AuthorDarina Allen

Grow Your Own

As I write this column the skies are blue and the sun is shining and new seasons produce is leaping out of the ground in the garden and greenhouse.  I so hope you too have managed to sow some seeds and experiment the sheer joy and excitement of seeing the seeds germinate and the first leaves unfurl and then there’s the gradual growth until your crop reaches the peak of perfection, ready to enjoy even if it’s just a few salad leaves in a seed tray on your kitchen windowsill.

Your very own organic leaves will taste sooo much better, because you, yourself have grown them, you’ll relish every bite and want everyone else to know how you grew and looked after and anticipated enjoying them for weeks.   When you grow some of your own food, it gives an added insight into the work and commitment that goes into producing beautiful produce, you’ll never want to complain about the price of food again and will want to hug every farmer and producer you meet.  I’m super lucky to have several garden heroes here who grow beautiful produce for us to enjoy and cook with and to sell in the Farm Shop, Farmers Markets and NeighbourFood.  So far we’ve had rhubarb, outdoor sea kale and now the asparagus is gleefully popping up out of the bed.  We’ve even had a few beets, they are about the size of table tennis balls at present but swelling every day.  Look out for new seasons beets in the Farmers Markets and use every scrap of the stalks and leaves as well as the beets themselves.  They are every bit as delicious as spinach, if anything, more delicious and meltingly tender and cook in minutes – also fantastic for juicing.  I’m a huge beetroot fan, love it hot as well as roast and pickled, for me it’s the vegetable that keeps on giving.  The new season’s crop is so mild and delicious compared to the end of last year’s crop which by now is woody and unpleasantly strong.  Try this beetroot gravlax with a side of salmon, it’s a delicious riff on the classic Nordic pickled salmon, gorgeous for a Summer lunch or as a nibble before a Summer BBQ, you love the cucumber and dill sauce and find lots of other ways to enjoy it. 

This week, I also include my new favourite cake which I told you about in November, it’s called Lori De Mori’s Olive Oil cake from Towpath, a little café on the edge of Regent’s Canal in London.  It may not sound appealing but for me it’s my new ‘best find’ of the last few months, a richly flavoured ‘madeira’ type cake that keeps brilliantly and if anything improves with age.  Try it, you’re going to love it, delicious with a cup of tea or coffee but also perfect as a dessert with some berries and a blob of crème fraiche.  This is ‘definitely a keeper’ as Rory O’Connell would say.

Wild garlic will soon come to an end so make a batch of Wild Garlic Pesto for your store cupboard before it disappears until next year.  Pick the smaller, sweeter leaves for best flavour. 

Another Tip…rhubarb is also at its best at present, so buy or harvest more than you need.  Chop into slices and freeze in kg bags for Winter –best to do this now while rhubarb is at its best.

Hope you too are feeling uplifted by the Summer weather, the bounty of the seasons and the gradual easing of Lockdown.

Here are some delicious recipes to enjoy this week.

Leila’s Olive Oil Cake

I find it just delicious on its own or with a little sprinkling of icing sugar.  I loved it recently with a compote of kumquat and some coarsely chopped pistachio over softly whipped cream but a generous tablespoon of roast rhubarb would be pretty irresistible too.

Serves 12

butter, for greasing the tins

3 organic eggs

300g (10oz) caster sugar

175ml (6fl oz) best quality olive oil

180ml (6 1/4fl oz) full-fat milk

1 organic orange, zested and juiced

325g (11oz) self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting

Preheat the oven to 180°C /350°F/Gas Mark 4 (160°C Fan).

Line, butter and flour a 24cm (9 1/2 inch) cake tin.

In a large mixing bowl or mixer, beat together the eggs and sugar until pale yellow. This should take about 5 minutes.

Slowly, in a continuous stream and on a high speed, pour in the olive oil, milk, orange zest and juice. You may need to lower the speed towards the end to prevent the mix from splattering everywhere.

Gently, fold in the flour, until fully incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Bake for about 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick or skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.

(from Towpath by Lori de Mori & Laura Jackson, published by Chelsea Green Publishing)

Use every Scrap – Zero Waste Beetroot Tops (Stalks and Leaves)

Young beetroot tops are full of flavour and are often unnecessarily discarded; but if you grow your own beetroots, remember to cook the stalks as well. When the leaves are tiny they make a really worthwhile addition to the salad bowl, both in terms of nutrition and flavour. This isn’t worth doing unless you have lovely young leaves. When they become old and slightly wilted, feed them to the hens or add them to the compost.

Serves 4

450g (1lb) fresh beetroot tops

salt and freshly ground pepper

butter or olive oil

Keeping them separate, cut the beetroot stalks and leaves into rough 5cm (2 inch) pieces. First cook the stalks in boiling salted water (1.8 litres/3 pints water to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt) for 3–4 minutes or until tender. Then add the leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Drain, season and toss in a little butter or olive oil. Serve immediately.

Beetroot Tops with Cream

Substitute 75–125ml (3–4fl oz) cream for olive oil in the recipe above. A little freshly grated nutmeg is also delicious.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

Beetroot Gravlax

This modern Scandinavian version results in a two-tone gravlax, with a deep-red beetroot colour on the outside and salmon pink within.  Wild salmon is very difficult to source but why not try a side of fresh haddock.   

Serves 30–40

2 sides of wild salmon or organic farmed salmon

2 heaped tablespoons sea salt

3 heaped tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons dill, chopped

175g (6oz) beetroot, peeled and grated

Cucumber and Dill Sauce (see recipe)

First prepare the salmon.

Fillet the salmon and remove all the bones with a tweezers. Mix the salt, sugar, pepper and dill together in a bowl.  Place the fish on a piece of parchment paper and scatter the mixture over the surface of the fish. Wrap tightly with parchment paper and refrigerate for a minimum of 24 hours.

Line a long oval dish with parchment paper. Put one fillet, skin side down, on the lined dish. Mix together the salt, sugar, pepper, dill and freshly grated beetroot and spread over the surface of the salmon.

Place the other salmon fillet on top and wrap the salmon tightly with the cling film. Place a weight on top (I use a chopping board). Turn a couple of times during the next few days. Serve with the Cucumber and Dill Sauce (see recipe).

Cucumber and Dill Sauce

Serves 8 – 10 depending on how it is served.

1 crisp cucumber, peeled and diced into 1/2 – 1cm (1/4-1/2 inch) dice approx.

salt and freshly ground pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 heaped tablespoon of freshly chopped dill

450ml (15fl oz) Greek yoghurt or best quality natural yoghurt

4 tablespoons cream

Put the cucumber dice into a sieve and sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for about 30 minutes.  Dry the cucumber on kitchen paper, put into a bowl and mix with garlic, a dash of wine vinegar or lemon juice and the yoghurt and cream.  Stir in the dill and taste, it may need a little salt and freshly ground pepper, or even a pinch of sugar.

Boost your gut biome    

Beetroot Kvass


This is a slightly sour/salty tonic of a deep-red colour known to help clean the liver and purify the blood.

2 large beetroot
1 1/2 litres (2 1/2 pints) filtered water (or non-chlorinated)
2 teaspoons sea salt
50ml (2fl oz) starter – this could be whey, water kefir, sauerkraut juice or kombucha

Scrub the beetroot but do not peel.

Chop into small chunks – 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes (roughly).

Put into a 2 litre Kilner jar or something similar with a lid.

Add the water, sea salt and starter and secure the lid tightly.

Allow to sit in a warming undisturbed place for about 5 days.

Bubbles will start to appear (fermentation is taking a hold) – taste it after day 3, if it is to your liking.  Strain out the beetroot chunks.  Bottle and store in the fridge once it reaches the desired sourness.

New Season’s Asparagus with Mussels and Hollandaise on Toast

Swap out seakale for asparagus if you are fortunate to have some.

Serves 4

8-12 stalks of asparagus in season

20-24 mussels

Hollandaise Sauce

2 egg yolks

1 dessertspoon cold water

110g (4oz) butter cut into dice

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, approx.

4 slices of pan loaf bread for toasting

sprigs of chervil or dill

First make the hollandaise.

Put the egg yolks into a heavy bottomed saucepan on a low heat.  Whisk with 1 tablespoon of water, then gradually whisk in the butter, cube by cube as it thickens gradually – careful it doesn’t overheat.  If it does, pull the saucepan off the heat and dip the base in cold water for a minute or two.  When all the butter has been incorporated, whisk in some freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste.  Transfer to a small Pyrex bowl or measure and keep warm in a stainless-steel saucepan of hot but not even simmering water while you prepare the asparagus and mussels. 

Break off the ends of the asparagus spears where they begin to get woody.  They will snap at that point if you bend over your index finger. 

Bring about 2.5cm (1 inch) of water to the boil in a saucepan, season well with salt and add the asparagus.  Cover the saucepan, bring the water back to the boil and cook for 3-4 minutes (depending on the size of the asparagus spears) or until the tip of a knife will pierce the thickest end.  Drain while still al-dente, it will continue to cook a little.

Wash the mussels, check they are all tightly shut.  Choose a wide sauté pan, add the mussels in a, maximum, double layer and cook for 3-4 minutes over a medium heat which is usually enough for the mussels to open.  Remove, strain and save the mussel liquor.

To Serve

Meanwhile, toast and butter the bread. 

Cut the asparagus spears into 2 or 3 pieces at an angle.

Remove the mussels from their shells, scatter over the asparagus, drizzle with Hollandaise and garnish with sprigs of chervil or dill and serve ASAP.

Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely Compote

Sweet Cicely is one of the first herbs to pop up in Spring, the seeds are spicy and the leaves have a liquorice sweet anise like flavour.  Use liberally to garnish sweet dishes. 

Serves 4

450g (1lb) red rhubarb, e.g. Timperely early

450ml (16fl oz) stock syrup (dissolve 175g/6oz of granulated sugar in 300ml/10fl oz of water and boil for 2 minutes)

4-6 sprigs of sweet cicely

Cut the rhubarb into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Put the cold syrup into a stainless steel saucepan, add the rhubarb and sweet cicely.  Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for just 1 minute, (no longer or it will dissolve into a mush). Turn off the heat and leave the rhubarb in the covered saucepan until just cold.  

Remove the sweet cicely, serve garnished with fresh sprigs of sweet cicely and lots of softly whipped cream.   

BBQ

Yippee, the BBQ is back out in the garden, always a brilliant moment but this year there’s the added sense of escapism…More than ever, we’re relishing the thought of cooking outdoors and maybe having a few socially distanced friends to share the giddy joyous experience of eating al fresco.  We’ve really been counting the days until we can fire up the BBQ and get a sizzle going.  So let’s jump right in…

The choice of barbeques now available in mesmerising, but no need to feel deprived if you don’t have all manner of fancy kit.  Cooking over fire is as old as time and definitely adds an extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the flavour. 

A circle of stone or a simple brick frame to balance a rack or pan will get you started.  If you can source a piece of flat iron, you’ve got a plancha to widen your cooking options.  Practice makes perfect with any cooking over fire or even on a gas barbeque. 

 When maestro of open-fire cooking from Argentina (Francis Mallmann) did a guest chef BBQ here in 2016, he cooked over fire in five different ways.

1. A grate over live coals – parilla.

2. On a spit

3. Plancha – an iron plate, could be flat or with edges.

4. Asador – a metal cross to cook a whole lamb or goat.

5. Hung chickens over a fire on metals or wire chains.

Lighting a charcoal barbeque is never as easy as gas of course but it’s all part of the fun.  Wood and charcoal impart lots more flavour and I particularly love apple wood. 

The key to successful grilling is heat control, learning how to build a good fire and judging the temperature is even more crucial to success than the type or brand of grill or barbeque, you buy or the type of fuel you opt for.  Create two zones on the grate – a cooler 120˚C and a hotter 175˚C section – it’s not difficult to do this – pile the glowing hot coals higher in one area, this will enable you to create and cook at two different temperatures. 

You’ll need to cook large pieces of meat more slowly.  It’s all about temperature control – you might want to start something on a high heat to sear the outside to get a delicious crisp crust and then transfer onto lower heat to cook through or perhaps grill ingredients requiring different temperatures simultaneously.  If you are using a gas grill, just turn one side up and the other down.  On a BBQ, if the fire gets too hot, reduce the heat by spreading out the coals and raising the grate if that’s an option.

The Tools: (In a box)

A long-handled tongs

Long metal spatulas are top of the list must have’s –

Flat metal skewers for kebabs

A hinged grill rack

2 wire cake racks for turning whole fish or small fragile items easily

A natural bristle basting brush

Bamboo skewers

Instant read thermometer

Stiff wire brush for cleaning the grill

There’s something for everyone’s pocket and style nowadays from disposable foil trays available in supermarkets and petrol stations to a stylish, state of the art, range of gas barbeques that are pretty much a second kitchen with extra cooking rings –

I still love to cook a few sausages by the sea, there’s something about cooking outdoors that makes everything taste a zillion times better.  Virtually anything can be cooked on the grill or Barbie. A covered BBQ hugely widens the options and adds an extra smoky kick to the food.  I even cook pizza, roast a chicken or turkey…once again, practice makes perfect.

Butchers and supermarkets are offering a growing selection of ready to grill options but for the most part, the marinades are commercially made and very often contain a whole range of ‘unnatural’ ingredients that are either too sweet or too sharp.  A good olive oil, a squirt of freshly squeezed lemon juice, flaky sea salt, freshly cracked black pepper and a few fresh spices or spice rubs will add magic to your cooking.  Scatter some fresh herbs over the food just before serving, to add brightness.

