An Ode to Slow Cooking

The beginning of 2012 began much  like the last weeks of 2011 – at top speed. After a fun-filled Christmas and very mellow New Year, my family burst back into action in the beginning of January with a bunch of new things in the mix for all of us, including a new job description, a college course and potty training – whew! It’s been hectic, but also fantastic to start the year off with a bang. As ever, the challenge to put a healthy dinner on the table presents itself. I won’t lie…I have relied on my local pizza place once or twice, but the real godsend to our dinner table has been my slow cooker.

With just a tiny bit of preparation, the slow cooker is a busy family’s best friend. Admittedly, they are bulky items that can take up a lot of cupboard space, but I love mine to bits. Generally, any recipe that calls for slow cooking in a Dutch oven is suitable for adaptation to a slow cooker, but the web is crawling with suggestions for easy, delicious meals that can be prepared in minutes. I’ve come across two particularly brilliant recipes lately, both from Real Simple magazine. The first was this lovely Chicken Tikka Masala recipe that was the perfect antidote to a wet, windy Wednesday evening. Coming home from work to a house smelling of lovely, rich, Indian spices was just brilliant, and all I had to do was cook some rice. The next week, I made this gorgeous vegetarian chili, which made enough for two meals, one of which is currently stashed in my freezer for another busy week.

At 8 am, dinner looked a bit like this:

A few tins were opened; an onion, sweet potato, and red pepper were chopped.

8 hours later, dinner was ready!

Yum!

Happy cooking!

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It’s beginning to look a lot like…cookies!

As the temperature dips and the days grow short, I definitely feel nesting urges. I swap afternoon trips to the park with my son for sticking a stew  in the oven, popping a Christmas movie into the DVD player, and sitting on the couch for a cuddle and a cuppa. It is always hard to have a cup of tea without a biscuit, but in December, it’s hard not to have three or four, as there is always an endless variety in my house – not to mention the mince pies! I’m an absolute sucker for a new Christmas cookie recipe, so when the Irish Food Bloggers Association presented the opportunity for a recipe exchange between members, I jumped at the chance.

My recipe came from Magda, who blogs here about all sorts of goodies. She sent me a recipe for Cranberry Noel cookies, which she first discovered here, and she thinks are loosely based on a Martha Stewart recipe. I made them for the first time this afternoon and they tick a LOT of boxes for me. To begin with, I was able to make them while my son and his friend were having a play date in the next room (for those without toddlers, this means I was able to make them in about 7 minutes using only half of my brain, as the other half was tuned in to the conversation about dragons taking place in the sitting room). It’s an icebox cookie, so it’s easy to make up a few logs, stick them in the freezer, and bake on demand, earning you serious hostess points if someone drops in for tea and sympathy. The red & green in the dough is also very pretty and gives them a seasonal feel. The texture & flavour combinations are fantastic as well – a not- too-sweet, crumbly biscuit with mellow, crunchy nut and chewy, tart cranberry…excellent. I highly recommend giving them a go. Thanks, Magda!

Cranberry Noel Cookies, ready to bake

 Cranberry Noel Cookies

75 g unsalted butter
75 g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon milk
250 g plain flour
30 g chopped pistachios
40 g chopped dry cranberries

Coating (I skipped it)
1 egg white (lightly beaten)
50 g finely chopped pistachios

Beat the butter with a mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add icing sugar, vanilla sugar, salt and milk.
Mix until just combined.
Gradually add flour, pistachios, and cranberries.
Mix on low speed until fully combined.
Divide dough in a half.
Shape each half into 8-inch logs, about 2 inches in diameter.*
If you are putting coating. Lightly brush the logs with an egg white
and roll them in the chopped pistachios.
Wrap logs in cling film and put into a freezer for 20-30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200C/180C fan.
Line a couple baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper or a silicon mat.
Using a sharp knife, cut logs into 1/4-inch thick slices.
Transfer them into prepared baking sheets.
Bake until edges are golden, about 10-12 minutes. (Be careful, they burn quite easily)
Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

*At this stage, the dough was very crumbly and I was convinced that I had weighed the flour incorrectly; I hadn’t – the dough just needed a lot of shaping!

Yum!

