Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hope on a spring day

Is fiú focal sa chúirt ná púnt sa sparán.

This is an old Irish proverb which (roughly) translates as: it's better to have an ear at court than it is to have a pound in your pocket. It's a proverb that I think represents all that has been wrong with Irish politics for decades.

On Thursday, I ran into a local man who urged me to vote for John O'Donoghue, a former Fianna Fáil Minister and Ceann Comhairle (speaker of the house) in Friday's election. I responded by telling him that nothing could compel me to vote for Fianna Fáil and their narrow-minded vision of what Ireland can and should be.
Oh, he said. If you vote for John O'Donoghue, the fact that I know him means that I could make it easy for you if you wanted the government to help you with anything in the future.

I sighed in exasperation, thought of the proverb I quoted above and said:
Isn't that exactly the attitude that has got us to where we are today? Isn't that what we are supposed to be voting against in this election?

I don't think my words had any impact on this particular Fianna Fáil die-hard. But it heartens me that John O'Donoghue - formerly a huge vote winner - has lost his seat in my constituency.

It has given me a very tentative sense of hope on this spring day. A hope that the next government of Ireland will move away from the mentality which means that politicians can be bought. A hope that those with money will no longer exert the huge influence they have come to have in political circles. A hope that we will stop equating cost with value. And a hope that Ireland can recover from the impoverished position it now finds itself in, in financial terms and in so many other ways.

Ireland could be great. There are so many energetic people here who are willing to work hard if they feel they have a future. I hope the next government gives them reason to believe that they do.

(I know this has nothing to do with food, baking or chocolate - the most common topic for my posts and indeed the most common thoughts in my head! - but it's been a frenzy of election fever here for the past few days and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. Normal service to resume shortly.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

French Country Cooking: discover traditional French dishes with the Roux Brothers

One of the best things about being a food blogger is occasionally receiving cookbooks in the post. I recently received a copy of 'French Country Living' by the Roux Brothers; a cookbook that aims to showcase the best of regional French cooking and a cookbook that seems to have been made for me.

I used to live in France and have first-hand experience of just how proud the French are of their regional dishes. I have a particularly warm memory of a friend's mother's showing me how to make aligot in her kitchen in Rodez in Aveyron. She mixes Tomme cheese, mashed potatoes and garlic together in a huge pot, transforming it into a cheesy, garlicy, stringy, elastic dish of wonderfulness. (My memory of this dish is so tantalising that if I can lay my hands on some Tomme cheese, I'm going to have to try to recreate this dish for myself very soon.)

Such memories meant that I was predisposed to liking this book. Added to this was the fact that the book is written by Albert and Michel Roux, two brothers and chefs of impeccable pedigree who transformed British cuisine from their kitchens at Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn.

Flicking through the book, my first impressions were that this was really traditional and very rustic French food. Perhaps a little too rustic for me. Lamb's brain with capers, anyone? Or pig's head soup?

I prefer my food on the light side and usually choose fish and vegetable-based dishes and light sauces over red meat, butter and cream. But my boyfriend (whose tastes are the exact opposite) happened to be looking through this cookbook with me and he ooh-ed and aah-ed over almost every recipe.

As we proceeded to look through the book together, I soon found plenty of dishes to entice me too. The overall design of the book charmed me as well. It was perfect for a Francophile like me.

The introduction tells us how the brothers came to be so passionate about food. They reminisce about their particularly well-fed childhood, enthusing aobut their mother's dandelion salad with bacon, her blanquette of veal and her waffles. These two world-renowned chefs admit that her food remains their favourite to this day.

They recall their father's charcuterie business too and how they could tell the day of the week from the smells emanating from the shop. If it was ham with parsley, it must be Wednesday...

The recipe section opens with a chapter on the basics. Their idea of the basics includes pastry (shortcrust, flan, sweet, short, puff and choux); brioche; bread; chicken, veal and fish stock; mayonnaise; almond cream; creme patissiere; and sorbet syrup.

Of these, I'm definitely going to try the bread, brioche, mayonnaise and the sorbet syrup (which the brothers use for moistening sponge cakes - a tip I can't wait to try on cakes of my own).

