Thursday, July 28, 2011

Desperately seeking summer...

Summer has been rather non-committal in this part of the world.  One day, the sun shines and I can soak in a view such as this:

The next, that view has vanished, only to be replaced by this:

View?  What view, I hear you ask.  There is one there; it's just been obscured by Atlantic fog for days.  And days.

Even if I have to (reluctantly) forgo the sunny days of summer, I'm adamantly refusing to forgo the fresh flavours of the season.  Even on evenings when it's cold and damp, with the fog closing in from the sea, I steadfastly refuse to eat the stodgy fare of winter.  But on those evenings, a light summer salad simply doesn't seem appropriate and searching for something of a compromise, I came across a recipe for Pissaladiere from French Country Cooking by the Roux Brothers (a review of which I've previously written here).

This dish is from Provence and if there's anywhere in the world I associate with blue skies and sunshine, it has to be Provence.  This dish - with its pizza base, sweet onion topping, salty anchovies and olives - seemed warming enough to ward off the unseasonal damp but retained the hint of summer I so desperately needed.

Before I tell you how to make it, I want to reassure you that even though this dish takes time, it's actually quite simple.  Mostly it cooks away while you focus on other things.

Let's start with the bread/pizza base:
250g strong bread flour
7g sugar
A pinch of salt
One 7g pack of fast-action dried yeast
125ml warm water
  • If you're making the bread by hand, put the flour, sugar and salt into a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre of the mixture.
  • In another bowl, mix the yeast and water and then pour into the well.  Mix the ingredients with your hand until well blended.
  • If you're using a mixer, put the water and yeast in the mixing bowl and beat lightly with a whisk.  Fit the dough hook, add the flour, sugar and salt and beat at the lowest speed until thoroughly mixed.
  • Cover the dough with a damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place (I always use my hot press/airing cupboard) until it has doubled in size.  This usually takes an hour or so. 
While your bread is rising, you can work on the tart filling.
1kg onions
100ml olive oil
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
12 anchovy fillets
36 small olives
Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Peel the onions and slice them as thinly as possible.  Gently heat the olive oil in a saucepan with a thick bottom.  Add the onions and garlic.  Cover and cook over the lowest possible heat for up to two hours. Stir the onions every 30 minutes, making sure that they do not colour at all.  After two hours, they should be cooked to a melted, aromatic wonderfulness.  The original recipe recommends taking out the garlic at this stage but instead I squeezed the cloves - which had roasted - into the onion mixture and ended up with this:  
  • By this stage, your bread should be ready so set your oven to 200 degrees C/ 390F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Knock the dough back a little by flipping it over with your fingers two or three times. 
  • Sprinkle some flour onto a work surface and roll your dough into a circle that will fit your chosen baking tin.  (My flan case was 20cm in diameter.)  Oil your baking tin lightly and lay your pastry on top of it, pressing it into place. 
  •  Leave the dough base at room temperature for about 15 minutes to allow it to rise slightly.
  • Then bake it in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and add the onions (draining off the oil, if necessary).  Arrange the anchovies and olives on top and cook for another 20 minutes.
  • Serve hot with some fresh green salad and, regardless of what the weather is like outside, you'll have a taste of summer on your plate.
I'd love to hear what you are all eating this summer and I hope the sun is shining wherever you are.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    Sharon's Food Heroes: Take Three

    It was the enthusiasm that struck me first. There she was, smiling behind her stand in SuperValu, urging passers-by to try her jellies. None of them could resist. When faced with the energetic Melanie Harty, few people can. And once you've admitted defeated and tasted one of her hot pepper jellies, she's got you in her clutches forever.

    Since that day I met Melanie in the supermarket, a slice of hot toast spread with cheese and topped with her ginger hot pepper jelly has now become one of my favourite snacks.  The sweetness of the sugar combined with the sweet peppers and the warmth and depth of the ginger and chillies set off by a tangy, salty cheese - I can't think of a better stop-gap between meals. 

