Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I may just have crush. On your food that is, and your philosophy, and your stunning new cookbook, River Cottage Light & Easy. I’ve heard a lot about you Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, but I never endeavoured to get to know you. You were just some crazy-haired, outdoorsy, wellington-booted, wooly-jumpered, British farmer-chef with a cult-like following — which is not really my kind of thing. For my recipe fix I relied on chefs closer to my Sydney home, or proponents of the cuisines that I adore, such as Thai, Indian, and Mediterranean. That is until I decided to take an even healthier approach to what I’d always considered to be a relatively healthy, home-cooked diet.
Our household diet is largely cake, biscuit and dessert free, mostly processed food free and usually cooked from scratch. But it’s also largely based on repetitive pasta or rice-bolstered meals — quick-fix fillers that I can whip up swiftly after work, but are not necessarily good for me. Fat-filled, vegetable-less, butter chicken curry with rice springs to mind, or cream-brimmed, bacon-spiked penne bosciola — good meals, in a bad kind of way.
So your new book with recipes that eschew milk and wheat couldn’t have been better timed. Your message that “having the culinary tools to take a break from wheat [and butter] now and again” will bring “fresh energy and an uplifting karma to your cooking” resonated with me. I was keen to take up the challenge.
Your encouragement to put wheat flour to one side, introduced me to buckwheat flour and your galettes — a large, thin pancake associated with the region of Brittany in France (my ancestral home, as it happens). With your recommended filling of sauteed, garlicky, mushrooms the buckwheat galette was a perfect home-alone dinner — and I had leftover batter in the fridge for breakfast the next day.
I loved the inclusion of a pulses in your one-pot dish of chicken with lentils and rosemary, which started off being cooked on the stovetop, before retiring to the oven for an hour. The lentilly liquor was gloriously aromatic with rosemary and sufficiently thickened with the pulses to stave off the need for a side serve of potatoes, or rice, or pasta, or bread — those addictive carbohydrates I usually depend upon to augment a meal. A bowl of steamed, in-season, asparagus was the sole accompaniment.
Your spiced beef with bashed beans, to be served in gem lettuce leaves, was a novel idea. I made the beef a day in advance — the minced meat crisped and spiced up perfectly in the pan. But the day of serving was cold and rainy and the san choy bau approach to eating it didn’t appeal. Instead, I followed your ‘variation’ note and whipped up some guacamole to serve it Mexican tortilla-style. With no cornmeal tortillas on hand, we fell off the wagon (temporarily) and reverted to bad habits and wheat tortillas. We’ll try harder, next time!
Your breakfast crunch is a reason in itself to wake up in the morning. I omit the chocolate chips, but love, love, love the inclusion of banana chips and dried blueberries. Chopped hazelnuts are right at home in this DIY muesli, which I serve with nut milk (as you suggest) because I’m firmly a-fixed to the almond milk bandwagon careening through crazy town.
I’m looking forward to trying the smoothies in your breakfast section ad in the baking chapter your seedy bars with chili and rosemary appeal, as do the rye and ale crispbreads. I’ll pass, for now, on the soup section as we head into Sydney summertime, but I perfectly paired your green salad with Thai dressing with your baked aromatic nutty chicken — with a satay-style paste pushed up between the skin and breast of a whole chicken — for a casual, outdoor lunch with friends.
Your ‘store-cupboard fishcakes’, incorporating potato, a tin of sardines, a bunch of spring onions (which I pulled from the veggie patch) and capers and dredged in cornmeal (I used polenta) passed the fishcake test with flying colours.
So thank you, Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, for keeping our healthy eating on track and suggesting interesting alternatives to the refined wheat and processed dairy products that we’ve become accustomed to. I appreciate your guidance and for facilitating a kind of school-girl crush … on your food that is, and your philosophy, and your stunning new cookbook.
Spiced beef with bashed beans
Serves 2–3, or 4–6 as a starter or tapas
2 tablespoons rapeseed or sunflower oil
350g lean beef, coarsely minced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly bashed
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly bashed
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes, or to taste
1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
2 little Gem lettuces, separated into leaves
A good squeeze of lime (or lemon) juice
Leaves from a small bunch of coriander, or parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE BASHED BEANS
1 tablespoon rapeseed or olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced
400g tin white beans, such as cannellini or butter beans, rinsed and drained
A small glass of vegetable stock or water (75ml)
Lime or lemon wedges
Put a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the oil and, when hot, crumble in the mince. Fry without turning for a couple of minutes to allow some good browning, then turn and stir and fry for about 5 minutes until all of the mince has lost its raw look.
Add the garlic, cumin and coriander seeds, chilli flakes and some salt and pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring frequently to distribute the spices and brown the mince all over. If there is any excess fat, pour it off. Add the paprika, cook for a further 2 minutes, until the beef is beginning to get crispy, then take the pan off the heat.
Meanwhile, for the bashed beans, put the oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add the sliced garlic and cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes or until it is just starting to colour. Add the beans and a little salt and pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the stock or water and bring to a simmer. Simmer for a couple of minutes more then take off the heat. Give the beans a rough bashing in the pan with a potato masher to create a coarse-textured mash, with some whole beans retained. Add a little more liquid if it seems very dry. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed.
Divide the lettuce leaves between serving plates or bowls, spoon over some warm bashed beans and top with the spicy beef. Add a good spritz of lime or lemon and a scattering of coriander or parsley and serve, with lime or lemon wedges.
Make up a rough guacamole by mashing 2 ripe avocados in a bowl with a trickle of oil, a pinch of chilli flakes, some roughly chopped coriander if you have some, a little salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lime. Serve the mince, beans and guacamole on, or with, a cornmeal tortilla, with roughly shredded lettuce leaves if you like, and you’ve got yourself a proper little Mexican feast.
River Cottage Light & Easy
by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall