Well, wasn't that great weather at Easter and afterwards, it felt like (Irish) summer had come early, but then April is on average the driest month of the year. The cold weather of the end of the month, though, has been like a return to winter when our minds are thinking it's late spring... Though I must say I always feel a bit sad at the departure of the last daffodil/narcissi flower, more so than the departure of the last rose (metaphorically speaking – we don't have many roses) of summer. I think it's a reminder of how fast the seasons change and that soon, summer will come and then be gone again...but that's me jumping too far ahead.
On yer unhealthy and possibly carcinogenic bike
Belfast has, thankfully, got in on the city bike act although initially the thirty bike stands are not too widespread. The sponsor, as with Dublin's very successful scheme which has now reached ten million journeys, is Coke Zero. Sponsors may on rare occasions do things out of the goodness of their heart, or take a leap of faith, but with something big like this they are certain that the publicity, and identification with something 'green' and progressive, will rebound in their favour in the shape of a lot more sales of Coke Zero.
Right, so what is in Coke Zero? Well, there is caffeine which gives it a kick (which you could equally get from a cup of tea or coffee if that is your drug of choice and you have no reason to avoid it), there is caramel colouring. There are various other bits but the sweeteners are aspartame and acesulfame potassium (common in many so-called 'soft' drinks). Both these sweeteners are controversial, indeed all artificial sweeteners are, with a variety of major health concerns though it is difficult for a layperson to disentangle the web of genuine research, and counter-arguments including the food and drink industry's own efforts to undermine any critical findings.
So I won't try and hit you with detailed 'facts' but a simple web search will throw up more than enough disquieting information of possible widespread negative effects on your health, and some reassurances which I would take with a grain of salt [Only a grain though – don't want to overdo the sodium either – Ed]. I would certainly advise touching and using city bikes if they are within your path, so to speak. But leave the Coke Zero or Diet Coke alone. And look at the ingredients of other 'soft' drink bottles; I think you need to be soft in the head to drink some of this stuff if you know what is in it.
Joining up (the dots)
Interesting to be leafleting those attending a British Army recruitment fair. As with previous affairs at Kinnegar army base at Holywood, Co Down, the 'fair' at the Kings Hall, Belfast, provided an opportunity to leaflet people at the entrance as they came in by car (nearly all arriving this way) but there was little opportunity for discussion and debate, partly because of this – when they got out of their cars they were on private property out of our reach. However, the leaflet we gave out '10 reasons to think carefully before joining the British army or armed forces' had most of the points we would want to make, albeit in summary form.
Most people were polite, including the police and private security people, we certainly tried to treat people politely and civilly even when they verbally abused us, but thankfully there were only a few who did that, telling us in no uncertain terms what we were, where we could stick our leaflets, and so on. One man said very angrily that we were only there because of the British Army, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves; well, we were only there because of the British Army, otherwise we could have been at home drinking coffee, or doing the washing, but I suppose he meant there and not under a Nazi jackboot or something. The reality of history includes the very certain fact that Nazi Germany only grew because of how Germany was treated following the First World War – obviously this was not the only ingredient in that noxious brew but nevertheless a critical element. And the British Army has, ahem, something to do with making Northern Ireland still part of the UK – I am talking long term historically, not specifically about the Troubles.
Saying "You should be ashamed of yourselves" in an obviously emotional way showed the man in question's extremely strong attachment to the British Army, and resultantly treating us like we were children who had done an inexcusably naughty and inexplicable act. As for feeling ashamed, well, no, I must say I felt a bit of pride in at least trying to put a question mark before people who might have a very unquestioning approach to the British army – or any other army. All sorts of people were there – as well as typical recruitment age young people with parents or attending in small groups there were some parents and grandparents bringing children, presumably for 'entertainment' and excitement at seeing the guns and weapons on display. And that is something I do find weird and unsettling.
The strong link between the British military and arms manufacturers was well illustrated by the presence of a stall at the recruitment fair by Thales, Belfast's missile manufacturer, Ireland's largest arms producer, and supplier of weapons systems to dozens of dodgy regimes around the world. Also present was a stall representing the new and strongly unionist Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (73% Protestant, 19% Catholic, 8% 'other'), promoting events they have running in its three principal towns during Armed Forces Day in June. 'Armed Forces Day' was thought up some years ago to try to promote the British armed forces and build links between them and ordinary people; it began as "Veterans' Day" in 2006 and became "Armed Forces Day" in 2009.
As mentioned above, leafleting people who are generally attending by car does not permit much in the way of dialogue but I was interested that of those two or three who did come on foot out of the car park to speak to us at the gate, it was to be abusive. A few drivers politely handed back leaflets when they realised what they were, just one crumpled his on the ground with angry words we couldn't catch. We did see a variety of people reading the leaflet but part of the reason for the lack of dialogue may also have been an unwillingness to interact because people felt they could be 'put on the spot'. It would be interesting to know how many conversations took place occasioned by the leaflet, either inside or in the car on the way home.
