The Darina Allen Column - How to Avoid Another Supermarket Veg Crisis

Darina was not surprised by the recent fresh produce supply problems in our shops, she had seen it coming for years and warns (yet again) that we must support our growers. And cooking her delicious recipes using seasonal Irish produce are a good place to start.

Empty baskets in the vegetable and fruit section of our supermarkets (and even more so in the UK) recently sent a quiver of panic through the retail trade. Shoppers are having to become accustomed to gaps on the shelves.
The shortages were caused by a variety of factors, unpredictable weather conditions linked to climate change, soaring fuel costs, staff shortages and supply chain issues.
An unexpectedly cold snap in Spain resulted in 16 consecutive nights of below zero temperatures. The increasing energy costs have meant that many growers delayed planting crops or actually left their greenhouses empty altogether because they can no longer afford to grow at a loss...
It's crunch time, there simply isn't enough product to go around. For far too long, we have ignored the vegetable and fruit growers' warnings that they cannot continue to grow indefinitely unless they are paid a fair price for what they produce. Already many experienced growers who have been in business for generations have reluctantly locked their gates and are selling up.
It's abundantly clear that our food supply system is deeply flawed and the just-in-time delivery model leaves us vulnerable to unexpected shocks. This wakeup call exposes the fragility of the modern supply chain.
Regular readers of this column will recall that I have highlighted this issue on many occasions. We urgently need a government food strategy that supports Irish farmers to produce fresh local food so we are no longer overly reliant on importing fresh products from thousands of miles away. Otherwise, we will have no Irish vegetable growers within a couple of years and then what....
Advance planning is crucial, fresh food cannot be spirited onto the shelves in a few days...... It takes 3 to 5 months for many vegetables to grow from seed to shelf.
Meanwhile, at home. Let's take back control – let's consider growing some of our own food. It couldn't be a better time of the year, Spring is in the air, perfect time to sow seeds.
Even if you've never grown anything in your life before, you can certainly grow some salad leaves, even on your balcony or windowsill.... All you'll need is a container, could be a recycled box or even a plastic mushroom container from your local greengrocer...Fill it up with some soil or compost, scatter some salad mix seeds over the top, sprinkle on a little more soil and mist with water...Cover with a sheet of damp newspaper...The seeds will germinate within a couple of days, remove the paper....They love plenty of light, then all you need is a bit of patience as you watch your salad leaves grow...Within a few weeks, you'll be able to harvest your very own salad leaves several times.
Then you may want to progress to a raised (or otherwise) bed in your garden.
In the US, an enthusiastic movement to 'Grow Food, Not Lawns' has been gathering momentum for some time now -
Meanwhile, let's go out of our way to source freshly harvested local food, jumping with vital nutrients to ensure optimum health. We can all take matters into our own hands and make a difference by actively sourcing in local shops and farmers markets....
Hotels, restaurants, hospitals, universities around the country can also make a dramatic contribution by linking in with local farmers and food producers to commission them to grow, even staples like potatoes, carrots, salad leaves and onions at an agreed price, a win-win situation for all.
Our current food system is broken... it's time for urgent action...
Meanwhile, on both a government and personal level, we can and must, all make a difference. Let's make a concerted effort to eat with the seasons when local food is at peak flavour and perfection ...
So, what's in season?
It can be confusing, ask your local shop or supermarket to identify local seasonal produce on their shelves ... Winter roots and greens are at their peak at present so look out for kales, chard, Savoy cabbage, cauliflower, leeks... Swede turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, black radishes, winter carrots, parsnips... The first of the new season rhubarb is ready for picking and if you have access to wild watercress, it's deliciously peppery at present, perfect for salads, soups and garnishing.
Have fun experimenting, use lots of spices and lashings of gutsy winter herbs .... Enjoy and give thanks to Mother Nature for her bounty...

Who doesn't love bacon and cabbage? St Patrick's Day is coming up too...This version is a traditional Irish meal, all in one pot meal. Make from scratch or I sometimes love to whip this up with the leftovers from a bacon and cabbage and parsley sauce meal, it gets a terrific reaction. Serves 8-10

650g (1lb 6oz) bacon (collar or oyster cut, rind on) or cooked ham
Parsley Sauce (see recipe below)
1 teaspoon English mustard
2 tablespoons cream
450g (1lb) Savoy or Hispi cabbage, cored and sliced across the grain
450g (1lb) Scallion Champ (see recipe below)
1 x 3 pint terracotta dish (25cm/10 inch wide x 2.5cm/1 inch deep)

Cover the uncooked bacon in cold water, bring to the boil uncovered. Taste; if the liquid is very salty discard and re-cover with fresh hot water. Bring back to the boil, cover, and cook for 40-45 minutes approximately or until the rind will peel off easily. Remove to a plate, add the chopped cabbage to the bacon water and continue to cook until the cabbage is tender, about 10-15 minutes depending on the variety. Drain well.
Meanwhile, make the Parsley Sauce (see recipe).
Add mustard and cream. Taste and correct seasoning.

