Heaven and Earth

Heaven on Earth

A recent gusty storm has whipped the ripening apples from their trees and strewn the farm with a mighty crop of windfalls. These apples are of different heritage varieties which I won’t attempt to identify but am willingly tasting and enjoying. They suggest all kinds of culinary delights, both sweet and savoury which embody the essence of autumn. Baking and preserving can be a full-time preoccupation now while the orchards and hedgerows are laden with fruits and berries and it is a very rewarding task. Even if your time is limited a lot can be gained by simply freezing soft fruit, either whole or pureed to be utilised later in baking or as base for a smoothie. The flavours of wild and locally sourced autumn fruits are far superior to anything found on the supermarket shelves. Their ‘shelf life’ can be considerably shorter than the latter which is why it is important to use or preserve them as soon as possible. Imported fruit is sprayed with pesticides to preserve its life in transit and cold storage.

windfall2web

windfall1web

 

The marriage of apple and blackberry is a joyful and heavenly union. (If you Google apple or blackberry in search of a recipe you might just find promotions for smart phones….) A basic filling of these trusty partners with a topping of buttery oat flakes and flour makes a simple but delightful baked crumble dessert. There is nothing humble about an apple pie if the ingredients are treated with care. Bear in mind that the common Bramley cooking apple will go fluffy when cooked while the sweet dessert varieties will hold their shape. Gently simmer some cooking apples in a pan with a tablespoon or two of water and some sugar to taste. Add a teaspoon of cornflour (mixed with a little water) to the cooked apple to make a thick apple ‘sauce’ and set aside to cool. Add to this some peeled and chopped dessert apples to make a pie filling. This method holds the filling together while keeping an interesting bite. Place the apple filling into a blind baked short crust or puff pastry base, top with a pastry lid and bake. A hint of cinnamon, clove or nutmeg will add an aroma to whet your appetite.

autumnpie1web

Everyone has their own preference when it comes to apple pie or fruit crumble. The textures and proportions of fillings and toppings can delight or disappoint depending on our expectations which invariably sprout from a childhood nostalgia. Whichever style you favour, this cook has one priority when it comes to an optimum bake; the pie case or topping should have a distinctive and separate texture to the fruit filling. A wet or doughy pastry is not pleasant.

autumnpie2web (1)

Soft autumnal fruits are nature’s way of easing us into the cooler bitterness of winter. Deep purpley plums are a warming and comforting fruit when poached or baked in a pudding or pie. Damsons (if you can find them) need more sweetening and are more suitable for jam or a fruit ‘cheese’ to accompany savoury foods. Blackberries and black currants are the traditional candidates here for jam but are used in Nordic countries for savoury accompaniments to fish and game as well. The easiest way to preserve blackberries without loosing their nutritional value is to combine the strained pulp with a little sugar syrup and lemon juice and freeze or process in an ice cream maker. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, the fruit puree should be briskly stirred several times during the freezing process to break up the water crystals.

bberrysorbetweb

Blackberry sorbet is a perfectly cool partner for this autumn frangipane pie. Almonds and apple, being another heavenly pair, are the main filling for this rich and satisfying dessert. Halved plums, apricots, rhubarb or pears can replace the apples with equal success. This recipe is for a 20cm tin.

Autumn Apple Frangipane pie

For the base

150g plain flour

75g chilled butter

1 tbsp. (approx.) cold water

Egg for glazing

 

For the Frangipane

100g Ground almonds

100g butter (room temperature)

20g plain flour

2 medium eggs

2 or 3 dessert apples

 

Pre heat the oven to 180c.

Rub together the flour and cubed butter with your finger tips to form breadcrumb consistency.

Bind together with the water to make a dough and chill for at least 20 mins.

line the baking tray with pastry and chill again before blind baking for about 10 mins.

Glaze the base with beaten egg to seal and bake 5 mins. Remove from oven to cool.

Make the frangipane by creaming the butter and sugar before mixing in the flour, almond and eggs. Leave the mixture to rest while you peel, core and slice the apples.

