Darina Allen: Grow & cook your own
Twenty years ago Darina Allen shared her recipes in the first edition of weekend. Here, she tells Claire O'Mahony why her Grow your own philosophy hasn't changed in two decades
Twenty years ago this week, when the first-ever edition of Weekend was published, there was only one choice of chef to fill the recipes pages of the new magazine - Darina Allen. Having established her world-famous cookery school in 1983 at the farm in Ballymaloe - adjacent to her mother-in-law Myrtle's acclaimed guesthouse - Darina was the most celebrated chef in the country in 1997.
In that first magazine, Darina provided four recipes from the book she had just released, A Year at Ballymaloe. Under the headline 'simple food can be sensational', the magazine documented how, at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, "Darina likes to start with the basics and shows her students handfuls of soil - she believes it's important to keep the connections between us and what we eat visible."
You don't have to be a foodie to acknowledge that the Irish food scene has changed dramatically over the last two decades. It's now a far more sophisticated culinary landscape, where Irish households are as likely to serve up a Moroccan tagine as they are a roast dinner, with harissa and wasabi sitting on the shelf beside the salt and pepper. At the same time, there's been a growing appreciation of local foods, whether that's Irish grass-fed beef or the abundance of shellfish. In short, people are looking for that connection to their food that Darina Allen identified 20 years ago.
"Probably the most exciting thing in the last thirtysomething years is the way we've grown in confidence as a country in terms of being more experimental," Darina says today. "Not only that, but it's also really having the confidence to serve our own produce and our own food proudly. Of course, what has driven that to a great extent has been the emergence of the farmhouse cheese industry and the artisan food producers."
Irish chefs, she also points out, were travelling more, especially during the Celtic Tiger years, and returning with new ideas that matched the appetites of their customers - who had also become an increasingly well-travelled bunch. They came back from holidays abroad ready to try menu items that hadn't previously been part of their food consciousness.
Storecupboard staples have also under- gone a transformation in the last two decades and she lists Middle Eastern ingredients like pomegranates, sumac, za'atar with the 'Ottolenghi effect' [the influence of Israeli-British chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi] as being hugely influential in this.
"There so many things, like hummus, that we look on as essentials, that were once really considered to be quite exotic - kumquats; avocados, which everyone slathers over toast; and all the grains like quinoa, freekeh... and even pearl barley is having its moment again.
"The other thing that people are focusing on now is rare breeds, like beef. Sadly there has been a decrease in potato consumption, and it's such an important food. People are eating more rice and pasta, which are delicious, but nothing like as nourishing as a real potato."
She thinks that Irish home cooks have become more comfortable with using all kinds of spices, and another positive development is the debunking of the 'fat is bad for you' myth. "That was four decades of false science. The problem now is that so many people are so brainwashed into thinking that it's bad that they can't even bring themselves to eat it."
Then there's our growing awareness in how food is connected to how we feel and that food is medicine. "I know there is more fast food and people rushing around saying they haven't time to cook but, on the other hand, there is a growing grassroots movement of people who have discovered the joy of cooking again, in a different type of way, and also the joy of growing and realising the importance of it too."
Growing your own is something she's messianic about and she says that urban gardening is a global phenomenon, to the extent that there's a measurable amount of local food being produced in cities. Her latest book, Grow, Cook, Nourish, is a kitchen- garden companion covering everything from how to get started, container growing, pests and diseases, dealing with a glut and what to do in the kitchen with your produce. It is the most important book she thinks she will ever write.
"The working title of this book - and it took me over three years to write it - was 'For God's sake, grow (and cook) your own food'. It's saying to people: what are we like? Take back some control over the food we're eating. I'm absolutely horrified at how quickly we have handed over practically complete control over our food choices to a few multinational food companies and supermarkets. How on earth did we ever imagine that they would have our best interests at heart - or our health?
"Food is a commodity now; it's only about making profits for the processors. The most important thing in our lives is the food that we feed our family to keep them healthy. One shop in a supermarket a week, and that's it for most people. It's not easy - people are busier and busier, and they're squeezed with mortgages and all the other terrible pressures that there are nowadays, but we must take back control."
It doesn't matter where you are, she believes, because even in a high-rise apartment, you can still grow enough leaves to produce salads for the whole year. And there are a million-and-one reasons why she urges people to grow their own food, including lack of wastage. Whereas in supermarkets, you'll be sold one part of the vegetables, at Ballymaloe the beets are eaten at all stages of growing: the stalks are cooked like a vegetable and the young leaves go into salads, while the older leaves are cooked like spinach. There's also the comfort of the knowledge that your homegrown food hasn't been chemically treated, as well as the importance of learning how much work is involved in getting something to grow.
"A problem nowadays is that the farmers and food producers have been forced to produce the maximum amount of food at the minimum cost since the 1950s," she says. "It's all about cheap food, but cheap food is a myth. You cannot produce nourishing food at the moment for the price people are paying for it.
"How on earth do people think you can produce a bunch of carrots for less than a euro and they're in the ground for three months? It can't be done without a tonne of sprays and we now can no longer say we don't know the damage that all those pesticides and herbicides are doing to them."