The rest of the book is divided into twelve regions. Each section opens with an overview of the region and its culinary traditions. The butter, cream, cheeses and cider of Normandy; the lamb and shellfish of Brittany; the fine wines and truffles of Guyenne; by the time you've finished reading about them, all you'll want to do is hop on a plane to France and eat, eat, eat and eat.

A dozen typical recipes from each region follow each overview and every chapter ends with a list of ingredients indigenous to that particular area.

I've earmarked lots of recipes from this book (and my boyfriend has also selected some that I'd probably never have chosen). Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Sole poached in cider with mussels, scallops and shrimps (my choice)
  • Sautéed veal kidneys (his)
  • Morel tart (my choice, with a nod of approval from him)
    • Entrecote steak with red wine, bone marrow and shallots (his choice)
    • Confit de canard (his)
    • Gateau Basque - a custard tart (mine)
    • Spatzle - noodles from Alsace (we both love these)
    • Ham cooked with hay (us both)
    • Peppery biscuits (me)
    • Catalan duck with Seville oranges (us both)
    • Bouillabaisse (us both: who after all, could resist this classic?)
    • Grape tart (sweet means that it has to be me)
    • In some ways, this isn't a fashionable book. French food has fallen out of vogue in recent years as popular taste has embraced new flavours from other countries, particularly from the east.

      But in many other ways and judging from the reaction both I and my boyfriend had to this book, French food will always be popular. Chefs who trained in France have shaped our palates and taste buds for decades and French ingredients and cooking techniques are still at the heart of how we cook. With its focus on the quality of ingredients and simple but precise cooking techniques; French cuisine - at its best - simply can't be beaten.

      This book reminded me how varied and enticing French food can be and I can't wait to start cooking.

      Sunday, February 20, 2011

      A sweet treat at the end of a long week

      It's been a long week of work and obligations and I'm savouring my Sunday of relaxation. Today is one of those days where I am not going to feel at all guilty for doing absolutely nothing. Reading the papers, eating and maybe watching a movie later; that's going to be the sum total of my activity today. It helps that it looks like this outside:
      Otherwise, I might feel the pressure to bring the dog for a walk. I know, the pressure, right?
      This was my thought process up to an hour ago when I suddenly felt a craving for something sweet. Usually when this happens, I might make a cake or even cupcakes but today I don't have the energy for the effort involved in either.

      So, what to do? Instead of reconciling myself to the idea of a sugar-free afternoon (heaven forbid!), I remembered the biscotti we had made in last week's cookery class. I've been attending a weekly class with local chef Mark Murphy and last week one of the things we made was lemon posset served with hazelnut biscotti.

      Since then, I've been wondering about how the recipe could be adapted and that's what I tried doing this afternoon. I followed Mark's basic recipe and divided it in two. To one half, I added flaked almonds and lemon and to the other, I added chocolate chips, orange zest and some freshly-squeezed orange juice. 30 mins and a freshly-brewed pot of tea later, I sat down to this:

      Here's how I made them (and a huge thanks to Mark for the original recipe)

      60g unsalted butter at room temperature
      250g golden caster sugar (use ordinary if that's all you've got but the golden variety has more depth of flavour)
      2 eggs
      400g flour
      50g flaked almonds
      1 lemon - I used the zest of the entire thing and the juice of half
      1 medium sized orange - the zest of the entire thing and the juice of half
      75g chocolate chips

    • Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius/350 degrees F/Gas mark 4.

    • Weigh out all of your ingredients.

    • Mix the sugar and butter until fully combined.

    • Add the eggs and beat well. This should take a minute or so.

    • Mix in the flour.

    • Divide the mixture in two and to one half add the flaked almonds, lemon zest and juice.

    • To the other, add the chocolate chips and the orange zest and juice.

    • Using floured hands, shape each half into a sausage-type roll and place on a floured tray. They should look something like this:

    • Cook the rolls for 20 minutes.

    • Take them out of the oven and cut them into slices approximately 1cm wide.

