Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Competing with caterpillars: my first time making nettle soup

You know that feeling you get when you put your hands in the pockets of a coat you haven't worn in ages and discover money - preferably of the larger denomination variety? Well, that's the feeling I get when I succeed in foraging for food. A feeling that I'm one up on the world and have somehow managed to get something for nothing.

I'm far from being an expert forager. To date, I've only picked wild garlic to make butters and pestos (see here for more). That's why I decided to expand my range further today by foraging for nettles.

There are many things I didn't know about nettles. I didn't know how nutritious they are. They contain vitamins A and C as well as iron, calcium and magnesium. There are people who swear by their medicinal benefits, including a friend of my mother's who used to have recurring kidney problems until she started to drink nettle tea every morning.

Nor did I realise that nettles would bring me into direct competition with my boyfriend's latest hobby - caterpillars.

Yup, you read that correctly. His latest hobby is caterpillars.
He spent his childhood chasing butterflies and moths and has retained a passion for them to this day. A few weeks ago, he decided to cultivate this passion by trying to reintroduce native species to our corner of southwest Ireland. He orders baby caterpillars online. They arrive in boxes and he feeds and looks after them until they emerge into the butterflies and moths they are destined to become. This requires feeding them the foods they would naturally eat in the wild and, in most cases, this means nettles. When he saw me heading for the nettle patch at the bottom of our garden, I was warned not to take too much. "Those nettles belong to the caterpillars," I was told.

Luckily, there were lots of nettles and I didn't need that many to make my very first nutritious, and surprisingly delicious, nettle soup.

Here's what you need to know about picking nettles:
You don't want to get stung so wear gloves and use scissors to protect yourself.
You should only pick the tops of young, small nettle plants as the older ones become bitter with age.
Be sure to wash them thoroughly before cooking to remove all dirt and insects. Otherwise, you may find yourself eating some of my boyfriend's beloved caterpillars! (Be careful while washing them too as the sting isn't entirely removed from the leaves until they are cooked.)

Here's how I made my soup:
Ingredients: 150g young nettles
50g butter
1 medium sized onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery stick, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
2 medium potatoes, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock (I used Marigold vegetable bouillon in boiling water)
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

  • Go through the nettles, discarding any really tough stalks.

  • Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat and sweat the onion, carrot and celery until soft but not coloured.

  • Add the crushed garlic and potatoes and cook for another minute or so.

  • Add the stock and simmer for ten minutes to cook the potatoes.

  • Add the nettles, pushing them down into the liquid.

  • Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until the nettles are really tender.

  • Season with salt and pepper.

  • Allow to cool and then pureé in a blender.

  • Pour back into the saucepan and add some freshly grated nutmeg. It's hard to say how much of this you will need as it really is a question of taste but I used slightly less than half a teaspoon.

  • You could serve this with a swirl of cream and some chopped chives. But I wanted my first experience of nettle soup to be simple and unadulterated.

    It tasted just as I hoped it would: fresh, healthy and wholesome. I'm definitely going to make it again and I'm also planning to try nettle risotto. If I get to our nettle patch before my boyfriend and his caterpillars do, that is!
  • Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Nigel Slater's 'Toast' and memories of my mother being mortified by her children

    A drizzly Saturday morning spent poking through odds and ends at a car boot sale resulted in this haul:

    I was excited to read them all but Nigel Slater’s food memoir ‘Toast’ was top of my list. I've been meaning to read it for absolutely ages.

    It turns out to be a surprising book. It tells the tale of a boy born with a passion for food to parents who care little about it. Nigel was born 15 years after his older brothers. His mother developed asthma while pregnant with him and was a sickly – though loving – presence in his childhood. His father was well intentioned but had a terrifying temper. Nigel craved their love and attention and this craving is represented in his hunger for food.

    His mother – “a peas and chops sort of cook” – cooked plain food badly. She burnt the toast every morning. Her rice pudding was always too milky. And the icing on her Christmas cake was once so hard his father set about it with a hammer and chisel.

    She was baffled by her son who would spend hours fantasising about the dishes described in a cookbook he found hidden at the back of the bookcase: dishes such as gammon steak with pineapple and cherries, steak and kidney pudding and stuffed eggs.

    The highlight of Nigel’s week was visiting Percy Salt’s grocers with his mother. Its hams, kippers, sugared almonds and fresh pineapples delighted Nigel. He loved it so much he would often play at being a grocer and selling cheese to his imaginary customers.

