ArchiveMay 2019

Sri Lanka

It came as quite a surprise to many to discover that one of the several ‘hats’ I wear is Honorary Council General for Sri Lanka to Ireland…

The 3,000 plus Sri Lankan community in Ireland are of course aware but it wasn’t until the tragic events in late April when I attended mass in the St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Martin for the victims of the massacre that my connection became more public.

I accepted the honorary role in November 2017 on the invitation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe…. who visited Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School over Christmas period in 2015.

I’ve visited Sri Lanka many times, an astoundingly beautiful country, lush, green and fertile with delicious food and warm and friendly people who have endured  many years of turbulence but had recently become accustomed to a more peaceful era.

Sri Lankan tea is some of the finest in the world. I’ve visited the tea plantations and seen at first hand the care and dedication that is involved, from the hand picking of the ‘tips’ of the Camellia Sinensis, tea bush to the drying, withering, grading….

It is important that the Sri Lankan tea industry remains glyphosate free at a time when there is a growing concern worldwide among scientists and the general public about the toxic effects of pesticides.

Cinnamon is another top quality Sri Lankan ingredient that few other countries can equal.

True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of southern Sri Lanka. The gentle coastal hills are especially suited to the growth of cinnamon. Wars have been fought over this spice. In 1505 the Portuguese sailed to that part of the world in search of cinnamon so they could cut out the Arab middlemen. In those days it was gathered from wild trees but when the Dutch succeeded the Portuguese the first plantations were sown and cinnamon has been flourishing ever since.

On my last trip to Sri Lanka I wanted to see the process of cinnamon production for myself so I visited Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon Estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Thilak the general manager, showed us around the estate which grows both cinnamon and galangal and explained the whole process. On our way to the plantation we passed the little temple to Pathini, The Buddhist God of cinnamon. The air was filled with the scent of cinnamon.

The cinnamon is still harvested and peeled in the same time honoured way by the skilled Salagama caste. It cannot be mechanised and the process has survived virtually unchanged since ancient times.

The cinnamon peelers go into the fields early in the morning. They choose twigs about 5 feet long and about 1 ½ inches thick –  straighter are easier to peel.  Shoots or leaves are trimmed with a sharp curved machete. The skill has been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries. The peelers sit cross legged on hessian sacks on the floor in the peeling shed with their bundle of cinnamon sticks by their side. They need just three tools, a curved peeler, a brass rod and a small sharp knife called a kokaththa.

First the outer dark leathery layer is shaved off; this is returned to the cinnamon fields for compost.

When the peelers have several layers of precious inner bark they carefully layer them inside each other, over lapping to create a four foot quill.

These are carefully laid on strings of coconut coir hanging beneath the tin roof. It takes eight days, away from sunlight for them to curl and dry. They will then be rolled tightly, and allowed to dry for a further ten days. The cinnamon ‘quills’ are then tied into large bundles to sell in the market where they will be precisely cut into the cinnamon sticks we know.

Real cinnamon is known to be a natural ‘cholesterol buster’, unlike it’s inferior and cheaper relation cassia, which is often passed off as cinnamon.

How to know the difference….true cinnamon comes from the thin pliable bark of the Cinnamomum Verum trees. This cinnamon is softer, flakier and paler than cassia which too has it’s place but the flavour is more acrid than sweet, gentle and aromatic. This is the Sri Lankan cinnamon, which I use at Ballymaloe Cookery School,  perfumes for both sweet and savoury dishes.

Hard quills or ‘bark like’ pieces are more likely to be cassia so save those for vegetarian curries if you don’t have true cinnamon. Always try to buy cinnamon whole and grind it yourself, ready ground cinnamon is regularly cut with the less expensive cassia. So it’s darker in colour and has a more aggressive flavour. I’ve had many questions about Sri Lankan food, is it similar to Indian food, hotter, spicier…..? In fact it is a wonderful melange of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch flavours reflecting the countries history as a spice producer and trading post over several centuries.

In this column I will introduce you to some of my favourite Sri Lankan dishes.

Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry

Serves 4

2-3 tablespoons sunflower oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

50g (1¾oz) red onion, chopped

5 Curry leaves

8cm (3inch) piece of cinnamon stick

500g (1lb 2oz) beetroot, peeled and cut into 4cm (1½in) cubes

1½ teaspoon untoasted curry powder

10 fenugreek seeds

5 green chillies

225ml (8fl.oz) coconut milk, whisked

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Put oil in a deep frying pan over a medium heat, add the chopped garlic, onion, curry leaves, curry powder and cinnamon to the pan, stir and cook for 2 minutes.   Then add the beetroot, stir and add the fenugreek seeds,  chillies and some salt.   Bring to the boil, add the coconut milk, and continue to cook for about 20 minutes or until the beetroot is tender.  Season to taste. 

Sri Lankan Carrots with Shallots and Green Chilli

Shallots add extra sweetness to this simple spiced carrot dish which can be fully prepared ahead and gently heated later.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil

60g shallots peeled and chopped

450g medium carrots peeled and cut into 2cm dice

½ green chilli, deseeded and chopped

1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander

½ teaspoon freshly ground fennel seeds

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper (a few grinds)

175ml coconut milk, from a well-shaken can.

