ArchiveAugust 2020

School Lunches

Back to school – Wow what a stressful time, not just for parents and teachers but also for bus drivers, wardens, school supply shops… and then there’s the extra challenge of getting the kids and the rest of the family back into a pre Covid-19 routine – Early to bed, early to rise and the challenge of finding the words to address the inevitable anxiety and concerns that are preoccupying the little ones.

Hopefully we will all settle into a routine in the next few weeks and people’s worst fears of another lockdown won’t be realised.

Meanwhile lets be super positive, I’m going to concentrate on that all important lunch box which now even more than ever needs to be choc-a-bloc with nutrient dense foods to super charge our family’s immune system and boost our mood and energy levels.

At the best of times preparing daily lunchboxes takes imagination, never ending enthusiasm, time and energy…, Difficult to maintain day-in-day-out when you have a house full of children. The latter two are the scarcest of all. Older siblings may well want to prepare their own lunchboxes, but a bit of tactful guidance is usually needed, but not necessarily accepted!

Another consideration, apart from the food itself, is to try to reduce or eliminate plastic altogether. BPA and DEHP in plastic are leaching into our food. The food industry knows it, our governments know it, scientists know it, and they are becoming more and more alarmed. But many feel helpless to stem the never ending flow of toxins from plastic in its myriad of forms into every aspect of our lives, from the cradle to the care home.

Meanwhile the best we can do is to become super aware of its insidious presence and reduce it as far as possible, yet another thing to fuss about but let’s just do our best… wrap food in parchment paper or beeswax wraps.

A few little tips to help you make lunchbox choices; Think fresh, think seasonal – Mother Nature provides the nourishment we need through seasonal and wild foods.

At present, there is still an abundance of home-grown vegetables and fruit …..  tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, radishes, carrots and beets, all great in lunchboxes to nibble or dunk into a tasty dip. Such as hummus (it also provides zinc), a white bean puree or try this beetroot hummus which can be made in minutes with cooked beets.

Irish blueberries are also abundant at present, a little pot of berries are both an immune booster and a treat and an easy addition to the lunchbox. Many children’s palates seem to be more adventurous nowadays. They love spicy foods – a lentil daal with a flatbread is worth considering. It also works at room temperature and depending on the contents provides lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, as well as much needed protein. Include some nuts as well – almonds, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, peanuts and walnuts are an easy addition as are seeds- Include some flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or maybe chia seeds added to a little pot of overnight muesli.

Don’t forget peanut butter, this perennial favourite is always tasty, delicious and nutritious. Choose a pure one, there are several Irish made nut butters that are worth seeking out.

When the weather begins to get chillier, a little flask of chunky homemade soup is a must. Tuck one or two little brown scones into the lunch box as well, slather them with good butter to feed their brains, and tuck in a little slice of cheese for protein, maybe add a hardboiled egg and some relish or a dollop of homemade mayo. An adventurous muncher may welcome a little pot of sea salt mixed with a few flakes of Aleppo pepper to sprinkle over a jammy egg. A few slices of cured meat or fish, Gubbeen salami sticks are a great favourite of my grandchildren. They keep well and just have to be popped into the lunchbox.

An individual frittata or a wedge of quiche will delight some kids and don’t forget a piece of fruit. Thank goodness for bananas, but Irish plums, pears and apples are in season at present.

After all that, just a couple of things to remember – try to eliminate ultra-processed foods completely. Make sure absolutely everything is chemical free. I know, I know, ironically these free-from foods are more expensive, but so are medicine and supplements and a visit to your overworked local GP. Invest in real food to boost your kids mood and immune system and help to protect them from colds, flus and viruses.

Oh and I almost forgot, include a little cookie, flapjack as an extra treat once or twice a week.

White Bean Hummus

Preparation Time:- 15 minutes

400 g tin white beans

2 tablespoons tahini

Juice of 1 lemon

1 pinch of paprika

1 pinch of ras el hanout

1 garlic clove

Salt and pepper

3-4 tablespoons water

Strain the beans and puree all the ingredients together in a blender. Taste and tweak the seasoning if necessary. Serve with flat bread or a few carrot dippers

Beetroot Hummus with Yoghurt and Za’atar

Another delicious dip on its own or with these additions… Good potato chips, chunks of apple or flat bread would be good to scoop this up….

Serves 6

900g (2lb) fresh medium beetroot – (500g (18oz) after cooking and peeling)

2 garlic cloves – crushed

1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

250g (9oz) Thick Greek style yoghurt

1 1/2 tablespoons date syrup

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra to finish the dish

1 tablespoon za’atar

salt

1 teaspoon honey (optional)

To Garnish

2 spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle

15g (3 /4oz) pistachio nuts, coarsely chopped

60g (2 1/2oz) soft goat’s cheese, crumbled

marigold petals, optional

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Mark 6.

Wash and cook the beetroot in boiling, well salted water until the skins rub off and a skewer can pierce the beetroot easily.  Alternatively, roast the beetroot on a roasting tin in the oven and cook, uncovered, until a knife slices easily into the centre, approximately 1 hour. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel and cut each into about 6 pieces. Allow to cool down.

Put the beetroot, garlic, chilli and yoghurt in a food processor bowl and blend to a smooth paste. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in the date syrup, olive oil, za’atar and 1 teaspoon of salt. Taste and add more salt and honey if necessary.

