You CAN make friends with salad!
I have recently begun a quest to try and become a more ethical omnivore. As someone who spends a great deal of time eating and cooking, and thinking, writing and philosophising about food, I feel that it is my responsibility to find out more about the origins of that which goes down my gullet; mainstream agricultural and food production practices and the impacts, social and environmental, which these have on the world. Food production is something that we take for granted. Every one of us daily consumes the products of animal and plant agriculture in Australia and overseas, and yet the processes by which the majority of our food comes to be on our plates is largely hidden, or obscured, from view.
The further I wade into this philosophical and ethical quagmire, the more I realise that there is no simple answer to how we should better, or best, make our choices. In Australia, we are increasingly concerned with the provenance of our food. Farmers’ markets are continuing to surge in popularity and consumers are increasingly demanding organic and free-range produce. These are better choices. But are they good choices? And why?
I am resigned to the knowledge that I will never have ‘the right answer’ and I will never be free of hypocrisy. This is something that pervades every aspect of my life; that is the human condition. However, like Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the powerful Eating Animals, I don’t believe that this should simply be a personal decision. I do not wish to tell others how they should better live their lives, but as a writer, I can share knowledge and information to help people inform their own choices. Just as there are magical stories to tell about my local prawn fishermen and the generations that have taken their trawlers out seeking the daily catch, there are powerful stories to tell about pig farmers who have adopted factory farming practices in order to survive in a marketplace which demands abundant and cheap meat, who are now being forced to change their practices by the same multinational corporations who demanded them in the first place. As an individual, I have decided not to turn my back on the ugly stories which make me feel uncomfortable.
One thing that is abundantly clear, only having scratched the surface of these issues, is that our current level of consumption of animal products and the agricultural practices used to produce them are both unethical and unsustainable. More on that in the future. Be that as it may, I have no intentions to turn my back on the delicious potential of the porcine species, or any of its other barnyard companions. I believe firmly, if not infallibly, in an omnivorous diet. However, I am willing to forgo my hitherto assumption that, as a comfortable middle-class white person who can afford to, I have the right to eat whatever kind of creature I want, whenever I want to. To this end, I am trying to increase my vegetable consumption, not relying simply on meat for my daily nutritious and delicious needs.
Vegetables are often seen as the accompaniment, the necessity for vitamins and minerals. But if you start with good produce and know how to make the most of their flavour, texture and colour, vegetables can be stars in their own right. If there’s one chef I know who can fondle an artichoke better than anyone else, it’s Jared Ingersoll of Danks Street Depot. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to handle his meat; it was in his coolroom that I first came face to face, literally, with a whole pig waiting to be broken down, the face itself destined to become ‘head cheese’ (a name, if not preparation, I still can’t come to terms with). My most fond Danks Street Depot memories are of vegetable dishes though. Most vivid is the memory of the first course served at a dinner to honour culinary luminaries including Margaret Fulton and Tess Mallos, which was a simple whole steamed artichoke served with a bowl of bagna caôda, a warm, creamy emulsification of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. For those of us, including me, who had no idea how to go about eating this beautifully simple preparation, which wasn’t immediately obvious, Jared explained that we were simply to use our fingers to remove leaves from the artichokes one by one, dipping them in the bagna caôda and using the teeth to remove the flesh from the coarser outer leaves, finally eating the tender inner leaves whole. It was joyful to see a room full of people, some of them considered food royalty, enjoying this multi-sensory experience and making a huge mess. The highlight of the same dinner was a simple panzanella salad of tomatoes, bread and basil, showing just what a good, ripe tomato can, and should, taste like.
The trick to bringing out the best in vegetables is to purchase quality produce, organic if possible, careful seasoning and not overcooking them. Invest in the best quality olive oil, vinegars and salt that you can afford, and your palate will be rewarded. While initially they can seem a hefty investment, these pantry items go a long way and will elevate your cooking to new heights. After a visit to the farmers’ market last week left me with some radicchio and a cauliflower to work with, I looked to Jared’s Danks Street Depot cookbook for inspiration and came up with this two-course vegetable feast. It was a triumph, with Papa Explody going back for thirds of the radicchio salad, high praise indeed!
Radicchio with fried onions, parmesan and balsamic for two or three (based on recipe in Jared Ingersoll’s Danks Street Depot. Signed copies are on sale at the restaurant!)
1 red onion
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
vegetable oil, for deep frying
1-2 heads of radicchio, depending on size
50ml best extra virgin olive oil
40ml best aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
a block of mature parmesan cheese
Thinly slice the onions, then place in a bowl with salt and sugar. Toss, then sit for a couple of hours (I didn’t read the recipe first, so I just did this for about 15 minutes and it still worked ok). Squeeze as much liquid from the onion as you can.
In a heavy-based saucepan, heat enough oil to deep-fry the onions (generally 1/3 to 1/2 full, no more). Put the onion in as the oil is warming up. Cook over a high heat, stirring often, making sure to keep an eye on it, as it won’t do much for ages, but colour quickly towards the end. When it becomes a pale golden colour (it will continue to colour after it’s removed from the oil), work quickly and carefully to remove with a slotted spoon and drain on crumpled paper towels. Gently toss a couple of times to ensure the pieces don’t clump together. When completely cool, taste for seasoning and add more salt or sugar accordingly.
Take the radicchio and remove and discard the tough outer leaves. Cut in half, shred finely, and put in a large bowl. Drizzle on the oil and vinegar, then sprinkle on onion and parsley. Grind in some black pepper, then using a vegetable peeler, shave in a generous amount of parmesan. Instead of tossing the salad, gently ‘roll it’ with your hands, which will incorporate the ingredients but keep it tidy. Taste, and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve with crusty bread.
Spaghetti with cauliflower strascicata for three or four (based on recipe in Jared Ingersoll’s Danks Street Depot)
100ml extra virgin olive oil
1/2 head cauliflower, chopped into pieces about the size of a thumbnail
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 large red chillies, chopped (seeds optional)
50g salted capers, rinsed and chopped
100g pitted olives, chopped
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, copped
60g toasted sourdough breadcrumbs
200g (2 cups) freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Drain, then cool; while cooling, drizzle with a little of the oil, then gently toss.
In a large heavy-based frying pan heat the rest of the oil over a medium heat, add the cauliflower and fry until just starting to colour. Add the garlic, mix well, then add the anchovies, chilli, capers and olives. When the cauliflower starts to become tender and has a rich golden colour, add half of the parsley and the cooked spghetti. When the pasta is hot, add the crumbs, parmesan and remainder of the parsley.
The parmesan will start to stick to the pan; use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan (this is where the term strascicata comes from, meaning drag). Remove from the heat, serve immediately with a wedge of lemon.
The following books about the ethics of what we eat are well-regarded and a good overview of current thinking on the topic. I welcome comments and advice on your experiences and suggestions for further information!
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals, 2009
Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, 2006 (includes an examination of Australian practices)
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, 2006