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The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ’em!

Crimp, rocket and roll… salmon ravioli

This weekend saw the latest round of our longstanding local dinner circle: an informal gathering of friends to enjoy good food, drink and conversation around a table. We’ve previously themed each event around a country or geographical region, for both food and drink. It was my turn to host again and I decided to combine Italian influences with locally sourced ingredients. Perhaps unwisely I decided to set the bar rather high, and make a meal from components bought on the day from the market, in a way I’d never cooked before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.

The first course was my most ambitious, and allowed me the chance to try out something new which would hopefully be as pleasing on the eye as the palate.I ended up with home-made giant ravioli, filled with fresh lemon, salmon and local East Lee soft cheese, served with a fennel and vermouth hollandaise foam on a bed of rocket, and topped with pickled samphire and Morecambe Bay potted brown shrimps…

When Miss South and I were young there were few kitchen activities which beat the excitement and spectacle of making fresh pasta. The large kitchen table would get dusted with flour, a broom handle which was reserved for the occasion would be brought out from under the stairs, and would be placed across the back of two chairs, ready to hang and dry fresh tagliatelle. Finally the pasta making machine would be clamped to the table, ready to pummel, roll and cut.

There was palpable anticipation and excitement in our house, as these activities inevitably heralded a dinner party for the adults – an exotic and adult activity from which we were normally excluded, predominantly as they went on way past our respective bedtimes. However this didn’t preclude us from either hanging around as the pasta was being made, nor sampling it later on. Little would stop me from enjoying the pasta in any way, and I used to snaffle leftovers of the cooked, ungarnished linguine straight from the pan. Sorry mum, if you ever wondered where it disappeared to…

Strangely, despite my love of fresh pasta, I’d never attempted to make it myself. However, with the advent of the dinner circle, I rather fancied rectifying this gap in my culinary canon. So, on a wee bit of a whim, I picked up a pasta maker on the way home on Friday evening (at £17.99 thank you Argos). I suspect when our parents had brought back one from Italy in the 80s it would’ve cost significantly more, if it was even possible to source one in Northern Ireland back then.

I consulted my two favourite Italian authorities for all things kitchen-related: Marcella Hazan, and Giorgio Locatelli. Perhaps unsurprising there was some contradiction in their advice. This pasta-making business seems at least partly based on personal preference. The basic components were, thankfully, consistent – flour, eggs and salt. Previous pizza-making escapades ensured I had plenty of finely-milled ‘Tipo 00’ flour squirrelled away at home, but I picked some duck eggs and some double-yolkers from the market on Saturday morning. Locatelli subscribes to the ‘more yolks are better’ school of thought, and as we’re such a fan of duck eggs here at North/South Food I thought I’d take advantage of their renowned attributes for baking and see if that would apply to pasta dough too.

After finely sieving around 500g of flour I made my ‘fountain’ for 3 duck eggs (reminded me more of the way we eat champ) and got mixing. At first the dough was really hard work and I thought I’d got the mixture all wrong, but after adding an extra hen’s egg double yolk and about 10 minutes of heavy going, the dough started to come together more as I remembered it. The duck eggs helped imbue the dough with a wonderfully warm hue (with more than a passing resemblence to polenta). I then separated the dough into 2 balls, and wrapped both in clingfilm to sit for an hour. Thankfully the dough was much easier to work after it had sat around doing nothing… so I got out the shiny new pasta making machine and tentatively fed the dough into its waiting maw. As the dough got thinner and longer, and longer and thinner, I was glad of an extra pair of hands to assist with the increasingly giant lengths. Eventually it was tamed and fine enough to be laid out on the table to cut.

We cut out large circles, trimming gently around a bowl, then added the filling. I’d finely sliced a fresh salmon fillet (from Paul, the great fishmonger at Todmorden Market), mixing it by hand with some of local food hero Carl Warburton’s East Lee soft cheese. Add the juice of half a lemon, a good portion of zest and a generous handful of chopped flatleaf parsley; some coarsely ground black pepper, and mix up by hand. Form into patties and place in the centre of the pasta circle, before enclosing, sealing and crimping. These sat for an hour on a tea towel, looking pretty drying slightly, ready for the pan. When they were almost ready I started to make the sauce, a variation on Delia Smith’s always reliable foaming Hollandaise. I used less wine vinegar and added a generous glug or three of vermouth just before adding the egg whites, which gave the whole thing a hint of anise. Not quite a béarnaise sauce, but the addition of some fennel tops, finely chopped like dill, added to its slightly aromatic character.

After poaching the ravioli for about four minutes each they were ready to be placed in a bowl, on a star of rocket, and drizzled generously with the foaming sauce. The crowning glory was a garnish of pickled samphire (from the wonderful Brixton Cornercopia, courtesy of Miss South) and some potted brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay. Incidentally, if you’ve not had these little beauties before, snap them up if you’re lucky enough to spot them. They’re so moresome and flavoursome, but not worth the fiddle and faff of preparing them yourself. The dish did look at least as beautiful as I’d planned, and the combination of flavours was balanced and delicious. Thankfully it was also well received by my dinner guests. Phew!

The next day, buoyed up by the success of the ravioli, I used up the rest of the pasta dough and quickly created some tagliatelle. This provided the basis for a rapid leftover lunch to die for: sautéing some fennel in butter, adding some pieces of salmon and the rest of the shrimps, a splash of lemon juice to help wilt the rest of the rocket leaves, and a squirt of harissa to add warmth. This certainly helped to temper the fluffy head from the previous night’s drinking, and underscored that pasta making is nothing to be afraid of. I will be attempting much more of this in the near future… can’t wait until the wild garlic season comes round so I can make fresh pesto and spaghetti!