Resist the temptation to have numerous meats, one joint of meat, or a side of fish or a variety of veg and some complimentary sauces and salads complete the feast.

Here are a couple of my favourite recipes and a spice rub but I’ll do another column on outdoor cooking in a few weeks.

Halloumi Skewers

Halloumi the squeaky Cypriot cheese brilliant for grilling and Summer salads. See hot tips.

500g Halloumi

extra virgin olive oil

freshly ground pepper

thyme, rosemary or oregano

Heat the barbeque or a pan-grill. If the halloumi is excessively salty, soak in cold water overnight or for at least an hour, discard water. Dry well, with kitchen paper.

Cut the cheese into 4 long pieces and thread into flat metal skewers or soaked satay sticks. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary, thyme or some dried wild oregano and some freshly cracked pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes each side until golden and hot through.

Serve with smokey tomato sauce, chimichurri or aji green sauce.

Rachel Allen’s Spatchcock Chicken with Sumac, Thyme and Garlic

Serves 4-6

1 whole chicken

75ml (3fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

4 large cloves of garlic, crushed or finely grated

1 tablespoon ground sumac

1 tablespoon thyme leaves, chopped

salt and pepper 

To Serve

1 lemon, cut in wedges

a few sprigs of thyme

To remove the back bone of the chicken, use very sharp scissors and cut through all the way down from top to bottom. Place the chicken breast side up on your work top and using the palm of your hands flatten the chicken down. Using a sharp knife make a few slashes in the legs of the chicken.

To make the marinade, in a bowl use a whisk to mix together the olive oil, garlic, sumac and the chopped thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a shallow bowl or dish and pour the marinade over making sure it gets into every little area. Set aside to marinate for 10 minutes or even covered in the fridge overnight on a wire rack to allow any excess marinade to drip off.  Then grill ideally on a Weber barbeque or a barbeque with a cover over a medium heat for 45 – 60 minutes approximately (the internal temperature of cooked chicken is   75 – 80°C/165 – 175°F).  To test, prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh and examine the juices, they should be clear.

Alternatively, to cook the chicken in an oven, preheat to 220°C/425°/Gas Mark 7.  Place the chicken on a roasting tray with all the marinade and cook for 45 minutes – 1 1/2 hours (the cooking time will vary greatly depending on the size of the chicken) until cooked. When cooked the legs will feel loose. Allow the chicken to rest somewhere warm for about 15-20 minutes if possible.

When ready to eat, carve the chicken into pieces, scatter with the thyme leaves and serve with some wedges of lemon.

Lamb, Pork or Chicken Satay

Cubes of tender meat (pork, chicken, beef or lamb) are marinated in spices, then threaded onto bamboo satay sticks and cooked on the barbecue or under the grill. Satay is especially versatile – serve as a starter with drinks, or as a light meal with rice and salad. Kids love them.  Shrimps work really well in this recipe too.

Makes 24 approx.

450g (1lb) lean lamb leg or chicken breast or thigh meat (boned and skinned) or organic pork fillet

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 shallots, or 1 small onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or red wine vinegar

To Serve

24-26 bamboo satay sticks or metal skewers (soak satay sticks in water 30 minutes before)

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil

225g (8oz) Satay Sauce

lettuce leaves and flat breads

Cut the meat into 5mm thick strips and marinate with all the ingredients for at least 1 hour. Thread onto the soaked bamboo satay sticks so the end is covered. Allow to drain on a wire rack.  Heat a barbeque or pan-grill until very hot.

Brush each satay with a little oil and chargrill turning frequently until just cooked.  Serve hot with Satay Sauce (see 000), lettuce leaves and flat breads.

Spicy Peanut Satay Sauce

This satay sauce recipe given to me by Eric Treuille of ‘Books for Cooks’ in London can be made up to 3 days in advance. 

Makes 500ml (18fl oz)

225g (8oz) peanut butter

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon Tabasco

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

4 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons runny honey

juice of 1 lemon

125ml (4 1/2fl oz) water or coconut milk

Make the satay sauce. 

Place the peanut butter, garlic, ginger, turmeric, Tabasco, oil, soy sauce, honey, lemon juice and water in a food-processor or blender, pulse until smooth.  Cover and let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature to allow flavours to blend.  Serve chilled or at room temperature. (Add a little more coconut milk if too thick).

Tomahawk Steak

A seriously macho cut, tomahawk steak is a ‘bone-in’ ribeye cut from the 6th -12th rib with the bone left intact so it resembles a tomahawk. It’s sometimes called a cowboy steak. It can weigh between 30-45 ounces (850g-1.275kg), and will be close to 2 inches thick. It’s perfect for BBQ because the bone, usually 6-8 inches long, creates a handle which makes it easy to turn over on the BBQ.

1 tomahawk steak

flaky sea salt

freshly cracked pepper

extra virgin olive oil

Make sure the steak is at room temperature. Heat the barbeque or an iron pan grill on a high heat. Score the fat side. Season the flesh generously with flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Grill first on the fat side on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes to render out the fat. Then sear the flesh sides on a high heat, turning only once when a crust has formed.  Reduce the heat to medium or move to a cooler part of the grill. Cook for 7-8 minutes on one side then 6-7 minutes on the other for medium-rare.  (check the inner temperature, it should read 57°C/135°F).

Allow to rest on a warm surface for 8-10 minutes before carving to allow the juices to redistribute themselves.

Slice the rested steak off the rib bone. Cut into slices across the grain and serve with the sauce and accompaniment of your choice – a creamy gratin dauphinoise, roast onions, wild garlic butter and salt, smoked paprika butter, anchovy and chervil butter, honey whole mustard butter….

Roast Onions with Rosemary

Serves 8

4 medium onions

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

skewers

Cut the onions into thick slices – about 2cm (3/4 inch) thick.  Thread 2 or 3 rounds onto flat skewers. 

Mix the oil, vinegar and chopped rosemary in a bowl.  Dip or brush both sides of the onion rings, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Cook on a medium grill until cooked through and nicely charred. Turn occasionally and drizzle a little more dressing over the top to serve. Great with steak or halloumi.

Indian Spice Rub

Use for chicken, pork, lamb, fish and prawns.

Makes approx. 110g (4oz)

2 tablespoons of cumin roasted and ground

2 tablespoons of coriander roasted and ground

1 tablespoon black peppercorns roasted and ground

1-2 teaspoons cloves roasted and ground

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Toast the cardamom, cumin, coriander, pepper and cloves in a pan over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly for 3-4 minutes. Cool and crush in a pestle and mortar or whizz in a spice grinder. Add the freshly ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Mix well. Store in an airtight jar. It will keep for up to 3 months but try to use earlier. Store away from direct light, preferably in a dark glass jar.

Ramadan

This week, I wanted to understand more about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which, this year starts at sunset on Monday 12th April. It follows the lunar calendar and begins and ends with the appearance of the crescent moon. Islamic tradition states that it was during Ramadan that God revealed the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book to the Prophet Mohammad as guidance for his people.

Ramadan in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar marks the beginning of Sawm, the Arabic word for fasting.

Many of us would know that Muslims fast from dawn to sunset for the whole month of Ramadan. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, by which Muslims live their lives, along with faith, prayer (five times a day), charitable deeds and a pilgrimage to Mecca.  Fasting and hunger pangs are a stark reminder of our human fragility and how much we depend on food and those who produce it for our energy, vitality and very existence.

It clearly illustrates what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty which helps us to empathise, feel compassion and offer help to the poor and needy.

Muslims, apart from those who are vulnerable or pregnant, fast from food, drink, cigarettes and any sexual activity from dawn til dusk during Ramadan.

Fasting is not easy. At school, children find it particularly difficult while their friends are enjoying lunch and snacks. The last meal they will have eaten was Suhur before dawn and the next after sunset, will be Iftar which means breaking the fast.  First with a few dates and water, a concentrated source of energy and easy to digest.

After sunset prayers, many families invite neighbours and friends to join them to break the fast so Ramadan is also a time of sharing and celebration.  In non-Covid times, many mosques host community dinner on weekends, a wonderful break from cooking, a feast for students, the poor and everyone in the community.  Ramadan ends on the 13th May 2021, Muslims will celebrate Eid al Fitr – the Festival of the Breaking of the fast.

Traditionally, children receive presents from family and friends. There are special prayers followed by the fasting and celebrations.

I was intrigued to know what foods were traditionally enjoyed to break the fast. There are of course, many. 

Families around the world have their special favourites.  The women cook together to prepare the meal, often with recipes learnt from their mothers, mothers-in-law and sisters…. Virtually every list mentioned Moroccan Chorba, a comforting nutrient dense soup made with chickpeas or lentils, potatoes, root vegetables, lamb and spices like turmeric, ginger and saffron. There were lots of variations, try this delicious version.

Pide – Turkish handmade flat bread was another must have – you’ll love it and so will the kids.

Harira, a hearty soup of lentils is another favourite. One of the many versions of Kebabs with thick Greek yoghurt, or with a dollop of tzatziki on flat bread is another versatile irresistible speciality. Poached eggs with yoghurt and paprika oil is super delicious and really easy to whip up at home. Don’t forget to wish your Muslim friends Ramadan Kareem –Happy Ramadan.

Moroccan Lentil Chorba

This is a delicious nourishing soup filled with all sorts of good things.

Lots of vegetables to chop, the neater the dice, the better your soup will look and taste. The soup works well with either vegetable stock or chicken stock but chicken stock gives the most robust flavour.

175g (6oz) green lentils

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion diced into 7mm (1/3 inch) dice

pinch of salt

pinch of cayenne

1 small carrot diced into 7mm (1/3 inch) dice

1 stick of celery diced into 7mm (1/3 inch) dice

1 red or yellow pepper diced into 7mm (1/3 inch) dice

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly roasted and ground

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly roasted and ground

pinch of turmeric

1 tablespoon of peeled and grated fresh ginger

4 cloves garlic, crushed

700g (1 1/2 lb) ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped or 500g (18oz) tinned tomatoes

1.35 litres (48fl oz) vegetable or chicken stock (see recipe)

salt, pepper and sugar to taste

110g (4oz) vermicelli, broken into pieces

4 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped

Rinse the lentils in cold water and place in a saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so until tender.

While the lentils are cooking, heat the olive oil in another saucepan and add the onions, pinch of salt and cayenne. Cover and cook on a gentle heat until the onions are soft. Add the diced vegetables and the rest of the spices. Cook for 5 minutes, add the ginger and garlic and cook for another minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and stock, taste and correct seasoning and simmer gently for a further 20 minutes.  Add the vermicelli and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes or until the diced vegetables are tender. 

Strain the cooked lentils, reserving the cooking water and add the lentils to the broth. If the soup is too thick, thin out with some of the lentil cooking water. Bring to a simmer. Taste again and correct seasoning. Serve with lots of chopped fresh coriander or parsley.

Gilbir – Poached Eggs with Yoghurt, Paprika and Mint

Another favourite Turkish way to serve poached eggs – called Gilbir – you’ll love this combination with toast or flat bread.

Serves 2

4 freshly laid organic eggs

30g (1 1/4oz) butter

2 teaspoons paprika or smoked paprika

1 clove of garlic, crushed

150ml (5fl oz) natural yoghurt

4 – 6 fresh mint leaves

First poach the eggs; bring a small saucepan of water to the boil. Reduce the heat, swirl the water, crack the egg into a cup, slip gently into the whirlpool in the centre. This avoids getting the tips of your fingers burned as you drop the egg into the water. The water should not boil again but bubble very gently just below boiling point. Cook for about 3–4 minutes, until the white is set and the yolk is still soft and runny.

Add 1 small crushed garlic clove to 3 tablespoons of natural yoghurt. Remove the poached egg with a slotted spoon to a warm bowl, add a good dollop of yoghurt. Melt a little butter in a small pan, when it begins to foam, add the paprika, stir for 30 seconds, careful it doesn’t burn. Drizzle over the eggs and yoghurt. Shred 2-3 mint leaves and scatter over the top. Serve immediately with some Turkish bread or toast.

Spiced Vegetable Pakoras with Mango Relish

Vegetable fritters in a spicy batter, delicious to snack on or as a starter with a relish of your choice.

Serves 4-6

A selection of vegetables:

1 thin aubergine cut into 5mm (1/4 inch) slices or into chunks at an angle

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium courgettes, cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) slices, if they are very large cut into quarters

12 cauliflower or Romanesco florets (walnut size approx.)

6 large flat mushrooms, cut in half

spinach leaves

Batter

175g (6oz) chickpea or plain white flour

1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

1 scant teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

175-225ml (6-8fl oz) iced water

vegetable oil for deep frying

Garnish

lemon wedges and coriander or parsley.

Put the aubergine wedges or slices into a colander, sprinkle with the salt, and let drain while preparing the other vegetables.

Blanch and refresh the cauliflower florets separately in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water, and dry well.

Rinse the aubergine slices and pat dry.

Put the flour, coriander, salt and curry powder into a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil, lemon juice and water until the batter is the consistency of thick cream.

Heat good quality oil to 180°C/350°F in a deep fry. Lightly whisk the batter and dip the vegetables in batches of 5 or 6.  Slip them individually into the hot oil. 

Fry the pakoras for 2-3 minutes on each side, turning them with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a moderate oven (uncovered) while you cook the remainder. Allow the oil to come back to 180°C/350°F between batches.

When all the vegetable fritters are ready, garnish with lemon wedges and fresh or deep-fried coriander or parsley. Serve at once alone or with mango relish.