    Nigel’s warmest memories are those that involve him making food with his mother: the sound of raw cake mixture plopping into the cake tin, rubbing butter into pastry for jam tarts and flipping pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before sprinkling them with granulated sugar and Jif lemon juice.

    Other memories are bittersweet. Nigel wrote a school essay in which he described marshmallows as the nearest food to a kiss. When Nigel’s mother dies, his father remembers this and knowing that Nigel will miss his mother’s bedtime kisses most of all, leaves marshmallows on his son’s bedside table every night for two years. There are funny moments too. 1960s Britain was a different world when it comes to food and Nigel captures this perfectly. He talks about parents’ pride in possessing an item as glamorous as a grapefruit knife and the first time they ate grilled grapefruits – a fruit nobody they knew had ever eaten.

    And then there’s the first time they cook spaghetti bolognaise. They panic as the strands of spaghetti escape through the holes of the colander and they decide that the parmesan cheese must be off because it “smells like sick”. So traumatised are they by the entire incident that they never speak of it again.

    Food was also defined by class. Crisps, baked beans, chips, sandwich spread, ketchup, bubblegum and HP sauce are among the items that never feature on the Slater table.
    But Artic Rolls – those tubes of vanilla ice cream covered in jam and sponge – were considered the ultimate in food as was a grapefruit spiked with cocktail sticks bearing cubes and cheese and pineapple.

    Nigel’s life changes after his mother dies and so does what he and his father eat. His father never ate his favourite foods – tripe and onions, liver and bacon, cauliflower cheese – again.
    In fact, the pair hardly eat at all until Mrs Potter enters their lives.

    Mrs Potter becomes their cleaner and eventually Nigel’s stepmother. She is a fabulous cook and brings delights such as homemade parsley sauce, Victoria sponge cakes and pork chops with apple rings into their lives.
    However, she is possessive of her culinary skills and reluctant to share them with budding chef Nigel. When he shows prowess at making her Victoria sponge, she never shows him how to make anything again.
    Not even her lemon meringue, which attains the status of legend in this book. Nigel describes it as having a “warm, painfully sharp lemon filling, airy pastry and a billowing hat of thick, teeth-judderingly sweet meringue.”

    There is so much to savour in this book besides the fabulous descriptions of food. Nigel’s classes in home economics, his first jobs in catering, his exploration of his sexuality; these tales are interwoven with stories of the relationships that shaped him and the food that made him into the cook he is today.

    While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think back to the food memories that have shaped my own life.

    The scrambled eggs my mother would make when I was sick as a child: hot buttered toast made a little soggy by the slightly milky scrambled eggs on top. To this day, this is all I want to eat whenever I’m ill and nobody can ever make it taste the same.

    The dish of brown rice with umeboshi plum and tahini sauce my boyfriend made to impress me early in our relationship: I was a strict vegetarian then and I loved its mix of sharp and smooth flavours. However, I wasn’t particularly enamoured when he told me he had learned how to make it when he took a macrobiotic cookery course to impress a previous girlfriend. Still, I suppose the dish counts as a success for him: it helped him score on at least two occasions!

    Meringue and mortifying my mother: the stations are still a popular tradition in West Kerry. The local parish priest comes to your home and holds mass there, blessing your house and all who live in it.
    After the mass, there is usually a lunch of sandwiches, salads, roast meats, poached fish, cakes and such. The priest and all of the neighbours are invited.

    I was about six years old when a relative of ours invited my parents, my two younger sisters and I to her stations.
    The custom was that everyone invited to stations would bring along a contribution: usually a cake of some sort. My mother made a cake and when we arrived at the stations, I was told to leave it in the room where the other cakes were being stored until after the mass.

    My jaw dropped when I opened the door to this room. Every single surface was covered with cakes and desserts: fruit cakes, chocolate cakes, meringues, cheesecakes, mousses… You name it and it was there.
    Returning to my sisters, I whispered the wonders to be found in this room. Our overwhelming greed meant that within minutes, we had sneaked away from our parents and into this room.
    Then, we went on the rampage. Mouthfuls of chocolate mousse, spoons of strawberry soufflé, slices of sponge…

    We were beginning to feel a little ill when we heard our mother’s voice calling for us. As the handle began to turn on the door, we started to feel even worse.
    My sister was hastily licking the sticky, sugary crumbs of a cream-filled meringue from her lips when my mother’s face appeared, along with the shocked face of the woman hosting the stations.
    My mother was never more embarrassed. We had never before been in such trouble. But it was worth it for those cakes.

