Darina Allen's guide to making meals from foraged food

Freshly foraged berries and nuts are untampered with and are rich in vitamins and minerals
Darina Allen's guide to making meals from foraged food

Meadowsweet Ice-Cream - Darina's foraging treat

The Covid-19 experience has been quite the wake-up call for many of us, not just for the obvious reasons but also because many highly achieving, super-efficient people have found themselves floundering when they are out of their usual medium having to cope with the day-to-day reality of feeding the family, doing the laundry, stimulating and home-schooling the kids and planning menus, not to speak of keeping the peace during these challenging times. 

Learning a language or how to play a musical instrument or delving deep into an unfamiliar subject has been deliciously distracting – yoga and exercise do it for some, a new hobby, maybe gardening, embroidery or China restoration.

Being able to get out for walks in the countryside has been a life-saver for those who were cooped up indoors for weeks on end – so I’m going to devote this column to summer foraging to focus on the many delicious edible foods growing around us not just in the wild but also in urban areas. 

There has also been a very positive response to my ‘Wild Food of the Week’ in this weekly column and I get regular questions and photos from readers asking if something is edible. Here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, we’ve been doing foraging courses throughout the seasons for over 20 years and we all continue to add to our knowledge of the abundance of wild and free food all round us.

Apart from the fun and extra dimension foraging adds to a walk collecting food in the wild, there’s an even more important reason to become more knowledgeable about the free bounty of nature. 

A high percentage of foods, berries and nuts in the wild are edible. Unlike many conventional foods they have not been tampered with to produce maximum yields at minimum costs so their full complement of vitamins and minerals and trace elements are intact making them highly nutritious and nutrient dense, up to 20 times, more than in the ultra-processed food on which so many of us depend nowadays.

One can forage all year but there are particularly rich pickings at present both in the countryside and along the seashore! So let’s mention a few. Succulent marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) which is also known as glasswort because it was used in the 14th century by glass makers, grows in marshy areas close to the sea. It’s at the peak of perfection as present, full of Vitamin A, Calcium and iron, nibble raw or blanch it in lightly salted water – its salty crunch is great with fish or indeed with lamb. Sea Purslane which grows close is also abundant at present.

Pretty much everyone recognises dandelions, I regularly urge people to nibble at least one dandelion leaf a day or pop some into a green salad – full of vitamins A, C, and K, calcium and iron.

Gardeners will be cursing chickweed at present, it romps around the garden between the vegetables and in flower beds. Where others ‘see weeds, we see dinner’. Pick the chickweed and add to salads or wilt it like spinach, add to mashed potato, risotto or pasta. It too is highly nutritious. There’s several varieties of wild sorrel about too, buckler leaf sorrel, lambs tongue sorrel and common field sorrel. There’s masses of fluffy meadow sweet along the roadside at present, it will last into early autumn – use to flavour panna cotta, lemonade, custards… Watch out for wild mushrooms too, I found just one ‘field’ mushroom yesterday but they usually pop up in warm muggy weather in fields or even on lawns that haven’t had chemicals added. The flavour is exquisite, don’t waste a scrap. Chop or slice a glut (including the stalks), sauté and freeze to add to a stew or make into a ketchup.

And there’s so much more, if you’re a newbie to foraging, be careful – buy a good beginner's guide to foraging, like Wild Food by Roger Phillips, The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler, Forgotten Skills by Darina Allen, The Seaweed Kitchen by Prannie Rhatigan, Extreme Greens by Sally McKenna, Wild Food Plants of Ireland by Paul Whelan and Tom Curtis. Don’t nibble anything you are unsure of, and introduce foraged food gradually into your menu, better not to binge at first.

These are just a few suggestions. If you’d like to learn more about foraging on land and along the seashore, perhaps you would like to join Pat Browne and myself on Saturday, July 25 for a 1-Day Summer Foraging course. Numbers limited, booking essential – 021 4646785.


Slow Roasted Shoulder of Lamb with Marsh Samphire

The salty tang of marsh samphire is delicious with slow cooked shoulder of lamb. A shoulder of lamb is much trickier to carve than a leg, but the flavour is so wonderfully sweet and juicy, it’s certainly worth the struggle particularly at home where perfect slices of meat are not obligatory. I sometimes put this into the low oven of the Aga in the morning. By 7.30 in the evening, it is beautifully cooked – how easy is that! Marsh samphire is available at the Mahon Point & Midleton Farmers Market and Ballymaloe Cookery School Farm Shop (021 4646785).

