Friday, March 23, 2012

Sharon takes a break from the madness to cook some truly Irish food

This was supposed to have been a Saint Patrick's Day post as I had expected to be able to grab a few minutes on that day to sit at my computer. Instead I spent the day sanding and painting chairs in my future café, a place that seems to have swallowed up my entire life to the extent that I have done little else apart from preparing to open it and talking about what needs to be done to prepare to open it for weeks and weeks and weeks and...

(As you read this, picture me slumped at my computer, bags under my eyes and stress lines on my forehead as I ponder the sheer insanity that must have taken me over when I thought there wouldn't be that much work 
involved in opening a café. How incredibly naive I was but a short time ago.)

So, apologies for this post's lack of timeliness and my absence from here lately. I wish I could say that normal service will resume soon but my life is too crammed full of things to do at the moment to be able to make such rash promises. You will hang in there though, won't you? Normal service has to resume at some stage...

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your Saint Patrick's Day and celebrated it in a way that was meaningful to you - whether that consisted of donning a silly hat, wearing something green and drinking Guinness or taking the time to do something that reminds you of what is best about Ireland. (I certainly hope you didn't spend it sanding chairs!)

There's one thing that we should all celebrate at this time of year, especially now that spring has sprung and so much fresh produce is coming to market, and that's Irish food. The concept of Irish food is changing and is no longer confined to Irish stew or bacon and cabbage - although both of these are great and I'm sure many people cooked one or other of these dishes on St Patrick's Day.

Modern Irish food consists of the wonderful variety of fruit and vegetables grown here, the fantastic fish and seafood that is to be found on our shorelines and in our seas, the meat from animals that have been raised in our grassy green countryside and the many exceptional food producers that take these pure ingredients and turn them into something truly special.

I'm not claiming that my dish ranks alongside the best of what these food producers do but it's certainly a good one and it's truly Irish. On my way to the café yesterday, I spied wild garlic and some young spring nettles in the hedgerows and decided to create a dish using these native Irish ingredients: nettle gnocchi with a wild garlic sauce.

It's an Irish dish that is well worth eating on Ireland's national day and every other day. And it's green too!

The first thing you have to do is go out and pick some wild garlic. I've seen it by the roadside a lot lately and it especially likes shaded areas. It's worth seeking out as it adds a lovely delicate garlic flavour to this buttery sauce. It looks like this:

Nettles are at their best at this time of year too. But be sure to be careful when picking them. Wear gloves (or use a plastic bag to protect your hands as I did) and only pick the youngest. leaves at the top of the plant. The older ones can be quite tough.

Once you've finished your foraging, you are ready to go home and cook. Here's what you will need to make enough nettle gnocchi for two people:
500g potatoes, Maris Piper, King Edward's or another floury variety
1 egg
100g flour
A pinch of baking powder
125g of nettle leaves (try to remove as much stalk as you can)
Salt and black pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg to taste (I used about half a teaspoon)

Wild garlic butter:
80g butter
A bunch of wild garlic (30 or so leaves), chopped (reserving some of the flowers for garnish)
A sprig of thyme

  • Begin by baking your potatoes in a hot oven (220C/420F). This will take up to an hour depending on the size of your potatoes but it's worth doing as you will then have lots of dry, fluffy potatoes to work with.
  • While the potatoes are baking, blanch the nettles in boiling water for a minute or two. This removes the sting.
  • Drain and set aside.
  • Once the potaotes are baked, allow them to cool so that you can handle them and then mash them well.
  • Chop your nettles or blitz them in a food processor with the egg. You are aiming for this sort of consistency

  • Add the nettles and the egg to the mashed potatoes. Grate in some nutmeg and add some salt and pepper. Tip in the flour and the baking powder and mix until it comes together into a dough-like mix. Be careful not to overwork.
  • Dust your work surface with flour and divide the dough in two. Roll each part into a long roll and cut into equal slices, using the back of the knife to shape into gnocchi-like shapes.
  • Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and while it's coming to the boil, you can make your butter.
  • Melt the butter slowly in a heavy bottomed pan or frying pan and add the chopped garlic. Remove the leaves from the thyme and add those too. Leave to infuse gently as you cook your gnocchi.
  • Once your water has boiled, add a batch of gnocchi to the pot and allow them to cook until they float to the top. Let them continue cooking for another two minutes so that the flour cooks out.
  • Remove with a slotted spoon and serve with the butter poured over and some wild garlic flowers for garnish on top.
And there you have it: a truly Irish dish of native ingredients that combines the pepperiness of nettles with the delicate flavour of wild garlic
I've also decided to enter this in the most recent Very Good Recipes Challenge which is calling out for Saint Patrick's Day recipes that are green - wish me luck!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Missing in action: an explanation

Don't think that I've forgotten about this blog of mine. My life has been swallowed up by plans for this café. But it's only a temporary glitch. I promise you all a post by the end of the week (probably on Friday) so check back then to find out what I've been up to. I'll give you a tasty recipe too to make up for my absence!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lamenting the loss of lie-ins

Oh, lie-ins, how I miss you. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed one of you, the last time I dawdled in bed with nothing to do except flick through magazines, doze and wonder what to have for breakfast.

