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Comfort and Spice

Even if you aren’t a food blogger, you’ve probably stumbled across Niamh Shields’ fantastic blog Eat Like a Girl with its mix of travel, food, great writing and strong personality. It appeals to everyone from die hard foodies to people idly pondering what to make for the one Sunday lunch they do each year. I’m especially fond of it due to the fact Niamh proudly references her Irish roots, never apologising for the cuisine of my youth and helps sate occasional pangs of homesickness.

So I’d been counting down the days till Niamh’s first cookbook Comfort and Spice was published. I had pre-ordered it on Amazon and then Quadrille very kindly offered us a review copy to see what other Irish folk thought. Even on the first flick through I knew I’d have been happy to pay full price for it. I can’t remember the last time a cookbook excited me so much.

It’s quite a small book compared to some of the stupidly large tomes we’re used to these days, but there isn’t a single filler recipe in it. Split into sections such as ‘Hearty Lunch’, ‘Simple Suppers’ and ‘Eight Great Big Dinners’ this is a book written by someone who loves food but understands the home cook and their concerns and costs. There’s no cutting corners on quality and an encouragement to make things from scratch with dishes running consecutively so you can shop wisely while leftovers are given their rightful place. There is no assumption that you have unlikely kitchen gadgets or an army of kitchen staff to wash up items that didn’t really need used.

And if that isn’t already a refreshing change that sells the book to you, wait til you see the recipes. Based round a combination of clever shopping and a good storecupboard, I was cooking from it within an hour of it arriving. Cauliflower soup with spiced butter tortelloni lifted this humble brassica into an evening event so good I forgot to photograph it.

Black pudding croquettes perked up some mediocre slices from the supermarket along with a rosti and some homegrown tomatoes. Ricotta pancakes made Monday morning a sheer joy. The soda farls tasted as good as the ones off my Auntie Georgie’s griddle. Ham salt makes the world a better place and I can barely wait til Christmas to do the spiced beef.

I have more recipes marked to try than not. I love the everyday luxury of the book with cook’s perks such as chicken skin skewers while the tasty practicality of two and six hour pork belly makes me want to invite the world to lunch. I can’t wait to feel the achievement of homemade butter and ricotta. It’s a book that speaks to all levels of cook from the novice to the expert and neither assumes confidence (or a vast spice cupboard of unheard items) nor patronises.

I just can’t think of anything I don’t like about it although if I was quibbling, I’d prefer a hardcover as my cover had greedy greasy fingerprints on it after the first goes. Beautifully written, brilliantly planned, I can’t fault it. Buy one immediately, bring the joys of chorizo on sticks into your life and let Niamh suggest all your meals for the next few weeks. You couldn’t be in better company!

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Bloodlust: six black puddings and a beer for breakfast…

Ever since some bright spark had the idea to stuff intestines with coagulated animal blood, flavourings and other assorted filler ingredients, humans have been making the most of their livestock’s leftover bits, enjoying the results greatly. As a result almost every culture has some kind of black pudding tradition. Miss South and I have been enjoying black pudding in various forms for some time, and as our appreciation and fascination with blood sausage has grown, we’ve idly contemplated a sanguine side-by-side comparison of various favourites. So we finally did it, pitting six of the best we could track down next to each other. But before you read about that, I should make a confession.

I didn’t like black pudding as a kid. Not at all. Miss South and I had it once at the house of a family friend (both it and white pudding, another traditional Irish favourite) and it put me off for a long time. To be honest, I don’t think it was the taste or texture as much as the knowledge at the back of my mind of what it was made from. I wasn’t especially squeamish but it was just too ‘bloody offal’ to contemplate, nevermind enjoy eating. Besides, it wasn’t a family favourite so we had little exposure to black pudding: indeed our mum thinks our modern love of the black pudding is very very wrong, and she’s rarely judgemental about food. So I start this post knowing black pudding can be divisive and disgusting for many folk.
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Pork chops and spring gems

After the harsh winter (thankfully an ever-more distant memory now we’re firmly into May) the recent bout of superb spring weather has brought welcome warmth and cheer in more than one way. Spring heralds two of our favourite fresh British delights: wild garlic, and asparagus. We’ve already written about both on several occasions, but with seasonal goodies this great, I’m not ashamed to sing their praises a little more. They provided the perfect partnership to prime Pennine pork last month.
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Guestrant at Electrik with Deanna Thomas*

