If you're one of our UK readers, then Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will likely need no introduction. And to a certain extent, American readers may be familiar with many of his cookbooks published here from 10 Speed Press (River Cottage Meat, River Cottage Fish and River Cottage Veg have been reviewed by The Kitchn.) It is my hope that many more Americans discover this passionate cook, writer, and activist and become inspired, as I have, to cook with fresh ingredients sourced as locally as possible.
For just a hint of the enthusiastic and delicious ideas that come from this very creative and exuberant cook, read on for Hugh's 5 essential things for the home cook.
River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's farm/canteen/TV show/cookery school, began back in 1998 when Hugh launched three television series: Escape to River Cottage, Return to River Cottage and River Cottage Forever. Chronicling his adventures in moving to a small farm (called a smallholding in Great Britain) in Dorset, the premise was to see if he could support himself on what he grew and raised there. Soon the concept expanded, moving to Devon and adding more TV shows, three canteens, and a cookery school.
On top of the tremendous achievement of growing River Cottage into an exciting and relevant organization, Hugh is a food activist and has run campaigns in England to support humanely and sustainably raised meat, poultry, and fish. He has also helped to encourage an overwhelmingly popular return to tending an allotment, the British equivalent of community garden plot. As lists for an available plot grew to a several year wait, Hugh organized Landshare, a website where people looking for land to plant vegetables (and even raise a few animals!) could find people looking to offer land . At over 70,000 members, it's been another successful venture for the River Cottage team.
Currently, the TV series which got all of this started are not available for viewing in the US, although occasionally you can catch a video on YouTube. Hugh hinted that they're working on that, so hopefully as his books continue to gain popularity here, we may see more of this exuberant and charming fellow.
Meanwhile, I'm dreaming of the day I can dine at one of the River Cottage Canteens in Dorset or perhaps even take one of their cookery workshops. Of course, they may be stuck with me because something tells me I may never leave!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
- Swap and shuffle.
"Don't feel hidebound by recipes," says Hugh. "If you don't have an ingredient on hand, feel free to shuffle it out for another. Swap a carrot for a parsnip, blue cheese for goat's cheese, strawberries for raspberries. Various leafy greens and chards, a leek for an onion, a root for a root. Go with the flow — swap and shuffle!"
- Don't always lead with meat and fish.
"Don't get me wrong. I think meat and fish are great, but we don't need to fuss if they're not in the fridge. If you stock up on grains, pulses, nuts and spices, and bring home fresh veg, you have an unlimited amount of fantastic recipes to choose from." Hugh feels we eat too much meat and should stop having it dominate our plates. "A little leftover meat is great if you have it, to use as a seasoning, but it's not necessary."
- Anything you can do with meat, you can do with vegetables.
One way to wean yourself from the 'tyranny of meat' is to expand your thinking around cooking vegetables. "Remember that all of your equipment, all the know-how you have for cooking meat, can be applied to vegetables as well," says Hugh. "You can barbecue onions, roast roots, deep fry pulse (legume) patties."
- Consider the potato ricer.
"The potato ricer makes the best, creamiest, most delicious mash," says Hugh. "But it's also great for squeezing the water out of greens. I take a bunch of greens (kale, chard, etc.) and quickly blanch them, for maybe one minute, just to take them down a bit. Then stuff them into the ricer and give a squeeze to extract as much water as possible. Heat some oil in a pan, add a little garlic and maybe some cumin, and then throw in the greens to heat them up. What you have in just a few minutes is a lovely plate of greens, somewhat Moorish in flavor. I use my ricer several times a week, and not just for potato mash!"
- Go beyond the fruit bowl.
"We can get rather lazy with the fruit bowl," says Hugh. "Fruit is very versatile and can be used in savory as well as sweet dishes. Use it with fish and meat, put it into savory salads, plump raisins with apple juice and use them in a salad of roots and leaves."
Bonus: Like many of our Expert Essential interviewees, Hugh believes that people should grow at least some of their own food. "I am becoming very passionate about encouraging people to move away from our dependance on industrially produced food. We are physically and emotionally dependent on corporations to grow and cook our food and we've got to establish some self-sufficiency from that. Growing even one herb plant is an act of defiance; it means that you are no longer 100% dependent on strangers to grow what you eat.
"When you grow your own food, you're naturally more in tune and then you naturally want to know more, do more. Anyone can grow their own food. If the only thing you can manage is a window box, grow your own herbs. Even it's just one tomato plant or a row of cut-and-come-again salad, the smallest act can lead to a tremendous sense of self-sufficiency."
→ For more information on River Cottage and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, visit the River Cottage website.
(Images: Simon Wheeler)