Darina Allen: Growing your own is worth it on so many levels

— delicious fresh beetroot is a winner with salmon or in salad or as a tonic
Darina Allen: Growing your own is worth it on so many levels

Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely Compote: a spicy garnish for a sweet, in-season treat

As I write this column the skies are blue and the sun is shining and new season's produce is leaping out of the ground in the garden and greenhouse. I so hope you too have managed to sow some seeds and experience the sheer joy and excitement of seeing the seeds germinate and the first leaves unfurl. And then there’s the gradual growth until your crop reaches the peak of perfection, ready to enjoy even if it’s just a few salad leaves in a seed tray on your kitchen windowsill.

Your very own organic leaves will taste so much better, because you, yourself have grown them: you’ll relish every bite and want everyone else to know how you grew and looked after and anticipated enjoying them for weeks. When you grow some of your own food, it gives an added insight into the work and commitment that goes into producing beautiful produce — you’ll never want to complain about the price of food again and will nearly want to hug every farmer and producer you meet. 

I’m super lucky to have several garden heroes here who grow beautiful produce for us to enjoy and cook with and to sell in the Farm Shop, Farmers Markets and NeighbourFood. So far we’ve had rhubarb and outdoor sea kale, and now the asparagus is gleefully popping up out of the bed. We’ve even had a few beets — they are about the size of table tennis balls at present but swelling every day. Look out for new season's beets in the Farmers Markets and use every scrap of the stalks and leaves as well as the beets themselves. 

They are every bit as delicious as spinach — if anything, more delicious and meltingly tender and cook in minutes. They are also fantastic for juicing. I’m a huge beetroot fan, I love it hot as well as roast and pickled — for me it’s the vegetable that keeps on giving. The new season’s crop is so mild and delicious compared to the end of last year’s crop which by now is woody and unpleasantly strong. 

Try this beetroot gravlax with a side of salmon, it’s a delicious riff on the classic Nordic pickled salmon — gorgeous for a Summer lunch or as a nibble before a Summer BBQ. You'll love the cucumber and dill sauce and find lots of other ways to enjoy it.

This week, I also include my new favourite cake which I told you about in November, it’s called Lori De Mori’s Olive Oil cake from Towpath, a little café on the edge of Regent’s Canal in London. It may not sound appealing but for me it’s my new ‘best find’ of the last few months: a richly flavoured ‘madeira’ type cake that keeps brilliantly and if anything improves with age. Try it, you’re going to love it, delicious with a cup of tea or coffee but also perfect as a dessert with some berries and a blob of crème fraîche. This is ‘definitely a keeper’ as Rory O’Connell would say.

Wild garlic will soon come to an end so make a batch of Wild Garlic Pesto for your store cupboard before it disappears until next year.

Pick the smaller, sweeter leaves for best flavour.

Another Tip… rhubarb is also at its best at present, so buy or harvest more than you need. Chop into slices and freeze in kg bags for Winter — do this now while rhubarb is at its best.

Here are some delicious recipes to enjoy this week.

Leila’s Olive Oil Cake

I find it just delicious on its own or with a little sprinkling of icing sugar. I loved it recently with a compote of kumquat and some coarsely-chopped pistachio over softly-whipped cream but a generous tablespoon of roast rhubarb would be pretty irresistible too.

Serves 12

Ingredients

  • butter, for greasing the tins
  • 3 organic eggs
  • 300g (10oz) caster sugar
  • 175ml (6fl oz) best quality olive oil
  • 180ml (6 1/4fl oz) full-fat milk
  • 1 organic orange, zested and juiced
  • 325g (11oz) self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C /350°F/Gas Mark 4 (160°C Fan).
  • Line, butter and flour a 24cm (9 1/2 inch) cake tin.

Method:

In a large mixing bowl or mixer, beat together the eggs and sugar until pale yellow. This should take about five minutes.

Slowly, in a continuous stream and on a high speed, pour in the olive oil, milk, orange zest and juice. You may need to lower the speed towards the end to prevent the mix from splattering everywhere.

Gently, fold in the flour, until fully incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Bake for about 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick or skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.

(from Towpath by Lori de Mori & Laura Jackson, published by Chelsea Green Publishing)

Use every scrap: Zero Waste Beetroot Tops (Stalks and Leaves)

Young beetroot tops are full of flavour and are often unnecessarily discarded; but if you grow your own beetroots, remember to cook the stalks as well. When the leaves are tiny they make a really worthwhile addition to the salad bowl, both in terms of nutrition and flavour.