Transfer to a wide bowl or serving plate.  Scatter the spring onion, coarsely chopped pistachios and cheese on top and finally drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil. Serve at room temperature and sprinkle with marigold petals.

 

Hard boiled egg with flaky sea salt and Aleppo Pepper…

How to Hard Boil an Egg

Many people hard-boil eggs in a somewhat haphazard way. To avoid that black ring around the yolk (a sign of overcooking) you need to time them. Really fresh eggs are not ideal for hard-boiling because peeling their shells is a nightmare; the best eggs to use are a few days old. As with soft-boiled eggs, it’s important to use room-temperature eggs and they should be cooked in salted water; their shells are porous, so the flavour will benefit.

organic hen or duck eggs

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, gently slide in the eggs, bring the water back to the boil and simmer for 8–10 minutes according to your taste (12 minutes for duck eggs), according to your taste. Drain and then cover with cold water to stop the cooking.

Pop it into the lunch box with a little pot of flaky sea salt and some Aleppo Pepper… your child can peel the egg themselves and sprinkle a little seasoning over each half… 

Ham and Cheese Frittata

Serves 6-8

My eternal standby, perfect for all lunches….. make individual ones too , a perfect size to pop into a lunch box….

A frittata is an Italian omelette.  Unlike its soft and creamy French cousin, a frittata is cooked slowly over a very low heat during which time you can be whipping up a delicious salad to accompany it!  It is cooked on both sides and cut into wedges like a piece of cake.  This basic recipe, flavoured with grated cheese and a generous sprinkling of herbs.  Like the omelette, though, you may add almost anything that takes your fancy.  One could substitute grated mature cheddar but Gruyére and Parmesan give you more ‘bang for your buck’ and all sorts of tasty bits from the fridge, smoked salmon, mackerel, chorizo, bacon or ham……..

10 large eggs, preferably free range organic

1 teaspoon salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper

75g (3ozs) Gruyére cheese, grated

25g (1oz) Parmesan cheese, grated

225g diced cooked ham or bacon

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons thyme leaves

25g (1oz) butter

2 tablespoons basil or marjoram chopped

Non-stick pan – 22.5cm (10inch) frying pan

Whisk the eggs in a bowl, add the salt, freshly ground pepper, fresh herbs, diced ham and grated cheese into the eggs.  Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. When the butter starts to foam, tip in the eggs.  Turn down the heat, as low as it will go.  Leave the eggs to cook gently for 12 minutes on a heat diffuser mat, or until the underneath is set. The top should still be slightly runny.

Preheat a grill. Pop the pan under the grill for 1 minute to set but not brown the surface.  Alternatively after an initial 3 or 4 minutes on the stove one can transfer the pan to a preheated oven 170ºC/325ºF/gas mark 3 until just set 15-20 minutes.

Slide a palette knife under the frittata to free it from the pan. Slide onto a warm plate.

Perfect cut into slices and packed cold into lunch boxes and will last a few days in the fridge.

Mackerel Season

The word spreads like lightening around our local fishing village, “The mackerel are in”.

Hopefuls head for Ballycotton pier with rod and line.. full of anticipation.

You may be surprised to learn that the humble mackerel is my favourite sea fish – but it must be spanking fresh. In fishing villages, all around our coast, fishermen have a saying that “the sun should never set on a mackerel”. They well know that these fish develop a strong unappealing oily flavour as they age , so must be enjoyed super fresh. Fishing for mackerel evokes happy memories for many. A recent Instagram post evoked a deluge of nostalgic memories of catching mackerel with a hook and line and hauling four or five iridescent wriggling fish at a time over the side of the boat when the shoals of fish come into the bay. Sometimes the water thrashes with movement when the mackerel are chasing a shoal of sprats almost to the shore. One can virtually scoop the mackerel with your hands into a bucket – It’s a feast or a famine…  This phenomenon is regularly witnessed during Summer in Youghal Bay.

The secret to keeping fish fresh for longer is to gut them immediately, right there and then in the boat. Throw the entrails overboard for the squawking gulls who will be swooping around hoping for a treat .

A seasoned West Cork fisherman gave me another brilliant tip. He not only guts them but also chops off the head and tail as soon as they’ve been caught. They bleed and consequently will be stiff and spanking fresh the next day when kept overnight in the fridge. He also insisted that it was important, just to wash them in seawater rather than fresh water. All of this is of course in an ideal world where you are close to the sea. However it emphasises the point that mackerel, like all fish, wherever you source it are at their most delicious when fresh. It’s even more important with mackerel because of their high oil content. These inexpensive little fish are packed with Omega 3, Vit D and B6 and are a super source of protein, as well as potassium, zinc, cobalamin and magnesium.

They are also super versatile, they are gorgeous pan grilled but also delicious poached as well as roasted or tossed on the BBQ. Try this recipe with Bretonne sauce that Myrtle Allen shared with me years ago. They take just minutes to poach. We also love to warm smoke them in a biscuit tin over a gas jet. Again, lots of ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of flavour and fun.

For extra satisfaction, learn to fillet them yourself, you can just slide a sharp knife above the backbone from the tail towards the head, slice right through the pin bones or one can fillet them more meticulously. It takes a little practice but it is a skill well worth acquiring. Alternatively, ask your fishmonger to do it for you and watch carefully. Here are a few of my favourite mackerel recipes. All quick and easy for you to enjoy with your family and a few lucky friends.

