Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An exciting new event for Dublin's foodies

Have you heard about the Cookbook Club? I hadn't until I saw it mentioned in The Sunday Times' Style section a few weeks back but I was instantly intrigued. If you're a foodie, you are sure to be too.

Its founder, Elaine Walsh, recently told me what it was all about:

"Everyone seems to like the ethos and quirkiness of the club," she says. "An in-house chef interprets a menu adapted from a cookbook and cooks that menu for 120 people. It's a challenge for them to interpret the recipes but then that's what we all do at home with cookbooks, isn't it? With the club, you get to eat the lovely dishes in the pictures but someone else has cooked them and you don't have to do the washing up!"

To make it even more interesting, the chef/author of the cookbook is also present on the night. They introduce the menu and I'm sure they also make the in-house chef feel nervous about doing their recipes justice!

The Cookbook Club meets on the first Monday of every month and next Monday, the chefs at Ely Bar and Brasserie will be cooking what they consider to be some of Clodagh McKenna's best dishes. Diners will have a choice of three starters, three main courses and three desserts. And most excitingly of all, I'm going to be there to sample them!

I love the story of what inspired Elaine to start this club. It's a story that combines everything that makes food so important: family, bringing people together, the conviviality of preparing food and the enjoyment there is in sharing the pleasure of a meal.

Here's how Elaine explains it:
"There are two things," she says. "I'm from a farm in West Clare but I hated it. I hated weeding, minding the cattle and cutting the turf. But I did like the preparation of our own homegrown food. My mum and grandmother used to dissect recipes they scoured from 'Woman's Way' magazines and old domestic science books to find something 'cordon bleu-y' to do with the same old mutton or turnip or we'd all die of boredom. They'd be cleavering meat and chopping vegetables, gossiping all the while. I'd be sitting eavesdropping on the stairs and I think that's why I associate food preparation and family gossip and get-togethers with cookbook narratives. I want to know the story behind the dish."

Elaine is also writing a cookbook of her own, which has its very own story. "It's about five real-life sisters who were all taught to cook by their extraordinary mother," she explains. "That book won't be released until next year but while I was studying the cookbook market, I started to think about organising big social get-togethers for groups of friends and family."

That's how the idea was born and the club has met twice so far. In September, the chefs of the Town Bar and Grill interpreted the recipes of Paul Flynn from The Tannery and in October those of Catherine Fulvio. Elaine was thrilled with both events .

"There's such conviviality and fun," she says. "Some people use it as a chance to catch up but it's also great to bring people together and to see strangers make friends. I've even had two romances come out of it. At one occasion, two cousins who hadn't seen each other in over 30 years because of a family row happened to be sitting together. It was so emotional to see them reconnect."

She is now planning to bring her cookbook club to other parts of Ireland and maybe even further afield. Future events are being organised for Cork, Belfast and Galway.

I don't know if there are any more tickets available for Monday but if you're interested, the cost is €35 and more information can be found here:

In the meantime, I'm going along on Monday and I'll post a review to let you know how it goes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cupcakes, farmers' markets and all I've learned in the past year

Yesterday was my last day at Dingle Farmers' Market until our Christmas markets in December (dates yet to be decided).
My reaction to this my decision to call a halt to cupcake baking for the winter is a mixed one. My head (and body) says: Phew! I'm glad that's over.
Yet it's more complicated than that. Ever since I set up my stall just over a year ago, I've learned a huge amount from my involvement with the market and my life has become richer as a result.

I've found people to be so generous . When I first started, I was unsure whether my venture would be successful and so wasn't keen to shell out money on a canopy. I told an old lady who used to be in charge of the market about my reluctance to invest too much upfront and she immediately swung into action, contacting stallholders and asking if anybody had a canopy they weren't using. Organic vegetable enthusiast Deckie came up trumps and loaned me one until I felt the time had come to purchase one of my own. (Thanks Deckie!)

The other stallholders have been friendly too. Tom often helps me to set up my stall in the morning (hoping he'll get a banoffee cupcake in return!).
Mark, the market controller is always on hand to carry boxes, assemble canopies and solve occasional disputes (!). The atmosphere is always convivial, with everyone swapping stories, chatting with customers and marvelling at the weather (it was sunny every single Friday - bar one - from the beginning of April until yesterday!).

The customers have to be one of the things that make the market so special. It's great building up a regular customer base, learning what they like and having them come back to tell you what they think of your products. My customers often suggest new flavours I should try and what they think of cupcakes they have tasted elsewhere.

Here are some stand-out memories of interactions I had with customers this year:
A lovely German girl whose granny had been a prize-winning baker in Bavaria sampling my white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes and trying to guess all the different ingredients.

The delight on the face of a charming elderly man who bought cupcakes every week when I returned to the market after a few weeks of being off sick.

