Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Why Soy?

During my trips up and down to feed my pigs things go through my mind.  I suppose in some respect I am evaluating my relationship with food and beginning to question more and more where it comes from and how it's produced.

I made a decision a long time ago to stop buying eggs.  I have my own hens and ducks and if they don't lay then I do without.  I then decided to stop buying layers mash (meal for laying hens) as it is produced using GM ingredients.  What was the point having delicious free range eggs polluted with GMs?

I am raising pigs for my own GM-free pork and bacon.

Limousin herd on lane
But as I walk down the lane to feed the pigs I am surrounded by beef, dairy and sheep farmers.  I got to thinking about meat and milk.  What GM feed is given to cattle and sheep?  Okay we are lucky here in Ireland to have quality grass for a good proportion of the year and then sileage for the rest.  But what about supplemental feed?  During winter when "nuts" are fed, chances are they are full of genetically modified maize and soy.  So for at least a proportion of the year unless you are buying certified organic you are consuming beef, lamb, milk and milk products produced from genetically modified feed ingredients.

Then a friend put a notice up on Facebook that she had an unused tin of Wysoy infant formula if anyone wanted it.  Out of interest I asked her to check the tin and see if it specified produced from GM-free soy.  No mention of it.  Now surely if it was, the manufacturer would plaster it all over the tin?? Out of curiosity I e-mailed SMA Nutrition to ask them. To be fair they answered the next day saying that the soy beans are in fact non-GM.

Then I wondered was the "normal" baby milk formula produced from cows fed a non-GM diet.  I e-mailed again and received an answer that all their ingredients were GM-free.  This was not the question I had asked, so I asked it again and received the following response "We receive skim milk in powder form. This milk is tested as part of the Supplier Contaminants programme and testing has confirmed that this is non-GM".  

 As far as I am concerned this is not a satisfactory answer as I do not have any idea what the Supplier Contaminants programme is and also what they are actually testing for?  At no point have they confirmed that the milk they use is from cows fed a GM-free diet so I can't see how they can say the milk is GM-free. 

So why are we so reliant on soy?  Why do we need so many tonnes of it to feed animals?  We can grow fields of barley, wheat, oats, rape seed all more than adequate for feeding any animal.  Before the sugar industry in this country was shut down, beet pulp was produced cheaply as a by-product for animal feed.  Why are we importing soy and maize from the US which is virtually all GM?

Why do so few consumers care about what they eat or what they feed their children?  Organic and GM-free is more expensive and people are struggling to balance budgets but there are many who complain about the cost of food and then go out and buy their kids the latest game console.  The same consumers who get a take away as they can't be bothered cooking.  The parents who give their kids money to buy junk at lunchtime instead of sandwiches.  If all of the people who could actually afford to upgrade to better quality food did so, then the increase in demand would decrease the price - benefiting all.

Why soy?

Wysoy  GM Soy  Free Range Pigs  GM Free Food  Free Range Eggs

Friday, 24 August 2012

Foraging in my Day

Ripe blackberries in hedgerow
When we were kids my father used to drive us up into fields near the Dublin Mountains to pick blackberries.  We did it every year and my memory is once we had stuffed our faces and our hands were black we started moaning we were bored and wanted to go home.  Of course we were never let and we had to at the very least fill the bowl we had been given.  When we got home my mother made jam and apple and blackberry tarts.  She used to freeze them as well and I remember trays in the freezer with fruit spread out until it could be picked off and bagged.

I continued on the tradition when my kids were small.  We used to head off with my son on his bike and my daughter in her buggy and Simba the dog in tow.  The kids had buckets and did all the usual moaning while Simba had a great time sniffing out rabbits.

I always remember getting the "funny looks" from passing cars.  At least I thought they were looking at me strangely but maybe they were just curious as to what we were doing.  You always got the odd one who stopped, rolled down the window and gave some sort of advice re: maggots, bugs, pollution etc.

Blackberry jam is up there with the greats and by the greats I mean raspberry and apricot - my favourites.

Blackberry and apple crumble is sublime served with big dollops of whipped cream.  Pure comfort food.

Blackberries also freeze really well and you don't have to go to the trouble my mother did trying to freeze the berries separately.  Unlike softer fruit they don't go into a mush when they defrost and they keep their flavour. 

