How To Eat In, Part Two: Keep It Fresh
Forget writing a novel, baking sourdough or learning a new language, perhaps the biggest challenge we face right now is not just finding the ingredients we want but using whatever fresh food we can get to its full potential and not to throw any of it away.
If that weren’t enough, now we’re cooking all the time, we also want to ensure that what comes out of the kitchen is as exciting and varied as possible. Whenever spring and summer come around, we find ourselves craving invigorating and colourful (rather than bland and dreich) food, but that need is especially true this year.
For some, every day is a thrilling personal edition of Ready Steady Cook. If, however, the new way of shopping feels restrictive or you’re finding it hard to take a fridge-half-full approach, then read on. With a guide to the building blocks and flavour cupboard already in place, this instalment focuses on how to keep things fresh.
01. Go big on fresh flavours
First, a general rule of thumb. Don’t hold back when it comes to gathering and then throwing in fresh flavours. Food that’s vibrant and fragrant isn’t just tasty, it’s cheering.
There are a handful of fresh ingredients that should be used regularly and with relative abandon. Citrus fruits, fresh herbs, fresh chillies, ginger, lemongrass and garlic are probably top of the list. It’s not frivolous to prioritise a regular supply of them, nor is it wasteful to use them frequently. On the contrary, in doing so, what you have won’t get a chance to dry out, wilt or rot.
Two and a half decades ago, many British and American home cooks sprinkled and pinched herbs by the miserly teaspoonful, saved lemons for special occasions and were confused by chillies and aromatic roots. Since Mr Jamie Oliver arrived, measurements have, in theory, been thrown in by the liberal fistful. Still, we sometimes need reminding that with these greens, yellows and reds we can bring vibrance and buzz to what we eat, and that we shouldn’t be shy in doing so. Ms Alison Roman, author of Nothing Fancy, is a cook of recent celebrity who continues the promotion of using these ingredients generously. Look for further inspiration from ambassadors of food from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and India, such as Ms Olia Hercules, Mr Yotam Ottolenghi and Mses Sabrina Ghayour and Meera Sodha.
02. Successful planning and storage
By now, you’ll either have found yourself a source (or sources) for weekly deliveries of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, or your (socially distanced) food shopping will be infrequent and in bigger quantities than before. On the one hand, great. On the other, how’s the storage looking?
It might seem unnecessary to explain this, but I will do so anyway. Be aware of how long ingredients will last when you put them in the fridge and, once you have done so, spend 10 minutes making a rough plan as to how you will use things up over the next seven days or so.
The second obvious, but let’s be honest, often overlooked point of note is how you’re packing that fridge. It’s difficult, isn’t it, now there’s more than beer, butter and the remnants of last week’s takeaway. While you might be tempted to just shove things in, try a little order. With a little effort early on, it’s possible to preserve fresh flavours far longer than they would last without intervention.
Tips for successful fridge management:
- Check use-by dates before packing the fridge and make a mental note as to the order in which the meat, fish and dairy ought to be used up. Fish tends to be best eaten as soon as possible. Minced meats and portions cut away from the bone will spoil sooner than larger cuts and joints.
- When thinking of how and when you’ll use them, spread proteins out and make at least a third of your meals vegetarian.
- Leafy greens and salads have a shorter life span than hardier greens and root vegetables. Things such as chard and large leaf spinach should be stored in a bag to stop them drying out. Mushrooms, on the other hand, also need to keep moist and stay covered, but get sweaty in plastic. Remove any tightly wrapped cellophane and cover either with a paper bag or a damp cloth.
- Fresh herbs, whether soft like mint and coriander or woody like rosemary, should be wrapped in a damp cloth and/or stood upright in a tall Tupperware or old yoghurt pot, with 1cm water at the bottom (submerging only sprigs, not leaves). Change the water regularly and check to ensure they haven’t dried out or are soggy and rotting.
- Wash and pick over soft fruits and berries. Don’t let one bad strawberry ruin the punnet. The same is true for soft vegetables and leaves.
- And because you’ll likely be running out of space, at least at the beginning of every shopping cycle, remember that (in the UK) eggs can live outside the fridge, carrots (to an extent) and potatoes and squash (definitely) can be stored somewhere merely cool and dark. Tomatoes are absolutely best kept at room temperature.
Freezer hacks for long-lasting fresh flavours:
- Rosemary, sage, thyme and curry leaves can be frozen; just cook them as if fresh (ie, without defrosting). Store in Ziploc bags and pick what you want when you need it. The leaves can be stripped from the woody bits once frozen too, to save space.
