Monday, September 27, 2010

EAT Cork: the disappointments and the surprises

I ventured into Cork City this Sunday to check out the inaugural EAT Cork festival, the city's first ever food festival.

My hopes were high. Cork is reputed to be Ireland's culinary capital. It's home to the English Market (a place that has always expressed pride in Irish produce: The city also has fabulous restaurants. (I love Café Paradiso, Isaac's and Jacques - reviews to come.) And then there's the city's hinterland; a rich countryside and bountiful seashore which has inspired food producers such as Gubbeen cheeses and cured meats and Sally Barnes' Woodcock Fish Smokery, among many others.
Alas, I was disappointed. When I arrived in the city at 1.30pm, very little seemed to be happening. There were supposed to be workshops being held in the English Market - sausage making, cake baking, shopping on a budget and more - but the doors were closed and the place was in darkness when I peered in.

There was a street market but it was much smaller than advertised. And it wasn't very diverse. There were several hot food stalls selling gourmet hot dogs, savoury pies and spicy kebabs. There was a coffee counter. And there were lots of stalls selling sweet things: cupcakes, brownies and all sorts of cakes.

Is it just me or do you agree that markets should be based on more than this? I want to buy food to bring home. Fruit, vegetables, fresh pasta, meats, fish, olives, breads; where were they all? It just didn't seem like a real market to me.

The day wasn't an entire disappoinment though. I met two lovely food producers who make their own peanut butter and other nutty products:

Glór Peanut butter is produced in Killarney by Oliver Heffernan. It's nutty. It's rich. And it tastes completely natural.
And so it should because Oliver learned how to make it while volunteering in Zambia five years ago. He uses the recipe he learned from Zambian women - pure peanuts mixed with a very small amount of salt and some peanut and walnut oils. You really can taste the goodness.

I bought the plain peanut butter. They also do one with added chocolate chips and another with honey. I'm planning to have it in my porridge tomorrow morning (the first bowl of porridge of the winter as it's suddenly become very cold) as well as using it in satay sauces and maybe even in a white chocolate and peanut butter blondie.

I also drooled over some of the items on offer on the Heaven's Cakes stall. This Bandon-based bakery produces fabulous French-inspired cakes and they also have a regular stall in the English Market.
These two stalls, especially my conversation with the peanut butter makers, made up for the disappointment of EAT Cork. I was hoping I was also going to get lucky and nab a table at the special pop-up restaurant being created by Ross Lewis of Dublin's Chapter One in the Cork School of Music that night. But I couldn't get through to anyone who knew anything about booking a table, despite ringing the relevant numbers and contacting the right emails... Grr.

Was I unlucky? Should I have visited on a day other than Sunday? Did anyone else have a more positive experience?

My final verdict is that - judging on my experience - Cork and its fabulous food producers deserve a much better food festival than this.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My attempt to cure the common cold: hot and sour soup

Cough. Sniff. Splutter.
It's that time of year, isn't it? When everyone you know seems to be falling victim to the dreaded lurgy: the common cold.
It happened to me on Monday. I went to bed feeling fine and woke up to a runny nose, streaming eyes, a sore throat and a headache.

There are many foods I turn to at times of illness but when a cold strikes, I want something spicy and strong. Something that clears my congested head and restores my energy levels. And most importantly, something that doesn't require too much preparation or too much time to cook. In fact, what I want is something exactly like this:

Nigella's Hot and Sour Soup

1 and a half litres of chicken or vegetable stock
1 heaped tbsp tom yam paste (optional)
4 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped (optional)
1 stick lemongrass, tender inner part only, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp fish sauce
3 small fresh green or red chillies, finely chopped
1 tsp sugar
150g straw or button mushrooms, quartered
500g peeled raw prawns
5 small spring onions, cut into strips
Small bunch coriander, chopped

  • Heat the stock and tom yam paste in a saucepan with the lime leaves, lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, chillies and sugar. Bring to the boil.
  • Add mushrooms and simmer for a couple of mins.
  • Add the prawns and spring onions and add for a further 2 to 3 minutes or until the prawns are cooked but still tender.
  • Sprinkle with coriander and serve.
This takes less than 15 mins to make, start to finish, and it's my go-to recipe when I'm feeling congested. (In fact, I probably should pass it on to Brian Cowen. I hear he's got a "congestion problem". Ahem.)
By the way, if you want to turn this into a more substantial supper, all you have to do is add some noodles. Slurp your way back to health!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The joys of country living: eccentric neighbours and fresh food

