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


Monday, 13 July 2020

Summer Berry Heaven

Beautiful apricots, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries piled up onto the greengrocers shelves. The blackcurrants and redcurrants are also beginning to ripen in our Currant and Berry garden. The abundance of fruits makes our hearts sing and helps us to forget our woes and count our blessings.


Mother Nature sweetly cheering us up…My grandchildren are in their element crawling in under the netting on the fruit cage to steal the ripest strawberries – sweet, juicy berries, often half the size of the perfect commercial fruit but intensely flavoured from all that delicious sunshine. Can’t wait to drizzle them with a slick of thick yellow Jersey cream and a sprinkling of caster sugar, that’s all the first of the new seasons organic strawberries need but as they become more abundant, I start to search for other delicious ways to enjoy them. One of the simplest is to add shredded mint leaves, a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of caster sugar or honey.


Jane Grigson’s Fruit book published in 1982 is a classic, one of my favourite cookbooks of all time. It’s an alphabetical guide to fruit from the apple onwards. It was out of print for a while but is now available again. If you don’t have it, try to source an original – they are a collector’s item. Jane’s beautiful prose and immense knowledge of the history of each fruit makes it bedtime reading…maybe not everyone idea but I find myself licking my lips and longing to get into the kitchen to try some of her suggestions.

Bushby’s Rosscarbery Strawberry Farm (023) 883 8140) and Rose Cottage Fruit Farm in Co. Laois grow a large selection of fruit. Look out for loganberries and tayberries at local Farmers Markets and the Wexford strawberries are along the roadside right up as far as the Midlands.

 
Don’t forget to use lots of fresh herbs with fruit of course elderflower with gooseberries but it’s also delicious added to syrup to poach other stone fruit, peaches, pears and nectarines. The Ballymaloe sweet geranium is another must have to add a magical haunting lemony flavour to so many dishes.

A glut of fruit is an opportunity to make a few pots of jam. Strawberries are low in pectin, the substance that helps with gelling. Jam made with commercial strawberries that are constantly irrigated seem to be even more difficult to set. Some people use jam sugar which I’ve never been fond of partly because the jam can easily end up the texture of ‘bought jam’ so what’s the point of making your own. I recently discovered that jam sugar also has hydrogenated palm oil which I try to avoid at all costs. However don’t fret, fruits that are low in pectin like the aforementioned strawberries can be combined with fruits with high pectin e.g. redcurrants which by a happy coincidence of nature both are in season at the same time. We’ve had a brilliant crop of red, white and black currants. The latter won’t be ready for a few weeks.

Look out for wild strawberries too, divinely sweet. We’ve also got a patch of wild raspberries, watch out for them around the country and soon there will be blueberries…

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Irish Cheesemakers

Blessed are the cheesemakers!  Let’s all do our bit to support small Irish producers, many of whom are still experiencing real hardship.  The farmhouse cheese makers as just one example so let’s make a conscious effort to buy a piece or better still several pieces of Irish farmhouse cheese this weekend.  I’m fantastically proud of the range of handmade farmhouse cheeses we have here in Ireland.  Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and buffalo milk.  
Toons Bridge Dairy – The Real Olive Company
Toons Bridge (pictured above) and Macroom Mozzarella make tender milky cheese to rival the very best Italian Mozzarella. No wonder it’s so good, it’s made from the rich milk of the buffalos that range freely in the lovely mixed pastures of West Cork. 
Toby Simmonds and his team of Italian and Irish cheesemakers at Toons Bridge Dairy also make straw smoked Scarmoza Caciocavallo,  Ricotta, Halloumi and Cultured Butter easily available from local Farmers Markets or online.  He’s recently opened a shop on South Great Georges Street in Dublin – how gutsy and deserving of support is that in the midst of Covid-19…
For many of the cheesemakers who were also supplying the service industry, the closure of the restaurants, hotels and cafés business meant the loss of over 75% of their business overnight, yet the cows kept milking and the cheese kept aging, needing to turned and matured to bring them to the peak of perfection, but how or where could they sell their produce.  They too had the heartbreak of laying off many of their skilled cheesemakers who were often neighbours from their own parish.