- Fresh chillies freeze well and, like herbs, can and should be used from frozen. Your knife will still chop through them.
- Freeze lemon, lime and orange segments, either for use once defrosted or, better still, to add to a gin and tonic. Particularly good if you’ve used half a lemon in a dish and don’t foresee using the rest of it in the near future.
- Decant the end of a wine bottle into an ice tray and add the resulting ice cubes the next time a recipe calls for a splash of wine.
- If you make stock from chicken carcasses (you should), but have no space in the freezer for a 1.5-litre container, keep boiling away to reduce it right down, decant into an ice tray and call yourself Mr Marco Pierre White.
Continuing the preservation theme, another idea for extending the life of fresh flavours is to turn your hand to some low-level fermentation to make the most of what you’re buying in. I’m on my third veg box delivery of the lockdown and remarkably my fourth cabbage. A jar of kimchi or sauerkraut seems inevitable.
Perhaps you’re in the same boat and are staring at a surplus of cabbage, hard root vegetables or chilli peppers. In which case, spend 30 minutes one evening making them last longer. Chef, fermenter and author of First, Catch Mr Thom Eagle writes lucidly on this topic at Vittles, or consider The Noma Guide To Fermentation by Messrs David Zilber and René Redzepi.
If all your planning fails and you find one day that you’ve not got exactly the ingredients prescribed by a recipe, don’t be put off. This is not to say you should suddenly consider yourself a molecular scientist and substitute raspberries for tomatoes, or kale if instructions require, say, plantain. However, as a general rule, the vast majority of dishes will be at least good enough when ingredients with similar characteristics are used interchangeably. This is especially true, and perhaps most relevant, for vegetables, but equally, if a recipe or your guttural desires call for a specific cut of meat or fish, it’ll also likely be just as good with another.
Most recipes involving green beans will suit asparagus, tenderstem or purple sprouting broccoli, runner beans, sugar snap peas and mangetout. It’s rare that a named cabbage variety can’t be swapped for another. Cavolo nero = kale = chard = spinach. Root vegetables, squash and pumpkins broadly do the same thing, though some are sweet (carrots, beetroot, parsnips, squash) and others are potatoes. You get the idea. Mr Nigel Slater’s Tender and Greenfeast, and indeed all his books, are a good place to look for recipes that reflect the adaptability and interchangeable nature of vegetables.
05. The recipe: fridge-drawer som tam
This salad goes big on the fresh flavour enhancers discussed above – in this instance, lime and chilli, both of which you might have stored in the freezer. It’s also a dish that should typically involve green beans, cherry tomatoes and green papaya and yet still carries the same spirit if one or all of those (the green papaya) are replaced with strips of carrot, kohlrabi or courgette, the (uncooked) nubbins from the end of a broccoli, the last handful of sugar snap peas and so on. The point is, what a som tam should actually be is rough and rambunctious, sweet, sour and eye-socket-sweat hot. Add the dressing to whatever raw and crunchy fridge-drawer miscellany is to hand and you’ll find you’ve got something that will go with a plethora of grilled, roast, steamed or fried meat, fish or vegetable centerpieces, from salmon fillets through to roast aubergine, pork chops, chicken thighs and minced lamb kebabs.
Serves 1 with leftovers, or 2 if served alongside rice
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp (5g) dried shrimps
- 3 bird’s eye chillies, finely chopped
- 1½ tbsp (15g) roasted salted peanuts
- 1 lime, half juiced, half cut into wedges
- 1 tbsp palm sugar/golden caster sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- ½ tsp pomegranate molasses
- 8 fine green beans, topped (or a handful of sugar snap peas or mangetout)
- 1 small-medium courgette (about 200g), peeled (and/or carrots, kohlrabi, beetroot or radish)
- 6 cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 large tomato, cut into chunks)
- Sea salt flakes
Put the garlic, shrimps, half the chillies and half the peanuts in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt flakes, and pound to a paste. Add the lime wedges and bash and bruise them. Transfer everything to a mixing bowl, then add the sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and pomegranate molasses. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.
Cut the beans into 3cm lengths and cut the courgette into very fine matchsticks (ideally with a julienne peeler or a combination of mandolin and knife). Add everything to the dressing in the mixing bowl, along with the tomatoes and remaining (non-pounded) chillies and peanuts. Mix well and leave to macerate for 5–10 minutes before serving with rice and your chosen centrepiece.
Mr Ed Smith is the author of On The Side and The Borough Market Cookbook