Eating and Drinking
The fruits of the gardener’s labour are literally abundant now in the last weeks of summer when there is an elemental thrust of colour, flavour, scent and the touch of a breezy shower of rain.There are colourful displays of tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers in the large tunnel which are all vying for attention at the same time.Diligence is of the essence when it comes to harvesting fruit and vegetables as the prolific courgette will quickly metamorphose into a giant marrow if neglected for a day or two and the juicy ripening raspberries will not escape the attention of birds. Tomatoes will succumb to gravity as they become too heavy for their vines and need daily picking . It is always wise to have space prepared in the freezer at this time of year and a selection of clean jars at the ready to fill with jams, chutneys or pickles.
Whether you have a glut of fruit and vegetables to preserve or not it is important to enjoy the summer bounty while it is at its peak. The ‘fruit’ vegetables like cucumber, zucchini and tomatoes are bursting with flavour and nutrients, so delicious and quenching to munch straight from the plant. Having a high water content (95% in the case of cucumber) they are ideal for juicing with apples, pears,grapes, spinach, kale or whatever takes your fancy. Cucumber water is a refreshing drink to enjoy, all the more satisfying in the knowledge that it has many health benefits. Cucumbers contain the trace elementsilica,which is very beneficial for the maintenance of our connective tissues. They are a source of vitamin A, C and K as well as potassium, helping to strengthen bones, lower blood pressure and maintain clear, supple skin. If the cucumber is sliced and submerged in fresh spring water for a few hours it will develop a subtle flavour which can be garnished with fresh mint or a wedge of lemon. This is a great way to increase your daily water intake.
There are lots of ways to enjoy courgettes (zucchini) and tomatoes when they are so plentiful and tasty. Courgettes, like cucumbers, have a high water content but are a low calorie vegetable which can help ‘fill’ up a gap for those trying to control their weight. They can be eaten raw, baked or fried in a light tempura batter. I have sliced and layered them with cherry vine tomatoes, herbs, olives and fresh lasagne sheets to make a delicious summer supper. This has no resemblance to any lasagne you might encounter with layers of stodgy béchamel sauce and Bolognese style filling; it is light and brimming with the flavours of fresh herbs and juicy sweet tomatoes.
The quantities of this recipe will depend on the size of your baking dish but if possible choose one which will accommodate the dimensions of one or two lasagne sheets. The amount of tomatoes will also have to be judged by eye. I have used a mixture of tomatoes, cutting up the larger ones to equal the size of the smaller ones.
Place the tomatoes in a bowl and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil and 1 tablespoon of Balsamic vinegar. Add to this approximately 100g of mixed olives . I used Greek olives that were packed in oil and Rosemary but any good quality deli selection would do. Halve the olives and ensure they are all pitted. Add a generous bunch of fresh basil leaves and fresh oregano if available. Finally throw in as much fresh garlic as you prefer; sliced or smashed roughly. Season with freshly ground black pepper and a little sea salt, stir and set aside to marinate for an hour or so. Slice one or two courgettes into approximately 5mm thickness .
Pour some liquid from this mix to thinly cover the base of your dish. Add a layer of tomatoes, a layer of courgette slices and a layer of lasagne. Repeat the layers until the dish is nearly full, ending with a layer of cheese which is simply a 250g carton of Ricotta mixed with about 100g of grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese. Reserve a little grated cheese to sprinkle on top. Bake the lasagne in a medium /hot oven for about 30 minutes or until the pasta sheets are cooked. The topping should be lightly coloured . It can help to cover the dish with foil for the first half of cooking time, and remove it towards the end to allow the cheese to colour. The finished dish should sit for a while before serving.
There are lots of ways to vary this depending on what you have available. Mushrooms or aubergines would give it an extra ‘meaty’ dimension. Either way it is a lovely way to utilise the sweet liquids that flow from these summery fruity vegetables.Enjoy.
The farm is now gloriously full with the lush foliage of high summer. It is so easy to cook this time of year when fresh new produce emerges from every corner, suggesting a meal which needs very little prep or complicated recipe. Potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, courgettes and various kales are now ready and willing to be enhanced by a healthy, just lifted, crop of plump garlic bulbs and a generous bunch of aromatic basil. The garlic is one of the most precious harvests on the farm which will be carefully stored to provide its much needed defences for the coming winter.
As we are constantly being introduced to new exotic Super Foods, many from as far afield as South America, with cure all claims for their magical powers, it is worth noting that we can grow one of the sturdiest and most potent vegetables here on home ground. Kale, just establishing itself, is a vegetable which comes with an impressive list of health benefits and a nutritional value that places it high on the Super Food charts. It is well documented as a defence against the usual suspects of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and cumulatively…ageing! As a rich source of vitamin C, beta- carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A), vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and potassium, Kale is a vital source for the maintenance of skin, bone, hair and eyes.
