A Timely Star

A Timely Star
The waft of spices in the house is one of the most evocative aspects of Christmas. Cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger and ‘mixed spice’ used to only appear in the kitchen at this time of year; typically to lace a glass of punch, smear a ham or flavour the puddings, mince pies or Christmas cake. These days spices are ubiquitous and we have become very familiar with the cuisines from around the world; enjoying the varied dimensions that they bring from afar to our own table. We have learned to use these pungent pods and seeds to create all kinds of delicious fare at any time of the year.
I like using cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in savoury dishes as well as sweet cakes, biscuits or poached fruit. A hint of warm spice will add a depth to any slow cooked stew or tray of roasted root vegetables. It might sound obvious but if you are trying something new it is wise to measure the quantity; next time you will be able to judge if it can take more or do with less (a lesson learnt the hard way). Balancing the flavours can be tricky but it is an enjoyable exercise to experiment and gain an understanding of how each spice behaves on its own or combined with another. Spices bring a world of possibilities to any kitchen and most cultures use them purposefully at times of festivity or ceremony.
The healing and soothing properties of spices and the plants they come from, (flowers, seeds, roots, and berries) have been the original source of what we now recognise as the Pharmaceutical Industry. In particular, it is perhaps no accident that Star Anise should step forward at this time of year to play a significant role; this enticing starry cluster of seed has a very pertinent repertoire to help us through the winter darkness. It is an age-old spice used in Asian and Eurasian cooking and has an impressive reputation for its medicinal properties.

The star anise, Illicium Verum, is not the same as Anise/Aniseed but shares the same flavour by virtue of anethole which is a compound common to fennel and liquorice, though is botanically unrelated. From a shrub native to Vietnam and South West china, Star Anise is the dominant tone of Chinese 5 spice (combined with cloves, fennel seeds, cinnamon and Sichuan pepper) and is the essential note in Vietnamese Pho (a beef and noodle soup).
Star anise brings great medicinal promise to us westerners in the throes of winter chills and over-indulgent festivities. It has been traditionally used in the treatment for coughs and colds and is used industrially to produce an anti-influenza drug (Tamiflu), utilizing its very potent shikimic acid.
Sip some star anise tea after a meal to help alleviate any digestive ailments that may follow. It is reputed to help in the treatment of indigestion, bloating, gas or constipation.
Using the spice to enhance a meal will hopefully help prevent any of the above discomfort! Star anise will marry well with fennel to use with fish or fowl. It is frequently paired with cinnamon for sweet or savoury dishes. Slow cooked lamb is transformed with the addition of this pungent, warm spice as well as some cinnamon, to the cooking liquid. The addition of seasonal root vegetables and red onions will make a meal that feels like a warm hug.

Star Anise with cloves or cinnamon will make a comforting tea or latte. Play around with it and discover your own preference. Let it mull your wine, deepen your coffee or add pizazz to your biscotti…. Star Anise is my flavour of the month.
To make star anise tea I just bring two or three whole stars to the boil in about 1 pint of water. Simmer gently for two or three minutes and then allow it to steep for about 15 minutes. Add a stick of cinnamon for added depth if you wish. Serve with a wedge of fresh orange and sweeten to taste with honey.

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Fine words and Parsnips

Fine Words and Parsnips

It was a delight to see Robert Macfarlane, the author of Landmarks, recently getting the coverage he deserves with a new publication, The Lost Words. Macfarlane was one of a group of writers, including the novelist Margaret Atwood who flagged an event back in 2015 when they voiced their alarm at the decision of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) to delete certain words*, such as “fungus” and “fern”, to make way for words deemed more relevant to the curiosity of a contemporary 7 year old; “database” and “blog” are two of the newcomers. This topic was aired by Paddy Woodworth in The Irish Times, August 19, 2017 prompting an interesting debate which has stirred up much indignation at the loss of a selection of words which relate to nature. Whatever we feel about the direction our language is taking, and let’s face it there are endless candidates for outrage these days, it is heartening to see the subject being addressed with passion and flair. Robert Macfarlane isn’t just hand-wringing about language deficit and the possible depletion of the world we fail to name; he has responded with positive creative energy, in collaboration with the illustrator Jackie Morris, to produce The Lost Words, reviewed by Jonathan Mc Aloon in last Saturday’s Irish Times. Artistry and poetry are the tools to provoke the imagination of children and adults alike in this playful and delightful book which goes that essential step further than just lamenting about lost words. It revives them with new life. My (adult) dictionary gives a definition of “inspiration” as the act of breathing air into the lungs. One can only hope that children of any age will develop a curiosity for the meaning of words, be it from a physical dictionary or a digital word search

