In this blog I explore issues around food, nutrition, and low impact lifestyles outside the expectations of ‘consumer society’ – focussing on the practical, DIY responses to ecological change.
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‘An Anarchist’s Cookbook’, Part 1:
My Stone Age Food Processor – making meal with ancient simplicity
In this post and accompanying video: I focus a little on the issue of the costs of food; the theory behind vegan protein sources; and I prepare a meal for the family and explain the economics of that – but mostly I show the simple brilliance of using a pestle and mortar.
The word ‘mortar’ comes, via Middle English and Old French, from the Latin term for a vessel used for pounding; ‘pestle’ comes via the same route, and means something used for pounding. But the tool they describe is far older than Roman, with examples in museums dating back tens of thousands of years. This tool was one of the major advances in Stone Age technology – after fire, edged stone tools, and the related technology of the quern-stone – which founded the modern human species’ food system.
Many years ago I had an electric food processor; and a electric coffee grinder; and all the hassle that came with their use. Today my treasured, simple, relative cheap, and long-lasting tool has done away with them – and freed me from the drudgery of their cleaning.
Admittedly though, the enjoyment of using it is as much therapy as food preparation. But once you discover the depths of technique to its use, it is extremely versatile.
I’m starting today with coffee beans. They’re one of the harder things to master because they are essentially little hard lumps of carbonised wood – so you may want to try something easier. Right now though I want coffee!
I’ve had my pestle and mortar for over ten years. I’ve seen models like mine, made of granite, on sale for between £10 and £15. The base part, the mortar, weights about three kilos; with a pit about 14cm/5½” wide and deep, and an overall diameter and height of 19.5cm/7½”. The pestle weights around half a kilo… so it keeps you fit!
At first I would have sent these coffee beans all over the kitchen; but very quickly you learn that using this tool is more than just hitting things with a rock: There are different techniques to discover; each with its own finely controlled use of force; and different kinds of food require their own special treatment to get just the right result.
What you also appreciate is that, ‘there is no movement without rhythm’. I like to cook to music, certainly, but with the right rhythm this tool takes on a whole new kind of life – a psychological positive feedback for those different actions you are doing which makes them seemingly easier and more joyful.
Using a food processor is a chore. Once you master the different techniques of using a pestle and mortar though, using it is just pure, wipe-clean pleasure.
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
The point about cooking well, anywhere, under any condition, is to ‘just do it’; and don’t worry about the outcome.
I’ll skip over a lot of detail today. Don’t worry, I’ll come back to it in future blog posts. What I want to outline here is the general ‘pattern’ behind this blog, and the approach I’m trying to demonstrate. That said, today is really difficult; and not just because I’m cooking while running two cameras.
When I cook I do not measure; I rarely use scales, and at best I might just count spoons. Mostly though I just tip ingredients straight from the storage jars; or for a little finer control, I tip things into the lid of the jar and then tip that into the bowl. It’s all about instinct; feeling what’s right to use ‘in the moment’ rather than accept that ‘X amount’ stated in the recipe is what is required.
In the real world, the composition or texture of ingredients varies. For example, I use many different kinds of bread flour, all of which say, ‘strong white’ or ‘wholemeal’ on the bag; but every brand, sometimes a different batch, behaves slightly differently. If I use my head, not the scales, I still make good bread. Likewise, if you’re foraging for food, or growing food in the garden, you also appreciate how ripeness and variety can completely change how the ingredient behaves.
Going by feel, with what your experience says you need to do, rather than an imposed measure, is how people cooked for most of human history – up until a century or two ago when cheaper mass produced scales were first available.
Today, I’m measuring; and the only reason I’m measuring is because I know that’s what people want to hear – because that’s what they understand. But do not consider this a hard and immutable recipe! Throughout the text I give you alternatives options; use them. Better still, with experience, think up your own and apply them.
Cooking food, as a means to express the core of your own individual lifestyle, should be about developing your own take on how food can be prepared. The moment you slavishly follow recipes, or unquestioningly follow food fashions, then you create a ‘food hierarchy’ – you diminish your own creative potential by giving the decisions to others.