Make the Scallion Champ (see recipe below).
Remove the bacon rind, if necessary, Cut the bacon into scant 2cm (3/4 inch) chunks. Add the cooked cabbage and mix gently.

Bring the Parsley Sauce back to the boil. Fold in the bacon and cabbage, add a little bacon cooking water if necessary. Taste, correct the seasoning.
Fill into one or several pie dishes.
Pipe a generous layer of Scallion Champ on top.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, cook for 10-15 minutes until bubbling and beginning to colour on top. Serve immediately with a little extra mustard on the side.

Parsley Sauce Serves 6–8
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (retain the stalks)
900ml (1½ pints) fresh whole milk
30-45g (1-1½ oz) Roux (see recipe)
salt and freshly ground pepper
Put the parsley stalks into a saucepan with the cold milk, bring slowly to the boil, then remove the stalks. Whisk the roux into the boiling milk until thickened and add the chopped parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Simmer for 5-10 minutes on a very low heat, then taste and correct the seasoning. The sauce should be thickish for this pie.

110g (4oz) butter
110g (4oz) flour
Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally. Use as required. Roux can be stored in a cool place and used as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred. It will keep at least a fortnight in a refrigerator.

Spring Scallion Champ Serves 6-8
1.5kg (3lb) unpeeled 'old' potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr's Pinks
110g (4oz) chopped scallions or spring onions (use the bulb and green stem) or 45g (1¾oz)
chopped chives
350ml (10-12fl oz) whole milk
50-110g (2-4oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets in well-salted water.
Meanwhile chop finely the scallions or spring onions or chives. Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse.
Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while still hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper, beat in the butter.
Serve in 1 large or 4-6 individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre. Scallion champ may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Cauliflower or broccoli salad is not an obvious choice, but it is surprisingly delicious. The secret as is the case with many salads is to dip the florets in a good dressing while still warm, so they really absorb the flavours. Serves 6

1 small head cauliflower
110ml (4fl oz) Ballymaloe French Dressing (see recipe below)

Ideally this should be made with slightly shot heads at the end of season. Take a head with the leaves on, trim off the damaged ones. Wash and shred the remaining leaves and stalk, split the cauliflower into small florets so it will cook evenly.
Take a saucepan that fits the cauliflower exactly and boil 1 inch of water in it. Add a little salt, put in the shredded leaves and sit the cauliflower on top, stems down and cover closely. Control heat so that it does not boil dry. Remove from the pot when the stalks are barely tender. Divide into florets. dip each into French dressing while they are still warm and arrange like a wheel on a round plate. Build up layer upon layer to reform the cauliflower head. This looks good and tastes delicious on a cold buffet.
Note: Green broccoli (calabrese) or purple of white sprouting broccoli can be cooked this way also and a mixture of all three looks and tastes wonderful.
Make all the difference...

Best to dress a green salad just before serving, otherwise it can look tired and unappetising. The flavour of the dressing totally depends on the quality of the oil and vinegar. We use beautiful, cold-pressed oils and superb wine vinegars to dress the precious organic lettuce and salad leaves. The quantity one uses is so small it's really worth buying the very best quality you can afford - it makes all the difference.

Simple French Dressing - makes 120ml (scant 4½ fl oz)
6 tablespoons cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons best-quality white or red wine vinegar
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk all the ingredients together just before the salad is to be eaten. Salad dressings are always best when freshly made but this one, which doesn't include raw garlic, shallot or fresh herbs, will keep in a jar in the fridge for 3–4 days. Whisk to emulsify before using.

Ballymaloe French Dressing - makes approx. 150ml (5fl oz)

125ml (4 1/2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Put all the ingredients into a small bowl or jam jar. Whisk until the dressing has emulsified. Preferably use fresh but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Whisk to emulsify before using.

Fermentation Class with Penny Allen & Maria Walsh at Ballymaloe Cookery School on Monday, 20th March from 2.30 – 5.30pm
Fermentation is and has always been an important part of a healthy diet. We have lost many traditional fermented foods that would have been part of our diet. Learn how to put these foods back into your family's diet.
In this afternoon class, Penny and Maria will show you how to make Sauerkraut, Kombucha and Water Kefir...You will leave with a jar of starter cultures for water kefir, kombucha scoby and your own jar of sauerkraut. Penny and Maria will demystify and remove the fear from making your fermented foods in your own kitchen at home.
For more information, see


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