While millennials might be more readily associated with the aforementioned smashed avocado on sourdough as well as Instagrammed rainbow food, Allen believes that they will save us in the end.
"The hipster food movement is huge in America and these affluent young people are growing on their balconies and window sills; they're getting together and cooking together," she says. "They're shopping in a different way, and part of the weekend is going off to a farmers' market and getting very good produce, and they're going online and getting produce sent directly from the farmer. Maybe this hasn't fully hit Ireland yet: it's a growing thing. But certainly it's always a good thing to see what the trends are in the US, particularly on the West Coast, and I've just come back from Australia and it's absolutely extraordinary there - every top restaurant had their own garden."
Even if the last 20 years have seen more adventurous tastes emerge, Allen believes this doesn't have to be at the expense of plainer, less trendy ingredients.
"You don't need big bottles of pills and vitamins; you just want to feed the family simple, wholesome, nourishing food. It doesn't have to be fancy stuff - look at how nourishing potatoes, eggs and cabbage are. You might say, 'Cabbage is so boring'. My God, we can do amazing things with cabbages - everything from soups to salads and pickles. You can add ginger into it or caraway seeds and all sorts of things. Straight- forward common-or-garden cabbage is super- nutritious and every bit as good as kale."
With her lifelong passion for food and desire to educate people about the proper ways to nourish themselves, it's small wonder that, 20 years on, Darina Allen is still the undisputed doyenne of Irish cooking.
Simply the best
In Weekend magazine's first edition, Darina Allen shared her recipes for roast fish, pasta with courgettes, citrus-fruit salad, and rhubarb bread and butter pudding. Today, for our special anniversary edition, she's selected recipes from her latest book, Grow, Cook, Nourish, that use many of the same ingredients of the original recipes, but cooked in exciting new ways. Try them yourself to see that, 20 years on, simple food can still be sensational…
Lemon tart with lemon ice-cream & candied peel
All elements of this dessert are delicious but eaten together are sublime. The clean, fresh taste comes through in this milk ice-cream, an excellent accompaniment to the classic lemon tart.
For the sweet shortcrust pastry: 75g butter
1 dssp caster or icing sugar
175g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
Beaten egg, to bind
For the filling:
3 organic eggs and 1 organic egg yolk
Zest of 2 lemons (washed well)
Freshly squeezed juice of 3 lemons (200ml)
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 orange (150ml)
150ml double cream
125g granulated sugar
For the lemon ice-cream:
1 organic egg
110g caster sugar
Freshly squeezed juice and finely grated zest of 1 good-sized lemon
For the candied lemon peel: 2 lemons
Stock syrup made with 150g sugar and 175ml water (see panel, below right)
A little caster sugar, to sprinkle
Mint or lemon balm leaves, to garnish
To make the candied lemon peel, peel the lemons very thinly with a swivel-top peeler, being careful not to include the white pith, and cut the strips into a fine julienne. Put in a saucepan with 450ml cold water and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the pot, refresh in cold water and repeat the process. Put the julienne in a saucepan with the syrup and cook gently for 5-8 minutes until the lemon julienne looks translucent. Remove with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on parchment paper or a cake rack. When cold, sprinkle with caster sugar. This can be stored in a jar or airtight tin for weeks or sometimes months.
To make the pastry, pulse together the butter, sugar and flour in a food processor, until the mixture forms coarse, 'flat' breadcrumbs. Add the egg and pulse again until the pastry comes together. Tip onto a sheet of clingfilm, form into a flat round and chill for at least 30 minutes, or 1 hour if possible.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. Roll the pastry out on a floured work surface, under a sheet of clingfilm. Slip the base of the tart tin under the pastry, lift into the tin and mould into the ring. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or freeze until needed.
Bake blind with baking beans for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is pale golden and almost fully cooked. Remove the beans, paint the base with a little beaten egg and return to the oven for 2-3 minutes. When it is cooked, leave it to cool while the filling is prepared. Reduce the oven temperatures to 160°C/325°F/gas mark 3.
Whisk all the ingredients for the tart filling together. When the mixture is nice and frothy, pour it into the tart shell. The mixture needs to come right to the top. Bake for about 35 minutes until the filling has become firm. Check by giving the tin a little shake. When the tart is lukewarm, remove the tart from the tin and leave it on a wire rack to cool (it's best eaten on the day it's made).
Meanwhile, make the ice-cream. Separate the egg, whisk the yolk with the milk and keep the white aside. Gradually mix in the sugar. Add with the lemon zest and juice to the liquid. Whisk the egg white until quite stiff and fold into the other ingredients. Freeze in a sorbetière according to the manufacturer's instructions or put in the freezer in a covered plastic container. When the mixture starts to freeze, remove from the freezer and whisk again, or break up in a food processor. Return to the freezer until frozen completely.
To serve, arrange a slice of lemon tart on the plate with a scoop of lemon ice-cream either directly on the plate or in a little bowl. Garnish with candied lemon peel and fresh mint or lemon balm leaves.