Put the oil into a heavy, low sided pan and set over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the shallots and green chilli. Stir and fry for about 2 minutes or until the shallots have softened a bit. Add the carrots, cumin, coriander, fennel, cayenne pepper, turmeric, salt and pepper and continue to fry, stirring at the same time, on a medium heat for about 2 – 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer very gently for 15- 20 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning.

Shredded Chicken and Toasted Coconut Salad

Salad


500g (18 oz) shredded free range chicken
3 tablespoons finely shaved coconut flesh
6 spring onions, finely sliced
2 red chilli
1 cucumber, peeled and julienned
3 tablespoons mint leaves, shredded
2 tablespoons coriander leaves
3 finely sliced shallots
5 kaffir lime leaves, very finely shredded
6 shallots fried

Dressing

100ml (3½ fl oz)  coconut cream
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar
3tablespoons lime juice
1 red chili,  thinly sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves,  thinly chopped

For the dressing, mix all the ingredients together except the fried shallots. Adjust the seasoning to taste with more fish sauce or lime juice accordingly.
Salad, mix together all the ingredients with some of the dressing, pile in a bundle on the plate then sprinkle the fried shallots and some more coconut shavings. Finish with a drizzle of the dressing and serve immediately.

Cinnamon Swirls

For cinnamon scones, just roll out the dough to 1 inch (2.5cm) thick and stamp or cut into scones and dip the egg – washed tops in cinnamon sugar.

Makes 18-20 scones, using a 3 inch (71/2 cm) cutter

2lb (900g) plain white flour

6oz (175g) butter

pinch of salt

2oz (50g) castor sugar

3 heaped teaspoons baking powder

3 free-range eggs

16fl oz (450ml) approx. full cream milk to mix (not low fat milk)

Egg Wash (see recipe)

Cinnamon Sugar

2oz (50g) granulated or Demerara sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon for the top of scones

Cinnamon Butter

150g (5oz) butter

250g (9oz) pale brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven 250ºC/475ºF/Gas Mark 9.

First make the Cinnamon Butter.

Cream the butter, sugar and cinnamon together and beat until light and fluffy.

Sieve the flour into a large wide bowl, add a pinch of salt, the baking powder and castor sugar.  Mix the dry ingredients with your hands, lift up to incorporate air and mix thoroughly.

Cut the butter into cubes, toss well in the flour and then with the tips of your fingers, rub in the butter until it resembles large flakes.  Make a well in the centre.  Whisk the eggs with the milk, pour all at once into the centre.  With the fingers of your ‘best

hand’ outstretched and stiff, mix in a full circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl.  This takes just seconds and hey presto, the scone dough is made.  Sprinkle some flour on the work surface.  Turn out the dough onto the floured board.  Scrape the dough off your fingers and wash and dry your hands at this point.  Tidy around the edges, flip over and roll or pat gently into a rectangle about 3/4 inch (2cm) thick. 

Spread the soft cinnamon butter over the surface. Roll up lengthwise and cut into pieces about 2 inches (5cm) thick.

Brush the tops with egg wash (see below) and dip the tops only in cinnamon sugar.  Put onto a baking sheet fairly close together.

Bake in a preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Egg Wash

Whisk one egg thoroughly with about a dessertspoon of milk.  This is brushed over the scones to help them brown in the oven. 

Ahilya Iced Tea

Makes

2 litres (3 1/2 pints) of water

2 small pieces cinnamon or cassia slivers

2 black cardamom

25 cloves

230g (8 1/4oz) granulated sugar

2 English breakfast tea bags

juice of 7 limes (200ml/7fl oz approx.)

In a saucepan, bring the water to the boil with the spices, sugar and tea bags.  Remove the tea bags.  Simmer for 5 minutes. Cool, add the juice of 7 limes or less depending on size.

This iced tea can last for 5 days. Serve chilled with 2 mint leaves in each glass of iced tea.

Orange Blossom Iced Tea 

1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints/6 1/4 cups) water
2 Earl Gray tea bags

225-300ml (8-10fl oz) base sugar syrup 
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
4 springs of fresh mint
1 orange, cut in thin slices, skin and all

Bring the water to a boil in a pan, add the tea bags and stir around. Turn off the heat and leave to steep for 15 minutes.

Remove the tea bags, add the sugar syrup and blossom water and stir to mix. Decant into a bottle or jug and push in the mint sprig and orange slices. Place in the fridge to cool entirely. Serve with loads of ice.

Pimp your tea – crush some fresh mint leaves at the bottom of a lowball glass, add a shot or two of rum, top up with ice and iced tea and lots of ice.

Sugar Syrup

200g (7oz) sugar

200ml (7fl oz) water

1 tablespoon glucose or honey 

Mix everything together in a small pan and bring to the boil over a high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.  Leave to cool, then transfer to a clean bottle or other container and store in your fridge for up to a week.

Cinnamon Meringue with Plums and Cream

If the plums are ripe and juicy there’s no need to poach them, just stone and dice.

Serves 6

2 egg whites, preferably free range

110g (4oz) icing sugar

1/2 scant teaspoon of powdered cinnamon

Filling

300ml (10fl oz) whipped cream

225g (8oz) poached plums, drained (see recipe)

Garnish

little sprigs of mint or lemon balm

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

Check that the bowl is dry, spotlessly clean and free from grease.