I've been working so hard trying to get this café up and running while struggling to keep up with my writing and teaching work at the same time. Last Wednesday saw me teaching a class in Tralee, taking an interview in my car and then writing a 1200 word article in a car park all the while being interrupted by calls from fire safety officers and suppliers. This is just how erratic my life has got. So erratic that I'm going to bed exhausted every night and rolling out of bed early the next morning only to do it all over again. 

You can see why I miss lie-ins... 

I've made progress though. The painting is finished bar a few touch-ups. The kitchen is near ready. I've sorted out lots (but not all) of my suppliers. I've even hired some staff. And I also have a name. But it seems to be contentious...

I wasn't anticipating this but I've had conflicting reactions to the name and I wonder what you are going to think of it. I've decided to call it (drum roll, please):

Béile le Chéile (I'm useless at figuring out how to write things phonetically but it's pronounced something like bay-le le chay-le and it loosely translates as 'a shared meal'.)
Anyhow, I thought it sounded lovely as it rhymes and I liked the communal feel of what it meant. And I wanted something that was in the Irish language as it's something that I feel is at the heart of who we are in this part of Ireland yet it's also something that is slowly fading away.

So... here are the reactions I’ve had to it. Irish-speaking people instantly like it. It makes them smile.
Irish people who don’t speak English don’t like it and think that the fact it’s an Irish name will keep people away from the café. Be honest with me here: do you really think this will happen?
Foreigners who are not English speaking like it once they are told what it means and think it will have no bearing on whether or not they would go to a café.
Foreigners who live in Dingle and are not Irish speaking think it might affect business.
My boyfriend, who is English and speaks hardly any Irish, doesn’t know what to think!

I’m confused. It took me ages to come up with the name (and I have to give credit to my sister's boyfriend Gearóid for the final choice). I wanted it to be in Irish as I think the fact that the language is in decline has a lot to do with people like me abandoning it in favour of English when presented with situations such as this. I wasn’t expecting my choice of name to present me with such ethical problems. What do you think?

As you can see, I’ve had problems on my plate which is why I haven’t posted here for a while. I’d have much preferred to have something like this on my plate – a breakfast dish that is perfect for people who have just enjoyed a lie-in, a dish that is full of flavour, that is worth lingering over and is a great way to start a lazy weekend.

It comes from Yotam Ottolenghi's book 'Plenty' and it's eggy, herby and spicy with a hint of sweetness. It's called Shakshuka and it's one of my favourite ways to celebrate having had a lie-in.

And although it takes over a half an hour to make, you can make the pepper mix in advance and then all you need to do is cook the eggs in it for ten minutes in the morning. I've done this before and it's so worth it.

This makes a very satisfying brunch for two
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
90ml vegetable oil or light olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 red and 1 yellow pepper, halved, quartered and then cut into 2cm strips
2 teaspoons muscuvado sugar
1 bay leaf
3 thyme sprigs, leaves picked and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped coriander, plus extra to garnish
3 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Up to 125ml water
4 free-range eggs
Salt and black pepper

  • Place a large frying pan over a high heat and dry roast the cumin seeds for two minutes.
  • Add the oil and the onions and sauté for five minutes.
  • Add the peppers, sugar and herbs and continue cooking on a high heat for five to ten minutes to get a nice colour.
  • Add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne and some salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.
  • During the cooking, keep adding water so that the mix has the consistency of pasta sauce.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning. You want something with a strong flavour.  (This is the part of the dish that you can make up in advance - it keeps well in the fridge).
  • Remove the bay leaf and divide the mix into two separate small frying pans, each large enough to take an individual portion. 
  • Place them on a medium heat to warm up.
  • Then make two gaps in the mix and break an egg into each gap.
  • Sprinkle with salt and cover the pans with lids.
  • Cook on a very gentle heat for 10 to 12 minutes or until the eggs are just set.
  • Sprinkle with coriander and serve with some crusty bread.

Breakfasts like this are what make me miss lie-ins even more. Oh well, off I go to the café to finish the painting and start decorating the bathrooms. If I get enough done today, maybe I can have a lie-in followed by some shakshuka for breakfast tomorrow. Now there's a thought to inspire a girl to work harder.