It is traditional at this time of year to consider those less well off than ourselves, and here in the UK there is no more poignant symbol of the divide between the haves and the have-nots than the food bank.
They arose as a charitable and humanitarian response to growing inequality, and were intended to provide an emergency stop gap in times of need, but food banks have since have become an entrenched feature of the dismal landscape of austerity.
So what do we know about those who are using food banks?
Chief architects of the austerity programme, the UK government, do not monitor food bank use (presumably because it would reveal the stark truth about the growing numbers falling through holes in the welfare net).
There are also a number of different organisations running the UK’s food banks, making it difficult to obtain data which provides a reliable overall picture.
However, figures for 2014-15 provided by the largest food bank group, the Trussell Trust reveal that 43% of the one million people to whom it gave three days emergency food required support because of problems associated with benefits “sanctions” and delays or reductions in benefits payments. A further 22% were in work but on such a low income they could not afford to feed their families.
These figures suggest that the best way to address food poverty is by tackling income inequality through enforcing a living rather than a minimum wage and by paying benefits designed to support human dignity.
Yes, food banks are a sadly necessary part of life in this increasingly unequal world, but they serve to remind us of the problem not to provide us with the solution.
2015 hasn’t been a good year for pumpkins or other squash on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden.
In 2014 I had a huge harvest of pumpkins, onion squash and butternut squash. This year I’ve had a handful of each, and many of my squash were much smaller than I’d expected. I have no idea why this should be so, but they were perfect for this recipe, the seventh recipe I have created in association with Suma Wholefoods Cooperative. Under the terms of our arrangement, I select products from the Suma Wholefoods range which Suma provide free of charge. From these I create a recipe which appears on the Suma website as well as mine.
There are a number of steps involved in this recipe but it more than rewards the time taken to put the dish together. With its sumptuous array of middle-eastern flavours, this dish is so good that I might just have it for my dinner on Christmas Day.
Persian stuffed squash with tahini sauce and cinnamon onions
2 small uchiki kuri (Japanese onion squash), or similar small squash
for the filling
1 onion, chopped
100 g Camargue red rice
20 g wild rice
200 g spinach, shredded
rind of a preserved lemon, finely chopped
12 black olives, freshly stoned and chopped
30 g pistachio kernels, dry fried and roughly chopped
150 g cooked organic chickpeas
6 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
½ tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ras el hanout
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp fresh mint
1 tbsp fresh parsley
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the tahini sauce
40 g tahini
100 ml extra virgin olive oil
100 ml water
juice of 1 lemon
½ tsp sea salt
for the crispy cinnamon onions
2 onions, very thinly sliced
1 tsp ground sea salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
a little fresh mint, finely chopped
a handful of pomegranate seeds
1. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C (325°F, gas mark 3). Halve the squashes and scoop out the seeds. Rub the flesh with olive oil. Rub the unpeeled garlic cloves with a little olive oil. Place the squash and the garlic cloves together on a baking tray and put in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes or until the squash flesh is soft when tested with a sharp knife. Remove from the oven and set to one side.
2. While the squash is in the oven, combine the Camargue and wild rice in a pan. Cover with enough water so that the rice is 1 cm submerged beneath the surface. Set the pan over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting, place a lid over the pan and cook for a further ten minutes. Remove from the heat and set to one side for ten minutes, leaving the lid on, then drain.
3. To make the rest of the filling, pour the olive oil into a frying pan or skillet and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot add the onion and cook, stirring, until it becomes soft and translucent. Reduce the heat. Squeeze the roast garlic from its skin and add to the pan. Add the chilli flakes, chopped pistachio kernels, cumin, cinnamon, ras el hanout, sea salt, chickpeas, cooked rice and the shredded spinach. Cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. Remove from the heat. Stir in the chopped olives, chopped preserved lemon rind, parsley and mint.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 150°C (300°F, gas mark 2). Use the mixture to fill each squash half. Return to the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes.
5. In the meantime make the cinnamon onions. Pour the ground nut oil into a pan to a depth of 2 cm and place the pan over a medium to high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced onions. Cook, stirring frequently for 6-7 minutes, or until the onions are a golden brown colour and have become slightly crispy. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. In a small bowl mix together the ground sea salt and the cinnamon. Tip the fried onions into the bowl and toss so that they are coated with the cinnamon and salt mixture. Set to one side.
6. For the tahini sauce, place the tahini in a blender and gradually add the water, a little at a time. Next add the sea salt, lemon juice and gradually add the olive oil, processing until you have a smooth sauce the consistency of mayonnaise. Set to one side.
7. To serve, place one stuffed squash half on each plate. Drizzle generously with the tahini sauce. Scatter the cinnamon onions over the top, followed by the chopped mint and the pomegranate seeds. Serve with a light, crisp salad such as this one.