    While I tasted her jellies that day in the supermarket, I also asked Melanie about her passion for food.  It turns out that she's originally from Tralee but moved to America in the 1980s where she worked in the food industry.  It was here that she first came across hot pepper jellies, which are very popular there, particularly in the spicy, home cooking of Texas and other southern states.

    "They love using them in barbeques, in marinades, dips and sauces and with cold meats and cheeses," says Melanie.

    She decided to learn how to make her own and once she had perfected her recipes, she brought her hot pepper and jalapeno jellies to farmers' markets, including the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  It wasn't long before her jellies - made from entirely natural, simple ingredients - had lots of fans.

    "When I returned to Ireland in 1996, I saw that sweet chilli sauce was getting popular," she says.  "That made me think there might be a market for my jellies."

    But she didn't start making them immediately.  Instead, she focussed on setting up a restaurant in her home town of Tralee.  The Cookery became an award-winning success, but ten years later, Melanie needed a change.
    "I wanted a work/life balance," she explains.  "With the restaurant, it was all work and no balance."

    So, once again Melanie returned to her jellies.  Making them at home, she started selling them at markets in Kerry and Cork.  And she found she loved it.
    "My passions are food and talking to people," she says.  "This is a great way for me to bring the two together."

    She now has six jellies in her range: ginger hot pepper, jalapeno pepper, char-grilled pepper, hot pepper, cranberry and cranberry hot pepper.

    And I don't seem to be the only one who likes them either.  Harty's Jellies have won two Shop Awards, Bridgestone Awards and the best emerging food product award at the 2010 Listowel Food Fair.  

    I'm looking forward to trying all of the jellies and if you see them for sale, you should try them too.  In fact, if you happen to meet Melanie while she is handing out samples in supermarkets, you won't be able to resist. 

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Vive la France. Mangeons de la tarte tatin!

     Today is Bastille Day and it feels appropriate to celebrate with something French.

    I used to live in France and many memories of my time there are of its wonderful food. The garlicky scent of snails wafting past me in a restaurant; queuing for Poilane sourdough bread in the mornings; a friend's mum demonstrating just how stringy the perfect aligot ought to be; choosing the freshest baguettes, the runniest cheeses and vegetables still encrusted in earth at Richard Lenoir and Rue de Grenelle markets in Paris...

    I could go on (and, to be honest, I already have) but I'll stop there.

    Instead, I'll share a recipe from Kerstin Rodger's Supper Club (a book I loved, as you'll see here). Tarte tatin is one of those quintessentially French recipes and there are many different versions. This is one of the best I've tasted and I can't think of a better day to celebrate Bastille Day.

    Juice of two lemons
    1kg (about 8 to 10) eating apples, such as Cox, Russet or Braeburn *
    125g to 175g unsalted butter, softened
    125g to 175g caster sugar
    4 to 6 star anise
    200g puff pastry, rolled to a disc the same size as your frying pan
    Cream or ice cream to serve
    You will also need a pan with a handle that can go in the oven.

    * My frying pan wasn't big enough to take this amount of apples.  I only used half and adjusted the other ingredients accordingly.

  • Squeeze both lemons into a large bowl.  Peel and core the apples and then slice them before putting them in the bowl of lemon juice to prevent them going brown.

  • Smear the butter generously over the frying pan, including the sides.  Sprinkle the sugar over the top in a thick layer.  This will become your caramel so if you'd like it to be extra caramel-y, use more butter and sugar. 

    • Remove your apple slices from the lemon juice and embed them in the butter/sugar mixture.  Pack them in as tightly and as attractively as you can.  Tuck in the star anise too.  
    • Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius/425 F/Gas Mark 7.  
    • Put the frying pan over a medium flame on your hob and keep an eye on it while it caramelises.  Kerstin says this will take up to 15 minutes but I found it took longer, more like 25 minutes.  Perhaps my heat was too low.  But what you're aiming for is a deep golden caramel colour like this:
    • Once you've got this far, you need to let your pan cool before you place your pastry on top of the apples.  Tuck in the edges and don't worry if you've got extra pastry in places.  Imagine how good it will taste once it's dripping with caramel!
    • Place the pan in the oven for 15 minutes or until the pastry has risen.
    • The tricky bit comes once you take it out of the oven.  Find a plate that is larger than your frying pan and lay it over the top.  Holding the handle firmly and keeping the plate pressed tightly to the pan, flip it over.  The plate will now be on the bottom and the frying pan on top.  Lift the pan off to reveal a golden, caramel-encrusted apple tart.  Don't worry if some of the apple slices become displaced.  You can always prod them back in place using a fork.
    • Serve hot with a scoop of cream or ice cream. 