Serves 8-10 approximately

  • 1 shoulder of lamb 3.3-3.6kg (7-8lbs) on the bone (neck and shank removed)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Gravy

  • 600ml (1 pint) homemade lamb or chicken stock
  • Marsh Samphire (see recipe).

A few hours ahead if possible, score the skin of the meat in a diamond pattern with a sharp knife. Sprinkle the meat generously with salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzle with olive oil, roast in a low oven 140°C/275°F/Gas Mark 1 in the usual way for 6-7 hours – this gives a delicious juicy succulent texture. Alternatively cook in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

To make the gravy: Spoon the fat off the roasting tin. Add the stock into the remaining cooking juice. Boil for a few minutes, stirring and scraping the pan well, to dissolve the caramelised meat juices (I find a small whisk ideal for this). Allow to thicken with a very little roux if you like.

Taste and add salt and freshly ground pepper if necessary. Strain and serve the gravy separately in a gravy boat.

Carve it into thick slices. Serve with a light gravy to which some samphire is added.

Serve with crusty roast potatoes.

Marsh Samphire

Marsh Samphire is also called soapwort and sea beans in the US.

Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea), grows in intertidal salt marshes.

  • 500g (18oz) samphire
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 50g (2oz) butter

Put the samphire into a saucepan of boiling water, bring back to the boil and simmer for about 2–3 minutes or until tender. Drain off the water (refresh in cold water if serving later), season with freshly ground pepper and toss in butter – no salt because samphire has a natural salty tang.


Forager's Caesar Salad

We use a mixture of foraged leaves for this salad. You are unlikely to have all of these so just add what you can find to a bowl of crisp lettuces and salad leaves.

In early Spring, we add some young beech and ground elder leaves.

The Caesar Salad dressing makes more dressing than you will need for this salad, it will keep in a covered glass jar in your fridge for several weeks.

Serves 8.

A selection of wild leaves such as (about 8 handfuls):

  • dandelion
  • wild garlic
  • wild watercress
  • bittercress
  • chickweed
  • wild sorrel (buckler leaf or lamb’s tongue)
  • salad burnet
  • buckler leaf sorrel
  • pennywort (also known as bread and butter, walkers friend and navelwort)
  • sweet cicely
  • red orach
  • 40 croutons (see recipe)
  • 16 anchovies
  • freshly grated Parmesan

Caesar Dressing

  • 2 egg yolks, preferably free-range
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1 x 50g (2oz) tin anchovies
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • a generous pinch of English mustard powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2-1 tablespoon Worcester sauce
  • 1/2-1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
  • 175ml (6fl oz) sunflower oil
  • 50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
  • 50ml (2fl oz) cold water
  • Allow a handful of wild leaves per person. Wash them carefully in cold water and dry them in a salad spinner. Keep chilled until ready to use.

To make the dressing.

I make it in a food processor but it can also be made very quickly by hand. Drain the anchovies and crush lightly with a fork. Put into a bowl with the egg yolks, add the garlic, lemon juice, mustard powder, salt, Worcester and Tabasco sauce. Whisk all the ingredients together. As you whisk, add the oils slowly at first, then a little faster as the emulsion forms. Finally whisk in the water to make a spreadable consistency. Taste and correct the seasoning: this dressing should be highly flavoured.

Toss the dried leaves in just enough of the dressing to make them glisten. Taste a leaf to check that the seasoning is correct. Sprinkle with a few croutons and anchovies. Grate a dusting of Parmesan over the top.

Serve immediately.

Note

For maximum flavour pick the leaves when young.

Croutons

Sprinkle over salads or serve with soups.

Serves 4

  • 1 slice of slightly stale pan bread, 5mm (1/4 inch) thick
  • sunflower or olive oil

First cut the crusts off the bread, next cut into 5mm (1/4 inch) strips and then into exact cubes (a cube is a six-sided square with equal sides).

Heat the sunflower or olive oil in a frying pan, it should be at least 2cm (3/4 inch) deep and almost smoking.

