A fortnight ago I signed up to the Plastic Free July challenge. Although I generally avoid unnecessary consumption and packaging, single-use plastics are ubiquitous and do still creep into my home. In some areas in particular, plastics stubbornly cling on so I thought a focussed month of looking at habits and tastes with fresh eyes would be useful.
Plastics… why a big deal?
There are many reasons to question the all-pervasive presence of plastics in our world. For one, the material does not appear out of nowhere? It is typically made from crude oil that undergoes energy intensive petochemical processes to turn it into plastic granules. These resources are well-spent in the context of medical equipment, water and electrical piping, fridges… but for a ready-meal container, disposable cup or magazine wrapper…?
Which brings us to the issue of waste. As plastic use has grown exponentially*, so has plastic waste and it takes a long time for this waste to biodegrade. Recycling is not necessarily the answer as plastic waste is often dumped in developing countries where it is burnt in unsafe conditions. A lot of plastic also ends up in the oceans, killing marine life and birds. There are many reports on the effects of plastics on other species but just watch Midway, a haunting four-minute film featuring elegant albatrosses. It is not comfortable viewing but it sums up the far-reaching effects of our plastic addiction!
And then there is self-interest: our own health. Many plastics contain chemicals (BPA and phtalates) that mimic human hormones. There is increasing evidence that these are linked to health problems, from reproduction to cancers and brain diseases.
Eradicating, shrinking, avoiding…
Having committed to the Plastic Free Challenge, I did not sit around waiting for 1 July. I have already been examining the plastic-creep in my home. As single-use plastics are all pervasive, eradicating them entirely will be a challenge. However, with a little planning and creativity it is possible to avoid many plastics and shrink my footprint dramatically.
Best of all once you embark on a plastic free/light life, you soon discover benefits that trigger self-enforcing cycles: better tasting food; an enhanced sense of smell; financial savings; conversations in smaller stores with real shopkeepers…
The key is to identify the plastic black holes and find solutions that are as easy as possible to counter plastics’ knock-out argument: “convenience”. In the coming weeks I shall be sharing more of of my recipes, concoctions, tricks, dilemmas… but here are some tasty morsels to kick things off.
A duo of recipes
I have been cooking and baking from scratch for years but recently I expanded my repertoire to eradicate some of the last vestiges of plastic wrapping: breakfast cereals and savoury nibbles.
If I were truly virtuous, I would eat home-made nut-free muesli or porridge, instead of malty Shreddies. However, as a 4-year old girl I told my mum that muesli and porridge “are mush and only babies eat mush”, and I cannot say my view has changed. I now mostly eat toast for breakfast instead of cereal but to ring the changes, I have started making potato farls. They are ridiculously easy to rustle up, can be made in advance and are great for bridging the gap between the bread running low and my next baking day.
When I steam potatoes for dinner, I always cook enough for several days so I usually have some to hand. Take for four medium sized potatoes. Allow them to dry thoroughly and mash them finely. Add a tablespoon of melted butter and one of plain flour. I also add half a teaspoon of baking powder but this is not essential.
Stir all ingredients together and it will soon form a ball. Break it into three or four pieces and on a floured surface flatten them with both hands into a round (about a quarter of an inch thick and about the size of a small plate). There is no need for a rolling pin, hands work just fine. Cut the rounds into four pieces.
Pop four quarters into a dry frying pan over a medium to high heat and cook for three minutes on each side. Either eat the farls immediately or make them the night before and reheat them in the dry pan for a couple of minutes. Serve them with bacon, fried mushrooms or just a dollop of jam. Potato farls also make a super alternative to blinis!
As these are breadsticks, you will need strong flour, yeast and time for the dough to rise but once they are made made, they will easily last for five days in a tin.
Mix 115 g of strong white flour with ½ teaspoon of salt and dried fast-acting yeast*** and a pinch of caster sugar. Pour in ½ tablespoon of olive oil and 85ml of hand warm water. Then add a heaped tablespoon of the desired flavouring: I like fennel seeds or finely chopped rosemary fresh from the garden, but you could also use grated parmesan, finely chopped anchovies, crushed black pepper…
Knead thoroughly and leave to prove (i.e. rise) on an oiled baking sheet covered with a damp cloth. After an hour, preheat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7 and break the dough into 16-20 walnut sized pieces. With well-floured hands roll each ball into a pencil thin stick. Place on a well oiled baking sheet, brush with some milk and olive oil and sprinkle sea salt on the top. Bake for 17-20 minutes. (As grissini bake at a standard bread baking temperature, I make a batch when I am baking bread. I put them in the oven whilst the loaves are undergoing their second proving.)
I nibble these breadsticks on their own or dip them in homemade tapenade for an extra savoury kick.
* According to Scientific America in the first decade of this century, plastic production was almost the same as that of the whole of the 20th century!
** Poster by Plastic Pollution Coalition taken from Shore Collections.
*** If you are new to baking with yeast, check out Practicalities for novice bakers at the end of this post.