Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Proof once again that chocolate will always make things better

Last week was a tough week. Things went wrong. Things fell through. And at one stage, a chimney almost fell off - but I don't even want to go there and, believe me, neither do you!

Some of you may think I'm mad but I've been trying to coordinate setting up a café with my other full-time work. This means that the past few weeks have consisted of me constantly switching from journalist mode to teacher mode to hassled-person-trying-to-set-up-a-café mode. Mostly, I've been doing fine, though there have been times when I've forgotten just who I'm supposed to be...

That was until last Thursday. I'd been in Tralee on Wednesday, where I'd found tablecloths I liked. This was a huge step forward as I'd spent ages searching in Dublin, Limerick and Dingle. But when I called the shop early on Thursday morning to finalise the order, they hit me with a bombshell. They didn't have enough fabric and the pattern had been discontinued so they couldn't order in any more. Back to the drawing board went a VERY disheartened Sharon.

Barely a second after that phone call, there was the chimney incident (the less said about that, the better) and another phone call from my landlord with more bad news.

Feeling really discouraged by now, I then had to go and teach a computer literacy class to a group of pensioners. The computers were playing up and it took at least 40 minutes to get started, by which time my normally lovely pensioners were very crotchety.

Things got even worse after that but I can feel my blood pressure rising as I write so perhaps it's just best for me to say that by Friday, I had made little or no progress with the café and expected little from the weekend.

Needing some serious cheering up, I found myself browsing through Short and Sweet by Dan Lepard, one of the cookbooks I got this Christmas and a treasure trove of baking treats. I found a recipe for chocolate custard muffins and by their very name alone, I knew they were what I needed.

Note to readers: before you get too excited, the name refers to the cooking method. There is no chocolate custard inside. But this doesn't make them any less delicious. These muffins are moist, chocolately and more-ish. One will most definitely not be enough.
Note to self: must make chocolate muffins with chocolate custard inside.

You'll find Dan's recipe for the muffins on the Guardian website here. He's a regular contributor of theirs and I warn you that if you browse his recipes, you'll definitely end up wanting his book! 
While the muffins were baking in the oven and cooling afterwards, I made Dan's treacle chocolate fudge icing to go on top. 

Halve the measurements he uses and you'll have enough to swirl on top of 12 muffins as well as some left over to use as chocolate spread afterwards. It keeps very well in the fridge.

I felt so much better after baking and eating these that my weekend seemed to flow from there. My boyfriend, two of my sisters and one of their boyfriends came to help me get started with painting on Saturday. One of them even had lots of tablecloth samples for me and I found one that was better than my original choice. (Hooray!)

We made much more progress than I ever thought we would and I am so thankful to them all for helping me and lifting me out of what was becoming a dark and pessimistic mood.

I feel I should thank these muffins too. The very act of baking them and the pleasure of eating them made me remember just what I'm trying to do with this café. There will be obstacles to overcome along the way but if delicious food like this is the result, I feel that it will be worth it.

My helpers enjoyed eating the muffins too!

I'll definitely be making these again. They may even feature on the menu of my café. If they made me feel better and made a success of a weekend that I thought would be a total failure, they must be good.

Friday, February 24, 2012

And the nominees are...

The lovely Margaret of A Year in Redwood nominated me for a Liebster Award last Sunday and I'd like to thank her so much for it. A Liebster Award is a way of recognising the work of other bloggers and it's great that people like Margaret appreciate what I am doing here - thanks so much, Margaret!

Gushing thanks aside, now it's my turn to nominate five bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading. There are five rules I must follow in doing this:

1. I have to thank the person who gave me the award. Thanks again, Margaret!
2. I must link back to that person's blog, A Year in Redwood
3. I have to copy and paste the Liebster Award to my profile:

4. The blogs I pick must have fewer than 200 followers (I'm not entirely sure how many followers Fanny of like a strawberry milk has. She may have many more than 200 as her blog is so lovely.)
5. I must let these bloggers know I have chosen them by leaving a comment on their blog.

So, here are my nominees (I'm imaginging myself wearing an evening dress and opening a golden envelope as I write this. Would that I were !):

1. like a strawberry milk I just love this French girl's dreamy evocation of a life in London that involves bicycles, Polaroids, pastries and the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of good food.