Line Caught Mackerel with Lemon and Fennel Flower Mayo with Ashtanur

4 line super fresh caught mackerel

seasoned flour

small knob of butter

Lemon Mayo

3 tablespoons diced fresh fennel

Garnish

1 tablespoon fennel herb

fennel flowers

lemon wedges

Ashtanur Flat Bread (see recipe)

First make the dough, cover and rest (see recipe).

Gut and fillet the mackerel, sprinkle with salt, keep chilled.

Make the mayo, add the diced and chopped fennel.  Taste and correct the seasoning.   Keep aside.

Cook the bread (see recipe).

Just before serving.

Heat the grill pan over a medium heat. Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly. When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan. Reduce the heat slightly and let them cook for 3 -4 minutes on that side before you turn them over. Continue to cook on the other side until crisp and golden.

Serve on hot plates with fennel mayo and a sprinkling of fennel flowers as well as a wedge of lemon

Ashtanur – Griddle Bread

This is the most basic and probably most ancient form of bread.  It has many names, ashtanur being the Jerusalem moniker and the one which sounds best to us, but in my grandmother Esther’s house it was called saloof.

You can make the dough in advance if you wish and keep it refrigerated to cold-prove until you are ready to bake.  Any bread that is left over can be wrapped in cling film or a plastic zip-lock bag for future heating and eating, or left to dry and become tasty crackers – an added bonus. 

Makes 6-7 flat breads

250g (9oz) strong flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

7g (1/4oz) fresh yeast or 1/2 teaspoon dried yeast

1/2 teaspoon honey (or sugar)

60ml (2 1/2fl oz) + about 60ml (2 1/2fl oz) warm water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil plus extra for rolling

Mix the flour and the salt in a big bowl. 

Dissolve the yeast and honey (or sugar) in the first 60ml (2 1/2fl oz) of warm water and set aside until it starts to foam.

Pour the foaming water-yeast mixture and the oil into the flour and mix, bringing it all together. Add as much of the additional water as you need to get a good even dough, then start kneading until it becomes supple and shiny. 

Drizzle with some extra oil on the top and cover the bowl with cling film and set aside until the dough doubles in volume, or place in the fridge for the next day.

Oil your workbench and turn the dough out.  Divide into six or seven balls of approximately 50g (2oz) each and roll them in the oil, making sure each one has a nice coating of it. Leave them on the counter for 10 minutes to rest.  Now is the time to set the griddle pan on the stove to heat up. 

Start stretching the dough balls. The best way is to oil your hands, then press the dough down to flatten and spread it with your hands until it is as thin as you can get it – you should almost see the work surface through it.

Lift the first stretched dough ball carefully and pop it on the hot griddle pan.  It will take about a minute or two to colour, then flip it, cook for 10 seconds and remove from the pan.  Put the next one on and repeat the process. 

Stack them while they are hot and wrap them in cling film to serve later the same day, freeze once cooled or eat immediately.

Warm Poached Mackerel with Bretonne Sauce

Serves 4 as a main course

 8 as a starter

Fresh mackerel gently poached and served warm with this simple sauce is an absolute feast without question one of my favourite foods.  . 

4 fresh mackerel

1.2 litres (40fl oz) water

1 teaspoon salt

Bretonne Sauce

75g (3ozs) butter, melted

1 eggs yolk, preferably free range

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (We use Maille Verte Aux Herbs)

1 tablespoon chopped herbs, a mixture of parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon and fennel, chopped (mixed)

Cut the heads off very fresh mackerel.  Gut and clean them but keep whole. 

Bring the water to the boil; add the salt and the mackerel.  Bring back to boiling point, and remove from the heat.  After about 5-8 minutes, check to see whether the fish are cooked.  The flesh should lift off the bone.  It will be tender and melting. 

Meanwhile make the sauce. 

Melt the butter and allow to boil.  Put the egg yolks into a bowl, add the mustard and the herbs, mix well.  Whisk the hot melted butter into the egg yolk mixture little by little so that the sauce emulsifies.  Keep warm, by placing the Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of hot but not boiling water. 

When the mackerel is cool enough to handle, remove to a plate.  Skin, lift the flesh carefully from the bones and arrange on a serving dish.  Coat with the sauce and serve while still warm with a good green salad and new potatoes.

Carpaccio of Mackerel with Ginger and Sesame Dressing

This dressing makes a lot and keeps well.  It is also delicious with noodles or pan-grilled fish.  It is only worth doing this dish if the mackerel is super fresh, less than 5 hours out of the sea.  Ruairi makes a large batch of the dressing and uses it with many fresh fish and for a seaweed salad. 

Super fresh mackerel filleted – 1 mackerel serves 2 as a starter

Ginger Sesame Dressing

600ml (1 pint) sesame oil

600ml (1 pint) sunflower oil

150ml (5fl oz) soya sauce

75g (3oz) garlic, microplaned

100g (3 1/2oz) ginger, microplaned

150g (5oz) sesame seeds toasted

Optional

spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle

coriander leaves

Fillet the spanking fresh mackerel and remove all the bones.  Slice each fillet into 1/8 inch thick slices, arrange in a circle on a chilled plate.  Spoon a little dressing over each portion.  Sprinkle with thinly sliced spring onions and coriander seeds.

