ArchiveJanuary 2021

Celebrating St Brigid

 The 1st of February is just around the corner…..

Time to celebrate a very special day in the Irish calendar, the feast day of our beloved patron Saint Brigid….

La Feile Bride also marks the beginning of Spring, the season of seed sowing when nature begins to spring back into life and hope is renewed, all the more reason to celebrate this year…..

Saint Brigid’s Day also coincides with the start of the festival of Imbolg, one of the four major ‘Fire’ festivals. The other three festivals in Irish folklore are Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.

Imbolc/ Imbolg is celebrated by Neopagans with a variety of Celtic rituals.

Surely its high time to elevate St Brigid to her rightful place, to give her equal billing with Saint Patrick as our female patron saint and to declare St. Brigid’s Day a national holiday.

Depending on who or what you read, St. Brigid is the patron saint of cattle farmers, dairy maids, bee keepers, midwives, babies, blacksmiths, sailors, boatmen, fugitives, poets, poultry farmers, scholars, travellers. For me, Bridget was the original feminist, a trail blazer, a strong woman’s voice in a male dominated world, a feminine role model, a force to be reckoned with…. She was one busy saint!

She is still widely venerated and many lovely traditions still endure around the country. Possibly best known is the  tradition of weaving St.Brigid’s Crosses from reeds.  Bridget, we are told was the founder of the first Irish monastery in Kildare in the fifth century. According to the legend, she was called to the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain. While she watched over him, she bent down, picked up some rushes from the floor and wove a cross to explain the Christian story, whereupon the chieftain was promptly converted to Christianity.

Just as the shamrock is associated with St. Patrick, the little woven cross is associated with St Brigid.

Typically, it has four arms with a woven square in the centre but three armed crosses are traditional in some counties as explained to me by Saint Brigid’s Day cross maker extraordinaire Patricia O’Flaherty, whom I met at La Feile Bride celebrations at the Irish Embassy in London a number of years ago.

As I write this, I particularly remember Eileen Cowhig, a wonderful local lady who came to the Ballymaloe Cookery School for years to pass on the tradition of how to weave the St. Brigid’s Cross to students from all over the world. We would then hang a newly woven cross in both the dairy and the hen house to bless the hens and to protect our little herd of Jersey cows who produce the most delicious rich milk. She died last year and is fondly remembered by all of us. 

The St.Brigid’s Cross was proudly chosen by newly launched Telifis Eireann in 1961 as its logo and continued until 1995 when it was dropped in favour of ‘a clean striking piece of modern design’.

 Another endearing tradition is to leave a piece of cloth, a scarf or a ribbon on a bush outside  on St. Brigid’s Eve to be blessed by the saint as she passes. This is known in Irish Folklore as Bratog Brid and will cure headaches and sore throats. 

In Kerry particularly, a  Bridog doll, sometimes woven from corn was taken from house to house as this refrain was recited

‘This is Brigid dressed in white,

Give her something for the night,

She is deaf, she is dumb,

Give her money if you have some,’ ( Ref: duchas.ie)

Over the past decade, St.Brigid’s Day celebrations have been gathering momentum around the globe.

Since 2018, the achievements of Irish women from all walks of life have been celebrated on La Feile Bride at the Irish Embassy in London. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the celebrations have gone online.

From a virtual afternoon tea in Luton to a women’s festival of female literary creativity in Berlin, and a weeklong virtual event in Vancouver.

So, how about special foods to mark St. Brigid’s Day……..

Apparently, Brigid was a wonderful butter maker, so here’s how to make a batch of homemade butter in minutes to slather over floury winter potatoes. Also a recipe for St.Brigid’s Day oatcakes.

Colcannon is another traditional favourite….. At this time of the year, I often make it with parsnips and potatoes mixed with kale – a tip from the late Gay Byrne who insisted that it was the Dublin way of making it and  the way his mother always made it. I am indebted to Gay for sharing this and remember him fondly every time we enjoy it.

Look out for the early wild garlic, tri cornered leek or snowbells 

(allium triquetrem) which romps along the roadsides at this time of the year. It resembles white bluebells but has a distinct garlic smell when the thin leaves are rubbed between the fingers. It’s also delicious added to colcannon, but here I am sharing my brother Rory O’Connell’s recipe for Wild Garlic broth, I could imagine St Brigid might have made a similar version at this time of the year. After all, it’s likely that she would have been a knowledgeable forager and was no doubt well acquainted with both the flavour and medicinal benefits of many wild plants.

La Feile Bride Cake has become a new tradition in our extended family, all of whom love to celebrate and perpetuate Irish traditions and festivals. Happy St. Brigid’s Day to each and every one. Perhaps you too can have a virtual afternoon tea and celebrate and raise awareness of our female patron saint.

How to make Homemade Butter

Everyone should be able to make butter. Let’s face it, most of us have over whipped cream from time to time, don’t dream of throwing it out, whisk for a minute or two more and you’ll have your very own butter. If there are butter bats in the house it makes it easier to shape the butter into blocks or balls but they are absolutely not essential. They’re more widely available than you might think, in kitchen shops, but also keep an eye in antique shops and if you find some, snap them up. A good pair will bring you butter luck!

Unsalted butter should be eaten within a few days, but the addition of salt will preserve it for two to three weeks. Also, you can make butter with any quantity of cream but the amount used in the recipe below will keep you going for a week or so and give you enough to share with friends (though not in my house!). Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.

Butter (Salted)

Makes about 1kg (2 1/4lb) butter and 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) buttermilk

2.4 litres (4 pints) unpasteurised or pasteurised double cream at room temperature

2 teaspoons dairy salt (optional)

pair of butter bats or hands

Soak the wooden butter bats or hands in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.

Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilized mixing bowl. If it’s homogenised, it will still whip, but not as well. If you’re using raw cream and want a more traditional taste, leave it to ripen in a cool place, where the temperature is about 8°C (46°F), for up to48 hours.

Whisk the cream at a medium speed in a food mixer until it is thick. First it will be softly whipped, then stiffly whipped. Continue until the whipped cream collapses and separates into butterfat globules. The buttermilk will separate from the butter and slosh around the bowl. Turn the mixture into a cold, spotlessly clean sieve and drain well. The butter remains in the sieve while the buttermilk drains into the bowl. The buttermilk can be used to make soda bread or as a thirst quenching drink (it will not taste sour). Put the butter back into a clean bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk. Remove and sieve as before. Fill the bowl containing the butter with very cold water. Use the butter bats or your clean hands to knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. This is important, as any buttermilk left in the butter will sour and the butter will go off quickly. If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.

Drain the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear. Weigh the butter into 110g (4oz), 225g (8oz) or 450g (1lb) slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats. Make sure the butter hands or bats have been soaked in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes before using to stop the butter sticking to the ridges. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and keep chilled in a fridge. The butter also freezes well.

 

 

St Brigids’ Day Oatmeal Scones

I’m taking a bit of poetic licence here…These oatmeal scones are cooked in the oven but one can also cook them on a griddle, on the stovetop or over an open fire if you really want to be authentic.

450g (1lb) white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon bread soda (bicarbonate of soda/baking soda)

sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 350-375ml (12-13fl oz) approx. egg wash

2ozs oatmeal

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

Sieve the dry ingredients.  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 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep, brush with egg wash, cut into 12 square scones.  Dip the top of each scone into the oatmeal, place on a baking sheet.  Bake in a hot oven for 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 for 10 – 15 minutes.  Serve slathered with your homemade butter.

Dublin Parsnip Colcannon

Several Dubliners have spoken to me about a parsnip colcannon that ‘the Mammy used to make’. Threepenny or sixpenny bits were sometimes hidden in the colcannon at Hallowe’en for the children to find. The proportion of parsnips to potato varied.

Serves 8 (approximately)

450g (1lb) old potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

450g (1lb) parsnips

450g (1lb) curly kale

250–300ml (9–10fl oz) creamy milk

2 tablespoons approx. chopped scallions

55g (2oz) approx. butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub and peel the potatoes and parsnips, put them into a saucepan, cover with cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes and parsnips are cooked, strain off the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put on a gentle heat and allow to steam for a few minutes, then mash.

While the potatoes and parsnips are cooking, bring a pot of well salted water to
the boil, remove the central rib from the kale and cook the leaves until tender. Drain and chop finely.

When the potatoes are almost cooked, put on the milk and bring to the boil with the scallions. While the potatoes and parsnips are still warm, stir in the chopped kale and beat in enough boiling milk to make a fluffy purée. (If you have a large quantity, use the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade.) Add the butter and taste for seasoning. Stir over the heat and serve immediately in a hot dish with the butter melting in the centre.

Note: Colcannon may be prepared ahead and reheated later in a moderate oven (180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4) for about 20–25 minutes.

Rory O’Connell’s Wild Garlic Leaf and Flower Broth

The key to the success of this recipe is the addition of the wild garlic to the broth just a few minutes before you are going to eat it. This way the garlic will still be bright green in colour and vibrant in taste when it arrives at the table. Some times the little flowers, which I urge you to use, will float to the surface of the hot broth and sit there like little water lilies or lotus flowers. Now that’s a bonus.

Serves 6

The ingredients

  • The wild garlic when in season is readily available for those who live in the countryside and for urban dwellers is increasingly available in vegetable shops and farmers markets. Every part of the two different varieties can be used, bulbs below the ground and leaves and flowers above.
  • An optional addition of grated parmesan cheese is delicious here. Allow your guests to sprinkle a light dusting on each bowl of poured soup rather than you adding it to the cooking pot. It will taste sweeter and fresher this way. One teaspoon of parmesan is plenty on each serving.

 50g butter

 175g potatoes, peeled and cut into neat 1cm dice

 175g onions, peeled and finely chopped into ½ cm dice

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste

1.2l chicken stock

Salt and pepper

 600ml of finely chopped garlic leaves, tightly packed into the measure

 50ml garlic flowers.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and allow to foam. Add the potatoes, onions and crushed garlic. Coat in the butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper or greaseproof paper and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook on a very low heat to allow the vegetables to sweat gently until barely tender. This will take about 10 minutes. Don’t overcook and allow the diced potato to collapse. Add the stock, stir gently and bring to a simmer and cook gently for a further 10 minutes. The broth should be barely bubbling. If it cooks too fast at this stage, the delicacy of flavour of the chicken stock will be lost. Taste and correct seasoning. This is the base and can be put aside until later.

To finish, bring the base back to a simmer. Add the garlic leaves and allow to just wilt. This will only take a couple of minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Finally sprinkle in the flowers, watch and marvel as they float on the surface. Serve immediately.

St Brigid’s Day Cake

We love this super delicious cake which we created especially for St Brigid’s day, green white and gold – how naff is that…..

Serves 8

175g (6oz) soft butter

150g (5oz) castor sugar

3 eggs, preferably free range

175g (6oz) self-raising flour

To decorate:

lemon glace icing see below

8 pieces of kumquat compote – drained

8 wood sorrel leaves

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.

First make the kumquat compote, see below for recipe.

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, once the cake is cool, pour the icing over the cake and spread gently over the sides with a palette knife.

Decorate with the candied kumquats and wood sorrel leaves.

Serve on a pretty plate.

Serves 8 to 10

Lemon Glacé Icing

160g (6oz) icing sugar

finely grated rind of 1/2 lemon

2-3tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl.   Add the lemon rind and enough lemon juice to make a softish icing.

Decorate with 8 pieces of drained kumquat compote.

Kumquat Compôte

A gem of a recipe, this compôte can be served as a dessert or as an accompaniment to roast duck, goose or glazed ham.  Also delicious with goat’s cheese or yoghurt.

Serves 6-20 depending on how it is served

235g (8 1/2 oz) kumquats

200ml (7fl oz) water

110g (4oz) sugar

Slice the kumquats thinly into four or five round slices depending on size.  Remove the seeds.  Put the kumquats into a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, covered, for half an hour or until tender.  If they accidently overcook or become too dry, add a little water and bring back to the boil for one minute – they should be crystallised but slightly juicy

Serve warm or cold.

Note: This compote keeps for weeks in the fridge.

Wild Food of the Week – Wild Garlic

So love that moment when I suddenly realise that – Wow, Winter is over. One can practically hear the excitement underneath the ground. Rhubarb and chives are pushing their way up through the soil, everything is stirring. We’ve already found some wild garlic to add to salad and flavoured butters – so head how about a bit of foraging in the open air this weekend. There are two varieties allium ursinum or ramps a broad leaved bulbous plant which grows in moist woodland and allium triquetrum also known as three cornered leeks which often grows along the roadside verges. The latter has a flower that resembles ‘white’ blue bells, and pointy narrow leaves. I find that the leaves of allium ursinum are best for wild garlic pesto so wait a couple of weeks for those.  

Oyster, oysters everywhere….

What is it about an oyster that makes so many people scrunch up their faces when offered one of those delicious bivalves? Why do so many instantly decide – “No, I don’t or won’t like them”. Come on, surely you are brave enough to try an oyster, try one and then another, maybe a third, then you are hooked – a dozen isn’t enough. Those of us who like oysters don’t just like them, we really, really love them.

Oysters are a brilliant source of zinc and vitamin D and the good news is that we are smack bang in the middle of the oyster season. There are two main varieties, the indigenous Irish oyster, Ostrea edulis and Crassostrea gigas. The latter are often referred to as Pacific, Portuguese, or Rock Oysters. They have curvy shells and are less expensive because they mature in 2 to 3 years as opposed to the much prized native Irish oyster which takes at least 4 to 5 years to mature and is only in season when there is an ‘R’ in the month – September to April.

You’ll find your fresh oysters in the English Market in Cork and at several Farmers Markets in the Cork area e.g. Douglas and Mahon where you can eat freshly shucked Rossmore oysters right there and then. Rock oysters can be enjoyed all year round, ‘au naturel’ or cooked. ‘Natives’ are such a delicacy that there’s no need to ‘faff’ around with hot sauces and dressings, best enjoyed just as they are. All they need, if anything is just a little squeeze of fresh lemon. Not sure if we fully realise how much delicious and exquisite, Irish oysters are prized the world over. Nothing apart from the tiny Olympians from the North Pacific coast of America can even come close in terms of flavour. So seek them out for a real gastronomic experience but it’s also worth mentioning that Irish oyster fishermen need and would deeply appreciate our support because the restaurant industry and their overseas markets have been so severely affected by the Covid 19 pandemic and the Brexit delays at the ports.

If you can get your hands on some large gigas oysters, there’s a super variety of cooked oyster recipes. Try English Market in Cork City or contact Oyster producers around the country, Harty’s in Dungarvan, Kelly’s in Galway, Irish Premium Oysters to name a few…. Many will courier a panier of fresh oysters direct to your door overnight.

Ballymaloe House guests will fondly remember Myrtle’s, Hot Buttered Oysters on toast and the exquisite Oysters in Champagne sauce. Oysters Kilpatrick or Oyster Rockerfeller are two other classics you might like to try.

