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No Fuss Gnocchi

gnocchiI think everyone who has ever met me knows how I feel about potatoes. Pretty much a full food group in my life, I am never without a bag of spuds. My idea of treating myself is to buy a different sort for each recipe and mull over the merits of Anyas, King Edwards, Desirees and Kerr Pinks. I’ve even grown my own and spent hours on the internet trying to find the elusive Yukon Gold. I’m either slightly obessive or painfully stereotypically Irish.

So imagine how pained I was when I went to buy a bag of bog basic white spuds last week and they were a mindbending £2.40 for 2.5 kilos. At the rate I consume potatoes that’s bumped my shopping budget up to a point where there’s just not much wiggle room. I had two options: stop eating potatoes or find a cheaper option.

Obviously I went for the latter and decided to play around with the bag of Sainsbury’s Basics Instant Mashed Potato I bought a while back as a cheaper gluten free alternative to breadcrumbs and batter. 125g of dry mash and 150ml milk and 425ml water makes 695g of mash, meaning one 250g bag costing 49p makes well over a kilo of mash.

Unfortunately I have bad memories of instant mash from school dinners where it came served in uniform scoops with a oddly powdery texture. It needed so much butter that it would be heartstopping in cost and health consequences. So what was I going to do with my mountain of mash now?

Older, wiser and more versed in the potato dishes of the world, that’s an easy one. I’m going to make gnocchi with it. And potato bread. Then I’m going to marvel at how quick both are and how I suddenly feel like one of those home economics teachers from the 70s by telling you this.

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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…

 

Finished potato apple bread

Potato Apple Bread

Finished potato apple bread

I grew up on apples and even though more fashionable and fancy fruits have come along since then, none of them have replaced the apple as well, the apple of my eye. Our grandmother lived near County Armagh – with its world famous apple trees – and had an orchard of her own on the farm that produced beautiful Bramleys in abundance. A visit to her’s wasn’t complete without a slice of apple pie.

Another treat I remember when I used to stay with her in the school holidays was the Ulster classic of potato apple bread. Sheets of stodgy but delicious potato bread, filled with tart apple and fried til golden brown on the outside. It is a total treat at anytime, but particularly tastes of autumn when you could pick the apples freshly. It also used to pop up as a seasonal treat in the bakeries of Belfast as the leaves turned and the school year started.

I always thought it was a fiendishly tricky thing to make until I whipped up a batch of potato bread for the first time a few years ago and realised it’s as easy as falling off a log. It followed that the apple version couldn’t be much trickier. And after getting my hands on some Lambeth apples courtesy of Incredible Edible Lambeth and the London Orchard Project at the new monthly Make It Grow It Sell It market, the time had come to try it out.

Potato bread is traditionally made with leftover mashed potatoes, but if you manage to have leftover mash in your house then you’re a better person than I. Instead I peeled about 300g of Maris Pipers, boiled until tender, drained and dried well and added a knob of salted butter before mashing well. Don’t add milk or you’ll end up with something akin to babyfood with this recipe. The salted butter stops the potato being bland so don’t skip it.

Then add around 3/4 cup or 75 grammes of plain flour into the mashed potato and form a dough. You may need more flour ,depending on the wetness of your spuds. Mix well to form a stiff but malleable dough. Knead for a few minutes to firm it up and try to keep it moving all the time or it sticks to your surface and forms a gluey mess.

While you are making the potato dough, put your apples on to stew down. I like them fairly chunky so don’t chop too finely and don’t add more than a tablespoon of water to them while they cook. I don’t add any sugar as I prefer the tart tanginess of apple than the sweet applesauce vibe. You could add cinnamon or cloves if you like too, but I didn’t bother.

Take about a fist-sized lump of the potato dough and roll out on some greaseproof paper until it’s as thin as you can without it being difficult to work with or likely to rip. Then place on a plate and cover with your stewed apple, leaving a good lip round the edge. But don’t skimp on filling! Then roll out another fist sized lump of dough on the greaseproof paper and place on top of the appley bit and seal well with your fingers making an enclosed sandwich.

Slide into a well-heated oiled frying pan. Give it about 4 minutes either side, but keep an eye so it doesn’t burn. Potato bread seems to stay raw for ages and then cook completely before you’ve even realised. Once golden and gorgeous on either side, I like to eat it as quickly as the insanely-hot apple filling will allow without hurting yourself.

It works really really well. The slightly salted potato brings out the sweet tang of the apples and it makes a perfect breakfast if you fancy a change from standard tattie bread. You can also serve it cooled down for elevenses or an afternoon snack with a big mug of strong tea. There just isn’t a time it’s not utterly delicious. Just make more than you expected: everyone wants seconds of this one!

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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It’s my party and I’ll fry if I want to…

The Ulster Fry is the national dish of Northern Ireland. It must never be referred to as a ‘fry-up’, but can be affectionately called a ‘heart-attack on a plate’ instead. It varies from the Full English by the judicious addition of soda bread and potato farls fried to golden crispness and a soft fluffy pancake to soak up the oozing yolk of a fried egg. The sausage can be beef or pork and it can be served with either black or white pudding if to your taste. No matter which way you serve it, an proper Ulster Fry is a vast plate of fried heaven that will keep even the biggest appetite sated all day.

I only eat a real Ulster Fry about once a year on my annual pilgrimage home. Anymore than that might kill me, but it’s also because there’s something special about a fry cooked by yer mammy. It always tastes that little bit better for that. Of course the other reason I don’t eat a fry too often is that it’s difficult for me to get my hands on potato or soda bread easily. Some branches of Marks and Spencer and Waitrose stock speciality Irish breads, but sadly I don’t live near any of them. Instead I stockpile farls brought by visitors from Belfast and save them for hungover days that need grease to get through them.

This St Patrick’s Day, fresh as a daisy from the fact it fell on a Wednesday and no one else wanted to celebrate on a school night, I have decided to take advantage of my clear head and happy liver and make my own potato bread and soda bread for a proper homemade fry. It will be delicious, if not slightly inauthentic as I tend to grill the bacon and sausage and don’t fry anything in bacon fat or dripping. It’s almost healthy… Read more