My mother always had that thing for Russia; or rather Russian, the language. As a young student, when she was preparing her exams to become a teacher, she decided to take it on after English. This was a rare move at the time, but the curriculum offered it. She told me one day, that most of her classmates got to visit St Petersburg and Moscow, a one in a lifetime travel, and came back with fantastic tales that she cherished all her life; being from a very humble upbringing, she didn’t make the journey… She sure loved whatever came from Russia, the music, the literature, the language and to be honest, while if I have never been, I can say that there is an amazing charm to this nation. I was more interested in the rock band “Center” or “Центр” with their hit song of the 80’s called Привет тебе (Hello to you). I also liked to read a bit of Dostoyevsky and fell in love with one of François Cavanna’s autobiography called “Les Russkoffs”, friendly French slang for Russians. The guy was one of the main founders of the notorious magazine “Charlie Hebdo”. Yes indeed, she had a certain affection for this country; I remember that anecdote, when Sting released his controversial song “Russians” in 1985; the catchy tune finished each verse by saying: “[…] if the Russians love their children too”, to which my mother replied to herself and for all to hear:” Ppfff… Well of course they love their children…”.
Ok, this is just a short visual one. Ideal for a Sunday roast’ side order, you will need the following:
- 1 celeriac, peeled, washed and chopped
- 1 tsp of mustard (pick one with a kick, Dijon or English)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 10cl of fresh cream
- Salt and pepper
Boil the cubes of celeriac ( ideal size for blending later) with the cloves of garlic ( it will tame them down a bit). From cold, bring to the boil and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Check after that until soft…
This as to be one of the top 5 of comfort food. Here is the way I make my mashed potatoes. Nearly almost always…
- 5 Large Irish Roosters
- 15cl of milk
- 150g of butter
- 80g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Salt (to taste)
- Cracked black pepper
- 1/4 of a nutmeg grated
- 1 Sprig of rosemary
Well, the important part is to cut ( and peel first) the potatoes into similar sized pieces. Rince them well if you want a clean finish. In a cold pot they go with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil gently, let them simmer until cooked. ( Check from time to time with the tip of a small knife). I like to put in a bit of rosemary. It’s done? Drain well and back in the pot it goes to dry excess water. Add the butter and all the ingredients but the milk, or at least just a bit of it to start; you don’t want your mash to be too liquid. Add little by little. With a potato masher of your choice, start the operation while it is still quite hot. Elbow grease is what you will need most of now!
You should get a smooth enough finish. Sometimes, I let it cool and transfer it into an oven dish, for a delicious crispy top. Enjoy!
That was it. I finally got there, woken up from an uncomfortable sleep. The nasal call screech from the bus ‘speakerphones announced my arrival to the antechamber of the “Big North West”; after reading all the books, attended conferences and Dervish like audiovisual slide shows. My Bus Eireann ride was laboriously one point turning and reversing into its terminus allocated space; A skilled job well done. While the warning lights and the monotonic Morse code like reverse gear of my ride were still on, I took my green and yellow rucksack as well as a couple of unmatched travelling bags from the hold. It was late and pitch black; no amazing landscape I got drawn to a few months back, just the warning orange beacons of a 45 sitter on wheels, and the olfactory welcome of a turf and coal shandy, spewing from chimneys of the neighbouring terraces. I was only three hundred yards from my friends’ home, a safe house, a warm bed and a line in the proverbial sand that was going to be a brand new life. We all have to begin somewhere; Sligo Town was to be my Starting Blocks and I never looked back.
The mornings that followed were very much like a Groundhog Day but in a good way. Benbulben to my North East, Knocknarea and the Ox Mountain to my West and South were covered with fresh snow; handicapped by the fact that I didn’t drive and therefore, didn’t owe a car, I walked a lot. Like Travis in the iconic movie “Paris – Texas”, I walked. I walked to Queen Maeve’s passing grave, where a North Connacht Farmer (NCF) milk man would crack a few jokes with me, and I walked the 8 kilometres separating me from the Yeats County Capital to the battered shores of Rosses Point. Twenty years old, and already I felt the need to heal or to feed the cravings for a similar Atlantic I had left behind. The ride – for sure – promised to be fun!
I n February 1995, I had to face the fact that all my training as a wildlife campaigner and ornithologist may not be able to put butter and brown bread on the table; I was feeling sorry for myself, tired of scrounging free pints of stouts from the local Francophile elite.
A friend of mine worked as “Front of House” for the – then – cool place to eat Hotel / Restaurant, hanging precariously above the Garavogue River. Basque born, the Head Chef involuntarily built up a team into an avant-garde multicultural crew; they gave me my first taste, quenching a thirst and premiere to my first cooking theatre experience. My “compatriots” stood side by side, very proud of the fact that they managed to negotiate my first wage at £2.00/ hour. You know, when you are so proud, like parents at Christmas, unconsciously holding their waist with their hands… Nice one. I guess I had to take my medicine and start!
I was to become, well at least for a while, the Head Chef’s kitchen porter; that meant, replacing the poor lad that sliced his fingers on the “Ham Machine”. The pots were black with carbon, victims of years of bad treatment from the stove burners. I had no professional points of reference in the field, so I cleaned the pans to their original – or just about – glory. The owner of the hotel gave out to him: “ Chef!!! If you go and buy new pots, I would like to be informed… At least!”. The Chef laughed in a respectful way and pointed out in a French southern accent gobbledegook, that the pots had just been cleaned by the new, yet innocent, temporary kitchen Porter.
The funnier side of my job was to prepare the vegetables, for lunch and dinner. I had to peel, slice and chop carrots and parsnips. My mission was to make them absolutely tasteless to the diners. I did salt them though, which angered the chef. Little did I know then, Irish people used to salt their food before tasting it; he told me that my carrots were perfect, but I had to be ready for some serious complaints. Wah?
