I had a feeling I was going to like this book when I realised it was written in Wales, by a guy who wears camo. It was even printed in Aberystwyth!
I became quite certain that this book was purpose designed for my teenage son. And I was not disappointed.
This is not a book of recipes for experienced cooks. This is a book that will teach you to create meals from simple ingredients, found locally, ideally fresh from the garden.
In Carl's own words -
In The Permaculture Kitchen I aim to help you develop a flexible and intuitive way to cook. The method starts with the ingredients and time that you have to hand and couples those with some foundation principles and basic techniques. The recipes are there to illustrate the principles and techniques. You'll see that I give you ideas for variations of flavours, ingredients and methods. I also give you suggestions for how leftover meals can be used to save you time and energy. In fact, I encourage you to make more than you may need for one meal. This helps you to get some cooking in reserve to save time for when you're pressed later.
With The Permaculture Kitchen I help you get connected to the ebb and flow of the seasons, your local climate and weather: more so if you grow or produce your own food. Even if you don't grow your own, you'll have a connection to the providers of your food and their experience of these natural cycles.
I was a little dubious about the first recipe, which was a basic tomato sauce for using on pasta or pizza. It basically involved a lesson in how to peel and crush garlic, infuse it into olive oil, and add the contents of a tin of tomatoes. On the plus side though, I can imagine even the most kitchen-phobic of people being brave enough to try it. And I did have memories of how ubiquitous cheap tins of tomatoes are in Welsh supermarkets. But then the real beauty of the book starts to shine through. Having persuaded you to open a tin of tomatoes and handle a clove of garlic, Carl then teaches you how to use fresh tomatoes, and then how to work with chillies and ginger as well as garlic, or even go the whole hog and learn to handle carrots, onions and celery to turn that basic sauce into something rather special. He's turning his readers into dabblers!
He moves on to herbs and seasonings next, and then to stocks, and then teaches you three main variations on how to cook rice, i.e. pilaf, paella and risotto. Once you've mastered those three, and tried your hand at adding the various different veggies he suggests to go with them, I'm pretty sure most people could feed themselves quite happily on some basic store cupboard ingredients combined with a small veggie patch or a haul from the local farmers' market. It also struck me as a great way to introduce teenagers to cooking so they can feed themselves when they fly the nest.
The next section was soups, starting off with an old favourite of mine, cawl cennin. OK, so he calls it leek and potato soup in the book, but I know cawl cennin when I see it. Carl has already taught us how to make stock, and now the main thing is teaching us how to handle leeks and get them thoroughly clean so the cawl, er soup, doesn't turn out gritty. He also gives advice on what types of potato to use according to how you want the soup to turn out. Although he doesn't explicitly say so, this would also encourage you to start thinking about what potatoes you might like to start growing in the garden. Having mastered this soup he gives ideas for varying the vegetables used, suggesting onions, garlic, carrots, celeriac or parsnips, and maybe adding bacon or other meats, and varying the herbs. Among the other soups he discusses is minestrone, which he describes as, "a thick, filling soup made from a mix of seasonal ingredients". He gives two completely different recipes for this, one for spring/summer, using fresh beans and vegetables such as courgettes and lettuce, and one for autumn/winter, using dried beans and vegetables such as leeks, kale and root vegetables. This gives a very strong 'feel' to how the vegetable supply changes through the year, and how the soup will vary along with it. No prescriptive recipes here!
The next chapter is permie pizzas, and he gets you out and about foraging for wild greens to adorn them with. And then to curries, starting off with two variations on a foolproof method, and including a rather fascinating lamb and nettle curry. I'm going to try that one very soon as I love lamb and at this time of year even I have a few nettles about. It seems such a perfect combination! There's a chapter on quick veg 'prepared for pasta, noodles, rice or toast', then he looks and grills and griddles, and then one on eggs, followed by salads and salad dressings. The bread chapter is really good. It starts off with a really easy unleavened bread, roti, which is a perfect accompaniment to all those curries you've just been making, and then moves to a rather comprehensive section all about sourdough, then rounded off with pizza dough, because after all you've turned into a total dabbler by now and you've been making tomato sauce since the day the book arrived!
There's a small chapter on preserving, and a final one with tips about using up bits of veggies that most people just discard, including how to make wine from broad bean pods and pesto from carrot tops!
All in all, I love this book. Carl is inspiring and his love of cooking for people is infectious. I love the way he talks about using colours, textures and shapes to 'paint' with his ingredients. I love the way he wants his readers to experiment, not slavishly follow instructions. It's enabling in a way that very few books these days are. But it's not for everyone. I can imagine that anyone who likes to be told what to do wouldn't appreciate the deliberate vagueness in some of the recipes. I would imagine that anyone who just treats it as a cook-book without that love for the ingredients would miss the point. And I would think that an experienced cook who already knew all the techniques would skim it and maybe fail to find the inspiration that a novice cook would pick up almost spontaneously.
This is a book for people who can't cook yet. It's for people who may have been raised on convenience food and want to break away. It's for those of us who have broken away from the supermarkets and want to grow our own food, or buy locally grown food, and don't know where to start. It's for teenagers who want to learn how to feed themselves. It's for home-school moms who want their children to join the dots between the vegetables in the garden and the food on their plates. It's a book that will be used, avidly, for a few months and then forgotten as the skills will be absorbed so fully that the reader will soon be spontaneously gathering ingredients and throwing them together to create edible masterpieces. It's a book for boys like my son, who are far more interested in eating than they are in cooking, but understand that it has to get from the garden to the plate somehow. But then, he was born in Aberystwyth and wears camo too, so I knew all along it was going to be just perfect for him. If you've read this far, I think it might be the right one for you, too!
Exclusive content and FREE digital access to over 20 years of back issues