Mark 2 x 7 inch (19cm) circles on silicone paper or a prepared baking sheet.  Put the egg whites into a spotlessly clean and dry bowl. Add all the icing sugar except 2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons). Whisk until the mixture stands in firm dry peaks. It may take 5-8 minutes. Sieve the cinnamon and the remaining icing sugar together and fold in carefully.

Divide the mixture between the two circles and spread evenly with a palette knife.  Bake immediately in the preheated oven for 45 minutes or until set and crisp.  Allow to cool.

For this recipe poach the plums for 20 mins approximately.  Allow to get cold, then drain (save the syrup for a plum jelly or use as a base for ‘plumade’.  (Note: half the poached plum recipe will be adequate (see recipe below).

To assemble

Sandwich the meringues together with the drained poached plums and whipped cream, reserving a little fruit and cream for decoration.    Decorate with rosettes of whipped cream.  Garnish with little sprigs of mint or lemon balm.

Note

The meringue discs will keep for several weeks in a tin.

Poached Plums

Poach the plums whole, they’ll taste better but quite apart from that you’ll have the fun of playing – He loves me – he loves me not!  You could just fix it by making sure you take an uneven number!  Greengages are delicious cooked in this way also.

Serves 4

350g (12oz) sugar

450ml (16fl oz) cold water

900g (2lbs) fresh Plums, Victoria, Opal or those dark Italian plums that come into the shops in Autumn

Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil. Tip in the plums and poach, cover the saucepan and simmer very gently until they are about to but not quiet beginning to burst.  Turn into a bowl, serve warm with a blob of softly whipped cream.  Divine!

*The poached plums keep very well in the fridge and are delicious for breakfast without the cream!

Note: If plums are sweet use less sugar in syrup

Irish Tea Barmbrack

This is a more modern version of barmbrack, now commonly called a ‘tea brack’ because the dried fruit is soaked in tea overnight to plump it up (rather than boiled as in the recipes above). This little gem of a recipe is much easier to make at home than the Halloween Barmbrack (see recipe).

Even though it is a very rich bread, in Ireland it is traditionally served sliced and buttered.

Yields about 12 slices (eat the crusts, too!)

110g (4oz) sultanas

110g (4oz) raisins

110g (4oz) currants

50g (2oz) natural glace cherries, halved or quartered

300ml (10fl oz) hot tea

1 organic egg, whisked

175g (6oz) soft brown sugar

225g (8oz) self-raising flour

1 level teaspoon mixed spice

50g (2oz) homemade candied peel (see recipe)

450g (1lb) loaf tin – 12.5 x 20cm (5 x 8in) OR 3 small loaf tins 15 x 7.5cm (6 x 3in)

Put the dried fruit and cherries into a bowl. Cover with hot tea and leave to plump up overnight.

Next day, line the loaf tin with silicone paper.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.

Add the whisked egg, soft brown sugar, flour and mixed spice to the fruit and tea mixture. Stir well. Put the mixture into the lined loaf tin.

Cook in for about 1 1/2hours or until a skewer comes out clean.

Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Keeps very well in an airtight tin.

World Bee Day…

Monday next, May 20th, is World Bee Day, so a whole column this week on honey, nature’s most delicious, interesting and bio diverse sweetener.

Honey has long been prized for its medicinal properties, now backed up by modern medicine and a growing body of scientific research. I’m a big honey aficionado….

Ancient Ireland was known as the Land of Milk and Honey and coincidently the name Ballymaloe means the Townland of Sweet Honey. The anglicized version of the Irish Baile Meal Luadh – meal means honey and luadh means soft or sweet. These names entered into the language over 2,000 years ago and would always have reflected a particular attribute of that place. So Ballymaloe must have been well known for the quality of the honey from surrounding the area.

Here at Ballymaloe Cookery School we have some hives in the pear and apple orchard looked after by our local bee keeper… beautiful honey…

Both honey and bees are utterly intriguing, the colour, flavour and aroma of honey reflects the flora from which the bees collect the nectar. Heather honey tastes and smells quite different from mixed flower or apple blossom, ivy, rapeseed…..

Honeys from further afield have their own distinctive taste. Lavender honey captures the aromatic essence of the lavender plant as does chestnut, orange or acacia blossom. Honey from pine forests which I also love, tends to be more resinous and a deeper amber colour.

The New Zealanders did a brilliant marketing job on Manuka honey when they discovered that is was most effective in killing antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA. But it’s not the only honey with these and many other healing attributes. Raw honey is increasingly being used to treat, difficult to heal, wounds and burns. Other studies have shown its efficacy as a cough soother.

Raw honey is the term used for honey that has not been heat treated to extract the honey from the combs. It still has its full complement of antioxidants, enzymes and antibacterial properties. It looks paler in colour, and sets almost solid in the jar. Here in Ireland we have an astonishingly wide range of honeys. Check out the local bee keeper/s in your parish. I seem to favour honey from small local producers. Talk to the beekeeper, hear the story, each honey will taste different and contain the antibodies and enzymes of the area, which help to counteract eczema and hay fever. Look out for city bee keepers too. The Dublin Honey Project is intriguing as is Belfast Bees;  there are similar projects in London, Paris, New York, Sydney ….