Mango Relish

Mangoes are a great source of betacarotene and Vitamin C.  They aid digestion, reduce acidity in the system and help cleanse the blood. 

50ml (2fl oz) medium sherry

50ml (2fl oz) water

50ml (2fl oz) white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

1/2 teaspoon salt

pinch of ground mace

1 mango, peeled and diced

1 small red pepper, seeded and diced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Put the sherry, water, vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, salt and mace into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the mango, pepper, and lemon juice, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Spoon into a screw top jar and refrigerate until required.

Falafel with Tahini

Itamar and Sarit from Honey and Co in London shared their favourite Yemini falafel recipe with us. 

Makes 20 approximately (25g/1oz weight)

1/2 onion (approx. 60g/2 1/4oz)

1 clove of garlic (peeled)

250g (9oz) soaked chickpeas (125g (4 1/2oz) dried)

1 green chilli, seeds and all

3 springs of parsley, picked

1 small bunch of coriander (about 15-20g/1/2 – 3/4oz), leaves and top part of stems only

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom pods

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons garam flour (use plain if needs be)

1 teaspoon baking powder

To make the falafel

In a food processor, start with the onion, garlic, chilli and herbs and pulse them to chop roughly, then add the chickpeas and blitz until everything becomes a thick paste with small, even-sized bits.   You may need to scrape the sides down and blitz for another pulse or two to make sure that everything is evenly chopped, but do not overwork.  The best way to check whether it is done enough is to scoop up a small amount and squeeze it together in your palm – it should hold its shape.  If it falls apart, return it to the processor for another spin.  Tip the mixture into a large bowl, add the spices, salt, flour and baking powder and mix until all is combined well.

Preheat the deep fry 170°C/325°F.

Test the oil temperature by placing a small piece of bread or falafel mix in the hot oil – as soon as it starts to bubble up and float, you are ready to go.

You can shape the falafel mix in a few different ways:

Use damp hands and make little balls or torpedo shapes or you can simply drop in spoonfuls of the mixture for free-form falafel.  You want to be making them about the size of a walnut, no bigger, so that they cook through and crisp up at the same time. 

Carefully place the falafel in the oil – don’t overcrowd the pan and fry until the exterior is browned and crisped (about 2-3 minutes).  Remove to a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb the excess oil and repeat the process until you have fried them all.  

Serve immediately with tahini (see recipe).

Tahini 

The quality of your tahini depends hugely on the type of tahini paste you use. 

We use Al-Yaman from Lebanon which is delicious, but if you are lucky enough to find any of the Palestinian varieties, especially the Prince and Dove brands, you are in for a treat.  As a rule, you are looking for something from Lebanon, Palestine or Turkey.  

We make our tahini in a food processor, as it gives a smooth, airy, mousse-like texture, but you can achieve good results with a bowl, a spoon and some wrist action.

Makes about 240g (8 3/4oz)

125g (4 1/2oz) tahini paste 

1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced

a pinch of salt, plus more to taste

juice of 1 lemon, plus more to taste

about 120ml (4 1/3fl oz) water 

Place the tahini, minced garlic, salt and lemon juice in a bowl or food processor, add half the water and mix. It will go thick and pasty but don’t fear – just continue adding water while mixing until it loosens up to a creamy texture. Don’t be tempted to add too much water as the mixture will go runny, but if this happens, you can always bring it back with a little extra tahini paste. Taste and adjust salt and lemon to suit your taste buds.  

Note

You can keep tahini in an airtight container in the fridge for 2-3 days, but it will thicken and the flavour may need adjusting with a little more salt and/or lemon.  As a result we think it’s best to make it and eat it the same day – fresh is best.

Pide (Turkish Seeded Flat Bread)

Makes 2 breads

2 teaspoons dried yeast

1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

300ml (10fl oz) tepid water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

500g (1lb 2oz) strong white flour

1 teaspoon salt

egg wash, whisk 1 egg yolk with a pinch of salt

2 teaspoons nigella seeds

Sprinkle the yeast and sugar into 100ml (3 1/2fl oz) of the slightly tepid water in a bowl.  Leave for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve, add the olive oil.

Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl.  Make a well in the centre and pour in the liquid.

Add enough of the remaining water to make a firm but softish dough.

Turn out the dough on a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  The dough will be quite stiff initially but it will become more supple as it is kneaded. 

Coat the dough evenly with a little olive oil.  Allow to rise in a bowl,   covered with a tea towel, until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.  Knock back, then leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Divide the dough into two equal-sized pieces and roll each into a smooth ball.  On a lightly floured work surface, roll each piece into a round 25cm (10 inch) across, and 5mm (1/4 inch) thick.  Transfer to a baking tray, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 20 minutes.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.

Score the top of each round of dough with a criss-cross pattern. 

Sprinkle each with nigella seeds, and brush with egg wash.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes until puffy and lightly coloured.  Wrap the breads immediately in a tea towel to keep the crusts soft and to prevent drying out.  

Enjoy with soup, kebabs…

Konafa with Orange Blossom Water and Pistachios

A favourite dessert and super delicious.  You can buy the soft white vermicelli-like dough frozen in Lebanese, Turkish and Greek stores. In Lebanon, it is called knafe here and issold by its Greek name kataifi in 400g packets; it should be defrosted for 3 hours. The quantities below will make one large pastry to serve 10 but you can also make two, half the size, one to serve fewer people and one to put in the freezer to bake at a later date. It freezes well uncooked.   This version is called osmaliyah. 

Serves 10

For the syrup

350g (12oz) sugar

250ml (9fl oz) water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the filling

500g (18oz) mozzarella cheese, grated

250g (9oz) ricotta

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the pastry

400g (14oz) kataifi (knafe) pastry, defrosted

200g (7oz) unsalted butter, melted

Garnish

100g (3 1/2oz) pistachios, chopped

Make the syrup first. Boil the sugar with the water and the lemon juice over a low heat for 5-10 minutes, until it is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Another way to test it is to pour a drop onto a cold plate and if it does not spread out like water, it is ready. Stir in the orange blossom water and cook a moment more. Let it cool then chill in the refrigerator. (If you have overcooked the syrup and it becomes too thick to pour when it is cold, you can rescue it by adding a little water and bringing it to the boil again.) 

For the filling, in a bowl, mix the grated Mozzarella cheese with the ricotta, sugar and orange blossom water.

Put the kataifi pastry in a large bowl. With your fingers, pull out and separate the strands as much as possible. Melt the butter and when it has cooled slightly, pour it over the pastry and work it in very thoroughly with your fingers, pulling out and separating the strands and turning them over so that they do not stick together, and are entirely coated with butter.

Spread half the pastry at the bottom of a large round cake tin or pan, measuring 28-30cm (11-12 inches) in diameter. Spread the filling over it evenly and cover with the rest of the pastry. Press down firmly and flatten it with the palm of your hand. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4 for about 45 minutes. Some like to brown the bottom – which comes out on top when the pastry is turned out – by running it over heat on a hob for a brief moment only. Others prefer the pastry to remain pale.

Just before serving, run a sharp knife round the edges of the osmaliyah to loosen the sides, then turn it out onto a large serving dish. Pour the cold syrup all over the hot pastry and sprinkle the top lavishly with the chopped pistachios.  

Alternatively, you can pour only half the syrup over the pastry and pass the rest around in a jug for everyone to help themselves to more if they wish.  Serve hot.

Walks in the Countryside

Walks in the countryside have helped to keep many of us sane during these past few troubling months.  At this stage we know every inch of our local area intimately, those of us who live close to the sea or a woodland feel fortunate indeed to be able to breathe in sea air and gather sea beet along by the seashore.

I’m a foraging nerd and now that Spring is definitely here, a walk takes on a whole extra dimension.  I scan the hedgerows, streams, woodland and seashore for wild things to gather.  There’s an abundance of fresh growth to nibble on and the young leaves of ground elder are at their best at present, eat them raw, in salads or add to a foragers soup, cook them like melted greens or make a ground elder champ.  Gardeners regard ground elder as a pest, a perennial weed that re-emerges and spreads every year but, where others see weeds, I see dinner…

For weeks now, we’ve been enjoying both kinds of wild garlic, both ramps and the snow bells that grow along the roadside and resemble white blue bells. Allium Triquetrum or Three-Cornered leeks are named because of their triangular stem, leek like leaves and pretty white, bell like flowers.  The broader leaved ramps or ramsons unlike its namesake, grow in dappled shade, under trees or in woodlands.  The leaves come first followed by the delicious flower buds, then the pretty whitepom pom like flowers and finally the pungent green seed heads that make a feisty pickle – all delicious.

JP McMahon described wild garlic as ‘the gateway drug for the novice forager’ because of its distinct garlicky aroma which makes it easy to identify.  It’s also super versatile in the kitchen and we keep finding more and more ways to enjoy it.  Add some chopped leaves to white soda scones, dip the top in cheddar cheese and how about this spicy riff on the wild garlic pesto recipe in my Grow, Cook, Nourish book.  The perky young leaves are also delicious in salads – I particularly love them with devilled eggs but try adding some to a Alfredo sauce with strips of roast red pepper to anoint some pasta before sprinkling with a shower of the pretty white wild garlic flowers.

Do you have a clean stream closeby?  Wild watercress is almost at its peak just now, before it begins to go to flower.  For identification purposes, remember the top leaf of the cress family is always the biggest and the leaves get progressively smaller as they go down the stem whereas the opposite applies to the wild celery that always grows side by side with watercress in the stream.  Make sure the water is clean and fast flowing and wash well before you use in soups, salads or your favourite recipe. 

Ever had butterfly sandwiches?  A memory from my childhood – simply, sliced white bread, slathered generously with butter, filled with chopped watercress and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt.  Press down and cut into triangles, surprisingly delicious, better still, add to egg and mayo sandwiches. 

I also love to nibble the first young leaves of hawthorn, we call this ‘bread and butter’,

These are known to be good for your cardiovascular system, an old wives tale that’s now backed up by science but don’t over do it…

You’ll find wintercress or bittercress growing everywhere at present, in gravel paths, flower beds.  It grows in basals and it too has a slightly mustardy flavour.  It’s alsoone of our favourite Winter and early Spring treats.  Enjoy now because it’ll soon get leggy and go to flower.  Add it to salads or use as a garnish to embellish starter plates.  The soft new growth of spruce look like pale green tassels, gather them to make a pine flavoured syrup before they get prickly.

Finally for this article, I must mention primroses and sweet cicely.  The latter is one of the earliest perennial herbs to re-emerge in Spring.  Add it to rhubarb or simply use it as a stencil on top of a cake.  Sprinkle with icing sugar and remove it to find a delicate fernlike pattern.  Primroses also make a pretty garnish or a delightful addition to a salad but are most enchanting when crystallised to decorate Wee Primrose Buns.

Watercress Soup

Wild watercress has more depth of flavour than farmed versions, so see if you can find some.  This soup has been a favourite on the menu of Ballymaloe House since it opened in 1963.

Serves 6-8

45g (1 1/2oz) butter

150g (5oz) peeled and chopped potatoes

110g (4oz) peeled and chopped onion

salt and freshly ground pepper

900ml (1 1/2 pints) water or homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock

300ml (10fl oz) creamy milk (1/4 cream and 3/4 milk)

225g (8oz) chopped watercress (remove the coarse stalks first)

Melt the butter in heavy bottomed saucepan.  When it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the watercress. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the hot stock and boiling milk.  Bring back to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the watercress and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes approx. until the watercress is just cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser. Taste and correct seasoning.

Wild Garlic and Cheddar Cheese Scones

Makes 9-12 depending on size

450g (1lb) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon bread soda (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda)

1 – 2 tablespoons finely chopped wild garlic

350-400ml (12-14fl oz) approx. sour milk or buttermilk to mix

110g (4oz) grated Cheddar cheese,

First fully preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.

Sieve the dry ingredients and add the chopped wild garlic.  Make a well in the centre.  Pour most of the milk in at once.  Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary.  The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. 

When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured board, knead lightly for a second, just enough to tidy it up.  Pat the dough into a square about 2.5cm (1 inch) deep, brush with egg wash, cut into 9-12 square scones.  Dip the top of each scone into the grated Cheddar cheese, place on a baking sheet. 

Bake on a hot oven for 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200°C/ 400°F/Mark 6, for 6-10 minutes or until cooked.  Cool on a wire rack.  Serve with soup or as a snack.

Buffalo Mozzarella with Spruce Syrup and Wild Bitter Greens

We collect the soft spruce tips in April while the new growth is still soft and green, try them – they have a delicious, mild piney flavour.

Serves 4

4 handfuls of wild bitter greens – e.g. bittercress, wood sorrel, watercress, dandelion, pennywort….

extra virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 buffalo mozzarella (we use Toonsbridge)

2 tablespoons spruce syrup (see below)

Toss the greens in the olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper.

Strew on a plate, top with torn mozzarella – 1/2 a ball per person.  Drizzle 2 teaspoons of spruce syrup over each mozzarella.  Serve with crusty white bread. 

Spruce Syrup

Makes 300ml (10fl oz)

100g (3 1/2oz) of fresh spuce tips

200g (7oz) granulated sugar

150ml (5fl oz) cold water

pinch of salt

freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

Whizz the spruce tips in a Magimix.  Place in a saucepan with the cold water and sugar.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 minute.  Allow to cool.  Strain through a muslin lined sieve.  Discard the solids.  Add the freshly squeezed juice of one lemon.  Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 months. 

