Fight for your right to parsnip

Last week I was inspired, infuriated and energized at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). This is the third ORFC to take place during the same week as (and right across the street from) the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).

Magdalen College, Oxford

The site of this year's Oxford Real Farming Conference, Magdalen College

The ORFC is about innovations and activism related to growing healthy, tasty food without destroying rural communities, the soil and human and animal health. The OFC is about growing more food more intensively, and is sponsored by investment banks, agribusiness companies and pillars of healthy eating such as McDonalds.

Of course, the OFC wasn’t just a bunch of baddies meeting to decide how to make us buy more fizzy drinks and destroy local food markets. They allowed a few people to discuss things like sustainable agriculture. That was so nice of them.

Be a local yokel

While I could just hang my head and cry into my fair-trade coffee about the very depressing state of the global food system, I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on taking action.

Turl St Kitchen

Home of fantastic and affordable local and seasonal food in Oxford: Turl Street Kitchen. I ate here twice during the ORFC and am now officially addicted.

Some of the clear messages from the ORFC were to buy locally produced food and cut out the middle men (er, middle people) by buying from farmer’s markets or direct from growers (such as through a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm – find one near you in the US  or UK).

Another important message was to inspire people to go back to the land, especially young people, thus encouraging a generation of young farmers.

For the rest of us, we need to rediscover the “lost arts”: learning about the foods grown or raised in our region, cooking and preserving those foods, baking bread, sharing meals at home, and just generally getting back into the kitchen or garden (this applies to women and men).

Raiders of the lost arts

Part of rediscovering the “lost arts” involves learning about vegetables we’re unfamiliar with, don’t know how to cook, or dislike because we’ve had them badly prepared. This includes the mushy canned spinach you had in the school cafeteria, and Brussels sprouts, which I hated as a child but now adore (if they’re fresh).

Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats cheese bake

One local vegetable that has always perplexed me is Jerusalem artichokes. But today I had a scrumptious Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats' cheese bake at Turl Street Kitchen. I hope to try making a version of this at home.

Local eating requires local knowledge, something that’s been lost as the sources of our food have moved further and further away from where we live. A great way to learn is to ask the sellers at farmer’s markets how to cook the things they grow. You can do this at a butcher’s, too, if they’re selling locally produced meats (and find out how to cook weird and wonderful parts of animals that our ancestors coveted).

In an effort to inspire your adventures in the “lost arts”, I’m offering a hearty vegetarian risotto recipe using winter root vegetables. I love risotto, but when I think about making it I immediately remember the 20+ minutes I’ll need to stand and stir over the stove. Fortunately, this recipe is done in the oven, and I was impressed by how rich it tasted despite the lack of stirring.

Winter vegetable risotto

I’ve made risotto often in the spring and summer with spring greens, aubergine (eggplant) or courgette (zucchini), but I hadn’t experimented much with using the muddy root vegetables we get this time of year. The recipe I’m sharing is adapted from one at I substituted sweet potato for the swede (aka rutabaga — though sweet potatoes aren’t grown very widely here in the UK, so swede is usually a better option). I also added garlic, and used parmesan-style cheese instead of the special sheep’s cheese they recommend. Feta or another rich white cheese would have been very good, but I used what was in the fridge (try it with a cheese made locally!).

While it takes about an hour and a half to make this, most of that is with the dish in the oven, unattended. So it may not be a quick option for after work during the week, but perfect if you’re pottering around the house on a weekend.

What you’ll need

250 grams (about 1-1/2 cups) each sweet potato (or swede/rutabaga), celeriac and carrots

2 small red onions

Several cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

A handful of fresh sage leaves (or use a couple of teaspoons dried)

175 grams (or just over 3/4 cup) of Arborio risotto rice

150 ml (just over 1/2 cup) of dry white wine

500 ml (2 cups) of hot vegetable stock (I used a vegetarian bouillon)

100g (1 cup) parmesan-style (or other) cheese (try feta, or whatever’s local)

How to do it

Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F, gas mark 6). Wash and peel the vegetables and cut into 2-cm (or just smaller than 1 inch) pieces. Peel and quarter the onions. Peel the garlic.

Veg ready to roast

Sweet potato, carrots, celeriac, garlic and red onion, ready to roast. After 40 minutes or so, add other risotto ingredients and cook 35 minutes.

Place the veggies in a large, shallow baking dish or tin, toss with olive oil to coat, sprinkle over chopped sage. Place in the oven for 35-45 minutes, stirring once or twice during the cooking. Next, add the rice, wine and hot stock and return to the oven for 35 minutes, stirring once.

Remove from the oven and stir in the cheese (add a hunk of butter if you like it really creamy, a la Jamie Oliver). Add salt and pepper to taste.