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All I Want for Christmas

It’s that time of year again when I start casually leaving dog-eared magazines & catalogues around the house, ‘accidentally’  leave the browser open with certain items on display, or (I’ll be honest here…) blatantly take my husband by the arm, drag him into a shop and point to things I like. The vast majority of my hinting points towards food-related items, be they cookbooks, cook’s tools, or luxury food items.  If you’re looking to drop a few hints yourself, or there’s a foodie in your life that leaves you scratching your head, here are a few items that are tickling me this year…

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cookbooks/Publications

For yummy recipes, quaint design, and the feel-good factor, you can’t beat The Mixing Bowl, a fundraising initiative from Our Lady’s Hospice and Care Services. The book includes a wide variety of treasures ranging from Foccacia Soda Bread to Oxford Lunch Cake to Marilyn Monroe Chicken. All of the book’s recipes come from residents and clients of the hospice service, and all proceeds go to support their work – brilliant.

A must for any household that requires dinner-on-demand is Rachel Allen’s Easy Meals.  I am completely in love with this book & its TV tie-in at the moment. A selection of recipes from the book can be found here (I highly recommend the scrumptious tarka dahl – it blew my mind), but I recommend picking up the whole book. It’s chock full of store cupboard suggestions, fantastic baking ideas (OMG, the chocolate mousse cake…) and general tips for getting a proper dinner on the table in minutes. I suspect that I will be using this book a lot. In fact, I’m planning to try the huevos rancheros in about an hour…

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a book on the top of my Lust List is The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria Adria is the mad genius behind El Bulli. This gorgeous cookbook is a glimpse into one of the finest culinary minds of recent times, but contains achievable recipes. I also just love Phaidon cookbooks.

If baking is your thing, Phaidon have also outdone themselves with Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French Baking. I got it for my birthday, and it is just a lovely thing to have, even if you are not ambitious enough to make anything in it! (I have drooled on it a lot, but not actually cooked anything from it…yet!)

Magazine subscriptions are also great for year-round giving. Food & Wine is a lovely Irish publication full of recipes, reviews, and tips.

Stocking Stuffers/Christkindl/Secret Santa

A few low budget ideas:

– Irish Atlantic Sea Salt

– This is perfect for those who like to add flare to their dinner parties

– Just about anything from this shop

-every kitchen should have a Microplane. Or two. Or twelve.

Cooking Fun

– A voucher for a local cooking school is a great gift. Look for a place with lunchtime options, like Cook’s Academy or Donnybrook Fair, or if it’s someone special, you could always plan a weekend away at somewhere like The Tannery or Dunbrody House.

– A trip to Kildare Village could net you some great Le Creuset Goodies. All of the products there are factory seconds, but are generally in great shape and significantly marked down from the average retail cost. There’s not a cook in the land who wouldn’t love a new enamel French oven or stoneware gratin dish.

Going for Broke

If you or someone you know has been VERY good this year (or you won the  lotto last night) these are my particular objects of desire at the moment…

– this beautiful stand mixer

– a complete collection of these

– book a trip to Denmark and try to get on the waiting list for dinner at Noma

When Visiting

By the time December 25th rolls around, I don’t want to see another bottle of wine or mince pie coming in my door. They both have their time and place, but they seem to pile up at an alarming rate during the month of December. This year, think outside the box for your host’s gift…I recently received a huge hunk of Comte Reserve from dinner guests and it was the gift that kept on giving (in fact, some of still lives on my hips…) Head to your local cheesemonger for a few wedges of something special and toss ’em into a red gift bag some some oatcakes or a crusty baguette. If you’re feeling boozy, when not try a craft beer? There are a few Irish microbreweries on my radar right now that are producing lovely stuff, like Dungarvan Brewing Company and Eight Degrees Brewing Company. But wherever you live, a guarantee that someone is brewing something lovely within an hour’s drive of your house. Find a stockist and share the goodness.

I’ll be writing about some DIY options next week, but hopefully the suggestions above might help you with your shopping this week!

