In November, my sister Hannah took in four battery hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust. They looked skeletal and raw, having spent their lives inside in the dark with no space to stretch their wings.
But now three of them are doing great and it’s wonderful to see them running up to greet visitors, exploring, dust-bathing and generally being crazy chickens. Sadly one died early on, not used to the cold.
Hannah and I made a video to highlight just how much difference a bit of care and space makes to their lives. The take-home message is that we shouldn’t be eating chicken and eggs that come from cages.
In the first three months of 2018, according to Defra, 45% of eggs in the UK were still from caged hens while 51% were free range.
The solution is to either buy organic eggs, which have higher animal welfare standards, or avoid eggs and chicken entirely. I really find it hard to believe that (even drunk at 2am in the chicken shop) anyone would want to eat the eggs or meat that came from hens that looked like Hannah’s did.
This is my all-time favourite dinner. When I first discovered nutritional yeast I was pretty excited, but that was nothing compared to when I found out how make it into a supremely cheesy sauce — using mostly potatoes and carrots?! It sounds mad but seriously, try it. Plus it takes the guilt factor out of eating a huge plate of melted cheese. See ya, raclette.
Lately I’ve been trying to source as much of my food as possible from organic British growers. Pesticides (variations of which are used to make nerve gases and bombs) are what is behind the prediction that some of our soils have only 30 to 40 years of harvests left.
We’re only just starting to clock their effect on our health, and they’ve certainly killed wildlife and even people in farms around the world. We absolutely depend on wildlife as part of the ecosystem to grow food, so at some point our chemical addiction has to be addressed or we won’t be able to grow anything to feed ourselves.
Getting an organic veg box is an easy, delicious way to help, and I’ve started ordering organic pulses online from Hodmedod’s, who are bringing back some really great ancient British peas and grains.
So here’s my recipe for nachos with vegan cheesy sauce, cajun black badger peas and a green chilli coriander salsa.
** The black badgers need to be soaked overnight **
For the cheese sauce
125g carrot (approx. one)
250g potato (approx. one big one)
75ml olive oil
1 tsp salt
25g nutritional yeast
2 cloves of garlic
For the nachos
6 tortilla wraps
For the black badgers
200g dried black badgers (carlin peas) or black beans
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large onion
6 tbsps vegetable oil
2 tbsps paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
For the salsa
3 small green chillies, go for the variety that suits you for hotness
Bunch of coriander, about 30g
2 tbsps olive oil
4 tbsps water
Pinch of salt
Squeeze of lime juice
Spring onions, jalapenos, sweetcorn, tomato, limes — but try to go for what’s seasonal! Spring onions are good at the end of winter.
1. Soak the black badgers overnight in plenty of water. Rinse and cover again with water plus 1tsp bicarbonate of soda, bring to the boil then turn the heat down low and cover. Cook for 40-60 minutes until soft.
2. Meanwhile, start on the cheese sauce. Peel and roughly chop the potato and carrot into same-sized chunks and boil for 15-20 mins until soft. Don’t overcook or the sauce will go floury!
3. Drain then blend the potato and carrots with the rest of the ingredients, using a hand blender or nutribullet. You could mash it but the garlic would need to be crushed into a paste.
4. Preheat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ 390F/ gas mark 6
5. To finish off the beans, heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onions over a fairly high heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add all the herbs and spices, stir well and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the cooked beans and fry until everything is really crispy. Add any more salt, spices, herbs or oil to taste along the way, the black badgers are great for taking on flavour.
6. Cut the tortilla wraps into triangles and bake in the oven on trays for 10 minutes. Try not to overlap them too much or they won’t crisp up as well.
7. For the salsa, blend all the ingredients together, or chop really finely omitting the water.
8. Assemble — start with the nachos, add the cheese sauce, then black badgers, salsa and any extras. This would also be great reimagined as wraps for packed lunches.
Biting into a slice of tomato topped with crumbly, creamy ricotta, I was suddenly thrown into a cliché. This was just like in Italy, I thought, where I first discovered that tomatoes could taste good raw. Add the oozing alkaline green of basil pesto and I’m molta contenta.
This is to be expected when you eat at the pub supplied by Riverford organics, The Duke of Cambridge. Riverford is famous for its excellent veg box scheme, set up by Guy Watson, who is married to the founder of The Duke, Geetie Singh. Aha.
The Duke, which opened in 1998, is now ‘Britain’s first and only certified organic pub’ and yes, it is bloody good at vegetables. But it’s not just an organic pub – it aims to be sustainable in many aspects, from food waste, to packaging, to its second-hand wooden tables and chairs. It has therefore made it on to my food map of climate-friendly restaurants.
The starter was Tomato Salad, Liquorice Salt, Basil Pesto, Leaves & Ricotta (£8). The tomato was so ripe it barely needed chewing and the pesto was rich with olive oil, which we mopped up with what sadly looked and tasted a lot like bread-maker bread (£2.50). There was no liquorice salt evident to me or any of the other three diners around the table so it would be better not listed on the menu; particularly because the word ‘liquorice’ frightens some people. We shared it between four and that was lovely.
Next was Roasted Squash, Greens, Riso Nerone, Corn Salsa & Medita (£14) – picture at the top. Each vegetable was perfect. The squash was pull-apart stringy, sweet, herby and juicy. Baby kale was lemony and as salty as it could be without being too much. Black jewel-shaped rice with carrots and onion was piled up on the squash, and corn with pickled red onion brought acid and crunch. Grated medita, similar to feta, was extra salty seasoning that melted on the tongue.
We also ate Summer Salad, Batavia, French Beans, Courgette, New Potato, Cherry Tomato, Black Olives & Pesto (£13).
Words depicting polytunnels bursting with gluts of August vegetables floated over the table. It was moreish and crunchy and fresh, the kind of dinner you don’t realise is so healthy until you reconsider it later. My only qualm? The veg wasn’t much chopped so with the green, red and yellow colours it looked a little like a toddler’s box of 3D shapes.
Dark, Milk and White Chocolate Brownie, with Cream (£6.50) was pudding. I wanted it to be dense chewy brownie packed with a galaxy of chocolate chunks. But it was a cakey and homogenous block that had been reheated in the oven, making the edges dry out. It came with sour cream that personally, I liked, but it upset the others who had eaten a big spoon of it, just like when my grandma dramatically ate wasabi for the first time.
Value for money? Yes. Organic farming uses more resources and the vegetables were beautiful. There is so much to admire about Riverford and the ethical ethos of the pub. The vibe was rustic and charming with bunches of dried flowers, wooden beams, plenty of windows for light, and the honey-coloured King’s Cross-type bricks.
To be particularly harsh, The Duke won’t excite the very culinarily adventurous. But I would happily bring my friends and family here to gorge on hyper-seasonal, delicious veg. After all, simple, fresh and locally grown is what the Italians are known for – and not what Brits are. Other UK pubs, take note.