Monday, 23 November 2020

Cookbooks for Christmas

Wondering how to get some of those pressies ticked off your list early without having to worry about the risk of another pre-Christmas lockdown.

Well how about a great cook book for the foodie or budding cooks and chefs in your life. I’ve recently got lots of new titles, which I am really enjoying, all very different. One of course is The Joy Of Food by my brother Rory O’Connell which I love but will write about later.



Meanwhile, let me mention some of the others that particularly appeal to me. One is Towpath by Lori de Mori, who has the most enchanting little café in four canal keeper’s stores along the banks of the Regent Canal in East London. Towpath is one of the secret hidden gems in the middle of London, one of the busiest and most sophisticated cities in the entire world. Lori, who trained at Rochelle Canteen and her partner Laura Jackson have a passion for seasonal food.


Towpath opens from Spring to late November. It has become a unique and beloved destination for so many. I totally include myself in the many who dream about whittling away a few hours at a table alongside the canal enjoying the delicious food while watching the swans glide past, the mallard chasing each other and the coots and waterhens skittering across the water. If I lived in London I would want to ramble along to Towpath every single day, no phone and no takeaway, such joy and now Lori and Laura her partner share their recipes and the stories.



Next up, Neven Maguire’s Mid Week Meals. For many, Neven is Ireland’s most trusted and best loved chef. He writes a weekly column in the Irish Farmer’s Journal where he has a loyal and devoted following. His restaurant, Macnean’s in Blacklion is permanently booked out. Yet, he finds time to do regular cooking videos from his home kitchen to encourage people to cook nourishing food for family and friends during the pandemic. Exciting Midweek Meals to share around the kitchen table.



Another gem - Sourdough Mania is by passionate self-taught baker and teacher, Anita Šumer. Based in Slovenia she has become an international success and now has over 70,000 followers on Instagram @sourdough_mania.

Sourdough Mania gives us both simple-to-make and more ambitious recipes for more festive occasions. Every stage is fully illustrated with step by step photography on weighing, mixing, kneading, shaping, scoring and baking. Just what all the Covid-19 sourdough bread bakers are yearning for.


John and Sally McKenna’s latest book is entitled MILK and tells the story of Ireland’s dairy producers and the importance of pasture fed cows to the quality and reputation of our milk, butter, cream, yoghurt… ‘MILK’ also looks at the scientific understanding of the liquid and explores its unique cultural power and resonance in the history of Ireland. It features brand new recipes featuring fresh dairy products from the new generation of Irish chefs, Niamh Fox, Takashi Miyazaki, Ahmet Dedc, Darren Hogarty, Mark Moriarty, Caitlin Ruth, Lily Higgins and Clodagh McKenna.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Freshly squeezed orange juice – my eye!



One of the most abused terms in the English language - the reality of “freshly squeezed” orange juice stretches from a tetra pack to a litre plastic container of juice that was squeezed days and sometimes weeks earlier. 'Freshly squeezed orange juice' or 'jus d’orange pressé' comes from an orange sliced in two across the “equator” and then juiced on a citrus juicer rather than one of those industrial machines that produce juice that tastes of pith and all the nasty chemicals on the skin. 


It’s so worth investing in a little electric juicer. They are relatively inexpensive, €30 or so and all the small electronics companies do one, Kenwood, Phillips, Krups….

If you have one, it should last for maybe ten years or more in a domestic situation. You will be much more likely to make some freshly squeezed orange juice to start the day, a real investment in your health.

I know I’m like a broken record but I was brought up with the clear understanding that our food should be our medicine and my mother firmly believed that if she didn’t put the money and effort into the food on the table she would inevitably give it to the doctor or chemist.

Winter is the citrus fruit season with an abundance of citrus fruit now in the shops. All the usual plus, satsumas, mandarins, clementine’s, tangerines, tangellos, ugli fruit, kumquats and now the marmalade oranges have just arrived from Seville and Malaga, so we can have fun experimenting while they are in season for the next few weeks.

If your life is too hectic to make marmalade at present throw them into the freezer in 4 ½lb lots and make whole orange marmalade later on. An electric juicer will make the whole process infinitely easier.



A couple of crucial tips for you...

1) Make sure that the citrus peel is really soft before the sugar is added, otherwise the peel will be tough and chewy – doesn’t matter how long you cook it for.

2) Cover the saucepan while the peel is cooking, then remove the lid and cook until the liquid is reduced to between 1/3 and ½ the original volume before adding sugar.

3) Add flavourings, ginger, cardamom, whiskey two or three minutes before the end of cooking.

4) To test for a set, put a small spoonful marmalade onto a chilled plate, pop into the fridge for a couple of minutes. Then push with your finger and if the marmalade wrinkles even a little then it is guaranteed to set.

5) Allow the marmalade to stand in the saucepan for ten to twelve minutes before potting into warm sterilised jars, this will ensure that the peel settles and doesn’t rise to the top.

6) Cover immediately, store in a cool dark place – admire your handiwork and enjoy!

Read my full post on Marmalade here...



I’ve been greatly enjoying Marmalade – A Bittersweet Cookbook published by Saltyard Books, great marmalade recipes and beautifully written with tons of suggestions for delicious ways to use your new seasons marmalade.

My favourite film over Christmas was Paddington Bear, Michael Bond who wrote the original books shared his tips for the perfect marmalade sandwich with Marmalade author, Sarah Randal – how charming is that!



Thursday, 29 October 2020

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat is one of the most exciting and fun celebrations of the entire year, I love how kids all over the all over the country spend hours in happy anticipation, plotting and planning their costumes, disguises, scary tricks and wizardry…Can’t bear how their enthusiasm will need to be dampened this year…Poor little dotes….Robbed of their innocent fun because of Covid 19 restrictions. I keep wondering what the kids make of all this, amazingly some seem to just take it in their stride, perhaps they think this is all normal. Others are super anxious depending on how much they overhear from adults, radio, TV…..hard to avoid it…


Well how about a Monster Halloween Cooking Session with spooky music and lots of ghost stories and games? We definitely have to have a barmbrack – soak the fruit in strong Barry’s tea a day or two before and don’t forget to hide the Halloween charms in the fruity batter. If you find a ring in your slice – you’ll be married within the year. The Stick – a bad sign, your partner will beat you. A Rag – bad news too, your destiny is for a life of poverty. A Coin – is a promise of riches. These can also be hidden in a big bowl of colcannon, a traditional Irish Halloween dish – a little needs to be left on the window sill to appease the fairies and chase away the spirits or you could also be in deep trouble.