Spread the frangipane on the cooled base and press the apples gently into the soft mix. Bake at 180 for 15 min. then reduce temperature to 150 and bake for 45mins. Check intermittently and cover the crust edge with tinfoil if it is inclined to burn.

Glaze the pie while still warm (if desired) with warmed honey or apricot jam.

Serve with a scoop of blackberry sorbet.

Make this with a mix of apple and/or blackberry. Serve with an apple sorbet. Sprinkle with toasted almonds or walnuts. Eat with a vat of custard. The options are yours.

bberrysorbet2web

Ita.

 

 

 

 

Share this

Yellow Alert

sflower1web

As the blackberries blacken in the hedgerows we are relishing the vibrant colours of the late summer garden, with a reluctance to speak of sunshine in the past tense just yet. The glowing yellow and orange red fruits and flowers of late summer radiate their energy, awarding us with all their splendour. Sunflowers, Calendula and Nasturtiums are the cheerleaders of summer. Tomatoes, Zucchini and Yellow Squash are performing in equal measure to create a show. Many greens too, those that are left to seed like brassicas or wild rocket in the herb tunnel, gift an array of delicate yellow flowers to attract the busy honey bee.

yellowbes2web

The place is aglow with deepening yellows .

yellowbees1web

After a “blistering” summer, which our fair skins are not really accustomed to, it may be appropriate to observe the many nutritional values of the summer harvest which are beneficial to our immune system in general, and to our skin in particular.

yellowsqash1web

We can absorb and prolong the bounty of the sun by eating more of the wholesome fruits and vegetables that are brightening up the garden at the moment. At the same time we can help our overexposed bodies to recover from the less welcome effects of the sun. Our skin is the boundary between ourselves and the environment; it will readily betray any imbalance in our diet, over exposure to UV rays, ambient pollutants or self-administered toxins. To maintain a healthy skin, it is important to seek out the relevant nutrients that are found in fresh seasonal food; a balanced and colourful diet which is rich in minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants will aid hydration and protect the skin from the harsher elements that pervade the air we live in.

calendula1web

 

Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for the vivid colours of the late summer harvest and are significant for the promotion of skin and eye health. The red of tomato (lycopene), the orange, of carrot (alpha-carotene and beta-carotene), the yellow of calendula, sunflower, yellow carrots and zucchini (lutein and zeaxanthin) are some of nature’s most powerful nutrients.

Astaxanthin is a potent carotenoid found in wild salmon which derives its colour from the algae it digests. This pink pigment is what gives flamingos their distinctive hue and is also found in mackerel, prawns, lobster and other red fish. It is no coincidence that our Irish mythology attributes the mighty salmon to the procurement of wisdom or knowledge; astaxanthin is reputed to be of major benefit for the eyes and the brain. It may also be effective as a protection from sunburn to humans; it’s inbuilt ability to protect itself from intense sunlight. These vivid pigments which reflect the brilliance of the summer sun are attractive and invigorating to look at as well as bursting with nourishing flavour.

Seeds and nuts, also coming into a new season, are also a great source of hydrating natural oils which are essential to the upkeep of a clear and not so youthful complexion.

sflower3web

Sunflowers, after their glorious display of yellowness, produce an abundance of seeds which are now consumed world- wide for their nutritional properties. Among many attributes they are rich in vitamin E which reduces oxidative damage to skin cells caused by UV rays. Almonds are also high in vitamin E along with selenium and manganese to similarly protect the skin. Almond oil is often used topically as a massage to soothe and moisturise.

Calendula is perhaps the champion of ‘yellow’ plants which is known for its healing powers as a balm for the skin. Also known as Marigold (there are many varieties) this medicinal herb has been used historically in ointments and creams for all kinds of mild skin irritations and inflammation.  The pretty petals can be added to a salad or steeped in olive oil to make an infusion for applying to the skin. Its orange/yellow flowers are a feature of most vegetable gardens and are known for their useful ability to attract aphids away from other plants. When the season is over for many garden flowers, the hardy Calendula can last through the winter in some places , providing a lingering glow to remind us of the warming sun.

