Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

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Coming home to roost

May 23, 2013

Chickens, Ethics, and Why I Am Not a Vegan

Quite a while ago, a chance remark I made on Twitter led to a much longer – and to me very worthwhile – private discussion about eating chickens, sorrow, and ethics. 

The prompt was this tweet, from me on January 29 this year:

“Oh no!! The chooks immortalised in this gorgeous piece – http://t.co/0oCukgfo – were brutally murdered by a fox last night. Poor lovely chooks.”

I have admired my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s writing on this blog more than once – and, I understand from first-hand accounts (I’m away again so couldn’t be there!), she led a transfixing session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival today with the internationally renowned literary critic James Wood, along with Australians Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Tegan wrote the piece in my posted link, which was about the time she and her family saved one of their chooks, which had become very ill, by giving it human antibiotics. It is a beautiful, moving little essay; read it, you’ll love it.

Of course when the chooks were taken by the fox, Tegan was terribly upset for some weeks.These chickens were the second pair embraced by the Daylight family, after the first, immortalised (and much better named) here, were returned to Rentachook because the rented garden they were destroying had to be saved. But their replacements, Harriet & Fluffybum, lived happily for a couple of years in subsequent Daylight backyards and were definitely beloved pets. 

A few days after I wrote the tweet, I received a warm email, from a book-world Twitter friend I have met a few times in real life, who happens to be a quite charming vegan. This email explained that one of her followers – a newish vegan herself, had asked her what she thought of my tweet, because, she said, “I would really like to ask her why the deaths of these chooks are sad but not the deaths of the chickens she cooks with and eats.”

I hasten to make clear that the question was posed in the most pleasant and respectful way – indeed, the asker explained to our mutual friend that she liked my writing a great deal, and was genuinely interested in my position but didn’t know how to ask me herself without seeming confrontational or aggressive. Our mutual friend asked her permission to send it on to me, and she agreed. I decided to post my reply here, because I think it’s a great discussion to be having, and as I say at the end, I was very glad of the question – and particularly the way it was asked, in a genuine spirit of inquisitive sharing of information. It’s a shame so much ‘debate’ between vegans and meat-eaters isn’t initiated in such a charming manner as my correspondents did. I should add that they both replied with great warmth and pleasant thanks for my time in responding. Anyway – here’s my response. I have bolded a few sections for emphasis here.

Hi gals, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this, been flat out. At first I thought I might write a blog post about it – and maybe I will some time, because it’s got lots of interesting angles – but now I’ve run out of time so will just answer briefly here first … maybe I will muse on this on my blog another time, because of course the question is not as simple as it first appears, and contains about a million other questions within it, the heart of which is how is it possible for me to think of myself as a moral being and not be vegan? All big stuff obviously, which I have thought about a lot. I will try to be brief, though don’t promise not to be garbled!  Your question:

I would really like to ask her why the deaths of these chooks are sad but not the deaths of the chickens she cooks with and eats?

I guess my first response is to figure out what I was sad about when Tegan’s chickens were killed by the fox, which in itself has about three answers.

First and most of all I was sad not for the chooks but for my friend, who had grown very attached to the chooks and was deeply upset by the violence of their deaths. She was sad, so I was sad. Her children, interestingly, were not nearly as sad as she was, though seemingly just as attached to the ‘personalities’ of the chooks, which surprised me.  Second, I was sorry about the possibly extended period of terror that the chickens themselves experienced – it is awful to think of that kind of fear, though obviously as a meat eater I am directly responsible for the fear many animals experience immediately prior to their deaths.

So I definitely did feel sad about the manner of the death of the chooks. The fact that they were sort of ‘pets’ of course – though kept in the first place for their eggs, which is another morally troubled area for vegans – had led me to a more sentimental emotional relationship with those two particular chickens than the chickens I eat, which are bred purely for food. However, I actually don’t think the two sets of chickens are as emotionally and morally separable as you are assuming I do.

The second part of your question is about the chickens I cook and eat myself. When I cook at home, I only use poultry from a supplier called Feather and Bone here in Sydney, who I believe work very hard and honestly to source meat from places that raise and treat the animals as ‘ethically’ as possible. I know where the farms are, who runs them, that they are regularly inspected by individuals I trust to measure the producers’ commitment not just to raising animals in a ‘humane’ way but to caring for the land and water and air on which those animals live. I feel a fairly similar level of sadness for those chickens as I do for Tegan’s chickens, to be honest, which is all about the moment of their deaths. I feel that both sets of chooks lived similarly pleasant lives until the hour of their deaths – well fed and watered, able to indulge their natural instincts, free from disease or illness, living in the open air and the sunshine and given shelter from the elements and (at least as much as made humanly possible) predators. And I feel sad that each chicken has a period of fear (I assume) before their death. At the same time I think the deaths of the meat chickens is quicker and involves a shorter period of physical pain than the deaths at the jaws of the fox. If any of these chickens was living a ‘natural’ life in the wild, it may well live a significant portion of that life in blind fear of predators and possibly in malnourishment, with injury, disease, etc.

I absolutely respect the fact that as a vegan you will find my position untenable, and believe that any animal being killed for food is by definition unethical, but I guess that is where we would simply part ways.

I don’t believe it is morally wrong to kill animals for food, any more than I think it is morally wrong to kill the snails that eat my herbs, or the mosquitoes that bite me, or cockroaches that run round my kitchen. I think humans are a part of a food chain and a life cycle of the planet, and that to enact my part in the food chain in a reasonably carefully considered way does not make me an immoral being.

I do believe it is wrong to senselessly kill animals, to hurt them without cause and to allow them to live in terrible suffering, which is why I am pretty strict about where I buy my meat, especially chicken and pork which I will only buy from F&B, because I think the intensive farming of those two animals is worse than farming of grassfed cattle and lamb  that – in Australia at least – usually spend a good portion of their life in a free range situation. That said, I very rarely buy any meat from providers other than Feather and Bone, including lamb and beef.

