We’ve all been there, midweek is coming and Sunday’s roast chicken left overs need using. Curry, stir fry? This time I went for quiche, with a bit of sheep’s cheese from the West of Ireland. Not strong but full of wholesomeness. Ok, from scratch, here it goes!
Before being catapulted into adult life, we were taught a couple of life saving skills. After lunch, wait at least two hours before you go swimming in the sea, never EVER drink white after red, it takes ten minutes to get a hardboiled egg from the boiling point, spaghettis are cooked when they stick to the wall, how to make a vinaigrette, and, what was going to separate the men from the boys, the sheep from the goats; how to make your own mayonnaise. In a region almost surrounded by water, it was only going to be a matter of time before a friend or a family member would ask nonchalantly while preparing the crab claws and meat: “You do the mayonnaise, yeah?” You knew then that the last task of your right of passage had come before you.
As long as I can remember, there was a chipper, Citroën van, parked on the main harbour. We used to call in, as a family, for a drive and a small “barquette” of chips, strolling along the quiet sleepy harbour. My mother, like a lot of other vagabonds, bohemian chip buffs, asked for a dollop of mustard; so was the way most of the crepuscular dreamers enjoyed them.
“Chipper Man” had a beautiful daughter; he was a single father, and worked every night but Mondays, in order to provide for the education, security and well being of Sandra; Sandra was my age, we were at school together. At first, I didn’t really pay attention to her; when my parents decided to drive downtown in our 1978 504 Burgundy Peugeot, I was too young, and too glad to enjoy the sober and simple joys of a family outing. Yet, while the Atlantic and omnipresent south western breeze caressed my forehead, I kept looking at Sandra, helping her father at the weekend, with her beautiful long fairy hair, and a smile that could tame and ease the toughest of customers.
I was a shy teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed a good laugh, sometimes I even got in trouble; my mother was a teacher and a date in the Principal’s office, meant a kick up the arse, my hair pulled, my face slapped and a lecture on how I put shame on the “Mujahideen” of French National Education herself and her mates sworn allegiance to…
Anyway, Sandra and I found ourselves in the waiting room of our secondary school Principal’s office, Judge and Executioner. He was a tough, but fair man; I knew I had a chance to come clean; I had a way with words. Sandra though… She didn’t take it so well. A little “Bourgeois” kid made fun of her and her Dad, her father, the chipper guy, in a grey Citroën van… Fun of the fact that her Mum had gone. She didn’t leave them, she just died; way before her time. Children – like grownups – can be cruel, and shelter themselves from the inevitable… The inevitable that sometimes comes too soon.
“ I don’t know what took me… I punched him in the face… Twice”, she said between two spasms while sitting next to me on that old wooden bench; she cried out of anger, she cried out of regrets. To break the ice, I told her that I loved her Dad’s chips, with mustard… She laughed at my naive, yet sincere statement and said with a drowned smile, while placing her snow white hand on my right knee: “You haven’t lived until you try fries with mayonnaise!!!”
Keep Well and Eat Happy
I must admit, the journeys to my native Celtic peninsula have become a slightly sporadic affair in the past few years; the time between visits is getting less frequent. They say that life gets in the way, and I get the odd “oh sure, you are one of us now!”, or almost. The truth be told, we all have to cast anchor some day, voluntarily or not, or simply coming to terms with the inevitable. As a teenager, I often dreamed of my perfect place to live; lighthouse keeper of Ar Men, rock of all rocks at large of Sein Island, self sufficient in Swedish Lapland’s Sarek National Park or even honorary Highlander on the western Hebrides islands of Scotland. They say that Bretons never leave their native land… They bring it with them. I suppose this is true, there is a Gwen a Du flag (“White and Black”) hanging at the back of my office chair, a Breton map in the living room (old fashioned, but really neat!) and a hell of a lot of Atlantic sea salt in “the press” and butter in the fridge! The stripes to this Zebra…
But when I do go, there is always – and a lot – of a special something I like to bring back; our legendary and inimitable salted butter biscuits. No Scottish Shortbreads or Swedish Drömmar could reasonably match the buttery galettes (thin) or Breton Palets (literally meaning “Puck”, as in Hockey the sport; we also have a game using a puck… It is a bit like darts on the ground).