The reopening of the local Farmers Markets has been a significant help to some producers.  Local customers are flocking back while observing social distancing.  Look out for Jane Murphy’s Ardsallagh goat’s cheese in Midleton and Mahon Point.  You’ll find the beautiful Ballinrostig Gouda type cheese there too and a whole display of cheese to choose from at Christian and Fiona Burke’s stall.
A trip to the English Market in Cork will make your heart sing – bring an empty basket and fill it up. 
Over 60 beautiful farmhouse cheeses are made around the country and on the islands, a high proportion are made in Cork county.  We have soft, semi-soft, semi-hard and hard cheese to rival anything anywhere and I’m not saying that just because I’m an adopted Cork woman….
Siobhán Ni Ghairbhith makes the legendary St. Tola goat’s cheese from raw milk but she also makes pasteurised milk cheese for the multiples.  She employs 7 people on her farm on the edge of the Burren in Co. Clare. 
Gubbeen cheese suppliers, pictures, product info
When lockdown was introduced overnight, every cheesemaker in the country scrambled to cope with the gallons and gallons of milk in peak season.  Siobhán set up an online artisan cheese box which also includes some other artisan products as did Gubbeen, Cashel Blue, Cooleeney and several others.  Siobhán is a multi-skilled cheesemaker so she decided to make less soft cheese which has a shorter shelf-life and more hard cheese which will continue to improve with age – look out for it later in the year.
Can you imagine how lovely it would be to get a hamper like that by courier or to send a present to a friend or care worker or as a comforting gift to absent family members.  There’s a list of Irish farmhouse cheesemakers on the Cáis website.
The reason why Irish cheeses are so good is the quality of the milk.  Here in Ireland we can grow grass like virtually nowhere else in the world so cows that are out on grass particularly in Summer produce beautiful milk that makes gorgeous cheese.  Irish farmhouse cheese have been awarded prizes in the World Cheese Awards many times.  As a sector, the artisans are incredibly resilient and resourceful.

These feisty cheesemakers up and down the country has led the food revolution and helped in no small way to change the image of Irish food both at home and abroad.  In 1984 when milk quotas has just been introduced, the late Veronica Steele (pictured), started to experiment in her kitchen on the Beara Penninsula.  She couldn’t bear to waste a drop of milk of her favourite – one horned cow named Brisket.  The end result was Milleens, the beautiful washed rind cheese that inspired several generations, mostly women, to make cheese.  Such a joy to see her son Quinlan continue to make superb cheese.  The second generation continues to build on their parents legacy at Durrus, Gubbeen, Cashel Blue…how fortunate are we to have access to many exceptional delicious cheeses, now more than ever is the time is to show our appreciation with our support.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Taking Care of Your Microbiome


Today we celebrate World Microbiome Day, sounds a bit esoteric you might think but this is a subject that concerns each and every one of us uniquely.

Microbes are frequently misunderstood by those of us in the non-scientific community. Just like the word bacteria, it has nasty connotations and conjures up negative images. Yet only a tiny percentage of bacteria and microbes are pathogenic, typically they do much more good than harm.



Microbes are single celled organisms found everywhere.... They include bacteria, archaea, protozoa, fungi and viruses, Humans have co evolved with microbes on our planet for billions of years. The diversity of microbes within the gut are critically important to both our physical and mental health.

Professor Dinan's Talk at LitFest in 2017

One of the hottest areas of research in recent years has been on the gut biome. The pioneering work of Professors Cryan and Dinan and their team at UCC has been globally recognised. Consequently the link between the health of our microbiota and our physical and mental health is well established.

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that the trillions of microbes in our gut weigh between one to two kilos, equivalent to the weight of an adult brain. The biochemical complexity of the microbes in the human gut is greater than that of the brain and there are about 100 times more genes in our gut microbiota than in our genes.... Yet up to relatively recently, the bacteria in the human intestine was thought to have little relevance in the medical world and scientists in this field tell me there is still much to learn and discover.

But for us lay people, all we need to know is that it is super important for our physical and mental wellbeing to nourish our gut biome.

So how do we do this? We need to eat as wide a variety of fresh food. The more biodiverse our diet, the healthier and more resilient we will be. So we need to seek out real food that wakes up as many microbes in our intestines as possible. Each of the nutrients in food activate a different microbe…




So what foods apart from those already mentioned nourish our gut – fermented foods and drinks, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, kefir.... raw milk, preferably organic milk from a small herd of pasture fed cows, raw milk cheese too, particularly blue cheese.... Try to incorporate some wild and foraged foods into your diet for further diversity. These foods still have the full complement of vitamins, minerals and trace elements unlike many processed foods which have been altered to produce the maximum yield for a minimum cost.



All fruit and vegetables contain much needed fibre which provide essential prebiotics and promote the growth of good gut bacteria. Bananas too are high in fibre. Find out one of the best vegetables for your microbiome...

As ever do your best to buy organic, chemical-free food and avoid ultra-processed food. Natural yoghurt (sugar-free) and milk kefir are packed with good bacteria, miso made from fermented soya beans plus barley and rice contains a wide range of essential bacteria and enzymes.





