Preserving Summer

Elderflower1

Nothing reminds me more of summer than the heady scent of elderflowers. Elderflowers in our garden have been slow to bloom this year for obvious reasons but they are out in their full glory at the moment. I’ve been preserving that smell in jellies for the last few years so that I can smell summer on my toast on a cold November morning. I didn’t realise how much I would love jam and jelly making, especially when some of the ingredients comes from the hedgerows and the garden. There is nothing like having a cupboard full of your own various jars from different times of the year.

One very easy preserve to make is an apple jelly. This sweetly tart jelly is beautiful as an accompaniment to pork dishes. My own favourite is a plain crab apple jelly which I love with grilled chorizo off the barbeque. But I also use the following Bramley apple recipe as a base for the elderflower jelly as well as other jellies such as mint, rosemary or even chilli.

You will need a jelly bag or a DIY version of one, which is what I use because every year I find myself, yet again, without the real thing. I use a large colander lined with muslin as my substitute.

There are a few rules to jelly making.  If you are someone who can’t resist squeezing the juices out of the jelly bag, be prepared to get a cloudy jelly. I find if I let gravity work its magic overnight on the jelly bag, I always get a beautiful sparkling clear jelly. The only rules with picking elderflowers are to pick them on a warm dry day, never when it’s wet. Make sure the scent is good as trees differ. You will soon know a very well scented one and that will be your tree every year.  Make sure to pick heads on which there are flowers just beginning to open with plenty of buds that are still closed. And of course, remember to leave some on the tree for elderberry picking!

Bramley Apple and Elderflower Jelly

Makes 6-7lbs (about 3kg)

  • 2.4kg (5 ½ lb.) Bramley apples
  • 2.6 litres (4 ½ pints) water
  • 6-8 heads of elderflower (gently washed in water)
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • Sugar

What to do:

  1. Wash the apples and cut into rough chunks. Do not remove skin or core. Make sure to remove any bruised pieces. Put the apples into a large saucepan with the water and the thinly pared zest of the lemons. Add the elderflowers and push under the water.
  2. Cook for about 30 minutes till the apples are reduced to a pulp.
  3. Add the pulp to a scalded jelly bag (or your DIY muslin version) and allow all the liquid to drip through into the collecting container usually overnight.
  4. Measure the volume of the resulting liquid into a saucepan.
  5. To sterilise your jars: place clean glass jars into a moderate oven at 180⁰C/350⁰F/gas 4 for 10 minutes.
  6. For every 600ml of juice allow 450g of sugar. Heat the sugar in a low oven. This helps to dissolve the sugar quickly but is not a necessary step.
  7. Squeeze the lemons and strain the juice into the juice.
  8. Bring the juice to the boil and add the warm sugar. Turn down the heat and stir gently until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat again and boil for about 10 minutes without stirring. The jelly should reach setting point in this time.
  9. Skim off any scum that may have formed on the jelly using a slotted spoon.
  10. Test that the setting point has been reached by pouring a teaspoon of the jelly onto a very cold plate – I place one in the freezer. The jelly should crinkle on the cold surface.
  11. The jelly should be potted immediately into sterilised jars.

Elderflower2

 

 

Published in the Western People – 06th July 2014

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Mutton dressed as lamb

WP LambSalsaVerdePrep

Not being from a farming background and having been in contact with butcher shops that refer to lamb as lamb when it is actually hogget, I used to always wonder when a lamb became a hogget and indeed, when the Spring lamb season actually ended what with Easter being a movable feast. I have since learned that spring lamb is in season for a few weeks around Easter when the lamb is around 5 months old. It is known as lamb from then on until Christmas time after which it is called hogget. At two years old it is referred to as mutton.

As most sheep are grass-fed, Ireland produces the most excellent flavoured lamb. Mountain breeds tend to be leaner than some of the other lowland varieties, but living on different grasses, heather and wild plants gives mountain lamb a very distinctive flavour. Lamb from the hills of Connemara, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo’s own Achill Island has become sought after for this flavoursome distinction.