But it is also true that when a part of reality is as black and white as something like this, the scope for dialogue is limited (and many things in Northern Ireland are this way – not just militarism). We can raise a question mark and encourage young people to think if joining the military is the right choice. We can show that there are people who question the role of the British Army – because many of those attending would have a totally uncritical approach (as when we were told "The British army is the best in the world...."). Even to do raise the issues is an achievement, certainly among the Protestants and unionists of the North – who would have tended to be 'the community' mainly in attendance - where a critical approach to the British army would not generally be expected.
Oh, the Veterans for Peace presence at this recruitment fair was independent of INNATE's presence and they were turfed out for being a 'disruptive influence' but, in the wider scheme of things in the world, who is 'disruptive' of people's lives in a very negative way? I think the answer is the British Army and not Veterans for Peace.
V & V (12): Special occasions
And so, as we get to the end of this series, we come to 'special occasions' when we want to do something extra special, a particularly nice meal or dish, in our vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
If you are catering for immediate family or indeed for close friends, then 'something special' may be simply some dishes you know everyone enjoys, and doing two or three courses; it does not have to be a labour of love for hours over a hot stove. Of course you can do that if you wish – what I am saying is that there is no need if what people really enjoy is simpler, and the special element can be doing a few different things for the meal that you know everyone will like. And that may allow you to socialise and enjoy the occasion too.
The second and third piece of general advice is, if you are trying to cook for a special occasion and are doing intricate dishes which you are not familiar with, a) try cooking them for a 'normal' meal first so you get a feel for doing it, and the ingredients, and are not dependent on using a recipe for the first time – this can be hair-raising if you are cooking an important meal in your social calendar, and b) leave loads of time, if you are not familiar with a recipe then do not depend on the supposed preparation time but if you have done a), cooked it before, you'll have a better idea of the time you require. And, where possible an additional piece of advice would be c) prepare whatever you can well in advance, you don't want to be panicking as guests arrive. You want to be able to enjoy the occasion too – though that is easier said than done when you are the host.
For starters you can do a soup, salad, bruschetta or grilled polenta which can be fairly well organised in advance. If you are doing a salad as a starter it needs to be different but it can still be simple – e.g. lettuce or rocket with lots of chives/scallions/Welsh onions chopped, in a well thought out olive oil dressing (with a good vinegar or ume plum seasoning) and croutons – very simple but tasty.
If you make polenta (with special polenta corn flour) you can coat slices in olive oil, grill them until browning (this takes a while, maybe ten minutes each side) and top with several little mounds of finely chopped green chilli (just a little!), chutney or pickle, hummus or whatever. You could do the same kind of toppings with potato bread although potato bread won't take as long under the grill as polenta, perhaps five minutes each side. If you want the potato bread to go crisper you can oil it before putting it under the grill. Decoratively the polenta or potato bread can be cut into triangles. Soups can be made special by the addition of dairy cream or nut cream (see under desserts) and some chopped chives or croutons; we tend to do curried parsnip or carrot and coriander soup if we want a soup for special occasions.
I am not going to give you 'special occasion' main courses but recommend a master chef's works. Some of the dishes I have included in this publication - the nut loaf for example, the palak paneer, stuffed peppers or tomatoes - are suitable as part of a meal for special occasions – and you can look out for veggie recipes in many newspapers and magazines these days, as well as online. But you may like to invest in one or more of Denis Cotter's books, he of Cafe Paradiso in Cork, generally acknowledged to be the finest veggie restaurant in Ireland. We use his books all the time for special occasions. Some of the recipes are very time consuming, so beware and take note of the caveat above about trying the recipe beforehand and leaving plenty of time.
Denis Cotter's first and most basic (relatively speaking!) book is "The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook", and this is probably the one to start with. However others include "Paradiso seasons", "For the love of food" and "Wild garlic, gooseberries....and me". There's more info on the books, and the cafe itself on the website www.cafeparadiso.ie - and this also includes some recipes. If you don't want to fork out €25 or more for these books then try your local library or ask friends who might have one or more of the books. Unless you are a real cookaholic you are never going to get around to doing all the recipes in any of the books anyway, but you could try some and find a few to add to your repertoire.
If you fancy doing something more traditionally Irish, Darina Allen's "Irish traditional Cooking" is certainly not vegetarian – a good whack of it is devoted to various meats and fish - but it contains enough veggie recipes, or ones that can be adapted, to be worth perusal. But, if there is something you think you might want to cook you can simply do a word search online and you are likely to find it – the problem sometimes can be choosing between different recipes when you have not yet tried a particular one and know what it's like.