Serve with cream cheese or soft goat’s cheese.

Spicy Wild Garlic Pesto

Chilli adds extra oomph to this wild garlic pesto, use 1 or 2 depending on your taste and the heat of the chilli.

Makes 3 x 200ml (7fl oz) jars

110g (4oz) wild garlic leaves, destalked

50g (2oz) cashew nuts, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 – 2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped

1/4 teaspoon salt

350-450ml (12-16fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

80g (3 1/4oz approx.) freshly grated Parmesan, (Parmigiano Reggiano)

sugar to taste (it can take quite a bit towards the end of the season)

Wash the wild garlic leaves.  Spin and dry very well.

Whizz in a food processer with the chopped cashew nuts, crushed garlic, chopped chilli, salt and olive oil or pound in a pestle and mortar.  Remove to a bowl and fold in the finely grated Parmesan cheese.  Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.  Store in a sterilized covered jar in the fridge.

Roast Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely  

Serves 4

450g (1lb) red rhubarb, e.g. Timperely early

4 tablespoons of sugar

4-6 leaves of sweet cicely

Cut the rhubarb into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces. Chop the sweet cicely and scatter over the base of an ovenproof dish.  Lay the rhubarb on top in a single layer.  Sprinkle with sugar and allow to macerate for an hour or so until the juices begin to flow. 

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Cover the rhubarb with a sheet of parchment paper and roast in the oven for 10–20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until the rhubarb is just tender. Keep a close eye on the rhubarb as it can disintegrate very quickly

Decorate with wispy bits of fresh sweet cicely and serve with softly whipped cream. 

Wee Crystallised Primrose Buns

These adorable buns or cupcakes make an enchanting present to bring cheer to a friend during the challenging times.  This is our favourite basic cupcake recipe, they can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion!

Makes 9-10 cupcakes or 16-18 buns

150g (5oz) butter (at room temperature)

150g (5oz) caster sugar

150g (5oz) self-raising flour

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons milk

Icing

225g (8oz) icing sugar

zest of 1/2 – 1 lemon depending on size

2 – 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 bun tins lined with 18 bun cases.

crystallised primrose to decorate

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Put all ingredients except milk into a food processor, whizz until smooth.  Scrape down sides of the bowl, then add milk and whizz again.

Divide mixture evenly between cases in the bun trays or muffin tins. 

Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until risen and golden.

Meanwhile make the icing.

Put the sieved icing sugar into a bowl.  Add just enough lemon juice to mix to a spreadable consistency. 

When the cupcakes are cold, spoon over a little icing on top of each one.  Arrange a crystallised primrose at an angle on top of each cupcake – adorable. 

Crystallized Flowers

Flowers and leaves crystallized with sugar will keep for months, although they may lose their initial vibrant colour. This is what we call a high-stool job – definitely a labour of love and not something suited to an impatient, Type A personality. The end result is both beautiful and rewarding and many family and staff wedding cakes have been embellished with crystallized flowers over the years.

Flowers and leaves must be edible and are all worth doing.

Smaller flowers are more attractive when crystallized e.g. primroses, violets, apple blossom, viola’s, rose petals….We crystallize lots of leaves as well as flowers so one can make attractive arrangements.  Use fairly strong textured leaves – e.g. mint, lemon balm, sweet cicely, wild strawberry, salad burnet or marguerite daisy leaves.

The caster sugar must be absolutely dry, one could dry it in a low oven for about 30 minutes approx. Break up the egg white slightly in a little bowl with a fork. Using a child’s paintbrush, paint the egg white very carefully over each petal and into every crevice. Pour the caster sugar over the flower with a teaspoon. Arrange the crystallized flowers carefully on silicone paper so that they retain a good shape. Leave to dry overnight in a warm, dry place such as close to an Aga, over a radiator or in an airing cupboard. When properly crystallized, these flowers will last for months, even years, provided they are kept dry. We store them in a pottery jar or a tin box with an airtight lid.

Happy Easter…

Happy Easter to you all….These beautiful clear sunny days lift our spirits. The soil has warmed up in the garden, and the perennial plants are popping up again after their Winter hibernation.  Our little seedlings are growing in the garden and the greenhouses. I’ve been snipping chives to scatter over Easter egg sandwiches for a picnic on the cliffs and picking the first of the tiny pungent horseradish leaves to add to Spring salads.

This is the time to enjoy melissa or lemon balm leaves too; they are still tiny and have a haunting lemony taste. Delicious raw or in a lemon balm tisane a long time favourite after dinner infusion at Ballymaloe House but the treat from nature that really gives me a ‘Ooops in my tummy’ is sea kale. We’ve been blanching them by covering the plants with terracotta seakale pots or black plastic dustbins to exclude the light since shortly after Christmas. Now the pale yellow delicate stalks with a little frilly leaf on top are ready to eat so that will be our Easter feast. It’s so special that it needs little adornment apart from melted butter and perhaps some Hollandaise sauce, but here I pair it with a few oysters which we can still enjoy until the end of April.

I’ll cook my Easter lamb with just a sprinkle of sea salt flakes, no cumin, coriander or harissa with this sweet young lamb, just some fresh mint sauce.  I will use the first spears of fresh mint to make a simple mint sauce from Myrtle Allen’s recipe in the Ballymaloe Cookery Book.

If you don’t have a clump of spearmint, plant it now – it’s a perennial and will re-emerge every year after it’s winter snooze.

Hope you managed to make some Hot Cross Buns from the recipe in last week’s column. We’ve been making lots, they disappeared like hot cakes but any left overs make the most delicious Hot Cross Bread and Butter Pudding. Perfect for an Easter Sunday pud. If you  can’t find the time to make them, buy the best you can find from the growing number or artisan bakers around the country www.realbreadireland.org

Rhubarb is always linked to Easter in my mind and who doesn’t love a rhubarb tart (insert column date from recipe) but here’s a recipe for a Roast Rhubarb slice with Rose Geranium sugar that we’ve been enjoying here – It’s kind of a hybrid – delicious with a cup of coffee or a dessert.

If you have a food processor it’s super easy to make and this Rose geranium sugar is worth having in a jar to sprinkle over other cakes and desserts.

Happy Easter to each and everyone – good times are coming…!

Sea Kale and Oysters on Toast with Hollandaise Sauce

Cooking time depends on the freshness of the seakale. As you can imagine cooked mussels and prawns would be delicious here also. Check out the Farmers Markets at Midleton and Mahon Point for sea kale during the next few weeks.

Serves 4 – 6

600ml water

1 teaspoon salt

450g seakale

30g butter

8 – 12 Irish oysters

6 slices of toast, buttered

Hollandaise sauce (see recipe)

Garnish

A small bunch of chervil

Open the oysters and turn into a bowl.

Wash the seakale gently and trim into manageable lengths – about 10cm. Bring the water to a fast boil and add the salt. Add the seakale, cover and boil until tender – about 4 – 6  minutes. The cooking time depends on the freshness of the seakale. Just as soon as a knife will pierce the seakale easily, drain it.

Melt the butter in a pan on a gentle heat and toss in the oysters to warm through.

Serve the seakale with the oysters on hot buttered toast. Drizzle generously with Hollandaise sauce. Pop a little bunch of chervil on top of each toast and serve immediately.

Hollandaise Sauce

Serves 4-6, depending on what it is to be served with

Hollandaise is the mother of all the warm emulsion sauces.  The version we use here is easy to make and quite delicious with fish.  Like Mayonnaise it takes less than 5 minutes to make and transforms any fish into a feast.  Once the sauce is made it must be kept warm: the temperature should not go above 70-80C or the sauce will curdle.  A thermos flask can provide a simple solution on a small scale, otherwise put the Hollandaise Sauce into a delph or plastic bowl in a saucepan of hot but not simmering water.  Hollandaise Sauce cannot be reheated absolutely successfully so it’s best to make just the quantity you need.  If however you have a little left over, use it to enrich other sauces or mashed potato.

2 egg yolks, preferably free-range and organic

110g butter cut into dice

1 dessertspoon cold water

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, approx.

Put the egg yolks in a heavy stainless saucepan on a low heat, or in a bowl over hot water.  Add water and whisk thoroughly.  Add the butter bit by bit, whisking all the time.  As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece.  The mixture will gradually thicken, but if it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water if necessary.  Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made.  Finally add the lemon juice to taste.  If the sauce is slow to thicken it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low.  Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to coating consistency. 

It is important to remember that if you are making Hollandaise Sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage.  If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce.

Another good tip if you are making Hollandaise Sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if becomes too hot.

Keep the sauce warm until service either in a pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water (do not have gas jet on).  A thermos flask is also a good option.

Myrtle’s Mint Sauce for Easter Lamb

Traditional mint sauce, made with tender young shoots of fresh mint, takes only minutes to make. For those who are expecting a bright green jelly, real mint sauce has a slightly dull colour and watery texture.

Makes about 175ml (6fl ozup)

Serves about 6

25g (1oz) fresh mint, finely chopped

1 tablespoon sugar

110ml (4fl oz) boiling water

25ml (1fl oz) white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put the freshly chopped mint and sugar into a sauce boat. Add the boiling water and vinegar or lemon juice. Allow to infuse for 5–10 minutes, before serving.

Easter Devilled Eggs

Makes 8 – Serves 4

4 free range eggs

2-3 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped chives

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 box anchovies

Garnish

Watercress and chervil

For the egg mayonnaise, hard boil the eggs for 10 minutes in boiling water, drain and put immediately into a bowl of cold water. (Eggs with a black ring around the yolk have been overcooked). When cold, shell, slice in half lengthways and sieve the yolks, mix the sieved yolk with mayonnaise, add chopped chives, 2 mashed anchovy fillets and salt and pepper to taste. Fill in to a piping bag and pipe into the whites. Garnish with a whole wiggly anchovy and a sprig of chervil over the top.

Serve with thinly sliced brown yeast bread and a few sprigs of watercress if available.

Hot Cross Bun Bread and Butter Pudding

A great way to use up left over Hot Cross buns and of course this recipe can be adapted for scones, Panetonne, even spotted dog or barmbrack. 

Serves 6-8

6 – 8 Hot-Cross buns (depending on size)

50g (2oz) butter, preferably unsalted

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon or mixed spice

25g raisins

25g candied peel

450ml (16fl oz) cream

225ml (8fl oz) milk

4 large organic eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

110g (4oz) sugar

pinch of salt

1 x 20.5cm (8 inch) square pottery or china dish

Split the hot cross buns in three horizontally, butter each side, but not the top of the buns. Arrange the base, in one layer in the dish. Sprinkle the buns with half the spice and half the raisins and candied peel, arrange the next layer of buns. Sprinkle the remaining nutmeg, raisins and candied peel. Cover with the tops of the hot cross buns.

In a bowl, whisk together the cream, milk, eggs, vanilla extract, sugar and the pinch of salt. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve over the buns. Let the mixture stand, loosely covered, at room temperature for at least 1 hour or chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Place the pudding in a bain-marie and pour in enough water to come half way up the sides of the baking dish. Bake the pudding in the middle of the oven for about 1 hour or until the top is crisp and golden. Serve warm with some softly whipped cream.

Good to know: This pudding reheats perfectly.

Roast Rhubarb and Sweet Geranium Sugar Cake

You’ll find yourself reaching for this recipe over and over again. Here I use rhubarb with sweet geranium, but I also love it with green gooseberries and elderflower, or plums or blackberries and apples. I enjoy arranging the rhubarb in neat lines, but if you are super busy just sprinkle them it the top of the sponge base.   

Serves 10-12

Roast Rhubarb

1kg (2 1/4lb) red rhubarb

200–250g (7-9oz) granulated sugar

8–12 lemon geranium leaves (Pelargonium graveolens)

For the Sponge Base

225g (8oz) softened butter

175g (6oz) caster sugar

275g (9ozups) self-raising flour

3-4 organic, free-range eggs

6-8 sweet geranium leaves

Sweet Geranium Sugar

2 large or 4 smaller sweet geranium leaves

50g (2oz) caster sugar

To Serve

crème fraîche or softly whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 160°C/320°F/Gas Mark 3.

First roast the rhubarb.

Trim the rhubarb stalks if necessary. Slice the rhubarb into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces and arrange in a single layer in a 45 x 30cm (18 x 12 inch) non-reactive ovenproof dish. Scatter the sugar over the rhubarb and leave to macerate for 1 hour or more, until the juices start to run.

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

Cover the rhubarb with a sheet of parchment paper and roast in the oven for 10 minutes – remove the paper and continue to roast for 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until the rhubarb is just tender. Keep a close eye on the rhubarb as it can disintegrate very quickly, it may only take 10 minutes in total. Cool.

Line the base of a 30 x 20.5 x 2cm (12 x 8 x 3/4 inch) cake tin with parchment paper, allowing it to hang over the sides.  If available, arrange 6–8 sweet geranium leaves over the base – these give the sponge a haunting lemony flavour.

To make the sponge base, combine the soft butter, sugar and flour in the bowl of a food processor. Whizz for a second or two, then add the eggs and stop as soon as the mixture comes together. Spoon the mixture over the base of the tin as evenly as possible (over the sweet geranium leaves). Arrange the rhubarb carefully over the sponge mixture, there should be enough to cover it generously. Bake for about 50 minutes.

Sweet Geranium Sugar

Meanwhile, whizz the sweet geranium leaves with caster sugar in a food processor. Spread over a baking tray and set aside at room temperature to dry out.