Fish and seafood is another whole very grey moral area for me – because of the environmental degradation caused by fish farming and the overfishing of oceans. I know some people who won’t eat mammals for ethical reasons but will eat seafood. For me the destruction of habitats and ecosystems is as much a morally charged decision as the ‘saving’ of a single animal. And yet I want to eat fish, so I do.

As I hope you can see, I am well aware that as a meat eater I am subject to my own hypocrisy almost every day, most especially when I eat at the houses of friends who don’t know or necessarily care – though most of my close friends think about this a lot too – where their meat comes from. I would never refuse to eat a meal someone has made an effort to cook for me, no matter where the meat comes from, because at that moment I believe my moral obligation to appreciate and show gratitude to my loved friend or family member outweighs my moral obligation to the animal.

I suppose underlying all of this is something you may find abhorrent: I am quite at ease with the fact that all living necessitates the death of other creatures. All of us, whether we eat meat or not, are involved in countless deaths every minute of every day. The death of other people – through our inaction to those in war-torn, famine-scarred countries and so on – upsets me more than the death of other animals. And yet everything I do as a wealthy white woman is at the expense of another human life, somewhere in the world. There is a very difficult line that we all walk between the right to live a good life ourselves and the obligation to help others have a good life. For me, the lives of animals are definitely on this spectrum, but the spectrum is very long, and I walk an uncertain line back and forth and up and down and across the blurry centre of it all the time.

For me the core issue that determines my behaviour about animals for food is motivation, and the reason for the killingI would never knowingly harm an animal – including a fly or an ant or a spider – if I didn’t feel there was a practical imperative for doing so. Killing cockroaches to prevent a cockroach infestation of my house feels to me like justifiable homicide. Same goes for mice or rats. But I try to find a method of killing that is instant – like squashing or instant-death traps (sorry) – rather than poisons or things that kill slowly and painfully. If I find a spider I leave it be or carry it outside. I kill snails in my garden because the snails and I want to eat the same food, and I get to win.  

Killing chickens for food I don’t believe is wrong. I believe it is a part of the natural life cycle of the planet, and my sharing this food with other people increases their wellbeing and connection to each other and the planet. I don’t waste any part of the chicken (for example making stock from the bones) and I believe I do feel grateful to the chicken that has lost (I’m not stupid or hypocritical enough to say “gave”) its life.

But going back to the original question of my apparent inability to “connect” the death of Tegan’s chooks with the death of the other chooks I eat, there is another important point to make. I am guessing you don’t share this phenomenon, which is fine – but for me it is completely possible, and acceptable, to experience more than one feeling at a time. Daily, I have conflicting, even quite contradictory, emotions at the same time, about lots of things (this is experienced by anyone who has ever hated their mother at the same time as loving her). If Tegan had killed the chickens and served them to me for dinner I would quite happily have eaten them, in the knowledge that they had a good life and did not suffer until the final moments of life. I would also have been grateful to my friend whose mental, physical and emotional energy went into the meal that she was offering me. And yet I could also in that moment feel sad for the chickens, that they were no longer alive.

I guess the shortest possible answer to your original question is this: yes, I am a hypocrite.  I have long, long ago accepted that any feelings of moral superiority I ever have about the way I try to live my life are basically unjustifiable as soon as I look at the way someone else lives theirs. And while I am often tempted to feel quite smug about my own food choices (which I’m sure must make you gasp in disbelief) compared to some people I know, I also try to remember this quote whenever I want to give them a lecture about the terrible life their roasted chicken has lived.

It’s a line written by a psychologist called Jonathan Haidt, and I find it useful to tell myself often:  “Stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”

There are a whole lot of other ways in which I feel that my food choices actually enhance the lives of people and some animals – the pigs and chickens I cook would not have any life at all if it wasn’t for being produced for food, and for the most part they have very pleasurable lives until the ‘one bad day’ at the end. I believe even Peter Singer agrees that to exist is preferable to not existing, though I am sure there are many qualifications to be made about that.

Well, gals – I am sure you weren’t expecting such a long rambling answer. It probably sounds defensive – although I hope not – and I hope it hasn’t bored you both to death. But I wanted to be careful in my answer because I do think about these things, as do many meat-eaters I know. I think it is a mistake to assume that if someone eats meat it’s because they have never bothered to think about the moral implications of doing so.

And I am also really glad you asked the question and sent the email, because it does me good to recalibrate and reconsider this stuff all the time, each day. And to try to make the rightest decision in that moment.

All fascinating, interesting stuff.

Cheers

Charlotte

As I said above,  my correspondents replied with warmth and gratitude for my time in replying, and we all patted each other on the back and parted ways. But I do think about that email often, and am glad I was asked the question. It keeps me, not so much on the straight and narrow, but on the track of a mindful consideration of how we eat, how we view ourselves, and how both of these things can ripple out into the world in meaningful ways.

By the time I get home at the end of next week I will have spent eight of the past nine weeks away from home, my beloved bloke and my friends. I confess to a good deal of homesickness, but this stint – in Perth, as writer in residence at Curtin University, has given me so many really special opportunities to connect: with old friends, new ones, and with my novel-in -progress. So while I’ll be relieved to get home, I’m absolutely grateful for the opportunity. (Oh, and while I was here, I received this lovely surprise last weekend: grand.)

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On shopping, surliness & sustainability

August 21, 2012

I have always been rather afraid of stir-frying fish.

I have visions of fish fillets falling apart and turning to soggy mush, making not so much a stirfry as a soupy mash. As I think I’ve discussed here before, my thoroughly inland childhood meant I came late to seafood and, unlike my beachy husband, I still lack a natural confidence in cooking much seafood.

This is one of the reasons I love Neil Perry’s recipes for cooking fish and seafood – his instructions are always so exact and clear, especially in Good Food, one of my essential books.  So when I saw Mr Perry’s stir fried blue eye in last weekend’s paper I determined to look again at stir fried fish.