These issues certainly bring up questions about the living experience of 21st century children and how, either in spite of or because of sophisticated technology, there is a widening gap between their tactile world and the virtual universe they inhabit. Understandably the average family has a busy schedule and it isn’t always easy to provide the time demanded of them but it is important that the instinct of a child to explore and feel the world around her/him doesn’t fade when the age of reason is reached.
If there is no garden to play in there is the resource of the kitchen to engage the imagination and the senses of any child ( or adult).This is a good time of year, when the daylight shortens with the length of time spent outdoors, to encourage children to engage in some cooking. Making the connection between the food on the table and the earth it came from is an invaluable lesson to young children which will enrich their understanding and respect for the food they consume. Scooping out the Halloween pumpkin seeds can be an opportunity to explain, hands on, something about the magical cycle of life. Slicing open a cruciferous vegetable (cauliflower or cabbage) is a visual delight that can be used to inspire a child to observe the wonderful patterns of nature. All branches of science are at work and it can be a very rewarding way to improve a child’s skills of dexterity, calculation and sensory perception.

For adults too, a return to some slow cooking and traditional “made from scratch” meals can be a reminder of how impatient we have become and how we unconsciously remove ourselves from the soil that has been washed from the pre packed veg. The “meals in minuits” phenomenon, much like the garden makeovers we watch on screen, are obvious examples of how distant the concept of delayed gratification has become.( If there is one lesson I am re-learning since I started making sauerkraut it’s the art of waiting!)
If we are alarmed by these “lost” words from the natural world we should perhaps also be diligent about keeping alive the tastes, smells and textures of the food we remember from our Grandmother’s kitchen. Modern, state of the art, domestic kitchens are now common place but it is important not to forget what they are for and how they can be the comforting hub of a chilly winter’s evening. Involving the children with the hands on preparation will certainly help their ability to articulate and to experience the pleasure of the food we have.
Here is a soup recipe to revive your soul and to remind me that Fine Words will Butter no Parsnips!
The strength of a good soup is in the stock and this time of year is perfect for a slow simmered bone broth, brimming with flavour and goodness. Use a chicken carcass, lamb ribs or beef shin to provide the base for this soup. Add carrot tops, celery leaves and parsley stalks to the stock if available.
If you prefer a vegetarian version just omit the bones and use a few pieces of kombu to enhance the stock. Some grated fresh ginger added with the vegetables will give it a warming Asian slant.
Winter Broth with Barley and Root Vegetables
2lb (approx.) trimmed lamb bones (roasted in the oven for about 30mins)
2 onions
1 leek
4 or 5 celery sticks
3 large carrots
1 large parsnip
½ Turnip
100g organic pearl barley
Large bunch parsley
2 tbsps. Chopped rosemary
2 garlic cloves
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Prepare the bones by roasting for a while in the oven, over some sprigs of Rosemary to add flavour. Place the cooked bones in a large saucepan of water with some peppercorns, a couple of bay leaves, one of the onions and a length of celery. Bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer for about 45 mins. Skim the surface of the broth with a slotted spoon to remove any froth and strain.
Prepare the carrots and parsnips by scrubbing and slicing to equally sized pieces. Trim and slit the leek lengthways before rinsing under the tap. Separate the white from the green and chop them. Chop the leeks and onion. Peel and dice the turnip. Chop or mince the garlic.
Add the rinsed barley to the strained broth with the onions, celery, garlic and green ends of the leek. Allow the barley to cook about half way before adding the root vegetables. This may take about 30mins, test for “bite”. Let the soup simmer until the vegetables are cooked, season with salt and pepper to your taste. Add roughly chopped parsley leaves at the point of serving.
*Words omitted from OJD
Acorn adder ash beech blackberry bluebell bramble brook buttercup catkin clover conker cowslip cygnet dandelion fern fungus gorse hazel hazelnut heather heron holly horse chestnut ivy kingfisher lark magpie minnow newt otter pansy pasture poppy porpoise primrose raven starling stoat stork sycamore thrush weasel violet willow wren