    • Put them back in the oven and bake for another 15 minutes (checking after 10 to see if they're done).

    • Place them on a wire tray to cool (and don't worry if they seem a little bit soft; they will firm up on cooling).

      • These biscuits would be delicious served with lemon posset (as Mark had us do in class), with chocolate mousse or chocolate pots or even dipped into a glass of dessert wine or liqueur after dinner.
        Alternatively, you could play it simple as I did and have it with a cup of tea as you read the Sunday papers. Bliss!

        Monday, February 14, 2011

        Romantic relationships, being 33 and cupcakes

        Ladies aren't supposed to reveal their ages but - in conclusive proof that I'm definitely not a lady - I'm about to reveal mine. I'm 33 and so too are several of my friends.
        What I'm beginning to realise is that 33 seems to be the age at which women of my generation start to feel the pressure. The pressure to settle down with a man they love and start a family.

        Today is Valentine's Day and in the past few days, I've had several conversations with my single friends about this. In fact, since the year began, I've had countless conversations about love, the lack of it and what this means for a woman in her thirties.

        Some of my single friends are beginning to worry. A few of them are on the brink of panic. And the older they are, the more anxious they are feeling.

        It's not just my single friends either. In the past two months, I've consoled friends who have been casually and cruelly jilted. I've congratulated others who have joined dating agencies in a pro-active attempt to meet men who are ready for commitment. I've listened to one friend who is seriously unhappy in her marriage and another who has just finalised her divorce proceedings.

        Here's what I've learned from their many different experiences:
        1. Men - grr! - have it lucky. Most of them are blissfully oblivious to the ticking of a biological clock and they can sail through their thirties, forties and even fifties without feeling any pressure at all.

        2. Love is ridiculously difficult to find.

        3. Even if you do find it, you'll soon that the sentiments behind the Beatles' 'All You Need is Love' aren't quite truthful. You need a lot more than that if you want your relationship to succeed: you need commitment, honesty, a willingness to devote time and care to each other and quite a lot of luck.

        If you've got someone to love who loves you back, tell them just how lucky you consider yourself to have them (today and every day).

        I'm not going to utter any tired clichés to those of you who are single and wish you weren't. What I will say, however, is that people who are confident and happy attract other people. So, take time to focus on yourself. Take part in activities you enjoy: travelling, painting, scuba diving, salsa dancing, astro physics, whatever. Become the person you were meant to be and you will attract all sorts of like-minded people; friends and maybe even potential loves.

        In the meantime, here's a cupcake:

        And not just any cupcake, a sticky toffee cupcake with salted caramel buttercream from Fiona Cairns' 'Bake & Decorate'.

        This recipe makes 12 cupcakes.
        Ingredients for the cakes:
        180g dates, pitted and chopped
        1tsp vanilla extract
        180g self-raising flour
        1tsp bicarbonate of soda
        80g unsalted butter, softened
        150g light muscuvado sugar
        2 eggs

        Ingredients for the buttercream
        125g white caster sugar
        80ml double cream
        1/2 tsp salt (or to taste; I actually added a little more)
        1 tsp vanilla extract

        160g unsalted butter, softened
        200g icing sugar, sifted

      • Place the chopped dates in a heatproof bowl, pour 180ml of boiling water over the dates and leave to soak for 20 mins.

      • Preheat oven to 180 degress/ 350 degrees F/gas mark 4.

      • Sift the flour and the bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and set aside.

      • Cream together the butter and sugar for 5 mins or until the mix is light and fluffy.

      • Add the eggs gradually, beating between each addition and slipping in 1tbsp of flour about halfway through to prevent curdling.

      • Lastly, fold in the remaining flour and the date mixture, to which you have added the vanilla extract.

      • Spoon into cupcake cases and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 mins (until the tops spring back when pressed with a finger).

      • Leave to cool.

      • While the cakes are cooling, dissolve the sugar and 60ml of water in a small, heavy-based saucepan over a gentle heat.

      • Once dissolved, turn the heat up and boil the syrupy solution.

