The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

rocket, crispy shallot and Parmesan salad

The underpinning principle of organic gardening and farming is that if you feed the soil by adding organic matter to it, usually in the form of compost, it will provide the best growing environment for healthy plants.

By contrast, in non-organic farming the soil is simply used as a medium for tethering plants. Nutrients in the soil are gradually depleted and the loss is never made good. Manufactured chemical fertiliser is applied to “replace” that the plant can no longer obtain from the soil itself.

Advocates for artificial fertilisers point to the fact that they help plants to grow bigger and faster, important considerations when we have a growing population needing to be fed. Some have even argued that since plants trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, some of that carbon will stay in the soil after harvest, so artificial fertilisers could actually be of benefit as we look for ways to combat climate change.

However, recent research from the University of Illinois reveals that the opposite is the case.

The research team showed how nitrogen-based fertilisers work by stimulating microbes in the soil. These microbes then devour organic matter contained within the soil. However, they are stimulated by these chemicals to do so at such an enhanced rate that they begin to damage the very structure of the soil. This means that soil particles, which are bound together by this organic matter, begin to break down. Because the soil is then no longer able to retain them, valuable nutrients are lost. At the same time pollution, in the form of nitrates contained in artificial fertilisers, begins to run off the soil and into our rivers.

Soil becomes very fragile when its harmony is disturbed. Once it loses its structure, it is extremely vulnerable to erosion and will increasingly struggle to retain water. Continuing to apply nitrogen-based fertiliser to a soil structure that has been damaged in this way simply escalates the problem, causing further structural collapse.

As things stand, we are losing a colossal 24 billion tonnes of top soil every year, and most of these losses can be laid at the door of chemical-based farming. The United Nations has warned that unless we change direction we have just 60 years of topsoil left.

As I have argued before on this blog, individually we can and do make a difference by the basic choices we make. The more we buy food that has been produced using practices that damage the soil and cause environmental pollution, the more we encourage the continuation of those practices. Similarly, the more we buy organic, sustainably-grown food, the more we encourage farmers and producers to respond to that demand by converting to organic practices.

On to the recipe.

This is an incredibly simple salad recipe, with just three principle flavours but it has always gone down a storm whenever I have made it. You can try varying it by using flavoured oils in the dressing, such as rosemary (recipe here) or chilli.

rocket, crispy shallot and Parmesan salad

Ingredients

6 banana shallots, approx 100 g, very thinly sliced (use a mandolin or sharp knife)
100 g organic rocket
50 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese, thinly shaved with a vegetable peeler
Groundnut oil, for frying

for the dressing

100 ml extra virgin olive oil
30 ml mirin (rice wine vinegar)
1 tsp Dijon mustard

Method

1. Gently press the sliced onion between sheets of kitchen paper to remove any excess moisture. Pour groundnut oil into a deep sided pan or wok to a depth of 3 cm and place over a high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced shallots and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until the onion has started to turn a light brown. Depending on the size of the pan, you may need to cook the shallots in two batches. Remove the shallots from the pan using a slotted spoon and spread out on kitchen paper to drain.

2. For the dressing, whisk together the olive oil, mirin and Dijon mustard until emulsified.

3. To assemble, place the rocket in a salad bowl. Add the crispy shallots and half the shaved Parmesan and toss to combine. Pour over the dressing and toss again, lightly. Scatter the remaining Parmesan across the top.

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