The Darina Allen Column

Darina shares her expertise to help everyone, and especially newbie cooks, to get through the coronavirus crisis  


How our lives and perspective have changed in the past few weeks, as Covid-19 continues to barrel around the globe. Everything has been turned upside down. Suddenly we realise how vulnerable we are, daily life as we know it can no longer be taken for granted. For many, the realisation of how deskilled we have allowed ourselves to become is a wake-up call - we take for granted that others will provide for our basic needs.

Limiting our social interaction and staying at home can be boring for sure but is probably the surest way to delay and beat this virus and speed up the journey to 'normal life' again. Meanwhile, let's just use this time to catch up on lots of projects that we haven't been able to reach in our busy lives. Now that we’re asked to self-isolate at home, you might want to binge watch all those films and TV shows or cook some of those new dishes you've been wanting to try... Let's not fight the containment measures, there is no point in whingeing. Let's just keep calm, stay safe, follow the advice from reputable sources and avoid busy public places.

When one finds oneself in voluntary isolation, who will fix the heating, a burst pipe, the washing machine or dryer, the cooker... Many of us are no longer 'handy', here's where DIY skills really come into their own. And where better for a Plan B than the kitchen. If you have spare equipment that doesn’t get used much, this could be the time for it to come into its own so have a look around and see what you might have that would be useful for putting contingency plans into operation. A slow cooker is a brilliant bit of equipment. A separate electric or gas hob depending on what you already have is another fantastic standby at any time, even during power cuts or breakdowns.
Don't forget the barbecue, another fantastically versatile bit of equipment that will see you through. I can turn out irresistible pizzas and flat breads on my covered barbecue as well as succulent roasts and grills.
In the current situation, those who can't cook are feeling extra vulnerable. If deliveries stop and the ready meals are scarce or unavailable, what then? It's back to basic ingredients and what to do. If you haven't already done so, stock up your cupboard or larder with some of these nourishing and wholesome non-perishable ingredients, which you can add to with fresh ingredients as available.

Basic Store Cupboard:
· Porridge
· Potatoes, onions, garlic
· White and brown flour
· Rice
· Tinned tomatoes
· Bread soda
· Eggs
· Salt and freshly ground pepper
· Olive oil / butter
· Honey
· Cannellini beans
· Chickpeas
· Haricot beans
· Tuna
· Salami, chorizo
· Cheddar Cheese...
Next find a cookbook with clearly written basic recipes and if you haven't already got it, buy some basic kitchen kit . . .(see below). Don't mind if you've never cooked a thing in your life. Everyone CAN make a simple loaf of bread, just measure, mix, pour into a greased tin, bake in a preheated oven – and enjoy!

Basic Kitchen Kit: To make the task easier and more enjoyable.
· A chopping board
· 1 or 2 sharp knives
· 1 Loaf tin (12.5cm (5in) x 20cm (8in)
· 1 – 3 saucepans with lids
· 1 heavy frying pan and egg slice
· A large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon
· 1 slow cooker and or a casserole
· 1 swiss roll tin or roasting tin

Multi-seed Brown Soda Bread
Everyone loves this bread, the amaranth seeds give it an additional crunch but you can vary the seeds according to availability. A modern version of Soda Bread, it couldn't be simpler, just mix and pour into a well-greased tin. This bread keeps well for several days and is also great toasted. Makes 1 loaf or 3 small loaves

350g wholemeal flour of your choice
50g white flour, preferably unbleached
25g amaranth seeds
25g pumpkin seeds
10g sesame seeds
10g sunflower seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda), sieved
1 egg, preferably free range
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
425ml buttermilk or sourmilk approx.
Amaranth and pumpkin seeds for sprinkling on top (optional)

Loaf tin 23x12.5x5cm (9x5inches). Small tin 15x7cm (6x3inches).
Preheat oven to 200ºC/Gas Mark 6.
Put all the dry ingredients including the sieved bread soda into a large bowl, mix well. Whisk the egg, add the oil and honey and buttermilk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid, mix well and add more buttermilk if necessary. The mixture should be soft and slightly sloppy, pour into an oiled tin or tins. Sprinkle some amaranth or pumpkin seeds on the top if using.
Bake for about 60 minutes, or until the bread is nice and crusty and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.
Note: The quantity of buttermilk required can vary depending on thickness. Add 1-2 tablespoons of cream to low-fat buttermilk (optional).

A Little White Soda Bread Loaf
We bake this in a loaf tin which is more convenient for slicing or sandwiches, but one can shape it into the traditional round loaf if that is your preference.