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Sweet and Sour

Sweet and Sour

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These are months of multi-coloured displays in the garden, on the farm and in the wild. Not quite the start of winter yet because nature still has an arsenal of energy to throw at us with an ever-changing landscape of reds, golds,purples, and deepening pinks. The low evening sun throws a warm glow on the faces of nasturtium as they peep between their green parasol leaves. Berries of elder and ash beckon hungry birds in the hedge rows while late fruiting raspberries manage to hide from winged predators by shying under their droopy leaves.
It’s a comforting time of year when vibrant carrots, beetroots and squash are at their best for slow roasting or tasty wholesome soups. These deep luxurious colours of the autumn harvest are a prompt to build up our defences for the oncoming winter chills and a reminder of just how appropriate seasonal food is for our physical health. Packed with anthocyanins, vegetables with deep reds and purples take centre stage in autumn and couldn’t make a more timely appearance in the run up to winter when our immune systems need to fight off viruses. The reliable leafy greens and brassicas are also essentials for boosting our resistance and need to be eaten regularly to provide the recommended nutrients .Red cabbage comes with an impressive list of accolades, providing vitamin C and K as well as being a source of iron. Cooking cabbage can diminish some of its food value so it should not be over cooked or drowned in too much water. If, like many, you aren’t inclined to cook cabbage every day it can be enjoyed in its fermented form as sauerkraut which will provide the added benefits of probiotics and can be enjoyed in small amounts as a condiment.
It is the mighty red cabbage that has been attracting my attention over the past months as their hefty hearts swell under the watchful company of sunflowers. I had made some small batches of sauerkraut in jars with some white cabbage and could see how fermentation would be the ideal way to harness the renowned goodness of these beautiful specimens. When my neighbour Niamh offered me the use of her crock pot, designed for the purpose with a moat lid, the kitchen table was soon a production line of shredding, salting and packing .

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The crock was filled with the shredded , salted cabbage and pressed down to encourage the inky juices to rise and submerge the leaves. I did not use any recommended weight to do this but covered the top with the large outer leaves of the plant which were trimmed and overlapped to fit the surface area.( I would ideally use some weight to keep the cabbage submerged). The lid was then placed on top and water was carefully poured into the ‘moat’ ridge. This is the simple and ingenious design which allows the inner co2 to escape with a reassuring burp while keeping out any oxygen or unwanted critters. For the following weeks it sat on the counter top, frequently reminding me of its activity.
The process of fermentation is very basic and needs no more than raw shredded vegetables, unrefined sea salt and clean jars or crocks. The subject is well documented on various sites on line though I have followed the expert wisdom of Sandor Katz to guide me through the basics. On his advice I have used roughly 1 ½ -2 teaspoons of salt to a pound of veggies. The recent batch of red cabbage sauerkraut was left for three weeks at room temperature before I opened it and decanted the contents into clean jars before storing in the fridge. It is wise to prepare in advance with a supply of clean wide rimmed jars with non-metallic lids. So far the feedback from my various tasters has been very positive with only the suggestion to shred the cabbage finer. This came as no surprise; my knife skills got a bit careless after the third head of cabbage it took to fill the crock.

This is also a heartening time of year when the local harvests of apples and pears are exchanged, reminding us to taste the difference between seasonal, native produce and the bland, polished specimens that crowd the supermarket shelves all year round. The flavour and texture of local apples and pears make them ideal candidates for pies and cakes or simply cooked to have with a breakfast cereal or dessert. There is a popular recipe for a pear cake which uses ground almonds to add texture and flavour and can be served warm as a pudding or cold with a coffee. Here is a version of same which has a moist caramel centre.
Pear and almond cake
225g butter
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
110 g ground almonds
110 g self -raising flour
Flaked Almonds for topping (optional)
3 or 4 firm pears, quartered and cored and cut again into wedges ( depending on size;6 or 8 pieces per pear)
Begin by glazing the cut pears on a medium heat with a tablespoon of the sugar and about 50g of the butter. Turn them as they begin to colour in the melted caramel but don’t over cook them.) Set aside to cool.
Line a spring form 20cm cake tin with baking paper. Set oven to 180 c.
Cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy (it helps to allow the butter to soften at room temp. in advance)
Add the eggs, gradually, beating well each time. A teaspoon of flour with each egg will avoid the risk of curdling.
Gradually fold in the sieved flour and ground almonds. The mix will be quite thick.
Cover the base of the cake tin with 2/3 of the cake mix, spreading it evenly to the edges.
Carefully place the cooled pears on the cake base, arranging them in a circle. (Alternate the pointy end with wide end to make them fit evenly). Drizzle over with the caramel juices on the pan.
Dollop the top of the cake with the remaining mix with a spoon. No need to spread it or worry much as it will melt and blend in the oven.
Bake in a medium/hot oven for about 25 mins. Sprinkle with flaked almonds and bake for a further 10 mins or so. Times will vary according to your oven. The centre will be soft and moist.