They come in beautifully decorated tin boxes, often inspired by Gauguin’s paintings which got inspired by the beauty of the Brittany he loved, lived and drew from… So I guess that’s fair enough don’t you think? Fair enough…
So today, I decided to open a box of memories, create my own bit of home at home; in a bowl, I mixed 2 egg yolks with 80g of sugar and a little drizzle of a freshly squeezed orange, you know, until they get to a lovely and white ribbon like texture. In the blender, I whizzed 140g of organic white flour and 80g of salted butter. A wee pinch of fleur de sel sea salt, the zest of 1/2 an orange and half a tea spoon of baking powder ( this should give you about 20 biscuits). With a spatula, I poured the mix in the blender and gave it a couple more pulses. Once ready, I put the lot back in the bowl and kneaded the lot a bit more. I made the dough into a ball, wrapped it in cling film and in the fridge it went for a couple of hours. Now, the fun could begin.
I rolled the dough on the table, leaving a desired thickness. With a small pastry ring, I started to shape my buttery “pucks” on a baking tray and a sheet of wax paper. A quick “egg wash” with a pastry brush and in the oven they went for 20 minutes. Keep an eye out (or in) as this can go pretty quickly.
Time goes quickly when one is having fun while anticipating the taste and smell of fond childhood memories. I let them cool gently on their tray and once cooled, gave them a good home, an old tin once filled with delicious Pleyben’s Galettes, now long devoured. Who cares? I’ve just made my own!
I made myself a nice cup of coffee, essential dip for the delicious biscuits. Thursday’s snow was still there in the garden, waiting for its next batch, soon to be delivered from the Arctic north and about to hit my adoptive land, half way between the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea, my cottage in the middle of the Island, surrounded by lakes, forests, megalithic hills and drumlins … You never know do you?
Hey y’all, here is a tasty tip/ hack for a midweek dinner; mashed peas and buffalo mozzarella stuffed pork filet ( or Pork steak). It takes no time and it is very tasty! 20 minutes in the oven and a few roasties… Sorted!
Ok, Don’t panic; the easy part is to open the pork steak in half… Easy now… In a pan, with a bit of water and salt, boil a couple of handfuls of peas with two cloves of garlic; after 5 minutes, drain and cool gently under a bit of cold water. Whiz the peas with a bit of olive oil and butter. Shred ½ a buffalo mozzarella here and there and place inside the filet; roll gently and bake with a few roasties to be for 20 minutes at 200c.
For the roasties( say for 2-3), peel two potatoes, two carrots and one beetroot ( raw). Chop them to the same size, place in a tray with olive oil and a couple of garlic cloves in their jacket; rub the oil and bake for 20-25 minutes at 200c; this is a great midweek dinner trick, with a high ratio of speed, comfort and tastiness! With our without meat actually… 😉
I know it sounds a bit weird, a salad in winter? Having made a big pot of ragù Bolognese yesterday, tonight’s dinner is already sorted and wintery enough! Almost as much as the weather forecast schedule to hit us in the next 24 to 48 hours; storm force winds, snow? Hard to imagine this lunchtime, the pale sun is beaming in the sleeping veg garden, where once again I promised myself to have beetroots and herbs, carrots and leaves… One can dream… Or ought to get his act together.
The dog and one of the cats reluctantly tagged along for a short walk through the woods, across the field and back in the garden. I asked my four legged companions if they were ready to go home for lunch; the dog is standing impatiently by the door of the house as if saying “wow, that was fun, we should do that again sometimes? Now open the door will ya?” They always seem to know when the weather is about to change; but saying that, I do leave the radio on for them in the afternoon.
So where was I? Yes, lunch, of course and a controversial craving for salad. Fridge door opens, beetroot, carrot, we’ve got a theme going here… What’s this? Red cabbage I bought two weeks ago? Well at least the intention was good. Little head of broccoli for contrast? Why not. I bought a piece of Ardsallagh goat’s cheese from Co. Cork last Friday, which should work pretty well; a few garlic croutons in the pan and a scattering of walnuts… Almost there. To dress the whole thing, I used three Tbsp of olive oil, one of soya sauce and one of Irish apple vinegar.
Now, let’s look at that weather forecast again… Ah sure, it doesn’t look that bad… Does it?