As children we had a variety Halloween games. Apple bobbing was a favourite, many involved divination and being blindfolded, and then there was the Three Saucers, arranged in a line, one contained water, one clay and the third held a ring. I seem to remember being spun around three times while blindfolded, then reaching out with my hands to touch a saucer. Water meant you were about to embark on an overseas journey, clay meant you would soon go to your grave and yet again the ring indicated matrimony was nigh….but now for fun in the kitchen.

‘Dragons eggs’ are easy and fun to do. Hard boil eggs for 10 minutes, peel them and drop into beetroot pickle juice, they turn a scary purply colour. Any number of spooky, scary shapes and concoctions can be made with children of all ages from a meringue mixture, that we call Púca. How about making these willowy ghosts….Devil’s brains made of popcorn will also be a hit, as will this Cobweb Cake. Buy a giant pumpkin, preferably with a stumpy stem, the kids will have hours of fun scooping out the seeds and flesh, seeds can be roasted and tossed in extra virgin olive oil and maybe a sprinkling of chilli flakes to nibble as a snack. The flesh can then be used to make a delicious pumpkin soup to serve in the pumpkin shell.

Maybe light a few bonfires in the garden and organise a spooky feast, have a safe and happy Halloween…




Monday, 26 October 2020

Flavour

Yotam Ottolenghi is a paradigm shifting force on the global food scene. His new book FLAVOUR is quite the revelation and I certainly don’t use that word lightly. Even though Yotam is not a vegetarian, he has been celebrating and singing the praises of vegetables for decades and is on a mission to present them in new and exciting ways. He and his team have been testing, tasting and sharing the many recipes they have devised to ramp up and create new flavours that totally banish our concept of traditional vegetables.



Although his six restaurants all across London are not vegetarian, vegetables feature abundantly on the menus. He’s written and co-authored seven cookbooks thus far.

Among them, PLENTY which was published in 2010, PLENTY MORE in 2014. 

FLAVOUR is the most recent book in the series, Yotam teamed up with Ixta Belfarge who is equally obsessed with vegetables. Her journey to the world of food via Mexico City, Brazil, France, Tuscany and Australia was complex and varied, she even had a market stall in London for a spell and eventually got a job at Nopi, one of Yotam’s restaurants.

Her eclectic cooking is deeply engrained in the cultures she absorbed during her travel over the years.

The third contributor to this inspirational book was Ballymaloe Cookery School Alumni, Tara Wigley. She cooks and writes like an angel and also collaborated with Yotam’s business partner Sami Tamini on his recent book Falastin (see my blogpost on it...)

So why am I waxing lyrical about FLAVOUR? – Well, for a start I’ve been cooking all of my adult life and a good part of my childhood, I live on an organic farm, I too love vegetables and I am fortunate to have access to beautiful freshly harvested produce throughout the year. Since 1983, I have taught thousands of students here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School since and thus far written nineteen cookbooks. Yet, Yotam and Ixta have introduced me to a myriad of new ways to add hitherto undreamt of flavours to our favourite vegetables. Cauliflower, celeriac, even carrots and cabbage will never be the same again.


How do they do it? – well you’ll need to buy the book to discover all the secrets but a few hints, Yotam and Ixta introduce us to a series of twenty essential ingredients to add extra oomph – I’ve got to add Guachong chilli paste to my larder! Furthermore to add extra magic they hone in on four processes, charring, browning, infusing and ageing and there’s more…

Pop into your local bookshop – FLAVOUR is published by Ebury Press. Treat yourself and maybe pick up an extra copy for a friend who loves to cook. 

Monday, 19 October 2020

How About Some Cake?

How about a delicious homemade cake to cheer us all up? 

Who doesn’t love a slice of delicious cake and a cup of tea, even while we need to observe strict social distancing. Recently, I met a lady who confided that she had never made a cake in her entire life…she had absolutely no idea where to start, it was a complete mystery to her.

She was over the moon with delight when she baked her very first cake while she as with us here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School for a class. We showed her just how easy it was to make a super delicious cake when you follow a good recipe. You can’t imagine how thrilled she was, lots of photos, beaming smiles and such a sense of achievement.


A few little tips to get started:

1. A couple of spatulas and a wooden spoon.

2. A wire rack to cool the cake when it comes out of the tin.

3. A palette knife is useful for icing but not essential.

4. Buy an accurate scales, baking is an exact science, so weigh all the ingredients meticulously

5. The finest ingredients make the best cakes, use butter, fresh free range eggs and pure vanilla extract rather than essence which was never ‘next or near’ a vanilla pod in it’s life!

For memorable cakes use chocolate or unsweetened cocoa.

Being pernickity about the quality of the ingredients will really pay dividends and result in something really gorgeous. After all, if you go to the effort of making a cake, it might as well be super delicious!


6. Choose a really good recipe from a trusted source, sounds odd but sadly not all recipes are as carefully tested as they ought to be. Then inexperienced bakers blame themselves rather than the recipe and come to the conclusion that they can’t cook.

7. Equip yourself with some basic equipment and utensils:

A few good tins, a loaf tin 1lb (8x4x3 inches) or 2lb (6x4x3 inches), 2 x 7”or 8” round tins with pop up bases and maybe 19cm round for larger cakes.

8. A food mixer is an advantage but certainly not essential but it does make the job much easier.

9. Equally a food processor is worth the investment and means a cake can be made in mere minutes.

10. A piping bag and a couple of nozzles if you want to get creative.

These few items will get you started – you can add to your baking kit as you go along.

Here is a tried and tested recipes for one of my favourite cakes.