How about keeping bees yourself? It’s really thrilling to have your own honey. It’ll be slightly different every year depending on what the bees are feeding on and the prevailing weather. If the idea of doing the bee keeping yourself doesn’t appeal, contact your local bee keeper, they are often delighted to have few more hives. Particularly in an organic garden or on a rooftop in an urban or rural area where there are little or no pesticides…. Scientists are now convinced that neonicotinoids have been damaging vital bee colonies and have a dramatic impact on eco systems that support food production and wild life.

The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 after a major report from EFSA concluded that the widespread use of these chemicals is in part responsible for the plummeting number of pollinators, vital for global food production – they pollinate ¾ of all crops. Finally,  governments appear to be listening to their citizens concerns, so hopefully the bee numbers will begin to recover. Nature given half a chance has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate.

Honey is not only brilliant lathered on toast, I regularly add a spoonful to savoury dishes, dressings and salads to balance acidity and add a sweet- sour element. Chefs are caramelizing honey to add a bitter note to some desserts….Have several types in your pantry, so you can experiment with different characteristics. We love to have a whole honey comb for our guests at breakfast and if you’re crafty you can make a candle from the left over wax….

Here are a few suggestions for some of my favourites…

Toasted Granola

A toasted grain cereal

Serves 20

12oz (350g) honey

8fl oz (225g) oil e.g. sunflower

1lb 1oz (470g) jumbo organic oat flakes

7oz (200g) organic barley flakes

7oz (200g) organic wheat flakes

3 1/2oz (100g) organic rye flakes

5oz (150g) seedless raisins or sultanas

5oz (150g) peanuts/hazelnuts, or cashew nuts split and roasted

2 3/4oz (70g) wheatgerm and /or millet flakes

2oz (50g) chopped apricots, (chopped dates are nice too)

toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds are also delicious

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

Mix oil and honey together in a saucepan, heat just enough to melt the honey.  Mix well into the mixed flakes. Spread thinly on two baking sheets.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes, turning frequently, making sure the edges don’t burn. It should be just golden and toasted, not roasted!

Allow to get cold.  Mix in the raisins or sultanas, roasted nuts, toasted seeds, chopped dates, apricots and wheatgerm.  Store in a screw top jar or a plastic box, keeps for 1-2 weeks.

Serve with sliced banana, milk or yoghurt.

Salad of Ardsallagh Goats Cheese with Rocket Leaves and Local Honey

Such a simple combination but surprisingly delicious.

Serves 4

4 handfuls rocket leaves

2 soft Ardsallagh Goats cheeses

1 tablespoon best quality local honey

maldon sea salt

coarsely ground black pepper

olive oil

1 lemon

Divide the rocket leaves between 4 large plates or 1 large flat serving plate.  Slice or dice the goat’s cheese and sprinkle on rocket leaves.  With a teaspoon, drizzle the honey over the rocket and cheese in a grid pattern.  Drizzle the salads with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Finally, season with sea salt and black pepper and serve.

Kinoith Garden Salad with Mustard and Honey Dressing

The herb and vegetable gardens beside the Ballymaloe Cookery School are bursting with a myriad of lettuce and salad leaves and edible flowers. The gardens are open to the public every day except Sundays.

A selection of fresh lettuces and salad leaves:

eg. Butterhead lettuce

Oakleaf lettuce

Iceberg lettuce

Lollo Rosso

Frisee

Mesclum or Saladisi

Red Orah

Rocket (Arugula)

Edible chrysanthemum leaves

Wild sorrel leaves or buckler leaf sorrel

Wild garlic leaves

Salad Burnet

Pennywort

Borage or Hyssop flowers

Young Nasturtium leaves and flowers

Marigold Petals

Chive or wild garlic flowers

Herb leaves eg. lemon balm, mint, flat parsley, golden marjoram, annual marjoram, tiny sprigs of dill, tarragon or mint.

Green Pea Shoots or Broad Bean tips

Tiny Chard & Beetroot leaves

Mustard and Honey Dressing

150ml extra virgin olive oil

50ml white wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons honey

2 heaped teaspoons wholegrain honey mustard

2 cloves garlic crushed

First make the dressing: Mix all the ingredients together and whisk well before use.

Wash and dry the lettuce and salad leaves.  If large, tear into bite sized bits. Put in a deep salad bowl, add the herb sprigs and edible flowers.  Toss, cover and chill in a refrigerator until needed.   Just before serving toss the salad in just enough dressing to make the leaves glisten, save the remainder of the dressing for another day.

Salad of Beetroot with Raspberries, Honey and Mint

Serves 4

2 cooked beetroot, peeled and very thinly sliced on a mandolin

24 raspberries

16 small mint leaves

honey

extra virgin olive oil

lemon juice

Maldon sea salt

cracked black pepper

Divide the sliced beetroot between 4 white plates.

Cut some of the raspberries in half lengthways and some in cross section slices, and scatter over the beets. Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

Dress the salads evenly with a drizzle of honey, a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle on the tiny tender mint leaves and serve.

Note

I sometimes place a few teaspoons of thick yoghurt or labne on the salad when assembling.

