Weekend Food with Darina Allen: Our food can and should be our medicine

Ted Dinan, Professor of Psychiatry at UCC and I shared a platform at the Science Foundation of Ireland and IIBN event at the River Lee Hotel recently.

Professor Dinan spoke about the groundbreaking research he and his colleagues in UCC have done on the link between our physical and mental health and our gut biome.

Given the conclusions of this research project and the indisputable link between the health of our gut biome and several autoimmune diseases including depression, there were many questions from the floor on how to enhance our gut flora.

Was there not a quick fix, a magic pill or supplement to fast track a solution? Professor Dinan stressed that very few of the nutritional and health claims on supplements could actually be substantiated.

Our food can and should be our medicine — we need a biodiverse diet to feed the approximately1.5 kilos of beneficial bacteria in our gut (equivalent to the weight of our brain).

Having observed students from all over the world responding positively to a diet of fresh naturally produced seasonal food over more than four decades, Ted’s scientific research confirms my ‘gut feeling’ – pardon the pun.

It’s clear, we need to ditch fake food and eat lots of real food, not ‘edible food like substances’.

There are several hugely beneficial foods that we can consume to enhance our gut flora, but we both agree that Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes in the USA), top the list. They have the highest inulin content of any vegetable, which promotes beneficial bacteria in the gut biome. By coincidence, Jerusalem artichokes are coming into season right now and will continue to be available until late February or early March.

The freshly dug Jerusalem artichokes I brought with me to show the audience were eagerly snapped up. Many people had never heard of them before and really wanted to know how to cook them. I explained that they are a prolific winter root vegetable, super easy to grow. In fact given half the chance they spread like crazy. Where you plant just one tuber in Spring, there will be at least ten for you to harvest next year.

Meanwhile seek them out at Farmers Markets from now on. They look like knobbly potatoes but when they are freshly dug there is no need to peel. Jerusalem artichokes are nutty, sweet and crunchy and are also an excellent source of iron.

They are super versatile and can be cooked in a myriad of ways just like potatoes and parsnips, they make delicious winter soups and gorgeous gratins. Add them to stews, or sliver them to cook as artichoke crisps. They roast deliciously whole or in slices and are hugely appealing added to salads. I love them gently stewed or tucked around a casserole roast chicken or pheasant so they absorb all the delicious juices.

Despite what the name implies, they are not in any way related to the globe artichoke although the flavour resembles the fleshy heart.

Jerusalem artichokes are actually from the sunflower family, the name may well have been derived from the Italian word ‘girasole’. Our children love them, their knobbly appearance provides lots of fun identifying little monsters.

Some modern varieties are less knobbly and thus easier to peel but in my experience have an inferior flavour. By the way, the cheery yellow flowers are edible too.

Jerusalem Artichokes, like Globe Artichoke hearts, oxidise within minutes if exposed to the air, so they need to be dropped into a bowl or acidulated water as soon as they are peeled.

Venison and Jerusalem Artichoke Stew

Shoulder of lamb also works excellently in this recipe.

Serves 6

900g (2lbs) potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½ inch cubes

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

250g (9oz) onions, sliced or roughly chopped

250g (9oz) leeks, sliced

3 cloves garlic

500g (18oz) artichokes, peeled and sliced crossways into 1cm (1/2 inch)

500g (18oz) carrots, peeled and sliced crossways into 1cm (1/2 inch)

1 teaspoon salt

900g (2lbs) venison or lamb shoulder, cut into 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes

1.5 litres (2½ pints) venison, lamb or chicken stock

1 sprig of thyme

Gremolata

4 tablespoons preferably flat parsley, chopped

1 generous teaspoon grated or finely chopped lemon zest

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Season 900g (2lbs) potato cubes well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the onion and crushed garlic, toss and add the carrots and Jerusalem artichokes.

Stir and cook for 4-5 minutes until just beginning to colour at the edges. Transfer to a casserole. Add the venison or lamb and toss in batches over a high heat.

Add to the casserole with the stock and the sprigs of thyme and rosemary. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the diced potatoes, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and continue to cook for 15-30 minutes or until the meat and vegetables are cooked (lamb cooks faster than venison). Remove the thyme and parsley.

Taste and correct the seasoning and sprinkle with gremolata or just chopped parsley.

Gremolata

Gremolata is a fresh tasting mix of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest.

We use it to sprinkle over roast or braised meats, pastas or anything pan-grilled — delicious.

To make the Gremolata:

Mix all the ingredients in a small bowl and use soon.

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Chorizo Crumbs and Artichoke Crisps

Serves 8-10

50g (2oz) butter

560g (1¼ lb) onions, peeled and chopped

1.15kg (2½ lbs) Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed, peeled and chopped,

salt and freshly ground pepper

1.1L (2 pints) light chicken stock

600ml (1 pint) creamy milk approx.

