Cheap food is an illusion

Almost every week I get queries from people at their wits end trying to cope with food intolerances and special diets. Sometimes just one food has to be eliminated, but more often than not it’s a whole food group. I can sometimes be of assistance but I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to be of real help. My first advice is to seek out as much organic or bio-dynamic food as possible and to eliminate processed food totally from your diet. If its an option, grow as much as you can yourself, even if its only in tubs or window boxes. As more and more people are being advised by their doctors to omit certain foods from their diet, dairy, wheat, yeast, sugar, pork, chicken, mushrooms, oranges …. One has to ask – what’s going on – why are so many people unable to tolerate these foods any longer? The answer is no doubt complex but the reality is much of our food is being produced in an increasingly intensive way, the main criteria being price not quality. In very intensive production systems animal and plant are being pushed beyond their natural limit, consequently everything is cracking at the seams and its one crisis after another.
Farmers are caught in a Catch 22 situation, as the multiples force farmers and food producers to produce food below an economic level. Backed into a corner, they have two stark choices – throw in the towel in despair, sell up, feeling despondent and defeated, or intensify further. The latter usually means less healthful food produced with more chemical inputs and artificial fertilisers in the endless quest to produce cheaper food. In both cases we are all losers.
Cheap food is an illusion. As Professor Jules Pretty of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, clearly states in his study ‘Crops without Profit’, there is no such thing as cheap food, the reality is as tax payers we pay three times over for the seemingly ‘cheap food’ on the supermarket shelf. Once at the checkout, again through our taxes to provide the subsidies to support this unsustainable system of production, and a third time to clean up the environment and contribute to the health service.
As long as this mindset continues we will have more and more problems, not only with allergies and food intolerances and food related illness, but also with obesity which I predict will be the most expensive drain on the Health Service and consequently the tax payer in the coming years.
Minister Martin needs to urgently focus his attention on the national diet, after all Benjamin Disraeli observed that: –

“The health of a people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their power as a State depends.. The Irish diet has changed utterly in the past 20 years with an extraordinary decline in the past 4 or 5 years as a startling percentage of the population live on convenience food and out of hot counters with scant regard for freshness or nutrition. The majority of the population has forgotten about the seasons and care little for fresh or local. Increasingly GP’s are coming across cases of malnutrition in teenagers, not from impoverished families, but simply as a consequence of eating a diet of nutrient deficient junk food. Few connect the food they eat with how they feel – a disastrous and alarming situation considering that since time began, in every culture there is a saying akin to ‘your health goes in through your mouth’. What kind of twits are we to think that we can shovel any kind of old rubbish into ourselves and then expect to feel full of energy and vitality.
For those with, or cooking for someone with maybe one or several food intolerances, every meal is a challenge. In acute cases, of which there are a growing number, peoples’ resistance and immune system break down and life becomes a nightmare of ill health. Chupi and Luke Sweetman authors of a recent book ‘What to eat when you can’t eat anything’ faced exactly this situation. They tried every medical solution to no avail, eventually with the help and guidance of nutritionist Patricia Quinn, they embraced a diet of whole naturally produced food, organic whenever possible and eliminated all processed food: yeast free, dairy free, wheat free and sugar free, additive, colour and preservative free.
Panic set in, what was left to eat? Gradually they developed new ideas – everyone got involved, racked their brains, lots of fun experimenting and tasting. Others in a similar position shared their successes. They soon realised there was a real need for a cookbook where they could share their experience with others in a similar situation.
This new way of eating has transformed their lives and health and it was a joy to see them glowing with good health posing for photographs for the book which was a collaboration between themselves and Patricia Quinn as they shared the recipes, ideas and experiments. This book will be a lifesaver for the many people who feel at a loss to know how to cook when many staples have been eliminated. Whether or not this has been the case, seek out as much free range, local, organic food as possible – for a growing number of people its no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.

‘What to eat when you can’t eat anything’ by Chupi and Luke Sweetman, published by Newleaf, an imprint of Gill & Macmillan. www.whattoeat.net

Bridget Jones Chicken

Feeds 4:
This is the most wonderful- and incredibly simple - dish imaginable. All the ingredients are just roughly chopped, packed into a casserole, drizzled with olive oil and popped into the oven. We called it Bridget Jones Chicken because the night we first made it was the night the film came out on video. It was 'Chop! Hurl! Grind! Drizzle!' and into the oven you go! And then we all dashed for the sofa and the video.