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Lovely Leftovers and my Cookbook of the Week

My favorite holiday has come and gone, but I had a lovely time celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends. I roasted my turkey and made my stuffing in quite traditional ways, and friends provided a lovely assortment of sides (including the most sinful, creamy mashed sweet potatoes and beautiful, Indian-spiced roast parsnips). I pushed the boat out with my dessert this year though, and I don’t mind saying that I even impressed myself by making a pumpkin meringue pie.

Pumpkin Meringue Pie

Pumpkin Meringue Pie

I have to make a confession now…I subscribe to Martha Stewart Living.  I know, I know.  I have a real love/hate relationship with the publication, because it does portray an aspirational lifestyle to the point of the ridiculous. As it arrives in my post box every month, I mock Martha for her ridiculous calendar entries (‘Confirm appointment with piano tuner’ ‘Vacuum wallpaper’) and then I drool over the crafting projects and recipes. There are always particularly creative ideas around the holidays, and I especially love the November and December issues. As soon as I saw the photo of this Pumpkin Meringue Pie I knew I had to try it, and as no one was likely to make it for me, I was going to have to bake it myself!  I’m glad that I gave it a shot, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. The pros were: a visually stunning result, a change from the norm, an excuse to use my hand held blow torch, and of course, a tasty dessert. Cons included meringue panic (why did it take so long for the whites to stiffen?!?!?!?), pastry panic (why is the pastry sticking to the tin?!?!?!?) and a lack of leftovers (The meringue melted overnight, making the last few slices very soggy and inedible).

The last con is probably my most serious concern, as I LOVE Thanksgiving & Christmas leftovers. Waking up the morning after a big feast makes me giddy with excitement…despite the fact that hours earlier I was moaning that I’d never eat again, I skip down to the fridge to invent new things from the legs of turkey, piles of mash, bits of stuffing, and cold roast veg left in the fridge. Black Friday Breakfast is almost as good as Thanksgiving Dinner…I love making crispy potatoes cakes by chopping up the dregs of the fresh herbs and roast veg hanging around the fridge, mixing them into some leftover mashed potato, shaping them into cakes and coating them with seasoned flour.  I fry them in butter for a few minutes on each side and top them with poached eggs.  Then, of course, there’s soup made from Turkey Stock, turkey curry, turkey pot pie, and the old reliable turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sandwich. We should be finished our leftovers by the middle of this week…just in time to start thinking about Christmas dinner!

When the turkey is finally gone, I’ll be turning to Rachel Allen for my recipes this week, and exploring her new book, Easy Meals. I have a pretty hectic week coming up, so there won’t be a lot of lingering around the kitchen waiting for things to braise…the 30 minute meal will be my friend. I’ve taken a peek already, and there are such delights as Chicken Skewers with Carrot & Apple Salad, Tomato & Goats Cheese Tart, and Prawn Korma. It’s definitely chock full of recipes that one could make after a quick trip to the shop on the way home and fifteen minutes in the kitchen.  I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the recipes, but for tonight, I have pure convenience on my mind…Turkey Curry with a sauce from Bombay Pantry, the takeaway of all takeaways…

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Meatless Mondays

In advance of one of the biggest meat-eating holidays on my calendar (hooray, Thanksgiving!) I thought that I would write about some of my veggie efforts. Whilst on maternity leave a few years ago, I came a customer of Home Organics, a local produce delivery service.  I thought that I’d keep the delivery for a few months when on leave and that it might fall by the wayside once I returned to work.  Instead, I became an absolute addict, and one of Home Organics’ biggest cheerleaders. Every Thursday morning, I get a delivery of beautiful, organic, seasonal fruit & vegetables as well as free range, organic eggs. Amazing. Produce is sourced as locally as possible and is delicious; the apples and satsumas we’re getting at the minute are brilliant, and I love the ever-changing selection of greens that pop up, from kale rainbow chard in the winter to rocket and cima di rapa in the summer.  There are weekly appearances from potatoes, carrots and onions, as well as fairly regular portions of broccoli, bananas, and lovely garlic.  Everything else varies with the season; some recent delights featured were celeriac, red cabbage, baby butternut squash, and quince – autumn at its finest!

