Soil Association Organic Food Awards

I’ve just returned from Bristol where I spent two days judging the Soil Association Organic Food Awards with a plethora of food writers and celebrity chefs including Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Giorgio Locatelli, Matthew Fort and Fiona Beckett.

This year there were over 1000 entries, 1 chomped my way through 20 chickens, 4 ducks, 12 pieces of roast loin of pork with crackling. Many were rare breeds with lip- smacking flavour. Others tasted sausages, cured meat, fruit and vegetables, cheese and yogurt and other dairy products, jams, preserves, wines and non-alcoholic drinks, baby foods, teas, coffee, chocolate, prepared foods….. Top chefs love to be involved with judging these awards. Top chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall said, ‘I’ve been a judge for five years now and its helped me discover some of the most delicious food. Even when I missed a year, I was sent some beef by the category winners to try for my book – it was absolutely stunning.’

This year’s awards also included Best School Dinners reflecting the campaigning work done by the Soil Association to improve the quality of school meals, 

The Organic Food Awards are all about rewarding and highlighting the best in organic food and drink. Special awards include the Organic Restaurant Award, Box Scheme of the Year, Best Local Food Initiative, and Producer of the Year.

Judging in all categories is by blind tasting. The judging panel for each category is informed of variety and constituent ingredients but is not made aware of brand or manufacturer details until the judging is complete. The judging coincides with the Bristol Soil Association Organic Food Festival on Bristol’s vibrant harbourside. The event is gathering momentum at an amazing pace – the first year there were 7,000 visitors, last year over 20,000 and this year numbers topped that.

Many people dismiss organic food as being too expensive so the theme of this year’s festival was “Eating fresh organic food on a budget”.

The festival was centred around indoor and outdoor organic markets with over 150 stalls offering a huge range of organic food and drink. This year there were two new additions to the festival – an Organic Health, Beauty and Textiles market offering everything from shampoo to shirts; and the Wild Harvest Pavilion which featured an array of foods gathered beyond the farm, such as line-caught fish, wild mushrooms and game. There was also an organic bar.

For my demonstration I chose a large organic free-range chicken which cost £13 ( €18 approx). My challenge was to produce four meals out of one chicken. I showed the audience how to joint and use every scrap, I used the carcass and giblets for stock, the chicken liver for pate to serve with a tomato salad on bruschetta, the chicken breast was butterflied, pan grilled and served with rustic roast potatoes and a bunch of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes.

The inner fillet was used for Thai Chicken and Galangal Soup. The legs were poached gently in Chicken Stock flavoured with vegetables and then sliced and made into a gratin of chicken with mushrooms and broccoli. The succulent thigh meat was used for a Thai Red Curry to serve with a big bowl of fluffy rice

I cut the tasty chicken skin into squares, spread out on a wire rack and cooked gently in a very low oven until the rendered out. It was irresistibly crisp and crunchy, great served with sweet chilli or plum sauce to dip or crumbled over a green salad.

The chicken wings were marinated in sweet chilli and soy sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. 

I could have made a risotto from the chicken stock and served with with a Tuscan chicken liver sauce – gutsy and delicious laced with fresh sage., altogether 7 dishes from 1 chicken. 

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall did a demonstration on using the cheaper and under-rated cuts of meat.

Fans of Hugh’s might like to know that he will be teaching a class at the Ballymaloe Cookery School on 22nd October 2005.

We have just compiled our new season’s schedule which has been posted on the website www.cookingisfun.ie 

Crispy Chicken Skin with Plum or Sweet Chilli Sauce

This recipe is only worth doing with a superb chicken. We use Dan Aherne’s free-range organic chickens from Castledermond that are sold at the Middleton Farmers’ Market
Skin from a free-range, organic chicken
Sea salt
Plum or Sweet Chilli Sauce

Cut the skin into pieces about 2 by 11/2 inch. The size is not crucial but if the pieces are reasonably even they will be more manageable to cook later. Preheat the oven to 50Oc. Spread the pieces of chicken skin upwards on a wire cooling rack. Put the rack on a baking tray. Cook long and slowly or until the skin is crisp and the fat has rendered out. Sprinkle with sea salt. Serve on individual plates with a little bowl of plum or sweet chilli sauce to dip