What I advise you to do though is get away from those externally imposed hierarchies of weights and measures, and instead develop your skills of tactile sense and observation...
That’s where ‘anarchist cooking’ begins; an acceptance that there are no hierarchies in our food culture, or need to honour standards with which we might not agree. Though we might each share the ‘idea’ of a recipe, it is up to us to make it.
The root of that is to develop, through practical experience, a confidence in your own judgement – which outside the issue of food will take you to many other places besides!
Veggie burgers – or specifically, nut burgers. Today I’m making what are probably my most expensive version of these burgers because of the ingredients: Lots of nuts.
If I had my own nut trees, they’d be free – but that’s another, more fundamental issue to consider another day.
The important thing is: This ‘recipe’ uses the same method, irrespective of the ingredients chosen; today I’m using nuts, but I could have used cooked grains and pulses, or beans – it makes little difference in the end except to the price. How you choose to make this ‘your’ recipe has to reflect your own circumstances.
That’s the point about today though: I want to make my most expensive burgers because I want to show how the price measures-up to the various ‘vegan products’ on offer in shops.
A nut burger is basically nut meal – that’s ground nuts – bound together with something starchy that goes solid when cooked.
That’s where the pestle and mortar comes in. It turns nuts into nut meal, easily; and does so in a way which doesn’t excessively heat the nut, and so degrade the nutritional quality of the proteins and oils – unlike industrial processing which uses plate mills that get hot.
I begin by making the binder – the mush that will stick the nuts and other ingredients together into a (fairly) solid burger.
First I hand-mash chickpeas – though I could equally have cooked some lentils, or green split peas, to get the same thing. These chick peas were dried, and when I last made hummus I cooked extra and then stored them in the fridge.
That’s not only cheaper than tinned chickpeas, or less hassle than boiling a small amount, it also saves waste, pollution and resources compared to tinned products or boiling a small amount.
Next I add some seasoning to give the usually bland binder some flavour.
I take half-a-dozen cardamoms and gently squeeze them till they pop in the pestle and mortar – then I remove the pod and leave the seeds inside the mortar. I add black peppercorns and cumin seed and grind everything to powder.
Grinding seeds takes practice. If you hit them hard they fly around the room. Start by using the weight of the pestle to tap down gently and break the hard outer shell of the seed. For many seeds that’s easy, but for some, like linseed, it’s difficult. When that’s done you can slowly begin to hit them harder and harder to turn them into power.
The centre of the seed is the easy bit. It’s the shell that takes the effort; though if you really did just want pure power you could use a fine sieve to remove the shells. That’s not required today.
The reason for using seed, not ready-ground spices, is the flavour is more intense. In ready-ground spices the volatile oils can escape during processing (or be deliberately removed for marketing to food processors); or during long-term shelf-storage. Seeds are nature’s low impact, organic flavour storage vessels – design to keep all those oils and the flavours they carry inside.
I add a little oil to the binder with the powder, to carry the oil-soluble flavours in the food to the mix. You might also add a little salt if you want it.
‘Complementarity’: The Imprecise Theory of Balancing Plant Proteins
I learned the theory behind vegan wholefoods in bits, mostly by word of mouth and photocopied hand-written sheets, at peace camps and free festivals in the 1980s.
What I later discovered was that many people were, more or less, quoting from the same book – ‘Diet for a Small Planet’, published in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappé. Still in print today, revised with new information, and definitely worth a read if you want to learn about nutrition from a very well-written and clear source.
What the book originally advocated – though later changed in the revised version – is an approach called ‘Protein Complementarity’. The idea was that different groups of foods contained different levels of the nine essential amino acids (a.k.a., ‘proteins’); and so by combining those different groups of foods over the course of a day’s food intake, you can be sure of getting the right balance of proteins.
Great idea; but no hard evidence to back it up.
There are over twenty-odd amino acids that your body needs. Most of those it can create itself from other nutrients in your diet. There are a core of nine ‘essential amino acids’ that the body can’t make – Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, & Valine – and so they must be present in our diet in just the right proportions.
