Letters from February 2000

Finland

Its been over two years now since I spent a few memorable days in Finland. Last time it was the end of September and the Autumn colour was at its most intense – gorgeous bright oranges, reds, yellows and dusty russets. The countryside was still green and vivid, the little dark red timbered houses silhouetted against the hills and the forests so beloved of the Finns. The temperature was higher than in Ireland and it was difficult to believe that quarter of this country lies north of the Arctic Circle. This time there was no difficulty remembering. There was snow, ice and sleet. The naturally shy Finns were muffled up against the cold, everywhere seemed dark and overcast and still, and I could well understand how these gloomy days must affect the national mood during Winter. This year the weather has been relatively mild in comparison to last year when the temperature dropped to below –53C for almost two weeks.
Nonetheless I got a warm welcome from Finnish friends at the Haaga Perrho Institute and a former student Jukka Oresto. He took me out into the country to visit Tuula Sorainen, who has a charming farm guesthouse in Saukkola. When we arrived it looked like a winter wonderland surrounded by Christmas trees – a collection of traditional Finnish houses, with the smoke curling up into the sky. There’s an ancient mill, a traditional Finnish storehouse where Tuula still stores her crispbread, sausages and grain and of course a sauna just beside the river so you can take a refreshing plunge into the cold water when the heat becomes too much.
The house and mill were full of beautiful antiques which Tuula has been collecting for years. The bedrooms are simple and traditional. In summer one friend weaves on the old loom while another makes traditional Finnish rag rugs and pottery for visitors to buy. Tuula cooked me a wonderful Finnish meal , all made from home grown and local ingredients – Jerusalem artichoke soup, Moose stew with roast potatoes, pickled cucumbers, a crisp lettuce, apple and dill salad. The crisp bread and sweet cardamom flavoured pulla were baked in the ancient wood burning oven.
The snow fell outside the house , the fire blazed in the grate and like all Finnish houses it was warm and cosy.  Tuula Sorainen also hosts small conferences in her old mill house as well as special parties. It must be a wonderfully relaxing place to recharge the batteries, particularly in summer when one can also canoe on the river and walk though the forest.
Tuula Sorainen, Myllyniemi, 09430 Saukkola, Finland. Tel 00 358 19 371 215  Fax 00 358 19 371 745
When I left Helsinki enroute to Heathrow Airport there was several feet of snow, nonetheless it was business as usual. Ironically, when I got to London, there was a delay of several hours because Cork airport was snowbound.

 

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Crispy Croutons


Jerusalem artichokes are a sadly neglected winter vegetable. They look like knobbly potatoes and are a nuisance to peel, but if they are very fresh you can sometimes get away with just giving them a good scrub. Not only are they a smashing vegetable but they are also delicious in soups and gratins. They are a real gem from the gardener’s point of view because the foliage grows into a hedge and provides shelter and cover for both compost heaps and pheasants!

Serves 8 – 10
2 ozs (55g/2 stick) butter
13 lbs (560g/3: cups) onions, peeled and chopped
13 lbs (560g/3: cups) potatoes, peeled and chopped
22 lbs (1.15kg) artichokes, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 pints (1.1L/5 cups) light chicken stock
1 pint (600ml/22 cups) creamy milk approx.
Garnish
Freshly chopped parsley
Crisp, golden croutons

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan, add the onions, potatoes and artichokes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, cover and sweat gently for 10 minutes approx. Add the stock and cook until the vegetables are soft. Liquidise and return to the heat. Thin to the required flavour and consistency with creamy milk, and adjust the seasoning.
Serve in soup bowls or in a soup tureen. Garnish with chopped parsley and crisp, golden croutons.
Note: This soup may need more stock depending on thickness required.

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Crispy Bacon Croutons


Cut 2 ozs (55g) streaky bacon into lardons, fry in a little oil until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper, mix with the croutons and add to the soup just before serving.