1 lb (450g) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon/ salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda
sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 15fl oz (425 ml) approx
oatmeal, sesame seeds or kibbled wheat (optional)

First fully preheat your oven to very hot, 230ºC/450ºF/regulo 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well floured worked surface. Scoop it into the oiled tin, or knead lightly into the traditional round with a cross cut into it and place on an oiled baking tray, then sprinkle with oatmeal and sesame or kibbled wheat seeds if you enjoy them. Place in the hot oven, immediately turning down the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/regulo 6 for 45 minutes. Remove from the tin and return the bread to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes or until fully cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.

Variation: White Soda Scones 
Make the dough as above but flatten the dough into a round 1inch (2.5cm) deep approx. Cut into scones. Cook for 20 minutes approx. in a hot oven (see above).

Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Fish and Chervil
Scrambled eggs are my go to recipe for a breakfast or supper, made in minutes and embellished with lots of tasty morsels from the fridge. Use the best quality eggs you can get, ideally really fresh and free range. I love the combination of softly scrambled eggs with smoked fish but simple grated cheddar cheese and chives work well, or try some of the options listed below.

Serves 2

4 organic, free-range eggs
2 tablespoons creamy milk or single cream
a knob of butter
225g Irish smoked salmon, mackerel or eel, cut into 2cm dice
1 tablespoon chopped chervil, plus a few extra sprigs to garnish
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Break the eggs into a bowl, add the milk or cream and season with salt and pepper. Whisk thoroughly until the whites and yolks are well mixed.
Put a blob of butter into a cold 22cm (9cm) low-sided, heavy-based saucepan, pour in the egg mixture and stir continuously over a low heat, preferably with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon, until the eggs have scrambled into soft creamy curds. Carefully fold in the smoked fish and chopped chervil.

Serve immediately on warm plates with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan and a few sprigs of fresh chervil on top. Accompany with lots of hot buttered sourdough toast or fresh soda bread. (Note: If the plates are too hot, the scrambled egg can actually overcook between the hob and the table.)

VARIATIONS - Delicious morsels to add to scrambled eggs
Follow the main recipe and replace the smoked fish and chervil with:
• Fines Herbes: 1 tablespoon of mixed fresh herbs, such as chives, flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, basil, chervil, coriander, dill or tansy.
• Chilli or harissa: ½–1 teaspoon of diced or sliced red chilli, or harissa and a herb of your choice.
• Spices: ½–1 teaspoon each of ground cumin and ground coriander. Add or omit the Parmesan as you wish.
• Cheese: 2–4 tablespoons of grated cheese, such as Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gruyère, Parmesan or Pecorino.
• Spring Onions or Chives: 2 tablespoons of chopped spring onions or chives.
• Foraged Greens: 225g chopped wild garlic, sorrel, dandelion or watercress, or a mixture.
• Sorrel, Spinach or Kale: Follow the main recipe, replacing the smoked fish and chervil with 225g sorrel, spinach or kale, previously blanched in boiling water for 2–3 minutes, refreshed under cold running water, drained and finely chopped.
• 'nduja, Chorizo or Bacon: Follow the main recipe, replacing the smoked fish with 50g 'nduja and bacon or chorizo cut into 5mm dice (fry the chorizo/bacon gently fried until the oil begins to release, the 'nduja doesn't need to be cooked). Add or omit the Parmesan as you wish.
• Chanterelles or Yellow Leg Mushrooms: Follow the main recipe, replacing the smoked fish and chervil with 110g mushrooms fried in ½ –1 tablespoon butter and seasoned well.
• Masala Scrambled Egg: Heat the butter over a medium heat. Add 50g finely diced onion and ½ teaspoon of grated fresh ginger and sauté until the onion is soft. Add ½–1 diced red chilli, 2 very ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, 2 teaspoons of ground cumin, 1 tablespoon of chopped coriander, 1/8 teaspoon of ground turmeric and stir for a few seconds. Reduce the heat right down, add the whisked eggs and scramble as before. Garnish with a few sprigs of fresh coriander.

Chargrilled Pizza Margherita – on the Barbecue 
Serves 6 - 8
150g (5oz) pizza dough (see recipe below)
175g (6oz) grated Mozzarella cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
10floz tomato fondue (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons freshly chopped annual marjoram
1 tablespoon parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano is best), freshly grated.
6ozs thinly sliced pepperoni (optional)

Sprinkle the grated Mozzarella with extra virgin olive oil. This hugely enhances the flavour of ordinary mozzarella.
Heat a Weber style Barbecue to medium hot.
Roll the pizza dough into a 30cm (12-16 inch) rectangle, about 5mm (1/4 inch) thick.
Lay the rectangle of dough on the hot rack. Cover and cook for 4 – 5 mins until nicely cooked and marked on the underside. Flip over. Spread an even layer of warm tomato fondue (see recipe below) on the cooked surface. Sprinkle with chopped annual marjoram and a few slices of pepperoni (optional). Sprinkle generously with a mix of grated mozzarella and Parmesan. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and some cracked pepper, drizzle with olive oil. Cover the barbecue and continue to cook for 5 – 6 minutes or until the topping is bubbling and the pizza base is fully cooked.
Transfer to a chopping board, sprinkle with fresh basil leaves, drizzle with a little more olive oil, cut into squares and serve immediately.