The original recipe suggests you eat this with a tomato and onion salad, but it’s winter, and tomatoes are grown in summer. Instead, try this lovely recipe from the very tasty and creative blog Not Eating Out in New York: Raw carrot and parsnip salad.


Greens not greed

Nothing makes me lose my appetite like a big food company that stomps on the little guy, especially when that little guy is holding one of my favourite vegetables: kale.

Kale for sale at East Oxford Farmers Market

Kale for sale by Clay's Organic Farm, at the East Oxford Farmer's Market (, one of the top 3 community markets in Britain

American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A has a catchy advertising campaign featuring cows holding up a sign reading ‘Eat mor chikin’, and they’re suing a small Vermont t-shirt printer because he makes t-shirts and stickers that say ‘Eat More Kale’.

This Vermonter, Bo Muller-Moore, first designed the t-shirts at the request of two local farmers who were growing and selling kale. Apparently, Chik-fil-A’s lawyers are afraid that we, the eating public, will get confused and mistake the advice to eat kale for the message about eating more overly processed chicken sandwiches (see: Eat More Kale. Just Don’t Confuse It With Chikin. | Common Dreams).

‘What the cluck’?

I remember Chick-fil-A from when I worked at the Woodville Mall in Northwood, Ohio. After a long day flogging jeans at the County Seat, or panty hose at Parklane Hosiery, I would enjoy a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich and waffle fries with lots of ketchup. In fact, Chick-fil-A’s success seems to be in part its drive to populate shopping malls from sea to shining sea with its shops. Mmmm … shopping mall food … a guilty pleasure.

I’m all for occasional guilty pleasures, but when Chick-fil-A starts messing with a vegetable as beloved to me as kale, I draw the line. It seems I’m not the first person to slam Chick-fil-A for some of its practices: Organic Authority and Eat Me Daily beat me to it. In fact, my literary stylings are no match for some of the clever headlines about this issue from other sources, for example: What the Cluck, Chick-fil-A? (from a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) press release) and Chick-fil-A Sues Hippie Because They Are Insufferable Assholes (from Gawker).

In my view, Chick-fil-A is doing a disservice to kale (not to mention small farmers and locally owned businesses). By selling heart-disease-friendly foods using the captivatingly misspelled refrain  ‘Eat mor chikin’, they may also be damaging the hearts and spelling skills of today’s youth. And their representation of cows as advocates for eating chicken suggests something disturbing about the consciousness of farm animals, and begs the question: if chickens could advocate, who would they tell you to eat?

Curly kale close up

Curly kale glamour shot

Leafy greens, southern lawmakers and the NBA

While I consider myself something of a kale enthusiast, I didn’t even know what kale was until I was in my 20s. In my Yankee family, ‘greens’ were lettuce. When I moved to Cincinnati, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, I discovered that collard and mustard greens, as well as kale, are part of the culinary heritage of the south (so much so that, just a few months ago, South Carolina voted to make collard greens the official State leafy green … not the best example of critical policymaking, but a great boost for the humble green). I even met a former professional basketball player from the Deep South who moved north and lamented the absence of collard greens. When he retired, he bought a farm in Wisconsin to grow nothing but collard greens.

I was enchanted by the nutritional value of greens and the multitude of ways they can be prepared. My then-boyfriend and I planted Seeds of Change Red Russian Kale, an heirloom variety, in our community garden (aka allotment) in Cincinnati. The seeds started producing small leaves in the early spring (which can be eaten raw in salads), and kept producing big, hardy crimson-veined leaves until they were covered in snow in December. We planted a 3 foot by 6 foot bed with the seeds, which was way too much. So we became skilled at finding ways to cook kale.

Kale burgers. Kale burritos. Kale and pasta. Stir-fried kale. Crispy kale side-dish. White bean and kale soup. I could go on, but won’t. Instead, I’ll share with you my favourite kale recipe, which is an adaptation of the Sunday’s at Moosewood ‘Ziti with Chard’. I call it …

… ‘Whatever-Kind-of-Pasta-You-Have with Kale’

Removing the leaves from curly kale

How to easily remove the leaves from curly kale

First, prepare your kale. My favourite is the curly-leaf variety, rather than the black russian kale, but it’s all good. One thing I love about the curly leaf kind – compared to many other types of greens – is how easy it is to remove the stalks. Just grab the stalk at its base with one hand, and run the index finger and thumb of your other hand up along the stalk to shear off all the leaves. Rinse your kale, but leave some of the water on the leaves to help it steam while cooking. Chop it coarsely.

Next, cook your pasta.