Spring Fair in Birmingham

The Garden Café and Shop beside the school will reopen for the Summer season at Easter, so at present we’re sourcing stock for the shop. We tramped around Showcase in Dublin a few weeks ago and headed for the Spring Fair in Birmingham this week. Trade Fairs are an endurance test at the best of times but at this one there are 20 huge halls. By lunch on the first day we’d just about managed to get through one section, so most people would need to stay at least overnight and therein lies the dilemma. The National Exhibition Centre is just beside the Airport so one can choose to stay in one of the hotels beside the complex or else commute in and out of Birmingham. Having queued for hours for shuttle buses and taxis in previous years we opted for the former. Although the rooms are barely large enough to move around, with no frills attached, they are excruciatingly expensive.
It’s a captive market so that’s the name of the game.  We needed to fortify ourselves with a good breakfast for a strenuous day, one easily walks miles and miles, I wasn’t too keen to indulge in a big fry-up for breakfast, so I asked for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The waitress looked a little panicky and then asked whether I realised it would cost £5.20 sterling, no thanks. So I went back to the breakfast buffet and got two oranges from the fruit bowl and squeezed them myself.  Moments later the sweet little waitress came to our table with a toast rack with at least ten pieces of toast. We explained that we only wanted one piece each and pleaded with her to give it to someone else, rather than leaving it on or table to be wasted. She said we might as well have it because it would just be thrown out anyway. A single gentleman close to us also got ten pieces of toast, no wonder a glass of orange juice costs £5.20, they need to make up the profit somewhere.
In complete contrast we recently visited one of the newest additions to the Cork food scene – The Waters Edge Hotel and Jacobs Ladder Restaurant in Cobh.. Michael and Maggie Whelan have converted the site where they ran their very successful salvage tug boat company for years into a charming 19 bedroom hotel overlooking the harbour. At present bed and breakfast costs just £35 in one of the bedrooms with one of the loveliest views in Cork Harbour.
When we dropped in the other day, we had these delicious Madeleines with a cup of coffee as we watched the boats sailing up and down the harbour – must be one of the most beautiful situations for a restaurant in the Cork area – check it out. Tel. 021-815566.

 

Madeleines

 

Waters Edge Chef Martial Marin from La Roche Bernard in Brittany shared his recipe for ‘Madeleines de la Magdalene’ with us.
Makes 20 approx.
5 eggs
180g castor sugar
180g butter
200g plain flour
1 teasp. of pure vanilla essence
2 teasp. of baking powder

Melt the butter and allow to cool. Sieve the flour. Whisk the eggs, add the sugar, vanilla essence, baking powder, and cooled butter. Then add the flour slowly. Spoon the mixture into lightly greased madeleine moulds, Martial used small moulds which held 2 tablesp. of the mixture. You could also use a bun tray.
Bake at 200C (400F/regulo 6) for 10-15 minutes.

 

February Citrus fruit Salad


In the winter when many fruits have abysmal flavour the citrus fruit are at their best, this delicious fresh tasting salad uses a wide variety of that ever expanding family. Its particularly good with blood oranges which appear in the shops for only a few weeks, so make the most of them. Ugli fruit, Pomelo, Tangelos, Sweeties or any other members of the citrus family may be used in season.
Serves 6 approx.

½lb (225g) Kumquats
12 fl ozs (350ml/1½ cups) water
7 ozs (200g/1 cup) sugar
1 lime
½ lb (225g) Clementines
¼-½ lb (110g-225g) Tangerines or Mandarins
2 blood oranges
1 pink grapefruit
lemon juice to taste if necessary

Slice the kumquats into ¼ inch (5mm) rounds, remove pips. Dissolve the sugar in the water over a low heat, add the sliced kumquats. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender. Remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Remove the zest from the lime with a zester and add with the juice to the kumquats. Meanwhile peel the tangerines and clementines and remove as much of the white pith and strings as possible. Slice into rounds of ¼ inch (5mm) thickness, add to the syrup. Segment the pink grapefruit and blood oranges and add to the syrup also. Leave to macerate for at least an hour. Taste and add a squeeze of lemon juice if necessary. Serve chilled


