The farmer and the cook with Ethiopian Cabbage
I’ve just finished my first week working as the farm cook for the Permaculture Research Institute at Zaytuna Farm and already it’s been an amazing experience. To be able to cook at this wonderful and dynamic farm is a delight for all the gastronomical senses. If fresh, seasonal, local, delicious and nutritious ingredients are what good food is all about then consider this….
We eat a humble porridge with fresh milk straight from the farm dairy, in beautiful surroundings to the sound of clucking chickens and honking geese. The sunrise is simply awesome. And if that’s not a good enough way to start your day, we throw in a fruit salad made up of passion fruit, yakon – a tuber that tastes like nashi pear – and the loveliest, juiciest lemons you’ve ever seen, all of them growing in abundance right now and all within a pretty little stroll out into the garden. If that’s still not good enough for you, how about some just-picked-out-of-the-garden lemongrass & mint tea made with clean refreshing harvested rain water? Pretty good place to start your day I reckon.
Unless perhaps you happen to be three certain chickens condemned to the pot when it was suggested that we have chicken soup for dinner. Then it’s a neck slicing for you and away with your blood. This is knowing where your meat comes from. This is plunging the animal into a bucket of boiling water and pluck, pluck, pluck. It takes time…. It takes work.… It requires some understanding.…
And nothing is to be wasted. The guts will go to the compost. The heads go to the dog. I make sure to leave the feet on for a certain Mexican student (who licks his lips in anticipation of being able to suck the cartilage off those clawy things).
The Mexican can keep the feet. I open the birds from the rear and pull out their guts, picking out the liver, kidneys, heart and gizzard. I contemplate making a pate with these fleshy rubies of delight, so that everyone can have a taste, but then I go into cahoots with a certain Brazilian student and we horde the lot in one quick and ridiculously tasty fry up with splashes of olive oil, garlic, parsley, lemon juice. Simple. Delicious. I could eat this every morning.
With a happy belly I throw the chickens into a pot and start on lunch. What do you get for lunch at Zaytuna farm in the middle of July? You get sweet potatoes that is what, and potatoes too. Big ones, little ones, funny ones.… There’s an endless bounty of them down in the crop garden just waiting to be dug out. I walk there thinking about gnocchi but doubt I’ll get them done in time. I look around for inspiration for another dish and it comes in the form of a monster crop of Ethiopian cabbage. Something I’d never heard of before I came here, let alone cooked. I get excited about trying out a new ingredient and forget all about the gnocchi. I still dig out a basketful of potatoes though. Potatoes and cabbage go well together and who am I to argue.
The Farmer and the Cook harvest potatoes
Brassia R. Br. Orchidaceae
Now Ethiopian cabbage isn’t like any cabbage I’ve ever tasted. And after cooking and eating it, I don’t think of it as cabbage at all. It tastes more like an Asian green. Think bok choy or choy sum. Green crunchy stalks and giant leaves that beg to be wok fried with garlic and chili. I do exactly that.
I treat the potatoes simply. Scrubbing them clean, then boiling them whole till they start to burst. Over-cooked you might say and you’d be right, but trust me – this works. Smash each one flat onto an oiled tray, drizzle more oil on top, salt, pepper, dot with butter, then bake in a hot oven till they go all crispy and golden on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside… like a lazy man’s hash brown.
Now putting it all together. All you need is a tangy dressing and some fresh garnish. Take one part lemon juice, one part oil. Salt. Sugar. Throw in some turmeric, fennel seed, cumin seed, mustard seed, a chunk of that fresh galangal you picked out of the food forest yesterday, maybe a stick of cinnamon and a few peppercorns. That’s your dressing – a rich yellow liquor that speaks of the East. You’ll just need to strain out all the bits after a gentle simmer on the stove to let the flavors mingle. Now go to the kitchen garden and pick some fresh coriander. (Stop to eat the flowers. I like the chive ones best.) Then it’s just a matter of bringing all your elements together into one big hot salad. Potatoes, Ethiopian cabbage, dressing, sprigs of coriander. The memory of chive flowers on your tongue. Yum.
Chicken soup with freshly baked bread. How can you go wrong with birds this healthy and fresh? I have two bowls and go to bed dreaming of the marmalade I want to make with all those kumquats in the corner of the kitchen garden. And then there’s the lemons in the goose run. So many of them! And every single one of them tastes exactly as a lemon should taste. I want to preserve them as the Moroccans do, with salt and some aromatics. There’s a big sack of salt in the dry store and a bay leaf tree growing right next to the lemons.
Life is good.
Life here is better.
The perma-meal: Crushed turmeric potato and Ethiopian cabbage hot salad