This week’s column will focus on sustainable food and how each of us can do our bit to make a difference. The question of what we should eat to combat climate change and environmental degradation has never been more urgent, however, the term sustainable has become quite a buzz word, bandied around and abused in many different contexts – all very confusing.
Having a better understanding of what makes food sustainable could help us all to make more informed food choices. Sustainable food is not just about the food itself, it’s a combination of factors. How it’s produced, distributed, packaged and consumed (or wasted). Sustainable farming practices, environmental impact, animal welfare, biodiversity, working conditions and a living wage are all factors.
Intensive agricultural food production systems are responsible for 11-20% of all greenhouse gases depending on which research one references…Sustainable agriculture on the other hand supports organic, regenerative farming and low carbon food production methods including crop rotation and avoids the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides as well as GM organisms.
A lot to think about in our busy lives…As we navigate the aisles of the supermarket, our decisions are usually based on price, convenience, maybe taste but in the words of Margaret Visser, ‘much depends on dinner’. Our food choices and every bite we put in our mouths has consequences on our health and the health of our planet, awareness is growing but time is fast running out…
I’m convinced that each of us genuinely wants to make a difference so we can pass on a liveable planet to the generations who follow us… Here are a few tips to help us source more mindfully and live more sustainably.
1. Choose foods that are in season – less air miles, no need for artificial ripening…
2. Seek out meat, dairy and eggs from less intensive production systems.
3. Spend a little more and pay a fair price to support local farmers and food producers who farm sustainably and trade fairly.
4. Support your local Farmers Market, a NeighbourFood branch – www.neighbourfood.ie and/or join a vegetable box scheme then the money goes directly to the producer to enable them to continue. The greatest threat to food security is the low and often below-cost price of food at the farm gate.
5. Grow some of your own food – herbs, vegetables, fruit… If you have the space, plant a few currant and berry bushes, a couple of apple trees which go on giving year after year and create habitats for birds and pollinating insects. Plant a bee friendly garden.
6. Reduce the amount of plastic packaging and continue to lobby for less. Packaging is so energy intensive to make and recycle.
7. Learn to use up leftovers so you can work towards Zero Waste. Think nose-to-tail eating and use every scrap of each vegetable.
8. Get a few hens, three or four in a movable chicken coup in your garden will eat up your food scraps, provide you with enough eggs for all your needs and chicken manure for your compost heap to make your soil more fertile.
9. Make stock from meat, fish bones and vegetables as a basis for soups, stews and tagines.
10. Use every scrap of each vegetable, cauliflower – roast the leaves as well as the curds. Use the fresh radish leaves in salads and soups, really delicious. The stalks and leaves of beets as well as the roots themselves…
Ballymaloe Strawberry Muesli
Organic oats grown in Ireland are far more sustainable than breakfast cereals made from imported maize.
This is a huge favourite with all our family and friends – it’s such a good recipe to know about because it’s made in minutes and so good. We vary the fruit through the seasons – strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, blueberries and grated Cox’s Orange Pippin apples or Ergemont Russet in the Autumn.
6 tablespoons rolled oatmeal (Quaker Oats)
8 tablespoons water
250g (8oz) fresh strawberries
2-4 teaspoons honey
Soak the oatmeal in the water for 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mash the strawberries roughly with a fork and mix with the oatmeal. Sweeten to taste with honey, a couple of teaspoons are usually enough but it depends on how sweet the strawberries are.
Serve with pouring cream and soft brown sugar.
People usually chuck out the spinach stalks after they’ve strung the spinach, but they’re delicious and it’s a pity to waste them after all the hard work of growing them.
Chop the spinach stalks you have reserved into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Cook in boiling salted water – use 1 teaspoon salt for every 600ml (1 pint) water – until tender, about 3–4 minutes.
Drain well. Toss in a little butter or extra virgin olive oil. I sometimes toss in a few chilli flakes and freshly chopped herbs. If you feel like an Asian flavour, substitute soy sauce or oyster sauce for the butter or olive oil.
Beetroot Tops (Stalks and Leaves)
Young beetroot tops are full of flavour and are often unnecessarily discarded; but if you grow your own beetroots, remember to cook the stalks as well. When the leaves are tiny, they make a really worthwhile addition to the salad bowl, both in terms of nutrition and flavour. This isn’t worth doing unless you have lovely young leaves. When they become old and slightly wilted, feed them to the hens or add them to the compost.