Valentine’s Day 

If you haven’t managed to secure a restaurant booking for Valentine’s Day to wine and dine your sweetheart, its probably too late by now. There are after all a finite number of restaurant tables. Surprisingly many restaurateurs hate Valentine’s Day with a passion because all their customers want tables for two and they don’t want to be rushed, so second sittings aren’t always an option. Others complain that the atmosphere, far from being electric and buzzy, is often strained and subdued, particularly if they get a high proportion of older married couples who have run out of chit chat and don’t need to inquire about their date’s favourite film or singer, or how their team is doing in the league.
They are more likely to be discussing how to re-mortgage, or what to do about their saucy out of control teenagers. What a gloomy picture they paint, where has all the romance disappeared to?
Little unexpected gestures can be such a delight. Breakfast in bed with a little posy of snowdrops on the tray, lots of tiny heart shaped choccies hidden in unexpected places, under the pillow, in her bag or tucked into his wallet, or in less likely places like the fridge or on the ironing board or beside the hoover!
Little notes with secret messages tucked in beside his credit cards or behind the sun shade in the car or even into a shoe will give most people an ‘oops in their tummy’ or at least a giggle.
If all else fails to thrill, remember that the way to a chap or chic’s heart is still the same way as it always was and always will be. So how about wooing your partner by cooking something or indeed anything as a surprise. Could be hot buttered Rossmore oysters on toast, a Passion Fruit starter might be appropriate or a gorgeous pud. Comfort food like apple or rhubarb tarts are high on the list of favourites. The new season’s rhubarb is just appearing in the shops. Almond Meringue hearts with Chocolate and Rum cream might just impress also or even tiny heart-shaped shortbread with kumquat compote. For extra excitement, light a sparkler on top to get the message across.

 

Crispy Wontons with Passion Fruit and Mango

 


Wontons needn’t necessarily be just savoury, they make a terrific dessert in minutes.
Vary the toppings depending on what you find in season.
Serves 20
20 wonton wrappers *
fromage blanc or cream cheese or whipped cream
1 ripe mango
2 passion fruit
a little lime juice
Sugar if necessary
icing sugar for dusting

Heat some sunflower or peanut oil in a pan or deep fry to 180°C/350°F
Fry the wonton wrappers in batches until golden about 30 seconds. Drain on kitchen paper. Peel and slice or dice the mango, scoop the seeds and juice from the passion fruit and add the mango, taste and add some freshly squeezed lime juice and sugar if necessary.
To serve
Dust each wonton with icing sugar. Put a little blob of fromage blanc or cream cheese or cream on each one . Top with some mango and passion fruit.
Garnish with a sprig of sweet cicely, mint or lemon balm and serve immediately.

*Available from Mr. Bell’s stall in the English Market

 

Valentine’s Day Hot Buttered Oysters on Toast

 


These wonderfully curvaceous oyster shells tend to topple over maddeningly on the plate so that the delicious juices escape. In the restaurant we solve this problem by piping a little blob of mashed Duchesse potato on the plate to anchor each shell.

12 Pacific (Gigas) oysters
1 oz (30 g/¼ stick) butter
½ teaspoon parsley, finely chopped

To Serve
4 segments of lemon
4 heart-shaped pieces of hot buttered toast (optional)

Open the oysters and detach completely from their shells. Discard the top shell but keep the deep shell and reserve the liquid. Put the shells into a low oven to heat through. Melt half the butter in a pan until it foams. Toss the oysters in the butter until hot through – 1 minute perhaps.  Put a hot oyster into each of the warm shells. Pour the reserved oyster liquid into the pan and boil up, whisking in the remaining butter and the parsley. Spoon the hot juices over the oysters and serve immediately on hot plates with a wedge of lemon.  Alternatively discard the shells and just serve the oysters on the heart-shaped buttered toast. The toast will soak up the juice – Simply Delicious!

 

Almond Meringue with chocolate and rum cream


Serves 6

12 ozs (45g/3 cup) almonds
2 egg whites
42 ozs (125g/1 cup approx.) icing sugar
Filling
1 oz (30g) good quality dark chocolate
2 oz (15g) unsweetened chocolate
2 pint (300ml/13 cups) whipped cream
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) rum
1 tablesp. (1 American tablesp. + 1 teasp.) single cream
Decoration
5 toasted almonds

Check that the bowl is dry, spotlessly clean and free of grease. Blanch and skin the almonds. Grind or chop them up. They should not be ground to a fine powder but should be left slightly coarse and gritty. Mark two 72 inch (19cm) circles or heart shapes on silicone paper or a prepared baking sheet. Mix all the sugar with the egg whites at once and beat until the mixture forms stiff dry peaks. Fold in the almonds. Divide the mixture between the 2 circles or heart shapes and spread evenly with a palette knife. Bake immediately in a cool oven, 150C/300F/regulo 2 for 45 minutes or until crisp they should peel off the paper easily, turn off the oven and allow to cool.
To make the filling  Melt the chocolate with the rum and single cream very gently in a very cool oven, or over hot water. Cool and then fold the mixture into the whipped cream.
To assemble  Sandwich the meringues together with the filling. Decorate with rosettes of chocolate and rum cream stuck with halved toasted almonds.