What you need:
4 chicken breasts, or thighs, chopped into good-sized chunks
5 potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
a few slices parma ham or smoky bacon torn into shreds
4 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 onions, peeled and quartered
1 bulb fennel, chopped into chunks
1 handful fresh rosemary sprigs juice of half a lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What you do:
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Pack all the ingredients tightly in a good-sized casserole or ovenproof dish, giving everything a good mix to ensure all the ingredients are well coated in oil and herbs. Season generously with lashings of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt and drizzle with oil. Put on the lid or cover with foil and pop into the oven. Pot roast for 1 to l½ hours, or until the potato chunks are soft through and through.

Crunchy Nut Granola

Makes 1 lot:
An excellent standby for when the munchies hit! Granola is a good way to start the day. Our blood sugar levels are very low in the mornings and the dried fruit in this recipe raises blood sugar and the grains help to sustain it. Some people prefer Granola without the dried fruit- do try it to see which you prefer. Granola is also excellent as a sweet, or pud, with some bio-live yoghurt and fruit. Cooking Granola is simple, you just need to keep an eye on it in the oven and take it out when it's golden.

What you need:
3 tbsp sunflower oil
3 tbsp local honey
2 cups oat flakes
2 cups jumbo oat flakes
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 tbsp almonds, chopped
1 tbsp brazil nuts, chopped
1 tbsp currants, washed
1 tbsp dates, washed and roughly quartered
½ tbsp dried papaya, chopped and washed

What you do:
Preheat the oven to 140°C/275°F/gas mark 1. Melt the honey and oil in a large saucepan on a gentle heat, being careful not to let the mixture come to the boil. When the honey has melted, remove the mixture from the heat. Add the remaining ingredients, minus the dried fruit. Stir and mix until well coated. Spread out on a large baking tray and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. Half way through the cooking, remove from the oven and mix thoroughly. Return to the oven. The granola is cooked when it is crisp and golden. Take out of the oven, stir to break up the lumps and allow to cool. Add the dried fruit and mix again. Store in an airtight container. Serve with your favourite milk as a breakfast or snack, or with some stewed fruit as a dessert.

Jammy Doughnuts

Makes approx. 10 doughnuts:
These Doughnuts are inspired by Darina Allen's Balloon Recipe (from Simply Delicious Meals in Minutes); we've just made them more accessible. Thanks Darina.
(About the jam: homemade -in your home -is best,
but sugar- and rubbish-free jam will do.)

What you need:
1 cup/150g white spelt or organic wheat flour
2 tbsp local honey
1 tsp bread soda
½ cup/125 ml rice, oat or goat's milk

sunflower oil for deep-frying

5 tbsp raspberry jam

What you do:
Put the oil onto a medium-high heat. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the honey and milk. Beat to a gloopy consistency. The oil should have been heating up for about 7 minutes now, so get a tablespoon of mixture and, using your finger, push the mixture off the end of the spoon into the hot oil, being very careful. Repeat. Cook the doughnuts for 4-5 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Half cut each doughnut along its middle and put in 2 tsp jam per doughnut. Serve at once while still warm. 

Note from Darina – I learned how to make Balloons from my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen when she used to make them for children’s tea at Ballymaloe.

Quickie Pizzas

Feeds 4:

There’s something about pizza that nothing else quite replicates. But pizza does take a certain amount of work, so here are some Quickie Pizzas perfect as a
snack, a quick lunch or a mid-evening filler. They don’t take as much time or energy as normal pizza, but you still get that lovely pizza hit.