Anybody who lives or has lived in the Irish countryside will testify to the fact that it is home to some very eccentric characters. Characters who entertain and sometimes even scandalise with their antics.
Let me tell you about one such character. Máire is a feisty lady who lives up the road from my house. When I first met her, I was slightly intimidated by her strongly-held views on life. This is a woman who believes wholeheartedly in environmental principles and is passionate about her organic lifestyle. You can see this from her ramshackle home, where everything is salvaged, handmade or hand-me-down. You can see it in the vegetable garden she cultivates with help from her two sons. You can see it from the clothes she wears, the products she uses and you can especially see it in her animals.
Máire has hens who roam free. I don't have a problem with this but I did have serious issues with her goats who did likewise. They - a mother and her kid goat - would often wander into our garden and try to hold me hostage in my own home. There were several occasions when I was too frightened to leave the house because when I tried to do so, the mother would lower her head and try to ram me with her (not insignificant) horns.
It eventually got to the stage where my boyfriend had to threaten (in a lighthearted tone that hid deadly serious intentions!) Máire with the prospect of goat stew...
Those days have passed now. The goats are no longer (killed by a mysterious disease...). And we are on the best of terms with Máire.

In fact, she brings us fresh eggs (with the yellowest yolks you've ever seen) and a box of fresh veggies every Saturday morning. These are different every week; the arrangement being that she gives us whatever happens to be plentiful at any one time. Lately, this has meant a lot of lettuces, courgettes, leeks and beetroots.

Hmm. Beetroots.

I'm a pretty experimental cook but previous to this, I'd never cooked with beetroots. What to do with them?
When I'm in need of culinary inspiration, I often turn to the internet. There are so many websites with so many delicious recipes to discover. But sometimes I prefer leafing through cookery books and that's what I decided to do this time. I turned to my oldest cookery book, my trusty copy of 'The Complete Encyclopaedia of Vegetables and Vegetarian Cooking'.

This was the first cookbook I ever bought; aged 18, a fledgling vegetarian and living in Galway City. It has stood me in good stead since then, especially its section on how to shop for, store and cook every sort of vegetable imaginable. (Would you know how to judge the ripeness of okra, kohlrabi or salsify? This book tells you how.)

It didn't let me down this time either. So, in honour of my neighbour Máire, one of my best-loved cookbooks and beetroots, here's a recipe for beetroot roulade.

For the roulade:

225g fresh beetroot, cooked and peeled
1/2 tsp ground cumin
25g butter
2tsp grated onion
4 eggs, separated
salt and ground black pepper

For the filling:
150ml creme fraiche
2tsp white wine vinegar
Good pinch mustard powder
1 tsp sugar
3tbsp parsley, chopped
2tbsp dill, chopped
3tbsp horseradish relish

  • I rinsed the beetroot and cut the stalks to about 2.5cm above the beetroot. (My book said not to cut off the root as this would cause the red colour to bleed away.) I placed them in a dish with a tight-fitting lid and added 4-5tbsp of water. I then baked in a low oven (100 degrees or so) for 2 and a half hours, until they were tender, checking frequently to make sure they hadn't dried out.

  • Line and grease a Swiss roll tin and preheat the oven to 190 degrees/Gas mark 5.
  • Roughly chop the beetroot. Place in a food processor and beat in the cumin, butter, onion, egg yolks and seasoning. Pulse to a purée and pour into a large bowl.
  • In another spotlessly clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold them carefully into the beetroot purée.
Spoon the mixture into the Swiss roll tin. Level and bake for about 15 mins until just firm to the touch.
Have a clean tea towel laid over a wire rack. Turn the beetroot out onto the towel and remove the paper carefully in strips.
  • Mix the creme fraiche with the remaining ingredients. Spread this mixture onto the beetroot. Roll the roulade in the towel and allow to cool.
  • You should now have something that looks like this:
    I served it with boiled new potatoes (also courtesy of Máire) and extra horseradish.
    Healthy food, grown yards from my home; now that's what makes me happy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sharon is exceptional.

I don't mean to boast but I finally have categorical proof of just how exceptional I am. Unfortunately, I am loathe to admit that I am exceptional in an undesirable way. I appear to be exceptionally sensitive to pain, especially to the sharp jab of pain caused by the prick of a needle.
I've always hated needles - and by extension doctors, dentists and even sewing - but it was only when I tried acupuncture for the first time last week that I realised my aversion to them was based on something real.

"This won't hurt at all," promised the acupuncturist as he inserted a needle into the top of my head last Friday. "Very few people have many nerve endings here."
"Ouch", said Sharon, wincing.
"Oh," said the acupuncturist. "You are exceptional."

There we have it. Proof positive of just how extraordinary I am.

After two acupuncture sessions (which left me with actual bruises but also resulted in my arm ,which has been experiencing unexplained muscle spasms for the past six weeks, feeling dramatically better), I felt as though I needed some consolation, as well as a celebration.
So, I baked this:

This was one of those rich and aromatic flourless types of chocolate cakes that you can almost hear melting in your mouth. (I found it in Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites cookbook.)


