Empty baskets in the vegetable and fruit section of our supermarkets (and even more so in the UK) in recent weeks has sent a quiver of panic through the retail trade. Shoppers are having to become accustomed to gaps on the shelves.
The shortages are caused by a variety of factors, unpredictable weather conditions linked to climate change, soaring fuel costs, staff shortages and supply chain issues.
An unexpectedly cold snap in Spain during the past month resulted in 16 consecutive nights of below zero temperatures. The increasing energy costs have meant that many growers delayed planting crops or actually left their greenhouses empty altogether because they simply no longer afford to grow at a loss…
It’s crunch time, there simply isn’t enough product to go around. For far too long, we have ignored the vegetable and fruit growers’ warnings that they cannot continue to grow indefinitely unless they are paid a fair price for what they produce. Already many experienced growers who have been in business for generations have reluctantly locked their gates and are selling up.
It’s abundantly clear that our food supply system is deeply flawed and the just-in-time delivery model leaves us vulnerable to unexpected shocks. This wakeup call exposes the fragility of the modern supply chain.
Regular readers of this column will recall that I have highlighted this issue on many occasions. We urgently need a government food strategy that supports Irish farmers to produce fresh local food so we are no longer overly reliant on importing fresh products from thousands of miles away. Otherwise, we will have no Irish vegetable growers within a couple of years and then what….
Advance planning is crucial, fresh food cannot be spirited onto the shelves in a few days…… It takes 3 to 5 months for many vegetables to grow from seed to shelf.
Meanwhile, at home. Let’s take back control – let’s consider growing some of our own food. It couldn’t be a better time of the year, Spring is in the air, perfect time to sow seeds.
Even if you’ve never grown anything in your life before, you can certainly grow some salad leaves, even on your balcony or windowsill…. All you’ll need is a container, could be a recycled box or even a plastic mushroom container from your local greengrocer…Fill it up with some soil or compost, scatter some salad mix seeds over the top, sprinkle on a little more soil and mist with water…Cover with a sheet of damp newspaper…The seeds will germinate within a couple of days, remove the paper….They love plenty of light, then all you need is a bit of patience as you watch your salad leaves grow…Within a few weeks, you’ll be able to harvest your very own salad leaves several times.
Then you may want to progress to a raised (or otherwise) bed in your garden.
In the US, an enthusiastic movement to ‘Grow Food, Not Lawns’ has been gathering momentum for some time now – www.foodnotlawns.com
Meanwhile, let’s go out of our way to source freshly harvested local food, jumping with vital nutrients to ensure optimum health. We can all take matters into our own hands and make a difference by actively sourcing in local shops and farmers markets….
Hotels, restaurants, hospitals, universities around the country can also make a dramatic contribution by linking in with local farmers and food producers to commission them to grow, even staples like potatoes, carrots, salad leaves and onions at an agreed price, a win-win situation for all.
Our current food system is broken… it’s time for urgent action…
Meanwhile, on both a government and personal level, we can and must, all make a difference. Let’s make a concerted effort to eat with the seasons when local food is at peak flavour and perfection …
So, what’s in season?
It can be confusing, ask your local shop or supermarket to identify local seasonal produce on their shelves … Winter roots and greens are at their peak at present so look out for kales, chard, Savoy cabbage, cauliflower, leeks… Swede turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radishes, winter carrots, parsnips… The first of the new seasons rhubarb is ready for picking and if you have access to wild watercress, it’s deliciously peppery at present, perfect for salads, soups and garnishing.
Have fun experimenting, use lots of spices and
lashings of gutsy winter herbs …. Enjoy and give thanks to Mother Nature for
Soda Bread Focaccia with Roast Jerusalem Artichokes, Potato and Thyme Leaves
Jerusalem artichokes look like knobbly potatoes but have quite a different flavour and are really, really worth seeking out. If you don’t already have them in your garden you’ll find them in some of the better supermarkets and certainly on stalls in local farmers markets. For example, Midleton, Mahon Point and Skibbereen…They’re in season at present, incredibly versatile, here is yet another way to enjoy them…
450g (1lb) plain white flour
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda
sour milk or buttermilk to mix: 350-400ml (12-14fl oz) approx.
450g (1lb) Jerusalem artichokes
450g (1lb) cooked potatoes, sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
225g (8oz) Gruyère and Parmesan
1 large Swiss roll tin with edges 32cm (13 inch) (length) x 23cm (9 inch) (width) x 5cm (2 inch) in depth
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.
