It was a poignant letter and a plea from a woman who wrote in despair about how difficult it now is to source good meat, chicken, pork, even beef. “Like you, I remember what food used to taste like and nowadays I don’t know where to turn,” she writes.
I believe she articulated the challenge that many people face in this era of relentless cost cutting and below-cost selling. “Where, oh where can I find nourishing tasty food, I have visitors coming from America and I want to give them a real taste of our Irish produce?”
I totally understand her dilemma and I’m sure many others will also. The kind of produce she is looking for is available but rarely through the normal food retail outlets, mostly because the farmers and food producers who still produce food in the traditional, time honoured way must get the full price for their produce — otherwise they simply cannot stay in business. The reality is that a well reared organic chicken that has been allowed to range freely on grass and grow slowly takes at least 12 to 13 weeks to reach maturity, over twice the time it takes for a chicken from an intensive Asian production system.
The latter will have antibiotics, hormones, growth promoters, bone strengtheners and probably anti-depressant in every feed. Not the sort of bird my correspondent has in mind to remind her guests of almost forgotten flavours from a time when chicken was an occasional treat and the carcass and giblets yielded a fine pot of flavoursome broth.
I sent a list of farmers and food producers that we buy from, including free-range organic poultry producer, Dan Aherne, from Dungourney, Co Cork, 086-1659258.
For pork my first choice was & Conroys of Woodside Farm, Midleton, Co Cork, 087-2767206. For beef, go to a local craft butcher with its own abattoir who buys traditional breeds, dry ages and hangs well, eg, Frank Murphy in Midleton, Co Cork, 021-4631557; Cliffords Butchers, Castlemartyr, Co Cork, 021-4667336; Michael McGrath, butcher in Lismore, Co Waterford, 058-54350.
Trim away the chain if it is still attached, use the meat for Beef Stroganoff. Double over the meat at the tapered end and tie the fillet securely with fine butcher’s cotton twine. Alternatively ask your butcher to do the ‘butchering’ for you.
Rub the fillet all over with a cut clove of garlic, season well with lots of freshly ground pepper and wrap loosely in caul fat if available. Season well with sea salt.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas Mark 8.
Alternatively, rub the fillet all over with the cut clove of garlic as before, season well on all sides with salt and freshly cracked pepper and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Heat a cast iron pan grill to very hot. Sear the beef until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer it to a roasting tin and tuck a couple of sprigs of thyme underneath.
Roast for 25-30 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer, the internal temperature should read 50C/125F for rare or 75C/167F for well done. Alternatively the meat should feel springy to the touch and the juice should be a pale pink when the meat is pierced with a skewer. Remove from the oven to a carving dish. Cover and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes by which time the juices will have redistributed themselves and the beef will be uniformly medium rare.
Serve cut in 5mm (¼ inch) with Béarnaise sauce.
Dan’s chickens take 12 weeks to reach maturity. They are fed on organic feed and range freely on his farm in Dungourney, East Cork. Every Thursday and Saturday, customers queue at his stalls in Mahon Point and Midleton to buy the flavoursome chickens.
4½ — 5 lbs (1.5 — 2.3kg) free range chicken, preferably organic
Giblets (keep the liver for a chicken liver pate), and wish bone
1 thickly sliced carrot
1 thickly sliced onion
1 stick celery, sliced
A few parsley stalks and a sprig of thyme
1½ ozs (45g/1/3 stick) butter
3 ozs (75g) chopped onion
3-3½ ozs (75-95g/1½-1¾ cups) soft white breadcrumbs
2 tbsp (2 American tbsp + 2 tsp) finely chopped fresh herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives and annual marjoram
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A little soft butter
1 – 1½ pints (600-900mls/2½ – 3¾ cups) of stock from giblets or chicken stock
Sprigs of flat parsley
First remove the wish bone from the neck end of the chicken. This is easily done by lifting back the loose neck, skin and cutting around the wish bone with a small knife – tug to remove, this isn’t at all essential but it does make carving much easier later on. Tuck the wing tips underneath the chicken to make a neat shape. Put the wish bone, giblets, carrot, onions, celery and herbs into a saucepan. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, skin and simmer gently while the chicken is roasting. This is the basis of the gravy.
Next make the stuffing, sweat the onions gently in the butter in a covered saucepan until soft, 10 minutes approx. then stir in the white bread crumbs, the freshly chopped herbs, a little salt and pepper to taste. Allow it to get quite cold unless you are going to cook the chicken immediately. If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half fill with stuffing. Season the breast and legs, smear with a little soft butter.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo4. Weigh the chicken and allow about 20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over — put on middle shelf in oven. Baste a couple of times during the cooking with the buttery juices. The chicken is done when the juices are running clear.
To test prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh, hold a spoon underneath to collect the liquid, examine the juices — they should be clear.
Remove the chicken to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow to rest while you make the gravy.
To make the gravy, tilt the roasting tin to one corner and spoon off the surplus fat from the juices and return the roasting pan to the stove. De-glaze the pan juices with the fat free stock from the giblets and bones (you will need 1-1½ pints depending on the size of the chicken). Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelised meat juices in the roasting pan. Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like (the gravy should not be thick). Taste and correct seasoning, serve in a hot gravy boat.
If possible serve the chicken on a nice carving dish surrounded by crispy roast potatoes and some sprigs of flat parsley then arm yourself with a sharp knife and bring it to the table. Carve as best you can and ignore rude remarks if you are still practicing but do try to organise it so that each person gets some brown and some white meat. Serve with gravy and bread sauce.
Use the cooked carcass for stock.
The consistency of Béarnaise sauce should be considerably thicker than that of Hollandaise or beurre blanc, both of which ought to be a light coating consistency. If you do not have tarragon vinegar to hand, use a wine vinegar and add some extra chopped fresh French tarragon.
Boil the first 4 ingredients together in a low, heavy-bottomed, stainless-steel saucepan until completely reduced and the pan is almost dry but not browned. Add 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of cold water immediately. Pull the pan off the heat and leave to cool for 1 or 2 minutes.
Using a coil whisk, whisk in the egg yolks and add the butter bit by bit over a very low heat, whisking all the time. As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece; it will gradually thicken. If it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water. Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. Finally, add 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of freshly chopped French tarragon and taste for seasoning.
If the sauce is slow to thicken, it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until all the butter is added and the sauce is a thick coating consistency. It is important to remember, however, that if you are making Béarnaise sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce!
Another good tip if you are making Béarnaise sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so that you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if it becomes too hot.
Keep the sauce warm in a Pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water or in a Thermos flask until you want to serve it.
We’re getting the most sublime briny fresh sea urchins from John Chamberlain in West Cork at present (028-35500). Why are more Irish restaurants not serving these beautiful Irish crustaceans that the French can’t get enough of.
We just had the first new potatoes of the season with Frank Hederman’s smoked Glenstal butter and some Irish sea salt melting on top — sublime. Tel: 021-4811089
Just two weeks to go until The Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine 2014. Flights are booked, accommodation is getting scarce. There are still tickets remaining for wonderful events — some a once in a lifetime opportunity. It includes the greats of the food world such as Diana Kennedy, who will give a Mexican Cookery Demonstration, Jill Norman, who will reveal stories and memories from working with one of the world’s greatest chefs and food writers, Elizabeth David, and Thomasina Miers will be back too.
Visit www.litfest.ie to find out more.