I also love crispy oysters with Wasabi Mayo and the warm oysters with Horseradish cream that I first tasted in New York.

HOW TO OPEN AN OYSTER

You will need an oyster knife.

It’s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening oysters.  Wrap the tea towel round your hand, then lay the deep shell on the tea towel with the wide end pointing inwards.   Grip the oyster firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the hinge, twist to lever the two shells apart; you’ll need to exert quite a lot of pressure, so it’s foolhardy not to protect your hand well.   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, don’t lose the precious briny juice. 

Hot Buttered Oysters on Toast

Delicious on toast but if you choose to serve these wonderfully curvaceous oysters in their shells they tend to topple over maddeningly on the plate so that the delicious juices escape.  In the restaurant we solve this problem by piping a little blob of mashed potato on the plate to anchor each shell.

12 Pacific (Gigas) oysters

25g (1oz) butter

1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped (for second option)

To Serve

4 segments of lemon

4 ovals or rectangles of hot buttered white toast

Sprigs of fresh chervil, if available.

Open the oysters, remove from the shell and keep aside. Melt the butter in a pan until it foams.  Toss the oysters in the butter until hot through – 1 minute perhaps.  Spoon the oysters onto the hot buttered toast. The toast will soak up the juices, serve immediately with a wedge of lemon and a sprig of chervil on top. Simply delicious!

Hot Buttered Oysters in their Shells

Alternatively, open the oysters and detach completely from their shell, disgard the top shell but keep the deep shell and reserve the liquid. Put the shells into a low oven to heat through. Melt half the butter in the pan until it foams. Toss the oysters in butter until hot through – 1 minute perhaps. Spoon a hot oyster into each of the warm shells. Pour the reserved oyster liquid into the pan and boil up, whisking in the remaining butter and the finely chopped parsley. Spoon the hot juices over the oysters and serve immediately on hot plates with a wedge of lemon.

Hot Oysters with Champagne Sauce

Don’t just fip over this recipe. The flavour is sublime – a real treat and worth the effort.

Serves 4

16 Rock or Japanese Oysters

Champagne Sauce

This sauce is also excellent with baked fish, i.e. turbot, black sole and brill.

Half bottle of Champagne or sparkling white wine

1oz (25g/1 tablespoon) chopped shallot

4 large egg yolks

8ozs (225g) of butter

1/2 pint (300ml) whipped double cream

First make the champagne sauce.

Boil the champagne with the shallot, reducing to 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon).  Remove from the heat and beat in the yolks.  Return to a very low heat and add the butter bit by bit as for Hollandaise sauce. When all the butter has melted fold in the whipped cream.

Scrub the oysters well.  Just before serving put into a hot oven 250°C/475°F/regulo 9 until they just start to open and release their juices. Using an oyster knife remove and discard the top shell, place a little champagne sauce on top of each oyster and put under a hot grill until golden.  Serve immediately and garnish with fennel and a lemon wedge.

Da Fiore Crispy Oysters

This recipe comes from my favourite fish restaurant in Venice.

Serves 6-8

24 Pacific Oysters

Tempura

Hollandaise Sauce (see recipe)

Bamboo Cocktail sticks

Hollandaise Sauce

2 egg yolks, preferably free-range and organic

125 g (5ozs) butter cut into dice

1 dessertspoon cold water

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, approx.

Tempura Batter

4 tablesp flour

1 tablesp cornflour

 ½ teasp gluten free baking powder

800 ml ice cold water

1 large egg white

pink pepper corns

roughly chopped chervil sprigs

Oil for deep frying

First make the Hollandaise Sauce.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.

Open the oysters and save and strain the liquid and the shells. Make the tempura batter. Sieve the flour, cornflour and baking powder into a bowl.  Add the water and whisk just enough to barely combine, don’t over-mix.  Whisk the egg white in a separate bowl; fold into the batter with a little salt.

To serve: warm the oyster shells in the oven. Heat the oil in a deep fryer. Whisk the 4 tablespoons of oyster liquid into the hollandaise, taste and add more if necessary. Dip the oysters one at a time into the batter, fry for a minute or two until crispy. Meanwhile put a generous teaspoon of sauce into each shell, spear each crispy oyster with a bamboo stick and lay one on top of each shell. Garnish with a little chervil and sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt and some roughly ground pink peppercorns on the plate.

Tempura Oysters with Wasabi Mayo

Follow the recipe above but serve with Wasabi Mayo rather than Hollondaise.

Wasabi Mayo

125g (4 1/2oz) homemade Mayonnaise

1 – 2 tablespoons wasabi paste or to taste

coarsely chopped parsley

Simply mix all the ingredients together to make your mayonnaise and serve with crispy tempura oysters.

Warm Oysters with Horseradish Cream and Chervil

Serves 6-8

24 Gigas oysters

Horseradish Cream (see recipe)

Garnish

sprigs of chervil

First make the horseradish cream (see recipe), cover and chill.

To Serve

Preheat the oven to 250˚C/500˚F/Gas Mark 10. 

Put the oysters into a baking tray on a bed of coarse salt.  Pop into the oven and cook until the shells just pop open.  Lift off the top shell.  Spoon about a dessertspoon of horseradish cream over the oyster.  Top with a sprig of chervil and serve immediately.  The oyster should be hot and the horseradish cream cold and fluffy.  Serve immediately on a bed of seaweed or coarse salt.

Horseradish Cream

Serves 8 – 10

3 – 6 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

lots of freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

110mls (4fl oz) cream

110mls (4fl oz) milk

Put the grated horseradish into a bowl with the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard powder, salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar.  Fold in the cream and milk. Whisk to froth up.

Wild Food of the Week

Alexander, horse parsley (Smyrnium olusatrum)

Time to go foraging again….Alexander’s grow in profusion along the cliffs, roadsides and hedges near the sea in the south of Ireland. For the purpose of identification, they are an umbelliferous plant so they look a bit like cow parsley but with paler green leaves. They are in season now and are brilliant to pick from now until March or April when they begin to flower, depending on the weather. It’s a Mediterranean plant that was introduced to these islands by the Romans and was originally planted as a vegetable. The flavour is delicate and delicious; in fact the taste is slightly like sea kale. The young leaves are good in salads and the peeled stalks make a tasty vegetable. They are best harvested just before the buds burst into flower. Otherwise, like many plants, they become bitter.

Foods to Boost Your Immune System

As I write this column Covid 19 numbers are escalating in leaps and bounds. We’re back in strictest Level 5 lockdown and virtually everyone’s life is on hold. We have postponed the start of our Spring 12 Week Course. Students who have been looking forward to joining us are biting their nails wondering when they will be able to start the course they have so looked forward to, in some cases for several years. C’est la vie at present….

Little Christmas has come and gone….this year the women of Ireland could not get together to celebrate but those of us who are fortunate to be still well can concentrate on counting our blessings and focus on boosting our gut biome, mental health and immune systems with nourishing, wholesome food.

Many factors affect our immune system, our lifestyle, sleep habits, stress levels, environment, genes….

We can’t do anything about our genes, we are what we became at the moment of our conception. Exercise helps, adequate sleep does too, we all know how much easier it is to pick up a cold or flu when we are exhausted after a long period of stressful work.

But like any army our immune system marches on it’s stomach, scientists acknowledge that those who live in poverty and are malnourished are more likely to succumb to infectious diseases. Despite that there are still relatively few studies on the effect of nutrition on the immune system of humans.

