Vegetables: My Journey to Dinner

-In the scheme of journeys, it’s hardly self-discovery. It’s not a voyage down the Yangtze or anything. It’s more like, say, driving from Reading to London. Tricksy and a bit tiring if you get caught in traffic, but a relief once you’re there.

In the metaphor of this, I already have a car, inasmuch as I like vegetables. I like them very much. They weren’t really optional when I was little, and it never occurred to me to complain about them, or not to eat them. I don’t remember ever refusing food: I was always aware that there wasn’t a great deal of it, that my mum had gone to a lot of trouble to organise it, and that what was on my plate was all there was going to be available to me that day, so I’d best have it and enjoy it if at all possible. We didn’t eat a massive variety of things because it was the 1980s, and because my parents were the least adventurous in food ever, so it was mostly meat and two veg with a side of potato of some sort, so it was hardly challenging. But I did copy my dad’s eating method, and still do to this day: vegetables first, and then the rest in order of worst to best (so there’s a lot of decisions to be made there, like, is mash better than mince, or are lentils preferable to eggs?).

I saw someone on TV the other day saying, you try feeding a child lentils…they won’t eat them! And I found this quite extraordinary. I mean…you can make lentils do virtually anything. They’re like potatoes. You can make them soft and mushy, or use their inherent starchiness to make your meal crispy and nom…they take on any flavour you like, and, it’s true, I have them with plenty of salt, but I cannot imagine why a child would even think about eating them unless you’ve not got the hang of cooking them. Which is fair enough. It takes time and energy to deal with dried lentils. I don’t mind – and have – that time and energy to learn how I like them, and so that helps. But lentils aren’t really vegetables…are they? I digress. I just found it really weird when I saw that, on Food and Drink, of all the wonderful programmes (second note on that: any dessert that costs over £2 per portion is NOT cheap!), and figured I’d digress to it.

But back to vegetables. I really like them a lot. I like them plain, particularly. I hate it when people cook vegetables in salty water, or, worse, sugary water. To be honest, I don’t even like them cooked in water at all all that much. Steamed is nice. Or raw. But then there’s my very favourite way to eat them. All of them. It’s called nalle mix, in our house, and it goes like this:

Onions first. Always onions first. If I have coconut oil, a good splat of that in a pan, heated up nicely to start things off. I like to cook with coconut oil because, joy of joys, it doesn’t do that burning/smoking thing that olive oil does, and it has just a touch of flavour that goes with basically everything. Then onions, sliced super fine. As many as possible, but reserving at least one for later. Stir until you get some colour on your onions. If you have leeks, they may also go in at this time, for leeks are magical. Once coloured, if there are mushrooms going in, their time is now, for I like to get the water out of them as quickly as possible and you can’t overcook mushrooms, to my mind.

Next up: any other root veg! Swede is brilliant: although there’s little in life as dull as cubing an entire swede, it bulks food out like mad and is really cheap to buy. Turnips are good, too. Carrots would be my exception, as I think they’re too sweet to cook this way, but some people like that in their food, and if you do, then that’s fine. Stick them in. They’ll go a bit mushy. Again, some people like that. And the roots/stalks of broccoli – I really like them. Beetroot is great as well, and can be added raw, or pre-cooked, either is fine. Makes it all nice and pink. So, stick cubed root veg in alongside the onions, stir and stir and stir. At this point, a good slosh of hot water from the kettle, to move everything around a bit.

If I’m going to have a busy week and need to make food stretch, or if I’ve run out of fresh food and I don’t know where my protein is going to be coming from, I’ll boil lentils and kidney beans together in a separate saucepan for fifteen minutes or so, drain them, and throw them in at this point. Perhaps with a bit more water.

If available, it’s herb time. We’re usually lucky enough to have thyme and rosemary growing, so I do a good palmful of that all chopped down tinily, and smoked paprika is my favourite thing ever to add to everything, so that as well. Basically anything. Stir and let it bubble away.

Now time for more chopping. Peppers – red, yellow, orange, green, whatever is there. I like the value bags most supermarkets do, and I chop up the whole lot. I put about half a chopped raw pepper into each serving bowl, and chuck the rest in the pan to keep bubbling. And it’s time for any other business – tomatoes, radishes, aubergines, anything going wonky in the fridge or going cheap in the bargain area of the supermarket veg section, it doesn’t matter how weird it is, as long as it’s not rotten, it’s fine!

Finally: leaves! Cabbage, if possible. Shredded as thin as I can be bothered, and in that goes. By this point, the pan is probably heaped up and protesting a bit. I continue to heap it as much as possible, stirring and trying to get it all mixed up.

Now, it’s time to decant. Some stuff might not be cooked through, but it doesn’t matter at this point because you’re most likely cooking this again. I sometimes portion it up into individual portions, but mostly that takes up fridge space and washing things, so I prefer sticking it all in an old ice cream tub to cool down and then fridging it, and spooning out what I need. The remainder (I tend to have about a handful per serving), the first time I cook this I almost always have with eggs, so I make little holes in the mix, dot a bit more coconut oil in the bottom and drop an egg in each. Then, over the top of each egg, I put something green that doesn’t need a lot of cooking – either the broccoli tops, finely chopped, or spinach, or something like that. It sort of coddles the egg a bit, and stops it being too jellyish. I keep the heat fairly low (actually, I turn it off on mine because the electric hob stays hot for ages) and, crucially, I don’t push it about. I’m aiming for everything on the bottom to get nearly-burnt. There’s too much water in it all for it to get properly burnt, and it adds nom flavour.

I finish chopping any other veg – the spare onion, cucumber, etc, and have that in the bowl ready to go, and I grate some cheese if there is some, and then in goes the veg and cheese on top and if the chilli plant is forthcoming, chillies, and DINNER AT LAST. After all the chopping, I am relieved that it is always worth it 🙂 The main thing is, there’s now enough nalle mix in the cupboard to do two people about four more meals each, which is a godsend when I can’t be bothered to vegetable. It can be heated in a pan with a splash more boiling water in about two minutes, or it can be fried up into little burger-ish cakes, or it can be thinned out and heated for longer until it thickens again and eaten as a soupish thing, or you can stick it in the oven with cheese on top as if it were a pie, or you can eat it on pasta or rice, or add mince to it…

…basically, it is the basis for everything. But mostly I have it with eggs and cheese. YAY! And so, that’s what I eat about four times a week. I love vegetables. With all my vegetable-cooking expertise, I’ve kind of narrowed down my favourite way of eating all of them to this.

But, recently (which was actually going to be the post I was going to make…) I have feared that this is not enough vegetable variety. That I’m cooking them too much, or something, or that I could do with some plain nutrients. So, I’ve decided to confront my fake-Magic Bullet thing with its true purpose: smoothie-making. I’ve never really liked smoothies, because they tend to be super sweet, and because, for some reason, I thought I didn’t like bananas, but that turned out not to be true. But then all this fancy raw green smoothie stuff became commonly discussed, and I thought, huh, I like eating vegetables in a pan, and I like eating vegetables steamed and raw, so maybe I could blend them all up and I wouldn’t have to chop them much and it could be quicker than eating salad.

So this month I am trying to have a vegetabley smoothie every day in the hope of increasing nutrients. I have just consumed kale, 1/4 cooked beetroot, half a banana, half a carrot and some cabbage leaves in drink form. It was good, if quite difficult to swallow, because my fake-Magic Bullet is not really interested in taking things past the fibrous, chewy stage, and I don’t mind fighting a bit with my drink and haven’t yet been able to join the happy world of the Vitamix-owners. One day, I dream, one day. But until then, I shall, instead of cooking everything together into nalle mix, try to grab vegetables and blend them together and finish the whole glass of it. We’ll see how that goes.

Oh, and I’ve done a week of 30-Day-Shred every day. I’m quite enjoying it so far, although sometimes I have truly found it exactly as difficult as people say it is, and sometimes I’ve found it quite easy. I can’t tell the difference between those days, but I’ve got another couple of weeks to work it out. Either way, I feel quite good for it.

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