Add the croutons to the hot oil. Stir once or twice, they will colour almost immediately. Put a tin sieve over a Pyrex or stainless steel bowl. When the croutons are golden brown, pour the oil and croutons into the sieve. Drain the croutons on kitchen paper.

Note: Croutons may be made several hours ahead or even a day. The oil may be flavoured with sprigs of rosemary, thyme or onion.

Croutons may of course be stamped out into various shapes, hearts, stars, clubs, diamonds, etc…

Forager's Soup with Chorizo Lardons

Throughout the seasons one can gather wild greens on a walk in the countryside – foraging soon becomes addictive. Many greens are edible and some are immensely nutritious. Arm yourself with a good well-illustrated guide and be sure to identify carefully and if in doubt – don’t risk it until you are quite confident. Don’t overdo the very bitter herbs like dandelion. Of course the chorizo is optional – use vegetable stock for a vegetarian version.

Serves 6

  • 50g (2oz) butter
  • 110g (4oz) diced onion (7mm/1/3 inch)
  • 150g (5oz) diced potatoes (7mm/1/3 inch)
  • 250g (9oz) chopped greens – alexanders, nettles, wild sorrel, a few young dandelions, wild garlic, borage leaves, wild rocket, ground elder, beech leaves, chickweed, watercress
  • 600ml (1 pint) light chicken stock
  • 600ml (1 pint) creamy milk
  • 75g (3oz) chorizo or lardons of streaky bacon
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • wild garlic flowers if available

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan. When it foams, add potatoes and onions and turn them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the hot stock and boiling milk. Bring back to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the greens and boil with the lid off for 2-3 minutes approx. until the greens are just cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Purée the soup in a liquidiser. Taste and correct seasoning.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Add the diced chorizo or lardons of streaky bacon, cook over a medium heat until the fat starts to run and the bacon is crisp. Drain on kitchen paper. Sprinkle over the soup as you serve. Use the chorizo oil to drizzle over the soup also and scatter a few wild garlic flowers over the top if available.

Meadowsweet Ice-Cream with Fraises du Bois (Wild Strawberries)

Meadowsweet Ice-Cream - Darina's foraging treat
Meadowsweet Ice-Cream - Darina's foraging treat

Makes 2 pints (5 cups)

This is wonderfully rich ice-cream flavoured with the evocative aroma of meadowsweet. Delicious on its own or even more of a treat with some wild strawberries.

  • 60g (2 1/2oz) meadowsweet flowers (weighted off stalk)
  • 350ml (12fl oz) whole milk
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 110g (4oz) sugar
  • 350ml (12fl oz) rich cream, cold

Place the meadowsweet flowers and milk in a heavy saucepan. Heat to just below the boiling point and remove from the heat. Cover and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together. Add warm milk gradually, stirring constantly until all the milk is added. Return to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon (170°-175°C).

Pour the cream into a large bowl. Strain the custard into the cream. Mix well, then chill thoroughly.

Freeze according to the directions of your ice-cream machine.

Serve with a sprinkling of wild strawberries or raspberries if available.

HOT TIPS

The Pop-up Wine Shop at Ballymaloe House has ‘popped back up’ in The Grainstore after months of closure due to Covid-19. Open on Saturday afternoon from 2pm on, there's an enticing selection of special wines carefully chosen for their unique qualities and for value. Natural, biodynamic and organic. Colm McCan will be on hand to give you the back story to each wine – a fascinating experience.

2. Teeling Whiskey Distillery in Dublin has reopened its award winning visitor experience operating with smaller group sizes in line with social distancing guidelines, a family private tour option has been added to the offering for family groups who want an individual private tour and tasting experience. Tickets can be purchased online: https://teelingwhiskey.digitickets.ie/tickets

3. Bravo GIY. Healthcare staff at University Hospital Waterford has become the first group to receive special ‘seed libraries’ as part of a new campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable-growing in the wider community. The donation has been made by Grow It Yourself (GIY) and Energia to kickstart their Get Ireland Growing promotion which will see hundreds of schools, workplaces, clubs and other community groups developing their own seed libraries in the coming months. The concept of ‘seed libraries’ is that people can use some of the seeds, give back others that they don’t need or won’t use and keep exchanging seeds so as many people as possible can get involved. Anyone interested in getting involved can register at getirelandgrowing.ie and winners (chosen by lottery) will be sent their seed libraries in the weeks to come.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up