My daughter once remarked to me that foods are strongly linked with her most vivid and treasured memories. The taste of a plate of food can transport her instantly to a different place and time. So, as an enthusiastic cook and gardener and the daughter of an Irish “mammy” who has inherited that deep seated need to feed others the thought of creating a memory or evoking a wonderful time and place through preparing a dish or a meal appeals deeply.
This blog is combining my love of my West Cork vegetable and fruit garden, my delight in feeding others and my enthusiasm for the abundance of great local produce in this very special corner of Ireland in which I am lucky to have my home.
Every week, I’ll start with the ingredients, wander through the garden, talk about the recipes and the memories, the places and the people that this food evokes in me. Feel free to try the produce and the recipes and share your food memories with me.
Like every meal in the seventies I make no apology for starting with soup. After all it is February. Storm Doris is brewing as I write. And the strong, staunch, survivor vegetables in my garden lend themselves to being slowly cooked to bring out the soft, savoury flavours. Leek and Potato Soup is an obvious choice for a day when the last of my leeks are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves. But the great thing about leeks is that however scabby and horrible they look after being bashed about by Atlantic storms, once you remove the outer leaves, the wonderful smell of fresh leeks hits you. And this soup is so simple and easy. Just three or four leeks sliced, same of peeled potatoes, a pint and a half of chicken or veg stock and a couple of fresh bay leaves if you so desire. That is it. The polar opposite of an Ottolenghi recipe. Soften the leeks in a little olive oil or butter, add the potatoes and stock and boil. Then simmer for about twenty minutes. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves before you blend to a very silky smooth consistency. Season and serve. Irish Brown bread and butter is in my opinion compulsory. Not compulsory but providing a welcome kick of salty, savoury, porky crunch is a crumble of lightly fried Clonakilty Black Pudding on top just before serving. This will serve two or three or four depending on whether you like seconds and how big your bowls are. For me this is the winter gardener’s ideal lunch. You have turned the compost heap, cleared the raised beds so they are awaiting your spring gardening plans, you have fed and mulched the fruit bushes, planted your broad beans and collected seaweed from Toe Head to make a rich fertiliser for your seedlings. What could be better than a bowl of steaming soup just thirty minutes from garden to table.
My second recipe is really neither a soup or a stew. It is true peasant food. It can be varied depending on what you have in your garden, fridge and store cupboard. Cheap, filling and nutritious. Piled high with flavour and designed to feed a crowd, it’s a great family evening meal. We call it Currabeg Kale Soup but in all honesty Kale is just one of many ingredients, which can easily be replaced with whatever leafy greens you have swaying around in your garden. It draws on the Italian Ribolitta and Minestrone but also the French Cassoulet but has been adapted by me for our Townland of Currabeg in the West Cork Parish of Castlehaven.
The best thing about this soup is its adaptability to the ingredients you have access to but also to your choice of seasoning. It can be vegetarian or full on carnivore. I am giving you my version, but that will probably have changed by the next time I cook it. So here goes: you’ve finely chopped a large onion, two sticks of celery and a large carrot. Lightly fry them in oil in a large pan for about ten minutes and by all means add some lardons of Gubbeen bacon if you want to add a smokier, savoury element. At this stage I add one teaspoon of chilli flakes, one heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds, three bay leaves and two crushed cloves of garlic and carry on lightly frying for a couple more minutes. By now the kitchen will smell gorgeous and you will be feeling hungry. Throw in a tin of tomatoes or any old tomatoes that have been lurking in the fridge or on the window sill a little too long. Add a couple of pints of stock, which can be chicken or vegetable. Leave to simmer on a very low heat for about forty five minutes and just give it a stir occasionally. Meanwhile go and pick a large bunch of kale, cavola nero, chard or spinach from the garden. Larger tougher leaves are fine for this. Wash well, because even though pests are not as keen on Kale as the more succulent greens, slugs still use the dark green, thick, blistered leaves as sort of umbrellas to shelter from Atlantic storms in my garden. Roughly chop the leaves into mouth sized pieces (remove any stringy stalks) and proceed to your store cupboard. Grab a tin of beans, not baked beans, but any other beans will do. I have used chickpeas, haricot beans, borlotti beans, cannellini beans and kidney beans to good effect. All work well. Add your beans and your greens and cook for a further ten minutes. Its ready to serve. Big bowls only, please. You can grate parmesan over the top, and serve with crusty white or brown bread. And you can very easily make this into a more substantial meal by adding sausages which have been browned all over at the time that you add the tomatoes and stock. We have done this with garlic and herb sausages, merguez sausages, small cooking chorizos and Italian style sausages made at Walsh’s Butchers in Skibbereen with equally good results. When it has morphed into a sausage stew we serve it with mashed potatoes.
When I think about this soup, wherever I may be I am immediately transported to my garden in West Cork. And this is a soup that should never be eaten alone. It is a sharing and caring dish. So it places me very firmly at my kitchen table with friends and family after a day of hard work in the garden, an afternoon kayaking at Reen Pier or a walk at Rineen Woods at sunset. I love the simplicity of this ever changing and generous one pot meal with a glass of wine – nothing too fancy though, this is peasant food at its most glorious. So tonight, batten down the hatches, make soup and prepare for the imminent arrival of Doris.