Meanwhile, in a skillet heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and throw in several chopped cloves of garlic and a dried chilli. You can let the garlic get a bit brown if you like, then throw in the chopped kale. Put a lid on the skillet and cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the kale is bright green and just getting a bit wilted. I don’t like to overcook my kale, so 10 minute would probably be too much. Season with salt and lots of black pepper.

When the pasta and kale are done, spoon pasta onto your plate, top with the kale and garlic sauté, drizzle with more olive oil, top with chopped fresh tomatoes (**see disclaimer), squeeze on some lemon juice, and grate on some hard cheese (e.g., Parmesan).

**Disclaimer: this recipe contains fresh tomatoes, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, I don’t recommend (in fact, I object to) buying tomatoes at this time of year. Those pale red things they sell in the supermarket, the ones they call tomatoes, well, that’s not what this recipe requires. So do me a favour and try this without the tomatoes, or wait to make it until next summer. Better yet, try this recipe from the BBC, which is pretty similar but without tomatoes.

Here’s another recipe to try: Pumpkin, kale and chicken curry.

Eating in the “Rainbow Nation”: South Africa

Table Mountain and the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town

Table Mountain rises dramatically from the middle of Cape Town. This is a view from the colourful, (mostly) Muslim neighbourhood of Bo Kaap.

After a blogging hiatus, I’m sipping a steaming cup of Rooibos (red bush) tea on a cool English morning. I wasn’t a big fan of Rooibos until two weeks ago — when I sipped it at its source: South Africa. During the short trip, I greeted each day with a cup of the smoky red brew, and somehow it just tasted better there, especially while gazing up at Table Mountain, the centerpiece of Cape Town. I also found Rooibos yogurt, which has red flecks suspended in thick, honey-sweetened creaminess. I ate it in large quantities – because it tasted great, but also to care for my sensitive tummy, which isn’t nearly as adventurous as the rest of me when it comes to travel (let’s just say, Muhammad Ali’s wasn’t the only rumble in the jungle).

This short trip (for work and pleasure) was packed with food adventures. They ranged from an ultra-posh farmers markets serving ostrich breakfast burgers and kudu biltong (antelope jerky), to simple pap or samp (corn meal porridge) and beans at a place with a single table in the heart of Cape Town. There was fish on the braai (barbecue) with 20 members of the Port Elizabeth Wolves Football (i.e., soccer) Club seniors team, and fresh strawberries eaten while watching whales at De Hoop Nature Reserve. There were also koeksisters, syrupy sweet twisted donut strips, bought at the inaugural farmer’s market in Mossel Bay, to the background sounds of the Indian Ocean crashing into the rocky coastline. Nelson Mandela famously ate koeksisters during lunch with the widow of the architect of Apartheid, an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation in what is still – nearly two decades after the end of apartheid – a divided country.

Strawberries and whale watching - De Hoop

Strawberries and whale watching at De Hoop Nature Reserve

Africa is a big country [sic]

I’ll share many of these adventures in future posts, but for now, I’ll just tell you about a food education I received while awaiting some (delectable) chicken and pap (cornmeal porridge, served in a lump that looks like a cloud) at a humble place called Yoggata Mini Kitchen. This was the place with one table, tucked away behind a women’s craft market on Long Street. Outside the market was a small sandwich board advertising foods we didn’t recognize, but which sounded like traditional African food … or at least our idea of African food.

In truth, we had no idea because we’d never been to Africa before (except north of the Sahara), and were relying on advice from our guide book and our imaginations, influenced by films and books. And of course … Africa is a really big place. Any notion we had of ‘African food’ was bound to be dashed by the diversity of the continent, not to mention South Africa’s unique status in Africa: it has the continent’s largest economy and the largest communities of people of European and Asian descent. Plus, Cape Town was first settled by Europeans in the 1600s, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that modern European fare was on offer everywhere we looked, including sandwiches and salads, pizzas and burgers, pastas and even a Mexican cantina serving cheap tequila shots.

Pap my ride

Yoggata table

The communal table at Yoggata Mini Kitchen, Long Street, Cape Town (behind the African Women's Craft Market)

Despite the realization that modern South African cuisine did not coincide with my romantic daydreams about ‘Africa’ (which were largely influenced by the soft-rock stylings of Toto and the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ … neither of which has anything to do with South Africa), I was still keen to try something new. So when we came across the sign for Yoggata Mini Kitchen, we were intrigued. We walked through the colourful stalls packed with crafts and dangling with beaded jewelry, all the way to the back, where we found a dozen shops constructed from largely unadorned white walls, lighted by brash fluorescent bulbs, and mostly without signs to tell us what they were offering.