You don’t have to be a doctor or nutritionist to know that the type of food we eat impacts on our wellbeing.  Covid 19, particularly this mutant strain is unquestionably highly contagious. One certainly can’t say for sure that lots of nutritious food will protect us but it can’t hurt to eat delicious vitamin and mineral rich food. Vitamin A and D are known to support our immune systems and work together like twins. Vitamin D comes from sunlight, so dash out and lap up as much winter sun as you can – it’s much more effective than taking Vitamin D pills.

Vitamin A comes principally from liver and pure fermented cod liver oil but also egg yolks and unpasteurised dairy products. Each and every one of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements are crucial in their own particular way.

I’m a big believer in the power and the nourishment of broth. Any bone broth really but particularly chicken broth so soothing and restorative. It’s super easy to make particularly if you have a slow cooker.

Making bone broth is a way of working, instead of chucking things out, collect all the vegetable peelings, herb stalks poultry carcasses, bones and giblets in a ‘stock box’ in your freezer. When it’s full to the brim, make a celebration pot of stock. Then strain and degrease if necessary, cool and refrigerate or freeze to enjoy the next time you feel like a pick-me-up.

Broth is concentrated stock, the French word for stock is Fond which means foundation in English. Chicken broth is probably the most useful but fantastic broth but can also be made from beef, lamb and game bones.

A turkey carcass also makes a delicious stock but no doubt that’s long gone now so if you didn’t use it this time make a mental note to make fine big pot of broth next time round. It’s well worth reminding ourselves that back as far as the mid 400’s BC, Greek Physician Hippocrates (who apparently lived to the ripe old age of 90) stated “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

At the APC (Alementary Pharambotic Centre) microbiome Institute at UCC Professor Cryan & Professor Dinan and their team have been investigating the link between gut health and mental health for almost a decade now, with fascinating results.

Not surprisingly, heavily processed foods, sweeteners and emulsifiers have a negative effect on the biodiversity of our gut biome. It may sound boring and passé but all we need is real living food, lots of fibre and green vegetables and if you fancy some green tea and dark chocolate. Fermented foods are super important also so seek out natural sourdough bread (beware there’s a lot of faux sourdough around), sauerkraut, kimchi, water and milk kefir, better still make it yourself. Here are some easy recipes to get you started, virtually nothing you buy will be as good and I guarantee you’ll feel the better of it.

Chicken Stock

This recipe is just a guideline. If you have just one carcass and can’t be bothered to make a small quantity of stock, why not freeze the carcass and save it up until you have six or seven carcasses and giblets (if you can get chicken feet, they will add lots of collagen and flavour). Then you can make a really good-sized pot of stock and get best value for your fuel.

Stock will keep for several days in the refrigerator. If you want to keep it for longer, boil it up again for 5–6 minutes every couple of days; allow it to get cold and refrigerate again. Stock also freezes perfectly. For cheap containers, use large yogurt cartons or plastic milk bottles, then you can cut them away from the frozen stock without a conscience if you need to defrost it in a hurry!

Makes about 3.5 litres (6 pints)

2–3 raw or cooked chicken carcasses or a mixture of both giblets from the chicken (neck,         heart, gizzard – save the liver for a different dish)

1 onion, sliced

1 leek, split in two

4 outside celery stalks or 2 lovage leaves

2 carrot, cut into chunks

a few parsley stalks

sprig of thyme

6 black peppercorns

Chop up the carcasses as much as possible. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with about 3.4 litres (7 pints/17 1/2 cups) cold water. Bring to the boil. Skim the fat off the top with a tablespoon. Simmer very gently for 3–4 hours. Taste, strain and remove any remaining fat. Do not add salt.

BROTH

For a more intense flavour, boil down the liquid in an open pan until it reduces to about half of the original volume. Taste and add salt.

PHEASANT OR GUINEA FOWL STOCK

Pheasant or guinea fowl stock is also made on the same principle as chicken stock. Use appropriately in game dishes.

GOOSE OR DUCK STOCK

Goose or duck stock may be made in the same manner as chicken stock. However, some chefs like to brown the carcasses first for a richer flavour and darker stock. Use for goose and duck recipes such as Duck, Ginger and Noodle Broth

Duck, Ginger and Noodle Broth

Serves 6 – 8

350-450g (12 – 16ozs) cooked duck meat, shredded

1.8 litres (3 pints) duck stock

2 1/2 inch (6cm) piece ginger, thinly sliced

3 star anise

4-6 spring onions, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

100g (3 1/2 ozs) rice noodles

2 tablespoons nam pla (fish sauce)

4ozs (110g) Chinese cabbage, thinly sliced or 8ozs (225g) sprouting broccoli

6 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves

OR Thai basil leaves

2 red chillies, thinly sliced

crispy shallots

Bring the duck stock slowly to the boil with the ginger, star anise, spring onions and peppercorns.  Simmer gently for 30 minutes.  Strain the broth.  Add the fish sauce to the strained broth.

Pour the boiling water over the noodles. Bring the stock to the boil, add the cabbage or broccoli and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes.  Strain the noodles.  Divide them between the serving bowls, top with the duck pieces.  Taste and correct seasoning of the broth.  Ladle the broth and cabbage or broccoli over the noodles and duck.  Top with coriander leaves or Thai basil leaves.  Scatter with thinly sliced chilli and crispy shallots if you can find them.

Serve as soon as possible.

Kimchi

Thank you @pennyportous for these delicious kimchi and sauerkraut recipes from The Fermentation HQ at Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Makes 2 litres approx.

1kg (2 1/4lbs) Chinese cabbage, roughly chopped

1 carrot, chopped

12 spring onions

8 garlic cloves

5 chillies

6 tablespoons ginger

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 Litre Kilner Jar

Make a brine of 2 litres of water with 8 tablespoon sea salt.  Cover the cabbage and carrots with the brine in a big bowl and put a weight on top to keep them submerged.  Leave overnight or for a few hours at least.

Put the spring onions, garlic, chillies, ginger and fish sauce into a food processer and chop finely. 

Drain the cabbage, keeping some of the bring solution. 

Mix the onion paste into the cabbage.  Stuff tightly into a 2 litre (3 1/2 pints) Kilner jar.  Use a small jar to weigh everything down the mixture.  Top up with small bit of brine to keep submerged. 

Ballymaloe Sauerkraut

At its basic sauerkraut is chopped or shredded cabbage that is salted and fermented in its own juice.  It has existed in one form or another for thousands of years and sailors have carried it on ships to ward off scurvy because of its high Vitamin C content.  Try to use organic vegetables if available.

800g (1 3/4lb) of cabbage

Or

500g (18oz) of cabbage plus

300g (10oz) of mixture of any of the following: grated carrot, turnip, celeriac, onion

3 level teaspoons sea salt

1 x 1 litre Kilner jar or similar

Small jam jar to act as a weight inside the lid of the 1 litre jar

Wash the cabbage if it’s muddy. Take off any damaged outside leaves. Quarter the cabbage, core it and then finely shred each quarter.

Mix the cabbage and the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.  Using your hands, scrunch cabbage and other vegetables with the salt until you begin to feel the juices being released.  Continue for a few minutes. Pack a little at a time you’re your Kilner jar and press down hard using your fist – this packs the kraut tight and helps force more water out of the vegetables.  Fill the Jar about 80% full to leave room for liquid that will come out of the vegetables as it starts to ferment.

Place a clean weight on top of cabbage (a small jar or container filled with water works well).  This weight is to keep the vegetables submerged under the brine. This is the most important thing to get your ferment off to the right start. (Under the brine, all will be fine!)

Sit the jar on a plate just in case some brine escapes while it is fermenting. Place on a counter top and allow to ferment for at least 5 days. Ideally leave it for 10 days to 2 weeks.  As you eat the kraut make sure the remainder is well covered in brine by pushing the vegetables under the brine and sealing well.  It will keep for months, the flavour develops and matures over time. Once you have opened it, it’s best to keep it in the fridge where it will last for months.