A Classic Coffee Cake with Caramelised Walnuts




This is a splendid recipe for an old-fashioned coffee cake – the sort Mummy made…We still make it regularly and everyone loves it. I’m a real purist about using extract rather than essence in the case of vanilla, but in this cake, I prefer to use coffee essence (which is actually mostly chicory) to real coffee. I’ve used a square tin here but one could use 2 round tins.

Serves 10–12

225g (8oz) soft butter

225g (8oz) caster sugar

4 organic or at least free range eggs

225g (8oz) plain white flour, preferably unbleached

1 teaspoon baking powder

scant 2 tablespoons Camp coffee essence



Coffee Butter Cream for filling

150g (6oz) butter

330g (12oz) icing sugar, sieved

5-6 teaspoons Camp coffee essence



Coffee Glace Icing

450g (1lb) icing sugar

scant 2 tablespoons Camp coffee essence

about 4 tablespoons boiling water



To Decorate

Caramelised Walnuts (see below) or toasted hazelnuts or chocolate covered coffee beans.


2 x 20cm (8in) round sandwich tins.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Line the base and sides of the tin with greaseproof or silicone paper. Brush the bottom and sides with melted butter and dust lightly with flour.

Beat the soft butter with a wooden spoon, add the caster sugar and beat until pale in colour and light in texture. Whisk the eggs. Add to the mixture, bit by bit, beating well between each addition.

Sieve the flour with the baking powder and stir gently into the cake mixture. Finally, add in the coffee essence and mix thoroughly.

Spoon the mixture evenly into the prepared tin and bake for 40-45 minutes. When the cake is cooked, the centre will be firm and springy and the edges will have shrunk from the sides of the tin. Leave to rest in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Remove the greaseproof paper from the base, then flip over so the top of the cake doesn’t get marked by the wire rack. Leave the cake to cool on the wire rack.

To make the coffee butter cream, whisk the butter with the sieved icing sugar and add the coffee essence. Continue to whisk until light and fluffy.

When cold, cut the cake in half lengthwise, then cut each half horizontally creating rectangular layers, 4 in total. Sandwich each sponge layer together with ½ of the coffee butter cream, forming a loaf shaped cake. Place half of the remaining buttercream into a piping bag, fitted with a medium star shaped nozzle. Spread the sides and top of the cake thinly with the last of the butter cream and place into the fridge for 10-15 minutes to chill. This technique is called crumb coating.

Next make the Coffee Glace Icing. Sieve the icing sugar and put into a bowl. Add coffee essence and enough boiling water to make it the consistency of a thick cream (careful not to add too much water)

To Decorate:

Remove the cake from the fridge. Pour the glace icing evenly over the top of the cake, gently spreading it down the sides with a palette knife. Allow to set, 30 minutes (approx.). Decorate with piped rosettes of buttercream and garnish with the caramelized walnuts.

Caramelised Walnuts

100g (3 1/2oz) sugar

50ml (2fl oz) cold water

20 walnut halves

225ml (8fl oz) hot water

Dissolve the sugar in the cold water over a gentle heat. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved, then remove the spoon and continue to simmer until the syrup caramelises to a chestnut colour. Remove from the heat, dip the walnuts into the hot caramel, and coat each one completely using a fork. Remove to a silicone baking mat, or oiled cake tin, and allow to cool. Once all the walnuts have been coated, Pour the hot water into the saucepan and continue to cook until the caramel dissolves and the sauce is quite smooth. Reduce until it starts to thicken slightly. Allow to get cold. This sauce can be used for serving with ice-cream.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

The Wonder of Oats

October 10th is World Porridge Day, a good opportunity to remind ourselves of this inexpensive super food which comes to us in many variations – it’s basically one of the great convenience foods of the world.

Virtually every food writer and journalist who stays at Ballymaloe House raves about the porridge that they serve for breakfast with a generous drizzle of Jersey cream and a sprinkling of soft brown Barbados sugar. It’s not just any old porridge – it’s Macroom oatmeal, lovingly kiln roasted and milled by Donal Creedon at Walton’s Mill, the last surviving stone mill in Ireland. The mill has been in the same family since the 1700’s. Donal, the great, great, great, great grandson of founder, Richard Walton, carefully and respectfully carries on the tradition.


The porridge is sold in the same distinctive red, white and yellow bags – which is somehow reassuring. The oats are gently toasted for up to two days on cast iron plates to give the oatmeal the distinctive toasted flavour we all love. 

Long gone are the days of gruel and watery porridge….. So if you are convinced oatmeal is just for breakfast – think again! The texture is deliciously chunky and packed with flavour. Steel cut or what many refer to as pinhead oatmeal, which takes considerably longer to cook. Jumbo rolled oats and ‘speedie cook’ rolled oats, are also delicious. Oatmeal is not just for breakfast porridge, biscuits and granola. It’s also brilliant in savoury dishes such as savoury porridge with greens.



A past student Alex Hely-Hutchinson, opened a restaurant in London called 26 Grains. The 8 or 9 different types of porridge on their menu, both sweet and savoury have customers queuing every day. 26 Grains was probably inspired by GrØd, the porridge paradise in Copenhagen, opened in 2011 in a basement on Jaegerborggade, at that time a distinctively dodgy street with appealingly low rent. Now there are several branches and a GrØd cookbook. They were pretty much ‘skint’ when they opened but manged to afford to buy some oats to make bowls of hot steaming porridge – the rest is history…a huge success story! The menu now includes other comforting food like risotto, dahl and congee and there are now branches all over Denmark.


Oatmeal has a long and fascinating history. It has been grown in Ireland since medieval times, our humid, wet climate suits it. There are many historical references and a wealth of archaeological evidence. Oats were used in gruel, porridges, flatbreads and by all accounts, a not very good beer! The straw and chaff were used in the manufacture of floor covering, baskets, hen roosts and bedding – but back to the kitchen.

To use that much overused term, they are definitely a ‘super food’. Oats are packed with protein, high in soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol and you’ll have noticed that you don’t feel like reaching for a donut at eleven if you have a bowl of porridge for breakfast. Apart from the fibre content which is good for your gut and helps to prevent constipation, it is super filling and satisfying and boosts our energy levels. Oats also contain a wide range of nutrients, vitamin E, essential fatty acids and if you are to believe all the research, helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering your bad LDL cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol. The high fibre and complex carbs help to stabilize the blood sugar according to the American Cancer Society. The lignans in oats helps to reduce hormone related cancers. 