So ,if you want to take advantage of seasonal fare while rehydrating your sundried body make sure you eat your yellows as well as your greens. Use chunks of lemons (or any citrus fruit), garlic, onion, celery, carrot and ginger as a skillet for oven cooked fish or fowl.

makeral1web

Add zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes or squash to absorb the flavours and provide moisture. The juices that flow can be strained and refined to a sauce by the addition of coconut cream and spices or a simple handful of fresh herbs, depending on your taste. Keep it colourful. Appreciate the hidden strengths of these vibrant hues. They will imminently be usurped by the yellowing of autumnal leaves which I hope is now less melancholic in the understanding and appreciation of their magical  chemistry.

vegskillet1web

Ita.

 

 

Share this

Soaking It Up

 

Several weeks of glorious sunshine and Mediterranean temperatures have granted us the rare pleasure that is known as an Irish summer.One that lasts more than a weekend. It has lifted our spirits after a long winter and provided us with long balmy evenings which prompt us to stay outdoors to enjoy slow lazy meals or a late swim in the welcoming warm sea.

The dry spell has also alerted us to the threat of drought which many would consider absurd in a country renowned for its rainfall and subsequent 40 shades of green pasture. The national debate about water (and who should pay for it) drags on in the media while faulty pipes continue to leak and wasteful cosmetic abuses abound. We have a lot to learn about water.electrolytevegweb

On a domestic level we can easily change the habit of spilling dish water down the drain; keeping a large watering can by the kitchen sink will make it a painless routine. Decant the dishwater into the can and once cooled this will irrigate your pots or vegetable patch rather than drain wastefully away.

It is a curious miracle of nature that in this, the driest month of July for some years, the harvest from the vegetable garden and tunnels is suitably quenching. Sunshine yellow flowers from cucumber and zucchini make a splendid display alongside the ripening tomatoes.zucchiniflowerweb1  These plants manage to draw up the moisture from deep below to produce an abundance of plump juicy fruits while all around is prone to wilt. cuc1webVegetables and fruit that contain over 90% water are now abundant on the shelves; watermelon,strawberries,zucchini,lettuce,bell peppers, cucumber, celery, radish and tomatoes.

lettuceweb (1)

Keeping hydrated is vital to a healthy body and while we swelter in the heat wave it is vital to maintain a balance of fluids.Luckily the majority of fruits and vegetables  high in electrolytes and water are in season in summer when their properties are most needed. Electrolytes are minerals (mainly sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium) dissolved in the body’s fluids creating electrically charged ions. They essentially function in the body by stimulating muscles and nerves while regulating its fluids. These electrolytes are lost through sweating and must be replenished to maintain a healthy balance. The sports drink industry never tires of exploiting this fact by selling us their bottled drinks and gels to counteract cramp and dehydration in the gym. These drinks are laced with undesirable additives and sugars. A plant based healthy diet, rich in minerals and vitamins, along with simple plain water, is a lot more beneficial than swigging on plastic bottled sports drinks. Watery vegetables, like those mentioned above, can be easily transformed into delicious salads, smoothies and snacks.

Cucumber water is one of the easiest refreshment drinks to make by simply soaking some sliced cucumber in water for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge. A spiralizer works well for this if you have one.

cucwaterweb (2)

There are hundreds of ways to combine cucumber with lemons, limes, mint, basil,or any soft fruit of your choice to make your own thirst quenching drink. For a super hydrating effect add some natural coconut water which is packed full of electrolytes,potassium in particular, and adds a sweet nutty flavour.

There are melons of various varieties available at the moment which never fail to please in a classic salad with feta cheese, sprigs of fresh mint and a drizzle of zesty lime and olive oil dressing. This juicy sweet and sour combination will turn any meal into a summer party as a side dish or starter.

