Culture: Seasonal eating, Nigella Lawson and me, by food writer Nicola Miller
Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigella Lawson on stage in Cambridge and one of the topics we touched on was ingredients, and specifically, seasonality. Nigella said she might be the only food writer who isn’t particularly focused on eating seasonally, and locally, because, as she points out, fierce adherence to this principle would rule out coffee, tea, and all manner of lovely, delicious things.
The thing is, there are too many interesting ingredients for me to voluntarily deny myself them for large swathes of the year. As Nigella pointed out, if we ate seasonally and locally, Northern Europeans would be mainly living on root vegetables and cabbage all winter. Delicious, but not for months on end. I must admit to agreeing with her, just as I also agree with many of the arguments posed by Barbara Kingsolver in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life, about the author’s decision to spend 12 months eating only what her and her family could plant, grow, harvest and slaughter on their Appalachian farm. Bar a few pre-decided luxuries (coffee being one), they mostly stuck to this.
One of the glories of the British seasonal calendar is our asparagus which arrives at a time when we’re moving away from what used to be known as the winter hunger gap, but sometimes I fancy eating asparagus in winter, albeit in a meal where its presence is complimentary but not pivotal. That’s when I am very grateful to live in a world where such things are available to me year-round. Supporting farmers in other countries is important in a global economy as is an awareness of how climate change is impacting on asparagus farmers in countries like Peru where residents have suffered water shortages because of the crop’s irrigation needs.
The carbon footprint of air freighting asparagus is also considerable, although this is not straightforward. Sometimes the carbon footprint is greater when we grow things out of season closer to home and to date attempts to extend the asparagus season in the UK have proved commercially unviable. What to do? Moderation where possible, I guess, and because I don’t drink tea or coffee, I feel I should be forgiven for my modest use of Peruvian asparagus.
So this is a moderate out-of-season meal using a small amount of asparagus and frozen peas, the latter partially in tribute to Nigella, who has done so much to popularise them as the truly versatile ingredient they are. In a world where we continually misrepresent processed food as ‘bad’ it is worth remembering that most foods undergo some form of processing, and that flash-frozen vegetables, prepared for our consumption via industrial, processed, methods, can have more vitamins and minerals in than peas harvested fresh in their pods, left on a store display for two days. It’s worth remembering that peas are currently out of season too, but thanks to the wonders of technology, we can enjoy them as fresh as when they were picked, all year-round.
It might be winter but I still crave light, fresh, lemony, green things but they do need to have a little more underlying substance which is where Wooster’s Bakery sprouted rye bread comes in. Here we have central heating in the form of an earthy, nutty loaf which lasts for days in the bread bin and works well with milky or nutty cheeses (Caerphilly and Gruyere suit it particularly well). It’s totally unlike the super-dense brickshaped rye loaves commonly found in supermarkets and possesses none of their Earth Shoe, hippie, cheesecloth-shirted worthiness either. I love this bread served toasted, buttered with a thick layer of potted shrimps, and a heap of watercress on the side, but most of all I love it topped with a thick layer of whipped feta, generous handfuls of peas, and pea shoots, and steamed asparagus.
A sprinkling of sumac, that lemony-sharp powder harvested from the fruit of the sumac, which is, would you believe, a member of the cashew family, livens things up even more. You will find sumac commonly used across the Middle East although the species has its origins in subtropical and temperate regions of North America and Africa; it is possible to harvest and dry the powder from the berries of the English staghorn sumach too. In the summer I sometimes replace the sumac powder with fresh sorrel leaves, but sorrel is not at its best in the winter so I have omitted it. If you really want to go mad, add a poached egg on the side. Many things are improved by an egg, I find, although this plateful really is substantial enough for a winter lunch without one.
Rye bread topped with whipped feta, peas and asparagus
Makes two portions, simply double up to feed four.
You will need
75g sour cream
½ tsp sumac
Drizzle extra virgin olive oil
Squirt of lemon juice
2 thick slices sprouted
rye (or other sturdy bread), toasted
1 garlic clove, peeled
12 thin spears asparagus
150g petit pois
A handful of pea shoots
Place the sour cream and feta in a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth and incorporated. You can use a food processor but I’m too lazy to get mine out for such a small amount of ingredients.
Add a good grind of black pepper and a squirt of lemon juice (half a teaspoon) and stir in.
Cover and set aside.
Trim the asparagus and steam until the stems have softened. Drain.
Steam or boil the peas. Drain.
While the vegetables are cooking, take your two slices of bread and rub them with the garlic clove before toasting under a grill until lightly browned. Don’t use a toaster or everything you put in there from now on will smell of garlic.
Butter the bread whilst still warm then spread a thick layer of whipped feta on top. Top each slice with pea shoots, six spears of asparagus and the peas. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sumac and salt to taste (remember the feta is salty) then eat.