Never before or since does Valentineâ€™s Day create so much excitement as when I was a boarder at the Dominican Convent in Wicklow in the 1960s. I can still feel the nail biting anticipation â€“ would I get a Valentine card? The suspense was excruciating as we waited for the postman to arrive. There was so much at stake, it was incredibly important to oneâ€™s image and standing in the class – even one card would â€™do the trickâ€™ but some girls managed to get three or four. On one memorable occasion a â€˜Dublin girlâ€™ got a record six â€“ talk about envy and jealousy. It kept us guessing and giggling for weeks trying to interpret cryptic messages. Was it from a â€˜realâ€™ boy or just your parents or a kindly aunt or uncle making sure you didnâ€™t lose face â€“ hope sprang eternal!
Well thank goodness to we have outlived and survived all that but every time I see a rack of Valentines cards it all comes flooding back and the sweetness of getting a card from a genuine secret admirer â€“ bliss!
Itâ€™s still just as much fun to celebrate and giggle and little gestures and surprises are as potent as ever. Donâ€™t fret if you find that your favourite restaurant has booked out well ahead. How about an early or slightly late celebration â€“ just as much fun and youâ€™ll get an even bigger welcome from the maÃ®tre dâ€™. Meanwhile you can plan and cook up a delicious Valentineâ€™s Day dinner; maybe itâ€™ll be a fancy feast with lots of bells and whistles or if you and your hubby have been jogging along for years how about their favourite comfort food. Maybe itâ€™s rice pudding and or something bizarre like chocolate carrageen moss â€“ in fact I know a chap who hankers after that even though it doesnâ€™t do it for me!
My ultimate treat would be two dozen native Irish oysters with a glass of smooth Dungarvan or Eight Degrees Stout from Mitchelstown.
I also love guinea fowl for a treat, they have a mild gamey flavour and are delicious roast – one bird is ample for two hungry people and it marries perfectly with all of the winter vegetables. If youâ€™d rather a substantial but inexpensive winter warmer try lamb shanks with butternut squash, chickpeas and spinach with couscous.
Youâ€™ll need a green salad before this delicious chocolate tart. It makes more than even two greedy people can eat but you can always continue celebrating and enjoy it again next day.
Two Dozen Oysters and a pint of Artisan Stout
What could be easier or more delicious than a couple of dozen freshly shucked oysters with Irish soda bread and a pint of creamy Irish artisan stout.
2 to 4 dozen native Irish oysters
Black Rock Dungarvan Stout or Eight Degrees Knockmerldown Porter
seaweed or sea salt
brown soda bread
Itâ€™s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening oysters.Â Wrap the tea towel round your hand, then set the deep shell on it with the wide end on the inside.Â Â Grip the oyster firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the hinge and twist to lever the two shells apart; youâ€™ll need to exert quite a lot of pressure, so itâ€™s foolhardy not to protect your hand well.Â Â Then slide the blade of the knife under the top shell to detach the oyster from the shell. Discard the top shell, then loosen the oyster from the deep shell, flip over to reveal the plump side, donâ€™t lose the precious briny juice.
Arrange on two plates on a bed of seaweed or sea salt.
Serve with segments of lemon, some brown soda bread and a couple of glasses of stout.