Plus and it's a very big plus - they are free; they are full of vitamins and anti-oxidants and they have not been flown half way around the globe having been sprayed with pesticides en route. 

Blackberry and apple tart and blackberry muffin
So get back to your roots and go blackberry picking.  Make a day out. Pack a picnic.  Take the dog and the kids.  Then when you get home make a big blackberry and apple tart and enjoy!

Muffin recipe here
Basic tart recipe here

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


For a long time now I have steered clear of anything packaged that describes itself as "artisan".  It has fast become the most overused, meaningless word.  Describing everything from genuinely craft-made to processed ham that came from the "oink" of a pig.

The true definition of artisan is an object or item made by a craftsman as opposed to a machine.

An "artisan" food made in an intensive production plant is not artisan; rather it may have been made to an artisan recipe but more than likely was not.

Another overused word is "gourmet".

Gourmet cat food
I saw a comment on Twitter recently that since gourmet is now used to describe cat and dog food it really has become ridiculous.

Farmers' Market to my mind conjures up images of a market where farmers wheel up and sell their excess produce. Not the markets we have, where everything from jars of imported Italian pesto and Tapanade are sold alongside car-boot-style junk and cupcakes.

Or a friend who recently described a lifestyle store as selling "boom-time tat".  It actually sold grossly overpriced lifestyle goods including a range of outrageously expensive "gourmet/artisan" foods.

Free range another meaningless description.  Apparently Bord Bia have written a new definition of this. I can't wait to see chickens sold in supermarkets when this new definition becomes law.  Will the ones currently described as free range now be described as "almost" free range?

It really is a refreshing to see a product well-presented and described for what it is.  No overblown claims - relying on the quality and taste to make a repeat sale.  If a product does not rely on eye-catching packaging, extravagant claims or even lies then the chances are it is worth a try.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Plan Ahead Chilli

Cooking something fresh every day is a great aspiration, however life invariably gets in the way.  When you have small kids - as I did in the long distant past, I used this method, and even now when I live mostly on my own it works as well.

It means that when there are times you don't feel like cooking, you can't be bothered driving for a takeaway or just when you are in a rush, you always have something at hand in your freezer take away.

The essentials are a freezer and a microwave because, unless you are super-organised you will forget to take your food out of the freezer on time.

Another essential is labelling.  Sounds obvious but I have lost count of how many times I have taken out a curry, because I felt like curry (my mother used to kill us for saying this) only to discover it was beef stew or a pasta sauce.

The way to do it is to always cook more than you need.  Always!

And then to save those great plastic takeaway containers and use them to freeze your extra into individual portions.  Luckily I have friends who seem to live on takeaways and they save the containers for me.  Incidentally, they think I am mad!

Lots of meals work for this - chilli being one. I also cook extra rice and freeze it so I don't even have to go to the trouble of cooking it.

Chilli is one of those dishes everyone has a different way of cooking and I have heard arguments about whether it should contain beans or even meat.  I spent a year and a half in California and during that time I dipped into Mexico - okay it was Tijuana , but still Mexico.  My recipe has developed over years of experimentation and it is the one I am happy with.

Chilli con Carne

2 medium onions diced
2 cloves of garlic crushed
1 carrot diced
1 stick celery diced (if you want to conceal the carrot and celery from small kids or big ones grate them)
454g mince beef or diced rib beef
1 tin kidney beans
1 tin mixed beans or broad beans (as with celery and carrot - mash if you want to conceal them)
2 tins chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon hot chilli powder
2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon turmeric.

Fry the onion and garlic until soft and just coloured.  Add in spices and cook for a few minutes.  Add in the celery and carrot.  Add beef, beans, tomatoes and cook over a low heat for at least an hour.  The longer it's cooked the nicer it is.  It is also much nicer a day or two after cooking.

Serve with rice.

When my kids were small I used to disguise all sorts of vegetables in dishes like this either grating them or chopping them very finely.  My son hated beans so I used to mash one tin and then allow him to pick out the ones he could see.  He was happy as he thought he had got away without eating them - little did he know! I also add the turmeric as it apparently has all sorts of anti-inflammatory properties and you don't taste it. 

Freeze the leftovers in Chinese takeaway plastic lidded containers.

The above recipe makes enough for 6-8 servings.