Kale’s upright elegance needs relatively little space, particularly the Tuscan variety, is very easy to grow and its handsome leaves are an attractive addition to any small garden ;I have, in the past, grown a few different varieties in a small city garden where they stood comfortably among the border flowers. The more common curly kale will spread its frilly canopy of leaves, like miniature trees and require a bit more space to branch out, so two or three plants will be ample if your garden space is limited. The Tuscan kale, Cavalo Nero, needs less elbow room and its dark crepe leaves are much loved by the Italians for their versatility and are now gladly more available here. The Red Russian variety, known here as Ragged Jack, withstands the rigours of our harsher winters and provides a welcome green/purple leaf throughout the’ hungry gap ’and a rainbow of colour as it matures and sprouts its yellow flower.
For the best nutritional results it is advised to simply steam the leaves of kale after stripping them from their stems and use them dressed , or not, in a seasoning of your choice. The fibrous spines can be tough to digest but the spring and summer stems are very good if chopped and braised slowly in oil or butter with garlic to have as a tasty side dish.
The most surprising revelation of Kale is the delicate result of ‘crisping’ which I confess was a trend I resisted until recently; the robust leaves didn’t suggest much in the line of snacking that didn’t fill me with apathy. Strip the dried leaves of curly kale from their stems and tear into roughly even sized pieces. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil, just enough to massage the leaves thoroughly with your hands and spread over a baking tray. Bake in an oven at about 150 degrees c. Watch carefully and rearrange so they don’t brown. Reduce the heat if they tend to burn at the edges. It should take 10 or 15 minutes, depending on your oven. Turn off the heat, open the oven door and allow to cool. I tossed them in Gomasio (toasted sesame seeds and salt) but you can experiment with seasoning. Some recipes suggest seasoning before baking but this method worked well. Try Moroccan Ras El Hanout, chilli or any spice of your choice. Start simple and then experiment; these light, crispy delights can be eaten as a snack, used as a garnish or crumbled over a salad for an interesting texture. They store really well in an air tight container.
Kale is a very rewarding plant to grow and sometimes you will discover that the hungry caterpillar also considers it a delicacy. These will need to be dealt with by removing them and their eggs manually. There is a succinct and pertinent article by Fionnuala Fallon in the Irish Times; Saturday, July 22 which will talk you through some non toxic methods of dealing with these and other unwanted guests in the garden.
While discussing the cabbage white butterfly and the havoc they can cause to brassicas, Eileen directed me to this poem you might remember from school….
Flying Crooked, by Robert Graves
The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has-who knows as well as I?-
A Just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
Food For Thought
The fine weather we have been enjoying for the past month or so has brought the summer into full swing with glorious displays from the wild flower meadows and hedgerows. Elderflower, foxglove, wild orchid and buttercup compete to attract bees and other pollinating insects while presenting us with an array of colour, more dramatic than any ‘manicured’ garden border. The sunshine brings out the best in all of us if we can spend more time outdoors to enjoy the flourishing foliage…unless of course you are one of the thousands of students swotting it out for the dreaded Leaving and Junior Cert exams. It seems counter intuitive to be studying science or poetry inside a library or a classroom when it’s all happening outdoors!
These thoughts come to mind as I introduce you to two young German students who are staying on the farm; Tom and Ruben are on a programme from their Steiner Waldorf school which sends all 9thgraders (14 and 15 years old) to live and work on an organic farm for three weeks. Eileen and Ian have been hosts for this scheme for a few years now. Their farm is a perfect fit for this enlightened approach to education; offering hands on experience of organic growing, interaction with another culture and language and a supervised environment away from home. The holistic ethos of the Steiner school (the curriculum was designed by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner) is shaped to work in harmony with the different phases of a child’s development, providing a balance of artistic, practical and intellectual needs. After each day, which may include farm chores, leisure trips to the wild Atlantic coast or accompanying Ian on an external school activity, the boys will record the day in their diary. It is at once a creative and structured learning environment. I spent a productive afternoon making pizzas with them and we all enjoyed the feast that followed around the table with friends. They also worked on an on-going project building stone walls in the new landscaping at the pond which will eventually provide an area for barbeques.
There are some Steiner Primary schools peppered around the country but it would be wonderful to see more of these principles introduced at Secondary level. It is a method that avoids early specialisation and the stressful rote system imposed to meet the demands of our state exams.