I’ve read about Electrik Bar’s ‘Guestrant’ sessions since they started last year, but despite making mental notes to check them I’d never managed to organise it. Their most recent event, with guest chef Deanna Thomas of North Star Deli fame, tipped the balance for me. This was on Valentine’s Day, and the prospect of a night out, unencumbered by saccharine-sweet clichés, red roses and crappy piped (or worse still, dodgy live string) music provided a fine excuse for a good meal out with my partner.

For those who don’t know it, Electric Chair was one of the venerable institutions of the Manchester club scene from the 90s onwards (Mister North has fond memories of multiple occasions spent in darkened basements listening to Detroit deepness, dirty disco, Mancunian classics and rampant riddims thanks to these guys). These days the Electriks empire has perhaps mellowed and diversified with age, and they opened the unsurprisingly-named ‘Electrik’, a fine café/bar in south Manchester’s Chorlton, a couple of years ago.

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Pot luck with Lancashire Hotpot

Autumn’s definitely the time to turn up the heat, run down the blinds, and take solace in slow-cooked, slow-release, one-pot wonders. As I felt the first fingers of frost tapping on the windows in October I decided it was definitely time to blow the dust off my slow-cooker, which doesn’t get much love during the summer months.

One morning when I was at Stansfield’s the butcher, I asked about the availability of mutton. As chance would have it, some was due in later that day: Paul had serendipitously thought it was about that time for the older, more flavoursome meat to make a reappearance as it was drawing in a bit out there. Now, I love a good bit of mutton. Snobs may turn their noses up at an auld bit of sheep over a young lamb, but for certain dishes I’m a firm believer that the grain and richness of an older beast is much more appropriate. The dish I had in mind was a good old Lancashire Hotpot, a perfect home for an older sheep to end its day in…

It’s hard to find a definitive recipe for Lancashire Hotpot: such a family favourite means there are a thousand variations and versions, particular to a certain place. I’ve had delicately-balanced miniature portions in restaurants and great splodges of home-served goodness, and the unifying elements are normally lamb/mutton, carrots and spuds. After that it seems to be open season for a whole range of additional elements.

A few years ago I saw the Hairy Bikers making hotpot in Bury Market and they suggested adding a layer of the local black budding to give a layer of unctuous goodness at the bottom of the pot.I tried this the first time I had a go at making this dish, and never looked back. Black pudding makes a great gravy base at the best of times (as used here) and it adds an extra touch of the local speciality to a hotpot.

I started by slicing a load of spuds and carrots, then laying down a layer of thinly-sliced spuds on top of a well-greased pot. Season well, and add the next layer… in this case a sliced link of Ireland’s black pud. Then another layer of spuds (I love that dauphinoise-esque experience of lots of layers of well-buttered spuds) and pieces of mutton, cut fairly small and mixed with some fresh parsley. Then that was covered by sliced carrots, then potatoes, then mutton and… well, you get the picture. Hardly scientific in terms of quantities, but delightfully fun to arrange.

Last time I made this I added a proper stock, but reckoned in the slow cooker I’d be able to rely on the liquid in the veg, so just poured some water down the edges, mixed with Worcester sauce. Some older recipes suggest adding oysters to the mix: I added a splash or three of Anchovy Sauce for a similar umami kick. The whole thing was then finished off with slivers of butter on the top, before the lid went on for 8 hours of overnight slow-cooking.

Proper Lancashire friends have told me the origin of the dish is that was cooked slowly all day in oven, ready for the working folk to get home. I’m a fan of all things cooked for aeons so the slow-cooker (crockpot) seemed a likely option. What I’d not bet on was how appealing it is to wake up to the heavenly smell of a hotpot: It took an almost superhuman effort not to wolf down a portion for breakfast, and instead save it for my intended evening meal.

Fast forward through the day and I served this up to a friend for an informal evening meal. Always good to see us attacking the pot for seconds with such gusto: hopefully this proves the worth of such a classic, simple, traditional British dish. Preferably the slower cooked, the better!