Thursday, November 25, 2010

My idea of a real winter warmer

This month was my first time taking part in the Irish Foodies Cookalong and the theme was 'winter warmers'. Hmm, I thought when presented with the challenge, what's my idea of a winter warmer?

I very rarely eat meat so the obvious option of stews, boeuf bourguinon and such were off my menu. I was stumped for a few days until I saw mention of Cullen Skink on the Daily Spud's blog (if you haven't checked her out, you should:http://www.thedailyspud.com/edailyspud.com/). A few years ago, I had a version of this dish in a hotel in Belfast. A fried potato cake that bursts with fresh chives, hearty leek and potato soup and poached smoked haddock topped with a poached egg; I'd loved it and I'd always meant to try to recreate it at home. So, on the evening of Friday the 5th of November, that's exactly what I did.

(Some of you may think that this sounds like a lot of work for a Friday evening and, in a way, it is. But if you do what I did and make more potato cakes and more leek and potato soup than you need, then you have the makings of several meals just waiting for you in your fridge.)

So, I started by making what's called a court bouillon, a flavoured cooking liquid that is used for poaching fish. You may think this is unnecessary but cooking time aside, it takes very little effort on your part and your fish will taste all the better for it. Whenever I make it, I usually make enough for a few batches and freeze what I don't use.

Court bouillon:
100ml dry white wine
1 bay leaf
2 fresh thyme stems
1 carrot, sliced thinly
1 onion, sliced
1 stick of celery
8 black peppercorns
1.5litres water
Salt

Place all of your ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil.
Simmer for 30 mins.
Cool and strain.
(It's not that hard, is it?)

While that was happening, I made a start on my potato cakes. I boiled 2 medium-sized potatoes per person in a saucepan of water.

Next up was the soup.

Ingredients:
15g butter
1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
225g potatoes, cubed
2 medium-sized leeks, sliced
1.2 litres vegetable stock
Lots of flat leafed parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper


  • Melt the butter. Add the onion and garlic and stir until softened.
  • Add the potatoes and leeks. Stir for five mins or so.
  • Add the stock. Bring to the boil. Cover the pot and leave to simmer for 15 mins.
  • Add the parsley. Blend coarsely (I use a hand-held blender but a food processor will do too). Season.
While your soup is cooking, it's time to get your act in gear.
You need to mash your potatoes with chives, butter and salt and fry it in butter or oil. (Your choice but my preference would be for butter. It complements the flavour of the overall dish.)
You need to poach some smoked haddock in your court bouillon, which should be simmering in a wide pan. (I used a wok.) How long this takes depends on how thick your fillets of fish are but an average-sized fillet should take between 4 and 6 minutes.
Your last step is to poach an egg. And then all you need to do is assemble.

Potato cake:
Smoked haddock:
Soup:
Egg:
Yum!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I love curry. The question is: can I convince my boyfriend that he loves it too?

I have a problem. My boyfriend is English. You would think that would mean that he loves curry. It is, after all, supposed to be their national dish.
But no. He can't eat chillies. His stomach can't handle lentils. And he refuses chickpeas. So far, this has meant that he rarely - if ever - eats curry.
I, on the other hand, love it and I've been trying to convert him for years. I've had very little success to date but thanks to the delivery of a new cookbook, I think I am finally in with a fighting chance.
I Love Curry by Anjum Anand promises 'the best Indian curries you'll ever cook' and from my initial perusal of the book, I think it might be right.


This cookbook aims to broaden our knowledge of just what is meant by a curry. From the tomatoes, dairy products and garam masala of north India to the coconut, tamarind and mustard seeds that are popular in the south; there are more than 50 main courses to try. Some are hot. Others are mild. But all can be adapted to suit different palates, even those of chilli/lentil/chickpea-refusing boyfriends.

Anjum also wants us to understand that a curry can be much more than one main dish. At its best, it's a feast with rice, breads, chutneys, raitas and vegetable side dishes. The book contains some of her favourite recipes for these essential side dishes, many of which she learned from her Punjabi-born mother.

You'll find many familiar favourites here; from chicken tikka masala to vindaloo. There are lots of new dishes to try too, such as lamb chops with dried pomegranate or Bengali mustard fish.

Anjum starts with some tips for cooking Indian style. She tells us how to cook whole spices in hot oil at the beginning of the process. She advises on the importance of the onion base. (Did you know that the more you cook them, the deeper the flavour of your curry? Brown them for lamb or chicken curries but don't cook them beyond a golden colour when you are working with more delicate flavours such as fish.)