When the cake is fully cooked, the centre of the cake should be firm to the touch and the edges slightly shrunk from the sides of the tin.  Leave to rest in the tin for 4–5 minutes, sprinkle with sweet geranium sugar and cut in portions. 

Serve with crème fraîche or softly whipped cream.

Spring Lamb’s Liver with Harissa Mayo and Wild Garlic Pesto

Lambs liver is delicate and tender, ask your butcher to tell you when they have spanking fresh liver.

Serves 4

500g Spring lamb liver

Flour, well seasoned with salt and freshly cracked pepper

Clarified butter or extra virgin olive oil

Harissa Mayo

Wild garlic pesto

Wild garlic flowers if available for garnish

First make the harissa and add ½ – 1 tablespoon to 5flozs  of mayo. Make or buy a jar of wild garlic pesto. Put into 2 squeezy bottles, if available.

Wash the liver, slice thinly dry in kitchen paper. Dip the liver in the well-seasoned flour. Melt the butter or heat the olive oil in a pan on a medium heat. Cook the liver in batches 1 – 2 minutes on one side then flip over onto the other side, careful not to overcook. Transfer to hot plates. Drizzle with harissa mayo and a little wild garlic pesto and serve immediately.

Harissa

Serve with grilled meat, fish and vegetables and in soups

6 chillies, roasted, seeded and peeled

1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato purée

8 cloves of garlic crushed

3 teaspoons of ground and roasted cumin seeds

3 teaspoons of ground and roasted coriander

6 tablespoons of olive oil

1 teaspoon of red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons of chopped coriander leaf

salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar

Place the chillies on a small roasting tray and roast for about 20 minutes. The skins will be blackening and blistering and coming away from the flesh. Place the roasted chillies in a bowl, seal tightly with cling film and allow to cool. When cool, peel off the skins and slit the chillies to remove the seeds. You just want the roasted flesh of the chilli for the harissa.

Place the chillies in a food processor or use a pestle and mortar. Add the tomato paste, garlic, and ground spices and process to a smoothish purée. Gradually add in the oil and vinegar. Add the chopped coriander leaves and season to taste, adding a tiny pinch of sugar if you feel the flavour needs a lift. The taste should be strong, hot and pungent.

Store in a covered container such as a jam jar in the fridge.

The harissa will keep perfectly like this for several months.

Wild Food of the Week – Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm, a perennial herb might not be in your top ten of ‘must haves’ but I just adore it and so do the bees. It’s also called bee balm and our bees love the tiny white flowers. Given half a chance, lemon balm or melissa as it’s also known hops around and is given to tucking itself in here and there in between plants.  It can become invasive but the roots are shallow so it’s easy to pull up, unlike horseradish. Lemon balm was dedicated to the Roman Goddess Diana by the ancient Greeks and used medicinally by them for over 2000 years – it’s known to be an aid to digestion and helps to ease colic and flatulence and can help those suffering with insomnia.

Easter Baking

The weeks are whizzing by Easter is virtually upon us. We’ve just made our Simnel Cake, and wrapped it up to marzipan and ice closer to the feast day. Easter is particularly early this year so it’ll be more difficult to get milk fed lamb but if you contact your local family butcher they will hopefully be able to source it for you. It’s so worth making the effort for the sweet delicate flavour and melting texture but there’s still time to make the Simnel cake, with a delicious layer of moist almond marzipan in the centre.

I’m sharing my favourite recipe for hot cross buns too. They take time to make but the anticipation and satisfaction are so worth it. We’ve also discovered that they freeze well, both cooked and uncooked and will taste miles better then virtually anything you can buy.

We’ve also experimented with a hot cross bun loaf which is fun to make in a tin or a tear and share version. I’ve also ordered a mould to  make Flores Fritas, the crackly rose shaped fritters so beloved of Spaniards for Semana Santa at Easter time. The batter is super simple to make, then simply dip the hot mould into the batter, cook in hot oil until it crisps. When it slips off the mould continue cooking, we’re only talking seconds until evenly golden. Drain on kitchen paper, dredge with icing or vanilla sugar. Enjoy immediately, the problem is where to stop – everyone loves them! Another simple way to bring joy into our Covid 19 world.

Finally, for this week , Torrejas, another Spanish Easter speciality for Holy Week that’s also eaten all over Latin America, can be enjoyed year round. It’s the Spanish version of French Toast. Sliced, slightly stale bread, dipped in a mixture of milk, eggs, sugar and occasionally a splash of wine or better still sherry, preferably soaked overnight so the stale bread absorbs the maximum amount of liquid. A rich bread like Brioche gives best results. Apparently this simple treat dates back to Roman times. It differs from French Toast principally because its cooked in olive oil. It’s easy to see how it became popular, especially in households where money was scarce, a delicious way to transform leftover bread into an inexpensive dessert. In the middle ages it became common to eat Torrejas during Lent, particularly during Semana Santa (Holy Week) to compensate for the absence of meat and wine. Traditionally eaten with a glass of wine, the combination was said to represent the body and blood of Christ – not exactly a penance in my book….

Torrejas still feature on traditional Menu del Dia all over Spain as an affordable workers lunch. It was in fact a legal requirement in Spain for decades. One way or another this recipe will become a favourite in your repertoire of ‘go to’ dishes loved by all the family. Get going on your symbolic Easter Simnel cake  –  to decorate with marzipan ice and the 11 of the 12 apostles to enjoy on Easter Sunday but meanwhile have fun making Torrejas with your little ones, who’ll no doubt want to drizzle them with chocolate spread rather than traditional honey.

Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake is a traditional Easter cake. It has a layer of almond paste baked into the centre and a thick layer of almond icing on top.  The 11 balls represent 11 of the 12 apostles – Judas is missing because he betrayed Jesus.

8oz (225g) butter

8oz (225g) pale, soft brown sugar

6 eggs, preferably free range

10oz (275g) white flour

1 teaspoon mixed spice

2 1/2fl oz (35ml) Irish whiskey

12oz (350g) best quality sultanas

12oz (350g) best quality currants

12oz (350g) best quality raisins

4oz (110g) cherries

4oz (110g) homemade candied peel

2oz (50g) whole almonds

2oz (50g) ground almonds

rind of 1 lemon

rind of 1 orange

1 large or 2 small Bramley Seedling apples, grated

Almond Paste

1lb (450g) ground almonds

1lb (450g) castor sugar

2 small eggs

3 of 4 drops of pure almond extract

2 tablespoons Irish whiskey

Line the base and sides of a 9 inch (23cm) round, or an 8 inch (20.5cm) square tin with brown paper and greaseproof paper.

Wash the cherries and dry them. Cut in two or four as desired. Blanch the almonds in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, rub off the skins and chop them finely. Mix the dried fruit, nuts, ground almonds and grated orange and lemon rind. Add about half of the whiskey and leave for 1 hour to macerate.

Next make the almond paste.

Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey and 3 or 4 drops of pure almond extract (careful it’s really easy to put in too much), then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all the egg). Sprinkle the work top with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Cream the butter until very soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Whisk the eggs and add in bit by bit, beating well between each addition so that the mixture doesn’t curdle. Mix the spice with the flour and stir in gently. Add the grated apple to the fruit and mix in gently but thoroughly (don’t beat the mixture again or you will toughen the cake).

Put half of the cake mixture into the prepared tin, roll about half of the almond paste into an 8 1/2 inch (21.5cm) round. Place this on top of the cake mixture in the tin and cover with the remaining mixture. Make a slight hollow in the centre, dip you hand in water and pat it over the surface of the cake: this will ensure that the top is smooth when cooked. Cover the top with a single sheet of brown paper. 

Put into the preheated oven; reduce the heat to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 after 1 hour. Bake until cooked, 3 – 3 1/2 hours approx., test in the centre with a skewer – it should come out completely clean. Pour the rest of the whiskey over the cake and leave to cool in the tin.

NOTE: When you are testing do so at an angle into the cake mixture because the almond paste can give a false reading.

Next day remove the cake from the tin. Do not remove the lining paper but wrap in several layers of parchment paper until required.

When you wish to ice the cake, roll the remainder of the almond paste into a 9 inch (23cm) round. Brush the cake with a little lightly beaten egg white and top with the almond paste. Roll the remainder of the paste into 11 balls. Score the top of the cake in 1 1/2 inch (4cm) squares or diamonds. Brush with beaten egg yolk, stick the ‘apostles’ around the outer edge of the top, brush with beaten egg. Toast in a preheated oven 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7, for 15-20 minutes or until slightly golden. Decorate with an Easter Chickens and flowers if you fancy. Cut while warm or store for several weeks when cold.

NB: Almond paste may also be used to ice the side of the cake.  You will need half the quantity of almond paste again.

This cake keeps for weeks or even months, but while still delicious it changes both in texture and flavour as it matures.

Names of the Apostles

(1).   Simon (also known as Peter)

(2).   Andrew (Simon Peter’s brother)

(3).   James

(4)     John (James’s brother)

(5).   Philip

(6).   Bartholomew

(7).   Thomas

(8).   Matthew (tax collector)

(9).   James

(10). Thaddaeus

(11). Simon the Cananaean

(12).           Matthia

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns were traditionally eaten in Ireland only on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday but nowadays they are available right through Lent. This practice would have been frowned on in the past when these were several black fast days and the people would scarcely have had enough to eat, not to mention spicy fruit filled buns. Buns can be made larger if desired.

Makes 22 (50g/2ozs dough)

25g (1oz) fresh yeast

110g (4oz) castor sugar

450g (1lb) bakers flour

75g (3oz) butter

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2-3 teaspoons mixed spice, depending how fresh it is

1 level teaspoon of salt (important to add)

2 organic eggs

225-300ml (8-10 fl oz) tepid milk

75g (3oz) currants

50g (2oz) sultanas

25g (1oz) candied peel, chopped

egg wash made with milk, sugar, 1 organic egg yolk, whisked together

Liquid Cross

50g (2oz) white flour

1 tablespoon melted butter

4-5 tablespoons cold water

Bun Wash

Put 600ml (1 pint) water and 450g (1 lb) sugar into a pan and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven to give them a sweet, sticky glaze. This makes a large quantity of bun wash but it keeps very well.

To Make the Hot Cross Buns.

Dissolve the yeast with 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a little tepid milk.

Put the flour into a bowl, rub in the butter, add the cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice, a pinch of salt and the remainder of the sugar.  Mix well. Whisk the eggs and add to the milk. Make a well in the centre of the flour, add the yeast and most of the liquid and mix to a soft dough, adding a little more milk if necessary.

Cover and leave to rest for 2 or 3 minutes then knead by hand or in a food processor until smooth.  Add the currants, sultanas and mixed peel and continue to knead until the dough is shiny. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.

“Knock back”, by kneading for 3 or 4 minutes, rest for a few minutes.  Divide the mixture into 14 balls, each weighing about 50g (2oz). Knead each slightly and shape into buns.  Place on a lightly floured tray.  Egg wash and leave to rise. 

If using shortcrust, arrange a cross of pastry on each one.  Leave to rise until double in size.  Then egg wash a second time carefully.

We tend to decorate with what we call a “liquid cross”.  To make this, mix the flour, melted butter and water together to form a thick liquid.  Fill into a paper piping bag and pipe a liquid cross on top of each bun.

Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas mark 6.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6 for a further 10 minutes or until golden.  Leave to cool on a wire rack.  Split in two and serve with butter.

Alternatively, brush each one with bun wash while still warm.

Hot Cross Bun Loaf

Brush the bottom and sides of the loaf tin (13x20cm (5x8inch) approx.) with oil. Make the dough in the usual way – Knock back.

Roll 8 x 50g/2ozs balls of dough and arrange in the tin. Egg wash, cover and allow to rise for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 230°C, just before baking brush with egg wash, pipe a liquid cross on each bun.

Bake for 10 minutes at 230°C reduce temperature to 190°C for a further 10 – 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, paint with the bun wash. Cool on a wire rack and pull apart and eat slathered in butter.

Hot Cross Tear & Share

Brush the base and sides of a 23cm (9 inch) round spring form tin with oil. Arrange 12 – 14, 50g/2oz balls of dough almost side by side in the tin, egg wash and allow to rise in a warm place until double in size. Egg wash again, pipe a liquid cross onto the top of each bun. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to 190°C for a further 10 – 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and brush with bun wash while still warm. Cool on a wire rack.

Torrejas

A speciality for Semana Santa – Holy Week in Spain but enjoyed year round. It’s a brilliant way to use up any leftover bread deliciously. Cook in olive oil rather than butter.

Makes 8 pieces

8 slices Baguette, challah or brioche

175ml (6 floz) Milk

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

To Cook:

Olive oil

For Sprinkling:

Cinnamon sugar, honey or icing sugar

Slice the bread approx. 1” thick slices, whisk the eggs, milk and sugar well together and pour into a gratin dish. Dip the slices in the liquid and flip over. Leave to soak, for at least an hour. In Spain they sometimes soak overnight.

To cook, heat some extra virgin olive oil in a wide frying pan over a medium heat. Cook until golden 3 – 4 minutes on each side.  Sprinkle with icing sugar, cinnamon sugar or drizzle with honey. I love Torrejas warm with a dollop of crème fraiche but it’s usually served cold or at room temperature in Spain as a dessert or a nibble with a cup of strong coffee.

Magnificent Mussels…

Prawns, oysters, lobsters are all highly prized on the shellfish popularity stakes but it baffles me why mussels don’t seem to be revered in the same way. This week, at my local fishmonger, Ballycotton Seafood, a 1 kilo net bag of spanking fresh Glenbeigh mussels for €5.00. So few euros for such a burst of deliciousness plus mussels have the most impressive nutrient profile of all shellfish.