How to Smoke Mackerel in a Simple Biscuit Tin Smoker

This is a simple Heath Robinson way to smoke small items of food. It may be frowned upon by serious smokers, but it is great for beginners because it gives such quick results.

mackerel fillets

salt

3-4 tablespoons sawdust

1 shallow biscuit tin with tight-fitting lid

1 wire cake rack to fit inside

Place the mackerel fillets on a non-reactive tray.  Sprinkle very lightly with salt.  Allow to sit for 30 minutes.  Remove the mackerel from the tray and dry really well with a clean tea-towel or kitchen paper.  Lay the mackerel fillets on a clean dry tray.  Allow to sit at room temperature for a further 30 minutes to ensure they are completely dry.  If the fish is not totally dry, the smoke will not adhere to the fish.

Sprinkle 3-4 tablespoons of sawdust on the base of the biscuit tin. Lay the fish or meat on the wire rack skin-side down, then cover the tin with the lid.

Place the tin on a gas jet or other heat source on a medium heat. The sawdust will start to smoulder and produce warm smoke that in turn both cooks and smokes the food. Reduce the heat to low. Mackerel will take about 6–10 minutes depending on size. Leave to rest before eating warm or at room temperature.

Alternatively, you could buy a simple smoking box from a fishing store or hot-smoke in a tightly covered wok over a gas jet in your own kitchen.

 

Mackerel with Cream and Dill

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

Dill, which is an annual herb, is particularly good with mackerel.  One wouldn’t normally think of cream with an oily fish but this combination is surprisingly delicious and very fast to cook.

4 fresh mackerel

Salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ oz (8 g) butter

6 fl ozs (175 ml) cream

1½-2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped

Gut the mackerel, fillet carefully, wash and dry well.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Melt the butter in a frying pan, fry the mackerel fillets flesh down until golden brown, turn over on to the skin side, add cream and freshly chopped dill.  Simmer gently for 3 or 4 minutes or until the mackerel is cooked, taste the sauce and serve immediately.

Time for a Jam Session!

We’re smack bang in the middle of the soft fruit and stone season.  It’s been a brilliant year.  We’ve had a terrific crop of currants and berries, always a challenge to get them picked at the peak of perfection between the showers.  Lots of red, white and black currants have already been picked, weighed, bagged and safely tucked into the freezer for autumn and winter, jams, jellies and puddings.  They freeze perfectly, no need to string before freezing.  I discovered that life changing fact a few years ago when I was too busy to string the currants and had to just bung them into the freezer, thinking I’ll worry about that later….To my amazement, I discovered that if you just shake the bag of frozen fruit, the strings drop off and can be picked out in a matter of minutes, a game changer…

The green gooseberries are long finished, we made lots of green gooseberry and elderflower jam, one of my all-time favourites but now it’s red gooseberry jam from the end of the dessert gooseberry crop (they are sweeter so don’t forget to reduce the sugar).  Traditional single flavour jams are of course delicious when made with beautiful fresh currants and berries but how about becoming more creative and adventurous.  I’m loving having fun with different flavour combinations.  Blackcurrant and rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) worked brilliantly after I’d picked a huge colander of plump blackcurrants a few days ago.  Blackcurrants are high in pectin so blackcurrant jam is easy to make, in fact one has to be careful not to overcook.  It reaches setting point in a nice wide saucepan in 10 or 12 minutes.  Strawberry and blackberry are a different matter, both fruits are low in pectin (the gelling component in fruit) so they will need extra acidity.  Tart cooking apples high in pectin work well.  Some cooks like to use jam sugar, I’m not a fan, mostly because the jam will indeed set but is likely to have the texture of bought jam and for my taste a slightly odd aftertaste which kind of defeats the purpose of making it yourself and then many brands include palm oil, a no no for me…..

If you are fortunate to own or have access to a fig tree, add a couple of leaves to raspberry or peach jam or make a fig leaf jelly by adding lots of fig leaf – say 5 or 6 to an apple jelly base.  It’ll enhance the jelly with a delicious slightly almondy flavour.  Lemon verbena leaves from the tender shrub (Aloysia citrodora) add magic to many jams, as does our favourite rose geranium – a plant that no house should be without.  It’s a tender perennial with scented leaves with a haunting lemony flavour.  Spices too can perk up jams and preserves – experiment but I’ve enjoyed strawberry and black pepper, peach and cardamom, orange, clove and cinnamon, pear and ginger.  Maybe add a pinch of chilli flakes – but don’t get carried away…