Red Thai Chicken Curry

6 boneless breasts cut into bite size pieces.
1 tablespoon Red Thai curry paste either from a jar or home made
1 can coconut milk or made up from powder, separated into thick and thin
6 kafir lime leaves, roughly torn
20 Basil leaves, torn
1 tablespoon Nam pla
Red chilli pepper, deseeded and finely sliced

Put the thick milk and curry paste into a heavy pan and fry until oil runs and the mixture smells cooked. Add the chicken pieces and fry for a few minutes. Add the rest of the milk, kafir leaves, torn basil leaves and Nam pla. Cook for a further 10-15 minutes. Add chilli and serve with extra chopped basil on top. 

Note: Stir fry shredded cabbage in oil and garlic for a few minutes. Pour over 1 tablespoon Nam pla and serve with Thai chicken curry.

Risotto with chicken Liver Sauce

The rice dishes of the Veneto region are famous. Rice was introduced there by the Arabs and many varieties of short-grain rice still grow in the marsh lands around the river Po.
In Venice, risotto is made almost liquid, its great quality is its immense versatility. The Veneto is richer in vegetables than any other area in Italy so all sorts of vegetables and combinations of vegetables are included in the dish as well as herbs, poultry, game, chicken livers or shellfish. There is even a risotto made with squid ink and another with pine kernels and raisins which is actually a legacy of the Arabs.
Serves 6

2-3 pints (1 - 1.3L) broth
or chicken stock
1 oz (30g) butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tablesp. olive oil
14 ozs (400g) Carnaroli or arboria rice
1 oz (30g) butter
2 ozs (55g) freshly grated Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano is best)
Sea salt

First bring the broth or stock to the boil, turn down the heat and keep it simmering. Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan with the oil, add the onion and sweat over a gentle heat for 4-5 minutes, until soft but not coloured. Add the rice and stir until well coated (so far the technique is the same as for a pilaff and this is where people become confused). Cook for a minute or so and then add 3 pint (150 ml/) of the simmering broth, stir continuously and as soon as the liquid is absorbed add another 3 pint (150 ml) of broth. Continue to cook, stirring continuously. The heat should be brisk, but on the other hand if its too hot the rice will be soft outside but still chewy inside. If its too slow, the rice will be gluey. Its difficult to know which is worse, so the trick is to regulate the heat so that the rice bubbles continuously. The risotto should take about 25-30 minutes to cook. 

When it is cooking for about 20 minutes, add the broth about 4 tablespoons at a time. I use a small ladle. Watch it very carefully from there on. The risotto is done when the rice is cooked but is still ever so slightly 'al dente'. It should be soft and creamy and quite loose, rather than thick. The moment you are happy with the texture, stir in the remaining butter and Parmesan cheese, taste and add more salt if necessary. Pour into a hot serving dish and fill the centre with Chicken Liver Sauce.

Risotto does not benefit from hanging around.

Marcella Hazan’s Chicken Liver Sauce

Serves 4
225g fresh chicken livers
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
30g (1oz) butter
55g (12oz) diced pancetta, or prosciutto ( I use unsmoked streaky bacon)
2 tablespoons chopped shallot or onion
quarter clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
one and a half teaspoons of sage
110g (3lb) minced lean beef
6-8 twists freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon concentrated tomato puree, dissolved in 4 tablespoons dry white vermouth

To serve
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano is best)

Wash the chicken livers, trim off any fat or traces of green and cut them into 3 or 4 pieces. Dry thoroughly on kitchen paper.

Heat the oil in a small saucepan, add the diced streaky bacon and fry gently until it begins to crisp, then remove to a plate. Add the butter and saute the onions over a medium heat until transluscent, add the garlic, stir 2 or 3 times, add back in the bacon and the sage leaves, then add the minced meat, crumbling it with a fork, and cook until it has lost its red raw colour. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, turn the heat up to medium high and add the chicken livers. Stir and cook until they have lost their raw colour, add the tomato puree and vermouth and cook for 8-10 minutes. Taste.
Delicious served with risotto, noodles or pasta eg pappardelle

