Weekend food: Walnut meringue

I’m just back from the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen, one of the craziest and most influential food events on the planet.

Weekend food: Walnut meringue

It’s held in a circus tent in a wild flower meadow in Refshaleoum close to the centre of Copenhagen.

The audience are a cosmopolitan mix, varying from chefs to scientists, social activists to food writers and journalists, farmers and food producers to foragers, brewers and baristas.The event was founded by Rene Redzepi from Noma and co-curated this year by Alex Atala of DOM in San Poalo in Brazil.

The first MAD was held in 2011, the theme was ‘Vegetation’ , in 2012 the theme was ‘Appetite’. In 2013, it was ‘Guts’ which could be interpreted in a variety of ways; guts as intestines, guts as in courage — speakers were invited to approach the subject from every angle, to explore it in all its forms and they did.

2013 was my first MAD experience and I was blown away.

This year, we were invited as speakers to tell the story of Myrtle Allen, now in her 90th year, the farmer’s wife who in the early 1960s unwittingly started a food revolution in Ireland by opening a restaurant in her rambling old house deep in the countryside in east Cork. She wrote the menu every day depending on what was fresh and in season on the farm and in the gardens and local area, which of course was unheard of then but for many is now the norm.

This year’s theme was another complex question, ‘What’s Cooking?’ Gosh, how cooking and the perception of cooking have changed in my lifetime from the everyday norm of my Mum cheerfully cooking three meals a day from scratch at home to a fast food, ready-meal culture where many of us unwittingly handed the power over our food choices to multi-national food companies who can scarcely be expected to have our best interests at heart.

Restaurant food too has changed and evolved from haute cuisine to nouvelle cuisine to molecular gastronomy and more recently swung back again to a much greater appreciation of vegetables, wild plants and foraged foods.

In many ways it’s a fantastic time to be a cook. The public in general are taking a much greater interest in what was traditionally a blue collar trade. Food festivals, carnivals, conferences are so numerous that one is forced to choose between various options almost every weekend.

Yet ironically, the more attention that’s focused on the industry from tv, film, newspapers, magazines and the internet, the fewer people are cooking and the less obvious it becomes what it means ‘to cook’.

For some people cooking is a path to fame and fortune but the last decade has given rise to a great many innovations that deep down we know cooking is certainly not.

There were a great many inspirational and thought provoking speakers at MAD.

The symposium opened to the throbbing music of a Scandinavian rock band, then a dramatic hush as Japanese chef and soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai and his wife Midori took the stage. The owner of Sobatai in Hokkaido silently mixed, kneaded and cooked the buckwheat noodles from scratch.

The audience was transfixed for the entire wordless, 15 minute demonstration. Midori served the bowls of prepared noodles to the front row with a gentle little bow.

A beautiful humbling experience, a reminder of the artistry, craftsmanship and tradition of good cooking.

Three star Michelin chefs Alain Sendereno and Pierre Koffmann spoke and demonstrated their craft but for me the standout talk came from guerilla gardener Ron Finley who spoke in punch lines about his experience transforming a food desert into veggie gardens in LA South Central, an area where you could buy any amount of drugs and booze but you couldn’t find a bite of fresh food for love nor money if your life depended on it.

He decided to take action — he and some of his gangland friends cleared all the old sofas, syringes and junk from a patch of ground outside his house and decided to plant some food. He was slapped with an arrest warrant for his efforts and was threatened with jail. Suddenly it was cool for the young gangsters to grow their own food — it was illegal after all!

So to cut a long and colourful story short, Ron is the hero who got the Land Use Laws changed and now all over America, people are transforming disused lots into vegetable gardens.

According to Ron his inspiration was the phenomenal rise in obesity and diabetes.

“The future is not a revolution, it’s an evolution back to a time when we grew our own food and cooked our own meals. We are what we eat, we don’t need ‘meds’ we need food gardens.”

Myrtle Allen’s The Ballymaloe Cookbook was first published in 1977 . The revised edition was re published by Gill and Macmillan, a beautiful hard back edition to celebrate Myrtle’s 90th year and 50 years of the restaurant at Ballymaloe House. Here are a few of my favourite recipes for you to recreate at home.


Walnut meringue

Serves 4-6        

For the filling:  

2 egg whites 

110g (4oz) caster sugar

12 chopped walnuts or brazil nuts

250ml (8fl oz) unsweetened whipped cream

1–2 ripe dessert pears, peeled and sliced

Make as for the meringue recipe below, folding in the nuts before dividing the mixture between the two circles.

To assemble, pipe a layer of whipped cream onto one meringue disc. Carefully arrange slices of pear on top and cover with the second meringue disc.

Basic Ballymaloe Meringue

2 egg whites

110g (4oz) caster sugar

Beat the egg whites until stiff but not yet dry. Fold in half the sugar. Beat again until the mixture will stand in a firm, dry peak. Fold the remaining sugar in carefully. Pipe into the required shapes or spread onto non-stick baking paper or a silicone baking sheet as required. Bake in a very low oven, 100C/200F/gas ¼, for four hours approx.