Natural fermented sourdough bread is another gut friendly food but source carefully. Now that sourdough has become fashionable there’s lots of ‘faux sourdough’ around. Almonds too are high in fibre, fatty acids and polyphenols – a treat for gut bacteria. Extra virgin olive oil is my oil of choice, peas also get the thumbs up, look out for seasonal fresh peas in the Farmers Markets at present. Blue Cheese is teeming with good bacteria and I also love those artisan farmhouse cheeses – don’t be afraid to eat the rind but not plastic coating…!

A growing body of research is also showing a clear link between the growing anxiety problems amongst teenagers and college students who often have a limited budget, limited cooking facilities and limited cooking skills which combined can result in a nutritionally deficient diet...

I’m clearly not a scientist but over the past 37 years since I co-founded the school with my brother Rory, I’ve observed the change in students health as they eat different foods every day over a 3-month period. I’m not a doctor but the biodiverse diet of mostly organic food unquestionably impacts on their health and immune system. This observation has now been confirmed by a study done in conjunction by UCC (Recipe for a Healthy Gut: Intake of Unpasteurised Milk Is Associated with Increased Lactobacillus Abundance in the Human Gut Microbiome)

For those of you who would like to learn more about this fundamentally important subject Professor Ted Dinan, John Cryan in UCC, Tim Spector (Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London) and Glen Gibson (Professor of Food Microbiology, Head of Food Microbial Sciences at University of Reading) in UK, Emeran Mayer (Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine in UCLA) in US and many others. Check out their research and their talks on YouTube.







Monday, 1 June 2020

Comfort Eating and Immune-Boosting Foods for Covid Times


Covid-19 has galvanised our minds in so many areas. Being forced to press the ‘Pause Button’ gave many of us the opportunity to re-evaluate our ‘Grab, Gobble and Go’ lifestyle. Comforting food and sitting down together around the kitchen table has taken on a whole new importance…

The ‘penny’ seems to have really dropped about the value of investing time and energy in sourcing and cooking yummy nourishing meals to boost our immune systems. During ‘lockdown’, meal times at home are eagerly looked forward to, punctuating the day with delicious comforting food to cheer us up and lift our spirits.



I’m loving the explosion of activity and interest in cooking and baking. So many parents have not only discovered the joy of cooking a meal themselves but also the excitement and entertainment value of cooking with the kids – boys and girls of virtually every age are making and baking and growing and sowing…

There are many delicious stories of people dropping little gift packages of soups, stews, crusty loaves and all kinds of sweet treats to the gates of neighbours and friends to cheer them up and to the homeless and the front line workers. Nothing like a ‘care package’ to remind someone that they are remembered and loved and don’t you too feel the joy of sharing?


We’ve been getting endless recipe requests and lots of queries about foods to boost the immune system during these challenging times. There’s no quick fix, genetics, age and exercise also play their part as does our interaction with our environment, other people and animals. Social distancing, although essential in a crisis, to create a more sterile environment can weaken our immune system, a growing concern for many microbiologists at present.

So what foods? 


Invest your money in chemical free organic food and focus on sourcing real food not ‘edible food like substances’. Garlic has remarkably good antibacterial properties. Vitamin C rich foods like red peppers, you may be surprised to hear have three times more Vitamin C than citrus as well as being a brilliant source of beta carotene (11 times more than green peppers).

Leafy green vegetables have been in short supply over the past few weeks but the new season’s spinach is just ready to pick. Thanks to Popeye, we all know about iron but spinach is also rich in Vitamin C and E plus flavonoids and carotenoids and is believed to not only boost the immune system but fight cancers too.


Kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut are powerhouses of goodness. Here’s a delicious quick spring onion kimchi, I’ve been loving making it with the new seasons spring onions from the greenhouses.


In my article a couple of weeks ago, I was telling you about the many good things about young beets, a three-in-one vegetable but I want to tell you something else, I’ve just learned that the fresh juicy beet leaves are even more nutritious than the beets themselves so don’t waste a scrap - add them to your salads.

Risotto is a perennial standby in my kitchen, made with organic chicken stock and a vehicle for all kinds of delicious seasonal additions. Wild garlic is almost over now but young nettle or spinach leaves and sorrel all add extra oomph. It would be difficult to think of a more comforting versatile and universally loved recipe – definitely one for your repertoire of favourite standbys. 



This recipe for Country Rhubarb Cake ranks high among my favourite recipes for this time of the year. This recipe is exactly the one taught to me by my mother more years ago than I like to remember, I haven’t changed any details and every time I make them, I’m transported back to our kitchen in the little village of Cullohill in Co. Laois and I can see Mum in one of her handmade flowery aprons taking the cake out of the oven to delight us when we rushed in from school wondering what would be today's treat – once again a special recipe triggering happy memories.

