Darina Allen's call to trowels: Why we should grow and cook our own food

Savoury bread and butter pudding: Kale, leek, mushroom and ricotta strata.
Savoury bread and butter pudding: Kale, leek, mushroom and ricotta strata. Photo: Clare Winfield

​Passionate gardener and chef Darina Allen wanted to call her latest book For God's Sake Grow (And Cook) Some of Your Own Food, writes Roslyn Grundy.

Darina Allen is a woman on a mission. "Our generation in many ways has made such a mess of the planet and it's our grandchildren that are going to be having to pick up the pieces," says the Irish television chef, writer and cooking teacher. "If you can teach the children how to grow, how to cook, and how to keep hens, it doesn't matter what the bankers do."  

Her 16th book, Grow Cook Nourish, is a call to trowels for Gen Next. Written under the working title For God's Sake Grow (And Cook) Some of Your Own Food, it's a 640-page plot-to-plate instruction manual that taps into a lifetime of gardening and cooking experience and the bond of trust she's built with fans of her books and television programs.

Irish chef, TV personality and author Darina Allen.
Irish chef, TV personality and author Darina Allen. Photo: Darrian Traynor

The eldest of nine children, Allen, 69, says her mother instilled in her the belief that food didn't need to be expensive to be good. "We'd run in from school every day and the kitchen would be full of the smell of bubbly stew and lovely, simple home cooking, which in the end is the most important cooking of all."

Allen, who jokes that she's carved from the same produce-loving block as Australian cooks Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander, is dismayed by the rapid deterioration of the Irish national diet, the same issue she's observed anywhere people have adopted the Western diet.

"In a short time, we seem to have handed over the responsibility for what we eat and what we feed our families to the multinational food companies. And they can hardly be expected to have our best interests at heart.

Grow Cook Nourish by Darina Allen.
Grow Cook Nourish by Darina Allen. Photo: Kyle Books

"Couple that with the fact that now at least two generations have left our houses without learning the skills to feed themselves properly, and indeed to feed their little ones, and it's kind of an unmitigated disaster."

But by growing food for yourself, whether in a garden, on a balcony or on a windowsill, you can seize back some control, says Allen.

"All you need is a little container. It could be a recycled mushroom box or a little basket or anything, and some soil or a bit of compost. You need some seeds, could be radish seeds or little mixed salad leaves or something. And then you need some water and light, and a little patience. And that's it."

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Growing food teaches gardeners patience and respect, says Allen. "When people realise how long it takes to grow something, I can tell you, they feel like hugging a farmer when they see one. And you won't waste anything if you've grown it yourself."

Kale, leek, mushroom and ricotta strata

A strata is a savoury bread and butter pudding. We make many delicious combinations but this one was inspired by Claire Ptak's version at Violet Bakery in London. A brilliant vegetarian main course.

INGREDIENTS

900g stale white sourdough bread

butter, for spreading

green salad, to serve

For the filling

3 large leeks, sliced 2cm thick (white part only)

25g butter, plus extra for greasing

3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp chopped marjoram or rosemary

500g kale

½ tsp Aleppo pepper

250g flat mushrooms, thinly sliced

110g gruyere cheese, freshly grated

25g parmesan cheese, freshly grated

100g ricotta

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the savoury custard

8 organic eggs

5 tbsp double cream

370ml full-fat milk

grated fresh nutmeg

METHOD

1. First, prepare the leeks – trim the green tops, wash and set aside for stock. Wash and slice the white ends. Heat the butter and two tablespoons of the olive oil in a saute pan, and when it foams add the sliced leeks. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and toss to coat. Add the freshly chopped herbs, cover and sweat for 8-10 minutes until soft but not coloured.

2. Strip the kale off the stalks and roughly chop the leaves. Cook the kale in boiling salted water (three teaspoons of salt to 3.4 litres of water) for 5-6 minutes or until tender. Cook in batches if necessary. Drain very well. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and the Aleppo pepper. Add to the leeks.