Guideline Rules for Successful Jam-Making – even if you are a complete novice

  1. For really good jam, the fruit must be freshly picked, dry and unblemished
  2. Slightly under ripe fruit will have more pectin and so the jam will set better.
  3. Jam made from fruit that was wet when picked is more likely to go mouldy within a short time.
  4. The best jam is made in small quantities – e.g. no more than 3lbs of raspberries at a time, perhaps 1.8kg (4lbs) of strawberries with 150ml (5fl oz) of redcurrant juice to help the set. Small quantities cook in a few minutes, so both the colour and the flavour of the jam will be perfect.
  5. Ideally one should use a preserving pan for jam-making. Choose your widest stainless steel pan with a heavy base and sides at least 9 inch deep. It goes without saying that the depth of the contents in the preserving pan and the rate at which they boil, determine how long the jam needs to cook.
  6. Sugar is the preservative in jams, so it is important to use the correct proportion – too little and the jam may ferment, too much may cause crystallization.
  7. Citrus fruit peel, blackcurrants, gooseberries etc. must be thoroughly softened before sugar is added, otherwise the skins will toughen and no amount of boiling will soften them, sugar has a hardening effect on skin and peel.
  8. Stir well to ensure that the sugar is completely dissolved before the jam comes to the boil, (otherwise the jam may crystallize on top). For this reason it is better to add heated sugar, which dissolves more quickly.  Stir with a wooden spoon until the “gritty feeling” disappears.
  9. Fruit should be simmered until the sugar is added, but from then on, it is best to boil as fast as possible until setting point is reached.  Stir occasionally so it doesn’t catch on the base of the saucepan.
  10. If necessary skim near to the end of cooking.  If there is only a little scum, dissolve with a tiny lump of butter stirred in after the jam has reached setting point.

How Do I Know if the Jam is Cooked?

Test for setting frequently so that the jam doesn’t overcook – it will set when the temperature reaches 220°C on a sugar thermometer, a handy but expensive bit of kitchen equipment that you can live without. Alternatively put a teaspoonful of jam on a cold plate, leave in a cool place for a few minutes, if the jam wrinkles when pushed with the tip of your finger it has reached setting point. Skim if necessary and pot immediately.

How Do I Store the Jam?

Wash, rinse and dry the jam jars (remove any traces of old labels or any traces of glue if recycling, sometimes pretty tricky but methylated spirit will usually do the job. Jars should then be put into a preheated oven for 10 minutes at 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 1/2.  Lids may also be sterilised in the oven – 5 minutes is fine. Fill the pots to the top to allow for shrinkage on cooling (use a jam funnel, to avoid drips). Cover immediately with sterilised screw top lids if available or jam covers.

Covering Jam Jars.  Screw top lids should be sterilized in the oven or in boiling water beforeuse.

One can buy packets of jam covers in most shops or supermarkets.  These are made up of three elements, a silicone disc of paper, a large round of cellophane and a rubber band.

When the jam has reached setting point, pour into sterilised jars.  Cover immediately with silicone discs (slippy side down onto the jam).  Wet one side of the cellophane paper, then stretch the ‘dry side’ over the jar, and secure with a rubber band.  If the cellophane disc is not moistened it will not become taut when the jam gets cold.

Later the jars can be covered with doyleys or rounds of material or coloured paper.  These covers can be secured with rubber bands plain or coloured, narrow florists ribbons tied into bows or ordinary ribbon with perhaps a little sprig of dried flowers or herbs.

Really delicious jams are always a welcome present and are also very eagerly sought after by local shops and delicatessens.

Remember if you are selling your jams to cost it properly, taking jars, covers, labels, food cost, heat, etc., into consideration.  A formula used by many is food cost x 4.  This would cover all the other items mentioned.  If you are producing jam for sale you must contact the health authorities and comply with their regulations. 

Note on Pectin

Pectin is the substance in fruit which sets jam. It is contained in the cell walls of fruit in varying degrees. It is higher when the fruit is under ripe. Acid e.g. lemon juice helps in the extraction of pectin. Some fruits are higher in pectin than others e.g. plums, damsons, gooseberries, blackcurrants and apples, while others contain little or none, e.g. marrow, strawberries and blackberries. In these cases, it is necessary to add acid in the form of lemon juice or commercial pectin.  

Blackcurrant and Lemon Verbena Jam

The stalks can be removed from fresh blackcurrants with fingers or a fork. Frozen blackcurrants may also be used, but the jam will take longer to cook. Blackcurrants freeze well, but don’t bother to remove the strings beforehand; when they are frozen, just shake the bag – the strings will detach and are easy to pick out.  Blackcurrants are high in pectin so the jam sets quickly, be careful not to overcook.

Makes 11-12 x 370g (13oz) jars

1.8kg (4lb) fresh or frozen blackcurrants

1.6kg (3lb 6oz) white granulated sugar

– since Ireland has gone over to cane sugar which appears to be more intensely sweet we reduced the sugar from 1.8kg (4lbs/8 cups).  The intensity of sugar varies in different countries and some varieties of blackcurrants are sharper than others.

10 leaves of chopped lemon verbena

Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2.

Remove the stalks from the blackcurrants and put the fruit into a greased preserving pan. Add 1.2 litres (2 pints/5 cups) of water, bring to the boil and cook until the fruit begins to burst – about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the sugar into a stainless-steel bowl and heat for almost 10 minutes in the oven. It is vital that the fruit is soft before the sugar is added; otherwise the blackcurrants will taste hard and tough in the finished jam. Add the heated sugar and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Add 10 leaves of chopped lemon verbena to the jam and boil briskly for about 10 – 20 minutes, stirring frequently.  Skim, test and pot into sterilised jars. Cover and store in a cool, dry place (The setting time depends on the variety so be careful not to overcook).