They boost our immune system and are properly sustainable. They are cultivated on ropes suspended from floating rafts in the clean waters of various bays around the Irish coastline. They appear to be environmentally benign and some research seems to indicate that their cultivation has a beneficial effect on the marine eco system.

Of course there are wild populations too, but for most, the sweet plump cultivated mussels are easier to come by. Cheap and super easy to cook, plus they take on flavours from every continent around the globe. Mussels are the quintessential fast food; from fridge to table in less than 5 minutes…..A simple supper of warm freshly steamed mussels with a bowl of mayo and some brown soda bread is one of my all-time favourites. I still dream of those large green tipped mussels I enjoyed over and over again in New Zealand.

But first a few basics…

Mussels must be fresh – each shell should be tightly shut, if it is open, tap the mussel lightly on the worktop. If it reacts and begins to close it is obviously still fresh and alive – “but if in doubt throw it out”. Mussels like clams, roghans, cockles, palourdes are all bivalves they filter the water so the water needs to be unpolluted. All mussels you buy will have been purified as a precaution, so no need to be apprehensive. Store them in your fridge and enjoy while they are fresh and plump.

How to cook….

Pick over the shells, if there are any open ones that don’t close after a gentle tap, discard. Run under cold water, drain, at it’s most basic put in a sauté or a heavy frying pan or a  saucepan in a single layer over a medium heat. One can add a dash of white wine, chopped shallots and herbs, depending on the recipe. Cover with a lid, in two or three minutes the mussels will start to open. Lift out with a perforated spoon. Remove the beard, the beard is the little tuft of tough hair that attaches the mussel onto the rock or rope that it grows on, it’s not good to eat but is not dangerous. The mussels will exude lots of delicious briny juice which can be the basis of a sauce or chowder.

In Belgium, moules frites are the ‘must have’ dish in every bistro. Sitting around a table, tucking into crispy chips with a big bowl of freshly opened mussels and some mayo is a quintessential Belgian experience. In France, Moules Marinière in a richer sauce are equally irresistible. Moules Provençal or garlic mussels in English are universally loved by everyone from toddlers upwards.

Mussels take on Asian flavours deliciously so here is a recipe for Thai mussels in a spicy coconut broth – completely irresistible. And then how about mussels in the Goan style from South India and how about  mussels with Mexican flavours that will include Jalapeno, chorizo and maybe tequila. Chinese mussels will be steamed open with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce with lots of ginger, chillies and spring onions and maybe oyster sauce. Japanese mussels will also be teased open in Saki, but try Dynamite mussels which seem to pop up everywhere in Japan. The name refers to the burst of flavour from the topping. These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Pick up some Irish mussels next time you go shopping and start to experiment with recipes from around the world. Here are a few to get your started.

Moules Mariniere

Serves 4

Curnonsky, France’s Prince of Gastronomes, declared that Brittany is a paradise for concylliophages. Apparently that unpronounceable word means shellfish eaters. Ever since I discovered the word I’ve been longing to use it but haven’t managed to get my tongue around it yet! The legendary mussel dish, Moules Mariniere can now be found not only in this area but all over the world – anywhere mussels are produced.

1.8kg (4 lbs) scrubbed mussels, weighed in their shells

2 teaspoons chopped parsley

2 teaspoons chopped spring onions

1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

1 teaspoon chopped chives

2 teaspoons chopped fennel

225ml (8 fl ozs) dry white wine

4 tablespoons (5 American tablespoons) Hollandaise Sauce (see recipe)

Garnish

freshly chopped parsley

Check that all the mussels are tightly closed and wash well in several changes of water. Steam open on a medium heat with the wine, herbs. and spring onions. Take the mussels out of the pan just as soon as the shells open. Remove the ‘beard’ and one shell from each.  They can be kept at this stage for some time, even for a day or two in the fridge, as long as they sit in the cooking liquid.

To Serve

Heat the cooking juices. When boiling, add the mussels, allowing them to heat through but not to cook any more. Remove from the heat and stir in the Hollandaise Sauce. Serve at once in deep old-fashioned soup bowls, sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley.

Mussels in the Goan Style

This is a great recipe in that most of the work can be done early in the day or even the day before.

The mussels can be replaced with clams, shrimp or monkfish and a combination of fish and shellfish may be used. Thick pieces of pollock also work well as do salmon and mackerel.

Plain boiled rice can be served with this dish or just crusty bread to mop up the delicious broth.

Serves 6

72 mussels

a 2.5cm (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

8 cloves of peeled garlic

110ml (4fl oz) of water

4 tablespoons of vegetable oil

200g (7oz) onion, peeled and chopped

1-2 fresh chilies, sliced into fine rounds

1/2 teaspoon of turmeric

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

1 1/2 tins (1 pint/600ml) of coconut milk

salt

fresh coriander leaves

Wash the mussels, removing any loose beards. Put the ginger, garlic and water into a blender and blend to a smooth purée.

Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions. Cook until translucent. Add the ginger and garlic purée, chillies, turmeric and cumin. Stir and cook for a minute. Add the coconut milk and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. This broth can now be put aside for later.

When you want to serve the dish, put the mussels into the pan with the broth. Cover and place on a moderate heat and allow to come to the boil. Shake the pan occasionally and cook for approx.6 minutes. Check to see that all the mussels have popped open. Serve immediately with lots of fresh coriander leaves.

If using monkfish, bring the broth to the boil and add the collops of monkfish.  If using any of the other suggested fish, cut into 5cm (2 inch) pieces. Cover and simmer gently for approximately 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. It will no longer look opaque but will have a white and creamy appearance.  Serve in deep bowls garnished with coriander leaves.

Moules Provençale

Mussels are a perennial favourite; don’t skimp on the garlic in this recipe or they will taste rather dull and ‘bready’.

Serves 6-8

48 mussels, approx. 600g (1 1/4lbs)

Provençale Butter

75g (3oz) soft butter

2 large cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon olive oil

fresh, white breadcrumbs

Check that all the mussels are closed. If any are open, tap the mussel on the work top, if it does not close within a few seconds, discard. (The rule with shellfish is always, ‘If in doubt, throw it out’.) Scrape off any barnacles from the mussel shells. Wash the mussels well in several changes of cold water. Then spread them in a single layer in a pan, covered with a folded tea towel or a lid and cook over a gentle heat. This usually takes 2-3 minutes, the mussels are cooked just as soon as the shells open. Remove them from the pan immediately or they will shrink in size and become tough.

Remove the beard (the little tuft of tough ‘hair’ which attached the mussel to the rock or rope it grew on). Discard one shell. Loosen the mussel from the other shell, but leave it in the shell. Allow to get quite cold.

Meanwhile make the Provençale Butter. Peel and crush the garlic and pound it in a mortar with the finely chopped parsley and olive oil. Gradually beat in the butter (this may be done either in a bowl or a food processor). Spread the soft garlic butter evenly over the mussels in the shells and dip each one into the soft, white breadcrumbs. They may be prepared ahead to this point and frozen in a covered box lined with parchment paper.

Arrange in individual serving dishes. Brown under the grill and serve with crusty white bread to mop up the delicious garlicky juices.

Mussels with Thai Flavours

We love this recipe.   Use some of your precious fresh lime leaves to enhance the flavour.   Cockles, clams or collops of monkfish can also be used.

Serves 4 – 6

2 kg mussels

2 tablespoon sunflower oil

6 cloves garlic

1-2 Thai red chillies

1 stalk lemon grass, chopped

3 kaffir lime leaves

1 tablespoon fish sauce, nam pla

3-4 tablespoons chopped coriander

Check the mussels carefully, discard any broken or open shells.  Wash well, drain.  Crush the garlic and chop the chillies finely.  Heat a little oil on a medium heat, add the garlic and chilli and lemon grass and fry for a minute or two.

Add the nam pla and kaffir lime leaves and then the mussels.  Cover with a folded tea-towel or the lid of the pan.  The mussels will open in just a few minutes.

Add the chopped coriander to the mussel juices.  Divide the mussels between four hot plates, pour the hot juices over the shellfish and serve immediately.

Gok’s Chinese Mussels with Black Bean Sauce

Serves 4

2 tablespoons groundnut oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced

2 sticks of celery, finely sliced at an angle

3 spring onions, finely sliced into rounds

1.5kg fresh mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded

75ml Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

2 tablespoons black beans, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

Heat the groundnut oil in a wok or saucepan with a tight fitting lid over a medium heat. When hot, add the garlic, celery and spring onions. Stir-fry these vegetables for 1 – 2 minutes until they are soft and beginning to colour.

Increase the heat to maximum and add the mussels, stirring so they are coated with the rest of the ingredients. Once they are combined, pour in the Shaoxing rice wine and immediately cover the wok with a lid.

Leave the mussels to cook for 4 – 5 minutes. Mussels are cooked when they have opened to reveal the coral-coloured flesh on the inside. Do not eat any that remain closed. As soon as they mussels are opened, tip the entire contents of the wok into a sieve set over a bowl, shaking they mixture to make sure all the liquid has drained through.

Place the wok back on the heat over a low flame, then pour the sieved liquid back into the wok and bring back to the boil. Once it’s bubbling, add the black beans, oyster and soy sauce. Cook for 4 – 5 minutes to reduce the mixture by a quarter.

Put the mussels back in the wok, along with all the other ingredients gathered in the sieve. Heat through and serve immediately.

Recipe from Gok Wan’s Gok Cooks Chinese Published by Penguin)

Happy St Patrick’s Day

I’ve just been re-reading my Examiner column for St Patrick’s Day 2020. There was general consternation around the country because parades were cancelled …. Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine that a year later the possibility of St Patrick’s Day parades wouldn’t even be discussed…..

I had just cancelled my annual trip to New York to promote Ireland and Irish food. This year despite the Covid 19 pandemic , there have still been numerous interview requests from radio, TV and print media. The continuing interest is due to Tourism Ireland and Bord Failte, who over the years have very successfully used St Patricks Day to focus the world’s attention on Ireland.  Whenever I get the opportunity, I love to wax lyrical about the creativity of Irish chefs and cooks to the Americans who heretofore had certainly not associated Ireland with a vibrant contemporary food scene.

Friends who live in New York tell me that there has actually been a construction boom there recently – No, they are not building more sky scrapers….. But thanks to the Mayor’s decision to allow the cities restaurants to remain open for outdoor dining, architects and designers are putting their energy into creating a combination of street dining options, restaurants have scrambled to keep going in novel ways despite the cold. Dotted all along the sidewalks are a combination of canvas or plastic tents,  wooden sheds, yurts, booths and Kotatsus (Japanese heated tables) and a variety of heaters.

Not an option here at present, the restaurants who have managed to ‘pivot’ to offer take-outs and/or meal kits for collection will hopefully be able to capitalise on St Patricks Day, to entice us to mark our national feast day make the day and celebrate at home.

 Every sector is hurting but a huge thank you to all of you who are making a determined effort to support the local businesses and small shops, farmers markets, butchers, bakers, fish smokers, cheesemakers… who are still open. Each and every decision we make,  can manage to sustain someone in our community for another few weeks, every euro really matters at present…

So what shall we cook for St Patricks Day? I feel drawn to something comforting and traditional. Personally I just love boiled bacon, cabbage and parsley sauce followed by a juicy rhubarb tart (see previous articles for these recipes) but I have chosen a gorgeous riff on a Kerry Pie for you to enjoy. It can certainly be made ahead and reheats and freezes brilliantly.

If the weather is still a bit frosty how, about Irish Scallion Champ soup – a hug in a bowl and of course some little soda bread shamrocks with crunchy oatmeal tops…how naff is that but sure it’s just a bit of fun and they are properly delicious.

For dessert it has to be carrageen moss pudding with Irish whiskey sauce or how about this St Patrick’s Day cake.  I’ve been out picking wood sorrel…the delicious shamrock shaped leaves have a tart lemony flavour and are just the thing to decorate my special convection.

For the past 11 years Tourism Ireland have worked to ‘Green’ iconic buildings around the World from Sydney Opera House to the Pyramids, to focus attention on Ireland. At home in Ireland, an increasing number of us including, Ballymaloe House and Ballymaloe Cookery School have been enthusiastically joining in and will continue to do so for the 4th year in 2021. Why not join in, and share the images with friends worldwide to encourage them to think about planning a post Covid visit to Ireland but meanwhile Happy St Patricks Day and spread the love.

Irish Scallion Champ Soup with Shamrock Scones

Serves 6

Most people would have potatoes and onions in the house even if the cupboard was otherwise bare so one could make this simply delicious soup at a moment’s notice. While the vegetables are sweating, pop a few white soda scones or cheddar cheese scones into the oven and wow, won’t they be impressed.

50g (2oz) butter

550g (20oz) peeled diced potatoes, one-third inch dice

110g (4oz) diced scallion, use green and white parts of the plant

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 litre (2 pints) homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock

100ml (4fl oz) creamy milk

freshly chopped herbs and herb flowers, optional

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. When it foams, add the potatoes and scallions and toss them in the butter until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper or paper lid and the lid of the saucepan. Sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes approx. Meanwhile bring the stock to the boil, when the vegetables are soft but not coloured add stock and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. Puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning. Thin with creamy milk to the required consistency.

Serve sprinkled with a few freshly-chopped herbs and a few wild garlic flowers of available.

Shamrock Soda Scones

The soda bread dough only takes 2 or 3 minutes to make and 20 – 40 minutes to bake depending on how you decide to serve it.. It is certainly another of my ‘great convertibles’. We have had the greatest fun experimenting with different variations and uses.

