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Thursday, 14 March 2013

middle-class carb loading

Thirty days ago, I gave up bread and potato. Anyone fortunate enough to have endured five minutes in my company will have no doubt picked up on this; it's probably something to do with my constant, slightly smug lamentations that run something along the lines of 'Oh, gnocci! How I would love some gnocci right now...', or 'How I do miss freshly toasted sourdough.' I always had a sneaking suspicion I was irritatingly middle-class about my eating habits, and this has all but confirmed it... unsurprisingly, I am yet to crave a chip butty. If I'm honest, I don't even like bread and potato that much- I'd have been doing myself a bigger favour by giving up gin for Lent, but that's a bit like asking Frankie Boyle to give up the 'c' word- it's in no danger of happening any time soon, and life would be all the more boring for it.

I could have siezed the opportunity by transforming my body into a starch-free temple for forty days and nights, but there's little fun in that (well, Miley Cyrus seems pretty damn miserable these days...) and to put it bluntly, I just don't have the willpower. Instead, I tried to start thinking more imaginatively about the carbs I use to bulk up meals, and if you do the same, you'll probably realise that you too have been falling for the same handful (in one form or another) day in, day out. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the oldies- a potato has endless scope for reinvention, and you just can't mop up your roast lamb gravy with a yorkshire. It's wrong. So we use big hunks of doorstop bread instead. But for the sake of variety, let's mix things up a bit with:

Five Alternative Carbs that are Marginally More Interesting Than Your Average Potato

1.  Polenta

POLPO- A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)- is a posession of mine that is now so heavily coated in the grime, oil and unidentifiable, slightly crusted splashes that are the mark of any good cookbook, some recipes are barely legible. To borrow a quote from them (in the hope that I don't get sued- I still haven't gotten around to working out what copyright laws really entail...), polenta is 'a sort of savoury porrige, a bit like semolina, that can be served as a gloop, or set, sliced and grilled.' Which sounds 'rustic' at best, and 'hideous' if we choose to be more honest about things. Made from maize, it's cheap as chips, but- as promised- a bit more interesting. Though seeing as it was the staple foodstuff of European peasantry for a few centuries, it can hardly be described as middle-class. Its taste is hard to describe for the uninitiated- it lies somewhere between starchy cream and olive oil, which probably doesn't serve as a particularly appetising or illuminating description.

Polenta is also one of the few foodstuffs that have an easy-cook variety I feel I can happily advocate (aforementioned 'middle-class-ness' often prevents me from doing this with other alternatives, but this is no Pot Noodle). Polenta Svelta- the instant stuff- will save you a good forty minutes of dull clockwise-stirring (or anti-clockwise- just make sure you don't mix and match, or it'll be as lumpy as gruel- and this dish needs all the help it can get in the aesthetics department). Just follow the pack instructions- without skimping on the salt- and you'll have yourself wet polenta. Excellent with a few shavings of choice parmesan. If you fancy something more solid that perhaps appears more 'palatable', allow it to set in a well-oiled (or cling-filmed) dish so it's about an inch deep. In the fridge is fine. Then slice, place rough-side down first on a smoking hot griddle until it boasts some attractive striations, and warm through in the oven for 4-5 minutes.

2. Roasted Butternut Squash

The sweet, fleshy interior of a butternut squash is a wonderful thing. It marries so well with a huge variety of flavours, and can bring a bit of balance to any salinous, spicy or sour dish in an instant. If you want the unadorned version, just heat some olive oil in an oven tray at 180 degrees while you peel your squash (and when I say carefully, I don't intend to sound patronising. It's simply because I've nearly lost fingers to these buggers...), and slice into something appealing. I like crescents, rough, mouth-sized cubes, or occasionally parsnip-shaped slivers. You can roast your squash with a bit of salt and pepper, or a well-thought out mix of... cumin, sesame seeds, dried chilli, harissa, paprika, almonds, apple, pancetta, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, thyme, sage, honey, coriander seeds, pear, garlic, chorizo, or maple syrup... though not all at once. That would taste... confused.

But butternut squash is only in season from September through to late January, so you'll have to wait. Sorry.

3. Celeriac Mash

In season for just a few more weeks, celeriac  is a good alternative to mashed potato. Or, you could mix the two if you happen to have a dodgy-looking potato languishing in a corner somewhere. Or perhaps a couple of gnarly old carrots. Because it's mash- it doesn't need to look pretty, and you can throw anything you like it.

Cover your celeriac with milk, chuck in a few peeled garlic cloves, and simmer until tender. Then drain the milk, keeping it handy somewhere. Whizz with a hand blender if you have one, or go old-school and do it with a manual masher- though the end result won't be as smooth unless you really commit to the job... At this point, you need to add in enough of the milk to get the consistency you want, enough butter to prompt a coronary by merely glancing at the stuff, and then some flavour. Salt and pepper, obviously- but you could add in a bit of grated nutmeg and powdered ginger if you fancy something spiced and warming, or wholegrain mustard- perhaps even a little apple chutney, if you're hankering after something a little less heady, but retaining that punch.

4. Interesting Rice

I think it goes without saying that I do not mean Uncle Ben's here. Try as it might, regardless of what exotic ingredients they're chucking in it's always going to have the bland, slightly metallic tang of microwaved rice. Learn to do it properly, on a hob, and you'll never look back. Maybe it's because I threw my microwave out years ago, vowing to never use one again, that I'm averse. Or maybe it's because it just tastes crap. Who knows.

Brown rice, with a gratuitous sugar mouse.
There's a trick with rice, and I don't mind admitting that it's something I've only really gotten to grips with in the last year... Rinse it first, thoroughly. This gets rid of any excess starch. Then bring it to the boil with twice the amount of HEAVILY SALTED water, or- even better- stock, and a few bits thrown in for good measure. Use your imagination- bay leaves, lime zest, peppercorns, cardammon pods- anything you think might compliment your protein. Stir ONCE, and leave it bubbling away on a medium to high heat. You'll need a snug-fitting lid, and a heavy based pan, and they'll ensure that you don't end up with stodgy, singed grains at the end of it all. It should take around 15-20 minutes, at which point just remove the lid, fluff up with a fork and check the liquid levels- there should be just a touch left. Replace the lid, and turn off the heat. Leave it to steam this way for another 5-10 minutes (but it will stay warm for another hour or so like this).

Try coconut rice- just replace half of your water or stock with coconut milk, and grate in some creamed coconut. Or make some fancy garnishes- fried garlic and shallots are always a winner, as are pistachio nuts, coriander, friend mint leaves, freshly fried chilli, sultanas and raisins. And think about the type of rice you're using too- I love brown rice, as it adds a nice nutty dimension to a meal.

So there you go- pimped up rice.

5. Beans

Beans, beans, good for the heart... We all know the rest. But it shouldn't put you off eating them, because they're so damn versatile. Cold and miserable? Have a Tuscan Sausage and Bean stew. Basking in the sun? Unlikely, but have a Borlotti, courgette and lemon salad with shaved Parmesan anyway. It'll make it feel more like summer, even when you're in the midst of a freak snow-storm, I promise.

I'm not going to bore you with endless bean recipes. For one, because I plan on sharing my aforementioned Tuscan Stew with you at some point anyway. If you want recipes now, I suggest buying POLPO's book. But primarily, it's because beans are something you can be instinctive with- follow your tastebuds, and you'll probably cobble together something just lovely.

Happy carb-loading,

mrs hunt.x

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