My aunt often says to me that my mother was great at cooking meats; her beef Bourguignon was to die for and the treat for my father, on a cold Sunday, was her osso buco with flageolet beans and boiled potatoes. I guess I took it for granted, as children do, with a nonchalant face while playing with their fork, unaware of the love that was actually put before them. When she passed in 1997, I was only 25; at that stage, I had made my first baby steps in the kitchens of Sligo and Galway, before I got a phone call, before I had to sail away to say farewell, but that moment was never to be as she left before me. I inherited though, some lovely memories and a scrap book full of tender mess and quirky recipes from days long gone. My only regrets? I wish she could have seen Ireland, an Island she loved and supported through the “troubles”, through the struggles… She really did! The other one I guess is, that I would have really loved to have cooked for her… Just once. “But hey! Listen to me! This wasn’t meant to be no sad song” as legend Paul Brady puts it so well… We’ve heard too much of that before… We sure did!
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?
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”.
Last Saturday, I visited my local butchers, like a modern yet nonchalant hunter and gatherer, I was getting my weekly food shopping of course, but also having an opportunity – an excuse – for a bit of craíc and banter, a chance to catch up with the local news (some might call it “gossip”, but I will not lower myself to that level… Anyway, keep that for yourself, I’ll tell you later…).
I got taken by their latest creation, a Pork and Apple burger. I didn’t want to just put it in a bun; after all, a lot of effort went into designing this dish. The previous night I had made some lovely mash potatoes, with some grated Coolea cheese from Cork, a two year old Irish Gouda if you prefer, sweet and parmesan like somewhat. That was half the battle…
For the sauce, I decided to do a creamy apple juice sauce. I had a small bottle of Karmine apple juice from Tipperary, “The Apple Farm”. It is sweet with a hint of tart, perfect for a family dish like this; its execution is actually quite easy, just a bit of preparation will go a long way. It is also a great wink to both Brittany and Ireland: they love their apples, in whichever form they come into. Pictures and recipes below.
Get yourself ready…
And the final result, ready to eat!
For the mash
- 2 nice potatoes per person
- 150 g of Coolea cheese (or aged gouda)
- black pepper
- grated nutmeg
For the mash
Peel, wash and cut the potatoes, put them in a pot of salted water and boil gently until cooked. Put through a sieve, back in the pot to remove excess water. Add the butter (the more the creamier, taste is your judgement) and the milk, gradually while you mash. If it’s a bit too thick, add a bit more. Smooth? Mill some black pepper and some freshly grated nutmeg. While it is still hot, grate the Coolea Cheese and stir inside the mash. You can serve it from the pot or bake in the oven later for a extra crispiness!
For The Sauce
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 garlic clove crushed
- 1 leaf of sage
- 1 splash of balsamic vinegar
- 1 splash of soya sauce
- 1 organic chicken/ veg stock (20 cl glass is enough)
- 15cl of Apple Juice (Artisan, farmhouse, the commercial stuff is too sweet)
- 25 cl of fresh cream
In a pan with olive or rapeseed oil, sweat the onions and garlic with a bit of salt. Throw in the sage leaf (optional). Put in the equivalent of 2 tbsp of balsamic and soya sauce, let it reduce, the apple juice, let it reduce, the stock, let it reduce. Pass the whole thing through a sieve (remember to place a bowl underneath… I’ve been there!) and the sauce back in the pan; discard the onions etc… Back on the hob with a bit of fresh cream, keep stirring and reduce again until smooth and a little bit thicker.
For the Pork Burgers…
Well, in a hot oiled pan, few minutes on each side, I just get the colour done on the pan and I finish them for 10 minutes in a hot oven. Serve with a bit of blanched broccoli, green/ French beans and enjoy with a glass of farmhouse cider but a Burgundy Chardonnay would work quite well too!