Leek and sprout sauté with lemon and pistachios.

A friend cooked with sprouts for me recently and I realised I hadn’t worked with them once since I began to take food seriously. That’s probably explained by the fact I grew up experiencing them as bland and boiled to be super-soft as part of Sunday roasts.

The idea here was to retain their natural nutty and crunchy qualities whilst adding another working class vegetable – leeks – and a posher touch in the form of pistachios and flaked almonds. Lemon, garlic and soy sauce ensured a flavour extravaganza. This one secured nods all round.

Serves four generously.

750g sprouts, trimmed and roughly sliced.

2 medium leeks, thinly sliced.

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

200g pistachio kernels, lightly toasted.

50g flaked almonds.

1 tbsp soy sauce.

Half a lemon, zested and juiced.

30ml extra virgin olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

Warm the olive oil on a medium heat in a heavy saucepan or wok. Add the leeks, which should sizzle. Season generously. Stir regularly for three minutes, at which point they should have significantly shrivelled.

Now add the garlic and stir for another two minutes. Then add the sprouts, lemon juice and half the soy sauce and season very generously. Stir for another three minutes.

Turn off the heat. Add half the pistachios and the flaked almonds and season and stir once more. Finish with the lemon zest, the rest of the pistachios and a drizzle of the remaining soy sauce.

Vegan umami risotto.

After making this one, I can testify that folk wisdom about the need for butter and Parmesan to make risotto sufficiently creamy is utterly false. If you have the patience to perfectly caramelise the onions, the creaminess takes care of itself.

The idea here was to mix as many animal-free sources of umami flavours as possible, so my refusal to eat asparagus during winter – Peruvian, out of season – was temporarily suspended. I added pine kernels to compliment the mild nuttiness, along with earthy chestnut and portabellini mushrooms. Further greens in the form of fried kale and peas rounded it off nicely.

It’s important to prepare the risotto’s ingredients separately and in advance, and not only to preserve their independent flavours. Stirring risottos is tiresome and tricky to avoid sticking and burning at the best of times, but it’s made a lot easier if you keep the ingredients in the pan at a minimum until the very last minute.

As always, though, equally important to making or breaking such dishes is the stock. I used ten ingredients to empower mine. You could get away with less than that, but don’t go too low, and definitely stay clear of the Oxo cubes. When you see the rich green colour after half an hour of simmering, you’ll understand why.

Serves four.

For the stock:

1 white onion.

2 garlic cloves, peeled.

A bunch of parsley.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

A handful of kale.

1 carrot.

1 celery stalk.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 bay leaf.

1 kaffir lime leaf.

 

For the risotto:

240g arborio rice.

1 large white onion, finely chopped.

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped.

1 garlic clove, crushed.

150ml white wine.

750ml vegetable stock.

125g fine asparagus spears, cut into thirds.

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered.

200g portabellini mushrooms, quartered.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

50g garden peas.

60g pine nuts.

40g kale, very finely chopped.

150ml olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

First, prepare the stock. Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan, add a litre of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour. You should have around 750ml at this point. Discard all the ingredients and transfer the liquid to a measuring jug, ready to be slowly added to the risotto later, a ladle at a time.

Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the risotto.

Heat 25ml of olive oil in a frying pan and toast the pine nuts for a few minutes until golden. Add sea salt. Remove the pine nuts to a plate for later, and add the same amount of oil again. Once hot, add the crushed garlic clove and fry the kale for a few minutes, until it turns darker green and slightly crispy. Also remove to a plate for later. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 50ml of olive oil in a saucepan and add the chestnut mushrooms, before rustling the thyme sprigs over them. Stir well so the oil covers them, and sauté until they turn dark brown and release their nutty aroma. Remove to another plate, then do the same with the portabellini mushrooms, topping up the oil if need be. Season both with salt and pepper.

Drop the asparagus spears into a saucepan of boiling water on a medium heat, and blanch for two minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse in cold water. Season with salt and pepper.