      • Wait for a few minutes, watching the syrup carefully. As soon as it changes to a caramel colour (like strong tea) and becomes a thicker consistency, remove it from the heat and, standing well back, add the cream. (It may splatter a little and you may think it has gone wrong but it hasn't.)

      • Keep stirring and add the salt and the vanilla.

      • Leave to cool.

      • Cream the butter and the icing sugar for 5 mins or so and then add the caramel.

      • Pipe this icing onto the cupcakes and you've got gooey, sticky, sweet toffee cupcakes with a sophisticated hint of saltiness.

      • Happy Valentine's Day to you all!

        Friday, February 11, 2011

        Drinky poos, darling? Take II

        Love is in the air.
        Not because Valentine's Day is fast approaching. (Ugh. I hate Valentine's Day, a day that seems designed to play on teenagers' insecurity - at least it did on mine when I was 14).
        No, love is in the air because it was my boyfriend's birthday yesterday.

        I love birthdays, especially other people's and most especially his. I love being given the opportunity to show him just how much I appreciate having him in my life. (Soppy, but true.)

        I made all sorts of delicious treats but we started off with these:

        Raspberry Champagne Cocktails

        (Or to be more precise, Raspberry Prosecco Cocktails)

        Here's what you need to make them:

        100g raspberries
        3tbsp creme de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur)
        1 bottle Prosecco/champagne/fizzy wine of choice
        Grenadine to taste

        • At least 30 mins before you plan to drink these ruby-red beauties, put your raspberries in a small bowl and pour over the creme de cassis.

        (Don't they look lovely?)

        • Place two or three raspberries and some of the raspberry-infused liqueur in a champagne flute.
        • Fill with your fizzy wine of choice.
        • Add a few drops of Grenadine to taste.
        • Make a toast and enjoy.

        I had a few too many of these so my head is a little wobbly today. But we all have to suffer a little for love, don't we? Anyway, they were worth it.

        Tuesday, February 8, 2011

        Memories are made of... chocolate

        I made an exciting discovery this weekend. A really exciting discovery.

        Finding myself at a loss for something to do on Sunday afternoon, I decided to try to organise a recipe folder I've been keeping for years. You know the kind: one that's crammed full of recipes torn from magazines and newspapers as well as things you've scribbled from friends and websites.

        Hours were to pass as I ooh-ed and aah-ed over recipes I'd long since forgotten. Vodka and lime jellies, my friend's mum's banana bread and then...

        Then, I found THIS:

        A recipe that I thought I'd lost years ago.
        A recipe whose loss I've lamented all those years.
        A - no, THE - recipe for chocolate torte.

        This was the torte I'd drooled over for the entire summer of 1999 when I worked as a waitress in a restaurant in Dingle. The torte I'd steal slivers from when nobody was looking. The torte I finally convinced the chef to reveal the recipe for.

        I was to make this torte over and over again until I lost the recipe, eventually forgot about it and started to make other chocolate creations in its place.

        The elation at finding this recipe was immediately followed by doubt. Would this torte be as good as I remembered? We all know that memories are fickle and can play cruel tricks on us. More importantly (and likely), the 19-year-old me probably wasn't as demanding in her tastes as the 33-year-old me is.

        There was only one thing for it. I'd have to try it and see.

        So, I went to the shops yesterday in search of liquid glucose (a gloopy sweetener that I've only ever used in this particular torte and which used to only be available from chemists but is now to be found in most big supermarkets) and this morning, I put the torte to the test.

        Here's the recipe:
        225g digestive biscuits
        60g unsalted butter
        1 pint/475ml double cream
        1 lb/450g chocolate (I used one with 70% cocoa solids)
        1 tbsp glucose syrup (I know the recipe above specifies 2 but 1 seemed more than enough. Chefs don't always know everything, you know!)
        5tbsp Baileys (you can add slightly more or less depending on your taste)

      • To make the biscuit base, melt the butter and crush the biscuits.

      • You can do this by blitzing them in the food processor or, if you don't have a food processor, you can crush them in a pestle and mortar or with a rolling pin.