Up to relatively recently I was a Jersey cream and soft dark brown sugar devotee but I’ve become much more adventurous (led by my grandchildren and the Ballymaloe Cookery School students example). Think peanut butter and banana; walnuts, blueberries and maple syrup or honey, roast almonds, dates and almond butter (it’s all about what you sprinkle on top). Stewed apple or compote with cinnamon. I draw the line at white or dark chocolate chips but suspect that’s a generational thing.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Falastin

Have you heard of Sami Tamimi? His name may not be all that familiar to you but he is the business partner of Yotam Ottolenghi. The pair are credited with introducing us all to Middle Eastern food and many ingredients that we were hitherto totally unfamiliar with – sumac, za’atar, Aleppo pepper, baharat, sumac, pomegranate molasses, tahini...


The story of how this Palestinian and Israeli met and became firm friends is intriguing, an inspiration to many. Food unites us all and despite the heart breaking political situation, their friendship has endured for over 20 years. They met in 1999 when Sami worked at Baker and Spice in London.

Sami and Yotam run three Ottolenghi branches in Notting Hill, Islington and Belgravia as well as Nopi and Rovi and have co-authored 2 books together, Ottolenghi in 2008 and Jerusalem in 2012.



Sami’s latest book is called Falastin which means Palestine in Arabic. The name is deeply symbolic and for Sami has many interwoven emotions.

Palestinian home cooks and cookbook writers tend to be women who pass the skills and recipes from on generation to another. Sami however lost his mother when he was seven – he spent much of his childhood being shooed out of the kitchen by his aunties and sisters.

For me it’s a fantastic book, it has instant appeal, packed with recipes I really want to dash into the kitchen to cook and share with friends.

Falastin is co-authored with Ballymaloe alumni Tara Wigley, who also collaborated with Yotam on his book, Simple.


For Sami, Falastin is a deeply important book full of haunting memories of his mother’s delicious food and Palestine – as Tara wrote – ‘It’s a love letter to his country’. 

She has been part of the Ottolenghi family since 2010, she turned up on her bike, fresh from a 12 Week Certificate Course here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. She had arrived to us in April 2010 with her 18 month old twins and a great big Bosnian dog named Andy. Tara was leaving a decade in publishing, her dream was to combine her love of cooking and writing and it quickly became clear that at Ottolenghi she could have her cake and eat it!

After a few years collaborating with Yotam and Sami on recipe testing, writing and cooking, Tara focused exclusively on writing. She remains a passionate home cook and knows very well how to fill a table with a feast.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Apple Season



Storm Ellen and Storm Francis played “hell” with our apple crop. We didn’t have a particularly good crop anyway but much of our meagre harvest ended up as windfalls in the grass underneath the apple trees in the orchard. Some like Beauty of Bath were already ripe, many other varieties were not but still the strong winds managed to shake them off their branches. I collected as many as I could to make windfall jelly. 


These under-ripe fruit are perfect for apple jelly, don’t worry about the odd bruise or slug bite just cut them out. Wash the fruit but don’t bother to peel, save the stalks and seeds too, they all add to the end result.

To make the preserve... Just fill a large pot with the coarsely chopped fruit, cover with cold water. Add other flavours if you fancy, a few fistfuls of blackberries, sloes, rowan berries, damsons or haws. If you add a mixture, it can be called Hedgerow jelly. Alternatively, simply add mint, chillies or a pinch of traditional cloves. This is a brilliant all-purpose recipe – ‘a-catch-all’ to use up a couple of fistfuls of autumn fruit and berries. I can add some ripe elderberries, and in a few weeks bletted medlars to make a delicious apple and medlar jelly to accompany game or a boiled leg of mutton.


We have also found that the strong pectin, rich apple juice works brilliantly as a natural gelling agent in both strawberry and blackberry jam, both of which can be notoriously difficult to set. We plan to freeze it as an experiment to use in winter jams and jellies instead of jam sugar.

And who doesn’t love an apple tart? Every family has their favourite pastry. My recipe for a buttery ‘break all the rules’ shortcrust pastry was passed on to me by my Mum. It’s not just our favourite but has become many other people’s ‘go to’ recipe for a tart or pie crust. 
Or how about an Autumn apple and blackberry pie, with cinnamon sugar or the aristocrat of apple tarts, the French classic, Tarte Tatin. 



Apple Charlotte is an almost forgotten pudding. I find it’s best made with Cox’s Orange Pippin apples and slices of good white yeast bread, soaked in melted butter – No wonder, it’s so delicious. I make it just once a year, but the memory of the texture of the crisp buttery bread and the sweetness of the Cox’s Apple puree lingers for months on end. Or a simple recipe for apple fritters, another of my grandchildren’s favourites which they have nicknamed Scary Little Monsters because of the funny shapes the batter cooks into on the pan... sprinkle them with castor sugar and enjoy....


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Preserving the Harvest



I’ve been a bit like a broken record throughout this Covid 19 pandemic reminding readers on almost a weekly basis about the importance of really focussing on the quality of the food we are feeding ourselves and our families at this critical time.

Many of you have been actively seeking out local farmers markets and buying directly from the growers and food producers – building up a bond of trust. Others have signed up to an Organic box scheme where you receive a weekly box of beautiful seasonal vegetables, fruit and herbs fresh from the garden. Chock full of minerals, vitamins and trace elements to boost your energy, mood and immune systems. Those of you who like us embrace the concept of growing your own food have been enjoying the fruit of your labours and now fully understand the excitement, importance and frustrations of the ‘farm to fork’ concept and the heightened enjoyment of eating food you have personally grown and sown the seeds, watered, weeded and harvested.



The pride and joy of sitting down to a plate of food where everything on your plate came from your garden or local producers known to you personally is tangible, you won’t want to waste a single morsel of this precious food….