Cinnamon sugar beignets with roast rhubarb compote
The flavour of roast rhubarb is a relatively recent revelation; it intensifies the flavour and is so much easier to cook this way, as you don't have to worry about it dissolving into a mush. It would matter here.
Makes approx 40
Olive oil, for deep-frying
For the choux pastry: 150g strong bread flour
Pinch of salt
100g butter, cut into 1cm cubes
3-5 organic eggs, depending on size
For the roast rhubarb compote: 450g rhubarb
150g granulated sugar
2 tsp rosewater
For the cinnamon sugar: ½ tsp ground cinnamon
110g caster sugar
First make the choux pastry. Sift the flour with the salt onto a piece of silicone paper. Heat the water and the butter in a high-sided saucepan until the butter is melted. Bring to a fast rolling boil then remove from the heat. (Prolonged boiling evaporates the water and changes the proportions of the dough.) Immediately add all the flour at once and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon for a few seconds until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the saucepan to form a ball. Return the saucepan to a low heat and stir for 30 seconds-1 minute or until the mixture starts to fur the bottom of the saucepan. Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, set aside 1 egg, break it and whisk it in a bowl. Add the remaining eggs to the dough, one by one, with a wooden spoon, beating thoroughly after each addition. Make sure the dough comes back to the same texture each time before you add another egg. When it will no longer form a ball in the centre of the saucepan, add the beaten egg little by little. Use just enough to make a mixture that is very shiny and just drops reluctantly from the spoon in a sheet.
To make the roast rhubarb compote, preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Slice the rhubarb into 2.5cm pieces and arrange in a single layer in a medium ovenproof dish. Scatter the sugar over the rhubarb and leave to macerate for at least 45 minutes or 1 hour, if possible, until the juice starts to run. Cover with a sheet of parchment for 10 minutes. Remove and continue to roast for 15-25 minutes, depending on size, until the rhubarb is tender. Purée and add rosewater to taste - just a little to give a haunting flavour.
To cook the beignets, mix the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Heat the oil in a deep-fryer to 200°C. Drop teaspoons of the choux into the hot oil and cook for 2-3 minutes or until puffed and golden. Toss in the cinnamon sugar.
Serve these immediately, allowing 5 beignets per person, with a little bowl of roast rhubarb compote for dipping.
Monkfish, sweet potato & coconut stew
Another irresistible way to use sweet potato; there's no chilli in the recipe but one could add a couple of whole chillies split down the side when adding the sweet potato. A little creamed coconut could also be grated in if you would like.
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
150g onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
450g sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm chunks
600ml hot fresh fish stock
200ml coconut milk
1 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes
450g monkfish or cod, cut into 4cm chunks
2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Coriander leaves, to garnish
Heat the oil in a sauté pan on medium heat, add the onion and sweat for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook gently for a further 5 minutes. Add the sweet potato to the pan, season and stir gently to coat. Cook for 3-4 minutes, then add the hot fish stock and coconut milk. Add the chopped tomatoes and juice, season, bring to the boil and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes until both the sweet potato and tomato are just cooked.
Add the monkfish chunks and cook gently for a couple of minutes until the fish turns opaque. Add the fish sauce and lime juice. Season to taste. Just before serving, sprinkle the fresh coriander over the stew. Serve with pilaf rice.
Risotto with courgettes & nasturtium blossoms
The nasturtium flowers add both colour and a peppery note here - the perfect foil for the creamy risotto.
110g small courgettes
1 onion, sliced
1.7-1.9 litres of homemade chicken stock
400g arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano rice
150ml dry white wine
6-8 courgette blossoms
2 tbsp freshly chopped annual marjoram
50g freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra to serve
8-10 nasturtium blossoms, torn
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut the courgettes in half lengthwise and then into 5mm-thick slices at an angle. Alternatively, just cut into one-third dice.
Melt 50g butter in a saucepan and cook the courgettes for 4-5 minutes until al dente.
Melt 25g butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onion and sweat over a gentle heat for a few minutes.
In another saucepan, bring the stock to the boil and then adjust the heat so it stays at a gentle simmer.
Add the rice to the onion, stir for a minute or two to coat the grains, then add the wine and continue to cook until the wine is almost fully absorbed. Season well with salt and pepper. Begin to add ladlefuls of the simmering stock, stirring all the time and making sure that the last addition has been almost absorbed before adding the next.
After about 12 minutes, when the rice is beginning to soften, add the cooked courgettes and cook for a few minutes more.
When you are happy that it is just right, soft and wavy, stir in the courgette blossoms, marjoram, the remaining butter and the Parmesan. Taste: it should be exquisite. Correct the seasoning if necessary.
Sprinkle the nasturtium blossoms over the top and serve immediately in warm bowls with an extra sprinkling of Parmesan.
Flavoured syrups are such an obvious thing to do that I can't imagine why people don't have some in their pantry all the time. We make many different ones and use them not only for homemade lemonades but also for fruit salads and compotes. Sweet geranium, lemongrass and lemon verbena syrups are particularly good for poaching fruits. They keep for months in a fridge, or a shorter time if unrefrigerated.
350g granulated sugar
To make the stock syrup, dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes, then leave it to cool. Store in the fridge until needed.