Darina Allen: Food to fill the 'hungry gap' before summer

The Hungry Gap is the expression that is used to describe the six to eight weeks between the end of the winter produce and the beginning of the summer crops. 

Brussel sprouts, leeks, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes are all coming to the end of their season, not that you’d know if all your shopping is done in your local supermarket which manages to source fruit and vegetables all year round from one corner of the world or another.

However years ago, these few weeks were very lean ones, hence the importance of a wonderful perennial kale called hungry gap, cottiers kale or cut and come. The latter was so called as the more you cut this tender green the more it grew. As it was propagated from slips, cottiers kale was passed from one cottage garden to another and it filled the ‘hungry gap’ before the summer greens and new potatoes were ready to eat.

All of the above is by way of introduction to the main subject of this column, the Spring Pop Up dinner, organised by the 12-Week Certificate Course students to raise funds for the Slow Food Educational Project. Every term they plot and plan to create a special menu and vibe to celebrate their chosen theme. This year it was ‘Stepping into Spring — eating between the seasons’. The students wanted to highlight the hungry gap between the seasons when fresh produce can be scarce. They foraged around the farm and gardens for the end of the last season’s crops, wild foods and new shoots. They incorporated local lamb and the milk and cream from our small herd of Jersey cows. Students were also keen to encourage the guests to think about what they could grow themselves as the new season begins. Planning started at the end of January.

Phoebe, Shauna and Colm volunteered to be the event planners and together with their fellow students, they formed a creative team and divided themselves into small groups with responsibility for bread, canapes, starters, main course, desserts and petit four and diningroom service.

The creative team planned the décor to enhance the Garden Café at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. They spent several nights making pretty pom pom flowers from tissue paper to hang from the rafters. The menu was decided, Harry did the graphics and then they set out to harvest and forage. Where you and I might see weeds, they imagined a delicious dinner.

Shauna and Phoebe led a team of helpers to sow pea shoots and now five weeks later, they were ready to harvest. Fresh pollock from Ballycotton was cured with salt, sugar and dill while other students dug some fresh horseradish roots to grate into a bowl of rich Jersey cream to accompany the gravlax. The starter was also made from scratch, homemade yoghurt was dripped for labneh then cold smoked.

Beetroot was dug out of the winter clamp and cooked two ways for the roasted and puréed beets to complete the starter plate of roast beetroot and labneh with sourdough bread. For the next course guests were given a shot of flavoursome organic chicken broth sprinkled with foraged with wild garlic flowers.

The lamb from local butcher Frank Murphy was served three ways — crispy lamb cutlet, lamb breast stuffed with pearl barley and a mini lamb pie. Other students were roasting new season rhubarb they has just pulled from the garden. Kate folded chopped stem ginger into the homemade ice cream. Meanwhile, another team was creating a sylvan setting in the Garden Room to hide petit fours so the guests could forage among the twigs and chocolate soil for white chocolate and orange truffles. They also had egg shells and tiny pots for guests to sow a seed to take home.


Stuffed Breast of Lamb with Salsa Verde

Serves 8-10

Two breasts of lamb, fat and bones removed

For stuffing

100g pearl barley

50g dried apricot, chopped

One-and-a-half tablespoons brandy

One-and-a-half large garlic cloves, crushed

1 lemon, zested and juiced

3 tablespoons pistachio, chopped

Two shallots, chopped finely

15g of curly or flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, wild garlic and mint, chopped

For braising

Two medium onions, chopped

One large carrot, chopped

One stalk celery, chopped

six bay leaves

1 x 400g tin tomatoes, chopped and sieved

4 cloves garlic

2 sprigs rosemary

250ml chicken stock

40ml white wine


black pepper

String a large oval casserole dish Wash the pearl barley, put into a saucepan, cover with a little cold water and cook until tender, about 30 minutes, drain and cool. (Best cooked the day before.) Put into a bowl, add the apricots, brandy, garlic, lemon zest and juice, pistachio nuts, shallots and herbs. Season, taste and correct the seasoning.

Lay the well-trimmed lamb breast on a chopping board to form a rough rectangle. Spread the stuffing evenly over the lamb leaving 2.5cm border all the way around. Fold in the ends and then carefully ‘roll into a Swiss roll’. Tie individually with cotton string. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Render some crispy lamb fat in a wide sauté pan or heavy roasting tin over a low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove the bits of lamb fat and discard (birds love it). Brown the meat in the rendered fat (alternatively you can use extra virgin olive oil) on all sides and remove to a plate. Add the chopped vegetables, garlic, bay and rosemary. Toss and cook for 4 or 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes (save the juice), season with salt, pepper and sugar and cook for a further 5 minutes or more. Return the lamb to the casserole. Add wine and stock to come two thirds of the way up the meat.

Bring to a lively simmer on the top of the stove.

Cover and transfer into the heated oven at 250°C/Gas Mark 10 for 10 minutes.

Reduce the heat to 160°C/Gas Mark 2-3 and cook until completely tender –two-and-a-half to three hours. Allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve in slices with potato gratin and salsa verde.

Pollock Gravadlax with Horseradish Cream on Croutini

This was a canape — a delicious combination.

People in Nordic countries use this basic pickling technique with several types of fish and create many exciting variations. Gravadlax is flavoured with beetroot, black peppers, mustard, even vodka. Fresh dill is essential.

Serves 12–16 as a starter

700g tail piece of fresh pollock

1 heaped tablespoon sea salt

1 heaped tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped

Horseradish Cream

One-a-half tablespoons grated horseradish

2 teaspoons wine vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Quarter teaspoon mustard

Quarter teaspoon salt

pinch of freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

225ml (8fl oz) softly whipped cream


wood sorrel, wild garlic flowers and/or dill sprigs

Fillet the pollock and remove all the bones with a tweezers. Mix the salt, sugar, pepper and dill together in a bowl.

