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
- 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
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.