Makes 12 approx. depending on size of cutter

1lb (450g/4 cups) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoonsalt

1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda/bread soda

sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 12-14fl oz (350-400ml) approx.

4oz (110g) grated mature Cheddar cheese and/or flaked oatmeal

A Shamrock ‘cookie’ cutter. Mine is roughly 7cm long and 6cm wide.

First fully preheat your oven to 230ºC/450ºF/Gas Mark 8.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Carefully measure the salt and bicarbonate of soda. Sieve into the bowl. Make a well in the centre.  Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. 

WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS

Tidy it up and flip over gently.  Pat the dough into a round about 1 1/4 inches (3cm) deep. Dip the cutter in flour in between cutting each scone to avoid the mixture sticking. Stamp out shamrock shaped scones.

Brush the top with buttermilk or egg wash and dip in oatmeal or a mixture of rolled oats and grated Cheddar cheese.

Bake in a hot oven, 230ºC/450ºF/Gas Mark 8 for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6 for 10 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the scones: when they are cooked they will sound hollow.

Kerry Lamb Pie

Serves 6

450g (1lb) boneless lamb or mutton (from the shoulder or leg; keep bones for stock)

250g (9oz) chopped onions

250g (9oz) chopped carrots

2 good teaspoons cumin seed (the amount will depend on how fresh the seeds are)

300ml (10fl oz) mutton or lamb stock (or even chicken stock)

2 tablespoons flour

salt and freshly ground pepper

Stock

lamb bones from the meat

1 carrot

1 onion

outside stalk of celery

a bouquet garni made up of a sprig of thyme, parsley stalks

a small bay leaf

Pastry

350g (12oz) white flour

175g (6oz) butter

110ml (4fl oz) water

a pinch of salt

Egg Wash

1 egg beaten with a pinch of salt to glaze

1 tin – 18cm (7 inch) in diameter, 2 1/2 cm (1 inch) high with a pop up base.

If no stock is available, put the bones, carrots, onions, celery and bouquet garni into a saucepan.  Cover with cold water and simmer for 3-4 hours to make a stock.  Cut all the surplus fat away from the meat and then cut the meat into small, neat pieces about the size of a small sugar lump.  Render down the scraps of fat in a hot, wide saucepan until the fat runs.  Discard the pieces.  Cut the vegetables into slightly smaller dice and toss them in the fat, leaving them to cook for 3-4 minutes.  Remove the vegetables, set aside, and toss the meat in the remaining fat over a high heat until the colour turns.

Heat the cumin seed in a dry frying pan, stir for a minute or two until it smells aromatic, careful not to burn.  Stir the flour and cumin seed into the meat.  Cook gently for 2 minutes and blend in the stock gradually.  Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally.  Add back the vegetables, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and leave to simmer in a covered pot until tender.  If using young lamb, 30 minutes will be sufficient; an older animal may take up to 1 hour. 

Meanwhile, make the pastry.  Sieve the flour and salt into a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.  Dice the butter, put it into a saucepan with the water and bring to the boil.  Pour the liquid all at once into the flour and mix together quickly; beat until smooth.  At first the pastry will be too soft to handle but as soon as it cools it may be rolled out 3mm (1/8 inch) thick, to fit the tin.  The pastry may be made into individual pies or one large pie.  Keep back one-third of the pastry for lids.

Fill the pastry-lined tins with the cool meat mixture.  Brush the edges of the pastry with the egg wash and put on the pastry lids, pinching them tightly together.  Roll out the trimmings to make pastry leaves or twirls to decorate the tops of the pies; make a hole in the centre, egg-wash the lid and then egg-wash the decoration also.

Bake the pies for 40 minutes approx. at 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6 until golden on top and bubbling hot in the centre.  Serve with a good Green Salad.

Myrtle Allen’s Carrageen Moss Pudding with Irish Whiskey Sauce

Carrageen moss is a little seaweed that grows on rocks all around our coast, collecting it after Spring tide is part of our traditional food culture. Many people have less than fond memories of Carrageen Moss, partly because so many recipes call for far too much carrageen. It is a very strong natural gelatine so the trick is to use little enough. Because it is so light it is difficult to weigh, we use just enough to fit in my closed fist, a scant 8g (1/4oz). 

This recipe given to me by Myrtle Allen is by far the most delicious I know. Nowadays more chefs are using carrageen, but often they add stronger flavours such as treacle or rosewater, which tend to mask the delicate flavour of the carrageen itself. When Ballymaloe House is open Carrageen Moss pudding is served on the famous Ballymaloe Sweet Trolley every evening.

Serves 6

8g (1/4oz) cleaned, well dried carrageen moss (1 semi-closed fistful)

900ml (1 1/2 pints) milk

1 vanilla pod or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 large egg, preferably free-range

1 tablespoon caster sugar

To Serve

Irish Whiskey Sauce (see recipe)

Soak the carrageen in tepid water for 10 minutes. Strain off the water and put the carrageen into a saucepan with the milk and vanilla pod, if using. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently with the lid on for 20 minutes. At that point, and not before, separate the egg and put the yolk into a bowl. Add the sugar and vanilla extract (if you are using it) and whisk together for a few seconds. Pour the milk and carrageen through a strainer on to the egg yolk mixture, whisking all the time. The carrageen will now be swollen and exuding jelly. Rub all this jelly through the strainer and beat it into the liquid. Test for a set in a cold saucer: put it in the fridge and it should set in a couple of minutes. Rub a little more through the strainer if necessary. Whisk the egg white until stiff peaks form and fold it in gently; it will rise to make a fluffy top. Leave to cool. Serve with Irish lots of softly whipped cream and Irish Whiskey sauce.

Irish Whiskey Sauce

Makes 8 floz (1 x 230ml jar)

8 ozs (225g) castor sugar

3 fl ozs (80ml) cold water

3- 4 tablesp. Irish whiskey

4 fl ozs (120ml) hot water

Put the castor sugar into a saucepan with water, stir over a gentle heat until the sugar dissolves and syrup comes to the boil. Remove the spoon and do not stir. Continue to boil until it turns a nice chestnut-brown colour. Remove from the heat and immediately add the hot water. Allow to dissolve again and then add the Irish whiskey. Serve hot or cold.

St Patrick’s Day Cake with Wood Sorrel

Wood sorrel with it’s tart lemony flavour and resemblance to shamrock makes the perfect decoration for our celebration cake.

Serves 8-10

175g (6oz) soft butter

150g (5oz) castor sugar

3 eggs, preferably free range

175g (6oz) self-raising flour

To Decorate

Lemon Icing (see below)

Wood sorrel Leaves (oxalis acetosella)

1 x 20.5cm (8 inch) sandwich tin, buttered and floured.  Line the base of the tin with parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Put the soft butter, castor sugar, eggs and self-raising flour into the bowl of a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to amalgamate and turn into the prepared tin – make a dip in the centre so it rises evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes approx. or until golden brown and well risen.

Cool in the tin for a few minutes, remove and cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile make the icing (see recipe). Once the cake is cool, pour the icing onto the top and spread gently over the sides with a palette knife.

Decorate with the lots of wood sorrel leaves.

Serve on a pretty plate.

Lemon Icing

225g (8oz) icing sugar

finely grated rind of 1 lemon

2-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Edible green colouring (optional)

Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl.  Add a few drops of green food colouring (optional) Add the lemon zest and enough lemon juice to make a softish icing.

Happy International Women’s Day

International Women’s day is a global celebration of the social, cultural, and political achievements of women. It’s also a “call to action” to accelerate women’s equality.

Every year, thousands of women and their supporters courageously gather in cities across the world, often risking their lives to protest for women’s rights and protection against violence. They are often met with riot police and counter demonstrations.

This year events are, of course, virtual. But I found a list of over 300 events on www.internationalwomensday.com .  

How fortunate are we to have been born into a society where overall, women are considered equal to men and a girl child is welcomed with the same joy as a boy.

It has certainly taken a while…..

When I was a child I distinctly remember overhearing ‘shocked’ conversations about some man in the parish who was spotted pushing a pram, with several of his own children….. it was almost a scandal – that was considered women’s work…

My father had an innate respect and admiration for women. He was so proud of Mummy, a mother of nine by any standard a wonderful homemaker, who dedicated her early life solely to looking after all of us and my father whom she adored. (I don’t use that term loosely). Looking back she was a totally liberated woman. How fortunate were we that she loved cooking and saw it not only as a way of nourishing us all, but bringing joy and excitement into our lives on a daily basis. Later, when my father died she took over the running of the business despite having no training.

Looking back, her skill set was pretty awe-inspiring. She made most of our clothes, wonderful dresses for me, serge dungarees for all of us boys and girls for after school play. I always remember a tartan circular skirt she made for one of my birthdays. I was the envy of all my school friends…

And then there were the fluffy angora boleros, doubt if any if you know what I am talking about! She taught me how to sew and embroider, lazy daises, French knots and chain stitch onto tray cloths, how to use a sewing machine, how to sow seeds and fill hanging baskets. The kitchen garden produced vegetables year round, currants and berries in summer, and several varieties of apple in the Autumn. Daddy made sure she had help in both the house and garden. I remember, local people spoke about how lucky those girls and lads were to be working alongside Mummy.

As a child this was my norm. We also had a flock of hens, chickens were reared for the table and a Kerry cow produced raw milk for the house. I’ve just remembered that she also made hand-made floor rugs, did tapestry fire screens and candlewick bed-spreads which were all the rage at that time. Even though there was no TV, I still marvel at how she did it. In the midst of all this, she taught me how to knit Aran patterns, diamond, blackberry, zig zag, honeycomb, multiple cable and basket stitches.

A wonderful trip down memory lane, as I write, I realise how fortunate I was not only to have my own mother as a role model but to marry into a family with an innate respect and appreciation of women and a culture of encouragement and ‘can do’!  I’ve never experienced a ‘glass ceiling’, the idea abhors me. I feel so proud that so many women have broken through in recent years, both in Ireland and internationally, so much so that a friend recently said to me “You’d almost begin to feel sorry for the men”.

It’s certainly not about either /or, it’s about equal opportunity. But watch out, cultural attitudes can be very deep seated. If your partner thinks that sexist remarks are hilariously funny, be wary, very wary… Though you may be able to laugh it off, it may not really be a joke, but may be a hint of a hidden but deeply held cultural belief which would not bode well for the future.

Covid has resulted in a huge increase in domestic violence- a very worrying situation. In Ireland today, there are numerous examples of gender imbalance and women being paid less for identical work.

As parents, we can all play our part by our example, encouraging our children to reach their full potential with their unique talents. Our educational system would do well to emulate the Finnish Model Vihti where both boys and girls learn essential life skills- basic carpentry, first aid, how to wire a plug, sew, grow, cook, save seeds…

Since the 1960’s here in Ireland, our educational system has primarily focused on a set of academic skills, often to the detriment of practical skills. Consequently, several generations have left school with top grades, but without the basic skills to feed themselves properly and a mis-guided notion that practical skills are of lesser value than academic skills.

During this pandemic, thousands of hugely competent women who could ‘run the country’ found themselves feeling utterly out of their depth and helpless in the first Lockdown when they were confined to home with no backup and a family to feed- 7 days a week, 3 meals a day….

Once again, it’s not either/or, it’s as well as and remember in the end the way to everyone’s heart in through their tummy…!

It could be said that some early feminists did women a grave dis-service by making them feel that cooking was beneath them- drudgery to be avoided at all costs. Learning cooking skills is not a sign of weakness, but it is a sign of strength and self-sufficiency.

Happy International Women’s Day, a celebration of all women particularly those who succeed against the odds in every area of life!

Here are some of Mum’s favourite recipes:

Mummy’s Brown Soda Bread

Makes 1 loaf

340g (3/4lb) wholemeal flour (Howard’s-one-way)

110g (1/4lb) plain white flour

15g (1/2 oz) butter

Barely rounded teaspoon bread soda

Level teaspoon salt

1 egg and 415ml (14fl oz) buttermilk

OR

470ml (16fl oz) buttermilk *

Add two tablespoons of cream if the buttermilk is low fat

Preheat the oven to 230ºC/445ºf/gas mark 8.

Mix the flours in a large bowl, rub in the butter. Add the salt and sieved bread soda. Lift the flour up with your fingers to distribute the salt and bread soda.

Add the beaten egg (if using) to the buttermilk. Make a well in the centre and pour in all the liquid. With your fingers stiff and outstretched, stir in a circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl in ever increasing concentric circles. When you reach the outside of the bowl seconds later the dough should be made.

Sprinkle a little wholemeal flour on to the worktop.

Turn the dough out onto the flour. WASH and dry your hands. (Fill the bread bowl with cold water so it will be easy to wash later.)

Sprinkle a little flour on your hands. Gently tidy the dough around the edges and flip onto the flour. Tuck the edges underneath with the inner edge of your hands, gently pat the dough with your fingers into a loaf about 4cm (1 ½ in) thick.

Cut a deep cross into the bread (this is called ‘Blessing the bread’ and then prick it in the centre of the four sections to let the fairies out of the bread).

Transfer to a floured baking tray.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes then reduce the temperature to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6 for the remaining 25-30 minutes. Turn the bread upside down after approximately 30 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack.

Scalloped Potatoes with Beef and Kidney

Serves 4-6

This filling and economical dish often cooked by my mother was one of our favourites for a cold Winter’s evening. We all loved beef kidney and it was excuse to eat lots of butter on the scalloped potatoes.