    So, there you have it: a tarte that is sweet and caramel-y, gooey, fruity and delicious.  It's also inexpensive and easy to make.
    Happy Bastille Day!

    Thursday, July 7, 2011

    A cookbook to love (and a magical chance to win!)

    Sometimes you know that it has to be love.

    From the moment I heard that Kerstin Rodgers (the cook behind one of London's first and best known supper clubs, The Underground Restaurant) was writing a book, I knew I'd love it. And, as soon as I laid eyes on the book, that love only intensified.

    I should make some things clear before I continue:
    1. I've never been to Kerstin's supper club. But everything I've heard about it makes me want to go. She's the type of cook I most admire: someone who cooks from the heart out of a simple desire to make people happy. My next trip to London is definitely going to coincide with one of her supper nights.
    2. I've been thinking about starting a supper club of my own for a while now. I tried to start a revolving supper club in Dingle last winter but seeing as nothing came of it, I approached this book with the thought that it might just convince me to set one up, London-style.

    Anyway, back to the book. And isn't it lovely?

    Underneath its dust jacket, it's even lovelier.

    Kerstin begins the book with a story of revolution. The first revolution in food was the French Revolution which led to chefs from the households of a destroyed aristocracy opening the world's first restaurants - places where anybody who had the money could pay to eat.

    London in 2009 was ripe for a new food revolution and Kerstin was one of its figureheads. An idealist with strong political beliefs and a single mother keen to make money working from home, Kerstin had seen home restaurants in Latin America and thought they could work in London. She - along with Horton Jupiter of The Secret Ingredient Supper Club - was the first person in the UK to open a restaurant in her own home.

    Kerstin's politics are reflected in the food she serves in her living room. She doesn't eat meat and, as a result, never serves it. However, she does serve things that restaurants simply wouldn't have the time to make, such as towering Croquembouche. And because she knows what it's like to be strapped for cash in London, she offers reduced rates for those on benefits.

    For Kerstin's restaurant is an extension of her life. It's all about her do-it-yourself attitude, her belief that everyone has a right to good food at a reasonable price and her mission to improve the image of vegetarian food.

    Her life in food is an interesting one and the book is full of her stories. She starts with the chocolate butterfly cakes she baked in nursery school. She tells of the copy of 'Good Housekeeping's Children's Cookbook' she was given aged eight, from which she learned how to make macaroni cheese and peppermint creams. There are tales of childhoold holidays too when her parents introduced her to snails, horse and never-ending, ten-course Italian feasts.

    Kerstin became a photographer after leaving school but continued to cook. She cooked at anti-G8 camps using food scavenged from dumpsters; in vegan cafés; and in squats such as the swimming pool changing room she once lived in with a boyfriend.

    All of which eventually led to her opening The Underground Restaurant and now writing this book encouraging us all to follow her example.

    The book tells the story of her supper club and offers practical tips about how you can set up your own - everything from how to publicise it to advice on how to arrange payment. These tips are invaluable for anybody who might be thinking of following in Kerstin's footsteps.

    But it's the recipes that will win everyone over to Kerstin's book. Such wonderful recipes, most of which I can't wait to try.

    There are cocktails and nibbles, including Harry Potter Butter Beer and dukkah (a nutty Arabian dip) that I'm planning to serve with Kerstin's homemade pitta breads.

    Of her starters, I'm dreaming of her savoury yoghurt granita and yuzu ceviche - white fish 'cooked' in citrus fruits.