This isn’t worth doing unless you have lovely young leaves. When they become old and slightly wilted, feed them to the hens or add them to the compost.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 450g (1lb) fresh beetroot tops
  • salt and freshly-ground pepper
  • butter or olive oil

Method:

Keeping them separate, cut the beetroot stalks and leaves into rough 5cm (2 inch) pieces. 

First cook the stalks in boiling salted water (1.8 litres/3 pints water to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt) for 3–4 minutes or until tender. 

Then add the leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes.

Drain, season and toss in a little butter or olive oil. Serve immediately.

Beetroot Tops with Cream

  • Substitute 75–125ml (3–4fl oz) cream for olive oil in the recipe above. 

A little freshly-grated nutmeg is also delicious. 

Taste and correct the seasoning.

Beetroot Gravlax

Gravlax, scandinavian cured salmon with beetroot and fennel for Darina Allen
Gravlax, scandinavian cured salmon with beetroot and fennel for Darina Allen

This modern Scandinavian version results in a two-tone gravlax, with a deep-red beetroot colour on the outside and salmon pink within.

Wild salmon is very difficult to source, so why not try a side of fresh haddock.

This is a recipe that is handy to have to hand if for whenever we can all meet up for picnics and garden parties again. 

Serves 30–40

Ingredients:

  • 2 sides of wild salmon or organic farmed salmon
  • 2 heaped tablespoons sea salt
  • 3 heaped tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons freshly-ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dill, chopped
  • 175g (6oz) beetroot, peeled and grated
  • Cucumber and Dill Sauce (see recipe)

Method:

First, prepare the salmon.

Fillet the salmon 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 parchment paper and scatter the mixture over the surface of the fish. Wrap tightly with parchment paper and refrigerate for a minimum of 24 hours.

Line a long oval dish with parchment paper. Put one fillet, skin side down, on the lined dish. Mix together the salt, sugar, pepper, dill and freshly grated beetroot and spread over the surface of the salmon.

Place the other salmon fillet on top and wrap the salmon tightly with the cling film. Place a weight on top (I use a chopping board). Turn a couple of times during the next few days. Serve with the Cucumber and Dill Sauce.

Cucumber and Dill Sauce

Serves 8 – 10 depending on how it is served.

Ingredients:

  • 1 crisp cucumber, peeled and diced into 1/2 – 1cm (1/4-1/2 inch) dice approx.
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of freshly chopped dill
  • 450ml (15fl oz) Greek yoghurt or best quality natural yoghurt
  • 4 tablespoons cream

Method:

Put the cucumber dice into a sieve and sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for about 30 minutes. 

Dry the cucumber on kitchen paper, put into a bowl and mix with garlic, a dash of wine vinegar or lemon juice and the yoghurt and cream.

Stir in the dill and taste, it may need a little salt and freshly ground pepper, or even a pinch of sugar.

Beetroot Kvass

This is a slightly sour/salty tonic of a deep-red colour known to help clean the liver and purify the blood.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large beetroot
  • 1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints) filtered water (or non-chlorinated)
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 50ml (2fl oz) starter — this could be whey, water kefir, sauerkraut juice or kombucha

Method:

Scrub the beetroot but do not peel.

Chop into small chunks — 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes (roughly).

Put into a 2-litre Kilner jar or something similar with a lid.

Add the water, sea salt and starter and secure the lid tightly.

Allow to sit in a warming, undisturbed place for about 5 days.

Bubbles will start to appear (fermentation is taking a hold) — taste it after day-three. If it is to your liking, strain out the beetroot chunks.  Bottle and store in the fridge once it reaches the desired sourness.

New Season’s Asparagus with Mussels and Hollandaise on Toast

Swap seakale for asparagus if you are fortunate to have some.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 8-12 stalks of asparagus in season
  • 20-24 mussels
  • Hollandaise Sauce
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 dessertspoon cold water
  • 110g (4oz) butter cut into dice
  • 1 teaspoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice, approx.
  • 4 slices of pan loaf bread for toasting
  • sprigs of chervil or dill

First, make the hollandaise.

Put the egg yolks into a heavy-bottomed saucepan on a low heat.

Whisk with 1 tablespoon of water, then gradually whisk in the butter, cube by cube as it thickens gradually — be careful it doesn’t overheat. If it does, pull the saucepan off the heat and dip the base in cold water for a minute or two. When all the butter has been incorporated, whisk in some freshly-squeezed lemon juice to taste. Transfer to a small Pyrex bowl or measure and keep warm in a stainless-steel saucepan of hot but not even simmering water while you prepare the asparagus and mussels.

