Saturday, 10 March 2012

Purple sprouting broccoli with tahini sauce (Μπρόκολο με ταχίνι)

When my husband planted the winter vegetable garden last year, he thought he was planting cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower heads. What we got instead was cabbage and broccoli heads, and purple sprouting broccoli. Only two cauliflower heads emerged. This created a lot of grief because we had too much broccoli all at once. Some was eaten, some was given away, some was cooked and added to the dog's food, and some just didn't make it to anyone's plate. I mourn food that ends up being thrown away, so I chopped it into little pieces and threw it into the garden, to be mulched as compost.

Purple sprouting broccoli, at the end of its growing season. Brassica vegetables are even tastier when they've felt the frost. Their stems are sometimes covered in a thick skin, which doesn't cook very well: the centre of the stem is soft, but the outside peel is stringy. I peeled them slightly before use, and incised the stalks to ensure they would cook tender. 

Purple sprouting broccoli. If we didn't grow it accidentally, I probably wouldn't have the chance to use it. Its name makes it sound unusual, as well as exotic, possibly helping it to command a good price on the market. Its name would also look good on a menu card. But all this time, it is still a broccoli, not better or worse than its cousin. Either broccoli varieties can be used to make the same dish, but one sounds like a freezer-bag variety, while the other sounds more elite.

Looking through the internet, I found a salad recipe by Ottolenghi using purple sprouting broccoli. It also uses another unusual ingredient: tahini, which also used to be considered an exotic ingredient in Crete. Mainly used in Northern Greece, it is now commonly available in Greek supermarkets all over the country. Tahini, a sesame seed paste, is the main ingredient used to make the Greek dense store-bought halva. It is the Greek answer to peanut butter, which is a relatively unknown ingredient in Greece. Many modern Greek cooks add tahini to cakes and biscuits, as well as being used as a spread. It has become very popular lately, and is no longer found in just one form: you can buy honey, orange and even chocolate flavoured tahini these days.

We have to remember that what is considered exotic in one culture may be a regular standard product in another culture. In a recent Guardian article, Eliane Glaser questions whether the 'new food culture' is a 'big fat lie' because it is mainly propounded by celebrity chefs and cannot be easily followed by ordinary home cooks:
"I think it's great that in recent years we've woken up to the wonders of fresh, local, home-cooked food. But this new food culture is not quite as it seems... Reality, normality, hard-working families: this is the mantra of the multimillionaire celebrity chef. But the recipes have trouble sticking to it because, despite the homely trappings, they are essentially restaurant food...  look at the ingredients: mirin, poussin, pomegranate juice, quail, harissa, sake, garlic oil. It would take an afternoon to track them down."
What may be a British 'illusion' when it comes to the freshness of food or certain 'unusual' ingredients is in fact a daily reality in many places around the world. My purple sprouting broccoli, once planted, grew unassisted, hence the "wonders of fresh, local, home-cooked food" in our daily meals. What's more, this is one reason why, despite the recession that has hit my country and will not go away for many years, I find it difficult to think that I will go hungry or lack nutritious food in my daily diet. When I eat fresh local seasonal food, it has nothing to do with elitist ideologies that have to do with locavorism. I eat what I have. And that's what I have: fresh local seasonal food. At the same time, I will probably eat better than other poor people elsewhere: better to be poor in Greece than poor in a country like the UK.

 Broccoli with tahini sauce, with the broccoli plant that inspired me to make the dish

I followed a recipe by Ottolenghi that uses these two 'exotic' ingredients with some minor tweaks: I didn't use the sesame seeds (the tahini has more than enough sesame in it); to make the dressing runny, I used a teaspoon of white balsamic vinegar instead of water; and I didn't blanch the broccoli florets for just three minutes - Greeks like their vegetables cooked till tender, not al dente, so I boiled it till it was cooked through. Then I drained it and placed it back in the pot, and let it cook till it dried, instead of char-grilling it (to avoid using two cooking utensils). The drying-out is important to give the broccoli a crunchy rather than limp boiled taste. 


My foray into celebrity chef recipes got me interested in more Ottolenghi-style food. See you tomorrow on that one.

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