The day after I was given the task of making “mashed potatoes”. I was standing there, sink all clean, spud peeler in my right hand, apron wrapped up around me like an apprenticed Shogun. Bring it on! “No need, no need!” said the Captain, “we have a machine for that!”. The heavy metal robot like was able to wash and peel potatoes… This was stuff of Science Fiction to me! All I had to do was to chop and boil them (no salt? Come on guys!!!), drain them, put them in the bread mixer, add heaps of margarine and a “little bit” of white pepper. White pepper… Yes… A “little bit” of White pepper… Ach sure, a little bit extra for luck won’t hurt right? The only pepper I knew at that stage was whole green and in brine, quite inoffensive, or cracked black, in a stew, on a rare piece of steak or on Emmental cubes for the aperitif. You get the hit, then the taste; the white pepper, gives you the taste, then the long, long, long hit. I guess I found out the hard way… So did the poor people in the dining room below…
I often make that bread; focaccia like, it works really well with a full Irish or a healthier breakfast like this one. I also serve it when I make a curry or even Couscous, you know, for the sauce. So Hungry “B”’s bread? Here we go.
- 200g pasta/ pizza flour
- 10cl of warm water
- 2 tsp of dried yeast (if you can get fresh one, by all means… Ask your local baker or pizzeria for a bit).
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1 tbsp of organic Greek style yoghurt
- 1 tbsp of rapeseed or olive oil
- Coarse sea salt
Put the flour in a bowl, I prefer organic in general; throw in a pinch of salt. In a bowl, pour in 10cl of warm water, 2 tsp of dried yeast and 2 tsp of sugar. Give it a stir and put in a dark place (the press or “cupboard” or even the oven ( yes, leave it off). After 10 minutes, you should get a cappuccino like foam. Pour the lot with the flour; add the yoghurt and the oil. Start with a spoon or a fork, then my friends, use your hands. I like to keep the dough relatively wet. Cover the bowl with cling film and back in its dark place it goes for thirty minutes. Put the dough on a floured baking tray, just like that, roughly flatten with the palm of your hand but don’t fuss too much. Pour a bit of olive oil on top and some coarse sea salt. Bake at 200c for 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool for a bit. You will find that the bread has an amazing soft texture.
To dress your breakfast, spread the bread with soft goat’s cheese ( nothing too strong in this case), thinly slice a ripe avocado and squeeze a drizzle of blood orange. Fry an organic free range egg gently for 5 minutes (I cover the pan with a bowl so the yolk can remain soft but not runny).
Serve with a glass of freshly squeezed blood orange juice, a great healthy and tasty way to start the day!
Here goes the recipe:
What you need:
- 500g of beef
- 10cl of gin
- a sprig of rosemary
- a sprig of thyme
- 2 celery sticks
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- A wee bit of ginger
- 8-10 Juniper berries
- 2 carrots
- 20 cl of deep red wine
In an oiled pan, sear the beef; don’t be shy now. Chop the vegetables. In a pan, infuse the gin with the herbs and Juniper Berries on a very low heat; this operation will help to get the most of the flavours. Think of it as a herbal tea. Pour the gin mix with the beef and let it reduce. The chopped vegetables go in, let all the flavours dance together. Cover with water and let the whole thing simmer for at least two hours… Or even three if you can. Let it rest for an hour and reheat as often as you wish. Serve with rice, a cheesy mash or roasted roots 😉
This is based on a stew Story
If I was to be asked about Irish Optimism, my left eyebrow would probably rise ½ an inch higher than it would normally sit. While my – normally placid – face would stare at my interlocutor, I would find very hard to swallow the fact that February 2nd is, to some, the beginning of springtime. I have, to my advantage, a strong case to present. Exhibit 1./ A giant poster of the Moon that saw me growing up. Exhibit2./ A light globe that has been at my bedside table for the best part of my youth… Exhibit3/. The fact that there is still a lot of snow on my townland and that the lovely lady from RTE TV Irish weather forecast, warned us that our area could reach a possible- 8c tonight; With a potential risk of snow. Call me weird, but when it comes to Spring, I am more of a March 20th kinda guy.
Saying that, I love winter. I love the fact that Mother Nature covers the land with an icing sugar like dusting. My simple pleasure is to roam the hills and forest of the western “Royal”, on a quest for inner reflexion, ballet of pain and joy while being exfoliated by battering frozen snow. The motivation behind that self inflicted punishment could probably be measured and evaluated on a psychoanalytic level. After physical pain, comes the healing of a hot bath, ready salted peanuts binge, might be tamed – elbow style- by a cold bottle of beer… In the case of a self inflicted winter hike around Oldcastle’s Loughcrew Cairns… All I wanted was just a bit of comfort, a hand knitted scarf, a turf fire ,a hug and a feed that would illustrate the latter.
I went to my local butcher and got a pound (500g) of stewing beef. I had bought some juniper berries a while back and despite the harsh temperatures of January, some rosemary and thyme remained healthy enough. I got a wee bottle of Gin from the local Pub (20cl) and I infused the lot together to release the flavours. No boiling though, just gentle.
First, in a hot oiled pan, sear the beef until you get a rich brown colour; half way through, I put a clove of garlic or two. Chop the selected vegetables, in this case carrots, two cloves of garlic, celery and a large onion; I also thinly sliced a bit of ginger for extra kick. While all is sweating for a bit, pour in the gin and herbs. A healthy glass of red wine goes in too, for colour and “carpentry”, then let the lot reduce for a bit; A pinch of salt and pepper for luck and cover the dish with water. Let the whole pot simmer for at least two hours. Serve the stew with a parmesan flavoured mash… A simple hug, in a world of brutes!
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