The recipe is for blue eye trevalla, which, while recommended for its firmness of flesh and ability to stand up to robust flavours, the sustainable seafood gurus GoodFishBadFish put in the category ‘Think Twice’. “Stocks are currently fully fished, with localised depletions. Some bycatch concern,” they say.

However, given that so much of the other seafood we like to eat is firmly in the “Say No” category, I find myself thinking that everything’s relative, and so blue eye is not so bad after all. GoodFish folks suggest alternatives of mulloway or coral trout, neither of which my nearest fish shop stocks.

I know I should ask them about mulloway, and start talking about sustainability, and “building a relationship” for future reference. But I’m weirdly, ridiculously shy of such conversations. I don’t know why, exactly. But with things like this I’m reminded of Julian Barnes’ amusing piece on food shopping in his Pedant in the Kitchen, where the author admits that for him, as for most of us, the idea of “developing a relationship” with or “instructing” one’s butcher, fishmonger or candlestick maker is as realistic as “advising” one’s local policeman or garbage collector.

This is why the Pedant’s morale is rarely lifted by a recipe beginning “Instruct your butcher to…” or “Telephone your fishmonger in advance and ask…” Now I know some excellent butchers, fishmongers and fruit ‘n’ veggers, though I don’t think of any of them as “mine”. Equally, I sometimes encounter a needlessly surly butcher who, when you hesitantly propose what you might require, will seize something in a flurry of hands, offer it for a nanosecond’s inspection with a lip-curling “That do?”, and have it on the scales and off again before your eyes can refocus, while calling out a weight and price which could well be a touch speculative.

I can imagine the look of bafflement on my fish shop man’s face if I quizzed him on his sustainability credentials. I suspect it would resemble the response of the woman behind the counter at a terrible local store laughingly called a “deli”, when I asked her about the origins of one of her four slabs of unmarked, unlabelled cheese. “I dunno,” she said, crossly. I tried again, valiantly. Might she know what kind of cheese it was? She sighed, cast her eyes to the ceiling, and shot me a look of undisguised contempt as she said: “English”.

Sometimes I wonder if avoiding this kind of exchange  is part of the reason some people actually prefer supermarket shopping. (It’s also one of the reasons, apart from the amazing quality of the meat and the ethical aspects, I buy almost all our meat from Feather & Bone – they actually do like to talk to you, are happy to help, and are generally Lovely Humans.)

Anyhoo, back to fish!

I bought blue eye trevalla from my surly fish man, and with it made a bastardised version of Neil Perry’s recipe last night. I marinated the chunks of fish as per his recipe, but from there returned to the old faithful stir fry combo taught to me a thousand years ago by my friend Ricardo: red capsicum, lots of sliced garlic, 3cm batons of green onion, a couple of birdeye chillis, split lengthwise, and then half a bunch of basil leaves tossed in at the end. Add to this a goodly slosh of fish sauce (I tend to go for at least one tablespoon, sometimes more) and a good pinch of brown sugar.

Method wise, I began as Neil suggests:

1. Heat a wok with a little vegetable oil until just smoking, then add the fish pieces with the marinade, spreading these evenly around the wok.

2. “Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, allowing the fish to start to brown” – then I turned the chunks once until almost cooked, then removed them and set aside.

3. I then added the vegetables but not the basil to the wok and stirfried them for a few minutes (adding a little boiling water), then returned the fish, slooshed in the fish sauce and brown sugar and gently stirred to combine, still at high heat.

4. As I turned off the heat, I threw the basil leaves in, put the rice in one serving bowl and the fish in another. By this time the basil leaves had wilted just nicely.

It was excellent.

Do you stir-fry seafood much? any problems? And what about “your” butcher, fishmonger or baker? How do you begin the conversations I’m too chicken to have? I would really love your views.

 

 

 

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Vegetarian vacation: the verdict

March 6, 2012

So here we are in March, and after a month of almost-vegetarianism, Senor and I have returned from our holiday from eating animals.

The experience of avoiding meat brought a few surprises, a few hiccups – you may recall my VegFeb fail on day one! – and some interesting insights into our food culture and my own cooking. So, in the tradition of our primary school reports of What I Did On My Holiday, here are some things we learned from our vacation in Vegoland.

1. I didn’t miss eating meat at all.

Not once. Never. This came as a huge surprise to both me and Senor, as of the two of us I have tended to be the most enthusiastic meat eater in the past (we’re always the ones that the waiter gets wrong when he brings a big rare steak and a piece of fish to the table – have you noticed how waiters tend to give meat to men as a matter of course??).

But, despite my fears that I would have at least one or two cravings for a juicy piece of red meat, it was in fact seafood I thought of most. And then only in the most passing way. Now, that said, in the name of conviviality we did eat animal flesh a few times at the houses of friends – a few mussels and pieces of fish, a couple of spoonfuls of chicken, and one mouthful of an incredible beef-rib rendang cooked by our friend Ricky Ricardo. There was also one restaurant meal for each of us where meat dishes were part of the deal. So we clearly did not actually go off meat for an entire month, and vegetarians will rightly pooh-pooh the whole experiment on that basis.

But that said, never once did I wish I had meat of any kind on my plate, including the night we dined at Porteno, a fantastic Sydney restaurant that most punters think only serves meat. But they have the best vegetarian menu I have seen in a restaurant, and I highly recommend it. Senor did sit very sadly by as a dish of incredible looking suckling pork & crackling wafted past him, but I had no desire at all to eat it. As well, despite my earlier decision that anchovies were to stay on the menu, I only ate them once and found it very easy to leave them out of everything after that.