Yoghurt with Apple Blossom, Honey and Toasted Hazelnuts 
We have just two beehives down at the end of the orchard. Some years if the weather is inclement we get very few sections but this year ‘my bees’ produced twice the ‘national average’, I was proud as punch. Although the orchard is five acres of mixed Worcester Permain, Bramley Seedling and Grenadier. I don’t suppose the honey is totally Apple Blossom but it must be predominantly so - in any case it tastes wonderful. In Autumn we’re fortunate to be able to gather our own Hazelnuts from the nut walk planted by Lydia Strangman at the beginning of the century.
Serves 1

About a tablespoon or toasted sweet tasting hazelnuts 
Best quality natural yoghurt 
Apple blossom honey or strongly flavoured local Irish honey - 2 tablespoons approx.

To toast hazelnuts: Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/regulo 6. Put the hazelnuts onto a baking tray and pop into the oven for 8-10 minutes until the skins loosen. Remove from the oven and as soon as they are cool enough to handle, rub off the thin papery skins (I usually put them into a tea towel, gather up the edges like a pouch, rub the towel against the nuts for a minute or so and ‘hey presto’ virtually all the skins come off in one go. If the nuts are still very pale, put them back into the oven for a few more minutes until pale golden and crisp. Slice thickly.

Just before serving spoon a generous portion of chilled natural yoghurt onto a cold plate, drizzle generously with really good honey and sprinkle with freshly sliced toasted hazelnuts. Eat immediately.


Foolproof Food

Casserole Roast Chicken with Autumn Herbs

Serves 4-6
1 chicken (3½ lbs (1.575kg) free range if possible
1 oz (30g) butter
4-6 teasp. chopped fresh herbs eg. Parsley, Thyme, Tarragon, Chervil, Chives, Marjoram
¼ pint (150ml) light cream
¼ pint (150ml) home-made chicken stock
*Roux, optional
1-2 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs
1 oval casserole
Remove the wish bone and keep for the stock.

Season the cavity of the chicken with salt and freshly ground pepper and stuff a sprig of tarragon inside. Chop the remaining tarragon and mix with two-thirds of the butter. Smear the remaining butter over the breast of the chicken, place breast side down in a casserole and allow it to brown over a gentle heat. Turn the chicken breast-side up and smear the tarragon butter over the breast and legs. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover the casserole and cook in a moderate oven for 13-12 hours.

(To test if the chicken is cooked, pierce the flesh between the breast and thigh. This is the last place to cook, so if there is no trace of pink here and if the juices are clear the chicken is certainly cooked.) Remove to a carving dish and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving. 

Spoon the surplus fat from the juices, add a little freshly chopped tarragon, add in the cream and stock if using* boil up the sauce until it thickens slightly. Alternatively bring the liquid to the boil, whisk in just enough roux to thicken the sauce to a light coating consistency. Taste and correct seasoning.
Carve the chicken into 4 or 6 helpings, each person should have a portion of white and brown meat. Arrange on a serving dish, nap with the sauce and serve.
* Note: Some chickens yield less juice than others. If you need more sauce, add a little home made chicken stock with the cream. If the sauce is thickened with roux this dish can be reheated.
* This dish is also delicious without cream just made with chicken juices, stock and fresh herbs.

Hot Tips

Ummera Smoked Fish from Timoleague, Co Cork was respresented at the Organic Food awards – Tel 023-46644 for stockists
Dan Aherne sells free range organic chickens at Midleton Farmers Market every Saturday morning.
Forthcoming Slow Food events – Tastings in Temple Bar 2 October.
Fungus Foraging in Fingal – 10 October. www.slowfoodireland.com  
Venison Farm Direct – their stall is a familiar sight at several markets – this healthy low fat meat can be ordered from their website and confirmed by phone with credit card. Check out the website. www.venisonfarmdirect.ie   
Valvona & Crolla – this world renowned Edinburgh Italian delicatessen and wine merchant has won Britain’s most prestigious independent cheese retailing award - the Dairy Crest and Grocer magazine Best Independent Cheese retailer in the UK, in the same week as it celebrates its 70th anniversary. Only days before Valvona & Crolla was also voted the Scottish Wine Merchant of the Year. 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh, EH7 4AA Tel 0131 556 6066