2. Kitchen Life Skills Sally McKenna is well known in Ireland as one half of the duo that compiles the influential Bridgestone Guides. But she's also the author of this great blog that teaches you something new every time you visit. I'm going to follow her instructions to make homemade Japanese dashi with seaweed foraged from the seashore very soon.

3. Gunternation Sharon and her husband Bill chronicle their life in Dublin, telling us about the recipes they enjoy cooking, the restaurants they visit and the adventures they have as an American couple with a love for and curiosity about Ireland.

4. Warm & Snug & Fat Here, Amee writes about growing and cooking her own food and her recipes are always irresistibly good. Recent ones include hazelnut and buttermilk banana loaf and chorizo and scrambled eggs tacos. (I told you they were good!)

5. Felting My Way Across Kerry Sharon is a fellow blogger who lives in Dingle and she writes about how she moved from a life in urban America to a small-town life in Ireland where she creates fabrics and fashions that are colourful and unique.

These are just some of the blogs I like reading and I'm thankful that the Liebster Award gave me an opportunity to recognise them. There are so many great blogs out there just waiting to be discovered. Start exploring!

Monday, February 20, 2012

A sharp rap on the knuckles and a recipe for tonight's supper

You can't see me but I'm holding out my hand so that you can give me that rap on the knuckles I said you could if I hadn't posted something by Friday. Last week was so crammed full of things to do that I had very little time to spend in the kitchen or at the computer. This is why this blog post is three days late and why I broke my promise.

You might go easy on me if you knew what I'd been up to though. I spent two days in Dublin tracking down bargains for the café. I've now got cutlery, glasses, cups and saucers, plates, bowls and some kitchen equipment. It sounds like a lot but I still need tablecloths (which are quickly turning into the bane of my life), sugar bowls, salt and pepper shakers, milk jugs and much more.

As well as shopping, I've sanded and varnished the floor of the café (or should I say my boyfriend did this - this past week, he has been more helpful than I could ever have imagined anyone to be and I'm so thankful). I placed an ad in the local paper for staff and have so far interviewed two people and set up interviews with two others (it's so strange to be the one asking the questions at interviews!).

This week, I'm buying tablecloths, enlisting family and friends to help paint the interior (if you're reading this and you are a member of my family or a friend who lives in Dingle, consider yourself forewarned!), finishing kitting out the kitchen, dealing with suppliers and having meetings with an accountant and a solicitor. Once all that is done, things should be almost ready to rock.

In the meantime, I'm not always going to have a huge amount of time or energy to cook at the end of the day. That means I'll be preparing lots of dishes like this - dishes that are simple to prepare and cook, that are flexible enough to work with whatever you happen to have in your fridge and are always full of flavour.

But when I think of it, these are the kinds of dishes that I tend to cook a lot during the week anyway. This Thai-inspired dish is one of my favourites and as it's such a versatile recipe, it might just become one of yours too.

This recipe started life as an Avoca Café recipe for green bean and coconut soup but I've adapted it to turn it into a much more filling supper dish.

It's a flexible recipe too. I've used prawns here but in the past I've used monkfish, chicken pieces that I've pre-fried in some oil and ground coriander and pieces of hake that I pre-fried in oil with chopped green chilli.

I serve this dish with basmati rice and if I'm very hungry and in need of carbohydrates (as I have been these busy days), I also serve one pitta bread per person. I think it would also be good with some slurpy noodles.

Feel free to experiment. This is a very forgiving recipe.

(Serves two hungry people with plenty left over for lunch the next day)

15g/half an oz of butter
4 spring onions, cut in half lengthways and then into 5cm strips (include the green bits)
2 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 teaspoons finely chopped lemongrass (be sure to remove the dry outer layers first)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander
100g green beans, topped, tailed and chopped so that they are approximately as long as the carrots
1x400ml/14 fl oz can of coconut milk
100ml vegetable stock
110g bean sprouts
14 prawns, peeled and cleaned
1 tablespoon nam pla (if you don't have this fish sauce, season with salt)
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh coriander

150g basmati rice
2 pieces of pitta bread, olive oil and sumac (if using)

