Cookery Feature - Keep Well - and Celebrate Spring!

A year after Covid-19 first darkened our lives, things are beginning to look up at last - but we’re all getting really weary. So, now that we’re on the home straight and the prize is in sight, it’s more important than ever to focus on keeping well. The Healthy Ireland programme offers plenty of practical advice, including five key tips from dietitian Aoife Hearne on how to build a strong foundation for eating well by building healthy habits into our daily lives. This may be familiar ground but, for most of us, resolve is running low at this stage so a timely reminder and some encouragement could be just what’s needed. Put simply:
1. Move away from an “all-or-nothing” attitude to eating. Eating perfectly 100% of the time is not a realistic goal, so just work towards making healthier choices as much as possible.
2. Get back to basics by making a meal plan each week and writing a shopping list to match it, so you can ensure that that the majority of foods that make it on to your shopping list are fresh whole foods.
3. Make the healthy choices easy to do, eg leave fresh fruit on the counter in your kitchen so it’s visible and tempting.
4. Aim for a little and often approach to eating. Start with breakfast, to set you up for a successful day of eating well, and eat at regular times throughout the day.
5. Keep a food & mood diary. Aoife advis
es that this can really help you track what you eat and become more connected and engaged with the food you are eating, how much you are eating and why you are eating certain foods.

Aoife includes a lot of other good advice - and, of course, eating well is only part of the picture, with exercise, outdoor activities (time to get into gardening again!) and mindfulness among the many other factors that contribute to keeping well. But for me ‘good home cooking’ is always top of the list and the sure-fire recipes on the Bord Bia website are always worth checking out.

These quick and easy dishes (with my own tweaks) make satisfying wholesome comfort food to uplift the most trying day.

Cider Braised Loin of Bacon with Stir-fried Cabbage
This fresh take on traditional Bacon & Cabbage would be perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day or a homely Sunday lunch. Pork and bacon is extremely versatile and buying well pays dividends in flavour, texture and longterm sustainability. I often use O’Neill’s Dry Cure Bacon from Co Wexford, which is widely available, for this kind of dish - and it’s delicious hot and cold, so try to resist scoffing the lot and leave some for a sandwich next day. One of Darina’s lovely rhubarb puddings would go very well with this as a seasonal partner on St Patrick’s Day…Takes about 1¾ hours. Serves 6.

800g loin of bacon
1 carrot, cleaned and chopped
1 stick of celery, cleaned and chopped
A dash of vinegar
10 juniper berries, crushed
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 sage leaves, chopped
1 tbsp honey
250ml cider
2 tbsp crème fraiche
1 tbsp Dijon-style mustard
1 tbsp cornflour or potato starch, mixed with 1 tbsp. water - optional

Stir-fried cabbage
A knob of butter
1 small onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
650g Savoy cabbage, or other green-leafed cabbage, shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 4, 180°C (350°F).
Place the loin of bacon in an ovenproof saucepan along with the carrot, celery and vinegar. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the bacon is cooking, in a small bowl combine the ingredients for the topping - juniper berries, garlic, sage leaves and honey.
After 30 minutes remove the bacon from the saucepan and place on a plate or board. Score the fat and spread over the topping mixture. Discard the cooking liquid and vegetables and rinse the saucepan with cold water.
Return the bacon to the saucepan, add the cider and place, uncovered, in the preheated oven. Roast for a further 20 minutes basting from time to time. Remove the bacon from the saucepan and keep warm.
Add the crème fraiche to the juices and simmer to reduce for 5 minutes. Whisk in the mustard. If you like the sauce thicker, whisk in the cornflour and water mixture and allow to cook for a couple of minutes.
To prepare the stir-fried cabbage, melt the butter in a wok or large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sliced onion and garlic and allow it to soften for a few minutes.
Add the shredded cabbage, season with a little salt and black pepper and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until the cabbage is tender and slightly wilted.
Slice the bacon and serve with the cider sauce, stir-fried cabbage and mashed potatoes or champ.

2 tbsp butter
4 scallions, finely chopped
10-12 freshly cooked floury potatoes, cut into even-sized chunks
8 tbsp milk

To make champ, melt the butter in a small saucepan and gently sauté the scallions until softened. Pour in the milk and butter and bring to a simmer.
Mash the potatoes and then using a wooden spoon, beat in the milk mixture until you have achieved smooth, creamy mash. Taste and season well.

Baked Eggs with Creamy Spinach
Eggs are nature’s convenience food, always to hand and so quick and easy to rustle up a tasty meal. These baked eggs take only 20 minutes to make and it’s a healthy and satisfying dish that can be dressed up or down - perhaps with additions such as baked tomatoes, or a side salad - for any time of the day. Serves 4.

8 medium eggs
A knob of butter
75g baby spinach, roughly chopped
2 tbsp. pesto
125ml cream
125g creamy goats’ cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
30g finely grated cheese
To serve: Crusty bread

Heat oven to Gas Mark 6, 200°C (400°F).
Grease 4 x 12cm round ovenproof dishes.
Mix together the spinach, pesto, cream, goats’ cheese and seasoning. Spoon this mixture into the dishes. Break two eggs into each dish.
Sprinkle the cheese over the top.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny.
Serve immediately with crusty bread.

Chicken Fillets with Tomato Sauce and Chickpeas
While chicken fillets are the most popular standby for busy cooks, alternatives such as chicken legs or part-boned breasts are equally good and better value. The chickpeas are a healthy addition and the current recommendation is to include more pulses in our daily meals so this is right on trend. Couscous is a natural partner for chickpeas but you could also serve this with mashed potatoes to soak up the delicious sauce.
Takes about 45 minutes. Serves 4.

4 chicken fillets, or similar
2 tbsp. rapeseed or olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 yellow pepper, cut in strips
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar
400g tin of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. smoked paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To serve: A green salad and couscous or mashed potatoes.

To make the marinade: In a medium bowl combine the garlic, lemon rind and juice, cumin, paprika and black pepper. Add the chicken and stir to coat.
To cook: Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened.
Then add the pepper and cook for a couple of minutes. Remove them to a plate while you brown the chicken.
Add a little more oil to the pan and increase the heat. Add in the chicken fillets. Brown on both sides.
Add back in the onion and pepper mixture along with the tinned tomatoes and sugar. Season with a little salt and black pepper.
Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add in the chickpeas and allow to cook for another few minutes.
To serve, sprinkle over the chopped coriander and serve with a green salad and couscous which has been flavoured with lemon juice, garlic, chopped scallions and lots of coriander.

Bacon and Mushroom Risotto
Everyone loves risotto and this is a great recipe for trying out flavour variations (using lemon, garlic or chilli oil, for example), but you could also go one further and use Irish-grown barley instead of the rice - inexpensive and so delicious! Takes about 25 minutes. Serves 4

200g smoked bacon lardons
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
150g button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
300g risotto rice
400g tin chopped tomatoes
600mls warm chicken stock, homemade if possible
Basil leaves (or other preferred herb) to taste, chopped
2 tbsp mature cheddar cheese, finely grated

Heat the oil in a wide, shallow saucepan over a gentle heat. Add the bacon and onion and cook for about 5 minutes until the onion has softened. Then add the mushrooms, garlic and rice and stir well to combine.
Add the tin of tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Gradually add the stock, a ladleful at a time. As the stock is absorbed add more and stir regularly for about 15 minutes,until all the stock is used and the rice is cooked. Taste and season with a little salt and pepper.
Turn off the heat, stir through the cheese and sprinkle over the basil leaves. Serve straight away with a green salad.


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