Last Friday saw the start of the Soil Association’s Organic Fortnight 3 – 17 September 2010. It is the UK’s biggest celebration of all things organic
Unlike Slow Food, many people have heard of the Soil Association and are aware of the significance of the ‘organic’ stamp label (see below). However, for some, the organic-mark remains an indication of something beyond their budget. Therefore sadly it tends to be perceived as something accessible only to a certain strata of society.
The Soil Associations strapline is ‘choose organic every day’. I like it and would so dearly love to Choose organic everyday, but some things like buying organic clothing and treating myself to an organic holiday are off the radar for me. Things that are feasible and that I can do realistically are visit organic working farms, shop at the farmers markets and buy organic vegetables, but saying all that, I have to honestly admit that my shopping basket is not 100% organic, simply because some of the price tags are outwith my budget.
My awareness around the whole organic movement was enhanced because of my diet. As a person whose diet consists primarily of vegetables and therefore values the quality of the vegetables I eat, I began exploring local farmers markets, but this eagerness quickly turned to disappointment. For two reasons, there was a severe lack of vegetables stalls selling fresh, local and seasonal produce; and secondly those that were present tended to be from the East of Scotland and I live in the West of Scotland. So I signed up for an allotment plot and after a couple of year of waiting, I was granted one. This was the one place I was able to practice and part fulfil my urban organic dream. Growing some of my own organic vegetables and herbs on my allotment plot became a reality. Then from scratch I would create flavourful meals I wanted to eat. I was also able to avoid the over packaging of ready made convenience foods. Sometimes, I would cook in bulk. Make meals in larger batches such as these vegetarian pies and then freeze them or make jams, chutney and pickles with glut vegetables and fruit like courgettes and apples. Growing my own taught me many lessons, but one significant lesson it taught me was ‘how to eat with the seasons’ and the difference in flavour and freshness was vast. It was also doing magic to my physical health and mental well-being.
But that urban organic dream came tumbling down early this year, when I lost my allotment plot in a fire. To fill that gap, I decided to sign up for an organic vegetable box. I found it a little disappointing for a number of reasons, but namely ‘nothing could replace the pleasure of harvesting and eating your own home-grown produce’. I had got the organic growing bug and the taste of an affordable ‘good life’. Like many, I aspire to move to a house with more garden space where I would be able to be a bit more self sufficientish, and maybe keep some of my own chickens. But for now, to feel some kind of closeness with the organic principles, I’ve started growing again, this time on a much, much smaller scale in my tiny garden plot which measures about 7 foot by 10 foot. I also utilise growing pots. This has meant that I have had to heavily supplement what I was growing, so I try to plan in advance my weekends and importantly what is going to be on my shopping list. I always try where I can to buy local (Scottish, British) and seasonal through farm shops, farmers markets, green grocers, supermarket, Pick your own (PYO) and places like Geilston Gardens; and importantly I stay within my budget. Alongside this, I have also begun to learn how to identify and forage a little for free wild food with wild garlic being this years star recipes.
I know in reality, becoming organic for some is not easy for a host of reasons, but I also know the Soil Association would support me in encouraging everybody to try and make at least ‘one small change towards being organic’. For example, as a mature student in the mid-1990s on a rather limited budget, I made a commitment to buying one produce that was organic. Do you know what I picked: organic supermarket carrots, plus I could really see, taste and smell the difference (honest). Organic carrots have remained on my shopping list, (except when there not British). This simple decision slowly evolved to bigger things. If your not already buying organic, I think a small start like this may encourage you to discover bigger things such as why eating organic can be good for your well-being and how this impacts on the wider environment. For me it is the small changes that matter, as it’s the small changes that lead to the big things.
So talking of organic carrots, here is a recipe featuring organic vegetables. The leek and onion came from Geilston Gardens and the garlic and mint were home grown in pots. I have to admit, halfway though making the carrot gnocchi I had decided to myself that I was not going to like these. Thinking they were going to be heavy and more dumpling, than gnocchi. To convince myself that I was going to try and enjoy them, after cooking, I opted to gently fry them in a little minted butter, so that the texture was not just doughy, but a little crisp on the outside. Well I have to admit, I actually enjoyed them very much. In fact, I am thinking of making them again but with slightly different flavours. Oh the cheese is optional, I only added it because we had a piece of mint flavoured cheese to use up. It came from an independent cheese shop.
Minted Carrot Gnocchi served with caramelised leeks and onions
serves 3 - 4
100g-150g plain flour
100g mint cheese (optional)
1 organic, free range medium egg yolk
salt and pepper, to taste
100g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced mint
For the carrot gnocchi
Preheat oven to 200 C. Wash carrot and pat dry. Trim ends and cut into 1/2 inch-thick slices. Line a baking tray with baking paper and scatter carrots. Sprinkle with salt and roast for 25-30 minutes or until soft.
Puree carrots and set aside to cool for 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and add the optional crumbled cheese. Add 100g of the flour and yolk. Mix well, then add additional flour gradually until the dough is formed.
Line a baking tray with baking paper and sprinkle with flour. Dust a work area generously with flour. Take a handful of dough. Form into finger-thick rolls and chop roughly into 1 inch pieces. Transfer onto prepared baking tray and repeat until dough is used up.
To cook, bring a large pan of salted water to boil. Gently drop gnocchi into boiling water and let them cook until they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon. Set aside and prepare the caramelised onions.
For the caramelised onions and leeks
2 – 3 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 large white onion, finely sliced
1 large leek, washed and cut into slices
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the oil in a wide pan, add the garlic and cook for a few minutes, then add the onions until they begin to soften a little. Finally add the leek and cook gently until all the vegetables are soft. Season to taste. Keep warm whilst you bring the dish together
Heat a wide frying pan, add the butter and the minced mint until melted, then toss in the gnocchi, shaking gently so that the gnocchi does not stick to the pan, after a minute, flip the gnocchi over and cook in the butter for another minute before serving. Spoon the caramelized onions and leek between 3 – 4 plates, then evenly scatter over the carrot gnocchi and serve. My homely version of minted carrot gnocchi was inspired by Paul Gaylers rather gourmet recipe Sardinian carrot gnocchi with minted caramelised cipollini onions and leeks in Pure Vegetarian.
If you were interested reading this, you may be interested in reading my review of Eat Slow Britain: Special places to eat, inspirational chefs, gifted organic producers by Alastair Sawday with Anna Colquhoun. It does not focus on Michelin star restaurants. Rather it recommends and celebrates several dozens of places that abide by the slow food principles of ‘good, clean and fair’ food, all of which have been given Soil Association accreditation.