Penny Allen’s Water Kefir

Water kefir is a superfast fermented drink made using a starter culture or “grains”. These grains are essentially a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). These cultures convert sugar water into a probiotic, enzyme-rich refreshing drink filled with friendly microorganisms that can help bring balance to your microbiome. It’s very easy to make at home and at its most basic it’s just fermented sugar and water, ready to drink in just a couple of days!

120g (scant 4 1/2oz) water kefir grains 

70g (scant 3oz) organic sugar – the less sugar you add the quicker it will take to ferment

2 organic apricots or equivalent of other dried fruit – such as figs, dates, prunes, raisins

1 litre (1 3/4 pints) of water – filtered or dechlorinated  

slice of organic unwaxed lemon or lime

1 x 1 1/2 litre (2 1/2 pints) Kilner jar 

Making Water Kefir for the first time

Put the sugar into the 1.5 litre Kilner jar. Pour in the filtered or dechlorinated water and stir well with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved into the water. 

Now strain your starter jar of water kefir, catching the grains in a sieve and discard the liquid they have been in. 

Tip these grains into the sugar water in the Kilner jar. Add the dried fruit and slice of lemon and secure the lid.

Leave out on a countertop to ferment at room temperature for 2-4 days. After day 2 start to taste the kefir to see if it’s to your liking – you decide when it’s ready – the longer it ferments, the less sweet it will be, the sugar being converted into beneficial organic acids.

When the kefir acquires the flavour that suits you, lift out the dried fruit and lemon (which should be floating on the surface). Strain the liquid through a sieve, catching the kefir grains in the sieve. Pour the liquid into a bottle – secure with a lid and store in the fridge – it will carbonate nicely in the fridge – just be careful when opening! The kefir can be enjoyed as is or you might choose to flavour it – we call this the second fermentation – see below.

Now make your next batch.

Water kefir wants to be made over and over again. You have your grains in a sieve so just put more sugar into the 1.5 litre Kilner jar and add 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) of filtered/dechlorinated water. Stir once again until the sugar has dissolved into the water and add grains to jar. Add a new slice of lemon and 2 pieces of dried fruit. Secure the lid and leave to ferment once again on the countertop for 2-4 days, tasting each day until it’s to your liking.

Grains might gradually multiply over time. You can divide them and give some away or you can make larger quantities of water kefir in larger jar. 

If you want to take a break from making water kefir you can feed the grains extra sugar- perhaps double the amount you usually add and then it can be left on the counter for a week – maybe two. Some people put the jar into the fridge to really slow down fermentation but I would suggest that a week in the fridge is the most you should do cos the grains will become too dormant and difficult to revive.

Second Fermentation

After transferring your water kefir into a bottle add a handful of one of the following to your taste.

fresh or frozen raspberries/blackberries

fresh or frozen strawberries

mango, pineapple and lime 

3-4 small pieces of Crystallised Ginger sliced thinly

several crushed mint leaves and juice of 1 lemon

splash of rosewater and some crushed cardamom seeds

1/2 tablespoon elderberries, 1 tablespoon rosehips and zest from 1 orange

1 vanilla pod (which can be reused many times)

Milk Kefir – Penny Allen

Milk kefir is a probiotic drink, a bit like a slightly effervescent yoghurt.

It is made with kefir grains and milk. The grains can be used again and again and will multiply if well looked after. The grains are not related to cereal grains and neither are they related to water kefir grains. The grains are  a bio-matrix made by yeasts and bacteria. There are many ways to enjoy kefir. It can be added to smoothies, used as you would buttermilk, great as a marinade to tenderise meat or add spices to make lassi.

Basic Recipe

1 tablespoon milk kefir grains

250ml (9fl oz) milk

Put your grains into a glass jar.

Add the milk and stir gently with a non-metal spoon.

Cover the jar with a clean cloth and put somewhere out of direct sunlight.

Let it sit for 12-24 hours until it reaches the desired sourness.  Stir from time to time. This helps it to ferment evenly. Taste it after 12 hours.

When the kefir has reached the desirable taste, strain the kefir through a plastic sieve into a bowl. You might need to help it through with a plastic spoon. You will be left with the kefir grains in the sieve, ready to be reused. Don’t be tempted to wash them.

You can now make the basic recipe again. As the grains multiply you can make larger batches.

To the strained kefir you can now add something like a vanilla pod and honey or spices to add flavour.

If you want to take a break from brewing kefir just put the grains into a fresh cup of milk and put it in the fridge. This will slow down fermentation for a few days.

Coconut Milk Kefir

Use 2 tablespoons of milk kefir grains and replace the milk with 1 can of coconut milk and proceed as in master recipe. 
Note: The original grains need to be feed with milk every week or every three or four batches as they need lactose to keep active.  The lactose is digested by the kefir so it’s still suitable for those intolerant to lactose. 

Showcasing Irish Halloumi

Many of you already know halloumi, a semi soft, brined cheese traditionally associated with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece but now there are several delicious versions made here in Ireland. Traditionally it is made all over the island of Cyprus by both the Greek Orthodox and Muslim communities from raw goat or sheep’s milk or a mixture. Halloumi can also be made from cow’s milk. It’s a brilliant, cooking cheese because it has a very high melting point. It holds its shape and is brilliant to add to stews or salads, just fried, grilled or barbequed.

It’s super salty, zesty flavour perks up all kinds of dishes that might otherwise be lack lustre. Once you discover halloumi, you’ll probably want to keep a pack permanently in your fridge for a regular halloumi fix. My grandchildren call it ‘squeaky cheese’. Usually, it comes in a block in packages or sliced with a little brine to preserve it – consequently the shelf life can be six months or more.  

Sadly the imported halloumi is a long way from the original artisan product made by grandmothers and small farmers on the island of Cyprus. Since global demand has skyrocketed, halloumi is now largely mass produced on an industrial scale so as ever the quality and texture is altogether different.

Halloumi is now widely available in supermarkets, discounters and fast food restaurants who were quick to recognise its appeal and versatility. Think halloumi fritters, burgers, kebabs and fries…. So where to find a more artisan product? From February to October on Ballyhubbock Farm in Glen-of-Imaal in the Wicklow mountains, artisan cheesemakers George Finlay and Hanna Sheerin make halloumi in the time honoured way from the milk of their flock of Freisland sheep, ballytubbockfarm@gmail.com, 083 054 1983.

They make the halloumi two to three times a week, it has a shelf life of 8-9 months so during the season they can make enough to supply their devotees throughout the year.

A delicious cow’s milk version come from Toonsbridge Dairy in West Cork where Toby Simmons and his brilliantly talented innovative team of cheesemakers make halloumi from cow’s milk at present but plans are underway to add some buffalo and sheep’s milk before too long. Check out their brilliant new Toonsbridge Food Store and deli on George’s Street in Dublin, it caused quite the stir when it opened in June 2020 – As the saying goes, ‘Let’s back brave’ – they sure deserve our support, as do all the cheesemakers.

Two more hugely skilled cheese makers, Frank and Gudrun Shinnick of the Fermoy Natural Cheese Company, make a wide range of cheese styles but recently gave me some of their cow’s milk halloumi to taste which I loved and incorporated into many dishes. Once again, made from the beautiful rich milk of their own herd of Friesian cows, pasture fed on organic feed and tested glyphosate free.

