As I was sitting on the train to Belfast earlier this week the passenger opposite me was reading the paper.
The headline screamed “Broccoli pill to save your life!” What a load of old codswallop! How could sapping the life out of a perfectly good brassica, and packing it into a tablet, save your life in any way? Vitamin pills and supplements have pretty much been discredited and the notion now is that you’re far better getting all your nutrients from fresh food.
At Garden Show Ireland last week, Slemish Market Garden were selling a myriad of edible plants, from lettuces to herbs and soft fruit canes to chilli plants. I’ve visited their permanent base, at the entrance to the Ecos Centre in Ballymena, many times and it’s the most perfect place to gauge the seasons and get a real feel for what’s suitable to be grown here.
Frank and Linda McCook, along with their son Matt and daughter-in-law Lori, grow things, in nutrient rich Antrim soil, that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have thought possible. When I first started cooking in restaurants here we imported almost everything. I remember working in the Ramore Restaurant in Portrush in the mid eighties and a polystyrene box arriving from Rungis Market in Paris every Wednesday. It was full of fresh herbs and different lettuces....the same varieties that Frank and Co were selling at the show. Thirty odd years ago one of the delights of the Parisian vegetable box was the dark bronze leafed oak leaf lettuce. It was a standing joke in the restaurant when some customers sent it back saying it was off.
During the summer Slemish Market garden grow broccoli outside, tightly netted to keep the very discerning Ballymena rabbits at bay. The florets are surrounded by wide leaves, which are tastier than spinach but normally thrown away. It would be very useful if supermarkets would stop trimming food to within an inch of its life and then keeping it hostage in sweaty plastic. When they’re in their natural state it’s so much easier to determine their vintage. Broccoli should have tight florets and be vivid dark green. When you unwrap it from cling film at times you find it’s got yellow flecks and smells very gasey!
For my first recipe, source the broccoli in loose form so you know exactly where you’re up to. Chicken and broccoli is a classic and I’ve combined the two in a salad of sticky glazed thighs with grilled broccoli, spruced up with scallion, roast red onions and crisp apple for a sweet, sour element.
Buying fruit poses the same problems - those ruby red strawberries might look lush under the plastic lid but can be tasteless and bitter, especially off season. English strawberries are in the shops now and ready to enjoy. They’re delicious on their own or anointed with a swish of cream. We all like a good trifle and my other recipe has my version with a lemon, almond sponge base, quivery strawberry jelly, sliced strawberries and custard, mascarpone cream. Multi coloured hundreds and thousands are completely optional...