Chorizo Crumbs — Makes 175g (6oz)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

125g (4½oz) chorizo, peeled and cut into ¼inch dice

100g (3½oz) coarse breadcrumbs

Artichoke Crisps — Serves 6 - 8

3-4 Jerusalem artichokes,

sunflower or arachide oil

salt

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onions and artichokes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, cover and sweat gently for 10 minutes approx.

Add the stock and cook until the vegetables are soft. Liquidise and return to the heat. Thin to the required flavour and consistency with creamy milk, and adjust the seasoning. Serve in soup bowls or in a soup tureen.

Garnish with Chorizo Crumbs and Artichoke Crisps. Note: This soup may need more stock depending on the thickness required.

To make the Chorizo Crumbs

Put the oil into a cool pan, add the diced chorizo.

Toss on a low heat until the oil starts to run and the chorizo begins to crisp. Careful, it’s easy to burn the chorizo, drain through a metal sieve, save the oil and return to the pan.

Increase the heat, add coarse breadcrumbs and toss in the chorizo oil until crisp and golden. Drain and add to the chorizo.

To make the Artichoke Crisps

Heat good quality oil in a deep fryer to 150C. Scrub the Jerusalem artichokes well, slice in wafer-thin rounds.

Drop a few at a time into the hot oil, they colour and crisp up very quickly.

Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Roast Jerusalem Artichokes (Slices)

This is a totally brilliant way to cook Jerusalem artichokes, great as a vegetable accompaniment of course, but also super delicious in warm salads or starters.

Serves 4 to 6

450g (1 lb) Jerusalem artichokes, well scrubbed.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

A few rosemary or thyme sprigs, optional

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7.

Slice the well scrubbed artichokes into 7mm (1/3 inch) rounds. Toss the Jerusalem artichokes with the extra virgin olive oil. Season well with salt.

Arrange in a single layer on silicone paper on a roasting tin. Roast for 10 minutes or until golden on one side then flip over and cook on the other side.

Test with the tip of a knife — they should be tender. One could sprinkle with a little thyme or rosemary but they are perfectly delicious without any further embellishment. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve.

Casserole Roast Pheasant with Jerusalem Artichokes

Pheasant adores Jerusalem artichokes; most of the large estates plant a patch specially as a treat for them.

It seemed logical to cook them together, and indeed it turns out to be a very good marriage of flavours. Casserole roasting, the cooking method used here is a particularly good way to cook pheasant especially if it’s not in the first flush of youth.

Chicken or guinea fowl may also be cooked in this manner.

1 plump pheasant

25g (1oz) butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

900g (2lb) Jerusalem artichokes

Garnish

chopped parsley or flat parsley sprigs

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Smear a little butter on the breast of the pheasant and brown it in the casserole over a gentle heat. Meanwhile, peel and slice the artichokes into 1cm/½ inch pieces, remove the pheasant. Add a little butter to the casserole, toss the Jerusalem artichoke slices in the butter. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle maybe a tablespoon of water over the top.

Then replace the pheasant, tucking it right down into the sliced artichokes so they come up around the sides of the pheasant. Cover with a butter wrapper and the lid of the saucepan.

Cook for a further 1-1¼ hours.

Remove the pheasant as soon as it is cooked, strain and de-grease the cooking liquid if there is need but usually there’s virtually no fat on it. The juices of the pheasant will have flavoured the artichokes deliciously.

Arrange the artichokes on a hot serving dish, carve the pheasant into 4 portions and arrange on top.

The artichokes always break up a little — that is their nature. Spoon some juices over the pheasant and artichokes and serve scattered with chopped parsley or flat parsley sprigs.

Hot Tips

The Wooded Pig near Tara in Co Meath: Eoin Bird originally from Tara did several years of research before he launched his range of fermented salami, made from ethically raised pigs.

I came across him again recently at Savour Kilkenny, and loved the fennel salami, coppa, chorizo and black pepper salami. They breed rare breed pigs that are slower to grow and develop a deeper flavour.

www.thewoodedpig.ie

Aran Island Goat Cheese: Gabriel Faherty is a fisherman turned cheesemaker who owns a herd of Nubian goats on Inís Mór.

He makes a variety of cheese from a soft creamy spreadable type to a Gouda, speckled with Dillisk.

I particularly loved a crumbly summer cheese with flavours redolent of the local pastures.

Also interesting to know that they are part of the Économusée concept so visitors can visit the farm to hear the story and see the process.

www.economusee.eu

Sheridans have come to Cork: Although we’re not exactly short of brilliant food producers and markets in the Cork area it’s great to see Sheridans, the iconic cheese purveyors from Dublin’s Anne Street, Galway and Pottlereagh in Co Meath coming south.

Check out their newest venture at Dunnes Stores, Bishopstown and swing by James Whelan’s Butcher shop and Pat O’Connell’s fish stall for delicious fresh fish and banter – how exciting is that.


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