Getting a random, weekly delivery has changed the way I think about making dinner.  Rather than automatically thinking about meat as the centre piece of the meal, and vegetables as an afterthought, I often take a look at what vegetables we have and how best I might accompany them. Sometimes, it means pairing some lovely, big baking potatoes with a lamb chop, but more and more often, it leads me to planning at least one meatless meals every week, as suggested by the growing Meatless Monday movement. I’m not always organized enough to have it on Mondays, and I will admit to frequently adding a sausage to my son’s plate to keep him interested, but my husband and I do have at least one meatless meal every week. Here are a few recent winners: Fried Eggs, Greens & MushroomsVegetable Coconut Curry, and Beetroot Rosti.

If I’m looking for veggie inspiration, I often look no further than Denis Cotter of Cafe Paradiso. I think he’s a genius chef; I love his restaurant and his recipes. Wild Garlic, Gooseberries, and Me is one of my favorite food books. It’s chock full of recipes, memories, and general food knowledge. If you find yourself with a bit of time on your hands and a craving for seriously good veggie food, and I can’t say enough about his recipe for Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Oyster Mushroom Broth with Pumpkin Dumplings – it is something truly special. If you don’t want to go all out and fuss around with dumplings, the soup on it’s own is delicious – I did not expect to find such beautiful flavor in a meat-free broth, but it really is gorgeous.  I generally make a double batch of the broth and keep some in the fridge as it is such a good winter warmer – lovely to have a mug of it with lunch.

Happy peeling, chopping, and cooking!

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Happiness is a Warm Risotto

Leek & Tarragon Risotto

As the evenings grow longer and colder, I love to pour myself a glass of wine and spend time in my cozy kitchen.  Sometimes, I have the time to mess around with something posh, like the quail I tried a few weeks ago, or the venison stew I’m planning for the weekend.  Other nights, I just about manage to whip up a pasta sauce.  Risotto is, for me, a lovely happy medium of simplicity, cooking therapy, and deliciousness.  I read a lot of recipes for ‘baked; or ‘no-stir’ risotto and I always despair.  For me, the beauty of risotto is the zen-like nature of its cooking process.  I love the ritual of constant stirring and ladling hot stock into bubbling rice – glass of wine in my left hand, wooden spoon in the other. Bliss. On a practical level, it’s also a great way to use up some bits and pieces in the fridge. Last night’s risotto was leek and tarragon, because I’m trying to use up all of the veg that’s hanging around before I get my next delivery from the brilliant Home Organics on Thursday.

Leek & Tarragon Risotto

(serves 2 adults and a briefly curious toddler)

– 200 g. arborio rice

– 2 leeks, trimmed, well-rinsed, and finely sliced

-500ml stock *

-1 glass of dry, white wine

– 30g butter, preferably unsalted

-big hunk of parmigiano reggiano/grana padano

-sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

– a few decent-sized stalks of fresh tarragon, chopped

 *I used homemade chicken stock from last weekend’s Sunday lunch, but I also love Knorr Stock Pots, chicken or veg

Method: 

Heat your stock in a small saucepan.  It doesn’t need to be boiling, but it should be quite hot. Melt the butter in a large pan and gently saute the leeks for 8-10 minutes over a low heat.  When the white bit of the leeks start to turn translucent, tip in your rice and stir for a minute or two, making sure that each grain is coated in butter. Turn the heat up a little bit, throw in the glass of wine (pour another for yourself!) and start stirring.  As the rice absorbs the wine and the pan is almost dry, add a ladle full of hot stock.  Keeping stirring, and each time the pan seems dry again, ladle in some more stock. By the time you’re out of stock, the rice should be al dente. Turn the heat way down, grate in your cheese (don’t be shy but taste as you grate – I think risotto’s cheesiness is a personal thing ), stir in your tarragon and taste again before seasoning with sea salt and adding a few cracks of black pepper. Dinner is done!

