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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!

Veda Bread Ice Cream

July is a hot month back home in Belfast. Not especially due to the weather, but because of the slightly heightened feeling on the streets due to the Orange Order marches held in what is known as the Twelfth Fortnight. This was the traditional summer holiday for the shipyard workers in the city and a chance to hark back and remember Catholics and Protestants knocking the pan out of each other at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. For those of us who don’t enjoy some light civil disobedience, it’s a good time to potter around at home doing all those things you’d sort of meant to do all year since you can’t really go out. Or ignore them completely and spend time watching box-sets and eating ice cream instead…

Feeling oddly left out here in London, I thought I would try and join in with a ice cream recipe with a taste of home. I’ve been wanting to make a traditional brown bread ice cream since I got my ice cream maker earlier this year, but the arrival of my mother on the week of the Twelfth with every Northern Irish exile’s request in the shape of a loaf of Veda bread, meant I decided to give it an Ulster twist and use Veda instead.

A dark delicious slightly sticky (non-fruited) malt bread, Veda makes the best toast in the world, marrying together with butter like nobody’s business. Adding sugar to bring out the natural sweetness and crisping it up with butter is what my life has been missing up until now. Using this recipe by David Lebovitz, I crumbled the Veda into smallish pieces, fried off in butter and a good unrefined caster sugar and then toasted in the oven for about 30 minutes or until I had clusters of crispy, sticky, malty heaven that were so good, I could have skipped the ice cream and just eaten them alone.

But since I had promised ice cream, I made ice cream. The recipe uses a basic custard, but with the addition of cream cheese to stop it all being just too sweet. This is much more faffy, needing a third bowl, more counter space, a sieve, a whisk and more potential for the custard to curdle as it needs to be hotter to melt the cream cheese, so in future, I don’t think I’ll bother with this addition. Otherwise, it was all pretty straightforward.

I gave this ice cream a bit of a Brixton twist and added a slug of dark rum, some vanilla and then stirred the caramalised crisped up Veda into the churned mixture about five minutes before the end. Because the Veda is stickier and maltier than regular brown bread, the crumbs clumped up more and made huge nuggets of crispiness. Fearing that I would either break my teeth or the machine, I blitzed them in the blender to make them more crumb like. Everything then went in the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up and create hands down the finest ice cream ever created.

Creamy beyond belief but crunchy and chewy due to the crisped up bread crumbs and with a slightly grown up flavour from the rum, this was just magnificient. Rich with butter and with a gorgeous toffee feel, I defy you not to fall in love with this amazing ice cream and want to sneak a spoonful everytime you pass the freezer. It was declared even better than the Northern Irish ice cream institution that is Maud’s Pooh Bear Delight*.

You need to make this ice cream immediately. If you don’t have access to Norn Iron’s best kept secret, try it with some Soreen or a really good brown bread instead. This is what breadcrumbs aspire to being…

*Youse know it’d be belter in a poke.

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!

Any (hot) port in a (snow) storm…

 

hot-ports-3

There are some firm favourites which I indelibly associate with certain seasons. As the temperature plummets, and biting-cold weather beckons, the first thing I’ll turn to is a hot port… and as we’re enjoying a ferociously cold snap and it’s Christmas, this is the perfect tipple. Think of it as a speedy mulled wine with a bit more of a kick behind it…

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