Hogget has a more pronounced flavour to lamb and I much prefer it. Mutton is stronger again in flavour and can be a bit tougher if not treated with care in the kitchen. Most people I have spoken to about mutton speak of a lasting impression left on their sense memory of the smell of it boiling in their mother’s kitchen as children. Undeterred by this, I have tried but have found it difficult to get mutton as I believe farmers can’t afford to keep the lambs this long for a relatively small number of interested people! But I will persevere.

The following recipe is incredibly easy and is good in the depths of winter as well as on the BBQ – which is just as well with the weather we’ve been having!

 

What you need:

  • 1 boned leg of lamb, or ½ leg of hogget, about 1.25kg weight
  • 1 small bunch of rosemary
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 6 anchovies (about ½ 55g tin) – feel free to substitute black olives here, about 20 large ones
  • 2 red chillies
  • The zest of ½ a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

What to do:

  1. Ensure the meat has been left out of the fridge to come completely to room temperature before roasting. I usually leave it out for at least 1 hour.
  2. Heat the oven to 220⁰C/425⁰F/Gas Mark 7
  3. Strip the rosemary leaves off the twigs and set aside. Place the twigs in the bottom of the roasting tray, and place the opened out lamb on top. Your butcher can bone the leg for you. I usually keep the bone and add it to the tray for roasting if there is room.
  4. Put all the remaining ingredients, including the rosemary leaves, into a processor and blitz. Spread this paste over the lamb.
  5. Roast in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the lamb is still nicely pink inside. Set it aside to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.
  6. Deglaze the roasting tin with 200ml of wine, stock or water to make simple delicious gravy.

First published in The Western People 22nd June 2015

A gallic inspired chocolate cake

ChocolateFondantCake

“Every French home cook does a great chocolate cake” or so says Trish Deseine in her book ‘Nobody does it better’. The ‘Somebodies’ that the ‘nobodies’ do it better than are the French. I love France and the affair started with their wine and food long before I ever set foot in the place. As a result, when I started learning about cooking and searching for information, one of the first books I bought was Larousse Gastronomique, the culinary encyclopaedia.

When it was first published in 1938 it was written by French chef Prosper Montagné. It’s incarnations since have been written by scores of writers who form the Gastronomic Committee of the Librairie Larousse. It is an excellent reference for cooking techniques, history of food and important culinary individuals, ingredient information and not to mention recipes for pretty much anything you might like to cook.

In the beginning it was the book I went to for things like how to make a roux for a béchamel sauce, or indeed to find out what a roux was. These were things that I needed clear instruction on as I had never done home economics or had studied anything to do with cooking. I was starting completely from scratch in my own tiny kitchen in a flat in Dublin.  As Larousse Gastronomique was essentially based on classic continental cuisine, when looking for a good instruction I did move away from it slightly when I found the book Ballymaloe Cookery Course. This was much more accessible both because it was Irish and because Darina Allen’s instruction was so precise.

I still did love the French. And what could be better than a French cookbook written by an Irish woman living in France! I found myself then faced with Trish Deseine’s statement that every French home cook does a great chocolate cake. Far be it from me to let the side down so a few years ago I went through the arduous task of find our chocolate cake recipe. We went through everything from basic chocolate sponges with various fillings such as chocolate ganache or chocolate Chantilly cream to the princely Black Forest gateaux. Sean, being a complete chocolate addict, relished this quest. We went full circle and the cake that turned out to be our favourite was one of Trish Deseine’s French recipes!

It’s a chocolate fondant cake and so simple to make. The only drawback is that it should be made a day before it is needed so allow the chocolate flavour to fully develop. Also, for those of you who are wheat intolerant, it only has one tablespoon of flour in it. It’s not perfectly gluten free for coeliac sufferers but might be acceptable for the wheat intolerant chocolate addict in your house. It isn’t the prettiest chocolate cake in the world, but that taste….