The barber trimming a man’s hair in the first shop was obvious, and we guessed that the next shop was serving food as we saw people walking out with wrapped bundles. Next was a place staffed by Rastafarians printing t-shirts, and finally our destination: Yoggata Mini Kitchen. It was decorated with brightly-coloured curtains and table settings, complemented by a warm greeting from the owner Phyllis Melane. She offered help understanding the menu, and then invited us to take a seat at the single plastic table. We had pap and fried chicken (with crispy, well-seasoned skin that I couldn’t get enough of), samp and beans, and curried vegetables. It cost about GBP4 ($6) for two filling meals.

lamb - pap - beans - veg at Yoggata Mini Kitchen

Lamb stew, pap (cornmeal porridge), beans and vegetables

It was so good we returned the next day. This time we were joined at the communal table by a couple from the Caribbean, who were in South Africa visiting their nephew. The nephew (a lecturer at the local university) sat down next to us. Just before tucking into his steaming plate of lamb stew and pap, he reiterated something I’d read: that Cape Town, among all of South Africa’s cities, is the least integrated, with black, white and coloured (mixed-race) people still inhabiting their own milieus to a large extent. And this extends to its food culture or, more accurately, its food cultures.

So the ‘traditional’ local food you can find in Cape Town and around might be African, like what we were eating at Yogatta; it might be ‘settler’ – mostly Dutch and British, but also German; or it could be Cape Malay, which largely came from the Indonesian or Javan slaves brought to Cape Town hundreds of years ago by the Dutch East India Company. Cape Malay includes South Asian foods (which we might think of in the US as ‘Indian’), such as samosas (samoosas) and curries. And of course, today there is the smattering of other non-traditional cuisines you’d see in any modern city in the world: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Portuguese (we were rarely far from a Nandos chain restaurant), Spanish and many more.

Cape Town’s food cultures

Roti sign in Bo Kaap neighbourhood

A sign for the diverse foods on offer in one Cape Town neighbourhood

The huge range of what could be considered local and traditional food in Cape Town made me aware of how little I know about this country, which is often called the “Rainbow Nation” because of its diversity. I don’t think I’m the only person who, if asked what I knew about South Africa, would only have been able to conjure up information about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, or about the dreadful crime statistics that so often characterize stories about South Africa today. When it comes to food, I would have drawn a complete blank, except with regard to red bush tea and wine (and even then I knew next to nothing, only that they produce these things).

Now I’m only slightly wiser about South Africa’s food cultures, but more specifically the food of Cape Town and around, since it varies by region, and one look at a map showed me just how little of the country I’d seen.

Despite this, I’m happily savouring the memories of the meals I had and, importantly, the people I met while eating them. It’s this latter point which seems most telling of eating in South Africa, as in all countries – that food is something social, to be shared. For example, the braai, which is translated as ‘barbecue’, has a social significance and set of traditions unique to the region, and unlike what I know of barbecues in the US and UK (but slighly more similar to barbecues in Australia). And while eating my last portion of pap at Marco’s – an upscale pan-African restaurant – the Durban-born woman beside me informed me that pap is meant to be eaten with your hands from a plate shared among family and friends. Upon hearing this, the American woman sitting opposite set down her fork, picked up a chunk of pap with her fingers, used it to scoop up some meat and popped it in her mouth. With that gesture, we all smiled and continued feasting on ostrich, kudu and springbok (gazelle) cooked rare, washed down with a glass of local Cabernet-Merlot. While divisions still exist in South Africa, it’s nice to experience a coming-together around a great meal.

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

Soccer player tending the Braai at Mossel Bay

More South African adventures to come in future posts…


Welcome to the first official post at ethical relish, where each week I aim to write about my explorations into food, ethical eating and shopping, food cultures, healthy (or less healthy) cravings, travel and more.

Sweet, juicy fruit in Essaouira, Morocco, 2011

I might share a bit about what’s in season and how I’ve cooked it (sometimes well … sometimes not so well). I may also talk about the daily pleasures and struggles of trying to eat ethically, locally and healthily in my adopted country (England), while satisfying cravings for comfort foods from home (the USA). And I’ll blog about my efforts to strike a balance between eating by my values … and giving myself a break.

I’ll pepper my posts with experiences from past meals at home and abroad, and if I’m reading a good book or have heard some news related to food or food issues, I might tell you a bit about it. This could be about the sensual delights of a certain cuisine, policy changes that affect where and how our food is produced, or something multinational food corporations are doing that ticks me off (let me count the ways…).

So I hope you’ll stop by each week for a tasty bit of conversation and even leave a comment when the spirit moves you. For starters, check out this morning’s food escapade: making French pain de campagne at 5am.