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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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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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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