Slice the well-scrubbed artichokes into 1cm (1/2 inch) rounds. Toss the Jerusalem artichokes with the extra virgin olive oil and a generous sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves … Season well with salt. Arrange in a single layer on a roasting tin. Roast for 10 minutes or until pale golden on one side then flip over and cook on the other side. Test with the tip of a knife – they should be just tender.
First make the soda bread.
Sieve the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS. Tidy it up and flip over gently. Pat the dough into a round, about 4cm (1 1/2 inch) deep and cut a cross on it to let the fairies out
Brush the tin with extra virgin olive oil. Roll out the dough into a rectangle, line the tin and brush with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan. Cover with slices of Jerusalem artichoke and potato, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Sprinkle evenly with remaining thyme leaves and the grated cheeses.
Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.
Cook in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6 and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. Remove from the tin, cook on a wire rack, cut into squares and eat soon.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Bacon, Cabbage and Scallion Champ Pie
Who doesn’t love bacon and cabbage? St Patrick’s Day is coming up too…This version is a traditional Irish meal, all in one pot meal. Make from scratch or I sometimes love to whip this up with the leftovers from a bacon and cabbage and parsley sauce meal, it gets a terrific reaction.
650g (1lb 6oz) bacon (collar or oyster cut, rind on) or cooked ham
Parsley Sauce (see recipe)
1 teaspoon English mustard
2 tablespoons cream
450g (1lb) Savoy or Hispi cabbage, cored and sliced across the grain
450g (1lb) Scallion Champ (see recipe)
1 x 3 pint terracotta dish (25cm (10 inch) width x 2.5cm (1 inch) depth)
Cover the uncooked bacon in cold water, bring to the boil uncovered. Taste, if the liquid appears very salty discard and re-cover with hot water. Bring back to the boil, cover, and cook for 40-45 minutes approximately or until the rind will peel off easily. Remove to a plate, add the chopped cabbage to the bacon water and continue to cook until the cabbage is tender, about 10-15 minutes depending on the variety. Drain well.
Meanwhile, make the Parsley Sauce (see recipe).
Add mustard and cream. Taste and correct seasoning.
Make the Scallion Champ (see recipe).
Remove the bacon rind, if necessary, Cut the bacon into scant 2cm (3/4 inch) chunks. Add the cooked cabbage and mix gently.
Bring the Parsley sauce back to the boil. Fold in the bacon and cabbage, add a little bacon cooking water if necessary. Taste, correct the seasoning.
Fill into one or several pie dishes.
Pipe a generous layer of Scallion Champ on top.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, cook for 10-15 minutes until bubbling and beginning to colour on top. Serve immediately with a little extra mustard on the side.
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (retain the stalks)
900ml (1 1/2 pints) fresh whole milk
30-45g (1-1 1/2oz) Roux (see recipe)
salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the parsley stalks into a saucepan with the cold milk, bring slowly to the boil, then remove the stalks. Whisk the roux into the boiling milk until thickened and add the chopped parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Simmer for 5-10 minutes on a very low heat, then taste and correct the seasoning. The sauce should be thickish for this pie.
110g (4oz) butter
110g (4oz) flour
Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally. Use as required. Roux can be stored in a cool place and used as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred. It will keep at least a fortnight in a refrigerator.
Spring Scallion Champ
1.5kg (3lb) unpeeled ‘old’ potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks
110g (4oz) chopped scallions or spring onions (use the bulb and green stem) or 45g (1 3/4oz)
350ml (10-12fl oz) whole milk
50-110g (2-4oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets in well-salted water.
Meanwhile chop finely the scallions or spring onions or chives. Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse.
Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while still hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper, beat in the butter.
Serve in 1 large or 4-6
individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre. Scallion
champ may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas
Cauliflower or Broccoli Salad
Cauliflower or broccoli salad is not an obvious choice, but it is surprisingly delicious. The secret as is the case with many salads is to dip the florets in a good dressing while still warm, so they really absorb the flavours.
1 small head cauliflower
110ml (4fl oz) Ballymaloe French Dressing (see recipe)
Ideally this should be made with slightly shot heads at the end of season. Take a head with the leaves on, trim off the damaged ones. Wash and shred the remaining leaves and stalk, split the cauliflower into small florets so it will cook evenly.
Take a saucepan that fits the cauliflower exactly and boil 1 inch of water in it. Add a little salt, put in the shredded leaves and sit the cauliflower on top, stems down and cover closely. Control heat so that it does not boil dry. Remove from the pot when the stalks are barely tender. Divide into florets. dip each into French dressing while they are still warm and arrange like a wheel on a round plate. Build up layer upon layer to reform the cauliflower head. This looks good and tastes delicious on a cold buffet.