      • Line the base of a tart or springform tin that is 25cm in diameter with the crushed biscuits and bake in a 180 degree (356F or gas mark 4) oven for 8 mins. Set aside to cool.

      • Break the chocolate into chunks and melt. I do this in the microwave (for 30 seconds at a time) or you can also do it by placing the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (making sure the bowl isn't touching the water).

      • When melted, stir in the liquid glucose and the Baileys. The liquid glucose will completely transform the texture of the chocolate, making it much thicker and more set.

      • Lightly whip the cream and then add it to the chocolate, whisking until you get a texture like this:

      • Spoon this on to your biscuit layer. Smooth the surface. Place in the fridge to chill and spend the next hour or so twiddling your thumbs as you wonder just how delicious it's going to taste (you may decide to skip that last step but I certainly didn't!)

      • When you take it out of the fridge, go around the inside of the tin with a knife and ease the torte out of the tin. I used a knife I had warmed in a cup of boiling water to make this easier.

      • Then, I sat down, poured myself a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea (my tea of choice to go with cake) and, full of trepidation, took my first bite...

        Did it live up to my expectations? Excuse me while I resort to text speak here but: OMG, it did. Rich, unctuous, melt in the mouth, chocolately goodness with a undertone of Baileys. It brought me right back to my waitressing, chocolate torte-scoffing days.
        You must all make this torte. It's so simple and you can ring the changes by adding chopped hazelnuts to the base or alternating the Baileys with Cointreau and highlighting the citrus notes by mixing some orange zest into the crushed biscuits. That's what I'm planning to do next time.
        But for now, I still have this torte to savour. It's what memories are made of.

          Friday, February 4, 2011

          Drinky poos, darling?

          I've been humming Dean Martin's 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' to myself all day long. We've got the tail end of a storm here in West Kerry. The wind is howling. The waves are bashing against the shoreline. All any sensible person would want to do is curl up in a duvet by an open fire.

          Wouldn't you want to do that too if it looked like this outside?

          I've resisted the lure of the sofa and the oh-so-warm duvet all day long. I've been a good girl working at my computer. I'm now about to cook dinner for everyone (which, in my house tonight, means four people). In fact, I've been a good girl all week long and now that the weekend is FINALLY here, I think that merits a drink.

          Because it's so cold and dark outside, I think something warming is in order. I found this recipe on Martha Stewart's website, tweaked it a little to suit my mood and the contents of my fruit bowl/alcohol cabinet and created this:

          Drinky poos, darling!

          It's ever so easy to make.

          Here's how I did it:
          Serves 1

          4 pears
          1 cup(approx 250ml) of cider
          1/4 cup measure of whiskey

          I juiced the pears (and made approximately the same amount of pear juice as cider).
          I added this to the cider, then poured in the whiskey.

          (If you don't have a juicer, you could just buy pear juice - as Martha Stewart recommends in her recipe.)

          It's a little bit early but it's been a long week. I'm going to light the fire, curl up on the sofa and enjoy this deliciously fruity drink with a kick before everyone comes home. Cheers!

          Addendum: when my boyfriend came home, I made him one of these. He thought it was a little too weak and added in more whiskey. (Dipso!) You can obviously modify your drink to suit your own taste.

          Tuesday, February 1, 2011

          The Omnivore's 100

          I have a confession. I often while away hours of my life browsing through blogs (foodie and otherwise). During one such browsing session, I came across and this post. It's the 100 foods this particular blogger thinks every good omnivore should try at least once in their lives.

          It's obviously a very subjective list but the competitive foodie in me was intrigued. Hmm, I wondered to myself, I wonder how many I've tried.

          Here's his list. I've highlighted the foods that I've eaten in bold.