Anjum also has tips regarding garlic and ginger, cooking with tomatoes and yoghurt, slow cooking and leaving the bones in meat and fish for flavour. She also recommends cooking curries the day before you eat them so that the flavours intensify overnight.

The first recipe section is what Anjum calls 'bites': appetisers that she first started to cook with her mother as a little girl. I've already marked the spicy prawn cakes, steamed pea cakes and puchkas (small, crisp hollow balls of semolina pastry filled with potatoes, chickpeas, yoghurt and two chutneys, one sweet and sour and the other herby) as ones to try.

The curry sections are split into vegetable, fish and seafood, poultry and meat. From these sections, I've earmarked the Punjabi yoghurt and dumpling kadhi, the Bengali mustard fish and the creamy, nutty lamb curry with dried figs.

Most of the recipes are illustrated with wonderfully tempting photographs. You simply couldn't resist cooking something like this. Could you?

The final sections are devoted to vegetable side dishes, breads, rice dishes, salads and raita. I'll definitely be trying my hand at the naan bread with garlic and coriander butter and the many variations on raita.

The book ends with a section on spices and how to use them.

With this new book to help me, I'm going to continue my quest to convert my boyfriend to the joy of curries. I'm going to start with the Punjabi yoghurt and dumpling kadhi. I'll keep you updated on progress...

Friday, November 19, 2010

A restaurant with a difference: unsicht-Bar in Berlin

I'm about to recommend that you eat in a restaurant where the food isn't all that great. That's right. You read that correctly. The Unsicht Bar in Berlin doesn't serve very good food but a meal there is one that I think everybody should try at least once.

Here's why:

I've recently returned from a trip to Berlin (my first visit to the city but it certainly won't be my last) where I had booked a table at the unsicht-Bar. Some of you may already have heard of it but for those of you who haven't, it's a restaurant where you eat in the dark and by dark, I mean totally dark. Pitch dark. Dark as in there is no difference between having your eyes open or shut.
My dining companions were my boyfriend (who had been unexpectedly nervous about the whole experience for days in advance) and Amy (a friend from Kentucky whom I'd known during a year spent studying in Normandy in 1997/8 and hadn't seen since then!).

As we sat in the bar drinking sekt (German sparkling wine), we discussed what we expected from the evening. Amy and I were giddily excited while Richard was getting more and more nervous. I think he would have fled at that stage if he could have done so without embarrassment!

We also decided what we were going to eat. But this being the unsicht-Bar, the process of choosing your food was different to how it is in more conventional restaurants. There are five menus to choose from: vegetarian, fish, poultry, red meat or a surprise menu. Each of the dishes on these menus is described in a poetic fashion. So, instead of what I imagined to be pea soup, there was:

The princess is not laying on it but her father is telling anecdotes from his younger days.

A rocket salad with a mix of fresh and sun-dried tomatoes was:
Berlusconi's young choice of arugula's potency.

Cryptic, eh? We were still trying to guess what the menu might mean when we met our waitress for the evening - the absolutely lovely Ute. One of the unusual things about the unsicht-Bar is that the waiters are all blind or partially sighted. While this means it's easier for them to manoeuvre in the dark restaurant, it also seems to translate into a more personal experience for diners. Ute asked us all our names and remembered them throughout the evening.

She was also a very tactile person and lined us up to lead us into the restaurant. She told Richard to place his hands on her shoulders, Amy to place her hands on Richard's shoulders and me to place mine on Amy's. And then we went into the darkness...

I was overwhelmed by the darkness. It was darkness like you'd have in a cave. Total absence of light.

Amy was giggling but I suddenly felt a fear of abandonment. I felt vulnerable and frightened. If Richard had said that he wanted to leave, I'd have immediately left with him...

Somehow, he had completely changed his mind and so I had no escape route.

Ute delivered our wine and bread and taking our hands in hers, she guided us around the table. She also told us where our food would be found on the plate. It went something like this:

Then, we tucked in. Here's where I wished the food were better because my taste buds were really working overtime to figure out what everything was and while I appreciated the fresh crunch of the vegetables in my salad, the richness of the crayfish in my soup and the wonderful popping candy in Amy's chocolate dessert; most of the food was a little dull. Underflavoured and not very imaginative. I was fantasising about what Heston Blumenthal would have done in such a situation. Now, that would be a culinary experience to savour!
But as I said earlier, Unsicht Bar isn't really about the food. It's the experience. Here are my thoughts on what the evening meant to me:
Eating in the dark made us more polite and thoughtful of each other. Nobody interrupted anyone else while they were speaking. Instead, they took the time to listen and because there was nothing else to distract them, they actually came up with well-considered responses. So, our conversations were excellent!
Our table manners, on the other hand, went out the window. While we did make sure to pass each other wine, bread and water (after all, it was hard to find on the table), we all admitted to eating with our fingers. Manoeuvring food onto our forks and into our mouths isn't as easy as you might think.
I've obviously got an innocent mind as both Richard and Amy were wondering how many people were performing deviant sexual acts in the dark. (This never even crossed my mind!)
The experience makes you appreciate your sight and what it brings to your life but it also focusses your attention on how much your other senses influence the way you 'see' life too. It was quite amazing how quickly you were able to situate yourself in the room in relation to the other diners just with your ears.
Taste and smell obviously played a huge part in our appreciation of the food but so too did touch. Textures assumed an unexpected importance. How crunchy was something? How wrinkled was the sundried tomato? I vowed to pay more attention to such things when I was cooking in future. And I'm definitely going to find some uses for popping candy. I wonder if it would work in cupcakes...
The entire evening was a revelation and I'd recommend it to everyone. It doesn't come cheap though. Expect to pay €60 minimum per person and that's if you're being parsimonious with the wine.
To book or find out more, see here: http://www.unsicht-bar-berlin.de/

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cookbook Club Review

Aah," squealed Sharon, as she whacked her forehead and made the lady sitting next to her jump in surprise. "What's the matter," asked the kind lady. "I'm so stupid," mumbled Sharon. "I've brought my camera but somehow I've left my memory card at home so I can't take any pictures of the food".

"But who takes pictures of their food," asked the confused lady. "Don't most people just eat it?"

That was the moment a very confused lady was introduced to the world of food blogging and it was also the moment I realised I wouldn't have any pictures to share with you from Monday night's Cookbook Club in Dublin. Thankfully, the lovely organiser Elaine came to the rescue with some pictures taken by a photographer on the night. There aren't many of the food but you will get an idea of the atmosphere of the evening.

I went with two Polish friends, Beata and Filipe. We had decided that, seeing as there were three starters, main courses and desserts to choose from, we would order one of each and share.

My first impressions were good. Ely is in a fabulous old building. Its architecture highlights its heritage and you can't help but wonder what stories these walls could tell. Later on in the evening, the owner of the restaurant would tell us some of these stories. Did you know that the 4,000 Irish soldiers who fought in the Crimean War had a banquet here before they left? Fascinating.

The atmosphere at Ely's was animated from the moment we arrived. The layout of the room and of the tables was arranged in such a way that it encouraged interaction with others at the table. So, not only did I speak to Beata and Filipe (and to the startled lady next to me) but we also had interesting chats with two other women.

These two women, to be precise:

They were interested in farmers' markets, the upcoming Taste of Christmas and Dáithí Ó Sé's chocolate biscuit cake, as seen on RTE's The Restaurant. (They almost hyperventilated when I told them that because I used to be good friends with his sister, I had tasted this cake on many an occasion!)

While conversation was definitely on the menu at Ely's, it wasn't necessarily always easy to hear what others were saying, especially if they were sitting across from you. It may be because of the low vaulted ceilings but the acoustics of the room amplified the sounds and you had to shout in order to be heard. My ears were ringing when I left and Beata said she felt as though she had been in a nightclub. This was a pity but nevertheless, it didn't stop us talking.

The lovely Elaine was the host for the evening. She greeted everyone when they arrived and gave a welcoming speech before the meal was served. She also introduced that night's chef, Clodagh McKenna, whose food was being cooked by the kitchen. Clodagh was extremely warm and friendly and during the evening, she went from table to table, chatting with the diners.


So, what about the food?

Here's what we ate:


Starters:

Chicken Liver Parfait with Carmelised Onion and Mustart Seeds served with a Spicy Apple Chutney
A Pesto Ricotta Tart
French Onion Soup with Gruyere Toasts

Mains:

Italian Beef Stew
Baked Whole Sole with Salsa Verde (this was replaced with swordfish when the sole ran out)
Homemade Gnocchi with a creamy Bellingham Blue Cheese Sauce

Desserts:

Cardamon-infused chocolate mousse pots
Rosewater jellies
Orange-scented rice pudding

Because Ely's prides itself on its extensive wine list, they had recommended wines to match the food and we followed their advice.