2. I have never thought so much about food

Any regular visitor to this blog will have discerned that I am, if not fanatical about food, then pretty damn obsessed. I am the kind of person who wakes up in the morning thinking about what to cook for dinner – it’s utterly central to my life. But despite this, I found the need to actually think about nutrition – specifically, about where my protein was coming from – a little dreary. We ate fantastically well most of the time, but I did find it a teeny bit boring to have to account each day for protein, and a teeny bit repetitive to keep turning to tofu or eggs when the variety of protein available from an omnivorous diet is so much greater – you get tofu, eggs, dairy and all the seafood, chicken, red meat and pork as well. A proper vegetarian will tell you the accounting for protein becomes unconscious pretty quickly I think, but there was one day in the month where I found myself feeling a little out of sorts physically, and when I thought about it I realised we had eaten no protein that day. After that it became a much more conscious task – and when travelling, a bit of an annoyance (see next par).

3. Our culture still resists vegetarianism

We ate out quite a lot during February, for one reason and another. Many times presented no problem at all – such as at Porteno, as mentioned above, and when I ate the most incredible “Soft white polenta with Mossvale mushrooms, morel powder, truffled pecorino” among other things at the fabulous Diece e Mezzo in Canberra.

But these two restaurants are pretty high end, and places where the chefs clearly take an interest in making vegetarian food that is as complex and sumptuous than the meat dishes, if not more so. I think at such restaurants, the vegetarian options are often the pick of the menu because the chefs take pride in lifting their game on veg stuff. But at the cafe end of the market, you’re often pretty screwed. Vegetarian food as presented in cafes and many restaurants seems limited to stodge and cheese – risottos, pasta dishes with cheese, or a green salad. Or, there’s one veg option and every single cafe does it. I got tired – within about a week – of rocket salad with roast pumpkin, pine nuts and feta. It’s a shame, because I used to love that. But not three times in a week.

The other thing is that mid-priced cafes and restaurants still seem to view vegetarians as annoyances, and make almost no attempt to include protein in veg-based dishes. The attitude seems to be that you can go without it for one meal, which is completely fine – but if you’re travelling, as we were to Perth for four days, this means you can go days without having any protein included in a single dish. So you order lots of side dishes instead. All of this was perfectly fine for us, because it was a temporary thing, but jeez I’d get sick of it if I were permanently veg. No wonder the vegetarians I know eat at home almost always. As for being vegan and having a social life – I don’t know how they do it. I would be depressed and lonely – and hungry.

3. I am such a whitey.

One thing that really surprised me and that I’m a little shamefaced to admit, is how much I unconsciously plan the structure of meals with meat in mind. That is, the meals I tend to cook most of involve The Meat – and then The Rest. If you think about cooking roast chicken, lamb shanks, poached salmon and so on, those meals always have just as much vegetable content as meat, but the mental and emotional focus is on the protein, with the other things lovely accompaniments.

Our friend Silas has put his finger on this with one of his many witty aphorisms – when a couple cooks a meal together for other people, he says, it’s invariably the case that “The Protein Gets the Praise”. Our whitey culture – even with a big whack of Mediterranean influence – still focuses on meat as the centrepiece of a meal. And I was very surprised at how much I actually found myself searching for a focal point of a meal (like a frittata, say) at the start of our month. By the end I had almost let go of the tendency, but it was startling to realise how much the structure of a meal matters to me.

Of course almost all non-Anglo cultures don’t have this preoccupation – shared dishes are the norm in Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and even Mediterranean meals – and I wonder how much this has evolved because many of these cuisines come from countries where poverty has been widespread and meat scarcely affordable. This little discovery of mine is obviously no big deal, but I kind of got a kick out of understanding that I even had this bias in the first place. That’s one of the things I love about cooking – finding out stuff about one’s culture and oneself.

4. Texture matters

I have always been a sucker for big textural variety in foods, but when you have no meat you really notice it, I reckon. A former vego friend of mine who now eats meat a few times a week said he realised that he had gone for years without ever using a knife – that virtually all their meals had been eaten from a bowl, with a fork.

That comment goes to the heart of a particular horror of mine – bowls of slop. When we were busy during February, and the fridge was full of bits of leftovers, we found ourselves on more than one occasion tipping all the leftover bits into a bowl. It was perfectly flavoursome, and perfectly nutritious. But there remained for me this sad glumness to the look, to the feeling, of the meal. Bowls of slop are not good for the spirit, no matter how nourishing to the body.

So during February, I found that nuts mattered to me more than ever, and I made new friends with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. And the squeaky salty delight of smoky, pan-fried haloumi was something I looked forward to a few times a week. Crunch, squeak and crispness in a mouthful of softness – divine.

5. So near, and yet so far: why I’m staying omnivorous

At the outset we said we would not refuse meat if it felt impolite to do so in the company of others, and so there were at least a couple of times of sharing plates in restaurants – such as my night out with lovely writer friends at Yen for Viet or Senor’s at an amazingly generous friend’s 50th birthday party at Tetsuya’s – when we were very glad not to be permanent vegetarians. Another time we met friends at the beach and they brought sushi, and other times our friends cooked magnificent meals at their homes which were seafood or meat-based.

If we had asked for vegetarian options to be included, or declined to eat any of this, not a single person would have been annoyed with us. We have extremely pro-vegetarian friends, many of whom have spent long periods as vegos themselves.

But we ourselves would have felt the distancing effect of it. In a culture where meat is so much a part of everyday life, especially in the sharing of food between friends and family, I just don’t have it in me to separate myself from my peers in the way that true vegetarianism requires. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, articulates a similar feeling when he tries out vegetarianism for a little while.

“What troubles me is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this may sound, from a whole dimension of human experience. Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable. My new dietary restriction thows a bit of a wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” 

I don’t think it’s bad manners to be vegetarian at all – in fact I have nothing but respect for anyone who is, especially on ethical grounds.

But speaking purely personally, I just don’t feel comfortable asking other people to accommodate my diet in their homes, or in our shared meals. And so – while we will continue to eat lots of veg food, and I am convinced, much less meat from now on – we’ll be staying omnivorous.

But that said ….

