Earthly Goods

Earthly goods

As the Samhain festival quickly approaches it is hard to believe we are soon to be shrouded in the darkness of winter. Warm sunny days have been plentiful and welcome this October with blazing autumnal colours to make a walk in the forest the perfect sensual experience to ease us toward the chillier weeks ahead. Earthiness is palpable when we stroll under a canopy of tall trees; our figures seem smaller, we are closer to the ground.  Our senses are alerted to the magical, sometimes spooky, environment of the undergrowth. It is no wonder that woodland flora and fauna has inspired the imagination of folk cultures throughout the world providing a landscape for fairies and goblins and all sorts of mischief.

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Some fungi specimens like puffballs can be large enough to suggest a small dwelling. Some, like the oyster, have flesh as white as porcelain.

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Others, more strangely ,like the Trumpets of Death, are as black as charcoal. All have a unique symbiotic relationship with the living trees they grow under or the dying wood they thrive on. These mushrooms that we see and savour are in fact only the flowering part of a much larger and complex body of a fungus called mycelia.  Mushrooms reproduce by spores (not by seeds like plants) which germinate to produce a mass of interwoven cell structures known as hyphae. Masses of hyphae are called mycelium. The mycelium layer is a truly fascinating underground network of thin cells which has been likened to a communication system which connects the growing roots of other plants.

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The variety and abundance of mushrooms that are on display at the moment are a thrill for any observer and a treat for the eager forager. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the many edible wild mushrooms that can be found throughout the months of autumn which should be picked with all the usual caution and respect for their sustainability. Always be sure of what you eat and learn how to identify them with a guidebook relevant to Ireland (many on line guides are American), or better still in the company of a local expert.

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Mycology is a fascinating subject and the identification of different species is a skill that won’t be learned overnight. It can however be a rewarding and tasty hobby to make the onset of winter less dreary and all the more pertinent because mushrooms contain vitamin D which is rarely found in plants. Once you can confidently recognise what you are looking at it will encourage you to explore further and lessen the risk of any fatality. Get to know the vital details which are necessary to distinguish the common edible species if you are foraging in the wild. As a beginner surfing the web for facts about fungi it can sometimes be quite baffling to glance headings such as ‘ Trumpets of Death; Recipes’ or figure out the conundrum….chanterelles have false gills and false chanterelles have true gills.

Chanterelles (the real ones) are one of the tastiest wild mushrooms that can be found and the winter chanterelle (below) is quite plentiful at the moment, though they are not as obvious to the eye as some photographs would suggest. Looking down on them, they are incredibly well camouflaged.

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They have a much darker, browner colour from this angle but underneath their characteristic yellowish stem and funnel shaped cap are more distinctive. An experienced forager might qualify a chanterelle by its fruity aroma, often likened to apricot.

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It is the waft of chanterelles cooking that will eventually draw your attention to their earthy goodness. They have a very tempting aroma and a typical ‘meatiness’ that nominates them for a broad selection of delicious classics.

Add the trimmed and cleaned mushrooms to a dry hot pan and wait until they begin to release their juices. Gently stir them until the liquid has evaporated and then add enough butter and/or olive oil to continue sautéing for another few minutes. Use this base of sautéed fresh wild mushrooms as the main character of a risotto, soup or omelette. Combine with leeks and diced celeriac to fill a luscious pie. Mix with fresh thyme, rosemary or sage to create a versatile breadcrumb stuffing. Combine with discs of mozzarella and dried oregano to top a pizza. Simplest of all, splash with some balsamic or wine vinegar as they saute and enjoy on a slice of toast.

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Whatever your preference for mushrooms is, wild or cultivated, do try to get out and into the forest at this time of year. There is a living underworld to entrance or spook, depending on your imagination.

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Ita

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

75g caster sugar

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.

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Ita.

 

 

 

 

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Yellow Alert

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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.

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The place is aglow with deepening yellows .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ita.

 

 

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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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