Desserts tend to be very sugary confections but you can maximise the fruit content and minimise the added sugar, or add concentrated apple juice or date syrup as a sweetener. Here are a few regulars that we would make, nearly all of which can be done as vegan desserts - and all of which are pretty easy to do.
Apple and date dessert: Stew several peeled, chopped cooking apples along with chopped dates, adding a fair bit of water but not covering the fruit with water as the fruit will go soft and sink down as it cooks. For 4 good sized cooking apples I might use 250g of dates; you need to chop the dates and check as you go for any stones. Bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on, stirring if any of the dates are above the mix, this could take 15 minutes. When the apple is nearly done, the dates should have gone mushy and you can use a potato masher (or something else such as a large fork) to mix it all together, it will have turned a uniform mid-brown colour from the dates. Taste for sweetness – it doesn't need to be too sweet. Let the mixture cool.
When serving, simply put some of the apple and date into a dessert dish, put some yoghurt (dairy or vegan) or yoghurt and cream on top of this, and finish off with a sprinkling of granola on top (this is likely to contain added sugar unless you buy a specialist product or make your own) or chopped nuts. Obviously the yoghurt can be dairy or vegan. Lacto-vegetarians can mix whipped dairy cream with the yoghurt, about half and half, for a richer result.
You can make an excellent vegan nut cream, which you can use as an alternative to the yoghurt, using finely ground cashews (grind them until they start to stick together) with soya or other non-dairy milk; I would suggest grinding the cashews very finely first and then adding the milk gradually to your desired thickness. I would suggest using 100 ml of soya milk with 100 g of cashews, and letting it stand for a while; this makes it very thick (while an emulsion rather than a solution, probably something like whipped cream) and you can then add more milk if you want to make it thinner, or, if using it as a topping by itself it may be the right consistency. You could also experiment in adding this to yoghurt, and add your choice of flavourings to that or to the nut cream by itself if you wish (e.g. natural vanilla flavouring).
Banana and fig crumble: Another dessert bursting with fruit sweetness, I usually add some lemon juice to it since it is such a sweet combination. Take 250g of figs and cut them up, removing any stalks. Either soak them for a while and then stew, or stew them straight away with enough water that they go soft and you are left with cooked figs and just a small amount of syrup. Then take four good sized and reasonably ripe bananas (you can vary the fig/banana ratio in an elastic fashion), mash them roughly – I used the side of a knife and then a fork and mix them together. Then mix the cooked figs and mashed banana together, and I usually stir in a couple of tablespoons or lemon juice.
For the topping, you can use whatever you like. I would tend to use wholemeal flour, wheat germ, jumbo oats, and enough sunflower oil, mixing well with your fingers, to make the flour 'breadcrumb' texture. Before you add your oil however you may want to add flavourings – possibilities include amchur (dried ground mango) or cinnamon (In general I would suggest in general you use Sri Lankan cinnamon and not cassia, for health reasons). Once the oil is mixed in I would add some sesame or sunflower seeds and mix well. Put your crumble mix on top of the fig and banana mix in an ovenproof bowl and cook until starting to brown, maybe twenty to twenty-five minutes in an oven at 180°/gas Mark 4. Delicious. You can accompany this with yoghurt, ice cream or your nut cream above.
Fruit fools: As a lacto-vegetarian I make easy fruit fools with stewed gooseberries, or half mashed blackberries or blackcurrants (brilliant taste for those who like blackberries, they are not to everyone's taste), often from the freezer. Mix half yoghurt and half whipped cream with the fruit and adjust the sweetness level with concentrated apple juice, or sugar if you use it. That's it. You want enough of the fruit well 'mashed' to mix with the yoghurt, but some pieces of fruit to stand out as a contrast. Vegans can do the same with vegan yoghurt and could try adding some nut cream. You can top the fool with chopped nuts (e.g. almonds), meringue (containing both eggs and sugar....), or broken biscuits.
Of course fruit salads or stewed fruit (e.g. pears) are also a great dessert at any time. Depending on what fruits you use, it may be sweet enough but you can make an easy syrup just by adding a little concentrated apple juice which will mix with any fruit juice already there, or mix orange juice and concentrated apple juice, or orange juice and a little honey if you are not vegan. You can use a similar syrup with melon (as starter or dessert) where the melon is not as ripe and juicy as you would like.
*This concludes the series and INNATE will be collecting and editing the 'Vegetarian and Vegan' pieces which have appeared in this column over the last year and a bit into a PDF booklet, watch this space or spice...
- - - -
Well, you can't say you haven't got your 'just desserts', that's me for this month but I'll see you again soon, in June, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).