250g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids) 125g unsalted butter (softened)
6 eggs (2 whole, 4 separated)
175g caster sugar
2 tbsp Cointreau (optional but how could you resist?)
Grated zest of 1 orange (optional and ditto)

Cream topping:
250ml double cream (Nigella recommends 500ml but this is too much for me)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp Cointreau (optional)
1/2 tbsp cocoa powder for dusting

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees/gas mark 4.
  • Line the bottom of a 23cm springform baking tin with baking parchment.
  • Melt the chocolate (I usually do this in the microwave or you can use a double boiler*).
  • Add the butter and let it melt in the warm chocolate.
  • Beat the two whole eggs and four egg yolks with 75g of the caster sugar.
  • Add the chocolate mixture, Cointreau and orange zest.

  • In another bowl, whisk the four egg whites until foamy, then gradually add the remaining 100g of caster sugar and whisk until the whites are holding their shape but are not too stiff.
  • Lighten the chocolate mixture with a dollop of the whites and then fold in the rest.
  • Pour into the tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the cake is risen and cracked and its centre is no longer wobbly.
  • Cool the cake in its tin on a wire rack. And don't panic when the middle begins to sink. This is supposed to happen!
  • When the cake has cooled, place the tin on a plate or cake stand and carefully remove it. Don't worry about cracks or rough edges. If anything, they will convince sceptics you've made the cake yourself!
  • Whip the cream until it is soft and add the vanilla and Cointreau (if using).
  • Fill the crater of the cake with the cream and dust the top with cocoa powder.
  • Dig in.
* Be careful when microwaving chocolate. I usually microwave it for 1 minute and for 10 second intervals after that. It's easy to burn it and it's tragic to waste chocolate.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Simple Suppers 1

I love cooking.
But sometimes it's the last thing I want to do. Sometimes my brain simply can't perform the mental task of concocting a delicious dinner from the assorted ingredients to be found in my fridge. Other times, my body is too tired to spend very much time cooking at all.

It's at times like this that I turn to my notice board. (I don't have the financial wherewithal to go out to dinner whenever I don't feel like cooking and there is only so much pizza/Chinese/Indian I am willing to eat.) Pinned to my kitchen noticeboard is a growing list of dishes that my boyfriend and I both like, that are relatively simple and quick to make and for which we usually have the ingredients in the fridge. Whenever I need some inspiration, this is where I go.

This is one of the dishes on my list: Tabbouleh
(There are lots of different variations of this recipe. This is the one I make most often but you can adapt it to suit your own taste.)

25g bulgar wheat
2 large vine tomatoes
1 large bunch parsley
1 small bunch mint
4 spring onions
1 lemon
Olive oil
Sea salt

  • Place the bulgar wheat in 50ml of water. Cover and set aside for 15 minutes, or until it has absorbed all of the water.
  • Make a small cross at the base of the tomatoes. Place them in a small bowl and pour over some boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds and then drain away the water. When they have cooled, peel them and discard the skin. Cut them into quarters. Remove the seeds and dice the flesh. (Often, because I'm making this when I'm feeling lazy, I won't bother doing this. I don't mind eating tomato skins and seeds. I actually quite like them. Do what you like.)
  • Place the tomatoes in a serving bowl.
  • Chop the parsley and mint (just the leaves, not the stalks) and add to the bowl.
  • Chop the spring onions and add.
  • When the bulgar wheat has absorbed all its water, fluff it up with a fork to separate the grains. Add to the tomato mixture.
  • Add 2 to 3 tbsps of freshly-squeezed lemon juice.
  • Add salt and a few glugs of olive oil to taste. (I used about 2 tbsps.)
Voila. In a matter of minutes, you've got a delicious (and super healthy) supper!
I often have this with grilled fish. Yum!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Things change...

It’s funny how things change. When I wrote my first post on July 13th, I decided not to tell anyone about my blog until I had the chance to get some recipes up and brought more personality to this page. Six weeks have now passed and I’m still waiting.

Why? I’ve been ill. Seriously ill. Perhaps even life-alteringly ill.

While I am now beginning to get better, I’m still waiting on test results and scans. I’ve had a very worrying few weeks. I’ve been wondering if the body I had always so taken for granted was about to let me down and if so, what sort of an impact that was going to have on my life. Could I still work as a journalist? Could I continue with my cupcake business (currently on hiatus until my body is back in full working order)? Christ, would I even be able to drive?

I don’t yet have definite answers to those questions (although I did drive – very slowly – in and out to Dingle town yesterday) but I do know one thing. No matter what the answers are, I am going to pay more attention to my body. I am going to do all I can to keep it as healthy as it can be.

This is bound to have some effect on what I write here. Don’t worry. There will be talk of chocolate cake, creamy food and glasses of Prosecco but there will also be lots of mention of veggies, whole foods and all sorts of other good things.

You have been warned!