Ingredients:

  • 200g good quality chocolate, minimum 65% cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon strong coffee, hot
  • 200g butter, softened
  • 200g castor sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 heaped tablespoon plain flour

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 180⁰C/350⁰F/gas mark 4.
  • Grease and flour a 25cm sandwich tin.
  • Place a mixing bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water.  Break the chocolate into it. Pour in the hot coffee and stir until the chocolate has melted.
  • Add the butter and let it melt into the chocolate.
  • Add the sugar into the mixture and stir very well.
  • Break the eggs into the mixture one at a time, stirring well after each addition. I use a balloon whisk for this. Finally, mix in the flour.
  • Pour the mixture into the sandwich tin and bake for 20 – 25 minutes. The cake should still be very moist in the centre. DO NOT be tempted to leave it in longer.
  • Remove from the oven and leave it to cool completely before turning it out. Wrap the cake in foil and try to resist it for at least a day. (Easier said than done).
  • Best devoured simply with good vanilla ice-cream.

‘Nobody does it better’ by Trish Deseine (Published by Kyle Cathie Ltd. – 2007)

 (Published in The Western People – 15 June 2015)

Grasping the Nettle

Nettle Picking

‘Neantóg a dhóigh mé agus cupóg a leigheas mé’

I’m an asthmatic. I’ve had a runny nose most of the time for most of my life. I was given a natural remedy book by a good friend in college and discovered the benefits of Urtica dioica, more commonly known as nettles, in there. The plant, which was the bane of my young life running around the fields of Connemara, could, according to this new book, be the cure for my ever running nose. In particular in the spring time when I was most affected.

Stinging nettles love Ireland’s moist fertile soil and so grow all over the place. They should be picked in spring when they are young and tender. Trial and error has taught most of us that hand protection is required when picking them, but if you do get stung dock leaves shouldn’t be too far away to rub onto the affected area hence the old saying stated above. The alkaline secretions of the dock neutralises the acidic sting of the nettle.

Nettles are used as remedies due to their high iron and vitamin C content, not to mention histamine which is what helped to curb my rhinitis during the spring months. My grandmother used to say that nettles when taken in a tea in the month of May would purify the blood for the year. She wasn’t too far out because the minerals (formic acid, iron, potassium etc.) in nettles have been proven to reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugar and improve circulation thus purifying the system. And they are at their youngest and most tender in the month of May. Clever people our ancestors.

Before consuming nettles regularly, make sure to firstly check with your doctor if you are on medication, as nettles can interfere with certain pharmaceuticals. Also, make sure to always pick your nettles, or any wild plant for that matter, from an area that is not near any area that has been or potentially could have been treated with any sort of chemical. There is little point in the health benefits if you’re also consuming a nice dose of herbicide!

Nettles can be consumed in many recipes but I’ve only used them regularly in three. The first being the simplest: tea. Brew a bunch of tender stinging nettle tips in almost boiling water and drink daily (for the month of May, if following my grandmother’s tip!) Another recipe I sneak them into is champ. I simmer a bunch of chopped nettle leaves in milk for about 10 minutes before adding them to the mashed potato. Our favourite spring recipe for nettles though is nettle soup. I basically substitute nettles for leeks in a traditional leek and potato soup recipe.

Note: When picked, nettles should be used as soon as possible as they wilt quickly.

Serves 6 starter or 4 hearty supper portions

  • A knob of butter
  • 100g chopped onions
  • 160g peeled and chopped potatoes
  • 1 litre of chicken stock
  • 160g washed and chopped young nettles
  • 150ml whole milk
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Gently melt a knob of butter and a little oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan over a low heat. When melted, add the chopped onions and potatoes. Cover and sweat very gently over a low heat for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are softening but not browned. Add the chicken stock and boil until the vegetables are cooked. Add the nettle leaves and simmer for a few minutes. Add the milk and liquidise. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

 

Published in The Western People 08th June 2015