St Patrick’s Day Okonomiyaki

okonomiyakiI have no idea what the adjective for Irish-Japanese fusion food is, but we need one. Both Ireland and Japan love a bit of cabbage and seaweed (and whiskey). Their cuisines have more in common than you’d think.

This idea came from Mister North who having seen the design for Recipes from Brixton Village on mentions the recipes he is most excited by as he reads. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake made primarily from cabbage, but the number of spring onions (or more accurately scallions) in it made him think it overlapped with the Northern Irish delicacy of champ.

Since okonomiyaki means ‘as you like it’ I wondered if I could make a champ based version for St Patrick’s Day. I have grown to love okonomiyaki after Motoko Priestman opened Okan in Brixton Village, dishing up a variety of okonomiyaki in the Osaka style. My favourite is the mochi and cheese, but this is a little like choosing your favourite pet or child as they are all fabulous in their own way.

There are few more filling and healthy lunches than an okonomiyaki making it perfect for fortifying one’s self if you’ve had a few swallies the night before. I’ve gone stereotypically Irish here with bacon, cabbage and scallions. Annoyingly I was seaweed-less but some nori or dulse on top would have been perfect. I also varied from the usual topping of mayonnaise to use a creamy buttermilk dressing and omitted the typical okonomiyaki or ‘burnt sauce’ that tastes like ketchup combined with HP sauce.

St Patrick’s Day Okonomiyaki (adapted from Recipes from Brixton Village)

Serves 1

  • 50g pancetta or bacon cubes
  • 150g sweetheart cabbage, shredded finely
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 50g potato, grated
  • 50g plain flour
  • pinch sea salt
  • pinch brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 50-75ml water
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon buttermilk or yoghurt
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper
  • seaweed flakes to serve

Okonomiyaki usually has toppings like thinly sliced squid, belly pork, prawns or cheese which are cooked as the pancake itself cooks, but because I only had thick cubes of bacon, I’ve cooked them first as they might still have been raw otherwise. Pan fry until crisp round the edges.

Shred the cabbage in very thin slices and then break it up into individual shreds with your hands into a large bowl. Add the cooked bacon and any fat from the pan. Thinly slice the scallions and add in. Beat the egg into it all. Set aside.

Take a skillet or heavy pan and heat on a high heat for about 3-4 minutes while you make the batter. Don’t add the oil at this point.

Prepare your batter by grating the potato in a bowl and adding the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. Crack the egg into it and beat it in. Add enough of the water to make the whole thing a soft and pourable batter. Stir quickly but without overmixing. Pour 3/4s of the batter into the cabbage and bacon and mix lightly. Set the rest of the batter aside.

Add the oil in the pan and turn it down to a medium-low heat. Put the cabbage batter into the pan, smoothing it out from a heap to a thick pancake. Don’t push it right down to knock the air out. Cook the okonomiyaki for about 3 minutes.

Pour the remaining batter on top of it all. This would usually help seal the toppings into the okonomiyaki. Carefully flip the okonomiyaki over and cook on the other side for about 2-3 minutes. The base of the okonomiyaki will be quite dark from the hot pan but you want the top a bit paler.

Serve on a plate, paler side up and drizzle with the buttermilk dressing. Sprinkle with the seaweed flakes and a few spare scallion slices if you have them. Eat immediately and experience the perfect cross between a pancake, boxty and a potato farl. You may fancy a wee stout on the side. I had good strong tea instead.

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Recipes from Brixton Village will be published on May 22nd 2014 from independent bookshops and the Kitchen Press website. It can be pre-ordered now for delivery as soon as it’s published.

Dulse Tapenade: the Province meets Provence

dulse tapenade

When I was a child, I hadn’t yet discovered my high umami fascination. Olives didn’t tickle me, I only liked anchovies marinaded and one of the strongest memories of disliking a food in childhood came with one of the strongest flavours I tasted, in the shape of dulse. Dulse is a seaweed, very common around the coast of Ireland and particularly associated for us with the north coast town of Ballycastle and its famed Auld Lammas Fair. In an early adoption of the salt sweet craze, people bring Yellowman and dulse back from there as treats and it was this contrast that caused my long lasting reaction.

Yellowman is the sweetest crunchy thing you can imagine and dulse is intensely iron rich and seawater salty with a slightly rubbery texture and it is one extreme to the other for a five year old. I never eaten dulse since and the thought of it has always made me feel a bit queasy. But when I was back in Belfast last week, I went for lunch at the Belfast Barge and ordered their superb seafood platter and in with the spankingly fresh seafood and fish was a healthy sprinkling of dulse that would be hard to avoid.