450g (1lb) fresh beetroot tops
salt and freshly ground pepper
butter or olive oil
Keeping them separate, cut the beetroot stalks and leaves into rough 5cm
(2 inch) pieces. First cook the stalks in boiling salted water (1.8 litres/3
pints water to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt) for 3–4 minutes or until tender. Then add
the leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Drain, season and toss in a
little butter or olive oil. Serve immediately.
Gratin of Potato, Spring Onions and Bacon, Chorizo or Lamb
Grass fed beef and lamb are highly nutritious and in a mixed farming system are absolutely sustainable restoring carbon to the soil which is an invaluable carbon sink.
Potato gratins are nourishing and economical one-pot dish to feed lots of hungry friends on a chilly evening. This recipe could also include little tasty pieces of bacon, chorizo or a lamb chop cut into dice, so it can be a wholesome main course or a delicious accompaniment.
Serves 4 as a main course
Serves 6 as an accompaniment
25g (1oz) butter
1.3kg (3lbs) ‘old’ potatoes, e.g., Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks
2 bunches of spring onions, sliced
75-150g (3-5oz) mature Cheddar cheese, grated
salt and freshly ground pepper
300-450ml (10-16fl oz) homemade chicken, beef or vegetable stock
For a non-vegetable version, add:
175g (6oz) bacon lardons, chorizo dice or a cooked and diced lamb chop
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400˚F/Gas Mark 6.
Oval ovenproof gratin dish – 31.5cm (11 1/2 inch) long x 5cm (2 inch) high
Rub an oven proof dish thickly with half the butter
Slice the peeled potatoes thinly, blanch and refresh. Trim the spring onions and chop both the green and white parts into approx. 5mm (1/4 inch) slices with a scissors or a knife.
Scatter with some of the spring onions, then a layer of potatoes and then some grated cheese. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Scatter with the bacon, chorizo or lamb here if using. Continue to build up the layers finishing with an overlapping layer of potatoes, neatly arranged. Pour in the boiling stock, scatter with the remaining cheese.
Bake in a preheated oven for 1 – 1 1/4 hours or until the potatoes are tender and the top is brown and crispy.
It may be necessary to cover the potatoes with a paper lid for the first half of the cooking.
Rory’s Delicious Mussels with Spices and Coconut
Bivalves such as oysters, mussels, clams and scallops are brilliant at sequestering carbon and purifying sea water.
This is a great recipe in that most of the work can be done early in the day or even the day before.
The mussels can be replaced with clams, shrimp or monkfish and a combination of fish and shellfish may be used. Thick pieces of pollock also work well as do salmon and mackerel.
Plain boiled rice can be served with this dish or just crusty bread to mop up the delicious broth.
72 mussels or 700g (1 1/2lbs) monkfish in neat collops
a 2.5cm (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
8 cloves of peeled garlic
110ml (4fl oz) of water
4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
200g (7oz) onion, peeled and chopped
1-2 fresh chilies, sliced into fine rounds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
2 teaspoons of ground cumin
1 1/2 tins (600ml/1 pint) of coconut milk
fresh coriander leaves
Wash the mussels, removing any loose beards. Put the ginger, garlic and water into a blender and blend to a smooth purée.
Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions. Cook until translucent. Add the ginger and garlic purée, chillies, turmeric and cumin. Stir and cook for a minute. Add the coconut milk and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. This broth can now be put aside for later.
When you want to serve the dish, put the mussels into the pan with the broth. Cover and place on a moderate heat and allow to come to the boil. Shake the pan occasionally and cook for approx.6 minutes. Check to see that all the mussels have popped open. Serve immediately with lots of fresh coriander leaves.
If using monkfish, bring the broth to the boil and add the collops of monkfish. If using any of the other suggested fish, cut into 5cm (2 inch) pieces. Cover and simmer gently for approximately 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. It will no longer look opaque but will have a white and creamy appearance. Serve in deep bowls garnished with coriander leaves.
Irish Seaweed and Sesame Salad with Ginger Dressing
Seaweeds are definitely a sustainable superfood. Like all plants, they absorb CO2 but can also reduce acidification of the ocean helping microorganisms to thrive, they can convert pollutants into nutrients. We ought to incorporate more sea vegetables into our diet, they are infinitely more nutritious than anything grown on the land.
500g(18oz) selection of fresh seaweed:
kelp (sugar and regular)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Put the seaweed in a large bowl.
Grate a small amount of ginger into the bottom of a salad bowl and mix together with the vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and salt.
Toast the sesame seeds briefly in a dry pan, and then add along with the finely chopped spring onion. Toss the seaweed together in the salad dressing.