To up the ante with your electrolyte intake try this tasty bake of summer on a plate. The natural water content of courgette/zucchini, cherry vine tomatoes and red bell peppers make the base for this ‘self- saucing’ pasta layer dish. It is another version of a lasagne style dish I wrote about in last August’s blog. This one uses some basil pesto as well as fresh basil and oregano to provide a fresh layer of flavour.

Use a dish to accommodate two or three layers of fresh lasagne sheets and judge the proportions of vegetables according to size and moisture; the idea is to cook the pasta in the juices of the vegetables.

Ingredients

1 large red onion, quartered

3 or 4 garlic cloves

1 large red bell pepper

2 or 3 zucchini /courgette thinly sliced

400g cherry tomatoes

1 tbsp. fresh Basil pesto

250g ricotta cheese

100g Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Generous bunch of basil leaves and fresh oregano

2 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and black pepper to season

Peel and quarter the onion. Quarter the pepper and remove the centre seeds. Drizzle both with olive oil in an oven proof dish along with the garlic cloves and roast for about 20 mins in a moderate oven. Meanwhileprepare the courgette by slicing into thin discs or length way ribbons.

Remove the precooked onion, garlic and pepper from the oven and slice them lengthways again to make thin ribbons. Cover the base of the dish with some onions, peppers, courgettes and whole cherry tomatoes. Season with salt and black pepper, a drizzle of pesto and a scattering of herbs. Cover with a sheet of lasagne. (Trim an extra sheet to cover any gaps). Repeat the layering once or twice more, depending on the depth of your dish or quantity of vegetables). Finally top with dollops of ricotta and grated Parmesan cheese. (Cover loosely with foil to allow the pasta to steam bake but remove after first 30 mins). Bake in a moderate oven for about 45 mins and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with a crispy green salad.

The addition of blanched french beans will add colour and bite. Chard and spinach leaves can also be layered in; use whatever you think will work.

courgetteblanchweb (1)

Ita.

 

 

 

 

Share this

Maybe it’s a flower

A very late spring has collided with summer in an explosion of growth and blossom in the hedgerows, meadows, bogs, woodlands and derelict sites. Basking in warm sunshine, the flowers and foliage, like ourselves, are unfurling to embrace the much welcomed light and heat. Just stop and take some time to admire the magnificence of it all. Observe and listen to the buzz of life that is everywhere in June

wildorchid3webmntashflowerLook closely in the wild flower meadow and you might be rewarded with the sight of wild orchids which are becoming very rare. The purples of orchid, clover and foxglove that line the hedges compliment the twinkling yellow of buttercups. A succession of blooming whitethorn, ash and elderflower draws our attention to the hedgerows and fields; everything is in flower.

foxgloveweb

It is a time to notice the mysterious ways of nature and marvel at the peculiar sites a wild seed will find to colonize; why does the pink valerian choose the narrow ridge atop a high wall? Perhaps for the same reason the majestic mullein has flourished in the large polytunnel; they thrive because they haven’t been ‘weeded’ out.

foxgloveweb (1)

The whole subject of weeds is brilliantly addressed by Richard Mabey in his 2010 book, simply titled Weeds. It is an enlightening and entertaining read on the subject which examines our attitude to the “disreputable plants”, the plants “which sabotage human plans”. If we define a weed as a plant in the wrong place, Mabey questions the notion of a right place and brings us on a fascinating journey through a cultural history of the plants we have deemed to be unworthy.

wildorchid1web

Of course we have to harness the growth of vegetation, either to cultivate food or just to create a living space but it is important to remember thevalue of the native wild plants that are presently displaying their stunning beauty in the landscape. It is quite absurd to see how a certain form of gardening has become an industry of weed killing ; what pains and expense must be given up for a flawless (weed free) lawn? A small area that is spared the seasonal manicure will attract bees, birds and diverse wildlife. The sights , sounds and smells of summer are a tonic for the soul. We need to save what is left.

elderflowerbudsweb

This week we have harvested some frilly white elderflowers to process for cordial and wine. They look and smell particularly good this year after a spell of warm sunny weather. This will hopefully reward us later and remind us of the bounty that exists in a hedgerow that hasn’t been sacrificed for a concrete wall or fence.elderflower1web

elderflower2web

Share this

Pizza pizazz

Pizza Pizazz

Sprouting hedgerows and forest floors have the welcome whiff of wild garlic,which, along with busy birdsong, would suggest it is spring. The recent weather however argues back with a boisterous reminder of who is the boss.