Aromatic Lamb Shanks with Butternut Squash, Chickpeas and Spinach
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 lamb shanks
2 medium onions sliced
2 garlic cloves peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 teaspoon each of freshly ground coriander and fenugreek
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
450g (1lb) of ripe tomatoes peeled and chopped or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin of chopped tomatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
1lt (1Â¾ pints) of lamb or chicken stock
1 butternut squash 2 Â½ lbs – deseeded and cut into chunks 1 Â½ inches
2 x 400g (14oz) tins of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
200g (7oz) spinach or sliced Swiss chard
lots of fresh coriander leaves
natural yoghurt (optional)
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a high heat; brown the lamb shanks on all sides. Transfer to a casserole, then add a little more oil and the chopped onions to the pan and toss and fry gently for a couple of minutes over a low heat until softened. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute or two. Stir in the tomato puree, freshly ground spices and chilli flakes, fry for two minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sugar. Stir, add the hot stock, bring to the boil then pour over the lamb shanks in the casserole â€“ it should almost cover the meat. Put a tight fitting lid on the casserole, transfer to a pre heated moderate oven 180Â°C/350Â°F/Mark 4. Continue to cook for 1 Â½ to 2 hours until the lamb shanks are tender, add the squash cubes and return to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes until everything is cooked through. Remove the lamb shanks to a warm serving dish with a slotted spoon, taste the broth, reduce a little to concentrate the flavour if necessary. Add the chick peas to the casserole, bring back to the boil, add the spinach and allow it to wilt in the sauce, taste, correct the seasoning. Serve each lamb shank with lots of sauce and some couscous. Sprinkle with fresh coriander leaves and add a dollop of natural yoghurt to each helping if you wish.
Pan Roasted Guinea Fowl with Parsley Sauce
Many pheasant and chicken recipes work really well for guinea fowl, too. But if you want to really enjoy the mild gaminess, donâ€™t mask it with an overpowering sauce. Try this delicious recipe, kindly given to me by Skye Gyngell when she came to teach at the cookery school.
6 guinea fowl supremes (whole breasts with a little bit of wing attached)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a little light olive oil, for cooking
For the Parsley Sauce
150g (5oz) curly parsley, stems removed, plus extra for serving
500ml (18fl oz) double cream
freshly grated nutmeg
11â„2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
First make the parsley sauce. Put a pan of well-salted water on to boil (it should be as salty as the sea).
Plunge the parsley into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and refresh in iced water (to keep your parsley a beautiful, bright colour). Drain and set aside.
Pour the cream into a heavy-based pan and bring almost to the boil. Turn down the heat and leave it to bubble and reduce by about one-third, until it has thickened enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the blanched parsley and boil for a moment longer. Remove from the heat and purÃ©e in a blender until you have a beautiful fine texture.
Add a generous grating of nutmeg and the lemon zest, then season well with salt and a good grinding of pepper. Your sauce is now ready; keep it warm.
Preheat the oven to 220ÂºC/425ÂºF/gas mark 7.
Season the guinea fowl generously with salt and freshly ground pepper all over. Place a heavy-based frying pan over a medium-high heat and heat until smoking. Pour in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Then brown the guinea fowl in batches by laying 2 supremes in the pan, skin-side down, and leaving to colour for 3 minutes (resist the temptation to play with them). Transfer the supremes to a baking tray (without turning them) and brown the rest of them in the same way.
Finish cooking the guinea fowl in the oven for 8 minutes, until the skin is crisp and crunchy and the breast meat is succulent, moist and cooked through. Leave to rest in a warm place for 5 minutes.
Arrange the guinea fowl supremes on warm plates, on a bed of swede purÃ©e if you like, and ladle the warm parsley sauce generously over the top. Scatter chopped parsley on top and serve.
Chocolate Valentine Tart
This tart is best made the night before if possible.
Sweet Pastry (line 1 x 9 1/2 tin)
175g (6ozs) plain flour
75g (3ozs) butter, cold and cubed
25g (1oz) castor sugar
15g (1/2 oz) icing sugar
1/2 large egg, beaten
In a food processor, pulse together the butter, sugar and flour to give coarse, â€˜flatâ€™ breadcrumb texture.Â Â Add egg and pulse again until the pastry comes together.Â Tip onto a sheet of cling film, form into a roll and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
To line tin
Roll the pastry between 2 sheets of Clingfilm.Â Invert into the tin and mould into ring.Â Cover with cling film and let rest in fridge for 30 minutes or freeze until needed.