The idea of ‘complementarity’ assumed that different groups of foods (see the ‘wheel’ diagram) broadly contained complimentary amounts of these different proteins.
Therefore, by combining two of the four groups, your body would get all the nutrition it required.
In reality, that vegans stayed healthy was not because that theory was correct, but because it unwittingly did the right thing by making people eat a varied group of ingredients in their diet.
What we can say today is that most of the population, by eating a varied vegetable-protein-based diet, are likely to get the right amount of protein – without the fastidious measurement of protein intakes that vegans in the 1970s practised.
The exception are those who, due to genetic variation, or lifestyle, need more protein; or due to medical conditions are unable to process sufficient protein from a plant-only diet (which is a very small proportion of the population as a whole).
This is actually a really complicated issue. It’s not just how much of a particular thing is in your diet; what is the ‘biological value’ of the source, and hence how much of it can you actually absorb in your unique gut. That’s where things get vague.
Age, gender, and activity levels are also a factor in this balance. When you look at the data on this you find – contrary to the myths of ‘militant carnivores’ – some of the richest sources of dietary protein are from plants, not just animals.
If you wish, you can take the time to get average values for protein content, and multiply them by the amount of ingredients used, to get an idea of exactly what you are eating. As an example, I’ll perform an analysis on my burgers at the end of this post – so I can compare them to shop-bought equivalents.
Doing long-winded calculations is more ‘scientific’ than complementarity; but it’s still not precise: Due to the natural variation of nutrients in foods from different sources; and because the variation in our individual needs will not always be the same as that ideal, ‘average’ value.
The only real test is, just do it. And after a while, if your body tells you that your food is not satisfying enough, then try something different.
That, ultimately, is how you use ‘complemen-tarity’ to design your ideal diet – you listen to what your body tells you and act on it.
‘Make people grate again!’
Peel and hand-grate a carrot. The thin grated carrot will soften more quickly during the short cooking time compared to lumpen sliced carrot.
Essentially adding finely chopped or grated veg adds flavour, texture, and colour – which makes it more pleasant to eat; as well as more varied nutrition – which makes it better for your diet.
Many shop-bought burgers are fortified with extra vitamins. If I were making ‘vegan-only’ burgers then at this stage I would add yeast flakes to boost the B-vitamin content; roughly half the daily suggested intake of yeast flakes for each burger I am going to make.
I’m not doing that today as these burgers are feeding non-vegans (you can overdose on vitamins by eating fortified foods unnecessarily).
With everything in the bowl I mix it all together. Now I make the nut meal.
Why bother bashing nuts? Crushing nuts and seeds makes the nutrition they contain more easily available to the gut, because they are more easily digested, and so more beneficial to the body – which was the great nutritional advance that the pestle and mortar gave to humanity at least 40,000 years ago.
Sometimes, if I have spare time, I make nut meal and put it in a sealed jar to use whenever I want it. Having a little meal to hand is really useful when you want to quickly cook something, without having to take the time to crush some nuts. A good seal on the jar is important though, as once ground the oils in the nuts will oxidise and lose their flavour and nutritional value.
To be clear, I’m using three shop-bought types of nut. I could use foraged nuts, or other types of plant protein altogether. What’s important is not the nut, it’s the nutritional quality, and whether you can afford to buy it. As I said, only the method is constant here – not the ingredients. What you select is up to you.
The simplest way to get something that is nutritionally balanced is to select two of the following four general groups of ingredients to make your burger (see ‘theory of balancing plant protein’ box on the right):
Soya beans: As a ‘complete’ protein, soya contains all nine ‘essential’ proteins in the right amounts. Fresh, or soaked and cooked beans can be mashed to make the binder, or crushed to use as the filler;
Nuts & Seeds: Nuts and seeds make the ideal filler, provided they are crushed into meal to make them easier to chew. Again, a diversity of nuts provides better protein, as well as providing minerals and essential oils;
Grains: Grains, or cereals, stewed to make them chewable, make a good filler ingredient – but are less good as a binder because you end up with flour, which has very little fibre (making the burgers rather pasty instead of solid);
Legumes: Beans, peas, & lentils, well stewed, make a good binder because they contain a lot of fibre. Cooked until soft and then crushed they also make a good filler which can be hand mashed instead of using a pestle and mortar.