          1. Venison
          2. Nettle tea
          3. Huevos rancheros - these sound delicious and I've been meaning to try them for absolutely ages. I might just make them this week.
          4. Steak tartare - my boyfriend loves this. So much in fact that he once ate it three days running. But I'm sure that doesn't count.
          5. Crocodile - I may be wrong but I imagine this to be horribly tough. Have any of you tried it?
          6. Black pudding - raised in the southwest of Ireland, this was weekend morning breakfast food.
          7. Cheese fondue
          8. Carp
          9. Borscht - our veggie delivery had a glut of beetroots for a while so I've experimented with several variations of this soup.
          10. Baba ghanoush - yum!
          11. Calamari - double yum!
          12. Pho
          13. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
          14. Aloo gobi
          15. A hot dog from a street cart
          16. Epoisses - is it bad that I've never heard of this, having lived in France?
          17. Black truffle
          18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes - elderflower wine is good but elderflower champagne is much, much better.
          19. Steamed pork buns - I've heard about the Momofuku ones and will have to try them.
          20. Pistachio ice cream
          21. Heirloom tomatoes
          22. Fresh wild berries
          23. Foie gras
          24. Rice and beans
          25. Brawn or head cheese
          26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper - I don't know if I would subject myself to this. It would depend on the company I was in and how susceptible I was to their (bad) influence!
          27. Dulce de leche
          28. Oysters
          29. Baklava
          30. Bagna Cauda - an Italian friend makes this and always makes extra for me to bring home. Bless!
          31. Wasabi peas
          32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
          33. Salted lassi - I had this in India. It made me sick for days. I don't blame it though. It was lovely. The ice wasn't.
          34. Sauerkraut
          35. A root beer float
          36. Cognac with a fat cigar
          37. A clotted cream tea
          38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
          39. Gumbo
          40. Oxtail
          41. Curried goat
          42. Whole insects
          43. Phaal
          44. Goat's milk
          45. Malt whisky from a bottle that costs £60/$120 or more
          46. Fugu - I think I might be frightened to try this.
          47. Chicken tikka masala
          48. Eel
          49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut - what's the deal with these? Why do people like them so much? They are FAR too sweet for me.
          50. Sea urchin - I've been meaning to try these. The opportunity has never arisen.
          51. Prickly pear
          52. Umeboshi - my boyfriend once did a macrobiotic cooking class to impress a girl (who wasn't me). As a result, he now makes a mean rice, umeboshi and tahini dish.
          53. Abalone - I sampled this in the amazing Shangri La Hotel in Kuala Lumper. I didn't realise it was endangered then though.
          54. Paneer
          55. McDonald's Big Mac Meal
          56. Spaetzle
          57. Dirty gin martini
          58. Beer above 8% ABV
          59. Poutine
          60. Carob chips
          61. S'mores
          62. Sweetbreads
          63. Kaolin - as kaolin is earth or clay, I doubt I will ever eat it. Strange.
          64. Currywurst
          65. Durian - I once spent an afternoon in a market in Krabi trying to track one down. It was the end of the durian season and my Thai friend thought we might just get lucky and find one. We didn't.
          66. Frog's legs
          67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
          68. Haggis
          69. Fried plaintain
          70. Chitterlings or andouillette
          71. Gazpacho
          72. Caviar and blini - I only had this for the first time last year in London's wonderful Bob Bob Ricard.
          73. Louche absinthe
          74. Gjetost or brunost - Norwegians love this so I'll have to try it.
          75. Roadkill
          76. Baijiu
          77. Hostess Fruit Pie
          78. Snails
          79. Lapsang Souchong
          80. Bellini - I've even had these in the infamous Harry's Bar in Venice
          81. Tom yum
          82. Eggs Benedict
          83. Pocky
          84. A tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant - not yet but 'yet' is definitely the operative word!
          85. Kobe beef
          86. Hare
          87. Goulash
          88. Flowers
          89. Horse
          90. Criollo chocolate
          91. Spam
          92. Soft shell crab
          93. Rose harissa
          94. Catfish
          95. Mole poblano
          96. Bagel and lox
          97. Lobster thermidor - this ranks as one of my favourite dishes EVER.
          98. Polenta
          99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
          100. Snake

          55 out of 100.
          Not a good score for the competitive spirit in me but a great one for the foodie. This list has made me realise that there is still so much left to try, a whole world of food to explore.

          If I were writing this list, I'd definitely add spaghetti vongole because it's one of my favourite dishes of all time. What would you add?