I need one pair of glasses to find the peanut butter in the shop and my other pair to read the minute print on the label. (Buy a pair of bifocals and I could probably do the shopping in half the time.)
But read the labels we must. How many times have I got my teeth into some tasty, wholefoody, organic-looking treat only to cast an eye down the label and find horrors lurking within? It's not just the problem of discovering more sugar than you expected, or noticing the unwanted palm oil in the peanut butter, margarine in the artisan-made flapjack or glucose syrup in anything. It's the fact that it could be a product with a less than open provenance.
I try, as much as is humanly possible, to buy only what I believe to be good. By that I mean food that is both delicious to eat and has sound ethical credentials. But it's not easy. It is almost impossible to buy anything that is whiter than white, be it a cabbage or a cup of coffee. No matter how careful we think we have been, there is always some helpful Guardian reader waiting to point out the ethical errors in our purchase.
I have a short but regular list of things I know I probably shouldn't do or buy, and I can guilt-trip myself with them any time I feel the need to. But it is actually quite a short list, and that is because I believe that even one person's careful choices can make a real difference. I do shop thoughtfully, but I'm no ethical saint.
The Fairtrade label helps enormously to cut down on the time I spend shopping, especially for fat, juicy nuts and sun-dried tropical fruits and preserves, but quality rather than ethical correctness will always be my starting point.
The Fairtrade dried mango I pick up from a local health food shop has an almost addictive quality. It's like expensive fruity chewing gum and the packet barely leaves my desk. That said, it is very good plumped up with apple juice and a little cardamom and served warm as a dessert.
Many products sold in this way have their story told on the label - some of which are toe-curlingly feelgood. I love reading those. Closer to home, the pearled spelt I am using for summer risottos with baby broad beans or young leaves comes with its all-singing, all-dancing list of credentials (100% organic, British grown, no GM, no preservatives or additives, locally sourced, environmentally packed). So good, in more ways than one.
The good intentions about what we buy may well have been somewhat compromised by the current financial climate. My answer is just to do without something rather than buy a dodgy and cheaper alternative. But that answer can't possibly work for everyone. The fact that we are having lentil soup tonight rather than the chicken drumsticks I had planned simply because they were out of organic, free-range ones works fine for me, but might not be all right for everyone. We must make our own choices.
I have always preferred the "little guy" - those farmers, producers, growers, stall holders and shopkeepers who bypass the ruthless behaviour of big business. One of the reasons I shop at the market is the chance to put my money directly in the hands of the people who picked the produce I put in my big brown bag.
It just happens that the coffee I drink and the tea I prefer is fairly traded, and the producer and his workers are not exploited. They are from tiny distributors and don't even shout about their provenance. Right now the food I buy and the cooking I do is probably nearer to how I would like it to be than it has ever been. I just wish I could stop buying those air-mile blueberries.
Risotto of pearled spelt and young chard
Spelt is as old as the hills yet decidedly modern, too. This is the grain many people are turning to for its gentle, soporific quality and nutty flavour. Pearled spelt is also good for adding to stews and casseroles. Serves 4.
250g pearled spelt
2 medium shallots
a litre of hot vegetable stock
2 handfuls of young chard leaves
a large handful of firm, grated cheese such as Berkswell (Parmesan will do)
100g soft goat's cheese
Soak the spelt for 10 minutes in cold water. Peel the shallots and chop them finely, then cook them with the butter till soft but not coloured.
Drain the pearled spelt and add it to the shallot, then pour in a third of the hot stock. Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer and leave for 8-10 minutes, stirring regularly before adding half the remaining liquid.
Five or six minutes later, introduce the last third of stock. Continue cooking for a further 8 minutes, checking the texture as you go.
It should be soft, with a very slight bite to it.
Wash and tear up the chard leaves, stir them in and leave them to soften before adding the cheeses. Check the seasoning, adding salt and ground black pepper as you need. The result you are after is similar to a risotto but slightly creamier. Serve, with a little more cheese if you wish.
Cashew nut cookies
Salty, sweet, soft and tender, these fragile biscuits are made with salted, roasted cashews and light brown sugar. Although these are very much meant to be eaten the day they are made, they will keep for a few days in an air-tight tin. Their slightly salty quality is extraordinary with vanilla ice cream. Serve them on the side, or maybe crumble them over the top. Makes about 12.
100g butter at room temperature
50g light muscovado
50g golden caster sugar
60g salted, roasted cashew nuts
100g cashew nut butter
100g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
Cut the butter into chunks and put it in the bowl of a food mixer. Add the sugars and beat for several minutes at moderate speed until it is very pale and smooth. Set the oven at 190C/gas mark 5. Roughly chop the toasted cashew nuts. Mix in the cashew nut butter and most of the cashew nuts.
Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder, and stir gently into the butter and sugar mixture to form a soft dough.
Spoon heaped tablespoons of the dough on to a non-stick baking sheet lined with baking parchment. (You can push them down a bit with a fork if you like, but the chunkier they are the more moist they will be.)
Scatter over any remaining cashew nuts and bake the biscuits at 190C/gas mark 5 for 12-14 minutes until they are pale gold and dry on top. Inside they should be slightly moist. Remove them from the oven and let them cool slightly before transferring them to a cooling rack. (You won't be able to move them when they're warm.)