Slices of char grilled pears served with a wedge of ripe Camembert and red cabbage sauerkraut is a sweet and sour treat that is the essence of autumn. Equally good is red sauerkraut and creamy hummus atop a crispy cracker. These are the tastes and colours that lure us into winter; relish them while they are at their best.

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Eating and Drinking

Eating and Drinking

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The fruits of the gardener’s labour are literally abundant now in the last weeks of summer when there is an elemental thrust of colour, flavour, scent and the touch of a breezy shower of rain.There are colourful displays of tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers in the large tunnel which are all vying for attention at the same time.Diligence is of the essence when it comes to harvesting fruit and vegetables as the prolific courgette will quickly metamorphose into a giant marrow if neglected for a day or two and the juicy ripening raspberries will not escape the attention of birds. Tomatoes will succumb to gravity as they become too heavy for their vines and need daily picking . It is always wise to have space prepared in the freezer at this time of year and a selection of clean jars at the ready to fill with jams, chutneys or pickles.

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Whether you have a glut of fruit and vegetables to preserve or not it is important to enjoy the summer bounty while it is at its peak. The ‘fruit’ vegetables like cucumber, zucchini and tomatoes are bursting with flavour and nutrients, so delicious and quenching to munch straight from the plant. Having a high water content (95% in the case of cucumber) they are ideal for juicing with apples, pears,grapes, spinach, kale or whatever takes your fancy. Cucumber water is a refreshing drink to enjoy, all the more satisfying in the knowledge that it has many health benefits. Cucumbers contain the trace elementsilica,which is very beneficial for the maintenance of our connective tissues. They are a source of vitamin A, C and K as well as potassium, helping to strengthen bones, lower blood pressure and maintain clear, supple skin. If the cucumber is sliced and submerged in fresh spring water for a few hours it will develop a subtle flavour which can be garnished with fresh mint or a wedge of lemon. This is a great way to increase your daily water intake.

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There are lots of ways to enjoy courgettes (zucchini) and tomatoes when they are so plentiful and tasty. Courgettes, like cucumbers, have a high water content but are a low calorie vegetable which can help ‘fill’ up a gap for those trying to control their weight. They can be eaten raw, baked or fried in a light tempura batter. I have sliced and layered them with cherry vine tomatoes, herbs, olives and fresh lasagne sheets to make a delicious summer supper. This has no resemblance to any lasagne you might encounter with layers of stodgy béchamel sauce and Bolognese style filling; it is light and brimming with the flavours of fresh herbs and juicy sweet tomatoes.

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The quantities of this recipe will depend on the size of your baking dish but if possible choose one which will accommodate the dimensions of one or two lasagne sheets. The amount of tomatoes will also have to be judged by eye. I have used a mixture of tomatoes, cutting up the larger ones to equal the size of the smaller ones.
Place the tomatoes in a bowl and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil and 1 tablespoon of Balsamic vinegar. Add to this approximately 100g of mixed olives . I used Greek olives that were packed in oil and Rosemary but any good quality deli selection would do. Halve the olives and ensure they are all pitted. Add a generous bunch of fresh basil leaves and fresh oregano if available. Finally throw in as much fresh garlic as you prefer; sliced or smashed roughly. Season with freshly ground black pepper and a little sea salt, stir and set aside to marinate for an hour or so. Slice one or two courgettes into approximately 5mm thickness .
Pour some liquid from this mix to thinly cover the base of your dish. Add a layer of tomatoes, a layer of courgette slices and a layer of lasagne. Repeat the layers until the dish is nearly full, ending with a layer of cheese which is simply a 250g carton of Ricotta mixed with about 100g of grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese. Reserve a little grated cheese to sprinkle on top. Bake the lasagne in a medium /hot oven for about 30 minutes or until the pasta sheets are cooked. The topping should be lightly coloured . It can help to cover the dish with foil for the first half of cooking time, and remove it towards the end to allow the cheese to colour. The finished dish should sit for a while before serving.
There are lots of ways to vary this depending on what you have available. Mushrooms or aubergines would give it an extra ‘meaty’ dimension. Either way it is a lovely way to utilise the sweet liquids that flow from these summery fruity vegetables.Enjoy.

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