Garden Café Pizza Dough
The beauty of this recipe is that it is so quick and easy, using this fast acting yeast does away with the first rising. By the time your tomato sauce is bubbling in the oven your pizza base will be ready for its topping!
Makes 8 x 25cm/10inch pizzas

680g (1 1/2lbs) strong white flour or 600g (1 1/4lb) strong white flour and 110g (4oz) rye flour
50g (2oz) butter
1 packet fast acting yeast
2 level teaspoons salt
15g (1/2oz) sugar
2-4 tablespoons olive oil
450 – 500ml (16-18 fl oz) lukewarm water – more if needed
In a large wide mixing bowl sieve the flour and add in the salt, sugar, rub in the butter and fast acting yeast, mix all the ingredients thoroughly.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, add the oil and most of the lukewarm water. Mix to a loose dough. You can add more water or flour if needed.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured worktop, cover and leave to relax for about five minutes. Then knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until smooth and springy (if kneading in a food mixer with a dough hook, 5 minutes is usually long enough).
Leave the dough to relax again for about 10 minutes. Shape and measure into 8 equal balls of dough each weighing approximately 150g (5oz). Lightly brush the balls of dough with olive oil.
If you have time, put the oiled balls of dough into a plastic bag and chill. The dough can be used immediately but it will be easier to handle when cold.
On a well floured work surface roll each ball in to about 25cm (10inch) disk. I find it convenient to pop a few rolled out uncooked pizza bases into the freezer. You can take one out, put the topping on and slide it straight into the oven. What could be easier!
VARIATION: This dough also makes delicious white yeast bread which we shape into rolls, loaves and plaits.

Spicy Tomato Fondue with many good things
This is one of my 'go-to' recipes to feed a group of hungry people. You can replace the chicken with chorizo, cooked sausages, leftover lamb, game, cooked fish or shellfish if you wish – monkfish works particularly well. Just think of the tomato fondue as a base for many good things (and it is also used in the pizza recipe above).
For a bean stew add a can or two of cannellini or haricot beans and a couple of tablespoons of chopped rosemary. Serves 6

For the Spicy Tomato Fondue
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
110g (4oz) onions, sliced
1–2 chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 garlic clove, crushed
900g (2lb) very ripe tomatoes in summer, peeled (see note), or 2 x 400g (14oz) tins of chopped tomatoes
flaky sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and sugar, to taste
[Note - To peel fresh tomatoes: Scald the tomatoes in boiling water for 10 seconds, then pour off the water and slip off the skins.]

Spicy Tomato Fondue with Chicken and Potato
700–900g (1 1/2 – 2lb) cooked chicken, cut into approx. 2.5cm (1 inch) dice
6 cooked potatoes, cut into approx. 2cm (3/4 inch) dice
lots of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander

First make the tomato fondue. Heat the oil in a large stainless-steel sauté pan or casserole over a gentle heat. Add the sliced onions, chopped chillies, ground cumin and garlic, and stir well to coat everything in the oil. Cover the pan with a lid and sweat over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft, but not coloured. It is vital that the onions are completely soft before you add the tomatoes.

Slice the peeled fresh tomatoes and add to the pan with their juices (if you are using tinned tomatoes, you can tip them straight in). Season with salt, pepper and sugar; tinned tomatoes need lots of sugar because of their high acidity.

Cover and cook for a further 10–20 minutes until the tomato softens, uncovering for the last 5 minutes or so to reduce the sauce a little. Fresh tomatoes need a shorter cooking time than tinned ones to preserve their lively fresh flavour. Depending on how you plan to use your fondue, you might want to reduce it a bit further. Add the cooked chicken and potatoes, bring to the boil and bubble away for 4–5 minutes. Season to taste and scatter with parsley or coriander.

Serve with a salad of organic green leaves.

Hot Tip

Wild Food in Season: Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine Hirsuta), sometimes called Pepper or Wintercress. This delicious member of the mustard family is good at present and there's lots of it around. It grows in little basal rosettes in both soil and gravel and is particularly good added to salads, sandwiches and starters. As with all the family the top leaf is the biggest and the leaves get smaller as they go down along. Loaded with vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, beta carotene, antioxidants and sulphur-containing compounds that boost immunity – so go foraging as soon as you can.


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