Which filler am I using today?
First, cashews: These are a doddle! A good nut to practise with at first. Gently press down and let them break under the pestle. When you have a lot of broken chunks, press a bit harder.
Hit them too hard they will turn to power, which we don’t want or the burgers will be like slimy paste inside. A good method is to hold the pestle firmly, and rotate the end in a circle in the mortar, and gradually the cashews will break into a sort of lumpen flour. Add them to the mix.
Next, walnuts: They put up no resistance whatsoever. Gently press to break them, then rotate the pestle around until they make a sticky crumbly mass. Add them to the mix.
Finally, snapped brazils: Brazil nuts are very nutritious – and if you buy the broken ones they’re (a tiny bit) cheaper. Though much harder than the other nuts, they do have a strange behaviour. If you hit them hard they shatter (but the odd one will certainly fly out of the bowl); and once shattered they grind down to a lumpy powder quite easily by rotating the pestle around the mortar.
Now mix-up everything in the bowl; add a little hot but not boiling water to help everything glue together. What you are trying to do is make the mix liquid enough to stick, but no so wet that it turns into a paste.
Two plates: Sprinkle one with just a little wholemeal flour to stop the burgers sticking to the plate; on the other tip a small heap of flour. Now take the hopefully solid bowl of mix and divide it cleanly into portions – however many seem appropriate for the amount of mix you have. Very roughly each portion should form a ball inside the cupped palms of your hands.
Take a portion; drop it into the heap of flour and turn it over till the flour sticks; then take some flour in the palm of your hand, dump the floury ball on top, sprinkle flour on the lump, then cup your other hand around the ball and squeeze hard – till you feel the moisture begin to ooze.
With your thumbs bent slightly, and with the thumb on one hand just below the wrist on the other, squeeze the mix between your palms, then rotate a third of a turn – and repeat over and over again until you have a fairly flattish, rounded-hexagon-ish shaped burger.
This is a skill. You probably won’t get it right first time. I was taught this as a kid, so if I make it look easy it’s because I can do this entirely by touch without having to look at my hands.
When you’ve got something that looks like a burger put it on the other plate and go to the next portion in the bowl. Carry on until you’ve processed all the mix into burgers; then leave them to stand and harden a little for 20 to 30 minutes.
At this point I put the rice on to boil and made the salad – but I’ll finish-up here first.
I need three burgers for dinner. I will freeze the other three. The reason I make big batches and freeze them is that it saves time and waste; and creates a supply of frozen goodies for when I haven’t the time to prepare ‘real’ fresh food.
Learning how to use a freezer, and other storage and preserving methods, is also an essential skill. It allows you to ‘time-shift’; to take an opportunity in the present and store it away for your future convenience.
For example, if a shop had an offer on really short-dated fresh produce: You could buy a load cheaply; process it into pies, burgers, or cakes; then freeze to last weeks or months when ordinarily they would have gone-off in a few days.
When soft, the burgers need only 15 to 20 minutes hot frying in a shallow amount of oil – perhaps ten minutes one side, then flip over and do the other. Cooked from frozen, put a tray for about 25 to 30 minutes on gas mark 5/190°C/375°F. Perhaps dribble a little oil over the top first to stop it burning.
Then just boil as normal – which for brown rice is anything from 35 to 50 minutes until soft and fluffy. And as there always seems to be a hostile debate, I’ll just say now that I like to add an excess of water and then drain in a sieve, rather than letting the rice boil dry.
I also added a few bay leaves – which I’ll remove before serving. Likewise whole cardamoms or cloves give a nice flavour, but again count them in and remove if people are fussy about picking them out of their mouths while eating.