Pecan & Bourbon Tart

Espresso Bundt Cake

I didn’t make any brioche  last week, and I definitely didn’t make any croissants, but I still celebrated my birthday week with a lot of cake!  Aside from the Rocky Road cake delivered to me on my birthday eve, I made a pecan pie and an espresso bundt cake as per Sarabeth’s recipes. I’m not sure that I’ll be applying for any pastry chef jobs any time soon, but I did learn a few things…

  1.  Always  taste  your batter/filling before you bake.  You may realize that you’ve forgotten the sugar. (Yes, I caught it in time!)
  2. When blind baking pastry, remember to line the  tin with parchment before pouring in the baking beans.  Otherwise, you will have to pick about a hundred of them out of partially cooked pastry. (This odious task takes about 20 minutes and makes you feel pretty dumb!)
  3. Baking can be an expensive habit, especially if you want to invest in the proper tools – proper tins, mixers, etc.  I managed with my hand mixer, but it was a challenge and involved doing a lot of washing up.  I’ll be buying  this about five minutes after I win the lotto.
  4. The moment when a cake pops effortlessly our of a tin or a tart reveals it’s crispy crust and gooey filling is immensely satisfying; sharing it with friends is even better! Because of this fact, I’ll be participating in The Great Irish Bake over the coming weeks, and would encourage anyone to give it a go.  Have some friends around for a cuppa, impress them with some home baking, and raise money for Temple Street Children’s Hospital.  The website has some great recipes, and I’d be happy to share suggestions as well if you’re interested.

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The Butcher Girl

So, the most exciting foodie news this week for me was the return of MasterChef: The Professionals on BBC2.  (And to think I almost missed it, but for a kindly text from a fellow foodie friend letting me know it was starting!  Note to BBC: next year, more advance publicity!) I think it is the absolute highest form of cooking entertainment  – yes, even better than the original MasterChef and even surpassing Saturday Kitchen (my Saturday morning TV time has largely been handed over to Peppa Pig these days anyway, sniff, sniff!)  I love everything about MasterChef: the Professionals though, from Monica’s horrified expressions to Greg’s ‘orgasmic pudding face’ and Michel Roux Jr.’s avuncular tutelage…I can only imagine that cooking for him and hearing the words,’ Well, it’s not quite right…’ must be the most crushing thing a professional chef can do.  As the nights grow longer, I will be extracting great pleasure from wrapping my hands around a hot mug of tea, steeling into the couch, and firing up the DVR for big helpings of fine dining drama.

In other news, my husband drew my attention to this article in last week’s New York Times.  I love the NYT’s dining section, and highly recommend poking around the website if you’re ever looking for inspiration (I always find particular joy in Mark Bittman’s video podcasts).  This particular article, however, is more about shopping for food than cooking, as it notes the ‘trend’ of shopping at your local butcher’s shop.  It made me think how lucky I am to be living in a city where going to the butcher isn’t seen to be specialty shopping, or a particularly elite activity.  It’s very easy to ignore all of the plastic wrapped meat at the supermarket and head a few doors down to a top class butcher who can give you the names of the farmers he does business with, and, in some cases, the name of the cow! I have a great relationship with three Dublin butchers who keep me very well supplied with pretty much any protein a girl could want, so I thought I’d take a moment to give them credit.

The first is O’Toole’s Butchers in Terenure village.  The first organic butcher in Ireland, this family business is a top class spot. They’ve been supplying me with fabulous Christmas turkeys since 2004 and their garlic chicken en croute is a lovely solution to the quick dinner dilemma.  Second is the butcher counter at Fallon & Byrne, which stocks meat from the happiest pigs in Ireland.  Their pork steak is absolutely perfect  (click here for some great recipe ideas – it makes a brilliant weeknight dinner) and their breakfast sausages are a staple in my house.  In addition, all of the butchers there are great for advice on cooking times and recipe ideas, and there’s a lovely wine cellar right downstairs – the ultimate in one stop shopping!  Now, I’ve saved the best for last – Lawlor’s Butchers in Rathmines is a true foodie paradise.  From the lamb shank to the rib eye steaks to the stuffed pork shoulders, this is THE place to find a Sunday roast.  They also have a fish counter, fresh bread delivered daily, and a loyalty card scheme – all pure genius. I could write about their beautiful lamb marinades, gorgeous free-range Irish chickens, and brilliant T-bones for pages, but really, Dubliners – GET IN THERE and experience it for yourselves.  Non-Dubs, well, you’ll just have to visit – I promise you a Sunday roast that will keep you happy for days.

Now that you’re all craving a juicy steak, I’ll leave you with this happy little clip from the aforementioned Mark Bittman Minimalist series:

videos

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