5. Some of the best things in life are vegetarian

We ate some of the best meals I’ve ever cooked during our VegFeb. These included an Indian feast for six prompted by my long-awaited purchase of this wonderful Madhur Jaffrey book; a lovely Mediterranean lunch for seven people and many, many meals just for the two of us – including Senor’s further adventures with fermented blackbeans, tofu and his beloved Fuchsia Dunlop via her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and my own homage to the Diece e Mezzo dinner with a mushroom ragu with creamy polenta eaten on the couch in front of the telly last Friday night. That might be my new favourite comfort food of all.

I finish this long ramble with a recipe for a Fraud’s Frittata. I have always been crap at frittatas, because I have always managed to burn them on the bottom before they’re cooked on the top. Today, in a fantastic vegetarian cooking class for four given at my house by the wonderful nutritionist and teacher Kathryn Elliott (a new blog post on that soon!) I learned that the reason for my failed frittatas is, as usual, my impatience and too high a heat.  Kathryn’s beetroot and dill frittata was just amazing, cooked the proper way, in and from the frying pan.

But at one lunch for friends during February I did make this fraudulent frittata, basically treating it as a quiche,  baking it in the oven and finishing under the grill. I did heat the pyrex dish in the oven first, to make sure the mix hit the dish hot. As you can see from the look of it, this frittata was a big, boofy thing full of flavour and punch.

Roasted Vegetable Fraud’s frittata – serves 8

  • Olive oil
  • 1 red onion, cut into 8 segments
  • 2 baby or 1 medium fennel bulbs, sliced
  • 2 small potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup silverbeet, stems finely chopped & leaves roughly chopped
  • ½ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped
  • 8 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons thick yoghurt
  • ½ cup marinated feta cubes, drained

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C
  2. Drizzle the onion segments and potato and fennel slices in olive oil and roast on baking sheets for about 20 mins or until well browned.
  3. Meanwhile, gently fry silverbeet stems in a little olive oil until soft, then add leaves and fry until wilted.
  4. Set potato slices aside to cool.
  5. In a bowl mix roasted onion, fennel and chopped olives with spinach and leave to cool.
  6. Lightly grease a pyrex or ceramic pie dish with oil and heat in the oven for a few minutes.
  7. Remove dish from oven and scatter half the potato slices over the hot dish.
  8. Add beaten eggs and yoghurt to cooled vegetable and olives, stir to combine well, then pour into hot pie dish.
  9. Push remaining potato slices into the egg and vegetable mix, top with feta and bake in oven for 20 minutes or until egg is just starting to set.
  10. Place under hot grill for 5 minutes or until top is puffed and golden, then remove and set aside to rest for a few moments. Serve immediately or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Love to hear more about your own adventures in vegetarianism, how you keep it up, or how and why you went back to meat.

And I promise the next post will be short and sweet!

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Use your mussels

August 7, 2011

It’s not often that Tim Winton gets together with my mother-in-law and Jared Ingersoll in our kitchen, but that’s what happened this week.

Tempted as I am to leave it at that, let me explain …

You may recall a little while ago I made this incredible – and, technique-wise, rather elaborate  – crab bisque from an Ingersoll  recipe. Soon after that we dined with Annie, my husband’s mum, who is a great cook and made the most delicious mussel soup for us (serving it from her beautiful old tureen). Annie’s bisque was just as velvety and rich as our crab version but, it seemed, involved rather less work. Getting the meat out of a mussel is rather easier than taking a hammer to a crab and picking out the shell, let’s face it, and I resolved to try it some time.

Meanwhile, returning home after a writing retreat, this week I checked out the Sustainable Seafood Guide produced by the Australian Marine Conservation Society – of which writer Tim Winton is patron (you really didn’t think I would be able to pull it all together, did you…).

I’m sorry to say that the SSG is a very depressing little booklet – you can buy a copy, or see the online version here.  Hoping for a few tips on the most ecologically sound fish to eat, I was completely stunned to find that almost every type of seafood I have ever eaten is on either the danger list (‘think twice’) or basically completely unsustainable (‘say no’). 

According to the AMCS we should Think Twice before eating wild version of prawns (also farmed ones), barramundi, blue eye trevalla, Balmain bugs, dory, flathead, lobster, ocean perch, among many others.

Even worse, the Say No list includes farmed Tasmanian salmon (or Atlantic or smoked salmon), imported farmed prawns, farmed barramundi, snapper, orange roughy (we knew about this one and haven’t eaten it in years), wild scallops, wild swordfish, farmed trout, wild tuna of various kinds, imported canned tuna, farmed yellowtail kingfish – among others.

Although wild fish populations are being decimated, if you were under the impression you were protecting the environment by eating farmed fish, as I vaguely was, think again.

As the AMCS and the excellent resource Good Fish Bad Fish explain, farmed fish are often  produced in open sea cages with potential for serious pollution and fish escapes into the wild, along with transfer of diseases into wild fish populations. Fish in sea cages are primarily “carnivorous species with significant reliance on wild fisheries to supply feed” – and up to 5kg of fish meal from wild sources is needed to produce 1kg farmed fish.

Other farming involves semi-closed aquaculture systems – like prawn farming – in which water is exchanged between the farm and a natural waterway. These pond systems are often located adjacent to waterways, where coastal wetlands and mangroves are reclaimed for development, resulting in “a vast loss of habitat which is critical for the juvenile stage of many species”. They can also pollute surrounding waterways, and like the cage fish, often rely on wild species to feed the stock.

More acceptable farming methods are the closed aquaculture systems – land-based ponds where there is no risk of pollution to open waters (although wild fish are still often used for feeding) – and “passive-feeding” open systems using sticks, ropes, racks and cages but natural feeding. The latter is used for oysters (hooray!), mussels and other filter-feeder species.

