Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 6

In which the writer rambles physically as well as metaphorically, and discovers fruit trees.

Hello! This issue contains ramblings about planning meals and shopping for them, spice mixes, and urban orchard corners. For the meal planning, it’s very much the case that most of what I’m talking about here is what suits me and Nina at the moment; differences in employment, non-pandemic conditions, different people in the house and so on would make this unsuitable pretty quickly. But I’ll try to draw out some principles as well.

I am a breakfast eater, given a chance. I am even a breakfast cook, given about the same chance, which is not to say that I will not eat breakfast if someone else cooks it, but most often, I am the cook. If I do anything for you before breakfast that isn’t grunting and pawing at the fridge door, you should understand that this is very special treatment. So breakfast planning happens here. On the other hand, I would happily eat the same breakfast for about ten days in a row before feeling any need for a change, and Nina would set me on fire by about day four, so again, breakfast planning.

Usually, Anna, the other bipedal resident of this North Salt house, sorts out her own food. Since we’re all here all the time at the moment, we’re doing communal cooking (at least for evenings) a lot of the time. I’m coming to dislike the term “picky eater”, since most people have reasonably solid reasons for the things they won’t eat, but Anna’s list of such things is longer than mine or Nina’s. So again, planning helps.

None of us have food allergies, so we don’t have to take that into account. I learned my food planning first from Nina (while there is plenty of evidence that my mother planned food carefully and methodically, I wasn’t involved, and my father is not a planner), and then from cookery at SCA events, providing all the food for 60+ people for a weekend, including one extensive feast. Once you go beyond about five people, your chances of running into some allergy increase rapidly, so I learned to plan around that. As a side effect, I now carry the allergies and food sensitivities of about 300 people across the Isles - and a few further afield - in my head.

I keep notebooks (I have a Method; it’s not important here, but:) one of which is a scratch notebook, for making notes of random things. In any given week, this will include some recipes I have seen and want to try. And of course I have vast numbers of food books - not necessarily cookery books, as in books of recipes, but books-about-food - which provide more inspiration. At the moment, I am trying to limit the number of these I’m working from at any given time to four or fewer. Peter Brears’ Cooking & Dining in Medieval England has just come out of rotation, Nigel Slater’s Notes from the Larder and Delia Smith’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking have just gone in. May Bsisu’s The Arab Table, Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan, and Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of the 14th century Egyptian “Kanz”, The Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table remain in, so I’m not doing so well on the four bit.

From all of these things, I collate a list of things I want to cook. This will involve much paging through, much examination of ingredients, much muttering to myself, and occasionally a very odd out of context question to someone else like “do you know if you’re allergic to rue?” or “can you remember if Lidl stock dill?”. At the moment, I’m having to take into account that I can only get ingredients from reasonably close by; no Garda checkpoint is going to take my trip into Dublin on the off-chance that the Asian shop by the Jervis centre has the thin-sliced lamb I saw there in January as an essential journey.

Once I have a list of things, I start assigning them to meals. Mostly, this is dinner and breakfast; the way things fall out at the moment it’s rarely useful to plan lunches, although I am experimenting with N.K. Jemisin’s beans and rice for that on a once a week basis (it usually lasts for two or two and a bit). Sometimes I have too many, and something gets booted out to next week. Sometimes I don’t have enough, and have to stare at the page for a few minutes before I fill in something else. Anna will cook burritos from a kit, so she gets that once a week, and I do breaded fish and oven chips once a week at the moment as well, because I don’t want to burn myself out on creative cooking. This is the point at which things like “I will need to make bread on Wednesday if we’re to have toast for avocado toast on Thursday” become clear, and they get noted down as well.

So what I end up with is a list (now written down in a notebook that lives on the kitchen table) that starts off with “Monday, breakfast” and goes all the way to “Sunday, dinner”. I may consult the others around now, in case I’ve forgotten that they’re doing a thing on Zoom some evening; people’s evenings appear to be at least as busy as in the Before Times, and while some meals can be eaten in front of a screen, others can’t. Once everything has been settled there, it’s time for the shopping list.

The list building method is still being refined; I’ve always had the option before of nipping out to get a particular thing, getting it on the way home from work, etc, and adjusting to not having that is remarkably cumbersome. The same kitchen table notebook has a running list of stuff-that’s-needed, which is a start, and then I go through each recipe in order and write down what we need to get for it, and how much. There are usually duplicates on this list - onions are guaranteed to occur more than once, and unless I’m going hardcore medieval for the week, tomatoes probably will too.