And a final thought: twelve weeks ago, concerns about food security seemed a million miles away, something that just, might happen in other countries but not in the least relevant to us. However, for those who queued and trawled the supermarket shelves for flour, fresh yeast, bread soda and baking powder in recent weeks, it now feels like a very relevant issue…

Being ‘locked down’ for several months has given us new insights and more empathy and compassion for others. We’ve got a taste of how it must feel to be a refugee or asylum seeker, confined and restricted, not being able to work and often not being able to cook or properly socialise with their families.

Issues like climate change, ‘zero waste’ and single-use plastic have become more urgent. We had become a heedless just ‘Chuck It’ society. When I was little, not long after the end of the war, one of the biggest crimes one could commit was to waste food. It’s still deep in my DNA, I often get teased because I’m so reluctant to throw away any food. I’m a ‘lover of leftovers’ and am surprised when people who love food don’t see any problem throwing out tasty morsels that can be the base of another delicious meal. The Covid-19 experience has forced a rethink in many areas of our lives and it’s no bad thing. Lockdown has been difficult for everyone and tragic for many, so let’s look for crumbs of comfort and cook together and count our blessings.

****

David Tanis’s Quick Scallion Kimchee

Serves 2-4

We’ve got lots and lots of beautiful spring onions at present so I’ve been loving this recipe.  ‘’Although the classic long-fermented cabbage-based kimchee is fairly easy to make, it does take time. This version with scallions is ridiculously simple and ready in a day or two. I learned how to make it from my friend Russell, a Los Angeles–born cook whose Korean mother made it throughout his childhood. Russell serves it to accompany perfectly steamed rice and simple grilled fish, a lovely combination. I like it chopped and stirred into a bowl of brothy ramen-style noodles, or tucked into a ham sandwich’’. 

4 bunches scallions
2 teaspoons salt
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 tablespoon raw sugar or dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
23g Korean red pepper flakes
3/4 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
3/4 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
3/4 tablespoon fish sauce
3/4 tablespoon rice vinegar
Trim the scallions and cut into 7.5cm (3 inch) lengths. Put them in a glass or ceramic bowl, sprinkle with the salt, and let stand for 10 minutes.

Mix together the garlic, sugar, ginger, red pepper flakes, sesame oil, sesame seeds, fish sauce, and rice vinegar. Add to the scallions and toss well to coat.

Lay a plate over the bowl and leave in a warm place (at least 21°C/70°F) for 24 hours. Or, for a stronger-tasting kimchee, let ripen for up to 72 hours. It will keep for a month, refrigerated.

***

Country Rhubarb Cake 

This traditional rhubarb cake, based on an enriched bread dough, was made all over Ireland and is a treasured memory from my childhood. It would have originally been baked in the bastible or ‘baker’ over the open fire. My mother, who taught me this recipe, varied the filling with the seasons – first rhubarb, then gooseberries, later in the autumn, apples and plums.

Serves 8

350g (12oz) plain flour, plus extra for dusting
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)
50g (2oz) caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
75g (3oz) butter
1 organic, free-range egg, if possible
165ml (5 1/2fl oz) milk, buttermilk or sour milk
680g (1 1/2lb) rhubarb, finely chopped
170–225g (6–8oz) granulated sugar
beaten organic, free-range egg, to glaze
softly whipped cream and soft brown sugar, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas Mark 4

25cm (10 inch) enamel or Pyrex pie plate

Sieve the flour, salt, bread soda and caster sugar into a bowl and rub in the butter. Whisk the egg and mix with the milk, buttermilk or sour milk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients. Pour in most of the liquid and mix to a soft dough, add the remaining liquid if necessary.

Sprinkle a little flour on the work surface. Turn out the soft dough and pat gently into a round. Divide into two pieces: one should be slightly larger than the other; keep the larger one for the lid.

Dip your fingers in flour. Roll out the smaller piece of pastry to fit the enamel or Pyrex pie plate. Scatter the rhubarb all over the base and sprinkle with the granulated sugar. Brush the edges of the pastry with beaten egg. Roll out the other piece of dough until it is exactly the size to cover the plate, lift it on and press the edges gently to seal them. Don’t worry if you have to patch the soft dough.  Make a hole in the centre for the steam to escape. Brush again with beaten egg and sprinkle with a very small amount of caster sugar.

Bake for 45 minutes - 1 hour or until the rhubarb is soft and the crust is golden. Leave it to sit for 15–20 minutes before serving so that the juice can soak into the crust. Sprinkle with caster sugar. Serve still warm, with a bowl of softly whipped cream and some moist, brown sugar.