The Good Fish Bad Fish site is rather more cheering than AMCS site, with a brilliantly designed ‘seafood converter’ to push your dinner in a more sustainable direction. However, I can’t help but wonder if turning to the more flexible Good Fish Bad Fish because we don’t like the AMCS advice is simply burying our head in the sand of the sea floor even more. (That said, the GFBF site links to the AMCS site and other resources quite comprehensively, so they are on the same page.)

So far, so deeply dispiriting. But there is some good news –  there are lots of delicious seafood species on the AMCS  ‘Better Choice’ list – including various species of wild mahi mahi, moonfish, leatherjacket, King George whiting, oysters, mussels, squid, calamari, cuttlefish, octopus.

All of which brings me – slowly, I know! – back to my mussel soup. Inspired by Annie’s soup,  Tim’s commitment  and Jared’s recipe (as well as the quite magnificent lobster-topped soup tureen I was given by Annie and my lovely in-laws L&B for my birthday – thanks guys!), I adapted the crab bisque  to come up with an easy and very delicious spicy mussel version.

Before the recipe, a quick note on the texture – on this first attempt I began by using the mouli, then the stick blender, and finally the food processor, but the result was still a little fibrous, especially with strings of celery somehow escaping all pureeing methods. Next time I am going to simply puree all the vegetable and mussel mix before adding to the stock, which is what I’m advising in the recipe below. I would love to hear if you try it, and how it goes.

Spicy mussel bisque – serves 4

  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 1.5 large red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, squashed
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, roughly chopped (it may be worth peeling this first if you can be bothered)
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, roughly chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • ½  bunch coriander, leaves & stems separated
  • 1.5kg black (or ‘blue’ mussels)
  • 600ml chicken stock (I used homemade  – if you use packaged, lay off the seasoning of the soup)
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons Yalla harissa – I love this stuff and keep a pot of it in the freezer at all times for digging into to add extra kick to all kinds of dishes. If you don’t want or can’t find this, you could perhaps double the spice mix and chilli at the beginning for some extra kick

Method

  1. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  2. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and all the vegetables except coriander leaves.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the vegetables with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix well and roast in a moderate oven for about 1 hour.
  4. Meanwhile, scrub and de-beard the mussels, then place in a covered pan over a medium heat with a big glass of white wine for about 10 minutes, or until the mussels are opened. Remove them from the pan to cool, reserving the cooking liquid.
  5. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the shells and set aside.
  6. When the vegetables are soft, smell good and are a little coloured, remove from oven.
  7. Transfer the vegetables and the mussel meat into the large bowl of a food processor and puree till smooth – or keep it coarse if you prefer a more rustic texture.
  8. In a sizable pot add the stock to the mussel cooking liquid, then add the puree and simmer gently for about 15 minutes.
  9. Add the chopped coriander leaves and harissa if using, stir to combine, and serve with crusty bread.
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The Big Frill

July 9, 2011

Adventures in Offal, Part I

For some time now I’ve been thinking the origins and illogic about my squeamishness about offal. This was prompted by my coming across a rather wonderful essay titled ‘Picky Eating is a Moral Failing’, by Matthew J Brown, in this book, Food and Philosophy.

Brown’s essay elegantly articulates the frustrations I usually feel when I hear someone say “I don’t eat olives / oysters / pumpkin / spinach /whatever”.  The crux of his argument is that to be a ‘picky eater’ – he exempts ethical vegetarians and people with physical conditions like peanut allergy or lactose intolerance – is not only to create distance between oneself and others (especially a host who may have offered the prohibited food), but to choose a narrow, ignorant path through life. He says picky eating is a wilful decision to close one’s mind, shutting down the possibility that a previously unpleasant experience could at another time be found bearable or even pleasurable, and leads to the limiting belief that obstacles should be avoided rather than overcome. In short, Brown believes that to cordon off various foods on the basis that you ‘don’t like’ them is generally to limit one’s potential to grow into an open-minded, generous, fully rounded human being. I love what he says, and agree with pretty much all of it.  And I love the fact he’s prepared to take the risk of such a provocative title, too.

Anyway, of course the article challenged me to think about my own food aversions. I like to tell people I eat anything, and I certainly would eat any food offered to me by the person who cooked it – but reading this essay made me think more about my own quite extreme squeamishness where offal is concerned. Although I am an enthusiastic meat eater, I have never really eaten innards, apart from the odd taste here and there, when I have been surprised into enjoying some of it (most particularly in Asian restaurants, Chinese and Laotian especially). But I have certainly never cooked it, nor chosen it from a menu of my own volition.

At the same time as I became enamoured with Brown’s essay, I was reading a little about the US academic Paul Rozin’s research into the emotion of disgust – and how much of it relates to animality. After decades of research Rozin and his colleagues have concluded, it seems, that the things that most disgust us in Western society are those to do with what might be called base bodily functions – shit, piss, vomit, snot and so on – and with the breach or violation of the ‘body envelope’. With the deep taboo, that is, of innards. Rozin thinks we are disgusted by these things because they remind us of our own animality – and, closely related, our mortality.

So it would seem that according to Mr Rozin, my aversion to liver, kidneys, tongue, brains, gizzards and so on can be traced to a quite natural human fear of my own death. I see a cow’s tongue on the plate, which looks so like a tongue – looks, indeed, so like my tongue, with its entirely recognisable tongue-y shape and little bobbles of tastebuds. And so, deep in my mind is drawn a connection between the death of the creature who owned this tongue, and my own death.

It all makes perfect sense to me, this theory of disgust and my own fear of death – for my aversion to offal doesn’t extend to beef cheeks, say, or pig’s trotters. I love meat of all kinds – the outer casing, if you like, of an animal. But it’s the innardness that has always made me squirm.

But all of this makes no logical sense, of course. And it’s wasteful  – to decide that some bits of an animal are perfectly fine to eat, but others taboo, goes against all the other views I have begun to hold dear about not wasting food. And surely eating meat is slightly more acceptable if the whole creature is put to use, rather than the more decadent-seeming practice of picking and choosing small bits and wasting the rest?

So far, so psychological.