Belfast Barge seafood platter

Bravely loading up my fork with some dulse, a caper or two and a marinaded anchovy, I tried it again, hoping the flavours I liked would hide the one I didn’t. I was very very surprised when I loved it. The flavours all went together like nobody’s business and appealed to my umami addiction utterly. It was so good that before I had finished the plate, I was asking my mum where I could get some dulse to bring home.

I wanted to combine those fishy and salty and savoury flavours to the fullest extent and my mind immediately went to tapenade, loaded up with olives, anchovies and capers and dulse. It needed something fresh and clean on the side and Felicity Cloake solved my dilemma by posting a ceviche recipe this week. Not only do I now know how to liven up a sea bream, but I’d found my perfect partner for the ultimate umami paste!

Dulse Tapanade: makes enough for two people

  • 20g dulse (mail order here or get from St George’s Market on a Saturday or the Bethany Fruit & Veg on the Cregagh Road)
  • 20 black olives, stoned
  • 2 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, drained
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • squirt lemon juice
  • good handful parsley and fresh thyme

Check your dulse carefully for any small shells or crustaceans, then chop roughly. Add into a hand blender along with the olives, capers and anchovies, all of which should also been finely chopped. Blitz until mixed. (You could also use a pestle and mortar.)

Add the olive oil and lemon juice until you reach the desired consistency. Because this was a main course thing for me, I kept it drier and chunkier, but if you wanted to make it a dip add more until smooth. It’s super easy to make and should take about 5 minutes tops.

I served mine with boiled Charlotte potatoes (Sainsbury’s Basics Salad Potatoes are the less shapely Charlottes and are under a quid) and with the lime and salt rich ceviche on the side. This is not entry level umami. This is the equivalent of the 80s ads where the Tango man slaps you round the face with a salty fishy savoury explosion. It’s addictively good. I smothered my spuds in tapenade and when I ran out of carbs, ate it by dunking broccoli florets in it, revelling in every tantalisingly over the top mouthful, unable to get quite enough of it.

The sharp of tang of the soft fish (and Felicity’s recipe with sea bream was bang on) cuts through the oiliness of the tapenade perfectly while enhancing it completely. This was one of those meals that took less than 15 minutes to make, was utterly simple in its ingredients and was so good I could hardly believe it. Just perfect for these lingeringly warm autumnal days, I can hardly believe how much I’ve fallen for dulse. This must mean I’m a grown up now!

Dulse Tapenade

Top Hats! Or make more of your marshmallows!

Top down new

My childhood was punctuated by marshmallows. One of our aunts had a particular soft spot for them and visits to her house weren’t complete without dipping into the bag of pink and white numbers in the kitchen drawer by the table, even if it was before dinner. We often toasted them in front of my granny’s open fire on the end of a proper toasting fork and tried not to burn our tongues. Guide camps were never quite complete without trying to concoct one of those exotic sounding s’mores we’d read about in American books, even though we only had some Scotbloc and an own brand Rich Tea biscuit to hand. Every party had the Northern Irish classic of Fifteens which combined digestives, marshmallows and glace cherries to heartstopping goodness. And that’s before Mister North brought me a jar of Marshmallow Fluff when he moved to England…

I think we could safely say that I like a marshmallow. Yet as an adult I never eat them. In fact I haven’t seen a packet to buy for years. The humble marshmallow has fallen out of fashion it seems. Nothing would do but to make them. How hard could it be?

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Irish Spiced Beef brings Christmas comfort…

Spiced beef 11

Having read Miss South’s glowing write-up before my latest visit to her, I was keen to read through Niamh Shields‘ “Comfort & Spice” cookbook. I sped read as much as possible in a short time, and one of the (many) wonderful recipes which caught my eye was Spiced Beef: an Irish dish which is traditionally served cold over the Christmas period. We’d normally have a decent-sized cold cut in the house over the holiday period, often the Coca Cola Ham which we wrote about last year.

However I  can only remember having spiced beef once, when our mum brought back joint from the butcher. She’d fondly mentioned it from her childhood, but this shop-bought version was memorably unmemorable. So I’ve always wanted to make proper spiced beef from scratch, and Niamh’s recipe provided the perfect excuse to give it a go this year. I alternate between spending Christmas in the north of England, and returning to Belfast, and this year I was in Manchester with my girlfriend and her family. Having something which brought a taste of Ireland to the table was important to me… and having a cold joint to be able to pick and nibble at is always a bonus.

Spiced beef isn’t a complicated dish, but it does require some patience, preparation… and an ingredient which wasn’t available to the general public in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, which curtailed its consumption when we were growing up. Saltpetre aka potassium nitrate was a controlled substance, as it’s a key constituent of black powder (gunpowder). I’m not sure if it’s still verboten: I was lucky enough to be given some for this recipe by a friend. Saltpetre’s one of those relatively unknown but essential compounds on which the modern world has been built; used for fertiliser, food preservation, an oxiding agent for gunpowder and fireworks amongst other uses.

