Foods to sustain us…

F

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.  Here’s a beet leaf salad we’ve been enjoying. 

I also wanted to share a couple of my favourite recipes.  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 recipes 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 todays 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.

Beet Green Salad with Carrot, Apple and Candied Walnuts

If you don’t have beet greens, this salad is also delicious with the new seasons spinach.

Serves 6

225g (8oz) fresh young beet greens

225g (8oz) coarsely grated carrot

300g (10oz) coarsely grated dessert apple, e.g. Cox’s Orange Pippin if available

flaky salt and freshly ground pepper

18 walnuts halves

Caramel

200g (7oz) sugar

110ml (4fl oz) water

Dressing

2 good teaspoons pure Irish honey

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Garnish

Marigold petals and chive flowers if you have some

First candy the walnuts.

Put the sugar and water into a heavy saucepan.  Stir to dissolve the sugar then cook uncovered without stirring until the syrup caramelised to a chestnut colour.  If sugar crystals form during cooking, brush down the sides of the pan with a wet brush, but do not stir.   Coat the walnuts in hot caramel.  Allow to harden on an oiled Swiss roll tin, in a dry place.  Careful they don’t stick together.

Dissolve the honey in the wine vinegar.  Slice the beet greens and put into a wide bowl.  Add the coarsely grated carrot and apple, mix together and toss in the sweet and sour dressing.  Taste and add a bit more honey or vinegar as required, depending on the sweetness of the apples.

Divide the salad between six plates or bowls, scatter with candied walnuts.  I’ve been sprinkling the salad with a few Marigold petals and chive flowers if available.

Nettle and Sorrel Risotto inspired by a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe.

Sorrel is a wonderfully sharp, lemony leaf that complements the earthiness of nettles beautifully. You can buy it in some greengrocers, but it’s very easy to grow, and of course you can forage for it. We have both field sorrel and Butler Leaf Sorrel here on our farm in East Cork but Lamb’s Tongue Sorrel grows abundantly in West Cork.  There’s no need to be too precise about the amount, use what you can get.

Serves 2

25 young nettle tops
900ml (1 1/2 pints) vegetable (or chicken) stock, well-flavoured
30g butter, plus extra to dot on top
175g (6oz) onion, peeled and finely chopped
175g (6oz) risotto rice, such as Arborio, Carnaroli, Vilano Nano
sorrel leaves – up to half the quantity of nettles – finely shredded
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
50g (2oz) finely Parmesan or Coolea or other strong hard cheese, plus extra to serve

Rinse the nettles in the cold water, discard the tough stalks. Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a boil. Blanch and refresh for a couple of minutes, then drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze the nettles to extract as much water as possible and chop finely.

Bring the stock to the boil and keep warm over a low heat. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy saucepan.  Add the chopped onion and sweat for 6 to 8 minutes, until soft and translucent but not coloured. Add the rice, stir to coat all the grains, add a third of the hot stock and bring to a gentle simmer stirring all the time until the stock has been absorbed.  Then add the chopped nettles, keep adding stock a ladleful at a time.  Continue to cook and stir until the rice is al dente (you may not need all the stock) – about 20 minutes in all.  It should be a creamy texture. Stir in the sorrel, and season to taste. Add a little butter to the risotto and sprinkle on the cheese.  Serve straight away, with more grated cheese on the table.

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.

Wild Food of the Week

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

When to pick: flowers in profusion in early Summer but you’ll find some blooms almost all year round. As the old saying goes ‘When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion!’ The ubiquity of gorse – or furze as it is called in Ireland – around the Irish landscape, meant that is was once widely used as fuel, as fodder, hurleys and walking sticks, for harrowing, for cleaning chimneys, to fuel bakers’ ovens and limekilns. We love a few blossoms added to salad, steeped in boiling water for tea or dropped into a whiskey glass for a fragrant tipple. Look for the spiky bushes growing near the sea, with yellow flowers that stay in bloom nearly all year. Wear gloves to harvest the flowers, as the thorns can be very sharp.

Roger Philip’s Gorse Wine

We love this recipe – it makes a fragrant, slightly effervescent, very refreshing summer drink. It comes from Roger Philip’s Wild Food – a book no serious forager should be without.  

Makes about 4.8 litres (8 pints)

2 litres (3 ½ pints) gorse flowers

About 1 teaspoon general purpose non-GM yeast

1 kg (2.2lbs) granulated sugar

Juice and zest of 2 organic lemons

Juice and zest of 2 organic oranges

Pick nice fresh flowers that have come out fully. Activate the yeast by stirring into a little tepid water. Simmer the flowers in 4.5 litres (1 gallon) water for 15 minutes then dissolve the sugar, pour into a bucket and add citrus juice and zest. Allow to cool to blood heat, add the yeast and let it stand with a cloth over it. After 3 days, strain off the solids and pour into a fermentation jar, fit an airlock and allow it to ferment until it is finished. Rack off into a clean jar, making it up to the full amount with cold boiled water. Leave for a month and then filter, or leave until completely clear then bottle in sterlised bottles.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

Letters

Past Letters

  • Recipes