  • Start by preparing your vegetables, lemongrass, garlic and ginger. You want them to look something like this:
  • Put your rice on to cook.
  • Brush your pitta breads with olive oil and sprinkle with sumac (if you're using) and place in the toaster. Don't turn it on yet.
  • Melt the butter in a wok and add the spring onions, carrots, lemongrass, garlic and ginger. Stir over a medium heat for one minute.
  • Add the green beans, turmeric and coriander and stir until the vegetables are coated in the spices.
  • Add the coconut milk and the stock.
  • Bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
  • Add the prawns and cook for 3 minutes or until they have turned pink.
  • Stir in the beansprouts and fresh coriander and season with nam pla (or salt).
  • Turn off the heat, toast your pitta breads and serve this vibrant yellow prawn sauce over the rice and with the pitta bread.
It's a dish that can't fail to make you happy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

You are all so kind...

Thank you all so much for taking a look at my last post. It was my most read post so far and the fact that so many of you read it makes me feel that I may not be entirely out of my mind in thinking that I have it in me to run a good café. All of your suggestions are very welcome and if you have any more, I'd love to hear them.

I'm going to be very busy over the next while and may not be able to post here as regularly as I'd like. But I do promise you a post before the week is out - if I haven't put something up here by Friday, you can rap me on the knuckles!

In the meantime, I'm still racking my brains to come up with a name for my café! If you've got any ideas, no matter how zany, be sure to send them to me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sharon puts her money where her mouth is

I have butterflies in my stomach as I write this. Regular readers will know that I promised to announce something today and my Twitter followers will know that I've been working up to something for a while. Well, I'm finally ready to reveal just what it is that I've been planning:


Sorry about the screaming capitals but I feel as though little else can convey quite how excited and nervous I'm feeling about this venture. Although it's something I've been thinking about doing for some time, I'm anxious about how it's all going to work out.

From reading previous posts, you'll know that I have had a stall at Dingle Farmers' Market for the past few years and that the cupcakes, brownies and other sweet treats I sell there have proved to be popular with customers. These will be one of the main attractions in my new café, which I'm hoping will become a place where people will come to enjoy good teas, coffees and cakes.

But I'm realistic enough to realise that this won't be enough to sustain a business in Dingle, especially outside of the summer months so I'm also planning to do good sandwiches (roast beef with garlic aioli and rocket, anyone?), soups, brunch specials, salads and three lunch specials that will change regularly, if not daily. There's a lot I still need to sort out but I know that the emphasis I want is seasonal, simple and mostly local food based on quality ingredients.

For those of you who know Dingle, my café is going to be located in Dick Mack's yard where Bee's Teas used to be. For those of you that don't, it will be upstairs in the charming but quite ramshackle building pictured below (there's also a terrace where customers can sit on sunny days).

There's a huge amount to do before it opens - which I hope will be in early March. The outside needs a facelift. So too does the interior. I need to organise insurance; find suppliers; buy crockery, cutlery, tablecloths and kitchen equipment; and hire staff.

There's a lot to worry about. I feel as though I'm really putting my money where my mouth is. I'm going from being a blogger who occasionally reviews restaurants and often finds fault to someone who tries to set up a place of her own. I've got very high standards and I just hope I can meet them.

I'd appreciate any advice you can give me. Suggestions as to where to buy crockery, cutlery, cake stands, cushions for seats and anything else that comes to mind would be more than welcome.

So too would suggestions for a name for my café. So far, I've got The Sweet Season, an Séasúr Blasta (which is Irish for The Tasty/Delicious Season) and Cookies but I don't know if any of them is quite right. 

Think about it and leave your thoughts in the comments below. I want something that conveys the idea of seasonal, natural, simple cooking and the name could also include a reference to sweet treats as they are what I am best known for. 

Don't worry if you think your suggestion sounds batty. Sometimes, batty is best!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Guilty Blogger's Syndrome

I’ve got that guilty feeling. That feeling that afflicts bloggers who don’t post as much as they’d like to. 

You may not know this but that feeling comes with its very own voice – a voice you hear in your head at odd intervals, a nasal, niggling voice that says things like: you call yourself a blogger, do you? Well, I haven’t seen you blogging much lately. Some blogger you are…

It’s a voice that’s a classic symptom of the guilty blogger syndrome and it’s one that is very hard to ignore. But this week, I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to ignore both it and my blog. I’m busy with regular work and with a huge new project that I’m about to take on. 

I’ll tell you all about it on Monday. In the meantime, happy weekend!