If the mint leaves are a bit coarse as they sometimes are in late Summer, remove the spine, roll and slice into a chiffonade instead.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Tomatoes and Honey

Serves 4

This wonderful Moroccan dish, which Claudia Roden gave us, derives its special flavour from the tomatoes in which it cooks ( there are mountains of them which reduce to a thick sauce ) and from the honey which comes in at the end.

1 free-range chicken

3 tablespoons butter or oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 onion, grated

1 clove garlic , crushed

1-2 teaspoons cinnamon

¼  teaspoon ginger

A pinch of saffron (optional )

1 ½  kg ( 3lb ) very ripe tomatoes , skinned and cut into pieces or 3 tins x 14ozs

2 tablespoons honey (with a good perfume like Hymettus )

For the garnish

50g ( 2oz ) blanched almonds ( optional)

oil (optional)

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

It is considered more elegant to cook and serve the chicken whole but more sensible to cut it into pieces . Claudia prefers to cut it into quarters as this ensures that the flesh is impregnated with the sauce at all times .

Put the pieces in a large pot with the butter or oil, salt, pepper onion, garlic and spices , and the tomatoes Cook gently , covered, stirring and turning the chicken over frequently until it is so tender that it can be easily pulled off the bone.

Remove the chicken and reduce the tomato sauce further to a thick cream

which sizzles in the separated fat. Stir often and take care that the bottom does not stick or burn when the tomatoes begin to caramelize. Then stir in the honey and put the chicken back to heat it through.

Fry the almonds in oil or toast them and toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan or under the grill.

Serve the chicken hot covered with the sauce and garnish with almonds and sesame seeds.

Rachel’s Date and Almond Honey Cake

This fantastically dense, moist cake has echoes of sticky toffee pudding. It contains no refined sugar, all the sweetness coming from the honey and dates, while the wholemeal flour imparts its lovely nutty flavour.

Serves 6–8

100g (3oz) chopped dates


200g (7oz) butter, softened, plus extra for greasing

200g (7oz) honey, plus 2 tablespoons for drizzling

3 eggs

100g (3 1/2oz) ground almonds

125g (4 1/2oz/generous 1 cup) wholemeal flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

25g (1oz) flaked almonds

20cm (8 inch) diameter cake tin with 6cm (2 1/2 inch) sides

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, then butter the sides of the cake tin and line the base with a disc of baking parchment.

Place the tin on a baking sheet, as some butter may seep out during cooking if you are using a spring-form cake tin.

Place the dates in a saucepan and pour in 50ml (2fl oz) of water. Set over a high heat and cook for 2–3 minutes or until soft, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Cream the butter and the 200g (7oz) of honey until soft in a large bowl or in an electric food mixer. Whisk the eggs together in a small bowl for a few seconds until just mixed, then gradually add them to the creamed butter and honey mixture, beating all the time.

Stir in the cooked dates, along with any remaining cooking liquid, followed by the ground almonds, then add the flour and baking powder and fold in gently to incorporate. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin, smoothing the surface gently with a palette knife, then scatter the flaked almonds evenly over the top.

Place in the oven and bake for 45–50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. It will be quite dark-looking, but don’t worry – the cake will be perfectly moist inside.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides using a small, sharp knife and carefully remove the cake from the tin before transferring to a cake stand or plate.

Use a skewer to pierce a few holes in the top of the cake, then drizzle over the 2 tablespoons (2 1/2 American tablespoons) of honey and allow to cool before cutting into slices to serve.

A Response to Vera…

A few weeks ago I got a letter from a regular reader who hails from County Kerry – a busy ‘working’ Mum, who tells me that she loves many of my simple recipes but complained that of late, the recipes were a bit ‘cheffy’ and not for the average working family with ravenously hungry teenagers returning home from college. “They want plenty of delicious, home cooked meals, not tiny exotic dishes”.

By coincidence, the week before the recipes were from the Guild of Irish Food Writers Awards so were indeed ‘cheffy’ and time consuming. Vera gave me a nice ‘long wish list’ of suggestions – a healthy brown loaf, a nice saucy casserole, a few one pot dishes, a large, easy chocolate cake, a few tray bakes and tasty ways to cook Irish grown vegetables.

How about swede turnips, cabbage and carrots? Good girl yourself, Vera – love to hear people wanting to go out of their way to buy Irish produce.

“How about a savory bread and large quiche, a tasty lasagna and salads?” she asks…..

There were more than enough requests to keep me going for several columns. I love to get letters like this, it stops me in my tracks and reminds me to include more delicious simple recipes in my column – almost back to my Simply Delicious days – Thank you Vera…..

By coincidence, I had just sent the final proofs of a new book, that should be in the shops next September, into my publishers, One Pot Feeds All – I wrote this book especially for all of you super busy people who dash home through the traffic, tired and exhausted from work, pick up a bag of groceries but still want to cook a wholesome meal from scratch or your family.

So there are 130 delicious lunch recipes for one pot, one casserole, one roasting tin, coming your way later this year. Home cooking is by far the most important in the end.  Meanwhile I’ll get started on Vera’s list which I hope many other readers will also enjoy….