Break off the ends of the asparagus spears where they begin to get woody. They will snap at that point if you bend them over your index finger.

Bring about 2.5cm (1 inch) of water to the boil in a saucepan, season well with salt and add the asparagus. Cover the saucepan, bring the water back to the boil and cook for 3-4 minutes (depending on the size of the asparagus spears) or until the tip of a knife will pierce the thickest end. Drain while still al-dente, it will continue to cook a little.

Wash the mussels and check they are all tightly shut. Choose a wide sauté pan, add the mussels in a, maximum, double layer and cook for 3-4 minutes over a medium heat which is usually enough for the mussels to open. Remove, strain and save the mussel liquor.

To serve:

Meanwhile, toast and butter the bread.

Cut the asparagus spears into 2 or 3 pieces at an angle.

Remove the mussels from their shells, scatter over the asparagus, drizzle with Hollandaise and garnish with sprigs of chervil or dill and serve ASAP.

Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely Compote

Sweet Cicely is one of the first herbs to pop up in Spring: the seeds are spicy and the leaves have a liquorice sweet anise-like flavour.

Use liberally to garnish sweet dishes.

Serves 4 

Ingredients:

  • 450g (1lb) red rhubarb, e.g. Timperely early
  • 450ml (16fl oz) stock syrup (dissolve 175g/6oz of granulated sugar in 300ml/10fl oz of water and boil for 2 minutes)
  • 4-6 sprigs of sweet cicely

Method:

Cut the rhubarb into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Put the cold syrup into a stainless steel saucepan, add the rhubarb and sweet cicely. 

Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for just 1 minute, (no longer or it will dissolve into a mush). 

Turn off the heat and leave the rhubarb in the covered saucepan until just cold.

Remove the sweet cicely, serve garnished with fresh sprigs of sweet cicely and lots of softly whipped cream.

Wild Food of the Week

Sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata (perennial) Sweet Cicely is also known as myrrh. I’ve had this old cottage-garden perennial ever since we designed and planted the formal herb garden in 1986. It’s a little treasure that re-emerges in spring with fern-like leaves and fluffy white flowers. 

The leaves have a slightly sweet, aniseed and slightly liquorice flavour and help to cut the acidity in fruit tarts. It is known as a ‘sugar saver’.

This is a trouble-free plant that certainly deserves to be better known. The delicate lacy leaves are particularly pretty as a garnish for sweet dishes and are especially pretty when frosted with egg white and caster sugar.

All parts of sweet cicely are edible, although we find the leaves the most appealing. It’s one of the few herbs that can be used for garnishing sweet and some savoury dishes — both the flowers and the herbs can be used. Because the leaves have a sweet aniseedy flavour, one can add them to any poached fruit in quite large quantities to reduce the sugar needed. 

Jekka McVicar suggests combining it with lemon balm to add a haunting flavour. We also love to crystallise the leaves to decorate cakes and desserts. Leaves can be snipped into salads, scrambled eggs and omelettes with a mixture of herbs. 

I’ve also tried rubbing the leaves on furniture as a polish, particularly for oak, but there are easier ways to polish your furniture. The fluffy white flowers are pretty scattered over summer fruit and salads. The stalks of sweet cicely can be used in ice cream to give an aniseedy flavour, similar to Pernod.

Hot Tips

Eight Degrees Original Gravity 2021 Label Artwork Competition: 

To celebrate 10 years of brewing at Eight Degrees, they want to showcase Ireland-based artists in their 2021 Original Gravity series.

They are looking for designs that reflect their naturally adventurous value, that stand out on the shelf and bring some positivity and excitement. This series of five limited beer releases of ales, lagers and stouts will feature five pieces of original art, offering artists a can-sized exhibition space and allowing them to feature their art and promote them as artists. 

Eight Degrees are looking for submissions of a piece of artwork that will be applied to a label template. There is a €1,000 prize for each of the five winners.  

  • Register your interest at originalgravity@eightdegrees.ie for further information. Entries closed on Friday, May 14.

Sheridan’s Cheesemongers' Cheese Club: 

Sheridan’s have been doing cheese boxes for several years. Every month, their expert affineurs select four cheeses for their ripeness and seasonality to send to cheese club members along with tasting notes on each of the cheeses. 

I just received one for the first time recently and was blown away. People can sign up for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months or 12-month memberships.

  • sheridanscheesemongers.com

Asparagus: 

Lisheen Greens at Skibbereen Farmers Market has lovely fat stalks of delicious asparagus — seek out Irish asparagus, it’s in season now.

  • Instagram: @lisheengreens

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