First, separate and wash the florets of the cauliflower; as always, and especially for this vegetable, I would recommend to buy organic. Boil in salted water for 5 to 8 minutes; you can check with the tip of a knife but you don’t want them too soft. Drain and cool under cold water. In a pan, pour equal measure of milk and fresh cream, a whisked egg, a pinch of Saffron, a grated clove of garlic and a pinch of salt. Warm up ever so slightly in order to extract the best of the saffron stems. Place the florets in a buttered oven dish and pour the mix over. Grate a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) on top and I love to cover the whole thing with a layer of bread crumbs. But that is entirely up to you.
Bake in a hot oven (200c) for about 20-25 minutes. You want to keep a bit of creaminess going, so don’t overdo it! Serve with fresh leaves, these types of dishes flirt really well with a bit of acidity on the side. It is also a great accompaniment to pork in general, but also white like haddock or cod… It works really well on its own too.
I don’t know what is worse really; December’s over indulgences or January self flagellation? The debate is open. You can juice broccoli or bath yourself in Aloe Vera, the truth is we are still in the middle of winter, long nights and short days passing, cold lights and windy greys drifting. Don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t miss out on the peak season for small comfort treats.
Stews and soups are fun but I find satisfaction and healing in a good gratin. Anything “al forno” in fact, potatoes, pasta… Bring it on; but since we are trying to be good here, I have another idea to meet each other half way, the cream of vegetables, the blossom of all Brassicae, the flower of all cabbages.
When you buy a cauliflower, the chances are that it is most likely to be coming from Brittany, the leading region for its production in Europe, with nearly 20,000 hectares allocated for its production; that is bigger than the whole Dublin area. What can I say, we like our cauliflowers! Nearly 70% of its production is exported, and it is a corner stone of the Breton culinary culture. So why on Earth can’t I have a decent memory of it while growing up? Seriously, in a soup, maybe, boiled to hell and served with a malt vinaigrette and ham? With fish and a bit of butter? I think somehow, we have let our favourite vegetable down a bit.
It was years later, while working in one of Galway’s most genuine and avant-garde wine bar, that I not only found self confidence in cooking, it is also the place where I learnt an awful lot about taking veg the extra mile. “Long Walk” Wine Bar was in the late 90’s, the palace of Harriet Leander, Finnish born legend, self taught cook and one of the multitude colourful characters that the western “City Of Tribes” harbours. People came for the Fish soup, the warm salad with port, the country platter on the wide wooden counter, while sipping on a South African red or for a plate of Couscous on Sunday night, to the blue notes of a live Jazz trio. We worked mostly on a blackboard, no menus there and when it was gone, it was gone! There was also – and for the time we lived in – a lot of effort made on the vegetarian front. The era of stuffed red peppers was dying and I was relishing the daily challenge. Harriet showed me one of the recipes she loved making; Cauliflower and saffron gratin. She always assigned us to the dishes we enjoyed doing; the theory behind it was the secret ingredient to a great little success. “If you love cooking it, it will taste great”.
I loved making that simple gratin, and fifteen years later, I still do, especially this time of year. Of course, I have added my own little touches, like parmesan and a bread crumb finish, sometimes I serve it with grilled cubes of pancetta, sometimes with fresh leaves and a lemon/ olive oil dressing. Every time I wash and cook the snow white florets, I think of their fields between Morlaix and Roscoff, the first thing that welcomes you after a long sea journey; I also think about the great years I’ve spent in the west, where my cooking adventure really started, one day by Galway bay, and that lonely stone wine bar hanged over the river Corrib, finishing its course by the promenade the locals once named “Long Walk”.
As I was preparing my next story, and therefore tonight’s dinner, I decided to have a bit of fun with Parmigiano Reggiano rosettes; or whatever they are called… First, you need some parmesan, the gold of Italy, but any two years old cheese should do, mature gouda being one of them, or, Coolea from Cork…
Grate the cheese and place good pinches of it on a dry tray, leaving reasonable intervals to allow “freedom of melting”; you don’t want them to overlap. Bake on a hot oven at 200c for 5 minutes or so.
Once ready, take the tray out of the oven and let it cool for a little bit; using the tip of a small knife, lift them gently and place on a sheet of kitchen paper; let them cool a bit further and enjoy as a snack or as decoration of a related dish…