Place the fish on a piece of clingfilm and scatter the mixture over the surface of the fish. Wrap the pollock tightly with the clingfilm and refrigerate for a minimum of 24 hours.

Next make the croutini.

Heat the oven to 150°C/Gas Mark 2.

Slice stale-ish baguette diagonally into the thinnest slices possible. Dry in a low oven until crisp and dry, about 15-20 minutes.

Store in an air-tight tin box if necessary.

Next make the horseradish cream. Scrub the horseradish root well, peel and grate on a ‘slivery grater’. Put the grated horseradish into a bowl with the vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar.

Fold in the softly whipped cream but do not overmix or the sauce will curdle. There will be more than enough for this recipe, but save the rest for another dish. It keeps for 2-3 days: cover so that it doesn’t pick up flavours in the fridge.

To serve, wipe most of the dill mixture off the pollock and slice thinly.

Arrange a couple of slices of gravadlax on top of each croutini and add a blob of horseradish cream on top.

Garnish with wood sorrel, wild garlic flowers and/or dill sprigs.

Rory O’Connell’s Caramel and Almond Flats

Makes about 60 biscuits

250g (9oz) plain flour

Quarter teaspoon bread soda/ bicarbonate of soda

100g butter

Half teaspoon ground cinnamon

5 tablespoons water

300g soft, medium dark soft brown sugar

110g flaked almonds, unskinned if possible

Sieve the flour and bread soda into a bowl. Melt the butter, cinnamon and water on a low heat until just melted. Do not allow to boil. Remove from the heat and add the sugar. Stir with the almonds into the flour mixture. Place the dough on a piece of strong plastic (not clingfilm) or parchment paper. Form this mixture into a neat rectangular slab, 23cm wide, 2.5cm thick, and 9cm long.

I use the sides of a shallow baking tray to help me to achieve neat and straight edges. Freeze until set. Slice into about 3mm thick slices and place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, allowing a little room between the raw biscuits for expansion during the cooking. Bake for 10 minutes at 180°C/Gas Mark 4 or until golden brown. Slide the biscuits still on the parchment paper on to a wire rack to cool. Store in an airtight box or tin.

Stem Ginger Ice-Cream with Roast Rhubarb and Chocolate Soil

Really good cream makes really good ice-cream. This recipe is made on an egg-mousse base with softly whipped cream. It produces a deliciously rich ice-cream with a smooth texture that does not need to be further whisked during the freezing period. This ice-cream should not be served frozen hard; remove it from the freezer at least 10 minutes before serving. You can add other flavourings to the basic recipe. The students added stem ginger and drizzled it with some of the syrup. The end result was delicious.

Serves 12–16

4 organic egg yolks

100g sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or seeds from a third of a vanilla pod

1.2 litres softly whipped cream (measured after it is whipped)

6 pieces of stem ginger, finely chopped plus 2 tablespoons syrup from the jar

Put the egg yolks into a bowl and whisk until light and fluffy (keep the whites for meringues). Combine the sugar with 200ml of water in a small heavy-based saucepan. Stir over heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove the spoon and boil the syrup until it reaches the ‘thread’ stage, about 106C to 113C: it will look thick and syrupy, and when a metal spoon is dipped in the last drops of syrup, will form thin threads.

Pour this boiling syrup in a steady stream onto the egg yolks, whisking all the time by hand. (If you are whisking the mousse in a food mixer, remove the bowl and whisk the boiling syrup in by hand; otherwise it will solidify on the sides of the bowl.) Add the vanilla extract or vanilla seeds and continue to whisk the mixture until it becomes a thick, creamy white mousse. Fold the softly whipped cream into the mousse, pour into a bowl, cover and freeze.

After one hour, fold in the chopped stem ginger and syrup. Cover and return to the freezer and chill until firm.

The students served it with roast rhubarb and caramel and almond flats.

Ottolenghi’s Chocolate Soil

45g plain flour

Half teaspoon cornflour

40g caster sugar

30g cocoa powder

40g unsalted butter

melted coarse sea salt.

Heat the oven to 160°C/Gas Mark 3.

Put the flour, cornflour, sugar, cocoa powder and half tsp of salt. Mix, then slowly pour in the melted butter. Using first a wooden spoon and then the tips of your fingers, mix until it resembles cookie crumble texture, then spread out on a parchment lined tray.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, stirring and checking after 5 minutes until cookie crumble like. Remove and allow to cool. Break up once it has cooled and set.

Hot tips

Shine a light The lighthouse tours at Ballycotton Island have resumed again after the winter. Join Jerry for a guided tour and hear about the life of the fishermen and the bounty of fish and shellfish in the seas around Ballycotton. Daily tours from 10am take 90 minutes. Visit Ballycotton Island summit and explore the lighthouse. www.ballycottonislandlighthousetours.com or phone 021 464 6875.

Herb cocktail

Ireland’s First Rooftop Cocktail Herb Bed at the Granville Hotel in Waterford is bursting with a beautiful assortment of herbs like chocolate mint, pineapple sage, lemon verbena, black peppermint together with the classics thyme, sage and rosemary. Herbs are infused with fruits and botanicals to create special cocktails. www.granville-hotel.ie. Tel: 051 305 555

East Cork Slow Food event

Brian McDaid from the Irish Snail Farm in Carlow will give a fascinating talk about his snail farm at the Ballymaloe Cookery School on May 4 at 7pm. Telephone: 021 464 6785 www.slowfoodeastcork@gmail.com

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