However, those go away on the second draft of the list, which is sorted into rough categories of “vegetable/fruit”, “meat/fish”, “dairy”, “bread & bread-like stuff”, “ingredient”, and “other”, and gets marked up with total quantities as I go. This is the list that’ll go to the shop or shops with me, and get stuff marked off as acquired.

Tesco is normally our best local supermarket, measured by the range of stuff you can get. Tesco is also a large primarily-English multinational with the usual set of unpleasant behaviours that adhere to that. To their credit, they do a lot of work on using Irish suppliers, but they also by their nature wipe out smaller local businesses. However, at the moment, there is a fairly permanent hour-long queue to get into the building there, and that’s no fun. Neither Aldi nor Supervalu - the two places we visited for the last two expeditions - have notable queues (Supervalu has had none any time I’ve been there). Aldi also has remarkably good meats and baked goods. Supervalu will fill in the gaps on stuff I can’t get in Aldi (herbs and spices in particular), but it’s worth noting that I can get 90% of the stuff on my list in Aldi for 75% of the budget, and then the remaining 10% in Supervalu will take the other 25% of the money.

However, there are things Maynooth simply does not stock. Some of them are exotic enough - za’atar and pomegranate molasses, and others are fairly prosaic, like ground cardamom. I can get whole cardamom pods, no hassle. Getting the ground seeds, or even the seeds without the pods, doesn’t happen. But I can take the seeds out of the pods and grind them by hand, or I can dig around the spice drawer until I find some stashed seeds, and use those.

The other things I have to make. These are mostly spice blends and condiments, the condiments often being either ingredients for dishes I’m making, or ingredients for further condiments, in a sort of chain of cookery which can only ever make sense if you’re going to be in the kitchen a lot anyway.

Za’atar is just four ingredients - sesame seeds, oregano, cumin and sumac. I can get all of those right now, although I’ll admit I was kind of surprised to find sumac on the shelves in Supervalu. I had some anyway, because the gods only know what’s in the depths of the spice drawer here. You toast the sesame seeds, you put the whole lot together, and you grind them a bit in a mortar and pestle. The outcome is a very fine and rather distinctive mix. It’s Lebanese in origin, and just to be really confusing, either the same or a very similar word is used in Arabic for thyme.

Aṭrāf al-ṭīb, for which the carefully cut-and-pasted Arabic is “أطراف الطيب “, is used as an ingredient in the fourteenth century Eygptian book I’m doing stuff from, and Nasrallah gives the actual mix as detailed in an earlier, thirteenth century book. Done properly, it wants twelve ingredients: spikenard, betel-leaf, bay leaves, nutmeg, mace, green cardamom, cloves, rosebuds, fruit of Syrian ash, long pepper, ginger, and black pepper. Some of those are available locally. Long pepper and rosebuds I happen to have; long pepper is widely used in medieval cookery, and rosebuds are a handy garnish if you want stuff to look extra good for the high table. Spikenard (apparently also called asarabacca, which is totally the name of Chewbacca’s sister) I do not have, and following down a long list of substitutes-for-substitutes eventually arrives at ginger, which is included anyway. Betel leaf is another thing not sold anywhere I can reach, although like spikenard, I may be able to chase it down online. And the fruit of the Syrian ash is a complete mystery. Assuming that the good old Irish ash produces decent fruits this year, I am going to acquire, dry and grind some - all the recipes in the Kanz want it thus - and maybe pickle some too, since Cee found me recipes to do that. And maybe that will be halfway accurate. In the meantime, I have made up the mix without the unavailable ingredients, and it will do for now.

And then there’s the pomegranate molasses. This isn’t impossibly hard to get, and it is probably on the shelves in Tesco. I am not going to queue for an hour to get one ingredient, so I made my own: take a litre of pomegranate juice, two tablespoons of lemon juice, and about the same of sugar, and boil it gently down until it gets sticky enough to leave a coat on the back of a spoon. Remove from the boil, resist eating it with a spoon, put in a jar and let cool. It is an absolute revelation, as far as I’m concerned; a sort of sweet-and-sour sticky sauce that I can see a million uses for. I understand it can be done with other juices too, so I’m going to be experimenting. Apple molasses. Pear molasses. Tomato molasses may be a step too far, though.

