Open Sesame

After testing, tasting and a fair bit of teasing of what was to come, a copy of Florencia Clifford’s gorgeous book Feeding Orchids to the Slugs: Tales from a Zen Kitchen is now in my kitchen. First thing I did when I opened the book was look up the index of recipes to see those I’d tested and check what else was listed there. Then I spotted gomasio: a tasty condiment based on sesame seeds and salt that I used to make back in the 80s when I first experimented with a macrobiotic diet. I had completely forgotten about this humble, tasty aid to digestion and why I liked it so much. More on that in a minute.

All the recipes appear in the book in their rightful place in the context of Flo’s story. That prompted me to sit down, start at the beginning and discover the recipes, mindfully and in the same order as they had been written so I waited until page 93 before I made a small batch of gomasio, from the chapter, surprisingly titled: Porridge. (I felt there’s something to be honoured here about a cook who passes on her recipes, as well as her insights and since I’ve already been involved with this book, pre-production I wanted to understand why this particular condiment had been included in the story.)

Take: 1/4 cup of raw, unhulled sesame seeds (Flo prefers brown or yellow, mine were very pale yellow), 1 tsp rock or sea salt. Place the seeds in a dry, small non stick fry pan and toast on a very low heat, stirring often until golden, or until they just start to pop. This took about ten minutes, slower is better. Flo says, twenty, to bring out the potency of the taste and make them easier to grind later; I think I have much to learn. Take them off the heat preferably before popping starts, otherwise they’ll be all over the kitchen floor and/or the flavour ruined.

Toast the salt in the same pan, again on the lowest setting for about ten minutes, until it shines (the salt not the pan). Mix the seeds and salt together in a mortar, and grind with the pestle.

Take care not to grind into a powder, as the grainy texture of the seeds is important for sprinkling. Flo says don’t make too much as the seeds tend to go rancid after awhile. Small batches will last a long time, as you only need a little. I store mine in a little mustard jar, and yes it goes rather well sprinkled on porridge. Actually it goes well sprinkled on n number of things including pasta, rice and home made hummus (skip the tahini). But today I’m adding gomasio to a bowl of chard from this week’s veg box.

As I rinsed the chard with fresh water I could smell it’s earthy, bitter greenness, not unlike spinach but richer, darker and stronger.

There’s a recipe suggestion in the Riverford Farm Cook Book to add raisins and garlic or pine nuts to chard that has been flash boiled (wilted) in a small amount of water in a wok.

Drain and revive in cold water, drain again and add to a small amount of hot oil back in the wok. The addition of a handful of raisins seems like a good idea to counteract the strong green taste but the masterstroke is the addition of a sprinkling of gomasio. So there it is, sweet, salty and bitter, a holy trinity of flavours to titillate the taste buds on a chilly winter’s day.

Florencia writes about gomasio: ‘It originates from the macrobiotic tradition, the Japanese philosophy on whose principles I often draw in my cooking practice. Macrobiotics esteems seeds as a virtuous ingredient. When mixed with salt and toasted, the seeds acquire a natural healing quality. Sesame is believed to hold the key to a healthy digestion and helps reduce sodium levels (although it contains salt, the difference is in toasting it). It is rich in minerals and a good sauce of both protein and fibre.’

And of course I wouldn’t dream of telling why Florencia feeds orchids to the slugs because that would spoil the pleasure of reading the book and following her journey. A story of sensual experiences, insights and recipes, from a Buddhist retreat in an isolated farmhouse in mid-Wales to the hills of her childhood in Argentina, whilst becoming a Zen cook.

Here is a charming illustrated chapter page, to share from the book:

Retreat One: The Little Girl

Notice how the truth tends to manifest … Unexpectedly … In the small things we are often too drowsy to see … In constant whispers we are often too busy to hear …

Three recipes from Feeding Orchids to The Slugs:  Quinoa Salad ……. Mushrooms and Lovage Stew ……. Lentil Cottage Pie

What comes round, goes round …

When I first encountered kale in my organic veg box, I thought eating sea weed was a step too far. It looked exactly like the stuff that used to grow on the shingle above the shore line at Hill Head where I lived as a young teenager. Sea kale (crambe maritima … nice word) is edible and very good for you, as is the cultivated kale in my veg box. It’s odd how most of us discount free food as not worth anything; not worth the time spent harvesting or picking it, let alone taking the time to cook it.

Kale was one of the vegetables on the list of what to grow at home in the Dig for Victory Campaign during WWII, simply because it was easy to grow, outlasted a lot of other leafy vegetables as well as high in nutrients.

Well of course, I’ve paid for this kale so I’m going to have to do something with it and besides it’s been waiting at the bottom of the fridge in a plastic bag for over a week. And as if to prove a point it’s still as crisp and curly and fresh as the day it arrived.

The  recipe I’ve chosen comes from one of my old favourite cook books: Josceline Dimbleby’s Marvellous Meals with Mince. Some of the recipes are still quite novel (fish sausages and piglet pie) and on the whole don’t seem to have dated that much which is why a reprint thirty years after the first edition, in these times of austerity is still a good idea. And, after receiving a review copy of the 2012 edition from the publisher, I’m delighted to say that all the original recipes are still there, as is the odd whimsical quote: ‘One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is that we are doing and devote our attention to eating’ Pavarotti. Quite.

The presentation of recipes and photography feels contemporary and it’s more of a book now than a booklet but the format is perfect for sitting on the worktop without taking up precious work space. I’ll be experimenting with more of these recipes, however, my absolute favourite, is still Far Eastern Pie.

But I’m giving Spinach and Beef Layer Pie a go, with kale standing in for the green stuff. I’ve halved the recipe ingredients so these quantities would serve 3-4.

250g beef mince, 15g butter, 1 rounded tsp paprika, 1 tbsp plain flour, 300ml tomato juice, finely grated orange zest and juice, pinch of chilli powder, 2 large eggs, 40g blanched almonds.

Remove the stems from the kale, blanche in pan of boiled water, about 30 seconds, drain well. Melt butter in a large pan, add mince. Cook untill brown, use a spatula to break up the meat. Remove from heat and add paprika and flour. Gradually mix in tomato juice and return to heat to thicken, about 3 minutes.

Stir in orange zest and juice, chilli powder and seasoning.

Back in January I stocked up with a couple of bags of organic Seville oranges from Riverford, and put them in the freezer. I can’t tell you how it lifts my heart to get one of these frozen globes of sunshine out of the freezer and scrape the zest, whilst still frozen into a cook pot. It’s sharper and more zestier than a dessert orange.

Preheat oven, 200C, gas 6. Butter an ovenproof dish and add layers of kale and mince, starting with mince. Beat the eggs, add almonds and pour over the top. Bake for 25 minutes. This dish would go well with mashed potatoes or pasta. The kale makes a robust chewy layer, so removing the stalks before cooking is really important. Overall verdict: 8/10