It’s about food that’s good, clean and fair.
In recent years, there’s been a glut of recipe books to help us cook meals in 30 or—god forbid—15 minutes; with five ingredients or just three. Food in a hurry; grub on the go for busy people. In our time-poor world when we all seem to be in constant competition as to who can be the busiest (which, frankly, is one contest I’m more than happy to lose), isn’t it about time we all slowed down?
The Slow Food movement started in 1989 following a demonstration against the proposed siting of a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. It was, and still is, a reaction to industrialisation and fast food culture, but I prefer to think of it in terms of what Slow Food is pro, rather than against. It’s about combining the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and environment. About recognising the importance of local food traditions and the connections between place, planet, people and politics. About a better, slower, more satisfying way to eat.
In Spain, where I’m lucky enough to live, buying, preparing and eating food occurs at a naturally leisurely pace. Despite the decline of the workday two-hour lunch break and the creeping advance of Starbucks and burger joints, on the whole food remains something to be celebrated, savoured, lingered over. Here, more than almost anywhere I know, food defines different regions and local traditions. From fabada—a rich bean stew—in Asturias to octopus in Galicia, paella in Valencia and roast suckling pig in Segovia, every town or region has its standout dish that must be tried by every visitor and generates as many opinions on how it should be made as there are cooks.
It’s a way of life I’ve embraced wholeheartedly. A typical Saturday might start with a gentle browse around the market—picking over the potatoes, squeezing and sniffing the fruit to find the ripest specimens, and listening to each stall holder hold forth on the freshest prawns, the best cuts of pork and the optimum way to prepare an artichoke. It can take a while! I’m not going to pretend I always shop this way—I do have a day job—but buying like this makes you much more aware of where your food has come from, what’s in season and hence what is good to cook and eat now. It means you’re much more likely to put the time into preparing and eating your purchases, rather than scoffing on the hoof, while checking Twitter, listening to a podcast and Whatsapp-ing plans for that night.
Lunch starts with an aperitivo, usually taken at a local bar—a sherry or a glass of wine (vermouth on Sundays), some olives, perhaps a bit of cheese or ham. Something to whet the appetite for what’s to come, but not to sate it. Lunch will generally be three courses and ends with the sobremesa—time spent at the table after eating, putting the world to rights, boosted by a further glass of something. It’s as important as the meal itself.
And slow food does not have to mean toiling over a hot stove for hours. My latest obsession is the slow cooker. I’m currently renting a flat without an oven, which for me is the stuff of nightmares, yet I hardly miss it thanks to the crockpot. My approach is very much bung-it-all-in; transforming cheap cuts of meat (oxtail, cheeks, trotters) and pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas) into satisfying suppers by long, slow cooking with little more than a splash of water and a pinch of seasoning. What’s more, slow cookers operate at very low temperatures, so use little power, making them both cheap and energy efficient to run. And they save on washing up. Cheap, eco-friendly and super-easy—what’s not to like?
Of course, what slow food means for your table is entirely up to you. It might be a commitment to only buying locally, to cooking what’s in season, or to actively campaigning about fair pay for producers. It doesn’t require you to spend your days tied to the kitchen or to spend half your monthly income on organic groceries. What matters is that it’s about food that’s good, clean and fair. In an interview with the New York Times, Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement said that a foodie—what he calls a “gastronomer”—who isn’t an environmentalist is just stupid; whereas an environmentalist who is not a gastronomer is sad. I, for one, don’t want to be either. As Carlo puts it, “It’s possible to change the world even while preserving the concept of the right of pleasure.”
Slow cooker chile
One of life’s little pleasures is chile con carne. Everyone has their own favourite version—with beans or without, blow-your-head-off hot or mild and comforting; it’s a dish that can be adapted to your mood, spice-tolerance and time available. One of my favourite, though I’m sure inauthentic, versions uses leftover roast chicken and chunks of chorizo; although let’s face it, what doesn’t taste better with the addition of chorizo? However, now firmly at the top of my personal charts is this version, which uses chunks of beef and after put-putting away for eight or 10 (yes, really) hours in the slow cooker, transforms into the most meltingly tender meat you can imagine. To say it’s easy is an understatement; to say it’s delicious, likewise.
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped—you know how hot you like it
1 tablespoon of seasoned flour
750g stewing steak
400g kidney beans, rinsed
1 teaspoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon of cumin
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
1 chicken stock cube
400g chopped tomatoes
Pour in enough olive oil to barely coat the bottom of the slow cooker. Don’t be tempted to add more as it will end up rising to the top. Chuck in the onions, chilli and garlic.
Toss the meat in seasoned flour and add to the pot. Most recipes will tell you to brown the meat first. Don’t. It’s not necessary and just creates more washing up.
Add the rest of the ingredients (except the tomatoes) and give them a good stir. You don’t need to dissolve the stock cube, just sprinkle it on—sounds weird, I know, but trust me.
Now add the tomatoes.
One of the big differences with slow cooking is that the liquid doesn’t reduce, so don’t be tempted to add it as you would normally—just splash in enough water to cover the meat. You could add a drop of wine if you like, but the same rule applies.
My ideal cooking time would be on high for three hours and then low for five, but basically the longer the better. If you’re heading out to work, just put it on low and leave it until you get back—10 or even 12 hours and it will be more than fine.
Serve with rice, flour tortillas, guac, soured cream or whatever accompaniments you fancy.
Follow Debbi on Twitter at @madridonaplate.