3 1/2 lbs (1.5 kg) ‘old’ potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonder, or Kerrs Pinks

1 lb (450g) stewing beef

1 beef kidney

1 lb (450 g) chopped onions

2 ½ -3 ozs (70-85 g) butter

13-15 fl ozs (375-450ml) stock or water

salt and freshly ground pepper

seasoned flour

1 oval cast-iron casserole (4 pint/2.3 l) capacity

Wash the beef kidney, remove the core and cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes, sprinkle with salt and cover with cold water.

Cut the stewing beef into 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes.

Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/4 inch (5mm) thick slices, put a layer of potato slices on the bottom of the casserole.  Drain the kidney pieces and dry with kitchen paper, toss the beef and kidney in seasoned flour and scatter some over the potatoes with approx. one-third of the chopped onions and a few knobs of butter, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Add another layer of potatoes, then meat, onions, and so on up to the top of the casserole, putting some knobs of butter between each layer and ending with a neat layer of overlapping slices of potato.  Season each layer carefully otherwise it may taste bland.  Top with a few knobs of butter, pour in the boiling stock, cover and cook in a low oven, 150C/300F/regulo 2 for 2 ½  hours approx.   Serve on hot plates.

This reheats very well.

Marmalade Pudding

For almost a week during the cold January days the whole house smells of marmalade as we lay down our store for the coming year.  My father-in-law, Ivan Allen adored marmalade pudding.

Serves 6

110g (4oz) plain white flour

110g (4oz) minced beef suet

110g (4oz) breadcrumbs

110g (4oz) sugar

1 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg, preferably free range

2 tablespoons homemade Marmalade chopped

Marmalade Sauce

2 tablespoons water

450g (1lb) homemade Seville Marmalade

freshly squeezed juice of 2-3 lemons

To Serve

softly whipped cream

bowl – capacity (5 inches/12.5cm)

Mix the dry ingredients together.  Add beaten egg, marmalade and a little milk to moisten if necessary (the mixture should have the consistency of plum pudding.)  Fill into a pudding bowl.  Cover with a double sheet of greaseproof paper with a pleat in the centre.  Tie firmly and steam in a covered saucepan for 2-3 hours.  Check regularly and top up with hot water if necessary (the water level should be 3/4 ways up the bowl).

To make the Sauce

Put the water and marmalade into a saucepan.  Warm gently, boil 2 – 3 minutes.  Add the lemon juice.  Taste.

To Serve

When the pudding is fully cooked, turn out onto a hot plate.  Spoon some sauce over and around the puddings.  Serve on very hot plates with lots of softly whipped cream and the remaining sauce.

Mum’s Victoria Sponge

This buttery sponge, the best you’ll ever taste is still my favourite to serve with afternoon tea. The best sponge cake you’ll ever taste. It keeps brilliantly and it’s even more delicious if you add some softly whipped cream and fresh raspberries in season as well as the jam.

4 1/2oz (125g) butter

6oz (175g) castor sugar

3 eggs, organic and free-range

6oz (175g) flour

1 teaspoon (5g) baking powder

1 tablespoon milk

Filling

4oz (110g) homemade Raspberry Jam

10fl oz (300ml/1/2 pint) whipped cream

castor sugar to sprinkle

2 x 7 inch (18cm) sponge cake tins

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5.

Grease the tin with melted butter, dust with flour and line the base of each with a round of greaseproof paper. Cream the butter and gradually add the castor sugar, beat until soft and light and quite pale in colour. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well between each addition. (If the butter and sugar are not creamed properly and if you add the eggs too fast, the mixture will curdle, resulting in a cake with a heavier texture). Sieve the flour and baking powder and stir in gradually. Mix all together lightly and add 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of milk to moisten.

Divide the mixture evenly between the 2 tins, hollowing it slightly in the centre. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until cooked – the cake will shrink-in slightly from the edge of the tin when it is cooked, the centre should feel exactly the same texture as the edge.  Alternatively a skewer should come out clean when put into the centre of the cake. Turn out onto a wire tray and allow to cool.

Sandwich the two bases together with homemade raspberry jam and whipped cream. Sprinkle with sieved castor sugar. Serve on an old fashioned plate with a doyley.

Queen of Puddings

Another pud that conjures up child-hood memories. Mummy loved to cook this Queen of Pudding’s for us as an occasional treat when we came home from school.

Serves 6

600ml (1 pint) whole milk

50g (2oz) butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

150g (5oz) white breadcrumbs

grated zest of 1 lemon

25g (1oz) caster sugar

3 organic eggs, separated

110g (4oz) caster sugar, plus 2 teaspoons for sprinkling

3 tablespoons raspberry jam

1 x 1.2 litre (2 pint) pie dish

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas Mark 4 and grease the pie dish.

Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, bring almost to boiling point, and add the vanilla extract. Mix the breadcrumbs with the lemon zest and sugar. Stir in the hot milk, leave for about 10 minutes. Whisk in the egg yolks one by one. Pour into the pie dish and bake for about 25 minutes or until just set.

Remove from the oven. Whisk the egg whites in a spotlessly clean, grease-free bowl. When it is just becoming fluffy, add half the sugar. Continue to whisk until it holds a stiffish peak. Fold in the rest of the sugar. Warm the jam slightly. Spread very gently over the surface of the custard. Pile the meringue on top in soft folds. Sprinkle sugar over the top. Return to the oven and cook for 15 minutes or until the meringue is pale gold and crisp on top. Serve with pouring cream.

The Joy of Winter Rhubarb

I’ve just had my first rhubarb of the year, a sublime bowl of roast rhubarb drizzled with Jersey pouring cream – 

Every year in January and February, I crave the flavour of the first rhubarb after the ‘fruitless’ winter months…. Yes, I know that the shops are full of fruit but most apart from beautiful citrus, are under ripe, out of season fruits from the other side of the world with a fraction of the flavour they have in Summer, I certainly can’t be bothered to spend money on strawberries in February…?

I used to be frightfully ‘sniffy’ about the early forced rhubarb but this year when I found some in the brilliant Village Green Grocer in Castlemartyr, I fell on it and practically whopped with delight. 

I scooped up the pale pink petioles…. I’ve just learned that beautiful word petioles, apparently it’s the correct term for what you and I call stalks…. 

 Despite Brexit it had come all the way from the Rhubarb Triangle in Yorkshire where it is lured out of its natural Winter hibernation in long dark forcing sheds, principally around Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. 

In the pitch dark warm atmosphere the stalks grow faster than usual as the plant searches for the light it desperately needs to make chlorophyll. The sweet glucose produced in the plant, normally used to grow those large rhubarb leaves remains in the stalks resulting in a less sour flavour and a tender less fibrous texture than their semi feral cousin that is still struggling, valiantly to emerge from the cold winter soil in my garden.  

I am looking forward to that too, but it’ll be at least a month before the stalks are mature enough to harvest.  

Meanwhile, I’m loving the delicate less assertive flavour of forced rhubarb, grown in darkness and hand harvested by candlelight as they leaves unfurl in long low barn like sheds, often by families who have passed the skill from one generation to another since the early eighteen hundreds.  

Rhubarb is not the only vegetable (yes technically it is a vegetable), to benefit from early forcing, white asparagus, sea kale, chicory, and even dandelions are other examples. 

Too late for this year, but you can actually do this in your own garden, by covering a couple of rhubarb ‘stools’ with a black plastic dustbin to exclude the light when the plant starts to emerge from the ground in December. Either way if you don’t have a rhubarb plant, order a couple from your local garden centre and pop them into your garden or even your flower bed, or a half barrel…. 

Back to the kitchen again, so what to do with this beautiful rare treat?

Roast rhubarb is a revelation, super easy and super delicious. Remember this Winter rhubarb is sweeter, and I also think it cooks faster than the main crop, so you can reduce both sugar and cooking time.  

I’ve also included a winter rhubarb crumble recipe, my favourite rhubarb pie, rhubarb muffins, rhubarb and custard tart with a scattering of pistachio nuts. 

Roast rhubarb also makes a delicious filling for scones or a sponge with lots of softly whipped rosemary flavoured cream or how about a rhubarb Eton mess, with chunks or meringue, roast rhubarb and lots of rosewater cream, and then there’s rhubarb fool… Too many suggestions for one article – almost need to do another piece. Perhaps when my garden rhubarb is ready to pick… 

Meanwhile, dash out and buy some Winter rhubarb while the season lasts.  

Roast Rhubarb with Jersey Cream

Serves 6 

 Years ago. I always just stewed rhubarb but I’ve become a huge fan of the sweet and intense flavour of roast rhubarb plus there’s less chance of ending up with a pot of rhubarb sauce if you overcook it…

900g (2lb) rhubarb 

200-250g (7-8oz) sugar  

Jersey Cream to serve

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

Slice the rhubarb into 2 1/2cm (1 inch) pieces and arrange in a single layer in a medium size oven proof dish or sauté pan.  Scatter the sugar over the rhubarb and allow to macerate for a little while until the juice starts to run. Cover with the lid or a sheet of  parchment and roast in the pre-heated oven for about 10 min, remove the covering and continue to roast for a further 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the stalks – until the rhubarb is just tender, careful it doesn’t overcook.  

Serve alone or with thick Jersey cream……

Rhubarb and Custard Tart with Pistachios

Serves 10-12 

Pastry 

225g (8ozs) plain flour 

175g (6oz) butter 

pinch of salt 

1 dessertspoon icing sugar 

a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind 

Filling 

600g (1 1/4lb) or a little more rhubarb, cut into small pieces 

1-2 tablespoons castor sugar 

300ml (10fl ozs) cream 

2 large or 3 small eggs 

3 tablespoons caster sugar  

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Garnish

45 grams, 1.1/ 2 ozs coarsely chopped pistachio nuts

1 x 12 inch (30.5cm) tart tin or 2 x 7 inch (18cm) tart tins 

Make the shortcrust pastry in the usual way (see recipe) and leave to relax in a fridge for 1 hour. Line a tart tin (or tins), with a removable base and chill for 10 minutes. Line with paper and fill with dried beans and bake blind in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 15-20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, paint the tart with a little egg wash and return to the oven for 3 or 4 minutes.   

Arrange the cut rhubarb evenly inside the tart shell.  Sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons caster sugar.  

Whisk the eggs well, with the 3 tablespoons sugar and vanilla extract, add the cream. Strain this mixture over the rhubarb and bake at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4, for 35 minutes until the custard is set and the rhubarb is fully cooked. Scatter with coarsely chopped pistachios.  Serve warm with a bowl of whipped cream. 

Cullohill Rhubarb Pie

This is a gem of a recipe – a real keeper. The pastry is made by the creaming method so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter.

Serves 8-12

Pastry

225g (8oz) soft butter

50g (2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12oz) white flour, preferably unbleached

Filling

900g (2lbs) sliced red rhubarb (about 1cm thick)

370g (7 – 12oz) granulated sugar depending on whether you are using forced or garden rhubarb

egg wash-made with one beaten egg and a dash of milk

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados/ soft dark brown sugar

tin, 18cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm (7 x 12 x 1 inch) deep

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

First make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food mixer (no need to over cream). Add the eggs one by one and beat for several minutes. Reduce speed and mix in the flour slowly. Turn out onto a piece of floured greaseproof paper, flatten into a round wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle.

To make the tart

Roll out the pastry 3mm (1/8 inch) thick approx., and use about 2/3 of it to line a suitable tin. Place the sliced rhubarb into the tart, sprinkle with sugar. Cover with a lid of pastry, seal edges, decorate with pastry leaves, egg wash and bake in the preheated oven until the apples are tender, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked cut into squares, sprinkle lightly with castor sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar.

Rhubarb Crumble

Serves 6-8

Crumbles are everyone’s favourite comfort food, vary the fruit according to the season.

1 1/2 lbs (700g) Rhubarb

4ozs (110g) granulated sugar

1-2 tablespoons water

Crumble

4 ozs (110g) white flour, preferably unbleached

2 ozs (50g) cold butter

2 ozs (50g) castor sugar

1 oz (25g) chopped almonds or hazelnuts (optional)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

2 pint (1.1L) capacity pie dish

Slice the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces, place into a pie dish and sprinkle with the sugar.

Rub the butter into the flour just until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs, add the sugar and cinnamon and chopped nuts if using. Sprinkle this mixture over the rhubarb in the pie dish. Bake in a preheated moderate oven 180°C/350°F/regulo 4, for 30-45 minutes or until the topping is cooked and golden. Serve with whipped cream and soft brown sugar. 

Rhubarb Polenta Muffins 

Makes 20 – 22 muffins 

Half Roasted rhubarb… 40  -44 pieces in 2 in lengths.. see recipe 

250g (9oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature 

440g (15 3/4oz) almond paste or marzipan broken into pieces

125g (4 1/2oz) caster sugar 

zest of 1 orange 

3 eggs 

1 teaspoons baking powder 

1/2 teaspoon salt 

225g (8oz) polenta flour 

Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5 

Double line a 12 cup muffin tray with paper cases. (Use two cases per muffin because the fruit makes these particularly juicy.) 

In an electric mixer, cream the butter, almond paste, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs slowly and mix well. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together the baking powder, salt and polenta flour. Add this to the butter mixture and mix well. Scoop into the paper cases filling 2/3 full and gently press the pieces of fruit on top of the muffins. 

Bake the muffins for about 30 minutes, until an inserted skewer comes out clean and tops of the muffins spring back to the touch. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before removing from tray. These keep well for up to 4 days in an airtight container. 

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