Now, for the risotto. Heat the remaining olive oil in a saucepan on a medium flame. Add the onion and stir constantly, ensuring it’s fully coated and doesn’t burn. Keep stirring until the onion turns soft and slightly golden, releasing its sweet smells – around five to six minutes. Add the chopped garlic and fry for another two minutes, before adding all the rice and stirring until coated, around another minute.

Here’s where the hard and tedious but most important work begins. Pour in the white wine and begin to stir vigorously. It should sizzle and evaporate fairly quickly. Now introduce the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring it is all absorbed before adding more. Continue for around twenty minutes, at which point most of the stock should have been added. You may need to adjust the heat depending on whether the rice seems to be sticking.

Transfer one final ladle of stock, turn the heat to very low and begin to introduce the other ingredients. Add the peas, pine nuts and kale and stir. Add the mushrooms and asparagus and stir again. Once the thick consistency returns, turn off the heat and serve. Finish with salt and pepper.

Struggle for Survival.

I took part in a poverty simulation event organised by Global Hand this evening. I think the offer reached my inbox through the Giving What We Can mailing list, and little detail was given in advance other than beaming endorsements from Ban Ki-Moon and Richard Branson.  It seems these folks shook up Davos slightly by attempting to demonstrate to millionaires how the Bottom Billion get by. The living we experienced was making and selling paper bags, using fingers as brushes and a messy flour-water concoction as glue, before bartering with local shop-keepers and buying basic necessities accordingly.

There are, of course, inevitable limits to the realism any such project could achieve. I knew I’d leave after two hours capable of buying ample food, and resorting to selling a kidney to pay a slum-lord is obviously much easier to just say than actually do. And that’s why I left feeling some scepticism about the organisation’s ambition to foster empathy. It certainly seems a stretch to think people will immediately imagine anything resembling despair or degradation – nevermind hunger – when the tasks at hand are made into practical, competitive games. On its own, this surely couldn’t spur moral reform and action.

It seems to me that the project is instead still promising for different reasons. It is plausible that by learning the facts about the obscenely scarce economic conditions so many people must operate in by playing them out first-hand, people will process and appreciate them more. There just is a real sense in which when we’re supplied with photos of people building paper bags and we’re informed they must make 22 of them in order to earn a measly 1.5p, actually proceeding to boringly build the damn things and see how little they go to succeeding in the context of the game – that does bring things to life in a way simply reading such facts might not. So the groundwork for achieving empathy later might be laid, rather than that emotion actually arriving in the course of the experience.

Supplement it with sufficient information of the kind Giving What We Can tends to provide, not only about how comparatively rich we all are, but also just how much good as individuals we can do, and there could be potential for persuasion there.

But my suspicion remains that it will be powerful only for those who already have their eyes at least half open. No amount of creativity can conjure up motivating compassion out of thin air.

Enough Said.

I saw it yesterday on the off chance the critics were right and this really was an authentic rom-com. I was a touch worried people’s critical faculties – not least my own – would have been lowered out of nostalgia for Gandolfini, but having reflected on it for a day now, I’m fairly convinced. The film certainly achieves significant emotional and ethical maturity. It manages to muster humour out of what is, on reflection, a pretty deceptive and sinister set-up, but it does so whilst still giving due attention to the harm the protagonist causes when her secrets inevitably unravel. There’s a great moment when she pleads, in apologising, that she didn’t know what to do, only to face the reply that she did know; she just didn’t do it.

And Gandolfini is, of course, wonderful. I suspect the film benefits greatly from the fact that the couple are middle aged and one of them is so non-stereotypically attractive. Half a dozen clichés are thereby avoided immediately. And his softness – helped, perhaps counter-intuitively, by the addition of a beard – is really far too convincing in the contrast it creates with the obnoxious, explosive Tony Soprano that we’d grown to know him as. It’s worth a look-in, at least until Cuaron’s Gravity arrives next week.

Ed Schultz at the Union.

