October’s theme for Northern Ireland year of Food and Drink is harvest.
Conscientious and passionate chefs will tell you that this is their favourite time of year.
There’s an abundance of root vegetables like verdant topped carrots, purple hued turnips and rich multi coloured beetroot. There hasn’t been much frost so there are still some raspberries and blackberries about. A late season berry is one of mother nature’s special treats – lashed by summer rain, warmed in its sun and packed full of intense flavour. The elderberry tree has morphed from saucers of lace like flowers to branches that bow with the weight of rich dark jewel like berries. I’m busy gathering elderberries at the moment to freeze for the winter and also to make my first recipe this week – elderberry and beetroot ketchup. Beetroots are roasted in foil until soft. You could boil them but I hate all that the kitchen steams up and more than often the pan runs dry too! They’re then cooked with onion, the berries, vinegar and sugar, blended and passed. The astringent fruit cuts through the earthy sugariness of the beetroot. Bottle and save for the winter months to have with game, duck or sausages. It works especially well with pigeon if you’re lucky enough to bag yourself some.
If you’ve been blessed with some end of season raspberries, eat them simply adorned with cream – anything more would be sinful. Freeze them for a time when daylight only exists for about eight hours and the temperature has plummeted – a deep, delicious bite of end of summer on a dismal winter day.
Last weekend at the Slow Food festival in Derry/Londonderry expert gardener Jilly Dougan was there with her “Sow, Grow, Munch” project and presented me with a bag stuffed with produce she’d grown. Lush sweetcorn, the kernels bursting apart, lime green sage leaves, sultry dark cavalo nero leaves, candy stripe, golden and purple beetroot, scallions and lovage. It never ceases to amaze me what you can actually grow in this country, if you know how. Frank McCook and his family run the Slemish Market Garden, just at the entrance to the Ecos Centre in Ballymena. At this time of year his daughter-in-law Lori, a native of Virginia in the US, grows a mountain of different pumpkins. Blue skinned Crown Prince, oval spaghetti squash, vibrant orange onion pumpkins, mottled green acorn squash and kabocha to name a few. The sight of all these together, heaving on a table, would gladden the hardest heart. You could use them for carving, but frankly it would be a bit of waste. Their flesh is dense and the skin hard making them deliciously sweet and rich to eat, but, if you’re carving, a disaster waiting to happen on the health and safety front! I used to carefully peel pumpkin and remove the seeds before roasting but my sensible chef friend, Romy Gill made me realise this was a waste of time and food. Cut into wedges, toss in oil, season and roast – the skin softens and the seeds become crispy. I’ve included a recipe for roast pumpkin this week with labne. It’s a strained yoghurt made by placing in a coffee filter lined sieve over a bowl. The yoghurt becomes thick and creamy like a soft cheese. You could add fresh herbs but I’ve added caramelized onions – the sharp savouriness cuts through the sweet pumpkin to create a wonderfully balanced dish ideal to serve with roasts.