I ordered the Christmas meat in advance from Stansfield’s in Todmorden Market –  the centrepiece of our Christmas meal was leg of venison – but Paul always has good beef and I picked up a weighty brisket form him last weekend.

Irish Spiced Beef (from Comfort & Spice)

2kg beef brisket off the bone

The curing mix:

1tsp allspice
1tsp cloves
1tsp fresh nutmeg
1tsp mace
75g soft brown sugar
10g saltpetre
100g sea salt

Combine all the ingredients for the curing mix and rub all over the brisket. Sterilise with boiling water a non metallic pot or plastic container into which the beef will fit snugly. Add the beef, cover and store in the fridge for eight days, turning daily and basting with any juices.

Wipe off the excess marinade and cover the beef with water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for two hours. Allow to cool and serve over the festive period as you would a ham.

First step: make the curing mix. I closely followed Niamh’s ingredients, with a couple of minor tweaks. I used Muscovado sugar, as I love its rich, sticky, almost smoky rawness. I also raided my extensive selection of salts to create a posh mix which would hopefully play up the strengths of the beef and spices, using Maldon Smoked Sea Salt, Guerande Grey Sea Salt, and Carmargue Fleur de Sel. Every recipe I’ve seen for dry-curing meat stresses that the quality of the salt is imperative, and they looked beautiful ranged on the plate too.

Spiced beef 1

I ground the whole allspice, nutmegs and cloves together, together with a cheeky tablespoon of mixed peppercorns to add a little bit more warmth to the mix. Then I combined the salt, sugar and saltpetre in a bowl, make a good stiff mix. The aroma was stunning: if you’re ever looking for a sure-fire way to enfuse your home with the sweet, aromatic and suggestive hints of winter, this really is it. It’s even better with a cockle-warming glass of hot port to aid the cook’s concentration!

Spiced beef 4

I sterilised a tupperware container, and placed the cured meat in it, sealing it tightly and placing it in the fridge. With six days between the initial preparation and Christmas Eve, the only requirements were to gently spoon and baste the spiced liquids over the joint daily. You’ll find a fair amount of juice will be drawn out of the meat by the cure. I tried my best to disturb as little of the spiced coating as possible, wanting to let the power of the spices permeate properly through the meat.

Spiced beef 7

On Christmas Eve we simmered the beef for a couple of hours, before letting it cool (patience is a virtue) and cautiously cutting a few slices off for a Christmas Eve nibble. As you can see, the beef had held its vivid rose hue thanks to the saltpetre, and the flavour was quite wonderful: warming, comforting and so tender. Paired with wholegrain mustard mixed into some mayo, and ranged with gherkins, this was a perfect sandwich: almost the Irish equivalent of New York pastrami. We didn’t leave any out for Father Christmas though, as it proved way too popular with everyone who tasted it.

Spiced beef 8

I’d also decided to have the Irish-themed starter on Christmas Day revolve around the spiced beef: after a night in the fridge the meat was even easier to thinly slice, and I plated it up with a small toasted piece of soda bread, a dab of redcurrant jelly, some cubes of Cashel Blue cheese, and a lightly dressed selection of watercress, rocket and baby spinach leaves. Everything worked well together: the sweetness of the jelly complementing the sharpness and warmth of the mustard vinaigrette, pepperiness of the rocket, the crisp of the bread… and of course that succulent, aromatic and oh-so tender beef. Needless to say, we’ve been cutting cheeky slices off the joint ever since, as it’s perfect for snacking and sating our cravings for seasonal cold meats.

Spiced beef 14

Thanks to Niamh aka @Eatlikeagirl for allowing us to reproduce the above: it’s a brilliant encapsulation of a traditional Irish recipe, and doesn’t suggest any of the adulterations which crop up in many US-oriented traditional ‘Oirish’ recipes. We’ve recommended it before and we’ll do it again… buy Comfort & Spice and make your kitchen a happier, better place!


Twice as nice… our daily bread

It’s said man cannot live on bread alone. Considering this statement, I’m surprised organised religion remained so popular for so long on our wee island, when you think what a cracking range of Irish breads there are (veda, potato bread, soda farls and wheaten bread amongst others). I’m all for a bit of decent bread, slathered with butter, rather than some dour sermonising or happy clapping. I’ll probably be smitten down by the hand of a deity for saying that, but at least I’ll go with a smile on my face and a full tum…

Sundays are ripe for laziness*, cooking, and loafing around the house. Today’s mission was to make a decent and homely wheaten bread, to help counter the autumnal blues outside. However we’d been out drinking in Leeds yesterday (sampling some great ales from Leeds and Ossett breweries amongst others), and after a late night and a fuzzy head this morning, something special was required for breakfast first.

