Before we start cooking I’d like to draw your attention to a recent, apparently minor, item of news that in all likelihood escaped your attention. A leading British researcher, Dr Helen Thompson has just quit her post with the government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in order to take up a post with the global giant chemical company Syngenta.
Why is this significant?
Well, in a previous blog I highlighted concerns about the impact of neonicotinoids on the health of our bee population. At the time the UK coalition government had strongly opposed other EU countries who wanted to impose a 2- year restriction on the use of neonicotinoids. The government’s stance was based upon a controversial research paper “Neonicotinoid Pesticides and Bees“, carried out by the very same Dr Helen Thompson, then working for FERA.
Furthermore, FERA’s neonicotinoid research was funded by Syngenta, the very company that Dr Thompson is now about to join.
Given that around 10% of Syngenta’s multi billion pound annual turnover comes from the sale of neonicotinoids you may be forgiven for believing there are several worrying conflicts of interest at play here.
This development is not without precedent. Last year a research company called Beeologics, which was researching the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder in bees, which many believe to be linked to neonicotinoids, was suddenly bought up by another global chemical giant, Monsanto, which also just happens to be a leading proponent of neonicotinoids.
It is a matter of concern that, when it comes to the safety of the food we eat, we cannot trust the giant chemical companies that produce the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are used in the growing of much of our food. It is even more worrying to realise that we have to question rigorously the “independence” of some of the research into the effects these chemicals may be having upon us and the world around us.
Anyway, time for the recipe. The vegetable in the photograph above is calabrese, although it is usually labelled “broccoli” in supermarkets.
Calabrese and broccoli are in fact different varieties of the same vegetable, broccoli being correctly applied to the sprouting variety, a much more hardy plant with a longer growing season. The name calabrese derives from Calabria, the region at the southern tip of Italy, where it was first grown. It was introduced into the UK in the 18th century, and for a while thereafter was called, curiously, “Italian asparagus”.
In recent years it has been hailed as a “superfood” due to its anti-oxidant, antiviral and antibiotic properties. It is also high in vitamin C, calcium and iron, and has many other trace elements.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that a significant proportion of our calabarese/broccoli is imported. Most of the imported stuff comes from Spain, from where it is transported around 1,000 miles by road to end up on our supermarket shelves, although some of our calabrese and broccoli comes from as far away as from California.
Evidence from research in the USA and Europe suggests that the greater the distance our food has to travel the more its nutritional content is affected. A report ten years ago by the UK’s Food Standards Agency concluded that imported vegetables, including broccoli, not only have much higher levels of nitrates (linked with cancer) but also far fewer nutrients than frozen versions of the same vegetables.
On my allotment I grow a heritage variety of calabrese which tends to produce a slightly smaller head than the modern F1 varieties, but it is extremely tasty and nutritious and more importantly only has to clock up a single mile of travel in my bicycle basket before ending up in my kitchen.
I grow it under netting, alongside my cabbages and cauliflowers to protect it from pigeons, who find the young plants irresistible, and caterpillars, a pest common in the plant’s later life cycle. When harvesting this fine vegetable, cut off the central flowering head but leave the plant in the ground. Within a week or two, you will find a profusion of side shoots, which will grow into new, smaller heads of calabrese.
It’s a wonderfully versatile vegetable, suitable to a wide range of cuisines and cooking methods. This week’s recipe uses calabrese in spicy pakoras, which are quick and easy to make and work well as a simple starter or lunchtime treat served with Indian chutney.
400 g calabrese, cut into chunky florets about 3-4cm long
150 g gram (chickpea) flour
50 g rice flour
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 red chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp chopped coriander
250 ml cold water
ground nut oil, for deep frying
1. Toast the fennel seeds in a hot frying pan without any oil for about a minute, until they brown slightly and begin to release aroma. Remove from the pan and set to one side.
2. Steam the calabrese florets for 2-3 minutes until just starting to go tender. Drain and refresh under ice cold water. Place the gram flour, rice flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and add the water. Stir, using a whisk to make a smooth batter. Add the fennel seeds, the chilli and coriander and stir to combine. Finally add the calabrese florets and stir to combine.
3. Pour the oil into a deep pan to a depth of around 5 cm. Heat the oil over a high heat until a cube of bread dropped carefully into the pan browns in 30 seconds. Carefully lower spoonfuls of the calabrese pakora into the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan as this will lower the temperature and also make it more difficult to remove the cooked pakora, so cook the pakora in batches. Remove the pakora with a slotted spoon once they are crisp and golden brown on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper.
4. Serve the hot pakora with a choice of chutneys.