    There are soups such as the Thai green spinach soup; fabulous salads such as the mint, coriander, onion and pomegranate cachumber (an Indian salsa); vegetarian main courses such as tinda masala and Kerstin's 'really good' mac and cheese; instructions for how to cure your own salmon; a fantastic stargazy pie; meat dishes from London's other supper clubs; and the most amazing desserts.

    Is there anybody alive who wouldn't drool over this giant pavlova drizzled with salted caramel?

    Kerstin finishes the book with her piece de résistance - a section devoted to her themed menus. There's an Elvis night complete with deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, cheese 'n' grits and pecan pie.

    There's a midnight feast where all the food is black. And there's a flower menu where every dish contains edible flowers and is as pretty as a picture.

    All of Kerstin's recipes come with a short description of where the recipe is from, how she created it and who she learned it from. This brings you into her world and makes you feel as though you know her. In fact, the way she describes her recipes makes you feel as though she's cooking right beside you - just as all cookbooks should.

    At the very end of the book, Kerstin gives a list of all the supper clubs she knows of in the UK, Ireland, Europe and worldwide.

    This book should come with a warning. Actually, it should come with several warnings.
    First of all, you should know that the recipes contained within its pages are going to make you want to cook, cook and then cook some more.
    Secondly, after reading Kerstin's descriptions of the communal nature of supper clubs and the introduction they give you to the cooking of different cultures, you are going to want to explore all of the supper clubs in the world.
    Finally, you may just decide to open one of your own. I'm seriously considering it. Watch this space!

    Before I sign off, I must tell you that this wonderful cookbook came my way courtesy of the Fairy Hobmother, a good fairy that prowls the online world generously spreading fairy dust wherever he goes. I won't tell you who he is but he belongs to and if you leave a comment below telling him what you'd like him to buy you from Amazon, he might just make your wish come true!

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    The ups and downs of life at a farmers' market

    It's raining outside and I can't help but feel downhearted. Rain is forecast for all this week and I'm not relishing the thought of another deluge of a day at Dingle Farmers' Market this Friday.

    The past two weeks at the market have proven just how unpredictable the life of a market stallholder can be. A fortnight ago, it rained so hard and so long that all of my customers stayed away. There was a break in the rainfall for approximately 20 minutes at around 11 o'clock and any cupcakes that were sold were sold during those precious few minutes.

    Those types of days are hard to take. All of the work and preparation amounts to little and you wonder what on earth ever possessed you to set up a market stall in a country where the weather is as variable as it is in Ireland.

    The only thing that makes up for it is that you can swap those same leftover cupcakes for some of the other stallholders' produce. That rainy day, I arrived home soaked but bearing bread, new potatoes, homemade chocolates, organic salad leaves, fresh fish and even a pot of handmade, organic moisturiser.

    The other stallholders make up for it too. Klaus cheered my spirits with his renditions of 'Singing in the Rain' and 'Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head' while Saorla and I swapped horror stories about stalkers.

    Such a different day to last week when the sun shone and hordes of customers descended upon us. We'd organised a special kids' day to celebrate school being out for the summer and had face painters, a drum band, jugglers and a choir from the local Camphill community. Everyone was smiling. Lots of cupcakes were sold. And there was lots of cheery banter.

    Here's Klaus with his stall of the most wonderful cosmetics. He and his wife (under their company name Flourish Cosmetics) make amazing cleansers, toners, moisturisers and other products, using completely natural and organic ingredients. Nothing has been tested on animals and everything feels luxurious on the skin.
    Here's Saorla, with her ever-popular cookies and chocolate lollipops. What you can't see in this picture is her growing range of handmade chocolates. One of her latest additions is the Green Faerie - an absinthe flavoured truffle that really is to die for.And here am I with my cupcakes, smiling in the sunshine.

    Here's hoping I'm smiling this Friday. When I'll be selling chocolate brownies, Black Forest gateau cupcakes, white chocolate and raspberry cupcakes, banoffee cupcakes, Oreo cupcakes and Guinness and Baileys cupcakes - that's what I've decided on so far at least.

    Fingers crossed for sunshine. And hope to see you there, if not this Friday, then some time.