I freeze curries, stews, lasagne, pasta sauces and fish pie using this method of always cooking extra.  It's so much easier to cook extra than trying to batch cook on your day off.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Côtes du Meath - Part 1

This year will be remembered in my garden as the year of the blackcurrant. I planted blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries about 3 years ago and it has taken until now to get any sort of a crop.

I had masses of blackcurrants and I am not a huge fan of them sadly, so jam was out.  I had picked a kilo last year and froze them and only got around recently to making Creme de Cassis.  So what to do with this year's crop?

Googling recipes I found all the predictables - jam, ice cream, sorbet, tarts etc.  Then I discovered a recipe for wine (Blackcurrant wine recipe).  Sadly they all seem to advise adding copious amounts of sugar and sweet wine is not what I want to make. 

I have had great success in the last couple of years making cider from my cooking apples and also apple beer.  I made elderflower champagne last year.  These all worked without the addition of yeast (using the natural yeasts present on the fruit and flowers).  Then last year I got completely carried away and tried to make dandelion wine.  Unfortunately, without any yeast it just went mouldy. I ordered some wine yeast on line intending on making more this year but never got around to it.

I ordered both yeast and bottles from The Home Brew Company and have been very happy with the service.

For both my cider and the wine I have used plastic buckets with lids that I sterilised first.

 So my version of the above recipe is:

3kg of blackcurrants (remove any leaves or twigs and general debris but do not wash the fruit)
5 litres of boiled and cooled water (30 deg C)
One fifth of a sachet of red wine yeast (a sachet is 5g)
2 tablespoons sugar
I clean bucket with lid

Crush the fruit with a potato masher. Initially the fruit will sink to the bottom.  However as the yeast starts to act it will begin to rise and will float on the top of the bucket.  You need to stir twice a day. This is to prevent the fruit drying out so it is essential for the first 6 days at least.

When you stir it you will hear a fizzing noise.  This is normal and is the action of the yeast working away to convert the natural sugars in the fruit and in the added sugar to alcohol.

I am following this process loosely (wine from grapes). 

When the fizzing has ceased at approximately day 6-8 I will strain the liquid off through muslin and filter into flip top bottles.  

Part two of this post will demonstrate and explain the rest of the process as I complete it and hopefully this time next year part three will yield a few bottles of Côtes du Meath 2012.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Growing my Own

Blackcurrants about ready
I am almost ashamed to admit it but I only started gardening as such about three years ago.  I say ashamed because I have a degree in horticulture (in landscape design).  For years I said I hated gardening and would never, ever get the bug.  It's a past time for old women right?  At least that was what I told myself.

When we lived in England my 3 year old son saw a woman across the road cutting her grass and said to his dad, "daddy, ladies don't cut grass do they"?  I laugh to myself now when I think of it because I cut my grass with a kind of frenetic zeal every week.

When I lost my job I had to find something to keep me busy or I would have gone crazy, so I started tentatively growing some vegetables.  I went out and bought seeds, lots and lots of seeds and a small cheap propagator.  I had seed trays spread everywhere and when I transferred them outside, most of them died or got eaten.  I then sowed some seed directly outside and had more mixed success.  The most success I had was when I blagged some seedling plugs from a friend with a poly tunnel.  This was because she had bought good quality seed, good quality compost and had the icing on the cake - a poly tunnel.

Our weather here this summer has been a disaster and I have heard many gardeners saying they will have to admit defeat and put in a tunnel.  We have had nothing but rain and temperatures have been well below normal.  I heard the met office saying the last 4 summers have been bad but this summer has been the worst by a mile.  

Chickens can only look
I discovered the hard way that when you have poultry, as I do, that they are not compatible with seedlings or newly sown potato drills.  Now they are fenced out of a raised area.  In winter I let them in to clear out bugs and slugs and to fertilise it.  If I ever forget to close the gate they are in like a shot.

The problem with a small raised area is that it is necessary to practice crop rotation and to incorporate plenty of compost at the start of every growing season.  The compost is not a problem as I compost all my suitable household waste and chicken pooh is even better.

The chicken wire around the raised bed also doubles as support for peas and beans.  This year my peas are really, really late as you can see here to the left.  Normally this would be the stage a second crop would be at.