Note also that I’m cooking more rice than I need today. It keeps for day or two in the fridge – provided you cool it down quickly and store in the fridge soon after cooking (otherwise it can grow some nasty bacteria). You can use it cold to pad out a meal, or eat it with a dressing for a snack, or stir fry it with Winter greens for a quick meal.
All adding bits does is give more flavour and nutrition – which is its own reward.
Cold raw food, chopped small to make it more easily digestible – what could be better?!
Except it’s Winter; and I really don’t want to eat energy-intensive industrial greenhouse food that’s trucked thousands of miles over continents.
In Winter there’s a cheap and simple alternative to greenhouse salad – sprouting seeds at home. That’s the subject of future blog I have planned, so I won’t go into that here.
Essentially you just have to use whatever can be eaten raw, is seasonally available, and packed with nutrition. I’m using alfalfa sprouts, grated carrot, half a small onion finely chopped, and an finely chopped apple.
Of course salad is always better with a dressing, or mayonnaise. The latter takes a lot of hassle to make; the former is a doddle with a pestle and mortar.
Put a little mustard seed in the mortar. Tap with the pestle to crack the shells, then rotate and grind to turn to flour. For something more exotic you could add other spices too.
Put a small amount of oil in a small container that has a watertight lid. Add the same amount of vinegar and the same amount of warm water – or if you skip the vinegar, add twice the volume of water. Add the mustard powder and stir. I add a finely chopped clove of garlic. No salt for me, but add that if you wish. Another stir, pop on the lid, and then shake ‘til it’s all blended. If it separates, then just give it a shake again until its blended.
Again, a dressing just adds flavour to a salad which might otherwise by a bit bland. If you forage your salad, it’s also a good way to make tough leaves a little easier to chew.
Most sesame seeds in shops come ‘hulled’, with the husk taken off. Easy to grind, but removing the husk also removes half of their nutritional value. With the husk on, weight-for-weight sesame seeds have as much calcium as cows milk. For that reason always try to get whole seeds.
Next, what colour do you like your tahini?
‘Light’ tahini is ground seeds – usually hulled seeds as the husk makes it a little grey. If you like dark tahini you need to roast your seeds for 5 to 10 minutes on gas mark 4/176°C/350°F until they start to change colour – and the longer you leave them, the more ‘dark’ and bitter they will taste.
Take your seeds, fill the bottom of the mortar to not more than a 1cm or ½” deep (to make larger amounts process in batches). Then pound… no, I mean pound!
Sesame seeds take a lot of effort to turn into flour. Tahini needs fine flour. I don’t mind bits husk, but for the equivalent of shop-bought tahini you need to sieve and pound the lumps again.
If I were doing a large amount I would tip the flour into a bowl as I pounded each batch, then add the oil when finished. As I only need one batch, I pound to flour then add a small amount of oil in the mortar – and then stir until it reaches the right consistency.
That’s tahini; but I’ll let you into a secret:
One day, I looked at the grey fluff in the bottom of the mortar and thought to myself, “if I put honey instead of oil in there, I’ve got halva” – and lo!, my universe expanded with nutritious sweets on demand!
Try it; just enough honey to glue the flour together and then spread it on a greased tray to set.
Today I’m making a tahini-dip dressing. After adding almost enough oil, I stir in a spoon of mango chutney. You could improvise with little additions like this – whatever fits the occasion.
I’ve made this tahini to spoon on top of the burgers when they are cooked. Equally I could have made a gravy with miso and/or fried onion, or apple sauce. Again, this is just a quick five or ten minutes of preparation that boosts the flavour and nutrition levels.
I love cooking good nutritious food, but that’s not my only motivation: Cooking like this is a practical expression of how I would change the world:
Think about the biodiversity of your diet. How many different species of nutritious protein-, oil-, and mineral-bearing plants have I talked about so far in this post? I make it over twenty!
Yet look on the product labelling on foods and your will see a list of ingredients based on the intensive processing of a small group of global mega-commodities – like rice, soya, wheat, maize, palm, starchy roots like potatoes or cassava, and with a small number of genetically homogeneous animal species dominating meat production.