In light of all this I decided it was time to have a good look at and begin to test these fears of mine, to see exactly how strong was my aversion to handling, cooking and eating offal – and whether my squeamishness was purely psychological or did have something to do with taste and texture after all.

So begins, friends, my adventure into offal. Enter the frilliest of all innards – tripe.

I chose tripe (the lining of an animal’s stomach, as you all no doubt know – in this case, cow) as offal adventure number one for a couple of reasons. First, because I have only ever eaten it once before, as a child, and it was so disgusting (in sludgy white sauce, natch) that even my parents didn’t eat it and allowed us all to leave it on our plates – unheard of in our house. But as adulthood has brought many examples of how decent cooking methods and recipes can render previously disliked foods into new favourites, and if the Italians love tripe, smothered in tomato, garlic, parsley and so on, I figured – how bad could it be?

Second, I decided that tripe could surely be no more squidgy and bouncy and rubbery than squid or octopus, both of which I love, and must be bland enough in flavour to allow the aforementioned tomatoey goodness to mask any creepiness of taste.

So today, I tried Stephanie Alexander’s ‘beginner’ tripe recipe – “Tripe with tomato and lots of parsley”.  Here is my introductory tripe dish, Ms Alexander writes, a blend of French and Italian traditions. It can be prepared well ahead and reheated before serving. If you don’t like this, you don’t like tripe. 

First job was to thaw the tripe we bought from the ordinary butcher across the road – if I was going to do this thing, it was a case of seizing the moment and I hadn’t seen tripe on the list at www.featherandbone.com.au, though I’m sure they would have got me some if I’d asked. Tripe is often sold frozen, apparently – I guess because hardly anybody wants it anymore.

Stephanie makes it clear the tripe should be bleached and parboiled, though our butcher (who seemed quite averse to the whole thing himself) couldn’t tell us whether it had been parboiled. A re-reading of Stephanie’s tripe section seemed to indicate that if it’s white or creamy coloured you can assume it’s bleached and parboiled, but times vary (unbleached tripe is grey, apparently, and I can tell you now there is no way I would have managed to be grownup about this if I were faced with grey innards – euurrgggh).

Once thawed, the whole bit of tripe (about 200g) was quite a pretty little pouch of a thing – a kind of soft, frilly sea sponge, and lovely to the touch. Next step was to cut it into strips, make the soffrito, add some bacon (mmm), tomato & vinegar, and then bung in the tripe bits, cook for 30 to 45 minutes. This is where I grew a bit nervous, not knowing what exactly the texture should be.

I decided that I would pretend the tripe was squid – both as a textural guide and to start bending my resistant mind to the possibility of eating it – and was hoping for a similar texture once cooked to tenderness. I consulted Twitter’s resident expert on all things culinary, @crazybrave (aka Miz Zoe who you will recognise from the comments round these parts) who confirmed that I was on the right track. It should have ” a little resistance to the tooth and then be slippery and springy”, she said.

I ended up cooking it for a bit over an hour to get this texture, which was almost right I think. I wonder though if another 10 or 15 minutes might have made it just a tiny bit softer and more pleasing. I tossed a few big spoonsful into a ramekin, topped it with parmesan cheese and bunged it under the grill for a few minutes., as suggested by Stephanie.

Then came the big moment – I tried one piece, and found it really quite revoltingly springy and chewy, though it was tender enough. What was really quite fascinating to observe was how it was my mind that caused the problem. With every chew, my mind screamed: Stomach lining! Quivery Slimy Thing! Animal Innards! DEATH! 

I decided the size of the piece was an issue, and cut the remaining pieces into much smaller ones – Stephanie recommends a strip 2cm by 6cm, but I would suggest for tripe novices these are too confronting. A much smaller slice, eaten with lots of the extremely delicious sauce, is far easier to contemplate. In this way, and by focusing very hard on imagining how my mind would be working if this were squid – Yum! Springy! Tender! Lovely Surprising Texture! – I chomped happily away on a small ramekin full of tripe. Yes, there was a teeny tiny odd twinge of an unusual flavour – which could just as easily have been my imagination – and yes, the frills certainly added a textural frisson that might take some getting used to. But all in all, it was completely fine.

Senor arrived home just as the eating experiment began, and wolfed into a bowl of tripe himself. Being the iron-guts and utterly unflappable gourmand he is, of course he had no truck whatsoever with my mental carry-on, and pronounced it delicious. We still have three more bits of tripe in the freezer, and Senor has declared he’s going to get into a bit of tripey experimentation himself.

So what’s my verdict? What’s the disgust quotient? Well, it was perfectly fine. I was not revolted, as I had expected. But I didn’t love it, and I am fairly sure it will be a long while before I try cooking it again. I have other adventures in innards to pursue, after all.

But if I visited your house and you plonked down a huge bowlful of this stuff, I would no longer stiffen in terror and allow my stomach to flip over itself in panic and revulsion. I already feel much more grownup about tripe, and as a result have much more interest in exploring other offally avenues. And who knows, on another tasting or two (Senor’s cooking next time) I might even find, as I have with so many foods since childhood, from chilli to muesli to oysters, that it soon grows on me and I like it very much.

So what about you? Any offal fans? When was the first time you ate it, and what made you like it?

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How to make a vegetarian smile, pt II

September 17, 2010

The last entirely vegetarian dinner party I cooked was a wintry little number, but very satisfying, with a few  nicely contrasting elements I think. The mainstay was a mushroom ragu served on creamy polenta, paired with a side dish of a punchy green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese.

There are a couple of things that made this work well. First, both the ragu and the lentils used  the roasted vegetable stock, as I described ages ago here. This time though, I took a leaf out of Skye Gyngell’s book – her secret flavour weapons often include tamari sauce and maple syrup, so I added a tablespoon of each to the reduced stock. I swear this little combo, while not leaping out as separate flavours, really gives a layered depth and complexity to the stock.