I discovered yet another halloumi at the Ballinrostig Cheese stall at the Midleton Farmer’s Market. This one is made from organic Jersey Cow milk and firmer in texture –They also offer a delicious smoked option https://www.ballinrostighomestead.com/

So lots of choice, here are some of the ways we enjoy halloumi. It’s a rich source of protein, a brilliant meat substitute for vegetarians. Kids and teenagers love it too – encourage them to come up with delicious ways to serve it.

Saganaki – Greek Fried Cheese

Serves 6

A meal in minutes – Fried Halloumi cheese cooked in a little round aluminium frying pan called Saganaki, is a Greek speciality.

It must be served piping hot, Greek waiters occasionally run to get it to the customer while it is still bubbling.

225g (8 ozs) hard cheese, or Halloumi

butter or olive oil

freshly squeezed lemon juice

freshly ground pepper

Cut the cheese into slices, about 1/2 inch (1cm) thick.  Have some white crusty bread ready on the table.  Melt a little butter or olive oil in a small frying pan, put in a few slices, reduce the heat and let the cheese cook for 1 or 2 minutes until it begins to bubble.  It should not brown, sprinkle with a few drops of lemon juice and some freshly cracked pepper, rush to the table and eat with crusty white bread.  Follow with a good green salad.

Halloumi with Lemon Zest, Honey and Marjoram or Oregano

Serves 4

4 pieces of Halloumi 

extra virgin olive oil

zest of 1 organic lemon

salt and freshly ground black pepper 

honey – you’ll need about 4 teaspoons

2-3 teaspoons marjoram or dried oregano

Just before serving, slice the Halloumi into 7mm (1/3 inch) thick slices.  

Heat a little oil in a pan or pan-grill.  Season the cheese with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Arrange the Halloumi in a single layer on the pan and allow to sizzle for a couple of minutes on both sides.  Sprinkle with coarsely chopped marjoram or dried oregano.  Transfer each piece onto a warm plate.  Drizzle with a little honey, grate on some lemon zest.  Sprinkle with a few fresh marjoram leaves and serve as soon as possible with crusty bread.

Halloumi Fritters with Kumquats and Rocket leaves

Serves 2

150grams Ballyhubbock Farm artisan halloumi

Flour seasoned with freshly ground pepper (no salt)

1 beaten egg

100grams white bread crumbs

Extra virgin Olive Oil

To Serve

Kumquat compote (see recipe)

Rocket leaves

Heat the oil in a deep fryer or 1 inch of oil in a frying pan. Cut the halloumi into 8 fingers, toss in seasoned flour, beaten egg and breadcumbs. Cook for 3 – 4 minutes in the hot oil until crisp and golden.

Toss the rocket leaves in extra virgin olive oil. Divide between 2 plates. Lay 4 fritters on top, drizzle with a little runny honey or serve with kumquat compote.

Kumquat Compôte

A gem of a recipe, this compôte can be served as a dessert or as an accompaniment to roast duck, goose or glazed ham.  Also delicious with goat’s cheese or yoghurt.

Serves 6-20 depending on how it is served

235g (8 1/2 oz) kumquats

200ml (7fl oz) water

110g (4oz) sugar

Slice the kumquats thinly into four or five round slices depending on size.  Remove the seeds.  Put the kumquats into a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, covered, for half an hour or until tender.  If they accidently overcook or become too dry, add a little water and bring back to the boil for one minute – they should be crystallised but slightly juicy

Serve warm or cold.

Note: This compote keeps for weeks in the fridge.

Rory O’Connell’s Carrot, Halloumi and Dill Cakes with Tahini Sauce and Sumac

These are light and fresh tasting little cakes suitable to serve with a drink, as a starter or indeed would make a lovely accompaniment with their sauces to a platter of grilled lamb chops. The cakes and sauces can be made and kept chilled ahead of time but I do like to serve the cakes as soon after they come off the pan as possible. The different textures here add to the pleasure of eating the dish. The cakes are somewhat firm, that firmness coming mainly from the halloumi. The tahini sauce has the consistency of softly whipped cream and the pomegranate seeds in the minted yoghurt add a little crunch.

Serves 6 as a starter or makes 30 bite sized pieces

250g (9oz) carrot coarsely grated

250g (9oz) halloumi coarsely grated

1 beaten egg

4 tablespoons (5 American tablespoons) chopped dill

60g (2 1/2oz/1/2 cup) plain flour

1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and coarsely ground

1 teaspoon paprika

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

extra virgin olive oil for frying

To Serve

Tahini Sauce (see recipe)

sumac

Place the carrot, halloumi, egg, dill, flour, cumin and paprika in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Taste to ensure the seasoning is correct.  Measure out 20g (3/4oz) pieces of the mixture and form into little cakes. Place on a parchment paper lined tray and chill until ready to cook.

Heat a little oil in a sauté pan and fry the cakes until golden brown on both sides. Keep warm if necessary for a short time in an oven preheated to 100°C/210°F/Gas Mark 1/4.

To serve, place the cakes on a heated flat plate and top each cake with a little dollop of tahini sauce and a light sprinkling of sumac. Serve as soon as possible passing the minted yoghurt separately with a little spoon for guests to serve themselves.

Tahini Sauce

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/generous 1/2 cup) water 

Place the tahini, garlic, salt and lemon juice in a bowl or food processor; add half the water and mix. The mixture will thicken – just continue cautiously adding water while mixing until it loosens up to a creamy texture. You want the sauce to hold its shape on top of the cakes and not to dribble down over the edges. Don’t be tempted to add too much water as the mixture will go runny, but if this happens, you can bring it back to the correct consistency with a little extra tahini paste. Correct seasoning adding more lemon juice.  

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.  Best made and eaten on same day.

Minted and Pomegranate Yoghurt

250ml natural yoghurt

2 tablespoons chopped mint

1 tablespoon pomegranate seeds

½ teaspoon roasted and ground cumin seed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix all of the ingredients together. Taste and correct seasoning.

Kale and Halloumi Salad

Serves 10 – 12

450g (1lb) curly kale (225g (8oz) when destalked

lemon, finely grated zest and juice of one lemon

25g (1oz) sugar

250ml (9oz) cream

sea salt – scant teaspoon or to taste

150g Halloumi, ½ inch dice

Strip the kale off the stalks, chop the leaves fairly finely and massage well to release the juices. Toss in a bowl. Grate the zest of the lemon directly onto the salad. Add the freshly squeezed juice, a good sprinkling of sugar and some sea salt. Toss, pour over the cream and toss again.

Heat a little extra virgin olive oil on a pan over a high heat, toss the halloumi cubes until golden on all sides. Scatter over the salad and serve – totally delicious.

Aubergine Wrapped Halloumi with Pomegranate Labneh

Serves 8

2 aubergines, cut lengthways into ½-1 cm slices (you’ll need 8 slices in all)

Extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper

500g of halloumi, sliced into 8 lengthways

Juice of ½ lemon

4 teaspoons of annual majoram

Pomegranate seeds

 Fresh mint leaves

Labneh (see recipe)

Handful of rocket leaves

For the Pomegranate and Molasses Dressing

1 garlic clove, crushed

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

Dash of red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

Sea salt and black pepper

Brush each slice of aubergine with the extra virgin olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Preheat a pan over a medium heat, cook slices in batches until golden and tender. Set aside to cool. Place a piece of halloumi at the end of each aubergine slice. A tiny squeeze of  lemon juice, sprinkle with chopped marjoram. Roll each aubergine slice up to enclose the halloumi and place on a baking tray. Heat the parcels under a hot grill or in a hot oven until the cheese begins to soften.

Whisk all the ingredients together for the pomegranate dressing with 1 tablespoon water until emulsified.