To blind bake, preheat oven to 180Â°C/350Â°F/Gas Mark 4, remove cling film, line the pastry case with baking parchment and beans and bake for 20-25 mins approx. Remove from the oven and brush with egg wash. Return to the oven for 2-3 minutes further to dry off. The tart base should be fully cooked.Â Let case cool, patch any cracks.
200g (7ozs) dark chocolate
150g (5ozs) butter
3 organic, free-range egg yolks
2 organic, free-range eggs
40g (1 1/2 ozs) castor sugar
Melt chocolate and butter together â€“ either over a bain marie or carefully in a heat proof bowl in the oven.Â With electric beaters, beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until pale and thick â€“ about 5 minutes.Â Fold in chocolate and beat briefly to amalgamate.Â Pour into blind baked case and bake at 190Â°C/375Â°F/Gas Mark 5 for 6 minutes. It should still be slightly molten.Â Cool completely and serve.
Chocolate Carrageen Moss Pudding
Â½ oz cleaned, well-dried carrageen moss (2 semi-closed fistfuls)
900ml (1 1â„2 pints) whole milk
1 vanilla pod or 1â„2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 organic egg
2 tablespoons caster sugar
soft brown sugar and softly whipped cream or a compote of fruit in season
Soak the carrageen in a little bowl of tepid water for 10 minutes. It will swell and increase in size. Strain off the water and put the carrageen into a saucepan with the milk and the vanilla pod, if using. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently, covered, for 20 minutes. At that point and not before, separate the egg, put the yolk into a bowl, add the sugar and vanilla extract, if using, and whisk together for a few seconds, then pour the milk and carrageen moss through a strainer onto the egg yolk mixture, whisking all the time. By now the carrageen remaining in the strainer will be
swollen and exuding jelly. You need as much of this as possible through the strainer and whisk it into the egg and milk mixture. Blend cocoa with a little of the milk and add to the hot strained carrageen. Test for a set in a saucer as one would with gelatine.
Whisk the egg white stiffly and fold or fluff it in gently; it will rise to make a fluffy top. Serve chilled with caster sugar and cream.
Old Fashioned Rice Pudding
A creamy rice pudding is one of the greatest treats on a cold winterâ€™s day. You need to use short-grain rice, which plumps up as it cooks. This is definitely a forgotten pudding and itâ€™s unbelievable the reaction we get to it every time we make it at the Cookery School. Itâ€™s always the absolute favourite pudding at my evening courses.
100g (31â„2oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)
50g (2oz) sugar
small knob of butter
850ml (1 1/2 pints) milk
1 x 1. 2 litre (2 pint) capacity pie dish
Preheat the oven to 180ÂºC/350ÂºF/gas mark 4.
Put the rice, sugar and butter into a pie dish. Bring the milk to the boil and pour over. Bake for 1â€“1 1/2 hours. The skin should be golden, the rice underneath should be cooked through and have soaked up the milk, but still be soft and creamy. Time it so that itâ€™s ready just in time for pudding. If it has to wait in the oven for ages it will be dry and dull and youâ€™ll wonder why you bothered.
Serve with softly whipped cream and soft brown sugar.
Native and Gigas Oysters are available from K. Oâ€™Connells in the English Market. Meet the Oâ€™Connell brothers Pat and Paul at the Market who charmed the Queen of England when she visited their fish stall last year – www.koconnellfish.com
Gardening Courses at Ballymaloe Cookery School
Building a Willow Structure with Norbert Platz on Monday 20th February 2012, 9:00am to 2:00pm. On this intensive course you will learn how to harvest and prepare willows and the basic techniques needed to create a variety of willow structures in your own garden.
Compost Making and Soil Management with Susan Turner on Monday 19th March 2012, 9:00am to 2:00pm. Whether you are interested in making compost for a small garden, a small holding or larger, this course will teach you the most important aspects of how to tackle it correctly. Both courses cost â‚¬95.00 â€“ lunch included. 021 4646785 â€“ www.cookingisfun.ie