Now it’s September and summer 2020 has just whizzed by in a blur… Several of you have contacted me wondering what to do with the end of summer glut of home grown fruit and vegetables.

Large courgettes, squishy ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines… One lady who rang me from the UK actually had a glut of figs, I was deeply envious but having never been in that fortunate situation I was slightly at a loss to think of how to use up almost 100 ripe figs other than making jam and lots of figgy tart and puddings, but she lives alone and we’re not supposed to invite lots of friends around...so what to do…?

Figs dry brilliantly, but Rory suggested freezing them for winter preserves. In the absence of hot sun, how about experimenting with slowly drying them in a fan oven or dehydrated using a dehydrator. 


Chillies are easy, thread the stalks onto a piece of strong cotton thread to make a truss or ‘ristra’ as they call it in Italy. Hang it on a hook in your pantry or loop them under your kitchen shelves. Either way they’ll look great as well as being easy to snip off when you need to add a bit of excitement to a dish.

Alternatively dig up your mature chilli plants, shake off the earth from the roots, pick off the leaves, hang it upside down in a well ventilated spot, turning every day or two until the chillies are dry. If you have a dehydrator they can be dried whole or in slices as can tomatoes and aubergines.

Dehydrators are not overly expensive - €50 – €200 depending on size and quality. For years I hesitated, reckoning that it would be a white elephant sitting in a corner of the kitchen used only sporadically. However, my dehydrator is in constant use. We dry a myriad of vegetables, fruit herbs and edible flowers. Students also love to experiment with it. Don’t worry if you don’t have a dehydrator, a fan oven at the lowest setting also works brilliantly, just spread out whole or sliced items on wire or oven racks and turn regularly. Keep an eye on them and then store in airtight jars.

We have buckets of super ripe, end of season tomatoes and like those of you who have grown your own we can’t bear to waste a single one. We freeze lots whole, just as they are, for winter stews, tagines and of course our all-time favourite tomato fondue (defrost in a sieve to remove the excess liquid, which can be used in soups).


The really soft squishy ones, bursting with flavour are cooked into puree to make tomato and basil soup for the winter that will be reminiscent of summer flavours. All soups and liquids are frozen in recycled one litre milk bottles and gallon cream containers. They stack neatly side by side and cost nothing.

Large courgettes don’t have much flavour but can be frozen grated or in cubes (tray freeze) and added to frittatas, tomato fondue or gutsy winter stews with lots of rosemary, sage and thyme leaves to boost the flavour. As summer changes to autumn, basil will wither and fade, so preserve the best leaves in olive oil to add a taste of summer to winter dishes.



Aubergines are best made into a spiced aubergine mixture – can’t tell you how many times this delicious pickle has come to the rescue, gorgeous with lamb or pork, mozzarella or paired with an oozing burrata as a starter.

Keen gardeners won’t want to waste a morsel of their home grown produce. For more ideas – check out my Grow, Cook, Nourish book published in 2017 which has a "How to use up a glut deliciously", suggestion for every fruit, vegetable and fresh herb.


Monday, 17 August 2020

The Mackerel are In...

The word spreads like lightning around our local fishing village, “The mackerel are in”.

Hopefuls head for Ballycotton pier with rod and line.. full of anticipation.

You may be surprised to learn that the humble mackerel is my favourite sea fish – but it must be spanking fresh. In fishing villages, all around our coast, fishermen have a saying that “the sun should never set on a mackerel”. They well know that these fish develop a strong unappealing oily flavour as they age, so must be enjoyed super fresh. 


Fishing for mackerel evokes happy memories for many. A recent Instagram post evoked a deluge of nostalgic memories of catching mackerel with a hook and line and hauling four or five iridescent wriggling fish at a time over the side of the boat when the shoals of fish come into the bay. Sometimes the water thrashes with movement when the mackerel are chasing a shoal of sprats almost to the shore. One can virtually scoop the mackerel with your hands into a bucket - it’s a feast or a famine… This phenomenon is regularly witnessed during summer in Youghal Bay.

The secret to keeping fish fresh for longer is to gut them immediately, right there and then in the boat. Throw the entrails overboard for the squawking gulls who will be swooping around hoping for a treat .

A seasoned West Cork fisherman gave me another brilliant tip. He not only guts them but also chops off the head and tail as soon as they’ve been caught. They bleed and consequently will be stiff and spanking fresh the next day when kept overnight in the fridge. He also insisted that it was important, just to wash them in seawater rather than fresh water. All of this is of course in an ideal world where you are close to the sea. However it emphasises the point that mackerel, like all fish, wherever you source it are at their most delicious when fresh. It’s even more important with mackerel because of their high oil content. These inexpensive little fish are packed with Omega 3, vitamin 
D and B6 and are a super source of protein, as well as potassium, zinc, cobalamin and magnesium.


They are also super versatile, they are gorgeous pan grilled but also delicious poached as well as roasted or tossed on the BBQ. Try this recipe with Bretonne sauce that Myrtle Allen shared with me years ago. They take just minutes to poach. We also love to warm smoke them in a biscuit tin over a gas jet. Again, lots of ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of flavour and fun.


For extra satisfaction, learn to fillet them yourself, you can just slide a sharp knife above the backbone from the tail towards the head, slice right through the pin bones or one can fillet them more meticulously. It takes a little practice but it is a skill well worth acquiring. Alternatively, ask your fishmonger to do it for you and watch carefully. Here are a few of my favourite mackerel recipes. All quick and easy for you to enjoy with your family and a few lucky friends.

Line-Caught Mackerel with Lemon and Fennel Flower Mayo 


super fresh line-caught mackerel

seasoned flour

small knob of butter

Lemon Mayo

3 tablespoons diced fresh fennel

Garnish

1 tablespoon fennel herb

fennel flowers

lemon wedges



Gut and fillet the mackerel, sprinkle with salt, keep chilled.

Make the mayo, add the diced and chopped fennel. Taste and correct the seasoning. Keep aside.

Just before serving.

Heat the grill pan over a medium heat. Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly. When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan. Reduce the heat slightly and let them cook for 3 -4 minutes on that side before you turn them over. Continue to cook on the other side until crisp and golden.

