Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wild Garlic: the green growth and sunshine of springtime in Ireland

The month of April has been wonderful here in Dingle. The sun has been shining. Nature has erupted in a growth spurt of green. I can hardly remember the grey, dark days of winter.

One of the best things about living in the countryside in the spring is watching nature come alive. You can't help but feel a thrill when you see the first buds on the trees and green leaves where there had only been barren grey...

What I hadn't realised until recently was just how much you can find to eat if you forage for it at this time of the year. Last year, I met many foraging enthusiasts who have taught me to see nature in an entirely new way: as a living larder on my doorstep.

So, when I was driving through a wooded area on Friday and spotted this:

I practically ground my car to a screeching halt.
Was it what I thought it was? I hurried into the woods to find out.

The closer I got, the more excited I became. Was it really what I hoped it was?

My nose was already telling me that my hunch was right. I'd found one of my favourite springtime foods: wild garlic.

I think wild garlic is the essence of springtime. It has such a fresh and delicate flavour, a flavour that is closer to chives than it is to the more pungent garlic you can buy in the shops.
If you are keen to forage for it, all you need to know is that it grows in woodlands, often among bluebells and that you can identify it by its garlic-like smell, its long leaves and its pretty white flowers.

As I gathered a bunch, I was already deciding how I'd cook it for that night's dinner. Combining it with some unsalted butter, crunchy sea salt and the freshest of fish seemed like a simple dish that would maximise its subtle flavour.

For the simplest and most delicious of springtime suppers for two, here's what I used:

70g unsalted flour
40g wild garlic
Sea salt

2 whole sole
Baby new potatoes

Green beans
1 tbsp unsalted butter
Half a lemon

  • I chopped the wild garlic and mixed it with the butter in a bowl, seasoning with sea salt.

  • I melted half of the garlic butter in a hot pan, adding a little bit of sunflower oil to stop it burning and cooked the sole in the melted butter (approx 3 mins each side).

  • I served the simply cooked fish with some boiled baby potatoes and lemony green beans. (Nigella Lawson suggests boiling beans in salted water and once they are tender straining them and transferring them to a saucepan with some butter and half a lemon that has been cut into segments. Stir until the butter has melted and the lemon segments have disintegrated slightly. Lemony goodness that sets the fish off to perfection!)

    Serve the buttered fish with the potatoes and lemony green beans with some of the extra wild garlic butter alongside.

    Pour yourself a glass of wine and savour the simple flavours of springtime.

    What a wonderful time of year it is.
  • Thursday, April 14, 2011

    All together now: send me some sunshine

    I've got cupcakes baking in the oven at this very moment. Chocolate cupcakes, strawberry ones, Black Forest Gateau cupcakes, banoffee, white chocolate and raspberry and even lemon meringue ones: all destined for my stall at Dingle Farmers' Market tomorrow.

    And lest fans of my brownies despair, they'll be on my stall too.

    I've been back at the market for the past two weeks and it's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride so far. Two weeks ago, I ignored the weather forecast, mixed up some cupcake batter and decided the time was right for Little Miss Cupcake to return. After all, how bad could the weather really be?

    It turns out that the question I should have asked was: how foolish can a cupcake maker really be? When I arrived at the market that Friday morning, it was so windy that everyone's canopy umbrella's were literally taking off. Anything that wasn't firmly tied down was blown away.

    Hmm, thought Sharon. I don't have anything to tie my canopy down with and I don't really have anything to tie it to either.

    Fortunately, my ever-resourceful boyfriend was nearby and together we found rope and tied my stall to a phone box, a tree, an electricity pole and my car! On a normal morning, it takes between 20 and 30 minutes to get my stall set up but on this windswept morning, it took two whole hours. Two hours of tying everything as tightly as possible, of chasing objects that would suddenly become windborne and at one stage rescuing a box of 50 cupcakes that was about to crash to the ground. STRESS!

    Even worse was the fact that all but the most weather-beaten of our customers were scared off by the wind and I had very few sales. I was hugely disappointed that this was the outcome of my first day back at the market but the fact that I was able to barter cupcakes for produce from the other stalls made up for it a little.

    Last Friday, the sun shone and things were better. More of the stallholders had returned too and with them came more customers. It felt like the market had come back to life after its winter slumbers.

    Saorla was there with her vegan delights and delicious sandwiches (you should all try her roasted veggie sandwiches - they're scrummy!)