So if you are an anxious parent of exam stressed students who have to sacrifice the pleasures of the seasonal weather, be sure to bring in some of the goodness that is currently so inviting in the vegetable garden. Fresh, crisp, salad leaves and herbs will pep up whatever menu you choose to pamper them with. Here is a selection just picked from the farm.
Clockwise from the bottom; Little Gem, lollo Rossa, Parsley (curly and flat leaf), Calendula, Butterhead, Chive, Salad Bowl (red and green) and Deer’s Tongue.
Dress a mixed salad just before serving for best results. A basic dressing of one part vinegar (organic apple cider or Balsamic) to three parts oil (Good quality organic Olive) is whisked with a little Dijon mustard and honey. It can be useful to mix a quantity in a jar with a tight lid and refresh as needed. Alternative variations can be tried by using fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar and the addition of crushed garlic. The trick is not to drench the leaves with too much dressing and only add it immediately before serving along with a cheerful scattering of edible flower petals.
There is an arsenal of vitamins out there in the glorious early summer growth that will energise or soothe the worried minds of students and parents under pressure. When you think about it, we are all seedlings, in need of TLC.
Everyone is eager to be outdoors in this lovely weather to feel the energising warmth of the sun. It is a joy to see the blossoms and ferns unfurl, like ourselves, with thanks to the heat and light. Young plants of runner beans and brassicas have moved out from their propagating nests to the open air ridges. Potatoes, carrots, broad beans and parsnip have also been sown out while seedlings of beetroot, cucumber, courgette and basil are still establishing themselves under cover. Carrots have been sown between rows of already established garlic to hopefully repel the dreaded carrot fly. Prepared beds are filling up nicely with these thriving but still vulnerable plants; attention is needed to defend them from slugs and snails (not to mention rogue donkeys or errant ducks!). Tomatoes, early potatoes, peas, asparagus and some promising strawberries are well on their way in the large tunnels.
The shift outdoors which comes with the change of weather brings a welcome change of routine as the days stretch. It is a good time to break old habits, shift gear and move the furniture. I am reminded of the childhood thrill of eating outside as soon as the forecast promised a few warm days. My mother had an early summer ritual of taking the pine kitchen table outside to be scrubbed down in the sun. When it was dried we ate around it and were animated by the simple novelty of dining en plein air. The same table was inevitably returned inside but to a new position; adjacent to the window instead of the range, with a refreshing new perspective. It probably sticks in my memory because it was a rare enough event. It is a delightful treat to bring the indoors out to enjoy the change of habit and habitat.
Last Sundays brunch of poached duck egg and asparagus tasted all the better for being eaten in the warmth of the morning sun with a soundtrack of birdsong instead of my droning radio. Asparagus is growing in a corner of the tunnel but you can also use asparagus kale or the flowering tips of brassicas just before the flowers open. This is a cheap asparagus substitute. The generous ducks who produce the delicious eggs are also basking in their new found release after a spell of restriction imposed by an avian flu scare. If they are let out too early in the morning, before they have laid (and they are very impatient) there is a danger they will lay ‘out’ under a tempting canopy of nettles or blackberry bushes.
Poached Duck Egg with Asparagus and Spelt Soda Bread
This is a super easy bread recipe. The addition of some seeds to the dough will provide extra texture and nutrition and you can vary the proportion of wholemeal/white flour according to your preference. Preheat the oven to 220 centigrade and line a loaf tin with baking paper.
225 g organic wholemeal spelt flour
225g organic white spelt flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp.baking powder
½ tsp. salt
500ml buttermilk (approx..)
Sieve and mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl (make sure there are no lumps in the baking soda) and make a well in the centre. Add the buttermilk gradually but briskly while stirring with a large spoon. This is quite a wet mixture so add a little more buttermilk if it is too dry. Ensure all the flour has been mixed in as you gently stir the dough. Tip the mix into the prepared tin and sprinkle with sunflower, pumpkin or sesame seeds. Bake at 220 centigrade for about 10 mins and reduce to 180 centigrade for a further 20 minutes or so. Ovens vary but you can test by tapping the base of the bread; a hollow sound denotes it is ready. Tip onto a cooling rack, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest.
Serve the bread toasted with a poached egg and asparagus which has been steamed or lightly sautéed in butter and oil with some garlic. The asparagus needs just enough cooking to retain its bite. When poaching the egg, crack it into swirling boiled water with a pinch of salt and a splash of vinegar. Reduce the heat and allow it to cook gently for a few minutes until the white has set.
So I won’t delay with too much rambling and share some of the glorious images of May flowers around the farm and the high hedged tracks flush with frilly ferns. If it gets too hot a stroll beneath the trees gives a cooling flash of bluebell and wild leek. Staying out is a pleasure when the flowers are out; demanding the attention of birds, bees and busy bodies.