Beige food and I

Beige shades

As a child I had an aversion to brown wallpaper – the result, I think, of moving aged 4 1/2 into a new house previously owned by an elderly couple. It was the mid-eighties and everything was brown – some lighter, some darker, but still brown and to my mind oppressive and stuffy. As an adult, I have a similar aversion, but this time it’s beige not brown and food not furnishings. Loyal readers may recall my casual reference to this in last week’s post about Christmas parties. When my other half, loyally reading it, enquired, ‘What’s so wrong with beige food?”, I realised that to save this point – potentially central to my “food philosophy” – from the bottomless pit of obscure blog references, it required elaboration.

Let’s be clear. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with beige food. Indeed, some beige foods are entirely necessary: brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, oats, buckwheat, millet, and for the carnivorously inclined, chicken and turkey … all nutritious and useful.  So with what am I taking issue? Two things. 

The first  – particularly relevant to buffets – is when non-beige foods are disguised as beige foods just for parties. You need only browse Marks & Spencer’s buffet webpage to see what I am talking about. I can only speculate that at some point in the last 30 years a food marketer decided that there was a huge untapped market in finger food and that the secret to making normal, nutritious food into finger food was to wrap it in batter, bread or pastry (all beige, you’ll note). Battered prawns, sausage rolls, mini Yorkshire puddings, savoury muffins, spring rolls … Quiches, which can be relatively nutritious if well made, fall somewhere in the middle, especially if pasty is kept to a minimum. Mini quiches, however, are as bad as the rest – just think of all that extra padding on the food and being swallowed down by the people who eat them. Many of the individual ingredients could have been really rather nice, had they not been encased in a much too thick and salty layer of beige.

Understandably, I became curious in the history of the pie. As the story goes, in its small individual form the pie was not originally party food, but convenient food for journeys. Long before the invention of cling film, tupperware or even aluminium foil, but some time after the invention milling and therefore bread, people used pastry (bread with fat mixed in) for taking baked meats and vegetables with them to work – just think of Cornish pasties and those meat pies you can buy at half-time at football matches. Bigger, more resplendent pies with a richer pastry casing were, by contrast, baked as centre pieces of great feasts – whether filled with birds or fruit. Yes, party food of sorts, but the pie’s pastry was there to celebrate the inner contents, not to save people washing up.

My second issue is the quantity of beige foods many people eat. As the nutritionally savvy of you will notice, the foods on the good beige list (excluding chicken and turkey) are carbohydrates, some with greater nutritional merit than others. This, as always, is a question of individual preference, but I know I feel better with at least a little carbohydrate in my diet, and believe most people would be advised not to do entirely without – especially if they’re sporty. But, I feel pretty dreadful if carbohydrate is all I eat. Imagine a meal comprising only of potato and bread (chip butty for lunch anyone?). Your energy levels would spike and slump like the Himalayas. You’d also be missing out on all sorts of important minerals and vitamins. A plate full of beige food is rather a depressing culinary sight, but a little beige mixed with a few vibrant vegetables and an incredibly pretty soft boiled egg or two, suddenly gives you something worth eating. (Purists will note that some dieticians advise against eating starchy foods with protein – again it’s up to you.) 

In the great global scheme, my aversion to beige is a trivial point, but there is something in it which encapsulates many of my ideas on food – that it should strive to be as simple, nutritious and beautiful as possible. These days, most things and most people would do much better without that extra layer of pastry. So perhaps a return to small measures of beige food and earlier ideas on pies would be a good thing, and perhaps in doing so, we can leave party food unpastried, unbreaded and unbattered. 

Finally, a recipe – in case you are asked to contribute to a Christmas buffet. It is not a pie and does require forks – so bring your own with you.

Roasted sprouts with pomegranate seeds 

Roasted sprouts

Ingredients

  • A bag of brussels sprouts 
  • 4 shallots 
  • 150g quinoa or brown rice 
  • Cumin seeds 
  • Salt and pepper 
  • Olive oil 
  • Cider vinegar 
  • 1 garlic clove 
  • Pomegranate seeds 
  • Fresh coriander

 Method 

Heat the oven to 180C. Trim and halve the sprouts and put into a big roasting dish. Roughly chop the shallots and add to the dish. Sprinkle with a little salt, roughly two teaspoonfuls of cumin seeds and some pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and give it all a good stir until well coated. Put into the oven and leave for about 45 mins to cook, though do remember to stir again halfway through. 

Meanwhile, cook the rice or quinoa. Boil the water and add the rinsed grain. When there is just the tiniest bit of bit left to the grain, drain in a sieve. Then rest the sieve over the pan (now off the heat), place a clean tea towel over the top, put the pan lid on top of this to seal and then leave to steam until everything else is prepared. 

On to the dressing. Grate a glove of garlic into a small jar, squeeze in the juice of one lemon. Add three teaspoons of cider vinegar and three to four of olive oil. Finely chop the coriander and add this to the jar too. Screw the lid tightly onto the jar and give the mixture a really good shake until the fat and acids have emulsified. 

By this point, your sprouts should be well roasted – ideally, very soft and browned at the edges. Scrape these into a big salad bowl (taking care to capture as many of the delicious toasted cumin seeds as you can) and add the quinoa or rice on top. Pour on all of the dressing and stir it gently together, making sure the dressing is well mixed through. If it looks a little dry, add a squeeze more lemon juice and perhaps a drop or two of olive oil. Finally, sprinkle your pomegranate seeds over the top and gently stir again. Serve warm or cold – either is delicious. 