Kumquat Compote


Serves 6-8
3½lbs./1.5kg Kumquats
1¾ pints/1 litre water
1lb.2oz/500g sugar

One or two hours in advance, cut the kumquats into four lengthways and remove the pips. Put the kumquats in a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, uncovered for half an hour.
Finishing and Serving: Leave the kumquats in a pretty fruit dish to cool for an hour or two. Serve with heart-shaped shortbread biscuits and some softly whipped cream.


Winter Root Vegetables 

Winter root vegetables have long been regarded as the poor relations of the more socially acceptable greens like Broccoli, Sugar Peas and French Beans. These, oft imported out of season vegetables are served ad nauseam in restaurants from January to December. Well, at last the time has come for the country cousins, the humble parsnip, carrots and swedes have become wildly fashionable. On a recent trip to New York, Potato and Parsnip Mash was the hottest item on a trendy restaurant menu in Manhattan.  Carrots, hitherto boiled or worse still, turned into little barrel shapes by some hapless commis are now being oven-roasted to a rich sweetness with parsnips, turnips and crispy potato wedges.  Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California who has managed to give a new respectability to many forgotten foods, gives special mention to rutabagas (known to us as swede turnips), in her book on vegetables. This was music to my ears – I=ve always loved the sweet flavour of mashed swedes in late Autumn and Winter after they=ve been mellowed by a touch of frost. Left over puree whizzed up with some sweated onion, chicken stock and maybe a touch of creamy milk, makes a delicious Winter soup. A few lardons of crispy bacon, some croutons and a scattering of parsley will transform it into a dinner party recipe.

Scatter piles of parsnip and celeriac crisps over your salads or serve them with a plump roast pheasant as well as or as an alternative to Game Chips.  Add some fresh spices to a medley of root vegetables to make an exciting Indian vegetable stew. Search out the old-fashioned Jerusalem artichokes now appearing in the shops, these gnarled and knobbly roots are maddening to peel but are well worth the effort for their delicious flavour. We love them in soups or slow cooked in their own juices with a little butter. Their flavour is particularly great with sweet juicy scallops and game. Thick slices of Jerusalem artichoke tossed while still warm with a hazelnut oil dressing and few toasted hazelnuts make a delicious starter salad. They are also incredibly easy to grow, so if you are even remotely interested in gardening, buy a few extra at the end of the season and keep them in a dark place. As soon as Spring comes round pop them into the ground about 6 inches apart and 12 inches deep. The foliage will grow about 5 feet tall, so plant them at the back of a bed or use as a screen to hide your compost heap.

Celeriac or root celery is another great winter vegetable, keeps for ages in a cool larder or even the garage. Its mild celery flavour is great in salads, soups, gratins, stews or just as a vegetable – it also makes great crisps. Just like Jerusalem Artichokes, it discolours quickly once peeled however, so drop it into a bowl of acidulated water while you peel the remainder.  As a general rule buy your root vegetables unwashed, they keep better and have much more flavour – well worth the extra few minutes of scrubbing!