Each year I have differing levels of success with different species.  This year has been the year of the rhubarb, raspberry and blackcurrants.  But all the different Brassicas have done well including purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.  Two years ago I had a fantastic crop of courgettes but last year and this year they have been really disappointing. My sole surviving courgette plant has finally got some flowers so I am hopeful that at least a few brave courgettes will make it.

I only "discovered" this magnificent cauliflower yesterday and got a bit of a shock when I saw it.  This is because every plant I have grown up to this has failed to form a nice cohesive head, as in the picture and instead looked like a big lacy flower, still edible, but wouldn't win a prize in the local agricultural show.

I have read and can confirm it is true, that if you have poor soil, plant potatoes.

The soil I have had potatoes in, is now dark, crumbly and friable.  I have dug a few rows of this years crop and have now planted more salad, rocket, beetroot and purple sprouting broccoli in it. 

The best thing by a mile about growing your own is the almost smug satisfaction you get from going out and digging or picking what you want to cook for dinner.  Knowing that it is truly organic, fresh and above all tastes amazing.  And for a confirmed non-gardener like me it really is not a huge amount of work.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

Decadently Delicious

What is more decadent than dark chocolate?  Dark chocolate and orange.  What's even more decadent? Chocolate cake and orange curd.

This strange process went through my head while walking back from feeding the pigs.  Why?  Because the veg man had given me oranges for them.  They don't like oranges and the oranges were perfect.

Quite apart from why shops waste so much? But this is not another rant post!

I looked up an orange curd recipe and found this.  It needs to be chilled for a few hours to get a good consistency.

The chocolate cake recipe is as follows:
150g softened butter
150g sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
50g extra rouge cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder

Extra rouge cocoa powder is a much stronger cocoa powder than that normally available and gives a real richness. Try and get a local bakery shop to order some for you from their suppliers usually Pallas Foods.

Cream butter and sugar together, add eggs one by one and beat in well until pale and fluffy.  Sieve in cocoa, flour and baking powder.  Divide between two greased sandwich tins and bake in a pre-heated oven gas mark 4/190 C until firm and springs back to a gentle touch.

When cool sandwich with the orange curd.  Top with melted dark chocolate.  I used 100g (75% cocoa solids) but any good quality dark chocolate will work.

Put the kettle on and make a big pot of real tea or good strong coffee and have a slice.  Do not be tempted to have a second.  I did and I almost died!

orange curd, chocolate, extra rouge cocoa powder

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Rhubarb and Date Tart

I have tried unsuccessfully for the last couple of years to grow rhubarb .  But then I read somewhere that if we have a very dry spell in spring then this could contribute to a poor crop.  Surprisingly, we have had several dry springs the last few years.  This year though my two rhubarb plants bloomed.  They seem to love all the rain and I have already got two good crops.

I made a rhubarb and date chutney and it is presently mellowing in jars in my kitchen cupboards.  I decided to try the combination in a tart and it was surprisingly good.   I am trying to reduce using refined sugar and in as much as possible using muscovado sugar (which is unrefined cane sugar).  However, you need to add 50g sugar to the pastry as the muscovado is a bit course.

250g white Spelt flour (or plain white wheat flour)
125g butter
50g sugar
water to make a cohesive dough

Make the pastry by rubbing softened butter into sieved flour.  Stir in the sugar and add enough cold water to bring together and make a dough.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

500g rhubarb
75g dates chopped
75g muscovado sugar

Cut your dough into two equal halves. Line a 27cm tart tin with pastry.  Fill with the chopped rhubarb and sprinkle the dates and muscovado over.  Roll out the remainder of pastry and top the fruit mix.  Cut 3 vents to allow steam to escape and either egg wash or brush with milk.  Sprinkle a little bit of sugar over.

Place in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 6 for approximately 45 minutes checking if you need to turn the tart around half way through and also reducing heat to gas mark 4 for the last 15 minutes.

I served it with some raspberry and blackcurrant coulis I made as I also had a great crop of both.  I softened the blackcurrants in a pan and then added to the blitzed rasberries.  Pass the mix through a sieve and add some icing sugar to taste. 

Tip - sprinkle some semolina onto the pastry base before adding the filling.  This thickens the juice.

Rhubarb, Dates, Spelt, Tart  muscovado sugar  coulis, raspberry and blackcurrant