Camilla’s Strawberry and Rose Petal Jam

When my friend Camilla Plum comes to stay she wanders through the farm and gardens and greenhouse, picking and collecting fresh ingredients and cooks non-stop. Last summer, she filled her apron with rose petals from the old scented roses – she tossed them into a saucepan with some fresh strawberries and made this exquisite jam. We also made rose petal syrup and crystallised the petals to decorate desserts and cake. Use organic ingredients where possible

Makes 2–3 x 370g jars

450g (1lb) granulated sugar

1kg (2 1/4lb) strawberries

1 litre scented rose petals (unsprayed)

freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 110°C/225°F/Gas Mark 1/4.

Scatter the sugar over a baking tray and warm in the oven.

Put the strawberries in a wide stainless-steel saucepan and cook over a brisk heat until the juices run and the fruit breaks down. Add the rose petals and hot sugar.

Stir to dissolve the sugar, bring back to the boil and continue to cook for 5–8 minutes until it reaches a set. Test for a set by putting about a teaspoon of jam on a cold plate, leaving it for a few minutes in a cool place. It should wrinkle when pressed with a finger. When at setting point, add the lemon juice and remove from the heat immediately. Pour into sterilised jars and store in a cool place for 3–4 months but enjoy sooner rather than later.

Raspberry and Rosewater Jam

Raspberry jam is the easiest and quickest of all jams to make, and one of the most delicious.  Loganberries, Boysenberries or Tayberries may also be used in this recipe.

Makes 3 x 450g (1lb) pots

900g (2lb) fresh raspberries

790g (1lb 12oz) granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rosewater

Wash, dry and sterilise the jars in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, for 15 minutes.

Heat the sugar in a moderate oven for 5-10 minutes.

Put the raspberries into a wide stainless steel saucepan and cook for 3-4 minutes until the juice begins to run, then add the hot sugar and stir over a gentle heat until fully dissolved. Increase the heat and boil steadily for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Test for a set by putting about a teaspoon of jam on a cold plate, leaving it for a few minutes in a cool place. It should wrinkle when pressed with a finger.  Add the rosewater and stir. Remove from the heat immediately. Skim and pour into sterilised jam jars. Cover immediately.

Hide the jam in a cool place or else put on a shelf in your kitchen so you can feel great every time you look at it! Anyway, it will be so delicious it won’t last long!

Peach, Lemon and Fig Leaf Jam

A delicious combination jam.  You’ll need really ripe peaches for this. If the fruit is too under ripe it won’t cook down in the sugar into a luscious, glossy jam.  If the peaches are hard, leave them out to ripen on a sunny window or put them into a paper bag, for a couple of days.

Makes 7 x 220g (8oz) jars

1.5kg (3lb 5oz) ripe peaches, peeled, halved, stoned and chopped

3-5 fresh fresh fig leaves, depending on size

800g (1 3/4lb) granulated sugar

Zest and juice of 1 organic lemon

Peel and stone each peach, dice into approximately 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes.  Put into a preserving pan with the fig leaves. If the peaches are not super-ripe, add a splash of water to help them to soften. Cover with a lid to speed up the cooking process. It’s important that the peaches are fully cooked through before you add the warm sugar (Use a potato masher if necessary).

When the peaches are soft, add the hot sugar and zest and freshly squeezed lemon juice.  Cook until the jam reaches setting point, 105C on a sugar thermometer (4-5 minutes).

Remove the jam from the heat.  Put the fig leaves in a sieve and press the juices into the jam to extract more flavour.  Discard the fig leaves.  Allow the jam to rest for 5-6 minutes. Pour into hot, sterilised jars.  Cover immediately. Store in a cool, dark place but enjoy sooner rather than later.

Strawberry and Black Pepper Jam

Makes 4-5 pots

1kg (2 1/4lb) fresh strawberries stems trimmed

500g (18oz) granulated sugar

150ml (5fl oz) redcurrant juice (see recipe)

freshly squeezed juice and rind of 1 lemon

2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper fresh *to taste

Mash the strawberries roughly with a potato masher in a wide stainless-steel saucepan.   Add the lemon rind, juice and redcurrant juice

Stir in the hot sugar and allow to melt over a low heat. Bring to the boil for 4-5 minutes only and remove pan from heat.

Test by putting half a teaspoon of jam onto a chilled plate.  Push with the tip of your finger, if jam wrinkles it is ready, if not return to boil and check at 2 minute intervals but it’s unlikely to need more time if you are using redcurrants and lemon.

Add the freshly cracked black pepper and remove from heat. Skim off any foam.

Pour into warm sterilised jars and seal.

Store in a cool dry cupboard.

Redcurrant Juice

Put 450g (1lb) redcurrants (they can be fresh or frozen) into a stainless steel saucepan with 175ml (6fl oz) of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Use as is or strain through a fine sieve. This juice can be frozen for use another time if necessary.

Food of Sichuan

Travel is understandably out of the question for the foreseeable future. How fortunate am I to have been able to visit and enjoy the food of so many countries, such happy memories…Amongst others, I long to revisit Myanmar, Transylvania, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, Tasmania, China, and of course India, my perennial favourite.

No hope of that any time soon, so for the present, I relive the memories through photos and videos on my iPhone and the interviews I recorded with many of the fascinating cooks, farmers and artisan producers I encountered and of course I wish I had done many, many more.