So, what did I think? Unfortunately, I thought the food was slightly disappointing. The chicken liver parfait was perfectly smooth but it needed something to contrast with its creamy mildness and the onions and chutney just didn't do it. I thought the French onion soup was wonderfully sweet and was well complemented by the cheesy toasties. (However, Beata - an onion fanatic - thought there were too many onions and not enough liquid). The pesto ricotta tart was delicious. Light, creamy, herby; perfect.

The Italian beef stew had an unexpected touch of sweetness and lots of chunky pieces of meat. By the time we ordered our fish, the sole had been replaced by swordfish (which I must confess is not one of my favourite fish) and I thought the resulting dish was a little dry and slightly boring. But the gnocchi was a revelation. This was the dish we had expected least from but it was stunning. The gnocchi themselves were perfectly cooked and the blue cheese sauce was so creamy and had such depth of flavour. It was one of those dishes you could easily eat again and again and again.

So far, the dinner was going quite well but when the desserts arrived, it nosedived. The rosewater jelly was perfectly pleasant but not memorable. The rice pudding was completely underflavoured. And the chocolate mousse pots didn't really taste of chocolate. They also had a funny grainy texture - maybe from the cardamon?

This was such a pity as it ended what had been a good evening on a low note. (When I'm cooking at home, I almost always plan my dessert first as I find that even the biggest culinary disasters are instantly forgotten the moment guests taste something decadently sweet and here, I think the opposite applied.)

My overall verdict? The evening was very convivial and I had lots of interesting conversations. Ely's wine list is phenomenal. The food could have been better. But I would definitely go again.

One funny thing though: there were hardly any men there. Women seemed to outnumber men by at least ten to one. Weird, eh?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Foodie friends come bearing fresh almonds and figs

Don't you love having friends who are foodie? Friends who know how much you you enjoy food and who sometimes surprise you with delicious treats.
Some of those very friends recently called by bearing fresh figs and almonds. 'Yum' was my first thought followed immediately by: 'now what can I do with them?'



I flicked through some cookery books and found the perfect recipe in Jamie's Italy: a sweetly aromatic fig and almond tart.

Don't be put off by the amount of ingredients in this tart or the amount of time it takes to make. It's not actually that complicated. It's just that it some stages take time. The pastry needs to spend time in both the fridge and the freezer. The pie needs at least half an hour in the oven. But it's not as though you'll be slaving away all that time. Nope. If you're anything like me, you'll be reading the paper, reading a book or catching up with 'Come Dine with Me' on the TV.

Ingredients:
15 whole figs, washed
30g caster sugar
2 tbsp water
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
zest of one orange

For the shortcrust pastry:
125g butter
100g icing sugar
a small pinch of salt
255g plain flour
Zest of half a lemon
2 larg egg yolks
2 tbsp cold milk or water

For the frangipane: 285g blanched whole almonds
55g plain flour
255g unsalted butter
255g caster sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 vanilla pod
1 tbsp grappa

(I didn't have any grappa so I left it out)









1. Grease a 28cm tart tin with a little of the butter.

2. Make the pastry by creaming together the butter, icing sugar and salt. Then rub in the flour, lemon zest and egg yolks. You can do this by hand or in a food processor.

3. When the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs, add the cold milk or water. Pat and gently work the mixture together until you have a ball of dough and then flour it lightly. Don't work it too much or it will lose its lovely flakiness. Wrap it in clingfilm and place it in the fridge for at least an hour.

4. To make the frangipane, blitz 255g of the whole almonds in a food processor until you have a fine powder and transfer to a bowl along with the flour. Next, blitz the butter and sugar until it is light and creamy. Add to the almonds along with the lightly beaten eggs, the seeds from the vanilla pod and the grappa (if using). Fold this mixture until it is completely mixed and smooth. Place in the fridge for at least a half hour to firm up.

5. Remove the pastry from the fridge. Roll it out and line your tart tin. Place in the freezer for another hour.

6. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and bake the pastry case for 12 mins or until it is lightly golden. Remove from the oven and turn the heat down to 170 degrees.

7. Remove the stems from the figs and cut them in half.

8. Spoon the chilled frangipane mixture into the pastry case, then lightly push the figs into the frangipane.

9. Heat the sugar with the water and drizzle the syrup over the figs.

10. Roughly chop the remaining almonds and sprinkle over the top along with the leaves from the thyme sprigs and the orange zest.

11. Bake in the oven for about 40 mins or until the mixture has become firm and golden on the outside but is still soft in the middle.

12. Allow to cool for about 30 mins.

If you can bear to wait, this tart is actually much better the following day but if you can't resist, it's delicious with some mascarpone cheese and a dusting of cinnamon. It really brings out the flavour.