Last week it was still too wet and blustery to enjoy much outdoor activity and it seemed a good time to do some cooking to help us quell our impatience with the weather while anticipating a heat wave.. With the willing help of Lucy, a new Steiner student from Germany who is staying on the farm, we have been enjoying the recently installed kitchen facilities.

kitchen with lucy

Lucy, Eileen and I spent the best part of a grey day invoking the smells and sunshine of Italy by making a batch of colourful pizzas.

pizza

Making pizza dough is a very satisfying process which requires a bit of practice but the results are worth the effort. While the dough was rising we prepared a selection of vegetables and herbs to create a variety of toppings which were combined in different ways to suit everyone’s tastes. A classic Marinara pizza is a Neapolitan variation which has no cheese and demonstrates how a basic combination of oregano and garlic can create such deep flavour. We made a basic tomato sauce by sautéing some finely chopped onions and garlic before adding tinned organic tomatoes and generous handful of dried oregano from the farm’s herb garden.

herb dried oregano

herbs

This sauce was the base for a selection of other toppings; fresh herbs, asparagus and juicy spring onions were picked from the tunnels and given a splash of colour with red peppers and onions. For extra punch and flavour we had chilli flakes, olives and anchovy fillets to disperse with discretion and finally some mozzarella and grated cheddar.

sauteed vegetables

There are no limits to what can go on a pizza and it is an interesting opportunity to experiment with different permutations other than the classic Italian ones. Simple combinations such as mushroom and thyme work very well and prove that a pizza dinner can be quite an economical meal.

 

The ideal balance of a light crispy base and a fresh vibrant topping will depend on the dough mix, the oven temperature and the quality of the ingredients. We can’t replicate the unique results from a stone pizza oven but if you have a pizza stone, which is pre-heated it will help to mimic the effect of a domestic oven. Pizza or pasta flour, ‘00’ grade, has higher gluten content; we used a 50/50 combination of 00 and strong white flour, as well as some semolina for dusting the baking trays. Pizza dough is quite sticky to work with but it is important to persevere without adding too much extra flour as you knead. Allow the dough to rise and double in size (2 or 3 hours depending on the ambient temperature) before knocking it back and shaping. Getting a feel of the dough will become easier the more often you give it a go.

 

Pizza Dough

250g Organic strong white flour

250g 00 pizza/pasta flour

7g dried yeast

½ tsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

320 ml Luke warm water

Olive oil & Semolina flour

Place the flour in a large bowl with the sugar and salt at opposite edges and the yeast in the centre. Quickly stir and gradually add the water to form sticky dough. Continue to stir/knead the dough in the bowl (this can also be done in a food mixer with dough hook). After the dough becomes more manageable, turn it out onto a floured surface and continue to knead until it becomes stretchy with a silky surface. This takes patience as it can be very tacky. To avoid adding too much flour it is useful to drizzle some olive oil on the work surface instead. Form the dough into a ball and place in a clean oiled bowl. Turn the dough in the bowl to ensure its surface has been coated with the oil before covering with a plastic bag or towel and set aside to prove.

pizza dough

Prepare a selection of toppings and sauce while the dough rises.

Once the dough has risen it should be ‘knocked back’ by kneading for another few minutes and shaped to fit the baking trays. Try to keep the dough as thin as possible; press it from the centre out to the edges with your knuckles or, if you have the skill, let gravity do its magic by twirling the discs above your head with your hands! Semolina flour will help the dough from sticking to the surface.

Putting the pizzas together is an enjoyable exercise and can be prepared in advance while the oven is heating up.

Bake in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes.

Ita.

 

 

Share this