Alas, nothing to see here. I’m quite used to speakers being underwhelming in person by now, but that’s normally because they’re sports-people or artists ill-suited to engaging in penetrating debate. You’d expect journalists, and especially those whose medium is television, to be far better. Schultz seems to have a good liberal heart, but it’s masqueraded under an all too American obnoxiousness. He’s far too inclined to shout in crude generalisations and condemnatory platitudes before simply invoking freedom and justice, rather than relying on composed empirical claims. In that sense, he comes across more like an angry grandfather incapable of carefully constructing arguments. In no real sense did he seem like a journalist. The contrast on MSNBC between the likes of him and Lawrence O’Donnell versus Maddow and Hayes is just so stark.

And my hunch that he’s barely a journalist was confirmed when we did briefly drag him through questions onto more substantial territory. A woman brought up the Snowden saga and I followed up by asking him what he would have done if he’d been asked to air the NSA leaks. His answer? He firmly believes that reform and checks on this abuse of power could have been more constructively dealt with through private, conventional channels. He would have refused to air any information on The Ed Show, instead swiftly directing Snowden towards the Senate Intelligence Committee. He justified this in terms of putting his role as a good citizen ahead of his role as a journalist, so I followed up by asking if he really thought there was a tension here. Isn’t it essential to the tenets of journalism that a functioning democracy is dependent on freedom of information, and insofar as one facilitates a vibrant public debate by airing secret abuses of power, one is performing an unparalleled civic duty? Again, denial ensued. He’s all for information distribution, but only to those that need it. So once more, the Senate Intelligence Committee would have done the trick.

Oh, and he really doesn’t worry about the NSA’s powers, because he trusts that Obama isn’t interested in our phone calls. I noted that one doesn’t need to claim that high government officials intend to exploit such powers to nevertheless concede that the system could end up being abused. ‘Point taken’, he said. If only he could similarly see the insanity of a someone with his platform hypothetically refusing to air some of the most important political revelations in recent memory.

Quotes for the day.

If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals.  I hope most other people would have done the same.

Jeff McMahan, stating what should be obvious. And even more bluntly:

Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild.  From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice.  To be entitled to regard ourselves as civilized, we must, like Isaiah’s morally reformed lion, eat straw like the ox, or at least the moral equivalent of straw.

These both form part of an Opinionator essay which concludes that we “have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species”.

The ‘meaning’ of life?

John Horgan has quite a philosophically messy post full of meta-reflections on this classic question over at Scientific American (hat tip to Zack Beauchamp). But that’s okay – there’s enough there to work with and take as a platform to spur further thought. What struck me most is the way he – at least at first – interprets the question about the meaning of life as a request for an explanation of what makes life valuable for you. So insofar as I’d be inclined to answer the latter question by listing a variety of sources of goodness which bring me enduring happiness – philosophy, film and cooking; friendship, love and altruism – I’m also implying that these things are the key to the meaning of life.

That would be a conveniently simple analysis that allows me to answer the question quite naturally. It also fits a few basic linguistic intuitions insofar as we say things like ‘this gives my life meaning’. But the suggestion sadly seems like quite a stretch to me. To ask what the meaning of life is isn’t to ask what gives life meaning. The former question seems to have far deeper metaphysical presuppositions. It’s asking what is true for all, not what you’ve personally decided fulfils you. Normally, such questions are surely trying to request some far grander explanation of what our purpose is that is ‘written in the stars’, so to speak, that we’re obliged to somehow discern and follow. And that question is, for me and surely most non-religious people, pretty unintelligible. I don’t think any such answer exist, nor do we need or should we want one to. We should instead be content with a more modest account of happiness that Horgan hints at, without getting carried away and thinking we’ve discovered any special facts about the operations of the universe. Phrases like ‘the meaning of life’ seem to lead people astray like that. In that respect, we’re probably better off rejecting the question altogether.

None of this is to say, though, that we thereby can’t rationally debate what the stable sources of happiness are, instead being left alone as individuals to disagree and pursue our own paths. The fact that we’re all similarly constituted with shared experiences, emotions and social conditions means that we should expect a significant and perhaps surprising amount of agreement about what works best, irrespective of whether this reflects any great Truth. And once more, that should be sufficient to intellectually satisfy us.