    Mary had returned with her jams, home baking and hand-knitted cardigans for babies.

    Janet's stall displayed her farm-fresh eggs, wonderful honey products and sweet treats.

    Vegetable man Tom was especially proud of his rhubarb.

    Eithne was pleased with her pancakes.

    Lorna (who runs the Phonenix Restaurant in Keale and makes fabulous vegetarian food) had brought along someone who serenaded us with her violin.

    Marie (from Quebec) is new to the market and as well as her excellent preserves and chutneys, she makes fudge that is to die for.

    Greg is new too and one of the things he sells is bird houses that he crafts himself.

    Neil's bread stall (with bread made by his wife Orla) is one of the market's busiest and last week, he was joined by Aine who was learning how to bake as part of her transition year work experience.

    We will all be back again tomorrow and so will Olivier, Bríd, Britta, Sarah, Betsy and more. If you're there, do call by to say hello.

    And don't forget: send some sunshine our way!

    Monday, April 11, 2011

    Chocolate: who could live without it?

    My boyfriend is an addict. An addict who has to eat a bar of chocolate every day after his lunch.
    This sometimes makes me cross and I have been known to nag him about it. There have even been occasions when, in an attempt to shut me up, he has tried to cut back on his chocolate intake.
    However, no matter how much I nag, he eventually relapses and reverts to his life-long habit of eating a chocolate bar a day.

    The man is the very definition of a chocoholic.

    One day, probably after I'd nagged him beyond endurance, he approached a friend of ours who is a trained hypnotherapist.
    "I'd like to be hypnotised," he said. "Do you think you could do it for me?"
    "Sure," said Julie, the hypnotherapist. "What do you want to be hypnotised for?"
    "I want to give up chocolate," said my boyfriend, full of resolve as he faced a future without chocolate.
    "Oh no, I couldn't do that," said Julie. "Life without chocolate is no life at all."

    Chastened by her words, my boyfriend reconsidered his decision and as a result, he remains addicted to chocolate to this day.

    This chocolate tart - taken from the wonderful Ladurée cookbook- is for him, to make up for my incessant and ultimately futile nagging.

    Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients or what looks like a complicated method in this recipe. The time involved in making this tart mostly consists of waiting for the pastry to rest and cook. The steps are actually quite simple and the end result is more than worth the effort.

    Step 1: Make the pastry
    200g flour
    120g unsalted butter softened and cubed, plus extra for greasing the tin
    75g icing sugar
    25g ground almonds
    12g best quality unsweetened cocoa
    1 pinch of salt
    1 egg

  • Weigh your ingredients.

  • Sift the flour into a bowl and add the cubes of butter, icing sugar, ground almonds, cocoa and salt.

  • Rub the mixture together using the tips of your fingers until you have the consistency of breadcrumbs.

  • Mix in an egg and once the dough has come together and resembles pastry, shape it into a ball, cover it in clingfilm and put it into the fridge for an hour.

  • (If you've got a free-standing mixer such as a Kenwood or a KitchenAid, let it complete the above steps for you.)

  • Once the hour is up, unwrap your pastry and roll it to fit a 24cm tart tin.

  • (Here's a tip for rolling pastry: place your pastry on a sheet of clingfilm and place another sheet on top. This will allow you to roll your pastry without having to worry about it sticking to your work surface or to your rolling pin.)

  • Butter and flour your tart tin and then press in the pastry.

  • Allow it to rest for another hour in the fridge.

    Step 2: Start making the chocolate meringue layer 30 mins before the pastry needs to go in the oven.
    45g good quality chocolate (I used chocolate with a 70% cocoa content)
    3 eggs
    65g caster sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius

  • Line a baking tray with grease-proof paper.

  • Trace a circle with a 22cm diameter onto the paper (if you're using a slightly bigger or smaller tin than the 24cm one recommended, make your circle 2cm smaller than the tin you're using.)

  • Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.

  • Separate the eggs.

  • Beat the yolks with 35g of the caster sugar until they have a the consistency of mayonnaise.

  • In another bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks then add the sugar and continue beating until they are quite stiff.

  • Pour 1/4 of the egg white mixture into the egg yolks and then mix in the melted chocolate.

  • Pour in the rest of the egg whites and fold them in carefully.

  • Pour the mixture into a piping bag and starting in the middle of the circle you have drawn on the grease-proof paper, pipe a circle onto the tray.