What you need:
2 Farls (see recipe), sliced open
4 very ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 red onion, sliced paper-thin
enough organic mature cheddar, or feta, to cover the pizzas
1 tbsp mixed fresh rosemary, basil and parsley, finely chopped
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What you do:
Pre-heat the oven 150°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Slice the
Farls open to get 4 separate pizzas, pop into the toaster for a minute or two to crisp up. On the cut side, layer the tomatoes, then the onions and then the cheese. Season generously with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. Pop into the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve hot. You can serve these as a main meal with a Green Salad to fill up the corners.
Different toppings
Our favourite pizza is definitely a Margarita, so it is no surprise that the above is topped with a quick imitation of that pizza. You can, however, use other toppings, say 6-8 slices parrna ham underneath the tomato layer for a meat version of the above. You could try Spinach Frittata spread across the base, topped with feta cheese or 6 tbsp creme fraiche, cooked as above. The only limit is your imagination.
Back to Top
The Ultimate Veggie Burger and Chips

Feeds 4:
For years we tried to make a veggie burger that a) tastes nice; and b) didn’t disintegrate on contact with heat. Success at last! We absolutely adore these
burgers. A note of advice: you must use all the toppings to get the Ultimate hit. On the subject of bread, we find Farls to be so perfect and so easy we always use them. However, if you want to replace them with suitable ‘Green’ bread, do.

The Burgers

What you need:
1 tsp each ground cumin and coriander
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup/110 g gram flour
1 tin cooked chickpeas, drained and whizzed
4 scallions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 tsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

The Buns
What you need:
3 cups/450 g white spelt or organic wheat flour
1 tsp bread soda
3/4 cup/188 ml water or rice, oat, soya or cow's milk
1 tbsp bio-live natural yoghurt

The Extras
What you need:
8 slices organic feta cheese
2 tomatoes, very thinly sliced
salad leaves
¼ red onion, very thinly sliced
2 tbsp Mayonnaise (page 159)
Harissa (page 160)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
homemade chips 

What you do:
Get your burgers together first. Whizz the chickpeas to a lumpy consistency. Add the rest of the burger ingredients and combine with a spoon -if it's too
sticky, add more gram flour. Season generously. There should be enough mix for about 8 burgers -just store whatever you don't need in the fridge. Dust your hands with plenty of flour, take 4 handfuls of mix, roll each into a ball then flatten into burgers about 1 cm thick. Now you can get the chips on. Warm half a tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the 4 burgers and cook on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes per side or until done to your liking. While the burgers are
cooking, make the buns. Mix all the bun ingredients together, to form a soft, not too sticky dough. Divide into 4 balls and flatten to 1 cm thick. Put another
frying pan on a medium heat and sprinkle with flour. When the flour starts to brown, put the Buns on for about 4 minutes per side. To serve, slice the Buns in half, plonk on the burger, add a couple of slices of cheese, a twist of pepper and salt, a few salad leaves, the red onion, the tomato, some Garlic Mayonnaise and some Harissa. Serve with Pomme Frites or plain ol' Chips and a Green Salad.
Back to Top
Foolproof Food

Farls

450g white spelt or wholegrain spelt or organic wheat flour
1 teasp. bread soda
188ml water or rice, oat, soya or cow’s milk
1 tablesp. bio-live natural yoghurt

Put the flour and bread soda into a mixing bowl and combine. Pour in your chosen liquid and the yoghurt, mixing with a knife (strange, I know, but it works), until you have a soft, dry dough. You can shape the farls as you please but the traditional way is to form the dough into a ball and roll out into a circle less than 1cm thick and slice into 4 quarters. Put a heavy-bottomed pan on a medium heat and sprinkle with flour. When the flour starts to brown, place a farl onto the pan and cook for 5-6 minutes per side until lightly browned. Take the farl off, sprinkle some more flour onto the pan and continue with the rest. Keep in a warm place until you’re ready to eat.

Hot Tips

New Year Resolutions –

Learn to cook - book some afternoon cookery demonstrations at Ballymaloe Cookery School – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday – 1.45-4.45 Tel. 021-4646785

Visit your local garden centre and buy some vegetable seeds to start your own little vegetable plot. A few cabbage plants would get you off to a quick start.

Order half a dozen hens so you can have your own wonderful free-range eggs- the scraps from the kitchen come back as eggs – so you’re a winner all the way.

Resolve to plant a little herb garden, order parsley, thyme, chives, annual marjoram and rosemary to get you started.

Resolve to put real energy into sourcing fresh, locally produced food in season for the good of your health – its often been said that if you don’t put it on the table you will give it to the doctor and the chemist.