Plaice in Herb Butter

Allow per person:

1 fresh plaice

salt and pepper

15g-30g (½-1oz, 1-2 tbsp) butter

1 tsp mixed, finely chopped parsley chives, fennel, thyme leaves

Wash the fish and clean the slit. With a very sharp knife, cut through the skin, right round the fish, 1cm (½in) from the edge. Be careful to cut right through and to join the side cuts at the tail or you will be in trouble later on.

Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and lay it in 5mm (¼in) water in a shallow baking tin. Bake in a moderately hot oven, 200C/400F/gas 6, for 20–30 minutes according to the size of the fish. The water should have just evaporated as the fish is cooked.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and stir in the herbs. Just before serving, pull off the skin (it will tear badly if not properly cut) and spoon over the butter.

Potted Shrimps or Lobster

½ clove garlic

Salt and pepper

60–85g (2–3oz, 4–6 tbsp) butter

1 tsp thyme leaves

110g (4oz) shelled shrimps or diced lobster meat

1–2 tsp lemon juice

A fish pâté or potted fish makes a wonderfully easy lunch or supper dish.

Packed into pots, a selection of any three makes a stunning dinner party starter. It’s worth noting though that they are not suitable for picnics unless packed in a chilled container, as the butter goes soft.

Crush the garlic to a paste with a little salt. Bring the butter to the boil with the thyme leaves and garlic. Add the shrimps or lobster and simmer together for 3–5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and 1 or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Pack into pots and run more melted butter over the top.

Persian Cocktail

Serves 6-8

225g (8oz) tomatoes

1 clove garlic

1 level tsp salt

350ml (12fl oz, 1½ cups) natural yoghurt

1 tsp finely chopped mint

I loathed yoghurt until I bought a plastic bagful from a nomad in the mountains north-west of Teheran. This was just something different again.

All the learned men and expensive laboratories of north-west Europe cannot reproduce this type of yoghurt. No wonder. What it takes is a wild and tough man, backed by a herd of goats, a tribe of relations, a few earthenware jars and a vast area of barren mountainside, alternately roasting and freezing.

The Iranians know what they have got. They eat and drink it in every conceivable way.

The best I could do when I got home was to take a Persian idea and adapt it to Irish materials.

The new concoction is not Persian and certainly not Irish. It is good in its own right for starting a gentle summer dinner. Use within 24 hours.

Scald and peel the tomatoes. Peel the garlic and mash it to a paste with the salt. Purée the tomatoes, garlic and salt together in a blender.

Sieve out the pips if you wish. Add the yoghurt. Stir in the mint.

Serve chilled.

Lydia’s Cream Dressing

2 eggs

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

1 level tsp dry mustard

Pinch of salt

60–120ml (2–4fl oz, ¼–½ cup) cream

1 tbsp brown malt vinegar

Oil was not considered as a food in the average Irish household during the first half of the last century. There was always a small glass bottle of rancid olive oil in our house, but it was kept in the medicine cupboard and used for sunburn. Cream dressings were served with salads.

Hard boil the eggs. Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil. Gently slide in the eggs and boil for 10 minutes (12 if they are very fresh). Strain off the hot water and cover with cold water. Peel when cold.

Cut the eggs in half and sieve the yolks into a bowl. Add the sugar, the mustard and a pinch of salt. Blend the cream and the vinegar. Chop the egg whites and add some to the sauce. Keep the rest to scatter over the salad. Cover the dressing until needed.

Traditional salad

The traditional salad was and still is standard fare for Sunday evening suppers. It accompanied cold meat, probably left over from the midday joint. No dressing goes better with it than Lydia Strangman’s, sister of my husband’s elderly farming partner, an unmarried Quaker lady of strict principles, who spent her life painting and making a beautiful garden.

Arrange lettuce leaves like a rose in a deep bowl — biggest leaves on the outside, small leaves in the centre. Scatter some or all of the following between the leaves: quartered hard-boiled eggs, quartered tomatoes, slices of cooked beetroot, slices of cucumber, cress, watercress, mustard leaves. Serve with Lydia’s cream dressing.

Hot tips

Edible Flower

Just discovered recently that dahlias are edible flowers, so I’ve been adding them to lots of salads, they are particularly beautiful sprinkled over a potato salad. The Mexicans apparently grew them originally for their tubers rather than flowers.

Collect Fennell Pollen:

Fancy chefs pay a fortune for fennel pollen but you can harvest your own from fennel flowers. Allow to dry upside down on a sheet of parchment paper to collect the pollen. Store in a tiny screw top jar. Use to scatter over pangrilled fish or goat cheese.

Game jelly

Japonica are the hard green fruit of the Chaenomeles shrub, they are part of the quince family and make a delicious Japonica jelly to serve with game, particularly pheasant or guinea.

Use 14ozs sugar with each pint of juice, the juice of a lemon and maybe a few mint or verbena leaves.

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