Note: Green broccoli (Calabreze) or purple of white sprouting broccoli can be cooked this way also and a mixture of all three looks and tastes wonderful.
Make all the difference… Salad Dressings
Best to dress a green salad just before serving, otherwise it can look tired and unappetising. The flavour of the dressing totally depends on the quality of the oil and vinegar. We use beautiful, cold-pressed oils and superb wine vinegars to dress the precious organic lettuce and salad leaves. The quantity one uses is so small it’s really worth buying the very best quality you can afford – it makes all the difference.
Simple French Dressing
makes 120ml (scant 4 1/2fl oz)
6 tablespoons cold-pressed extra virgin
2 tablespoons best-quality white or red
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black
Whisk all the ingredients together just before the salad is to be eaten. Salad dressings are always best when freshly made but this one, which doesn’t include raw garlic, shallot or fresh herbs, will keep in a jar in the fridge for 3–4 days. Whisk to emulsify before using.
Ballymaloe French Dressing
Makes approx. 150ml (5fl oz)
125ml (4 1/2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground
Put all the ingredients into a small bowl or jam jar. Whisk until the dressing has emulsified. Preferably use fresh but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Whisk to emulsify before using.
Honey and Wholegrain Mustard Dressing
Makes approx. 250ml (9fl oz)
150ml (5fl oz) extra virgin olive oil or a mixture of
olive and other oils, such as sunflower
50ml (2fl oz) white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
2 heaped teaspoons wholegrain honey
2 garlic cloves, crushed
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix all the ingredients together, whisking well before use. Season to taste. Preferably use fresh but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Whisk to re-emulsify before using.
Herbed Vinaigrette Dressing
Makes approx. 250ml (9fl oz)
175ml (6fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons chopped mixed herbs, such
as parsley, chives, mint or thyme
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put all the dressing ingredients into a screw-top jar, adding salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Shake well to emulsify before use or whizz together all the ingredients in a food processor or liquidiser for a few seconds.
For a variation, use 4 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice or
wine vinegar instead of the cider vinegar. This dressing should be served when
freshly made otherwise the herbs will discolour. As a compromise the dressing
could be made a day or two ahead without the herbs, then whisk and add the
fresh herbs just before serving.
Rhubarb and Custard Meringue Tart
You’ll get lots of compliments for this celebration, rhubarb tart it’s even delicious without the meringue on top…
300g (10oz) sweet shortcrust pastry, chilled made from:
200g (7oz) white flour
pinch of salt
100g (3 1/2oz) butter
1 egg yolk (keep white aside for meringue)
2-3 tablespoons cold water approx.
1 kg (2 1/4lb) red rhubarb, cut into 3cm (1 1/4 inch) pieces
3 egg yolks
120g (scant 4 1/2oz) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons plain flour
3 egg whites
175g (6oz) caster sugar
1 x 26cm (10 1/2 inch) tin, preferably with a pop-up base
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
First make the pastry.
Sieve the flour with the salt, cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour with the fingertips. Keep everything as cool as possible; if the fat is allowed to melt the finished pastry may be tough. When the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs, stop.
Whisk the egg yolk and add the water. Take a fork or knife, (whichever you feel most comfortable with) and add just enough liquid to bring the pastry together, then discard the fork and collect it into a ball with your hands, this way you can judge more accurately if you need a few more drops of liquid. Although rather damp pastry is easier to handle and roll out, the resulting crust can be tough and may well shrink out of shape as the water evaporates in the oven. The drier and more difficult-to-handle pastry will give a crisper shorter crust.
Cover and chill for half an hour, if possible, this will make it less elastic and easier to roll out. Roll out the pastry and line the tin. Line with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake ‘blind’ for 20 minutes approx. until the pastry is three-quarters cooked, remove from the oven. Remove the baking beans, brush the base with beaten egg wash and place back in the oven for another 5 minutes.
Slice the rhubarb and spread over the pastry base.
Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract and flour and spread over the rhubarb. Bake in a preheated oven for 10 minutes, this will start the rhubarb cooking.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until fluffy. As they stiffen, trickle in the caster sugar and continue to whisk until stiff.
Remove the tart from the oven and pipe or spread the meringue on top. Reduce the heat to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, return to the oven. Bake for a further 25 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack and serve with softly whipped cream.