If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. J.R.R.Tolkien
When Roger was away for three weeks recently, the time of day I least liked to spend alone was early evening. This is because usually, whatever we have been doing during the day, we stop and prepare our evening meal together and it just didn’t feel right to be cooking for one on my own. We have always cooked from scratch, even when we were both working full time, and our family evening meal was a treasured time to sit down with our children and share food and tales of the days’ activities. Now, with a simpler and slower lifestyle, we can spend as much time as we like planning, preparing and enjoying our meals together . . . and that is a very precious thing.
The starting point for our meals is always what’s good in the garden. From the very first salad leaves, baby peas and broad beans, so tender and spring sweet, to parsnips and squash, the starchy heavyweights of late autumn and winter, our menu planning starts here.
We are not vegetarians but we eat a lot of vegetarian food, and even where meals involve meat and fish, the vegetables are never just a side dish playing second fiddle. How could they possibly be when they have so much to offer? So fresh: from plant to plate in the shortest time, we measure in food footsteps rather than miles. So organic: give me a few tiny slugs to wash out of a lettuce than something that’s been sprayed and triple washed any day. So nutritious: five-a-day is not a problem – in fact, it’s more likely to be eight, ten, fifteen . . . So natural: no such thing as standardised here, our veg come in all sorts of strange shapes, colours and sizes – that’s all part of the fun. So delicious: the flavour of sun-kissed, rain-washed, frost-sharpened homegrown vegetables is beyond compare. So – truly wonderful!
I have to confess to being a bit of a hunter-gatherer by nature – well, a gatherer anyway. I love to wander about foraging for good things to eat, whether it be wild food or things we’ve grown in the garden. The process is the same wherever: basket in hand, lifting leaves, pulling roots, rummaging about in vegetation, sniffing, squeezing, picking, nibbling, grazing. Awakening the senses to the pure pleasure of fresh food: what better way is there to begin making a meal? I love the fact that no two baskets are ever the same, especially at this time of year when there is so much to choose from. The veg might all come from the same patch but that doesn’t mean we are eating the same old thing every day.
So to the kitchen, and when it comes to food preparation we do tend to be a bit maverick in our approach. Why not? Recipes are great as guidelines and there are literally millions of fantastic ones out there, but I believe cooking should be about enjoyment and pleasure and freedom, experimenting with textures and flavours, trying new and maybe crazy ideas, above all having fun. Surely one of life’s greatest pleasures is to prepare food with love, not gritted teeth and a furrowed brow? The kitchen has always been the heart of our home and here in our little mountain house it is no exception. The rest of the house is still barely more than a rundown hovel but the kitchen is king, designed for happy cooking moments and the general chaos that ensues when we both roll up our sleeves and get down to business. Windows thrown open to the mountain air, knives chopping, spoons stirring, music playing, chatting and laughter as somehow and at some point a meal is created: this is what makes our house a home.
When it comes to dishes, we tend to take a basic recipe and make changes to it to suit ourselves or we simply make it up as we go along. Roger’s favourite comment is that he has no idea what he is doing but ‘something will happen’ . . . and something invariably does. Occasionally it’s something we don’t feel like repeating (!) but more often that not it ends in a meal that looks and tastes lovely. We are great fans of meals that consist of lots of little dishes (think mezze, tapas, smorgasbord . . . ); true, there’s a fair bit of preparation involved but they are well worth the effort and usually result in plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day. There is so much fun involved in looking at the raw ingredients and planning what to do with them.
Where using fresh vegetables in this way is concerned, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtall’s River Cottage Veg Everyday! is a great starting point and inspiration, especially as Hugh encourages readers to take his recipes and change and experiment with them as they like. River Cottage Veg Everyday! Our copy is much used, much loved and much thumbed!
Here, then, is a typical kind of meal we like to make and eat – those marked with an asterisk are based on recipes from the book above:
Beetroot and carrot salad (grated raw with orange zest, olive oil, toasted walnuts and cumin seed) *
Green salad of Little Gem lettuce, French beans, courgettes, peas, basil and oregano.
Red and green peppers cooked in olive oil with garlic, onion, green olives and basil.
French beans (steamed) and courgettes (raw) in an Asian-style chilli dressing.
White bean and chickpea hummus *
Broad bean dip (cooked and cooled beans blitzed in a food processor with lemon zest and juice, mint and olive oil).
The peppers and white beans were shop-bought but in a few weeks’ time we will be harvesting our own. The broad bean dip (completely scrumptious and definitely recommended) used up the last fat beans of the season and the beetroot and carrot salad saw the first of this year’s young juicy roots. There was a platter of cheeses and chorizo on offer but I didn’t feel the need. What a wonderful colourful seasonal celebration on a plate! How very blessed we are.
Mmm . . . so what will be in tomorrow night’s basket, I wonder?! 🙂