Weekend food with Darina Allen

NEVER before or since does Valentine’s Day create so much excitement as when I was a boarder at the Dominican Convent in Wicklow in the 1960s.

I can still feel the nail-biting anticipation — would I get a Valentine card? The suspense was excruciating as we waited for the postman to arrive. There was so much at stake, it was incredibly important to one’s image and standing in the class — even one card would ‘do the trick’, but some girls managed to get three or four.

On one memorable occasion a ‘Dublin girl’ got a record six — talk about envy and jealousy. It kept us guessing and giggling for weeks trying to interpret cryptic messages. Was it from a ‘real’ boy or just your parents or a kindly aunt or uncle making sure you didn’t lose face — hope sprang eternal.

Well thank goodness we have outlived and survived all that, but every time I see a rack of Valentines cards it all comes flooding back and the sweetness of getting a card from a genuine secret admirer — bliss!
It’s still just as much fun to celebrate and giggle and little gestures and surprises are as potent as ever.

Don’t fret if you find that your favourite restaurant has booked out well ahead. How about an early or slightly late celebration?

It’s just as much fun and you’ll get an even bigger welcome from the maître d’. Meanwhile, you can plan and cook up a delicious Valentine’s Day dinner; maybe it’ll be a fancy feast with lots of bells and whistles or, if you and your hubby have been jogging along for years, how about their favourite comfort food?

Maybe it’s rice pudding or something bizarre like chocolate carrageen moss.

My ultimate treat would be two dozen native Irish oysters with a glass of smooth Dungarvan or Eight Degrees Stout from Mitchelstown.

I also love guinea fowl for a treat.

They have a mild gamey flavour and are delicious roast — one bird is ample for two hungry people and it marries perfectly with all of the winter vegetables.
If you’d rather a substantial but inexpensive winter warmer try lamb shanks with butternut squash, chickpeas and spinach with couscous.

You’ll need a green salad before this delicious chocolate tart.

It makes more than even two greedy people can eat, but you can always continue celebrating and enjoy it again next day.

Two Dozen Oysters and a pint of Artisan Stout

What could be easier or more delicious than a couple of dozen freshly shucked oysters with Irish soda bread and a pint of creamy Irish artisan stout.

Serves 2

2 to 4 dozen native Irish oysters

Black Rock Dungarvan Stout or Eight Degrees Knockmerldown Porter

Seaweed or sea salt

Brown soda bread

It’s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening oysters.

Wrap the tea towel round your hand, then set the deep shell on it with the wide end on the inside.

Grip the oyster firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the hinge and twist to lever the two shells apart; you’ll need to exert quite a lot of pressure, so it’s foolhardy not to protect your hand well.

Then slide the blade of the knife under the top shell to detach the oyster from the shell.

Discard the top shell, then loosen the oyster from the deep shell, flip over to reveal the plump side.

Don’t lose the precious briny juice.

Arrange on two plates on a bed of seaweed or sea salt.

Serve with segments of lemon, some brown soda bread and a couple of glasses of stout.

Aromatic Lamb Shanks with Butternut Squash, Chickpeas and Spinach

Serves 6

3 tbsp olive oil

6 lamb shanks

2 medium onions sliced

2 garlic cloves peeled and crushed

1 tbsp tomato puree

1 tsp each of freshly ground coriander and fenugreek

1 tsp chilli flakes

450g (1lb) of ripe tomatoes peeled and chopped or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin of chopped tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1lt (1¾ pints) of lamb or chicken stock

1 butternut squash 2½ lbs — deseeded and cut into chunks 1½ inches

2 x 400g (14oz) tins of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

200g (7oz) spinach or sliced Swiss chard

Lots of fresh coriander leaves

Accompaniment:

Couscous

Natural yoghurt (optional)

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a high heat; brown the lamb shanks on all sides.

Transfer to a casserole, then add a little more oil and the chopped onions to the pan and toss and fry gently for a couple of minutes over a low heat until softened.

Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute or two.

Stir in the tomato purée, freshly ground spices and chilli flakes, fry for two minutes.

Add the chopped tomatoes, season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sugar.

Stir, add the hot stock, bring to the boil then pour over the lamb shanks in the casserole — it should almost cover the meat.

Put a tight fitting lid on the casserole, transfer to a preheated moderate oven 180C/350F/Mark 4.

Continue to cook for 1½ to two hours until the lamb shanks are tender, add the squash cubes and return to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes until everything is cooked through.

Remove the lamb shanks to a warm serving dish with a slotted spoon, taste the broth, reduce a little to concentrate the flavour if necessary.

Add the chick peas to the casserole, bring back to the boil.

Add the spinach and allow it to wilt in the sauce, taste, correct the seasoning.

Serve each lamb shank with lots of sauce and some couscous.

Sprinkle with fresh coriander leaves and add a dollop of natural yoghurt to each helping if you wish.

Chocolate Valentine Tart

This tart is best made the night before if possible.

Sweet Pastry: (line 1 x 9½ tin)

175g (6ozs) plain flour

75g (3ozs) butter, cold and cubed

25g (1oz) castor sugar

15g (½ oz) icing sugar

½ large egg, beaten

In a food processor, pulse together the butter, sugar and flour to give coarse, ‘flat’ breadcrumb texture.

Add egg and pulse again until the pastry comes together. Tip onto a sheet of cling film, form into a roll and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

To line tin: Roll the pastry between 2 sheets of cling film. Invert into the tin and mould into ring.
Cover with cling film and let it rest in fridge for 30 minutes or freeze until needed.

To blind bake, preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4, remove cling film, line the pastry case with baking parchment and beans and bake for 20-25 minutes approx.

Remove from the oven and brush with egg wash. Return to the oven for 2-3 minutes further to dry off. The tart base should be fully cooked. Let case cool, patch any cracks. Filling:

200g (7ozs) dark chocolate

150g (5ozs) butter

3 organic, free-range egg yolks

2 organic, free-range eggs

40g (1½ ozs) castor sugar

Melt chocolate and butter together — either over a bain marie or carefully in a heat proof bowl in the oven.

With electric beaters, beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until pale and thick — about 5 minutes.

Fold in chocolate and beat briefly to amalgamate. Pour into blind baked case and bake at 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 for six minutes.

It should still be slightly molten.

Cool completely and serve.

Hot tips

Native and Gigas Oysters are available from K O’Connells in the English Market.

Meet the O’Connell brothers Pat and Paul who charmed the Queen of England when she visited their fish stall last year — www.koconnellfish.com

Gardening Courses at Ballymaloe Cookery School: Building a Willow Structure with Norbert Platz on Monday, Feb 20, 9am to 2pm.

On this intensive course you will learn how to harvest and prepare willows and the basic techniques needed to create a variety of willow structures in your own garden.

Compost Making and Soil Management with Susan Turner on Monday, Mar 19, 9am to 2pm.

Whether you are interested in making compost for a small garden, a small holding or larger, this course will teach you the most important aspects of how to tackle it correctly.

Both courses cost €95.00 with lunch included. Tel: 021-4646785; www.cookingisfun.ie



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