and don’t even think about it if they are in flower.

Well, I think Alexanders has conquered quite enough of the attention in this piece. There were other things going on that evening. Like chickweed omelette, and the sprouting broccoli and alfalfa with fenugreek – you were right Kerry, fenugreek sprouts are definitely to be eaten in moderation – my shirts and vests were still a reminder of my overindulgence three days later!!! (And an increase in clothes-washing could damage my low-carbon credentials).

You could feel the salad of wild and garden flowers and leaves with voilets, purslane, dandelion and cleavers entering right into your system and doing your body the whole world of Spring good. It seemed like the first time in ages I’d sat down to eat properly. And Bee’s home-produced plums were the best dessert.

Afterwards we spoke about our research on those oils we used in cooking and salads – sunflower, sesame, rapeseed, olive and hemp. There were some fascinating revelations. But that’s for the book.

As I write this (early morning) I can hear Charlotte downstairs preparing lunch. Her colleagues on the One World Column are coming down and afterwards we’re off to the community centre to show them how to use Blogger. And that nettle soup is going to get us all galvanised…

Pics: Dandelion, cleavers, nettle (for tea) and 24 wild and garden leaves; blooming alexanders; spring beauty aka miner's lettuce or wild purslane by Mark Watson

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