Serve on hot plates with fennel mayo and a sprinkling of fennel flowers as well as a wedge of lemon.



Warm Poached Mackerel with Bretonne Sauce


Serves 4 as a main course

8 as a starter



Fresh mackerel gently poached and served warm with this simple sauce is an absolute feast without question one of my favourite foods. 


4 fresh mackerel

1.2 litres (40fl oz) water

1 teaspoon salt


Bretonne Sauce


75g (3ozs) butter, melted

1 eggs yolk, preferably free range

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (We use Maille Verte Aux Herbs)

1 tablespoon chopped herbs, a mixture of parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon and fennel, chopped (mixed)


Cut the heads off very fresh mackerel. Gut and clean them but keep whole.

Bring the water to the boil; add the salt and the mackerel. Bring back to boiling point, and remove from the heat. After about 5-8 minutes, check to see whether the fish are cooked. The flesh should lift off the bone. It will be tender and melting.

Meanwhile make the sauce.

Melt the butter and allow to boil. Put the egg yolks into a bowl, add the mustard and the herbs, mix well. Whisk the hot melted butter into the egg yolk mixture little by little so that the sauce emulsifies. Keep warm, by placing the Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of hot but not boiling water.

When the mackerel is cool enough to handle, remove to a plate. Skin, lift the flesh carefully from the bones and arrange on a serving dish. Coat with the sauce and serve while still warm with a good green salad and new potatoes.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Time for a Jam Session




We’re smack bang in the middle of the soft fruit and stone season. It’s been a brilliant year. We’ve had a terrific crop of currants and berries, always a challenge to get them picked at the peak of perfection between the showers. Lots of red, white and black currants have already been picked, weighed, bagged and safely tucked into the freezer for autumn and winter, jams, jellies and puddings. They freeze perfectly, no need to string before freezing. I discovered that life changing fact a few years ago when I was too busy to string the currants and had to just bung them into the freezer, thinking I’ll worry about that later….To my amazement, I discovered that if you just shake the bag of frozen fruit, the strings drop off and can be picked out in a matter of minutes, a game changer…

The green gooseberries are long finished, we made lots of green gooseberry and elderflower jam, one of my all-time favourites but now it’s red gooseberry jam from the end of the dessert gooseberry crop (they are sweeter so don’t forget to reduce the sugar). Traditional single flavour jams are of course delicious when made with beautiful fresh currants and berries but how about becoming more creative and adventurous. 


I’m loving having fun with different flavour combinations. Blackcurrant and rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) worked brilliantly after I’d picked a huge colander of plump blackcurrants a few days ago. Blackcurrants are high in pectin so blackcurrant jam is easy to make, in fact one has to be careful not to overcook. It reaches setting point in a nice wide saucepan in 10 or 12 minutes. Strawberry and blackberry are a different matter, both fruits are low in pectin (the gelling component in fruit) so they will need extra acidity. Tart cooking apples high in pectin work well. Some cooks like to use jam sugar, I’m not a fan, mostly because the jam will indeed set but is likely to have the texture of bought jam and for my taste a slightly odd aftertaste which kind of defeats the purpose of making it yourself and then many brands include palm oil, a no no for me…..

If you are fortunate to own or have access to a fig tree, add a couple of leaves to raspberry or peach jam or make a fig leaf jelly by adding lots of fig leaf - say 5 or 6 to an apple jelly base. It’ll enhance the jelly with a delicious slightly almondy flavour. Lemon verbena leaves from the tender shrub (Aloysia citrodora) add magic to many jams, as does our favourite rose geranium – a plant that no house should be without. It’s a tender perennial with scented leaves with a haunting lemony flavour. Spices too can perk up jams and preserves – experiment but I’ve enjoyed strawberry and black pepper, peach and cardamom, orange, clove and cinnamon, pear and ginger. Maybe add a pinch of chilli flakes – but don’t get carried away…



Guideline Rules for Successful Jam-Making – even if you are a complete novice

1. For really good jam, the fruit must be freshly picked, dry and unblemished

2. Slightly under ripe fruit will have more pectin and so the jam will set better.

3. Jam made from fruit that was wet when picked is more likely to go mouldy within a short time.

4. The best jam is made in small quantities – e.g. no more than 3lbs of raspberries at a time, perhaps 1.8kg (4lbs) of strawberries with 150ml (5fl oz) of redcurrant juice to help the set. Small quantities cook in a few minutes, so both the colour and the flavour of the jam will be perfect.

5. Ideally one should use a preserving pan for jam-making. Choose your widest stainless steel pan with a heavy base and sides at least 9 inch deep. It goes without saying that the depth of the contents in the preserving pan and the rate at which they boil, determine how long the jam needs to cook.

6. Sugar is the preservative in jams, so it is important to use the correct proportion - too little and the jam may ferment, too much may cause crystallization.

7. Citrus fruit peel, blackcurrants, gooseberries etc. must be thoroughly softened before sugar is added, otherwise the skins will toughen and no amount of boiling will soften them, sugar has a hardening effect on skin and peel.

8. Stir well to ensure that the sugar is completely dissolved before the jam comes to the boil, (otherwise the jam may crystallize on top). For this reason it is better to add heated sugar, which dissolves more quickly. Stir with a wooden spoon until the “gritty feeling” disappears.

9. Fruit should be simmered until the sugar is added, but from then on, it is best to boil as fast as possible until setting point is reached. Stir occasionally so it doesn’t catch on the base of the saucepan.

10. If necessary skim near to the end of cooking. If there is only a little scum, dissolve with a tiny lump of butter stirred in after the jam has reached setting point.


How Do I Know if the Jam is Cooked?

Test for setting frequently so that the jam doesn’t overcook – it will set when the temperature reaches 220°C on a sugar thermometer, a handy but expensive bit of kitchen equipment that you can live without. Alternatively put a teaspoonful of jam on a cold plate, leave in a cool place for a few minutes, if the jam wrinkles when pushed with the tip of your finger it has reached setting point. Skim if necessary and pot immediately.


How Do I Store the Jam?