There are at least another six spice blends I want to make up, either because they are named blends used in multiple dishes, or because like the spices for hashweh, they’re specific, and I’m going to re-use them a good bit, so having the mix on hand in the right proportions is useful. Of course, then I need to store them, so I have jars on the way (you need a jar for the pomegranate molasses, too, not a bottle - you want to be able to get a spoon in). And once travel works again, I’ll get my brother to install a floor-to-ceiling spice rack on a narrow section of wall in the kitchen, and I can clear the square foot of counter and the pantry drawer that are currently taken up with the things.

Also on the cards for when we can move around again is acquiring a sort of semi-mobile kitchen island. That is, a cross between a kitchen island and a butcher’s cart, which will replace the kitchen table (which will move into the back room). The island-thing, which I’m going to claim is a kitchen crannóg, will have storage space underneath it, and also a sort of hanging bar overhead, on which even more stuff can be stored. Storage space is the thing our kitchen most needs, so that will help a lot, and I expect it to be very picturesque while it’s at it.

There’s an article about restaurants in the Irish Times that introduced me to the concept of the ghost kitchen, which is essentially a restaurant kitchen with no actual access for customers; it’s all delivery, and can therefore be situated in an industrial estate or nearby a ring-road junction or the like. To be honest, I kind of assumed a number of these already existed, since I have no idea where several of the places we regularly order from actually are. Or at least I didn’t, until wandering around Maynooth with the dog in the last couple of weeks brought me through some of the side streets and odd bits of the village I haven’t been in before.

Wandering has also shown me quite a number of old fruit trees. Many of these are in people’s gardens, and I probably shouldn’t be scoping them out for autumnal fruit acquisitions, but some are in more public places. Aside from the ones in the small green near here, I’ve spotted a much more mature apple tree in one of the slightly older housing estates, which overhangs a green area, and also a sort of derelict orchard as part of an empty lot (possibly once the back garden of a cottage) which might have some good stuff. That one is off to one side of where an estate was, in the best way I can describe it, superimposed on an existing cul-de-sac field access road. You can see some of the road at the entrance to the estate, a few traces of it on the way through, and then there’s a vestigial 700m or so of the actual old road at the very back, which has half a dozen houses on it, and a few fields and runs up to a dead end at a field gate with a sizable, but easily moved barrier to make the point. There’s a beech tree there which, from the shape of it, must have been pollarded a century ago, and is now vast in girth.

Elsewhere, at the back of another, much more recent housing estate, Kildare County Council have put in a new orchard. It’s an area that is separated from the motorway by a band of fairly mature trees and shrubbery, but is still a bit too loud for housing - so they’ve put in about 30 new apple trees, of four or five Irish varietals, and they’re settling in nicely. Assuming they get to a reasonable maturity, there will be quite a lot of apples from them, and at the moment, you can literally wander through a gateway with no gate into the space. There’s also some evidence of someone having tried out an allotment-style bit of gardening there, which includes a slightly more mature apple tree - maybe three years old - which is blossoming ferociously.

All of this use of odd corners of the town makes me think of a sort of positive spin on Junkspace, although perhaps that’s more suitable for Gentle Decline than here. And that kind of ties in in my head to the changes that are going to arise from the pandemic’s lockdown conditions in food production and consumption. At the very least, people are going to be more interested in what’s available locally, what they can get to within 2km or 5km, and what they can get to without queuing or being exposed to a lot of people in close proximity. It’s possible that small grocery shops might make something of a comeback - particularly if they can offer delivery to the front door. Certainly, all of this has highlighted the way in which immediate, local access to food doesn’t work in wide swathes of Ireland - rural areas in particular, wherein there might only be two shops, or one, or none, in any given circle of 5km radius, but also in the suburbs, where there are places that have as the only options either a huge supermarket with long queues, or a corner shop that really can’t stock enough. The lockdown conditions in Ireland, at least, allow for further travel for shopping - but the fact that they need to do in suburban areas is something over which I think Jane Jacobs would tear out hair.

This issue has been brought to you by arboreal mapping concepts, some good nights’ sleep, the concept of a gifted cider-press, and even more online conversations about food. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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