Brown Soda Bread in a Tin

This is a more modern version of Soda Bread, couldn’t be simpler, just mix and pour into a well-greased tin.  This bread keeps very well for several days and is also great toasted. We use Howard’s One Way flour for this but seek out Macroom and Dunany Organic Flour also, each have their own unique flavour.

Makes 1 loaf or 3 small loaves

400g (14ozs) stone ground wholemeal flour or a wholemeal flour of your choice

75g (3ozs) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 teaspoon salt

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

1 egg, preferably free range

1 tablespoon arachide or sunflower oil, unscented

1 teaspoon honey or treacle

425ml (15fl ozs) buttermilk or sourmilk approx.

sunflower or sesame seeds (optional)

Loaf tin 23×12.5x5cm (9x5x2in) OR 3 small loaf tins 5.75 inches (14.6cm) x 3 inches (7.62cm)

Preheat oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6.

Put all the dry ingredients including the sieved bread soda into a large bowl, mix well. Whisk the egg, add the oil and honey and buttermilk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid, mix well and add more buttermilk if necessary. The mixture should be soft and slightly sloppy, pour into an oiled tin or tins – using a butter knife, draw a slit down the middle. Sprinkle some sunflower or sesame seeds on the top. Bake for 60 minutes approximately (45-50 minutes for small loaf tins), or until the bread is nice and crusty and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.

Swede Turnip and Bacon Soup with Parsley Oil

Swedes and turnips are ridiculously cheap and super versatile, this soup is filling, nutritious and super delicious. Drizzle it with parsley or wild garlic oil and you’ve got a chic starter worthy of a posh dinner party.

 Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

150g (5oz) rindless streaky bacon cut in 1cm (1/2 inch) dice

110g (4oz) onions, chopped

110g (5oz) potatoes, diced

350g (12oz) swede turnips, diced

salt and freshly ground pepper

900ml (1 1/2 pints) homemade chicken stock

cream or creamy milk to taste

Parsley Oil

50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

50g (2oz) parsley, chopped

Garnish

fried diced bacon or chorizo

tiny croutons

flat parsley sprigs or coarsely chopped parsley

First make the Parsley Oil.

Whizz the parsley with the olive oil until smooth and green.

 Next make the soup.

Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the bacon and cook on a gentle heat until crisp and golden. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and keep aside.

Toss the onion, potato and turnip in the oil.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper to keep in the steam, and sweat on a gentle heat until soft but not coloured, about 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer until the vegetables are fully cooked.  Liquidise, taste, add a little cream or creamy milk and some extra seasoning if necessary. 

 To Serve.

Serve with a mixture of crispy bacon, tiny croutons and chopped parsley sprinkled on top.

Super Quick Buttered Cabbage

 This method takes only a few minutes to cook but first the cabbage must be carefully sliced into fine shreds.  It should be served the moment it is cooked.

1 lb (450 g) fresh Savoy cabbage

1-2 oz (25-50g/1/4-1/2 stick) butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

a knob of butter

Remove the tough outer leaves from the cabbage.  Divide into four, cut out the stalks and then cut into fine shreds across the grain.  Put 2-3 tablespoons (2-3 American tablespoons + 2-3 teaspoons) of water into a wide saucepan with the butter and a pinch of salt.  Bring to the boil, add the cabbage and toss constantly over a high heat, then cover for a few minutes.  Toss again and add some more salt, freshly ground pepper and a knob of butter.  Serve immediately.

Chicken Paprikash

In Hungary, Paprikash would be served with nokedli, similar to German spaetzle but pasta or mashed potato works well also.

Serves 8

2 tablespoons lard (traditional) or clarified butter

1.8 Kgs organic, free range chicken thighs and drumsticks (bone in for extra flavour)

250g (9oz) onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed

500g (1 lb) ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

250g (9oz) large red pepper, seeded and diced (approx. ½ inch)

450 mls (16 floz) chicken stock

3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika or 2 tablespoons sweet paprika and one of smoked paprika

Generous teaspoon of salt, lots of freshly ground black pepper

250g tub sour cream (crème fraiche)

2 floz double cream

60-80g (2 – 3oz) Roux

Flat leaf parsley, coarsely snipped

Melt the lard or clarified butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Brown the chicken pieces in batches on all sides, transfer to a casserole. Add the diced onion, garlic, tomato and pepper to the frying pan, toss for 2 – 3 minutes, add the paprika, salt and freshly ground black pepper ( careful not to burn the paprika or it will be bitter).

Add to the chicken in the casserole. Deglaze the pan with the chicken stock. Stir and bring to the boil to dislodge all the flavour from the pan. Pour into the casserole, bring back to the boil and simmer for 40 -50 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked.

Strain the liquid off the Paprikash, add the crème fraiche and cream, bring back to the boil thicken with roux to a light coating consistency. Pour over the chicken, return to the boil, taste and correct the seasoning. Scatter with snipped flat leaf parsley and serve with pasta or mashed potato.

Note: this stew becomes even better when made a day or two ahead and reheats brilliantly.

Cynthia’s Buttermilk Chocolate Cake

From the Ballymaloe Cookbook by Myrtle Allen.

In 1945 the young Farmers’ club of America – the ‘4H  Clubs’ inaugurated the International Farm Youth Exchange scheme (IFYE).  They sent young delegates to stay with farming families in Western European countries and too young European farmers back in exchange.  These young people are always well informed and skilled in the crafts of the farm and farm home.