Wash, rinse and dry the jam jars (remove any traces of old labels or any traces of glue if recycling, sometimes pretty tricky but methylated spirit will usually do the job. Jars should then be put into a preheated oven for 10 minutes at 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 1/2. Lids may also be sterilised in the oven – 5 minutes is fine. Fill the pots to the top to allow for shrinkage on cooling (use a jam funnel, to avoid drips). Cover immediately with sterilised screw top lids if available or jam covers.


Covering Jam Jars

 Screw top lids should be sterilized in the oven or in boiling water before use.

One can buy packets of jam covers in most shops or supermarkets. These are made up of three elements, a silicone disc of paper, a large round of cellophane and a rubber band.

When the jam has reached setting point, pour into sterilised jars. Cover immediately with silicone discs (slippy side down onto the jam). Wet one side of the cellophane paper, then stretch the ‘dry side’ over the jar, and secure with a rubber band. If the cellophane disc is not moistened it will not become taut when the jam gets cold.

Later the jars can be covered with doilies or rounds of material or coloured paper. These covers can be secured with rubber bands plain or coloured, narrow florists ribbons tied into bows or ordinary ribbon with perhaps a little sprig of dried flowers or herbs.

Selling Jam

Really delicious jams are always a welcome present and are also very eagerly sought after by local shops and delicatessens.

Remember if you are selling your jams to cost it properly, taking jars, covers, labels, food cost, heat, etc., into consideration. A formula used by many is food cost x 4. This would cover all the other items mentioned. If you are producing jam for sale you must contact the health authorities and comply with their regulations.

Note on Pectin

Pectin is the substance in fruit which sets jam. It is contained in the cell walls of fruit in varying degrees. It is higher when the fruit is under ripe. Acid e.g. lemon juice helps in the extraction of pectin. Some fruits are higher in pectin than others e.g. plums, damsons, gooseberries, blackcurrants and apples, while others contain little or none, e.g. marrow, strawberries and blackberries. In these cases, it is necessary to add acid in the form of lemon juice or commercial pectin.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Armchair Travels to China - Fuchsia Dunlop

Travel is understandably out of the question for the foreseeable future. How fortunate am I to have been able to visit and enjoy the food of so many countries, such happy memories…Amongst others, I long to revisit Myanmar, Transylvania, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, Tasmania, China, and of course India, my perennial favourite.

No hope of that any time soon, so for the present, I relive the memories through photos and videos on my iPhone and the interviews I recorded with many of the fascinating cooks, farmers and artisan producers I encountered and of course I wish I had done many, many more.

But the most poignant way to bring precious memories flooding back is through the food. Even smells transport me to far away places, to bustling food markets, ‘hole in the wall’ eateries, street stalls, as well as world renowned restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, Fäviken in Sweden, Chez Panise in California, Atica in Melbourne and Restaurante Tlamanalli in the Teotitlan del Valle outside Oaxaca in Mexico.

This week I am going back to China on my virtual food travels, particularly poignant in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. My first visit, in February 2018 was to attend the International Slow Food Conference in Chenghu, the UNESCO capital of gastronomy in the Sichuan province. 



The food was fantastic, the city of Chenghu welcomed the delegates from all over the world whole heartedly, with wonderful entertainment, opera, theatre, music and superb Chinese food for which the Sichuan province is justly famous. We visited day and night food markets with super fresh food, the freshest fish I have ever seen, some still alive. In Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu, we were shown how the famous Chinese spicy bean paste, Dobuanjiang is slowly fermented for several years in huge earthenware pots with wheat, salt and a variety of chillies – it’s the quintessential flavour of China. Dobuanjiang, is considered to be the soul of Sichuan cooking is an essential ingredient in Mapotofu.




We visited organic farms in the highlands, a 2 hour bus journey outside the city, a wonderful opportunity to see the countryside and wave to the friendly people, many of whom may not ever have seen a non-Chinese person before. It was an intriguing cultural experience, one I will never forget.


Q&A: Fuchsia Dunlop on the politics of Chinese food | Arts ...

One of the special highlights of my visit to Chenghu was meeting Fuchsia Dunlop who was the very, first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and for almost three decades. Since then she has travelled around China collecting recipes. Fuchsia speaks, reads and writes in Chinese and is the author of four outstanding books on Chinese Food. Her Sichuan Cookery published in 2001 was voted by Observer Food Magazine as one of the greatest cook books of all time – how about that for an accolade.

On this trip, Fuchsia was revisiting the region where her culinary journey began, adding more than 50 recipes to the original repertoire and accompanying them with her incomparable knowledge of the taste, textures and sensations of Sichuanese cookery. Fuchsia’s writing on the cultural and culinary history of Sichuan is quite simply spellbinding and there are food and gorgeous travel photos.


Sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, well if you have even the remotest interest in Chinese food prepare to be captivated by The Food of Sichuan – Fuchsia Dunlop’s insight into one of the world’s greatest cuisines published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Summer Salads


Everyone on the farm and gardens continued to sow and plant for the past three months during the Covid-19 pandemic. They too are heroes providing nourishing nutrient dense super delicious vegetables and fruit to boost our immune system and keep us healthy. 


Now we are reaping the dedicated rewards of their hard work. Baskets of fresh peas, cucumbers, onions, broad beans, beets...the tomatoes have been ripening slowly for the past few weeks but now we have lots for the kitchens, Farm Shop, Farmers Markets and online NeighbourFood Markets.


The field crop of flowery potatoes, a blight resistant variety called Orla, is ready. If you haven’t ever dug potatoes out of the ground, you haven’t lived! It’s a special ‘Woops in the tummy’ moment when you uncover those jewels under the stalk. Will it be one or two or maybe five or six….?



Everyday we have big platters and bowls of salads oozing with fresh flavours and vitamins and minerals, no need for supplements - this is the real thing. 


I want to share with you a range of beautiful chunky salads that can be easily put together with the gorgeous summer produce that is coming in from the garden and greenhouse everyday. So what's the secret of making a memorable salad, apart from beautiful fresh produce of course, here are a few tips...