There was also the lady who would visit my stall every week, spend ages looking at all the different options and then complain about my cupcakes being too expensive. She would try to haggle about the price and I would stand firm and refuse. (I give discounts if you buy lots, not just two!) Two weeks ago, she eventually relented and decided she'd spend €4 on two white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes. She returned yesterday to say how nice they were "even though they were dear". She then bought 12! And for that, I did give her a discount.
(white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes; the cakes that eventually made her crack)

I've learned lots about baking and decorating cakes during the year too. It's amazing to look back at photos and see just how much my cakes have improved. They always tasted good but at the beginning I had a lot to learn about making them look good.
I've also developed an even deeper respect for food producers. There is such a huge amount of work and committment involved in producing fresh food and anyone who succeeds in doing so ought to be commended.
Dingle Farmers' Market has grown and developed during the year too. When I started in September 2009, the market was located in an out-of-the-way strip of wasteland. The ground was potholed and uneven and turned into a muddy quagmire when it rained. This meant that only a hardy core of six or so stallholders turned up every Friday and the market was losing customers by the week.
A man called Michael Gleeson came to our rescue and he negotiated with Kerry County Council on our behalf. We were moved to a new location - the car park on Holy Ground - and it's been onwards and upwards ever since. Over the summer months, we had 20+ stallholders and many more expressing interest in joining.
Sausages and all sorts of cured meats, farmhouse cheeses, vegetarian and vegan food, savoury pies, fresh fish, homemade pizzas and quiches, bread, a huge variety of vegetables, pancakes, local honey, local organic beef, great hot food such as lamb koftas and crab bisque, my cupcakes and brownies and a fabulous range of local crafts; Dingle Farmers' Market is now not to be missed. Just ask the hundreds of regulars who come every Friday.

I'm already planning to spend the winter experimenting with new cupcake flavours, macaroons and whoopie pies but for those of you who'll suffer withdrawal symptoms until then, here are some Oreo cupcakes to tide you over:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Danté's Gastropub: the first pitstop in a quest to find a good place to eat in Tralee

Where is a good place to eat in Tralee? This is a question I ask myself whenever I am in the town. Despite decades of visiting Tralee on a regular basis, I have yet to find many cafés or restaurants that I would recommend to friends.

I have a particular fondness for Brat's on Milk Market Lane, a wonderfully ramshackle vegetarian café, but I am not always in the mood for and nor am I often in time to eat there. (It has very short opening hours.) So, the quest continues. Where is a good place to eat in Tralee?

A month or so ago, I heard about a new opening in the town. Danté's Bar - on the corner of Bridge and Dominick Street - aims to bring the gastropub culture to Tralee. So, when my boyfriend and I found ourselves hungry in the town on Monday, we decided to sample what this new place had to offer.

The menu consists of quality modern gastropub fare. Chicken liver pâté with sourdough, mushroom and rocket risotto, confit duck with red cabbage and mash; the type of food that's filling, comforting and carries a touch of continental sophistication.

I ordered the fish cakes (which were recommended by staff) and my boyfriend ordered the pork belly. His came with Annascaul black pudding and roast peaches. The pork was excellently cooked, with a crispy skin satisfyingly yielding to a melting layer of oozing fat and tender meat. The black pudding added earthy depths of flavour while the peaches lent acidity to the dish. Overall, it was pretty good. I’m sure he’d have it again.
My fishcakes weren’t quite as successful.

They came with a crisp salad, sour cream and a chilli salsa – all good accompaniments. My problem wasn’t with them but with the fishcakes themselves. There was far too much smoked haddock in them, so much in fact that it completely overshadowed any other flavours. The only flavour that could match the haddock in the dish was the chilli in the salsa.

Overall, Danté’s has a lot to commend it. The décor is good, with lots of dark wood and big windows letting in lots of light. The staff are attentive (they overheard us complaining about the loud – and I mean LOUD – hip hop music that was blaring when we walked in, completely at odds with the mid-afternoon relaxed vibe, and immediately changed to something more suitable).

You can order wines by the glass. There’s a good range of teas and coffees.
And best of all, Danté’s offers unbeatable people-watching opportunities. We sat in a big window that overlooked one of Tralee’s busiest streets and speculated about everyone who passed by. Did we like her hairdo? Wasn’t that a weird-looking dog? Would you go out of the house looking like that? It was the best people-watching session I’d had in a long time.

Marks out of ten? I’d say six and a half. Not great, admittedly, but I’ll go back again. I have a feeling this place could get better.
By the way, if you can suggest any places I should try in Tralee, please do so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sunny times in West Kerry

Be honest. Which would you choose:
Option A: this admittedly hard-working electric oven

Or option B: a walk on a gloriously sunny day?

My oven has been calling me all week.
"Sharon," it says, in its commanding German tones (it is a De Dietrich after all). "Bake something for your blog. It's been too long."
"But I can't," I answer. "It's far too sunny outside."
It really has been sunny. The light has been so clear and golden, showing up the landscape in all its stark beauty. As anybody who lives in Ireland (especially in the west) will testify: we don't get very many of these days. There certainly won't be very many of them between now and March. So, I had no choice. I had to ignore my oven and make the most of the sunshine. That's what I've been doing and here are some pictures to prove it:
Tuesday's dramatic sunset (as seen from my house)
Tuesday's sliver of moon
And introducing Jimmy, a happy dog who has been getting lots of walks these sunny days.

By the way, the weather has now turned. It's still clear and bright but it's really cold. You're bound to get a recipe out of me soon!