Human food culture has become a monoculture: Lots of products, but they’re all made from the same small group of ingredients – like cereals. It’s that lack of diversity, not simply the scale of farming, that is killing global biodiversity.
The point about a pestle and mortar is that it can be the practical heart of a more diverse, and so more resilient, personal food culture – much like the one that existed for millennia until industrialism and urbanism appeared four centuries ago.
It’s the ecological crisis created by industrialism and urbanism that’s driving our planet to the brink of destruction. Adopting that older, less intense, and far more diverse food culture is one of the things we need to do to avoid that outcome.
List and costs of ingredients
Nut burgers (makes 6, total 750g, half stored):
115g chickpeas (~60g dry weight)
20ml olive oil
100g ‘medium’ sized onion, finely sliced
90g carrot, grated
Flavourings, pestle & mortared to powder –
1g cumin seeds
0.5g tumeric powder
0.5g mixed herbs
Nuts, pestle and mortared to lumpy meal –
115g snapped brazils
40g Besan flour
40g wholemeal flour
85g wholemeal flour to make burgers
total per kilo:
Rice & bits (half used in meal, half stored):
300g short grain brown rice
30g pumpkin seeds
55g sunflower seeds
Tahini (half used in meal, half stored):
55g whole sesame seeds
15g mango chutney
60g alfalfa sprouts (grown from ~3g alfalfa seed)
140g large carrot, grated
half a 75g ‘small’ onion finely chopped
one apple finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic
2g mustard seed
10ml olive oil
10ml cider vinegar
Total for meal for 3:
Total per person:
The table on the right shows the ingredients, and how much they cost. Per person each serving cost £1.26.
In the table below I take the weight of each ingredient and calculate the protein content. Each £1.26 serving has 18g of protein, 36% of daily intake, and costs 6.3p per gram of protein. Each 125g burger has 11.7g of protein (or 9.8g/100g of burger), costing 66p, or 5.6p per gram protein.
As the protein analysis shows, the problem is the low level of lysine (a common issue in vegan meals). Using soya beans instead of brazil nuts, or green split peas or adzuki beans instead of chickpeas, or both, can easily increase that figure.
As I said at the beginning, these are my most expensive burgers; there are many options to vary the ingredients to create a different result.
Checking the McDonald’s web site in early February 2021, the cost of a ‘Big Mac’ was £3.19, and provided 26g of protein. That’s 12.3p per gram of protein. To be fair, I’d have to eat 1.4 times more of my food serving to get the same amount of protein; that’s still only 9.1p per gram.
Near the bottom of the ‘vegan products’ market: A pack of Morrison’s ‘meat free burgers’ costs £1.49 for six; each 56g burger, made from industrially processed soya and chickpea, contains 8.8g of protein – or 2.82p per gram. It takes 1⅓ Morrison’s burgers to get the same amount of protein as my burgers, which would cost a third less.
At the upper end of the market: Sainbury’s ‘Moving Mountains Plant-based Burgers’; £4.50 for two; each 113g burger contains 17 grams of protein, or 13.2p per gram – over twice my own!
These burgers are made from highly processed soya and pea protein – the two alternative ingredients noted above, which are even cheaper to use in own-made burgers. More importantly, unlike nut trees, I could easily grow those two ingredients myself! (if I had access to land).
Whether you are vegan or not doesn’t matter. In future there will be less meat available. If climate policy doesn’t kill off the farm animals, then carbon taxes will make meat unaffordable for many.
We will all have to get used to cooking more of our ‘own protein’. That’s because it is the only viable alternative to the ‘consumerist’ vision of the intensively-manufactured ‘vegan products’.
In a society that idolises ‘the product’, D-I-Y is a deviant act; and in an era of mechanical power which seeks to avoid personal effort, using hand tools is a revolutionary act. The more bizarre fact though, unlike many approaches to “saving the planet”, is this ‘D-I-Y’ approach is cheaper than the equivalent, everyday mainstream offerings from shops and supermarkets; and it’s fun to do!