If you wanted nothing beige at all – leave out the quinoa or rice and add some crumbled feta instead.

Advent and the Art of Indulgence

christmas tree drawings

Forget John Lewis’ penguin, a new seasonal madness has gripped the nation – well, the nation’s health food bloggers at least. Wherever you turn, you are earnestly called to sprinkle your porridge with wheatgrass, add turmeric to your tea and slather your face with coconut oil. Advent is a feast of supplements, a sort of religious devotion to external and internal perfection, presented as your only hope of hanging up your Christmas stocking muffin-top free.

At this juncture, it is interesting to look at the ingredients in Asda’s Rich Fruit Mince Pies (12.5p per pie) – a mouth-watering mixture to be washed down with cheap sparkling wine at many a Christmas party …

Sugar, Apple, Glucose Syrup, Currants, Sultanas, Raisins, Glucose-fructose Syrup, Vegetable Oil, Orange Peel, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Preservatives (Acetic Acid, Sodium Metabisulphite, Potassium Sorbate, Sulphur Dioxide), Malt Extract (From Barley), Lemon Peel, Invert Sugar Syrup, Apricot, Mixed Spice, Sugar Syrup, Dextrose, Citric Acid, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrates), Natural Flavouring, Wheat Flour, Vegetable Oil, Glucose Syrup, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Sugar, Dextrose, Salt, Raising Agents (Diphosphates, Sodium Bicarbonate), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate). Continue reading

Lunch at Silo

(1) Doug door

Founder and Head Chef Douglas McMaster opening Silo’s door

 

Light the fireworks and pop the champagne: Of Slender Means returns. The inspiration that broke my six-month social media hiatus? Lunch at Silo – Brighton’s newest and hottest lunch spot.

Apart from a visit to a raw food cafe in San Francisco (the place of dreams) in 2009, I am not sure I have ever left a restaurant feeling so wonderfully light and so resoundingly happy to have spent my money there. In both concept and execution, Silo – which describes its food as “pre-industrial” and itself as the first zero-waste restaurant – is a dining miracle. The simplicity, sustainability, and creativity permeating its ethos are so close to the ambitions of this blog (though Silo founder and head chef Douglas McMaster – former BBC Young Chef of the Year, with St John and Noma on his CV – admittedly has the upper hand in culinary talents and compost systems … ) I felt the restaurant had almost been created for me. Just reading the menu on Silo’s website had my mouth watering – freshly caught fish, fermented brown rice risotto, beetroot juice, seaweed salsa … Continue reading

Spoiling

Peaches 2When a child throws himself on the floor and wails because he cannot have what he wishes for, we wrinkle up our noses and mutter to ourselves disapprovingly, “spoilt brat”. This is no compliment; look up “to spoil” in the dictionary and you’ll find “to diminish or impair the quality or character by excessive indulgence.” But why the lesson in language?

Cast your eye over your Facebook feed until you find that frequently used post-birthday refrain, “Thanks everyone, I had a lovely day and feel well and truly spoilt”. In being spoilt, it seems, we feel loved and cherished. The act of spoiling is something to be celebrated – and it’s this new, positive use of the word, which I believe is so revealing about our relationship with food. Continue reading

An ode to strawberries

Strawberry plant 1

We have been feasting on strawberries. Each day, I walk to the strawberry seller at the end of our road and buy a kilo for 5 euros. A third of these I take with me for the children to eat on the way home from nursery. The rest we devour at the end of our evening meal – a great bowlful in the middle of the table, green stalks cast off on our dirty plates.

One of the most evocative fruits (though pedants among you will say they are not really fruits at all – bearing their seeds on the outside and being only accessories to these), summer without strawberries is hard to imagine. Quartered and sugared with a dollop of cream, or rinsed and left with the stalks on, the sight of these plump red jewels conjures up an array of images: a hot day in the fields with friends; the cool shade of the living room with the thwack of the tennis ball on the telly; scones with Granny as the summer rain drips down outside the art gallery window; pudding in the late fading light in the back garden; one more glass of warm Pimm’s by the river before the university holidays start. Continue reading

In the children’s play centre

Orange junk food

Being away may make me neglect writing this blog, but not thinking about it. Its original intent guides me through most days and leaves me scribbling notes on napkins. One such stained and biro-covered beauty, which I shall recount here, happened to be from a children’s play centre we visited out of desperation on the very wettest day of our recent trip. Big bumpy slides, snot-smeared ball pools, luminous cushion-covered climbing frames – you know the scene.

On arrival, despite their mother’s preference for back gardens, my two four-year-olds went racing off with excited screeches to clamber over squashy purple triangles and throw themselves head first down the least terrifying slide they could find. I chose a seat and took out my book, only to be too distracted to read. Continue reading

Talk about food – or salmon for dinner

Wild Salmon 2The purpose of food has become hazy. As I see it, this ‘purpose’ (too grand a word perhaps) is twofold: providing our bodies with the best possible fuel available; and, with its taste, smell, and appearance, providing us with a great sensual pleasure. For this haziness, our busy lives are partly at fault, as they leave us no time to prepare or even think about food. But the language of food marketing, full of false promises and hyperbole, should take some of the blame – and is, indeed, my main concern here. Continue reading