In 1955, a young American girl called Cynthia Recird came to stay with us at Ballymaloe under this scheme.

One day she undertook to cook family lunch and produced her ‘Cocoa Cake’ for sweet which became standard fare in Ballymaloe.

Makes 36 bites/19 squares/12 slices

225g (8ox/1 3/4 cups) flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt 

1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

50g (2oz) cocoa

350g (12oz/1 1/2 cups) sugar

110g (4oz/1 stick) softened butter

225ml (8fl oz/1 cup) sour milk or buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

2 organic eggs 

Chocolate Icing 

300g (10oz/2 1/4 cups approx) icing sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa

2 teaspoons melted butter 

35ml (1 1/3fl oz/scant 1/4 cup) coffee

cocoa for dusting 

300ml (10fl oz softly whipped cream)

Line a 22.5cm (9 inch) square tin or

3 x 17.5cm sandwich tins with parchment paper

Sieve the dry ingredients together into the bowl of a food mixer.  Add the soft butter, buttermilk and vanilla extract.  Beat for two minutes.  Add the eggs one by one.  Beat for a further 2 minutes.  Fill into the prepared tin or tins.  Bake in a moderate oven 180C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 20-25 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.  

Sieve the sugar and cocoa together.  Beat in the butter and moisten with coffee to a spreading consistency. 

Ice the top and sides of the cake or sandwich the two rounds together with the icing.  Cut into squares or slices.

Serve with softly whipped cream.

Lemon Drizzle Squares

Who doesn’t love lemon drizzle – problem here Vera, they’ll snaffle them far too fast!

 Makes 24

 6oz (175g) really soft butter

5oz (150g) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

6oz (175g) self-raising flour

Lemon Drizzle

freshly grated rind of 1 lemon

freshly squeezed juice of 1-2 lemons

4oz (110g) castor sugar

10 x 7 inch (25.5 x 18 cm) swiss roll tin, well-greased or lined with parchment paper

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

 Put the butter, castor sugar, eggs and self-raising flour into a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to amalgamate. Spread evenly in the well buttered tin. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes approx. or until golden brown and well risen. Meanwhile mix the ingredients for the glaze. As soon as the cake is cooked, pour the glaze over the top, leave to cool. Cut into squares.

Note

In Winter when the butter is harder to cream, we add 2-3 tablespoons of milk to lighten the mixture and texture.

Sustainable Food

The word sustainable is quite the buzzword nowadays, endlessly bandied about in conversations about climate change, food security, the state of the oceans, farming and food but what exactly do we mean by sustainable food….and where can we source it?

Food is unquestionably the crucial issue of our time. Some forms of food production are a major contributor to climate change, responsible for 1/5 of all global carbon emissions.

It’s a key driver of resource depletion, species and bio diversity loss. Food production slurps up 70% of all fresh water.

At present, the priority in agribusiness is rarely to produce healthy wholesome food to nourish the nation, more often the primary focus is to produce the maximum amount of food at the minimum cost with maximum profit to the processor and retailer but rarely the primary producer.

Consequently, one in nine go hungry at a time in history when over 2 billion people are obese and half of all the food produced is wasted – an estimated 10 million tons….

Almost 2 million tons never even make it to the market as a result of the demands of supermarkets for uniformity and cheap food. That’s bad enough but it’s even more shocking to learn that 7 million tons are wasted in our homes. We appear to have far less regard or respect for food when it’s cheap. Easy come easy go in the rich world….whereas the poor count every grain of rice….

There are many reasons for these statistics, industrialisation has resulted in cheap food – ultra processed, convenient, time saving….but at considerable cost in health, socio economic and environmental terms.

The reality is that unless we are engaged in farming or food production, we have little understanding of the work that goes into growing or producing food. To many, it comes as quite a shock to realise that it takes at least three months to grow carrots, beets, or broccoli. Ask yourself, how can they possibly be sold for less than €1.00 a bunch? The answer is, it’s not possible to produce nourishing, wholesome, chemical free food for the price the farmers are being paid at present, We now imagine that cheap food is our right… a major problem, unrealistic and totally unsustainable yet everyone needs and deserves healthy wholesome food….

 Perhaps it’s wishful thinking but I really feel there’s a shift in consciousness.  Could it be that we are on the cusp of change ? Some millennials, at least seem more interested and prepared to spend a greater proportion of their income on healthy produce and are beginning to grow some of their own food….

But, how to create a sustainable food system….,it’s abundantly clear that business as usual is no longer an option….. Farmers are doing their best to respond and move to sustainable farming systems but a paradigm shift in thinking and methodology is required. They urgently need both financial support and knowledgeable advice…… Brussels and DAF urgently need to dramatically increase independent research into organic food production and regenerative farming methods which already tick all the boxes for both sustainable and healthy food production.

The current debate on what we should and should not eat and the trend towards veganism has further added to the confusion. Neither the FAO or Lancet Reports differentiated between organic, free range and intensively managed livestock and  poultry  which needs to be phased out. It is clear that we urgently need to replace farming systems that have destroyed the fertility of the soil since the post war period, rebuild biodiversity and create conditions to bring nature in the form of birds, wild life and pollinating insects back onto farms. We need to re-embrace mixed farming systems…..ruminants are the only animals that can turn cellulose into something we can eat and are essential for fertility building and a healthy diet.