Monday, October 11, 2010

A cookbook that won't rebuke you: Diana Henry's Food from Plenty

I have a strange relationships with cookbooks. Those moments when I flick through the pages of a new cookbook, earmarking the recipes I'll try first and fantasising about how good they will taste are some of my favourite moments of all. However, the moment I add a new cookbook to my already groaning kitchen shelves is an especially guilty one.

I can feel the other books rebuking me silently.
"You haven't finished cooking recipes from us," they scold. "We still have lots more to offer you. Why are you moving on to something new?"

I always listen to them and resolve not to buy any new cookbooks until I have experimented with the recipes in those I already have. Sadly for my ignored cookbooks, this resolve never lasts for very long. After a long day at work, I'll find myself browsing Amazon for the latest titles. If I happen upon a bookshop, I'll automatically head for their cookery section. And if I'm in TK Maxx - which I was on Friday - I always check out their book section.

This was where I found 'Food from Plenty' by Diana Henry. Diana is a food writer for The Sunday Telegraph and has written several other cookbooks such as 'Cook Simple' and 'Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons'.

I'd never heard of her before but I'm now a convert. The idea behind this book is a simple one: creating good food from what is plentiful, seasonal and left over from previous meals. It's a book that chimes with the times we now live in as more people try to avoid wastefulness and rein in their grocery bills while still eating healthy food.

Diana starts with an excellent section on Sunday roasts. As well as giving advice on the basics of roasting techniques, she also includes interesting riffs on roast chicken, pork and lamb. Cherry and goat's cheese stuffed chicken, anyone?

She also devotes a section to what to do with the leftovers. I usually make a chicken, ham and mushroom pie with the remains of my roast chicken but the next time I might try Diana's chicken noodle soup or chicken and parsely risotto.

The rest of the book is divided into sections on vegetables, pulses, grains, fish, meats, soups, food that can be foraged in the wild, desserts, eggs and recipes based on using up stale bread. There are also inserts on choosing cuts of meat for flavour and economy and the different uses of grains and pulses.

All of Diana's recipes are straightforward. She chooses meat and fish that is cheap and sustainable and she cooks it in a way that maximises its flavour, combining them with ingredients that you are likely to have in your storecupboard in any case.

This is one book that won't be sitting unused on my bookshelf, seething with resentment whenever I add something new. Since I bought it on Friday, I've already cooked a Persian herb chilau (an Iranian rice dish that has a crunchy crust and lots of mint, dill and parsley) and a Middle Eastern shepherd's pie with a spiced parsnip crust.

Earmarked recipes: orange and pistachio pilaf; barley, spinach and mushroom salad; mackerel with spiced rhubarb relish; and cauliflower with fried breadcrumbs, capers and anchovies.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bleary-eyed recollections of this year's Dingle Food and Wine Festival

A year has gone by since I first set up my stall at Dingle's Farmers' Market. Little Miss Cupcake - a stall specialising in (yup, you've guessed it!) cupcakes and brownies - came into existence in September of last year and a mere month later, I was selling hundreds of cupcakes at Dingle's Food and Wine Festival, an annual event that takes place on the first weekend of October.

To mark my first year anniversary, I decided that I wanted this year's food festival to be even bigger and better than before.

This marked the start of the madness.

I decided that as well as baking brownies, I would bake ten different varieties of cupcake. That's right. Ten! Chocolate, white chocolate and raspberry, strawberry, banoffee, carrot, Guinness and Baileys, Oreo, mini mixed berry and vanilla cheesecakes, almond and orange and Black Forest cupcakes. Why did nobody think to stop me?

As a result of this crazy decision, my weekend passed in a blur of bleary-eyed activity. I rose at dawn, baked and iced cupcakes, spent the afternoon enticing people to buy them, rushed home to bake some more, snatched a few hours of precious sleep and then rose to do it all over again. This was the pattern on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Somehow, I also managed to find the time to enjoy a nine course tasting menu at the Global Village restaurant on Saturday night. I'm not going to review it here as the owners are friends of mine but believe me when I say that it was fabulous.
Highlights included a ravioli filled with the sweetest concentrated tomato that burst when cut and intensified a deeply flavoured tomato broth; albacore tuna served with seaweed; a wonderfully minty mojito sorbet; and an imaginative take on millionaire's shortbread where the caramel was replaced with zingy lemon.
One of the highlights of the Dingle Food Festival - besides the excellent market and the food demonstrations - is the taste trail. Almost all of the businesses in the town take part and each of them hosts a different food producer. So, essentially, you can stroll around the town, following your nose and your appetite and enjoying bite-sized meals in pubs, shops, restaurants and art galleries.
Tuck into some barbequed seafood at the fishmonger's. Slurp on some oysters and Guinness in one pub or tuck into a pint and a pork pie in another. Enjoy a spit-roast pig, Spanish paella, Murphy's ice cream sandwiches, gourmet coffee, wine tastings and so much more.
Unfortunately, I missed most of this as I was busy manning my stall. Next year, cupcakes or no cupcakes, I have vowed not to be so overtaken by madness. I too will eat my way around Dingle.