    One last memory: my father is a farmer and when I was growing up, it was common for local farmers to come together and help each other making hay, silage and harvesting crops. Instead of spending money that was scarce hiring extra farmhands or machinery, they shared energy and effort in lending each other a hand.

    The kitchen of our house would be frantic on these days. Huge vats of stew bubbled on the range, along with pots of potatoes, while loaves of bread baked in the oven. I always thought my mother had made far too much food but when the men came in from the fields – big and strong and sweaty – they would drink bottles of Guinness (those old-fashioned black glass bottles that were always kept in the cupboard under the kitchen sink) and would finish off the bowls of stew, heaps of potatoes and mounds of bread and butter in record time.

    These are the memories that came to me as I was reading this book. I’d love to hear yours. What were the flavours of your childhood? What are the culinary highlights and lowlights of your life to date?

    Please do share. And if, like me, you have yet to read Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’, you should do so soon. It’s a treat.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    Foodie Heroes: Take Two

    I've been busy. So busy that I've been neglecting my blog. But not so busy that I haven't been eating, thinking about eating and thinking about the wonderful people who produce the food that I love to eat.

    On a recent visit to Limerick, I met Peter Ward, a passionate man who - along with his wife Mary - has run one of the country's most fabulous food shops for the past 30 years. I've been visiting this shop, which also has a small café area, as a pitstop on the way to Dublin for years but have only recently visited their new outlet in Limerick City's Milk Market.
    It's just as wonderful as the shop in Nenagh and I thought it was time to tell you all about it and all about Peter.

    Peter is fanatical about food and practically evangelical about the quality of the food we produce here in Ireland.
    "The excellence of Irish food is our oldest commodity," he says. "Think of our milk products, our black puddings, our seafood, even the oatmeal we've been producing for more than 2,000 years. All of these compare with the very best in the world."

    This man should know what he is talking about given that he has devoted his life to food. Growing up in Navan, he lived in a house he describes as "the type of house where the food on the table was more important than the type of car in the drive".
    His father loved food. "He was my original food hero," says Peter. "He travelled the country selling cattle and always brought food home from wherever he had been: beef, cheese, fish or black pudding."

    After leaving school , Peter got a job with the Dunnes Stores supermarket chain. They sent him to Tipperary, where he met Mary - the woman he was to marry - at a local dance.
    They shared a love of good food and decided to set up a speciality food store in Mary's home town of Nenagh. It opened in 1982 and in the years since then, it has become a haven for anyone with an interest in food.

    Homemade salad dressings, pestos, the finest coffee beans, olives, farmhouse cheeses, wines; the list of foods you'll find here is long and drool inducing. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all of the highest possible quality.
    Or as Peter puts it: "we sell the food we like ourselves, food we'd serve our visitors on a Sunday".

    When they first opened their shop, their stock consisted of Mary's jams and the finest produce to be found at local agricultural shows and country markets. "I'd visit every show and market and see who had won what prizes," says Peter. "Then I'd ring them up and ask them if they could supply the shop. That's how we developed our contacts with people."

    Their focus was always on organic, natural food. "We had duck eggs, brown soda bread and jam in our window that first day," remembers Peter. "They could be our family crest because they are still the basis of what we do today."

    In the 30 years since then, Peter and Mary have added more and more produce to their shelves, including some of the finest artisanal produce from all over Europe. They also make and serve the best of Irish food in their café. Free-range chicken and leek gratin with colcannon, anyone?

    "For us, it's all about where the food comes from," explains Peter. "Who makes it and how do they make it? These are the important questions."

    This attention to quality explains why Country Choice has become a mecca for foodies in Tipperary and now in Limerick.

    It's an attitude that Peter would like to see in all of Ireland's cafés, restaurants and eateries. In fact, he thinks it might be part of the solution to our current economic problems.
    "Nobody is going to drop out of the skies into the rural parishes of Ireland," he says. "We need to look to our own and to what we are good at. We are good at tourism and food. Combine the two and work from there."
    He believes that every tourist coming to Ireland should look forward to tasting Irish lamb, beef, butter, bread and milk. "And we should deliver on that promise," he continues. "It's treasonable to give our valuable guests cheap, foreign, mass-produced food."

    You certainly won't find this at Country Choice in Nenagh. Nor will you find it in Limerick's Milk Market. Instead you will find the very best Irish food and in Peter, you will find a man enthusiastic to show you just how good Irish food can be.