Serve the parcels on a few rocket leaves, drizzled with the pomegranate dressing. Scatter a few pomegranate seeds and some fresh mint leaves over the top with a blob of labneh on the side.

Labneh

for the labneh (makes 500g/18oz)

1kg natural yogurt

To make the labneh, line a strainer with a double thickness of sterilised cheesecloth. Place it over a bowl. Pour in the yogurt. Tie the four corners of the cheesecloth to make a loose bundle and suspend the bag of yogurt over a bowl.

Leave it in a cool place to drip into the bowl for 8 hours. Jersey milk yogurt is thicker and needs only 2–3 hours to drip. Then remove the cheesecloth and put the labneh in a bowl. Refrigerate overnight, and store until needed in a covered glass or plastic container. The liquid whey that has drained off can be fed to pigs or hens or used for fermented dishes and in whey lemonade.

Comfort Food to Beat the January Blues

Well here we are at last in 2021, full of hope and expectations and good riddance to 2020. It’s been quite the upheaval for each and everyone. The Covid 19 Pandemic has forced us to rethink so many aspects of our lives, our values, our global food and distribution systems…

It has shown just how vulnerable we are and taught us many valuable lessons on how to be better prepared for future crisis. Almost overnight back in March, the entire world was plunged into uncharted waters, everyone from governments, the entire medical system, multinational food companies, artists, musicians, teachers, publicans, chefs…. all scrambled to cope with unprecedented challenges. The shock of coping with the heartbreak of bereavements, the prospect of loosing a job, racking our brains to think of other income streams to survive – our lives changed beyond recognition.

This experience has forced us to pause and to readjust our priorities, to realise how futile it is to waste our lives embroiled in never ending battles for wealth, status and power.

The brilliant thing is that even in a pandemic we all need to eat.

Restaurants have reinvented themselves offering Take Outs, meal kits and family suppers. Food trucks are popping up everywhere, from Ballynamona Strand to Inishowen serving everything from fish and chips to ramen and fajitas.

Farmers Markets have quite rightly been declared an essential service. Branches of NeighbourFood, the online Farmers Market started by Jack Crotty in Barrack Street in Cork in early 2019 are popping up all over the country and now also in the UK.

Newspapers, On-line websites, Click and Collect options continue to be introduced by locally owned Irish businesses. The ongoing crisis has also created a myriad of opportunities for people to start little businesses at home in their spare room, garden shed, garage or kitchen. Many have discovered entrepreneurial genes they never realised they had, desperation has fuelled creativity.

Buying local has turned into a mainstream trend. Lockdown has forced us to explore what’s available in our local area and Wow, what treasures we have discovered. Local butchers, bakers, farmers, fish smokers, artisan preservers, honey producers….

So over Christmas, many people were on a mission to buy only local produce and crafts. The penny has really dropped that money spent in small local shops, saves jobs, creates opportunities and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than giant retailers flying products in from all over the world. More than 2/3 of the €5 billion we spend on- line every year disappears overseas, whereas every €100 spent in the local shop is worth €500 in real terms to the local community, how good does that feel?

So let’s continue this collective mind-set and be proud of the difference our contribution can make to Ireland. Meanwhile, a column of comforting food this week – family favourites that put a smile on everyone’s face and help beat those January blues….. Don’t forget to order a seed catalogue so we can plan to grow some of our own veggies and herbs this year.

Traditional Roast Stuffed Organic Chicken with Gravy

Serves 6

Who doesn’t love a roast chicken dinner with lots of gravy and delicious roasties. A traditional roast stuffed chicken with lots of gravy is a forgotten flavour for many people, partly because unless you have access to a really good bird the smell and flavour will be quite different to one’s childhood memory.  People often feel that making stuffing is too bothersome but if you keep some breadcrumbs in the freezer it can literally be made in minutes. 

Should I cook the stuffing inside the bird or cook the stuffing separately? 

The best place for the stuffing is inside the bird where it absorbs lots of delicious juices as it cooks.  Do not overfill the bird otherwise the heat may not penetrate fully.  This is particularly important if you are using an intensively reared bird which may be infected with salmonella and/or campylobacter. Wet or dry brining the chicken even for a few hours ahead hugely enhances the flavour and reduces the cooking time by 15 – 20 minutes (see below).

‘Dry’ brining, just rub dry salt all over the bird and slip it into a resealable bag, leave for 7 or 8 hours, pat dry before roasting.

4 1/2 – 5 lbs (1.5 – 2.3kg) free range chicken, preferably organic

Giblet Stock

Giblets (keep the liver for a chicken liver pate), and wish bone

1 thickly sliced carrot

1 thickly sliced onion

1 stick celery, sliced

a few parsley stalks and a sprig of thyme

Stuffing

1 1/2oz (45g) butter

3oz (75g) chopped onion

3-3 1/2oz (75-100g) soft white breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons) finely chopped fresh herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives and annual marjoram

salt and freshly ground pepper

a little soft butter

Gravy

1 – 1 1/2 pints (600-900ml) of stock from giblets or chicken stock

Garnish

sprigs of flat parsley

Basic Brine for Chicken, Duck or Pork (optional)

Brining greatly enhances the flavour of chicken, duck or pork.  We brine whole turkeys (48 hours), chickens and ducks (5-6 hours), chicken breast (30-40 minutes depending on size).

To make basic brine, mix together 40fl oz (2 pints/5 cups) water and 3 3/4oz (105g/1/4 cup) salt in a suitable size container with a cover (stainless steel, plastic or enamel are ideal). A little sugar may be added to the brine, even a few spices. Add the bird or joint, cover and chill in a refrigerator or keep in a cool place and brine for chosen time.

Drain well and dry before cooking.

First remove the wish bone from the neck end of the chicken, this is easily done by lifting back the loose neck, skin and cutting around the wish bone with a small knife – tug to remove, this isn’t at all essential but it does make carving much easier later on. Tuck the wing tips underneath the chicken to make a neat shape. Put the wish bone, giblets, carrot, onions, celery and herbs into a saucepan. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, skin and simmer gently while the chicken is roasting.  This is the basis of the gravy.

Next make the stuffing, sweat the onions gently in the butter in a covered saucepan until soft, 10 minutes approx. then stir in the white bread crumbs, the freshly chopped herbs, a little salt and pepper to taste. Allow it to get quite cold unless you are going to cook the chicken immediately. If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half fill with stuffing. Season the breast and legs, smear with a little soft butter.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Weigh the chicken and allow about 20 minutes to the lb and 20 minutes over – put on middle shelf in oven. Baste a couple of times during the cooking with the buttery juices. The chicken is done when the juices are running clear.

To test prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh, hold a spoon underneath to collect the liquid, examine the juices – they should be clear.

Remove the chicken to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy, tilt the roasting tin to one corner and spoon off the surplus fat from the juices and return the roasting pan to the stove. De-glaze the pan juices with the fat free stock from the giblets and bones (you will need 1-1 1/2 pints depending on the size of the chicken). Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelized meat juices in the roasting pan. Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like (the gravy should not be thick). Taste and correct seasoning, serve in a hot gravy boat.

If possible serve the chicken on a nice carving dish surrounded by crispy roast potatoes and some sprigs of flat parsley then arm yourself with a sharp knife and bring it to the table. Carve as best you can and ignore rude remarks if you are still practicing but do try to organise it so that each person gets some brown and some white meat. Serve with gravy and bread sauce.

Use the cooked carcass for stock. 

