Damn it! I have been looking for my Crème caramel recipe for ages now until I finally found it yesterday, hidden in one of my multiple note books, in the drawer of my office desk. Twenty years since I have done any, the last time was a little bit of me, my dessert legacy in an Italian restaurant on Dominic Street in Galway. I used to work for a guy, originally from Sicily but with a distinctive Swiss German accent, almost as confusing as putting Crème caramel on the menu of a place making fresh pizzas and pastas! But hey! Between my lentil and carrot soup at £2.95 and that traditional French dessert, I can safely say that it had a way to draw the crowd in.
You’d be thinking, with a title like that, we are going to get another kale smoothie or a healthy drink for guilty January… Not a chance! “The Juice”, is the French slang word for “busy”. It can be used in two different ways: “I am in the juice”, meaning that you are very busy, loads of work, bang-bang, can’t talk too much but you can manage, you are in control… On the other hand when you say ( and this could be very Breton) “ I have taken a juice”, means that tunnel vision has taken over, you have lost that control and start focusing on the one thing, while the situation around you gets more and more critical. Right now, I can only think of three professions where “Juice intake” can have various consequences. If you “take a juice” while at the helm of a plane, you and your passengers better hope that your co-pilot spots the symptoms early, or it could have a dramatic outcome. Same with air traffic controllers I guess. If you work in a call centre and start to feel overwhelmed by the volume of people treating you like a human carpet, you might want to take five, before you tell someone to go eat a lemon, which could get you an early P45 ( the end of employment form in Ireland). Then they are the cooks and the chefs; “Taking a juice” is just not an option, even if you might hear stories, it’s not ok… The phrase “it happened to all of us” is not ok… That sentence of fake empathy echoing “it’s not your fault… It’s not your fault” … You don’t know what it feels like, but I know… It happened to me once, eighteen years ago; time to face your demons Franckie Boy, time to share it with the world…
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”.