  • Cook in the oven for 15 minutes.

  • Allow to cool.

    Step 3: Cook the pastry

  • Prick holes in the pastry with a fork and line it with some parchment and baking beans (or whatever you use to weigh down pastry).

  • Cook at 170 degrees Celsius for 25 mins.

  • Allow to cool.

    Step 4: Make the ganache
    300g good quality chocolate (for this I used a mixture of 200g of 70% cocoa and 100g of 40%)
    300g double cream
    100g of softened unsalted butter, cubed

  • Cut the chocolate into small chunks and place in a bowl.

  • Bring the cream to the boil.

  • Pour half of the boiling cream over the chocolate and whisk the mixture together.

  • Pour in the other half and whisk again.

  • Add the cubes of butter, little by little and fold them into until the ingredients have melted together and the mixture is smooth and shiny.

    Step 5: Assemble the tart

  • Pour a thin layer (2-3 ml deep) of ganache over the pastry.

  • Place the chocolate meringue layer over that.

  • Pour the rest of the ganache on top.

  • Leave to rest for 30mins at room temperature.

  • Decorate with shavings of chocolate.

    What you will now have is a chocolate tart that defies belief.
    The pastry is crisp, chocolatey and sweet.
    The dense and smooth richness of the ganache is broken by the crunch of the meringue layer.
    I can't imagine a more perfect mouthful.

    I hope it makes up for my nagging...
  • Wednesday, April 6, 2011

    A simple fish supper brings with it a taste of summer

    The past few weeks have been volatilte ones here in the southwest of Ireland. There have been days of bright (and warm) sunshine followed by days of heavy rain, dense fog and piercingly cold winds.

    Can you imagine a day like this:

    Being followed by a day like this?

    Such is the unpredictability of spring time in Ireland.

    Yesterday, with rain rattling at the windows, I decided it was time for a taste of summer. I associate fresh fish with long summer evenings and so I decided it was time to cook my first dish from Madame Prunier's Fish Cookery Book. Having written about Madame Prunier in my previous blog post, I had been waiting for an opportunity to put her recipes to the test.

    My first task was to purchase some fish. It may surprise some of you but before our local fish shop opened in Dingle a few years ago, it was hard to find fresh fish in the town. Although it is a fishing port, most of the best quality fish used to be immediately shipped abroad. Even today, we locals hardly catch a glimpse of it before it's packed in ice and transported to Europe.

    Fortunately, we now have Kane's Fish Shop to intercept some of that fish for us. It's been a great addition to the town since it opened and it means that I can now have fresh fish for supper whenever I feel like it - just as I did last night.

    Here's David with some of his fresh fish:

    I had chosen a simple recipe from the hundreds in Madame Prunier's repertoire: whiting cooked in shallots, parsley and white wine.

    Because this is such a simple dish, it's vital that you have the freshest and best quality ingredients. This is particularly true of the fish. I wouldn't even bother making this dish if you are at all unsure of your whiting being as fresh as can be.

    What I realised when cooking from Madame Prunier's book is that her recipes require a certain amount of confidence from cooks.
    For example, here's her recipe for my whiting:

    Butter a dish and sprinkle it with chopped shallots and parsley. Lay the fish on this and season them with salt and pepper. Moisten with white wine and cook in the oven with frequent bastings. Dish the whiting and reduce the cooking liquor by half, thickening it with butter. Pour it over the fish and eat.
    There are no measurements given. No temperatures or cooking times. In order to use this cookbook, you need to have a little bit of experience with cooking fish and/or you need to trust your judgement.

    Relying on what experience and judgement I have, here is what I did.

  • I preheated my oven to 180 degrees Celsius/350 F/Gas Mark 4.

  • I chopped three small shallots and a handful of parsley and sprinkled them on a dish.

  • I placed two fillets of whiting on top and seasoned them with salt and pepper.

  • I then poured about 100ml of wine over the fish.

  • Into the oven it went for about ten minutes, during which time I basted the fish fillets twice.

  • I plated the fish and transferred the juices to a pan on a high heat. I reduced them by half and then whisked in two tablespoons of butter.

  • I poured the sauce over the fish and served with mashed potato and carrots.

    This was a simple dish to make and it was full of simple flavours. The shallots and parsley were fresh while the butter lent it a touch of richness. It's ideal for a midweek supper and for those of you who, like me, might want a hint of the summer that is to come.