3. Saute the sliced mushrooms in the remaining olive oil in a hot pan, in batches if necessary, seasoning each batch as you cook. Add to the leek and kale mixture.

4. Next, whisk the ingredients together for the savoury custard. Add ½ teaspoon of salt, lots of freshly ground pepper and a generous grating of nutmeg.

5. Butter a 20cm x 30cm roasting tin or lasagne dish. Slice the bread thinly; remove the crusts and butter lightly. Arrange a layer of bread on the base of the buttered roasting tin. Taste the kale mixture and correct the seasoning if necessary. Spread half of the kale mixture evenly over the bread followed by half the gruyere, parmesan and ricotta. Top with another layer of bread, the remaining kale mixture, and the remaining cheese and ricotta, saving a little parmesan to sprinkle over the top. Top with a layer of bread, buttered side up.

6. Pour the custard evenly over the strata. Cover and chill for at least an hour for the bread to absorb the custard or overnight, if possible.

7. Preheat the oven to 180C. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan over the top. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour or until the top is golden and the custard has just set. Leave to sit for 5-10 minutes before cutting into portions. Serve warm with a good green salad.

Serves 8–10

Chicory, Puy lentil, spring onion, avocado, walnut and pomegranate salad from Grow Cook Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion In 500 Recipes by Darina Allen. Photography By Clare Winfield (Kyle Books, RRP $59.99).

Photo: Clare Winfield

Chicory, Puy lentil, spring onion, avocado, walnut and pomegranate salad

A delicious winter salad – perfect for a light but sustaining lunch.

INGREDIENTS

350g Puy lentils

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 red or green chilli, finely chopped

4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 head of chicory, sliced thinly crosswise

1 pomegranate, cut in half and seeds removed

4 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal

2 ripe Hass avocados, peeled, stoned and diced

12 walnuts, shelled and toasted

lots of flat-leaf parsley and/or wild rocket leaves

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

METHOD

1. Cook the lentils in boiling salted water for 15-20 minutes or until just tender, drain, then toss in the extra virgin olive oil, chilli and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and taste; it should be highly flavoured. Leave to cool.

2. Add the chicory, pomegranate seeds, spring onions and avocado to the lentils.

3. Toss and season to taste. Scatter with the toasted walnuts and lots of parsley or wild rocket leaves.

Serves 6-8

Parsnip and maple syrup cake with parsnip crisps

A moist and delicious cake – this recipe uses parsnips in two ways. Make extra crisps to nibble with drinks.

INGREDIENTS

175g butter, plus extra for greasing

100ml maple syrup

3 large organic eggs

250g self-raising flour

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp mixed spice

250g parsnips, peeled and grated

1 eating apple, peeled, cored and grated

50g pecans or hazelnuts roughly chopped

zest and juice of 1 small orange

edible flowers to garnish (optional)

For the parsnip crisps

1 large parsnip

sunflower oil for frying

salt

For the filling

300g cream cheese

2 tbsp maple syrup

METHOD

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Brush two 20cm, deep sandwich tins with a little melted butter and line the bases with baking paper.

2. Melt the butter and maple syrup in a pan over a gentle heat, then cool slightly. Whisk the eggs into the mixture, then stir into the flour, baking powder and mixed spice. Add the parsnip, apple, chopped nuts, orange zest and juice. Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake for 35-40 minutes or until just starting to shrink from the sides of the tin. Cool on a wire rack.

3. Meanwhile, make the parsnip crisps. Scrub and peel the parsnip and slice into wafer-thin rounds. Leave to dry out on kitchen paper.

4. Heat oil in a deep fryer to 150C. Drop a few slivers parsnip at a time into the hot oil; they colour and crisp up very quickly. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt.

5. To make the filling, mix cream cheese and maple syrup together. Spread over the base of one cooled cake and the top of the other. Sandwich together. Decorate the top of the cake with parsnip crisps and edible flowers.

Serves 8

Recipes from Grow Cook Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion In 500 Recipes by Darina Allen. Photography By Clare Winfield (Kyle Books, RRP $59.99).