Celeriac and Hazelnut Soup

Celeriac, relatively new in our shops; is in fact a root celery which looks a bit like a muddy turnip. Peel it thickly and use for soups or in salads, or just as a vegetable.
Serves 6
15 ozs (425 g/3 cups) celeriac, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
4 ozs (110 g/1 cup) onions, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
5 ozs (140 g/1 cup) potatoes, cut into ¼ inch (5 mm) dice
1½-2 ozs (45-55 g/¼-½ stick) butter
2 pints (1.1L/5 cups) home made chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4-8 fl ozs (100-225 ml/½-1 cup) creamy milk (optional)
Garnish
2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) hazelnuts, skinned, toasted and chopped
A few tablespoons whipped cream
Sprigs of chervil or flat parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan; when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them in the butter until evenly coated. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a paper lid (to keep in the steam) and the saucepan lid, and sweat over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not coloured. Discard the paper lid. Add the celeriac and chicken stock and cook until the celeriac is soft, about 8-10 minutes. Liquidise the soup; add a little more stock or creamy milk to thin to the required consistency. Taste and correct seasoning.
To prepare the hazelnuts: Put the hazelnuts into an oven, 200C/400F/regulo 6, on a baking sheet for about 10-15 minutes or until the skins loosen. Remover the skins by rubbing the nuts in the corner of a teatowel. If they are not sufficiently toasted, return them to the oven until they become golden brown. Chop and keep aside to garnish.
Serve the soup piping hot with a little blob of whipped cream on top. Sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts and a sprig of chervil or flat parsley.

 

Oven-Roasted Winter Root vegetables


About equal volume of:
Parsnips
Swede Turnips
Celeriac
Carrot
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Olive oil
Freshly chopped winter herbs – Thyme, Rosemary, Chives and Parsley
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6.
Peel the vegetables and cut into similar sized pieces – ½ inch (1cm) cubes are a good size. Put all the vegetables into a large bowl. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season well with salt and freshly-ground pepper. Spread them in a single layer on one or several roasting tins. Roast, uncovered, stirring occasionally until they are fully cooked and just beginning to caramelize. Be careful, a little colour makes them sweeter, but there is a narrow line between caramelizing and burning. If they become too dark they will be bitter.  Serve sprinkled with freshly chopped Winter herbs, eg. Thyme, Rosemary, Chives and Parsley.

Swede Turnips with Caramelised Onions

Serves 6 approx.
2 lbs (900g) swede turnips
Salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
2-4 ozs (55-110g/ ½-1 stick) butter
Garnish
Finely chopped parsley
Peel the turnip thickly in order to remove the thick outside skin. Cut into three-quarter inch (2cm) cubes approx. Cover with water. Add a good pinch of salt, bring to the boil and cook until soft. Strain off the excess water, mash the turnips well and beat in the butter. Taste and season with lots of freshly ground pepper and more salt if necessary. Garnish with parsley and serve piping hot.
Caramelised Onions
1 lb (450g) onions, thinly sliced
2-3 tablesp. (2-4 American tablesp.) olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan. Toss in the onions and cook over a low heat for whatever length of time it takes for them to soften and caramelize to a golden brown, 30-45 minutes approx.

Warm Salad of Jerusalem Artichokes with Hazelnut Oil Dressing

Serves 4
White turnips or KohlRabi are also delicious cooked and served in exactly the same way.
12 ozs (340g) Jerusalem Artichokes, very carefully peeled to a smooth shape
salt and freshly ground pepper
½ oz (15g) hazelnuts, tosted and sliced
a few leaves oakleaf lettuce
Garnish
sprigs of chervil
Hazelnut Oil Dressing
3 tablesp. (4 American tablesp. ) hazelnut oil or
1½ tablesp. (2 American tablesp.) hazelnut oil and
1½ tablesp. (2 American tablesp.) sunflower oil
1½ tablesp. (2 American tablesp.) white wine vinegar
¼ teasp. Dijon mustard
salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar to taste
Slice the artichoke about one-third inch thick. Bring 4 fl ozs (110ml) water and ¼ oz butter to the boil in a heavy saucepan and add in the sliced artichokes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put a lid on the saucepan and cook gently until they are almost cooked. Turn off the heat and allow to sit in the covered saucepan until they are almost tender. The maddening thing about artichokes is that they cook unevenly so it will be necessary to test them with a skewer at regular intervals, they usually take at least 15 minutes.  While the artichokes are cooking, prepare the Hazelnut dressing by mixing all the ingredients together. Slice the hazelnuts and reserve for garnish.  When the artichokes are cooked carefully remove from the saucepan, making sure not to break them up. Place on a flat dish in a single layer. Spoon over the hazelnut dressing and toss while still warm. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.
To assemble the salad.
Divide the sliced artichokes between 4 plates. Put a little circle of lettuce around the vegetables and sprinkle some of the dressing over the lettuce. Garnish with the toasted hazelnuts and chervil sprigs. This salad is best when the artichokes are eaten while still warm.