Monday, 18 May 2020

The Hungry Gap

The Hungry Gap is almost over, that’s the name gardeners traditionally gave to the three or four weeks between the end of the Winter vegetables – roots, kale and leeks and the beginning of the Summer bounty when there is little or no fresh produce available in gardens and virtually no greens on the supermarket shelves. Well, here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, our Farm shop has been super busy for the past seven weeks since isolating regulations were introduced. People all over the country are discovering the seasonal treasures in their own parishes, local honey producers, farmhouse cheese makers, fish smokers, poultry and egg producers, charcuterie makers and artisans of all shapes and sizes.


We’re so fortunate to be in the midst of a 100 acre organic farm in East Cork with hens, pigs, cows, a micro diary which yields Jersey milk, home-made butter, buttermilk, yoghurt and thick rich cream everyday. A Bread Shed in a converted mega trailer and a Fermentation Palace in another repurposed trailer, but best of all from the food point of view is an acre block of greenhouses (a relic of a horticultural enterprise which operated right into the 1970’s ) which we now use as a protected garden. Although it’s not heated, the crops mature two or three weeks earlier than outdoor vegetables and herbs.



I feel elated when the first of the beetroot is ready to harvest. Three super delicious vegetables in one, the beets, stalks and leaves. Most people just think of pickled beetroot but the young beets are unbelievably delicious served as a hot vegetable particularly with a roast duck or a fish gratin. I pickle the stalks too. They cook in a minute or two, drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and add a little shredded fresh mint for a feast. We add them to stews, fish dishes, on and on.. but certainly don’t waste a scrap.


We also have the first bunches of Spring onions and the new seasons Sturon onions are bigger than a golf ball by now with lots and lots of green leaf. I’ve been melting the sliced bulbs in extra virgin olive oil for four or five minutes on a gentle heat, then adding every scrap of the sliced greens, some thyme leaves… A gorgeous accompaniment to a main dish or add a good dollop of cream to make an unctuous sauce to accompany a steak. The green spears of asparagus continue to pop up in beds in the garden so do try this asparagus and spring onion tart sometime during the few short weeks when Irish asparagus is in season.   
The pea pods are already forming lots of pea shoots and flowers so we’ll have those in a couple of weeks but guess what – we’ll have some new potatoes ready to harvest and sell this coming week. There’s something especially exciting about the first of the new potatoes, every year when we sit down to enjoy the first of the crop, we make a wish and I remember my parents annual refrain, “Please God, hope we’ll all be as well this time next year”, all the more poignant in the midst of this Covid 19 Pandemic.
We’ve also had the very first globe artichokes this week. Simply cooked, in boiling well salted water with a dash of vinegar. Then served with a little bowl of lemon butter to dip the base of each leaf in and to enjoy the heart in chunks.
We’ve had lots of rhubarb for weeks now,  I eat it in some shape or form almost every day in a sweet or savoury recipe and as a compote for breakfast. A little stewed rhubarb makes a change from apple sauce and cuts the richness of pork deliciously.



Beetroot - Three delicious vegetables in one.

The new seasons beets are just ready to harvest.  The beets are swelling everyday but one can eat them from when they are the size of a table tennis ball.  We love them served hot as a vegetable when they are young and sweet but we use the stalks and leaves too.  The leaves are delicious served fresh in a salad or wilted down like spinach.  The stalks and leaves can be served together as in the Beetroot Tops recipe or the stalks can be blanched, refreshed and drained, then  tossed in a little extra virgin olive oil and some freshly snipped herbs and serve warm or cold.

How to cook Beetroot
Leave 5cm (2 inch) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet. Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don't damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar. Cover the pot, bring to the boil and simmer on top, or in an oven, for 15-20 minutes (in May/June when they are young) depending on size (they can take 1-2 hours in late Autumn and Winter when they are tough). Beetroot are usually cooked if the skin rubs off easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger.  If in doubt test with a skewer or the tip of a knife.  Use in chosen recipe.

Hot Beetroot with Cream and Parsley


Serves 4-6

675g (1 1/2 lbs) beetroot, cooked
15g (1/2oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
a sprinkling of sugar
150-175ml (5-6fl ozs) cream
2 tablespoons of coarsely chopped parsley

Peel the freshly cooked beetroot, use rubber gloves for this operation if you are vain!  Chop the beetroot flesh into cubes.  Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the beetroot toss, add the cream, allow to bubble for a few minutes.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sugar.  Taste and add a little lemon juice if necessary. Scatter with fresh parsley and serve immediately. 




Beetroot Tops (Stalks and Leaves)
Young beetroot tops are full of flavour and are often unnecessarily discarded; but if you grow your own beetroots, remember to cook the stalks as well. When the leaves are tiny they make a really worthwhile addition to the salad bowl, both in terms of nutrition and flavour. This isn’t worth doing unless you have lovely young leaves. When they become old and slightly wilted, feed them to the hens or add them to the compost.

Serves 4

450g (1lb) fresh beetroot tops
salt and freshly ground pepper
butter or olive oil

Keeping them separate, cut the beetroot stalks and leaves into rough 5cm (2in) pieces. First cook the stalks in boiling salted water (1.8 litres/3 pints water to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt) for 2-4 minutes or until tender. Then add the leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Drain, season and toss in a little butter or olive oil. Serve immediately.


Beet Stalks with Olive Oil and Mint

Prepare and cook the beet stalks as above, drain well. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with freshly chopped spearmint. A simple but truly delicious combination.



Beet Leaves


Serves 4-6

In season: May-early June

Here are three different basic methods of cooking beet greens.

900g (2lb) fresh beetroot leaves, with stalks removed (cook stalks separately)
salt, freshly ground pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg
50-110g (2-4oz) butter

For preparation
Method 1 (Wilted Method)
Wash the prepared beetroot leaves and drain. Melt a scrap of butter in a wide frying pan, toss in as many beetroot leaves as will fit easily, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  As soon as it wilts and becomes tender, strain off all the liquid, increase the heat and add some butter and freshly grated nutmeg.  Serve immediately.

Method 2 (Buttered Beet Greens)
Wash the prepared beetroot leaves and drain.  Put into a heavy saucepan on a very low heat, season and cover tightly. After a few minutes, stir and replace the lid. As soon as the leaves are cooked, about 5-8 minutes approx., strain off the copious amount of liquid that beetroot releases and press between two plates until almost dry. Chop or puree in a food processor if you like a smooth texture. Increase the heat, add butter, correct the seasoning and add a little freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Method 3 (Buttered Beet Greens)
Cook the beet greens uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until soft, 4-5 minutes approx.  Drain and press out all the water. Continue as in method 2.  Method 3 produces fresher coloured leaves.

Beet Greens with Cream
Cook the beet greens by method 2 or 3, drain very well.  Add 225-340ml (8-12fl oz) cream to the beetroot and bring to the boil, stir well and thicken with a little roux if desired, otherwise stir over the heat until the beetroot has absorbed most of the cream.  Season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste.  Creamed beet greens may be cooked ahead of time and reheated.

Poached Eggs with Beet Greens
A classic dish and one of the most delicious combinations.
Serve freshly poached free-range organic eggs on top of creamed beet greens - one of our favourite lunch or supper dishes.