Prim and Proper…

A childhood holiday to Norway left me with several lifelong food memories. Hand picked blueberries in milk eaten after dinner when the nights seemed just as bright as the afternoons. A sun-dappled lunch of nothing but strawberries and cream on the green outside a traditional wooden church. Rum balls after a Sunday service on an island. McDonalds in Oslo. But best of all was brunost, that sticky brown goats’ cheese beloved of Norwegians, particularly on sandwiches. I particularly adored the spreadable version called Prim and long after we returned from Norway, we asked our friends to send us pots of the stuff in the post. But it is years since I tasted it and I have pined ever since…

The wait is over though. At the wonderful Scandinavian Kitchen, there is a small unpreposessing fridge tucked away in the corner hidden by some always occupied tables that I failed to notice the first time I visited. Nestled in there are the familar square tubs of Prim that I have dreamed of for years. I bought some before meeting a friend elsewhere and could hardly concentrate all evening for the excitement of getting my chops round the stuff as soon as I got home. It took superhuman effort not to rip the gold foil back and stick my finger into the pot on the bus. Only the fear of ruining the long awaited moment stopped me.

As soon as I got in the door I had the Ryvita tin open and was spreading the rich sticky caramel cheese on the dark rye variety immediately. One big bite later and it was as good as I remembered. Softly sweet but stopped from being sickly thanks to with that familiar farmyard tang that goats’ cheese always has. To say it goes with a rye based crispbread is to understate massively. They are perfect together both in flavour and in the contrast of texture between sticky dulce de leche style cheese and the crispy base. Add in something pickled and the whole thing is the best lunch you’ll ever eat. I’ve been working through a jar of cocktail gherkins, but some soused herring would be superlative and a little more substantial.

I feel like I’ve been re-united with my first fromage love from childhood and I’m not letting it go again any time soon. A little of this strongly flavoured cheese goes a long way. Dairylea it ain’t…

Posh squash nosh…

The festive period is just the time for some serious indulgence, but you don’t need to do it all on Christmas and Boxing Day. New Year needs something to make it more alluring in my household and the idea of staying in with a bottle of fizz (or two) and some delicious mini munchkin squash fondue makes me want to stay up late…

Mister North and I cooked these to accompany a fantastic foie gras and pheasant feast the other week and they were so good, I’ll be making them again to indulge in as the clock strikes midnight. They are incredibly easy and would make a divine dish for any number of people with their individual feel. You could use any type of cheese for them, but we pushed the boat out and used a truffled brie from Hartley’s Crumbly Cheese stall in Todmorden Market…

Inspired by a recipe in Rachel Allen‘s Bake book and adapted by her from a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall idea, I’ve made this my idea of heaven by using the mini Munchkin squash from my own garden and filling them up before blasting them in the oven and serving with little nibbles of sourdough bread. They are indulgent, moreish and super easy to make (even if you’ve already had quite a lot of fizz)  and make a lovely difference from the various sweet Christmas treats around.

You can use any round squash or pumpkin you happen to have, but I do love the greed factor in the individual ones. Chop the top off to make a good sized lid and then scoop out all the seeds, taking care not to poke any holes in your pumpkin. Brush the inside of it with a slight brushing of oil and add a teaspoon (more if using the larger squash) of cream and then fill up with your cheese of choice. I used the aforementioned truffled brie, but this would be brilliant for leftover Christmas stilton. Make sure it’s well filled, but not so stuffed it will bubble over in the oven and waste good cheese. Season well and place the oiled squash lid on firmly and pop in the oven at about 180 degrees and cook for about 15 minutes or until the squash is soft and golden and the cheese is bubbling.

Try and wait just long enough that you don’t burn your mouth so much you can’t belt out a chorus or two of Auld Lang Syne later and then start dipping into the soft sweetly infused cheese with bread, crackers, leftover roast veg or anything else you can think of. Just leave a tiny bit in the bottom to get the full effect when you scoop out the yielding and delicious squash onto you bread and devour joyously.

These little squash look adorable and would be a lovely thing to serve to lots of people if you have people round and fancy a doing dips and chips but need something warmer than a tortilla chip and some hummus. They’re easy to make and can be done well in advance, just needing popped in the oven when the time comes. In fact, do a selection of them and create your own fondue fabulous cheeseboard in front of the fire and then feel smug as you tuck in thinking of all those poor people in the taxi queue…

Crabapple Cheese…with a kick!


October’s Invisible Food Walk was themed around the autumnal joys of apples and pears (the real ones, not the Cockney version) and I was amazed to discover that I could pick both within five minutes walk of my house.

We visited the pear tree in the Loughborough Estate off Angell Road and using a fishing rod with a handy blade attached, honed our skills at cutting through the stems and sending the large green pears downwards, like a fruity version of a fairground game! I’m not sure what variety of pears these are, but they tasted pretty good after being slowly poached in wine and spices as a light autumnal dessert after some goat stew.

Further round the corner in the community herb garden at Angell Town we came across our apples. Beautiful little cherry sized crabapples to be precise. There are three decent sized trees and they were absolutely groaning with fruit. With a bit of concentration and time, I managed to pick 8lbs of the most perfect looking little apples and carried them home with glee, planning to work on the domestic skills I picked up making quince jelly a few weeks ago and make both crabapple jelly and cheese with them.*

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