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.

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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.

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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.

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Ita.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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High and Dry

High and Dry

We got by relatively lightly here in the south west during the recent dramatic snow falls, though we did have a temporary water ‘emergency’. The water pump was frozen and took a few days to thaw before it had to be replaced.  Such events are always a reminder of just how dependent our lives are on the basic services of water and electricity which we take for granted most of the time. The snow was soft and dry, a joy for neighbouring children to craft snowmen and igloos. It was a fascinating exercise to see just what volume of snow is required to melt and make a pan of water.The white landscape looked magical from the top of the hill.

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It ishowever our peculiar behaviour, when the roads get blocked with the same powdery snow and the supermarkets announce early closure, that attracts the media’s attention.Perhaps the scariest image on the national news was that of a writhing group of panic buyers outside the closed doors of a well- known retailer. What is it that throws us into a frenzied scramble for sliced pans?

Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, had an interesting conversation with Sean O’Rourke (RTE Radio1, March 5, 2018) on the subject of panic buying. He talks about how a reported shortage in one place can quickly trigger a reaction across the country. There is a perceived “common threat” that unites us in fear. The white pan, he declares, is a symbol of safety and comfort. This perception is also what prompts us to exhibit neighbourly solidarity in the face of adversity which is at least a more heartening reaction.

Emma, the storm, and The Beast from the East caused havoc for many people who had to be out in it.It could also be said that many of us were tripped up by the jerk of panic the moment our routine had been interrupted or stalled, even though we had at least a whole week of advanced warning. Seeing the images of empty shelves, which sent crowds into a spin of hysteria, one might wonder if we haven’t totally lost our sense of reality. We may need to review the popular saying “you are what you eat” to “you are what is in your kitchen cupboard”. A practical dry store cupboard is vital to any home and will ensure a decent bite to eat when the weather closes in. Various tins of beans, chick peas, or lentils are quick and easy to transform if you haven’t the patience to cook from scratch. Rice, pasta or noodles will always provide the carbs to make a tasty meal around. Dried mushrooms are a great source of flavour to use in a stock. One or two anchovies from a jar or tin can transform a tin of tomatoes with an onion and some dried herbs into a delicious pasta sauce. Other important staples, to provide a variety of options, include soy/shoyu sauce, miso, vinegars, peanut butter,tahini, honey or maple syrup. At least one type of flour (there are so many now available) to make bread, pastry or pancakes. Beyond that, a good selection of dried herbs and spices will provide for your personal taste. Some dried fruit and seeds like sunflower, sesame or pumpkin are good to have for snacks.  Even if your fridge is low in fresh produce there is a wealth of ideas in a good range of dry stock; these are only a sample and should of course include some form of chocolate! The challenge to create something different is the upside of having our routine broken by inclement weather or an unforeseen closure of shopping malls.

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While we weren’t cut off for more than a day here on the farm it was good to know that the trusty ducks would supply us with fresh delicious eggs if all else failed. Their rich yolks are perfect in a vegetable quiche which can be filled with all manner of vegetables and/or cheese.

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Mushrooms, peppers, leeks, onions, cauliflower, spinach, chard….whatever is to hand. If the pastry is blind baked and sealed with egg wash it will hold the filling and prevent any soggy bottoms. If using mushrooms or spinach it is important to sauté them first ; squeeze out the liquid from the spinach and allow the mushrooms to drain through a sieve. Whisk some ricotta cheese into the egg mixture or simply crumble some feta, cheddar or other hard cheese over the vegetables before adding the whisked egg.This one was filled with red pepper, onion, spinach, mushrooms and feta.

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The Basic Short Crust Pastry Case (makes 2 x 9cm)

6 oz plain flour ( white, brown or 50/50 mix)

3 oz cold diced butter

1 tbsp. sesame seeds

Enough cold water to bind

Egg to glaze

Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips (or pulse in a processor)until it has the texture of breadcrumbs. Add the sesame seeds and stir in just enough water to bind the dough ( 2 or 3 tbsp). Don’t make it too wet; the high proportion of butter should make it come together with minimum handling.

Form the dough into a ball and chill for 20 min.

Roll out the pastry and lay it carefully into the baking tin. Trim the edges and line the base with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or rice to blind bake.

Bake for about 25 min. in a moderate oven. Remove the blind lining and brush with whisked egg to seal. Bake for a further 5 min.

The base can be made in advance and filled with any of the above suggestions. It is a versatile way to use up various vegetables. Spinach and nutmeg work well or cauliflower florets with turmeric. The eggy filling can be mixed with ricotta cheese, crème fresh or cream, depending on your preference. Use two or three eggs per case, depending on size.

Take the time to make one of the best things since sliced bread.

Ita.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bottle Fed

Bottle Fed

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A gentle skiff of soft silent snow is a reprieve from the teeming hail that has been rattling the windows and roofs on the farm this weekend. The winter landscape has come alive with the changing light; skeletal trees and hedgerows parade their branches against the white and a curtain of inky grey sky opens to let flood a pool of sun. When it breaks through between the loaded clouds there is a sparkle to the day with the promise of new growth from below. Snowdrops know how to fit in. Daffodils form their guards of honour to the spring.

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Today, Pancake Tuesday, we are reminded of the onset of Lent when it was traditional to use up the butter and eggs before a stint of fasting. Like many historical feast days it has a focus on a particular type of food, depending on what part of the world we are in. Like the hot cross bun or the Easter egg, the pancake symbolised an aspect of religious faith which has survived into the more secular world we live in now. Often the food has a seasonal reference and the pancake might well reflect the scarcity of fresh vegetables during the ‘Hungry Gap’. Whatever cultural or religious heritage prevails, it can be enlightening to examine the relationship we have with our food and its preparation. Observing the shelves of the supermarkets  over the past few days in the run up to pancake Tuesday it is clear just how disconnected we have become from the basic act of making a batter to cook on a skillet or pan. Pancakes are possibly one of the most elemental foods to prepare and are present in practically every culture around the world.

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In the run up to this Shrove Tuesday the displays in the aisles of the best known super stores make my heart sink. Lightweight non-stick pans join the ranks of‘disposable’ kitchen ware; these thinly coated pans will not survive the rigours of random metal utensils or scouring pad in the sink. As soon as their surface is broken the coating becomes a potential ingredient of your gourmet crepe.  More alarming is the rank of plastic bottled pancake batter mix which stands beside these pans. SERIOUSLY.  What an absurdity to think we are saving time or energy buying a plastic bottle of pancake mix? How long does it take to mix a cupful of flour with a pinch of seasoning, crack a fresh egg and pour in a splash of milk? As we are currently being reminded of the disastrous effects of plastic waste is it not a bit mad that a batter mix should be packaged in a plastic bottle? Just shake and pour!

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Pancakes are the quickest and easiest way to throw together a meal or snack, sweet or savoury, any time of the day and any time of the year.  They come in many variations according to your own preference or geographical influence. The different proportions of flour, egg and milk will distinguish the drop scone from the crepe. The addition of baking powder and whisked egg white will create the popular American style. Gram flour makes a unique pancake called ‘socca’ which would rather be finished in the oven than flipped over on the hob. The classic Russian blini uses buckwheat flour and  yeast to make a light bubbly batter. Whatever your preference, it is a quick and easy way to create a meal with very limited ingredients and can be as elaborate as your fridge or larder suggests when it comes to fillings or toppings. Whatever your preference, try not have more to dispose of than egg shells or paper packaging!

Ita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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