For Living Within, May 2018
Some of the most ineresting conversation about food right now is that about ‘waste’; big name professionals are putting their ideas and their influence into action with efforts that include the charitable, the profitable, the international, the collaborative, the domestic, and the humanitarian – different angles are being explored, different considerations analysed, and different concerns addressed, but the bottom line is that some of the practices and excesses that have become our current norms are complacent and not sustainable for the future of our planet, and we, as consumers, are complicit.
The chefs behind these initiatives want to change the way we think about what we eat, what we throw away, and how we cook – and their ideas are likely to change our landscapes, both geographically and metaphorically; we have an obligation to pay attention. ‘Food for Soul’ is the organisation supported by Massimo Bottura to tackle issues of both waste and hunger; WastED is the project of New York based Dan Barber – chef, thinker and philosopher, and on a course to try and change America’s food industry.
Closer to home, ‘Mike’s Table’, a pop-up charitable affair, regularly hosts paired dinners – one for those who can afford it followed by one for those who can’t – the latter funded by the former and both tackling issues of waste and social inequality, and Skye Gyngell is raising awareness of how waste can be incorporated into a high end restaurant’s daily fare at ‘Spring’ in Somerset House – currently showcasing ‘asparagus peelings’ as part of its Scratch Menu, available cheap (all things being relative) to early bird diners. I urge you to look at what they and others like them are doing, why they are doing it, and to draw your own conclusions.
The issues are complex owing to the multi-layered nature of the modern global food industry, and high-end restaurant chefs and what they think may feel ‘out of sight’ to many of us at home, but we can make our own small differences as masters of our own domestic realms.
So, on an uninspiring recent supermarket ramble, as many are when most everything is available most of the time, I found a couple of lonely lamb shanks and a few cubes of diced lamb going begging at the end of the day, and I figured I could probably use them with some odds and ends in the fridge that had outlived their original purpose to build a recipe for a braise around what might otherwise go to waste.
Classic French cuisine often calls for a base of flavour using the ‘holy trinity’ of onion, celery and carrots – I had two out of three (no carrots), but an odd fennel bulb I hadn’t remembered was brought on as sub. I also added some wilting ‘aillet’ rescued on my way home from a recent trip to France -- non-mature garlic that looks like a cross between a spring onion and a baby leek and gives a gentle garlic note. I sliced all four ingredients and cooked them slowly with a little oil in a wide shallow saucepan – they need to soften, and they need a bit of patience while they do so. In the meantime, I trimmed the lamb and seasoned it with salt and pepper.
I added some aromatics to the base while it was cooking -- a stick of cinnamon and some bay leaves. When the base was soft and starting to take on some colour, I added the lamb, allowed it to brown a little, then added some dried oregano and dried mint with some finely chopped fresh rosemary and a sprinkling of Turkish red pepper flakes. Finally, I added enough water to come about half way up the lamb, and when it had come to a simmer, a paper ‘hat’ (a ‘cartouche’ is the technical term, for what is a circle of greaseproof paper, crumpled up, damped under the tap, straightened out and placed directly over the braise, and under a lid).
In a moderately hot oven, this took about an hour and a half to cook. It can take longer and it can also cook at higher or lower temperatures; it needs until the meat is falling away from the bones and/or is tender, and it also needs checking regularly, topping up with water as seems necessary, and stirring gently every time you do so. About 10 minutes before the end of cooking time, I added in some cooked white beans and the juice of half a lemon. Finally, I skimmed off excess fat, tasted, adjusted the seasoning, and it was ready to serve.
The possibilities for recipes like this one differ by the day, the trick is not to follow it in anything other than technique and general idea, and to use imagination to pair store cupboard staples with ingredients that might otherwise be headed for the trash. We might not yet be able to reimagine farming or food supply on an industrial scale, but anyone can reimagine dinner.