The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

spinach, mozzarella and basil polpette

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California, the state known as America’s breadbasket because it provides so much of the USA’s fresh food, is going through its worst drought in a generation.

California is used to drought, and its fertile growing region has survived plenty of such droughts in the past. However, what is happening there to deal with this latest challenge is typical of the responses to water shortages in areas of intensive agriculture across the globe.

Although California boasts the highest proportion of organic farms of any US state, these still make up a tiny proportion of overall agricultural land use in the state, and one of the many problems with intensive agriculture is its heavy reliance on water. Intensive agriculture creates intensified demand for precious water stocks at a time of shortage.

The same is true of other regions of the world with a heavy intensive agriculture presence – for example both Peru’s Ica Valley and Spain’s Murcia region are also facing the serious long-term consequences of too little water to meet the demands of the agriculture they currently support.

In California right now, water is at such a premium that it is being auctioned off, with farmers bidding against each other in order to get enough water to save their cattle, orange groves, almond orchards and other crops. Many farmers have been forced to pump up groundwater in order to feed their livestock and water their crops.

Plundering these groundwater stocks is the equivalent of borrowing against the future and will create further problems if the dwindling groundwater reserves are not replaced when California’s drought is finally broken, since that would mean a lowered water table and therefore a reduced capacity to survive another prolonged period of drought.

In the Ica Valley, the water table has been so dramatically lowered by the diversion of precious water to sustain intensively grown asparagus crops (much of which are destined for British supermarkets some 6,000 miles away – look at the “country of origin” label on the asparagus when you next go shopping) that drinking water for the local population is no longer available for several hours a day. The Ica valley lies in a dry region and asparagus is a very thirsty crop, not naturally suited to such an environment, but it is a highly profitable industry for large-scale agribusinesses.

The Murcia region in Spain grows salad crops (these, too, are grown mainly for British supermarkets some 1,400 miles away). Growing these crops using intensive agricultural methods has led to excessive raiding of the region’s groundwater stocks. As a result, Murcia has experienced subsidence and soil erosion on a growing scale, and what was once fertile farmland is gradually becoming desertified – literally turning to sand.

These important farming regions are all experiencing major environmental challenges right now, and whilst their circumstances are very different they all have two things in common – firstly, plenty of precious sunshine for growing crops but secondly, a water supply that is simply insufficient in the long term to sustain intensive farming practices on an industrial scale.

The principal ingredient in this dish is spinach, grown organically on my allotment plot the Circus Garden, where the British weather sees to most of the watering these plants require (and the rest comes from rainwater captured in water butts on my plot).

If you can, try to use the smaller, more delicate leaves of the spinach, otherwise remove any tough stalks or ribs from larger leaves before steaming.

There may only be a few ingredients to this recipe, but they create a delightful synergy of flavour, producing a “polpette” which is both light yet very tasty. They also freeze well, so if you have enough spinach it’s worth making a larger batch of them.

spinach, mozzarella and basil polpette

450 g spinach
40 g vegetarian Parmesan, freshly grated
1 mozzarella ball, grated
60 g breadcrumbs
2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 free range organic egg

to serve
pasta of your choice
2 tbsp spinach, walnut and rosemary pesto
grated vegetarian Parmesan

1. Steam the spinach for 2-3 minutes or until just wilted. Rinse under cold water the drain and squeeze out as much water from the leaves as you can. Chop finely and place in a bowl. Add the Parmesan, breadcrumbs and grated mozzarella and mix to combine. You can add a pinch of salt at this stage if you wish, but I find that it is just about salty enough with the Parmesan.

2. Form the mixture into small balls, each around 20 g or the size of walnut. Place these balls onto a flat tray and refrigerate until ready to cook them.

3. Cook your pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Five minutes before the end of the cooking time, pour the oil into a large frying pan and place over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the polpette. Depending on the size of your pan you may need to do this in batches. Cook for 3-4 minutes, turning every so often, until crisp and lightly browned. Remove from the pan and rest briefly on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.

4. Drain the pasta, return it to its pan and add the pesto. Stir to combine. Divide the pasta between serving bowls and top with polpette. Add a little grated Parmesan if desired.

Categories: vegetarian

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11 replies

  1. If the statistics are to be believed and small, family run farms are producing 80% of the world’s food, it makes you wonder how large agribusinesses get so much press (and most of it bad)… probably down to the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term production. These look good – I’m all for an easy to make recipe!

    • Hi Sarah

      I haven’t come across that statistic before but, typically, small scale farms produce a range of crops whereas large scale agribusinesses focus on monoculture, with the associated environmental harm from overuse of harmful chemicals. They also occupy increasingly more of the world’s available agriculture land. That’s why they get a bad press from me!


      • I should have added that small family farms are not necessarily synonymous with organic farming methods. I met a farmer over the weekend who runs a small family farm which most emphatically is not organic!

  2. hi Steve – these look absolutely yum – will give these a go as they look nice and easy to make

  3. Thank you Karen 🙂

  4. Divine, will try when I get back to UK !!!!

  5. I used sea beet, instead of spinach, picked from the Solent salt marshes, to complete your recipe. Delicious!

  6. it was delicious! and you’re right, they freeze well.

  7. Thank you Helga, I’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe. 🙂

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