But the most poignant way to bring precious memories flooding back is through the food.  Even smells transport me to far away places, to bustling food markets, ‘hole in the wall’ eateries, street stalls, as well as world renowned restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, Fäviken in Sweden, Chez Panise in California, Atica in Melbourne and Restaurante Tlamanalli in the Teotitlan del Valle outside Oaxaca in Mexico.

This week I am going back to China, particularly poignant in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. My first visit, in February 2018 was to attend the International Slow Food Conference in Chenghu, the UNESCO capital of gastronomy in the Sichuan province. The food was fantastic, the city of Chenghu welcomed the delegates from all over the world whole heartedly, with wonderful entertainment, opera, theatre, music and superb Chinese food for which the Sichuan province is justly famous. We visited day and night food markets with super fresh food, the freshest fish I have ever seen, some still alive. In Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu, we were shown how the famous Chinese spicy bean paste, Dobuanjiang is slowly fermented for several years in huge earthenware pots with wheat, salt and a variety of chillies – it’s the quintessential flavour of China.  Dobuanjiang, is considered to be the soul of Sichuan cooking is an essential ingredient in Mapotofu.

We visited organic farms in the highlands, a 2 hour bus journey outside the city, a wonderful opportunity to see the countryside and wave to the friendly people, many of whom may not ever have seen a non-Chinese person before. It was an intriguing cultural experience, one I will never forget.

One of the special highlights of my visit to Chenghu was meeting  Fuchsia Dunlop who was the very, first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and for almost three decades. Since then she has travelled around China collecting recipes. Fuchsia speaks, reads and writes in Chinese and is the author of four outstanding books on Chinese Food. Her Sichuan Cookery published in 2001 was voted by Observer Food Magazine as one of the greatest cook books of all time – how about that for an accolade.

On this trip, Fuchsia was revisiting the region where her culinary journey began, adding more than 50 recipes to the original repertoire and accompanying them with her incomparable knowledge of the taste, textures and sensations of Sichuanese cookery. Fuchsia’s writing on the cultural and culinary history of Sichuan is quite simply spellbinding and there are food and gorgeous travel photos.

Sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, well if you have even the remotest interest in Chinese food prepare to be captivated by The Food of Sichuan – Fuchsia Dunlop’s insight into one of the world’s greatest cuisines published by Bloomsbury.

Here are a few tantalising tastes to whet your appetite plus one of the favourites from my One Pot Feeds All cookbook.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Mapo Tofu

This is the quintessential Sichuan dish.

Serves 4 approximately

500g (18oz) plain white tofu

2 spring onions or 2 stalks Chinese green garlic

6 tablespoons cooking oil

100g (3 1/2oz) minced beef

2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste

1 tablespoon fermented black beans

2 teaspoons ground chillies

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

175ml (6fl oz) stock or water

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon potato starch, mixed with 2 1/2 tablespoons cold water

1/4 – 1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Cut the tofu into 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes and leave to steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients.  Cut the spring onions or green garlic into 2cm (3/4 inch) lengths.

Heat a seasoned wok over a high flame.  Pour in 1 tablespoons cooking oil and heat until the sides of the wok have begun to smoke.  Add the beef and stir-fry until it is fully cooked and fragrant, breaking the clumps of meat into tiny pieces as you go.  Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Rinse and dry the wok if necessary, then re-season it and return to a medium flame.  Pour in 5 tablespoons cooking oil and swirl it around.  Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red colour and smells delicious.  Next add the black beans and ground chillies and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too, then do the same with the garlic and ginger.  Take care not to overheat the aromatics – you want to end up with a thick, fragrant sauce, and the secret is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavours.

Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated ladle, shaking off any excess liquid, and lay it gently in the wok.  Sprinkle over the beef, then add the stock or water and white pepper.  Nudge the tofu tenderly into the sauce with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to avoid breaking up the cubes.

Bring to the boil, then simmer for a couple of minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours of the seasonings.  If you’re using green garlic (or baby leeks or garlic sprouts), stir them in now.  When they are just cooked, add a little of the potato starch mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens.  Repeat this twice more, until the sauce clings deliciously to the seasonings and tofu (don’t add more than you need).  If you’re using spring onions, add them now, nudging them gently into the sauce.

Pour everything into a deep serving bowl.  Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Twice-Cooked Pork

Twice-cooked pork derives its name from the fact that the pork is first boiled and then stir-fried.

Serves 4 approximately

30g (1 1/4oz) ginger, unpeeled

1 spring onion, white part only

350g (12oz) fatty pork rump, leg or belly, in one piece, with skin

90g (scant 3 1/2oz) Chinese green garlic (or baby leeks, red onions or green and/or red peppers)

2 tablespoons lard or cooking oil

a pinch of salt

1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste

1 1/2 teaspoon sweet flour sauce

2 teaspoons fermented black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce

Lightly smack the ginger and spring onion white with the flat of a cleaver blade or a rolling pin to loosen them.  Bring a large panful of water to the boil.  Add the pork and return to the boil.  Add the ginger and spring onion white, turn the heat down and simmer until the pork is barely cooked: about 10-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the piece.  Remove from the water and set aside for a few hours to cool completely; refrigerate until needed (the pork can be cooked a day ahead).

When you are ready to make the dish, slice the pork as thinly as possible, making sure each piece has skin, fat and lean meat.  Cut the green garlic at a steep angle into long, thin ‘horse ear’ slices (baby leeks can be cut in the same way, onions or peppers into bite-sized slices).