I’d planned to make baked eggs, following the recipe from the Parlour Café Cookbook. These have rapidly established themselves as a brekkie standby, not least because they’re so easy to cook. Their simplicity belies their deliciousness. I swapped the Parma ham from their original recipe with some slivers of locally hand-crafted air-dried ham from my friends at Porcus. Their rare-breed pork is heavenly, and I’m privileged enough to get samples of their splendid ham from time to time. These were perfect to line the ramekins, before cracking a hen’s egg in each. But I felt I needed something a tad more substantial to accompany these, so I made some potato bread – a family favourite – for the first time ever.

As Miss South’s previously explained, it’s meant to be made with leftover mashed potato, but that’s rarer than hen’s teeth in my house, so I quickly cubed and boiled up a few spuds, ran them through the potato ricer, then mixed in some plain flour & a knob of butter to create a light dough with a bit of bite. Proportions may vary depending on how waxy/floury your spuds are, but normally you want 4 to 5 times more flour than mash. Miss South’s said it before and we’ll say it again: potato bread is dead easy… it takes a Herculean effort to mess it up. A perfect compliment to any kind of ham and eggs…

Wheaten bread, otherwise known as brown soda bread, is another one of those wonderfully yeast-free breads we love back home. As with soda farls, the secret is the baking soda which helps it rise. You can buy it in many supermarkets, ready-made and branded courtesy of Paul Rankin; and both it and the more well-known white soda breads are gaining popularity on this side of the water. No wonder, it’s both healthy and oh-so-tasty. The ever-reliable Dan Lepard popped up on Women’s Hour’s “Cook the Perfect…” last week with his own take on it, and this spurred me on to do it the North/South way…

We’re a bit more old school in our family, and the core ingredients for wheaten bread are normally just flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and a pinch of sugar. Wheaten bread’s at least as easy to make as potato bread, especially if you have some Northern Irish wheaten bread mix to hand (thanks to my mum for bringing some across this summer). Of course, you can instead use a good mix of plain and wholemeal flour instead… but try and use as coarse and bran-heavy a mix as possible, as this really contributes to the flavour. In a mix, the baking soda’s already in place, so today all I had to do was add buttermilk and sugar.

I’m lucky enough to be able to get buttermilk in my local Morrisons, but I hear it’s hard to source in many parts of the country, so you can use full-fat milk and sour it with some lemon juice, or mix in some live yoghurt instead. Use roughly 3 parts flour to 2 parts buttermilk… in this case I used 500g of flour and about 330ml buttermilk, with a teaspoon of caster sugar just to bring out that nuttiness of the bran even more.

Mix it all up until you get a nice dough, not too sticky or overworked. Then normally I’d roll it out into a roundish shape, about 1″ / 3cm thick, before scoring the top into quarters. I dusted it with a little plain flour, but it’s also good finished with some chopped rolled oats.

As I was mixing the dough I realised I’d not made this for far too long; in fact since I went to Rotterdam to visit friends from all over Europe and enjoy a good shared meal. My Italian mate knocked up some fantastic food, so I thought it’d be right to bring a decent Irish loaf to add to the mix. Most people smuggle addictive substances out of the Netherlands: I may be the only person to have smuggled a loaf of wheaten bread in!

This is a bread with instant gratification in mind, with no leavening or proving required. I baked this straight on the shelf in a pre-heated oven, rather than on a tray, for 35mins (200C/400F/Gasmark 6) straight. Once it came out, sounding hollow when tapped, it had to sit and cool down on a wire rack. This is one of my strongest kitchen memories as a kid. I used to hang around, greedily watching while my mum baked glorious bannocks of wheaten bread, but the hardest part was waiting for them to cool, far too slowly, on a wire rack, with a tea towel covering them. As I found out today, self-control still isn’t one of my strong points when it comes to wheaten bread, even after all these years. We succumbed while the bread was warm enough to melt great slatherings of butter.

Simple and effective with good butter, though I had a last-minute hankering for a bit of blue cheese, which works so well with the nutty sweetness of the bread. Cashel Blue would be the natural Irish choice, but I was able to pick up some very decent Jervaulx Blue instead, which I enjoyed along with a pot of Yorkshire Tea. Living just inside West Yorkshire, it seemed a perfect choice. It also makes superb toast. If you’re looking for something a little more special, slices of buttered wheaten bread alongside some good Irish smoked salmon, finished with a sprig of chervil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some cracked black pepper is to die for.

*”Oh wheaten it be nice…” with apologies to the Small Faces…