Best Fluffy Potato Mash Ever

Serves 4

900g (2lbs) unpeeled potatoes, preferably Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

300ml (10fl oz) creamy milk

1 whole egg

1-2oz (25-50g) butter

4 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs e.g parsley, chives, tarragon, lemon balm (optional)

Scrub the potatoes well. Put them into a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are about half cooked, 15 minutes approx. for ‘old’ potatoes, strain off two-thirds of the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put on to a gentle heat and allow the potatoes to steam until they are cooked. Peel immediately by just pulling off the skins, so you have as little waste as possible, mash while hot (see below). (If you have a large quantity, put the potatoes into the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade).

While the potatoes are being peeled, bring about 300ml (10fl oz/1 1/4 cups) of milk to the boil. Add the egg into the hot mashed potatoes, and add enough boiling creamy milk to mix to a soft light consistency suitable for piping, add the freshly chopped herbs and then beat in the butter, the amount depending on how rich you like your potatoes. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Note

If the potatoes are not peeled and mashed while hot and if the boiling milk is not added immediately, the potato will be lumpy and gluey.

Classic Fish Pie

It is difficult to write a hard and fast recipe for fish pie because it depends on what kind of fish you have access to. But make sure the fish is fresh, there is plenty of sauce and you have lots of fluffy mashed potato on top.  hard-boiled eggs to the fish pie to spin out the fish. A little smoked haddock and a few sautéed mushrooms is a nice addition to this recipe, but don’t use more than 110g (4oz) unless you want the flavour to predominate.

Serves 6–8

1.1kg (21⁄2lb) fillets of cod, haddock, ling, hake, salmon or pollock or a mixture, skinned

salt and freshly ground pepper

18 cooked mussels (optional)

150g (5oz) onion, chopped

10g (1⁄2oz) butter

225g (8oz) sliced mushrooms, preferably flat

600ml (1 pint) full-cream milk

1 fresh bay leaf

Roux (see recipe)

a little cream (optional)

1 teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

110g (4oz) peas, fresh or frozen (if they’re fresh, they’ll need to be blanched)

900g (2lb) fluffy Mashed Potatoes

To Serve

Parsley Butter  or Dill Butter (optional)

1 large pie dish (1.2 litres) or 6–8 small ones

Cut the fish into 150g (5oz) chunks and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Wash the mussels, if using, and put into a shallow pan in a single layer. Cover and cook for about 3–4 minutes over a medium heat, just until the shells open. Cool, pull out the beard and remove from the shells.

Sweat the onion in a little melted butter on a gentle heat until soft but not coloured, remove to a plate. Increase the heat, add a little more butter, sauté the sliced mushrooms in batches in the hot pan. Season with salt and pepper and add to the onions.

Put the fish into a wide sauté pan or frying pan in a single layer, cover with the milk and add a fresh bay leaf. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer gently until the fish is just cooked, about 3–4 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove the fish to a plate with a slotted spoon, and carefully remove any bones or skin. Discard the bay leaf.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Bring the cooking liquid to the boil and thicken it by whisking in the roux. Add a little cream, if using, and the chopped thyme and parsley, mushrooms, onions, chunks of fish, mussels and frozen or blanched fresh peas. Stir gently, taste and correct the seasoning. Spoon into a single large or 6–8 small dishes and pipe fluffy Duchesse potatoes on top. The pie may be prepared ahead to this point.

To finish cooking, cook in the oven for 10–15 minutes if the filling and potato are warm, or for 30 minutes if reheating the dish later. Flash under the grill if necessary to brown the top. Serve with dill or parsley butter.

Cullohill Apple Pie

This is my most requested apple pie recipe, made with this brilliant break-all-the-rules pastry. It’s 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. Although a simple apple pie is a top comfort food for most of us – one can of course, add a few plums or blackberries from the freezer or how about adding a little left over mincemeat…

Serves 8-12

Pastry

225g (8oz) butter

40g (1 1/2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12oz) white flour, preferably unbleached

Filling

675g (1 1/2 lbs) Bramley Seedling cooking apples

150g (5oz) sugar

2-3 cloves

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

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados sugar (a sprinkling of this sugar makes the apple pie into something totally mind-blowing)

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

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/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. Peel, quarter and dice the apples into the tart, sprinkle with sugar and add the cloves. 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.

Winter Fruit Salad with Sweet Geranium Leaves

A brilliant way to use up a selection of frozen fruits.  Sweet geranium (Pelargonium Graveolens) and many other varieties of scented geraniums are every present on our windowsills here at Ballymaloe.  We use the delicious lemon scented leaves in all sorts of ways, occasionally we use the pretty purple flowers also to enliven and add magic to otherwise simple dishes.  The crystallized leaves, all frosty and crinkly are wonderful with fresh cream cheese and fat juicy blackberries.

Serves 8-10

A mixture of any of the following frozen berries.

110g (4oz) raspberries

110g (4oz) loganberries

110g (4oz) redcurrants

110g (4oz) blackcurrants

110g (4oz) small Strawberries

110g (4oz) blueberries

110g (4oz) fraises du bois or wild strawberries 

110g (4oz) blackberries

Syrup

325g (11oz) sugar

450ml (16fl oz) water

6-8 large sweet geranium leaves

Put all the freshly picked berries into a white china or glass bowl.  Put the sugar, water and sweet geranium leaves into a stainless steel saucepan and bring slowly to

the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  Boil for just 2 minutes.   Pour the boiling syrup over the frozen fruit and allow to macerate for several hours.  Remove the geranium leaves.  Serve chilled, with softly-whipped cream or Vanilla Ice-cream or alone.  Garnish with a few fresh sweet geranium leaves.

Winter Berry Jelly with Sweet Geranium Leaves with Sweet Geranium Cream

Sometimes when we have a berry salad left over, particularly if there is more juice than fruit we make it into a jelly.  Use 4 teaspoons of gelatine to each 600ml (1 pint) of liquid.  Pour into a bowl or individual bowls (we use Ikea glass tea light holders). When set serve with softly whipped cream or sweet geranium cream (see recipe) and decorate with geranium leaves.   

Sweet Geranium Cream

4-5 sweet geranium leaves approx.

1 tablespoon lemon juice

150ml (6fl oz) cream

sugar to taste, optional

Crush the leaves in a pestle and mortar with the lemon juice, add the cream and stir, (the lemon juice will thicken the cream, if the cream becomes too thick add a little water.)

Taste, if too bitter add a little sugar, remember the sauce should be tart.

Best Ever Rice Pudding

We absolutely love a creamy rice pudding it’s one of the greatest treats on a cold winter’s day. You need to use short-grain rice, which plumps up as it cooks. It’s almost a forgotten pudding and it’s unbelievable the reaction we get to it every time we make it at the Cookery School.

Serve with softly whipped cream a sprinkling of dark brown sugar – the same one that I serve with the Cullohill Apple Pie, no house should be without a packet of that soft dark sugar…

Serves 6–8

100g (3 1/2fl oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)

40g (1 1/2oz) sugar

small knob of butter

850ml (1 1/2 pints) milk

 To serve

Softly whipped cream

Soft dark sugar (Barbados)

1 x 1. 2 litre capacity pie dish

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Gas Mark 4.

Put the rice, sugar and butter into a pie dish. Bring the milk to the boil and pour over. Bake for 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 hours approximately (usually the latter but keep checking). The skin should be golden, the rice underneath should be cooked through and have absorbed up the milk, but the rice pudding should still be soft and creamy. Calculate the time so that it’s ready for pudding.  If it has to wait in the oven for ages it will be dry and dull and you’ll wonder why you bothered.

Serve with softly whipped cream and a sprinkling of soft dark brown sugar and maybe a compote of poached fruit.

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