Heat the lard or oil in a seasoned wok over a meadium flame.  Add the pork and stir-fry, with a pinch of salt, until the pieces have curled up and released some of their oils, and smell delicious.  Tilt the wok, push the pork up one side and add the chilli bean paste to the oil that pools in the base; stir-fry until it smells wonderful and has reddened the oil.  Add the sweet flour sauce and black beans and stir briefly, then tilt the wok back and mix everything together.  Finally, add the soy sauce and green garlic (or other vegetable) and stir-fry until just cooked.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Bang Bang Chicken

The dish became known as bang bang chicken, because of the sound their wooden cudgels made when hammered down (bang) on the backs of cleaver blades to help them through the meat.

Serves  4 approximately

400g (14oz) cold poached chicken meat, off the bone (about half a chicken)

4 spring onions, white parts ony, cut into fine slivers (optional)

30g (1 1/4oz) roasted or deep-fried peanuts

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

For the Sauce

2 tablespoons sesame paste

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons caster sugar

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar

1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper or 1-2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper oil

4 tablespoons chilli oil, plus 1-2 tablespoons sediment

2 teaspoons sesame oil

If you want to be traditional, pummel the chicken with a rolling pin to loosen the fibres, and then tear into bite-sized slivers; otherwise, simply tear or cut into bite-sized slivers or strips.  Toss with the spring onion slivers, if using.  Roughly chop the peanuts: the easiest way to do this is to gather them on a chopping board, lay the flat of a cleaver blade over them and press firmly to break them up a bit, then chop them into smaller pieces.  Toast the sesame seeds in a dry wok or frying pan over a very gentle heat, until fragrant and tinged with gold.

Next make the sauce.  Dilute the sesame paste with a little oil from the jar and about 2 tablespoons of cold water: you should end up with a paste the consistency of single cream – it needs to be runny enough to clothe the chicken.  Place the salt, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar.  Add the remaining sauce ingredients and mix well.

Shortly before serving, pile the chicken onto a serving dish and pour the sauce over it.  Garnish with the peanuts and toasted sesame seeds.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fine Green Beans in Ginger Sauce

The dressing can also be used as a sauce for blanched spinach or other green, leafy vegetables, blanched mangetout, cold chicken or rabbit and various types of pork offal.

Serves 4 approximately

200g (7oz) fine green beans or yard-long beans

1 1/2 tablespoons very finely chopped ginger

1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons cold stock or water

1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

Top and tail the beans.  If using yard-long beans, cut them into shorter lengths.

Bring a large panful of water to the boil.  Add the beans.  Return quickly to the boil and cook for 2-3 minutes, until just tender.  Tip into a colander and refresh under the cold tap, then shake dry.  Arrange the beans neatly on a serving dish. 

Combine the ginger with the vinegar, salt and stock or water in a small bowl.  Mix well, then add the sesame oil.  (The vinegar should lend the sauce a light ‘tea colour’ and gentle sourness.)  Pour the sauce over the beans or, for a more refined presentation, strain the sauce over the beans and then arrange the ginger across the top.

Kung Pao Chicken

Taken from One Pot Feeds All by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books

Everyone loves this spicy dish originally from Sichuan, known as Gong bao or Kung Po, but often better recognised by its American name ‘kung pao chicken’. It can be super hot or a little less punchy, depending on the chillies, but don’t dumb it down too much as the rice will absorb some of the heat.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon corn flour

4 tablespoons light soy sauce

450g (1lb) organic, free-range chicken breast or thigh meat, cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) cubes

3 tablespoons Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 tablespoons homemade chicken stock (see recipe)

4 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar (brown Chinese vinegar)

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil

4-12 dried hot red chillies, halved crosswise, and deseeded

5 spring onions (both white and green parts), sliced on the diagonal

1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced

1cm (1/2 inch) piece of fresh ginger, grated

75g (3oz) shelled peanuts

fresh coriander leaves

To Serve

400g (14oz) boiled basmati rice

Mix the cornflour with 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of the light soy sauce in a medium bowl. Add the chicken cubes, toss well to coat and set aside to marinate for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together the remaining light soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, chicken stock, vinegar, sesame oil and dark soy sauce.

Heat the oil in a 30–35cm (12-14 inch) wok or large frying pan over a high heat until just beginning to smoke. Add the chillies, half the spring onions, the garlic, ginger and marinated chicken and stir-fry for 3–5 minutes until the chicken is golden. Add the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for a further 2–3 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in the peanuts. Scatter with the remaining spring onions and lots of coriander, and serve with the basmati rice, if you wish.

Wild Food of the Week

Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europea) which looks a bit like a miniature cactus without the prickles, grows, as the name suggests, in salt marshes close to the sea. It’s easy to gather if you don’t mind the odd scratch from surrounding bushes and getting covered in mud. Pinch off the young shoots above the root. Later in the season, marsh samphire develops a tough fibrous core, so the earlier you harvest it, the better. The fresher it is, the more vibrant the flavour, but it keeps remarkably well for 1–2 weeks. Marsh samphire is now much sought after by creative young chefs who are putting it onto their menus. We sell it at the farmers’ market and people who aren’t familiar with it fall in love with its salty flavour and crunchy texture.

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