1. Think about a contrast of colour, texture and flavour - counterbalance of sweet, salty and sharp and sour.

2. Vary the greens from crunchy little gem, bitter and beautiful Castlefranco, radicchio, mustard greens, mizuna, tender butterhead, watercress, pea tendrils, peppery rocket and edible flowers. 

3. Add lots of fresh herbs, mint leaves, little sprigs of tarragon, coriander leaves, dill and a variety of basil leaves, purple Opal, Lemon, Vietnamese, Thai, Genovese basil all produce a different burst of flavour. Even flat parsley and of course chervil.




4. Keep it chunky, a base of potatoes cooked in well salted water and tossed while still warm in perky dressing can have a myriad of other ingredients added. Substitute potatoes with chunky roast beetroot, sweet potatoes, white turnips...Pasta, egg noodles, rice or buckwheat noodles are also great.

5. Don't forget the pulses, chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils, dress with a perky dressing - a great foundation to embellish with summer vegetables, herbs and spices.

6. Grains and pearl barley must be soaked overnight to make them digestible.

7. Freshly roasted and ground spices also add magic to your salads and dressings adding the flavour of the East and Far East, India, Morocco, Mexico depending on the combination you choose.

8. Vary the dressings too, a basic French dressing of 3 parts cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and 1 part aged vinegar seasoned with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper can be superb, depending on the quality of its oils and vinegars and then there's flavoured oils – hazelnut, walnut, avocado…. 

Add a little honey, some excellent mustard, maybe some finely chopped shallot, crushed garlic and lots of fresh herbs - sublime to dress leaves or even a potato salad. The proportions could be 2-1 instead of 3-1 if you want a perkier flavour. But there's so much more, don't forget tahini, miso, pomegranate molasses, date syrup...Look out for Katie Sanderson's White Rayu Mausu. There are so many addictive hot sauces to experiment with now.



9. Sprinkle roasted, salted and toasted nuts and seeds over your salads - hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, sesame seeds, sunflower, pumpkin...

10. Dried fruits also add a burst of sweetness, extra nutrients and deliciousness. Apricots, dates, dried cherries or cranberries, raisins, sultanas, currants, goji berries….

11. Crunchy croutons, seedy brittle or crispy chicken skin add magic too.

12. Experiment with dressings, maybe natural yoghurt, lime and harissa, mayo, rice vinegar, grated new seasons garlic…. Combine grape seed oil, rice vinegar, miso and grated ginger. Experiment with different vinegars - white balsamic, apple cider vinegar, Moscatel vinegar. Don't forget a generous squeeze of lemon juice to cut the richness in a mayo dressed salad.

The world’s your oyster as salads are concerned – start with beautiful ingredients, be creative and adventurous…experiment and taste, taste, taste…

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Summer Foraging

The Covid-19 experience has been quite the wake-up call for many of us, not just for the obvious reasons but also because many highly achieving, super-efficient people have found themselves floundering when they are out of their usual medium having to cope with the day-to-day reality of feeding the family, doing the laundry, stimulating and home-schooling the kids and planning menus, not to speak of keeping the peace during these challenging times.  Learning a language or how to play a musical instrument or delving deep into an unfamiliar subject has been deliciously distracting – yoga and exercise do it for some, a new hobby, maybe gardening, embroidery or China restoration.

Being able to get out for walks in the countryside has been a life-saver for those who were cooped up indoors for weeks on end – so I’m going to devote this column to Summer foraging to focus on the many delicious edible foods growing around us not just in the wild but also in urban areas.  There has also been a very positive response to my ‘Wild Food of the Week’ in my weekly column Irish Examiner and I get regular questions and photos from readers asking if something is edible.  Here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, we’ve been doing Foraging courses throughout the seasons for over 20 years and we all continue to add to our knowledge of the abundance of wild and free food all round us.


Apart from the fun and extra dimension foraging adds to a walk collecting food in the wild, there’s an even more important reason to become more knowledgeable about the free bounty of nature.  A high percentage of foods, berries and nuts in the wild are edible.  Unlike many conventional foods they have not been tampered with to produce maximum yields at minimum costs so their full complement of vitamins and minerals and trace elements are intact making them highly nutritious and nutrient dense, up to 20 times, more than in the ultra-processed food on which so many of us depend nowadays.
One can forage all year but there are particularly rich pickings at present both in the countryside and along the seashore!  So let’s mention a few, succulent marsh samphire (salicornia europaea) which is also known as glasswort because it was used in the fourteenth century by glass makers, grows in marshy areas close to the sea.  It’s at the peak of perfection as present, full of Vitamin A, Calcium and iron, nibble raw or blanch it in lightly salted water – it’s salty crunch is great with fish or indeed with lamb. Sea Purslane which grows close is also abundant at present. 
Pretty much everyone recognises dandelions, I regularly urge people to nibble at least one dandelion leaf a day or pop some into a green salad – full of vitamins A, C, and K, calcium and iron.
Gardeners will be cursing chickweed at present, it romps around the garden between the vegetables and in flower beds.  Where others ‘see weeds, we see dinner’.  Pick the chickweed and add to salads or wilt it like spinach, add to mashed potato, risotto or pasta.  It too is highly nutritious.  There’s several varieties of wild sorrel about too, buckler leaf sorrel, lambs tongue sorrel and common field sorrel.  There’s masses of fluffy meadow sweet along the roadside at present, it will last into early autumn – use to flavour panna cotta, lemonade, custards…Watch out for wild mushrooms too, I found just one ‘field’ mushroom yesterday but they usually pop up in warm muggy weather in fields or even on lawns that haven’t had chemicals added.  The flavour is exquisite, don’t waste a scrap.  Chop or slice a glut (including the stalks), sauté and freeze to add to a stew or make into a ketchup. 

And there’s so much more. If you’d like to learn more about foraging on land and along the seashore, perhaps you would like to join Pat Browne and myself on Saturday, 25th July for a 1-Day Summer Foraging course.  Numbers limited, booking essential – 021 4646785 

If you’re a newbie to foraging, be careful – don’t nibble anything you are unsure of, and introduce foraged food gradually into your menu, better not to binge at first.

Buy a good beginner's guide to foraging.  
Wild Food