Farmers, who want to move towards sustainable food production systems, will produce healthy, free range chicken, juicy and flavourful and free of chemical residues. These chickens will cost considerably more to produce  so inevitably chicken will become an occasional treat rather than the cheap commodity it is today…. Pork too will need to come from pigs that root outdoors and are fed on whey and antibiotic free food, delicious, tasty meat that we can, once again consume with a clear conscience, without worrying about animal welfare issues.

 In the UK, 50% of pigs are reared outdoors compared with 1% over here.

The reality is, if we don’t change our food production system we won’t have a planet that’s fit for our children and grandchildren to live on.

Education is a crucial part of the solution. Practical cooking must be a CORE subject in the national curriculum – it’s an essential life skill which no child should be allowed to leave school without being proficient in. At present our educational system is failing our young people in this area, it is not enabling our kids to make sense of the world they find themselves in or equipping them with the information – they need to know what to do about it. Education can change habits and attitude to food… It’s an uphill battle now but an urgent and essential consideration for the survival of the planet.

Everyone agrees we are in the midst of a crisis, so how can we be part of the solution? Each and every one of us can make a difference depending on how we decide to spend out food euros. Shop mindfully – seek out and buy food from farmers and food producers who are farming sustainably in a way that enriches rather than diminishes the fertility of the soil. Grow some of your own food and pass on your growing skills to your children and their friends.

Buy seasonal food directly from the producers at Farmers Markets. Join an organic vegetable box scheme.

Buy meat and poultry direct from the growing number of small farmers who are selling boxes of well hung, heritage breed beef, lamb and poultry. For contacts http://www.irishorganicassociation.ie/www.organictrust.iewww.neighbourfood.ie

 It doesn’t occur to most people to use the inexpensive humble cabbage for soup, yet of all the soups we make, the flavour of cabbage soup surprises many – it is unexpectedly delicious.  We use Greyhound or Hispi cabbage but crinkly Savoy cabbage works brilliantly later in the year.

Spring Cabbage Soup  

Serves 6

115g onions, chopped

130g potatoes, peeled and diced

250g spring cabbage leaves, shredded and chopped (stalks removed, grate stalks for coleslaw)

55g butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

850ml light chicken stock

50-125ml cream or creamy milk

Chorizo crumbs or Gremolata (optional for serving)

First prepare all the vegetables, then melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When it foams, add the potatoes and onions, toss them in the butter until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a cartouche and the lid of the saucepan, sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes until soft but not coloured.. Add the hot stock and boil until the potatoes are tender.  Add the cabbage and cook uncovered until the cabbage is just cooked – a matter of 4 or 5 minutes. Keep the lid off to preserve the bright green colour. Do not overcook or the vegetables will lose both their fresh flavour and colour.

Puree the soup in a liquidiser or blender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the cream or creamy milk before serving.  Serve alone or with sprinkling of chorizo crumbs or gremolata over the top (optionl).

If this soup is to be reheated, just bring it to the boil and serve. Prolonged boiling will spoil the colour and flavour.

Here again, one has the option of serving a chunky version of the Spring Cabbage Soup.

Freezing

Freezes perfectly for 2-3 months, but use sooner rather than later.

 Wild Garlic Tortillitas à la Patata

Sam and Jeannie Chesterton of Finca Buenvino in Andalucia, introduced me to this little gem.  I keep wondering why it never occurred to me before, they are so easy to make and completely addictive – kids also love them and they make perfect little starter snack or bites to nibble with a drink. If you don’t have wild garlic, a mixture of chives and parsley is also delicious.

Makes 26 (Serves 5 – 6)

4 eggs, free range and organic

225g cooked potatoes in 5mm dice

3 tablespoons finely chopped wild garlic

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Aoili (see recipe)

Extra virgin olive oil for frying, you will need about 5mm in the frying pan.

Maldon Sea salt for sprinkling.

Whisk the eggs in a bowl, add the potato dice, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the freshly chopped wild garlic.

Heat about 5mm extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan on a high heat, cook a teaspoonful of mixture and taste for seasoning.

Correct if necessary.  

Continue to cook the mini tortillas as needed, using a scant dessertspoon of the mixture. Allow to cook on one side for about seconds, flip over and continue to cook on the other side for a similar length of time, or until slightly golden.

Drain on kitchen paper.  Sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt and wild garlic flowers if you have them.

Serve hot, or at room temperature with a blob of Aioli.  

Wild Garlic Aoili

2 egg yolks, preferably free range

1-4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

pinch of English mustard or 1/4 teaspoon French mustard

1 dessertspoon white wine vinegar

8 fl ozs (225ml) oil (sunflower, arachide or olive oil or a mixture) – We use 6 fl ozs (175ml) arachide oil and 2 fl ozs (50ml) olive oil, alternatively use 7/1

2 tablespoons of freshly chopped wild garlic leaves  Put the egg yolks into a bowl with the mustard, garlic salt and the white wine vinegar (keep the whites to make meringues). Put the oil

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