Next was the assortment of mushrooms. I used about 600g of combined chopped Portobello, field and Swiss brown mushrooms, and later added – importantly – a good tablespoon’s worth of dried porcinis to the mix. Again, this gives a big hit of rich flavour.

Mushroom ragu with creamy polenta

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 600g chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 1 x can peeled tomatoes
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 cup roasted vegetable stock
  • 10g dried porcini, rehydrated & chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • grated Parmesan, to serve
  1. Heat oil & add celery, carrot, onion, garlic and some sea salt, sauté until soft.
  2. Add a good big knob of butter & a little more oil, turn up the heat and – gradually, in batches – sauté the fresh mushrooms with the mirepoix over a high heat until the mushrooms lose most of their moisture and are nicely browned.
  3. Add wine, tomatoes, stock and herbs and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer.
  4. Add the chopped porcini and liquid to the sauce.
  5. Stir, then simmer uncovered for around 30 minutes (or even up to an hour),  till the sauce has reduced and thickened, adding another good slug of oil if it looks too watery. Add stock or water if at any stage it becomes too thick.
  6. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Not long before you’re ready to serve, make the creamy polenta – this is dead simple, as described here, but does take a little time. Just do the onion & milk bit ahead of time, and if you need to, have your guests chat with you in the kitchen while you stir.

Spoon the polenta into shallow pasta bowls, and top with a heap of the mushroom ragu (add a tiny swizzle of olive oil at the last second, if you dare), and sprinkle with Parmesan at the table.

Green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese

This zingy little salad can be made completely ahead of time and simply dressed & tossed just before you eat.

1. Sling half a cup of puy lentils into a pan of hot vegetable stock, and simmer for 20 minutes or till tender. Drain and return to the pan with a splash of olive oil till ready to assemble the salad.

2. Have some slow-roasted tomatoes (scroll down on the Essential Ingredients page) ready to go.

3. When you’re ready to serve, toss some good green salad leaves (specially good with some texturally springy ones, like curly endive and radicchio as well as soft lettuce) together with the scattered lentils and tomatoes in a bowl with a dressing of three-parts good extra-virgin oil to one-part best-quality balsamic vinegar. Then tear up some marinated goat’s cheese  (or even better, your homemade labneh!) and toss it into the salad in chunks. Serve in a bowl at the table.

Sweet ending

For dessert, I can’t recommend this whole orange cake highly enough – and because it’s made with almond meal instead of flour, it gives your guests another dose of good nutty protein. Serve it with some more yoghurt or cream on the side. Another almondy option is a frangipane tart, and although I haven’t made this particular one, there is a beautiful-sounding recipe here. Otherwise, I’d go for some other fruit-based dessert.

So there you have it – a simple but I think nicely varied vegetarian dinner menu for four, with heaps of punchy flavour and texture, and also providing a reasonably diverse mix of protein, dairy, carbohydrate and lots of other goodies.

I would love to hear comment from our vegetarian visitors about how this combination might be improved – and as well, keep your ideas for zingy vego dinner party dishes coming.

V

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You borlotti beauty

August 8, 2010

At the risk of having to rename this blog Purely Pulses, I have to tell you about my first encounter with fresh borlotti beans. I am a big fan of the dried variety – and the canned – but until now I’ve never tried cooking fresh ones. But the other day I spied some in the grocery and couldn’t resist their splotchy raspberry-swirl stockings.

Today I did a test run at lunch with buddies – and am happy to say they made the grade and I officially declare them my New Favourite Thing in the World for this week.

After podding (or shucking! can we say that about beans?) the borlottis from their slinky pink sleeves, I chucked them into boiling water for about 20 minutes and drained them. Then, while they were still hot, I bashed them about a bit with a wooden spoon and then tossed them into a pan in which I had just crisped some exceptionally good bacon, plus a good handful of finely chopped parsley and a clove of minced garlic.

Into a bowl they went, with a generous slurp of Moon Over Martinborough‘s  luscious extra virgin olive oil (which I bought online from NZ after reading this lovely post here and am absolutely loving sloshing around in every veg dish I can at the moment), loads of sea salt and juice of about half a lemon.

Seriously good result. The fresh beans have a much nicer texture than the canned ones, which can be a bit sludgy, and I reckon the freshies have a beautifully delicate colour too (the canned ones do tend toward a depressingly old-ladies’-underwear hue, don’t you think?).

And if you think the finished dish rather resembles a great many other legume side dishes you’ve seen on this blog, well – you’re right. But it can’t be helped – too much legume love is never enough round these parts.

Now, while I’m here, I wish to draw your attention  to the lovely folk at Feather & Bone, providers of the above-mentioned free range bacon and lots of other meaty goodies we chomp our way through in this house.

Ever since I bought our divine Christmas ham from them last year on the recommendation of Empress Clifford-Smith, Feather & Bone have basically become the guardians of my conscience when it comes to eating animals.

Until I turn vegetarian (will that day ever come, I wonder) I try to do the next best thing, and support farmers who treat their animals as humanely as possible, as well as doing all they can to care for the land in a sustainable way. And what with the whole free-range/organic labelling confusion and misinformation that goes on, the only way I know that I am really doing the best I can by the creatures is to buy from Laura and Grant at Feather & Bone. They do all the research, all the inspecting of the farms and the buying of produce from very carefully selected farmers, based not only on the ethical treatment of animals but just as importantly, the quality and flavour of the meat – and believe me,  they know their stuff. To boot, the glorious goodies are delivered to your door if you wish. What’s not to love?

But you don’t just have to take my word for it – the great news is that just this month, Feather & Bone have been named Delicious magazine’s Outstanding Supplier of the Year. So congratulations to Grant & Laura from me and all who have dined on your efforts in this house. For readers living in Sydney, I can’t recommend F&B highly enough. And we shall be celebrating tomorrow night by roasting a couple of delectable Feather & Bone chooks for Senor’s birthday dinner. Cheers!