Facing the storm with slow cooked comfort food…


Storm Eleanor is fast approaching us here in West Cork and we need something for tea that is warming, comforting and easy. Also, importantly this dish will cope well in the event of a power outage. And it is a really slow meal too, so you will build up an appetite as the beef cooks until it melts and just falls off the bone.20180102_172031

I have bought a large piece of shin of beef with the bone in from Walsh’s Butchers in Skibbereen. The butcher appeared from the back of the shop brandishing a whole leg and kindly cut it to size using the electric band saw to dramatic effect. Shin needs to be cooked low and slow – 5 hours is what we are looking at – so plenty of time to spend battening down hatches, checking on the neighbours, or just reading a book in front of the fire. This cut is tough and sinewy when undercooked but given the right treatment is absolutely delicious and much cheaper than other cuts – and lets face it none of us have any money left in January. Shin of beef will easily stretch to two or three meals and the leftovers are great in a sandwich with lots of horseradish sauce or in a puff pastry topped pie with chestnut mushrooms.

And if the power goes off while this is cooking, it will cope perfectly well with being stuck on top of the wood burner or the camping stove to complete. I serve with mashed potatoes, turnips (swede in England) and carrots with lots of butter and white pepper just like my Mum used to make them and some greens on the side (or good old bread and butter if the power goes). So amid the candles and while you are eating with a head torch on this is the food to give you gastronomic shelter from the storm.20180101_104321

Enough for 4 (and some decent leftovers)

  • 1.5 – 2kg Shin of beef in one piece with the bone left in
  • Whole bulb of garlic cut in half
  • I teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper
  • 3 or 4 bay leaves
  • Small bunch of thyme
  • 3 onions or 6 shallots peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4 sticks of celery roughly chopped.
  • 1 large carrot roughly chopped.
  • I pint of good beef stock
  • Half a pint of red wine or one of those huge glasses that they serve in wine bars

You will need a large oven proof casserole that can also go on the hob and a frying pan.

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 140 C.
  2. Rub the joint with the allspice and cumin and season with the salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a tablespoon of oil in the frying pan and get the pan good and hot before browning the meat very well on all sides. Don’t rush this as it will give a great flavour to the final dish.
  4. In the casserole heat the rest of the olive oil and on a medium heat add the chopped vegetables and the herbs and cook until the onions are soft.
  5. When the beef is almost done add the two halves of garlic to the frying pan until they have caramelised well.
  6. Now add the beef and the garlic to the casserole and pour in the red wine. Bring to the boil and let the wine bubble away for a couple of minutes and then add your beef stock.
  7. Put the lid on the casserole and place it in the oven.
  8. Find something to do. A book to read. A DIY job. Tidy the kitchen cupboards. Put the roof back on the shed. This needs to cook for 5 hours and then rest for about an hour, so all that you need to do is sort out the vegetables and either blend the cooking stock (minus the herbs) to make a rich thick gravy, or just serve it as it is spooned over the beef.




Pretty in Pink

I have a vivid memory of rhubarb from my childhood. I am sitting in a young friend’s garden on a summers day aged about eight years old and I am gnawing at large, tough, raw, green stems straight out of the ground and dipped occasionally in a cup of sugar stolen from the kitchen. Not to be recommended. But strangely I have shared this story with others and found this was common childhood practice in the seventies! I just remember my friend James’s face was really contorted – and yet we both carried on eating it. It makes me wonder if we develop that love of a strong sour/sweet combination earlier than we think.

And as well as that wonderful taste, there is the truly shocking pink colour. One of my younger sisters was very keen on eating a bowl of what she called “pink” but she turned her nose up when offered a bowl of rhubarb. We ate “pink crumble”, “pink tart”, and good old plain “stewed pink” with a little cream for quite a while before she cottoned on.

Early season forced Rhubarb provides beautiful colour and a promise of good things to come in the garden and the kitchen. Great rhubarb is easy enough to grow as long as you give in to its greedy nature for both space and for rich, well manured soil. With strange alien leaves and slender, tender stems it’s just beautiful to cook with.

I’m going to do sweet and savoury with this. First as a pairing with slow cooked roast pork with crackling where I team it with sharp apples for a super tart compote. It is perfect served on the side with crispy crackling to dip. And of course it adds great colour to a roast dinner. So, take a couple of stems of rhubarb and a peeled and cored Bramley apple. Roughly chop and place in a small saucepan with two teaspoons of sugar and a two tablespoons of water. Place them on a very low heat until they have stewed down to a soft mush. Taste, and add a very small amount of extra sugar if it really needs it, but for me the whole point of this is the fruity sharpness. Stir in a small knob of butter and its ready to serve.


For a lovely, easy pudding. I roast Rhubarb in honey with the juice of an orange, and serve with ginger cream and polenta cookies for crunch and texture. This is such a pretty plate. But because it can all be prepared in advance, its very simple and easy for entertaining. I love ginger with rhubarb so I add some finely sliced crystallised ginger to the final plate, and this is also a tribute to my Godmother Hannah , who served rhubarb with a shake of powdered ginger on top, which on first surprised inspection I thought was white pepper! I was being dutiful, so I dug in, and ever since have loved to pair the two.

Take three stems of rhubarb, and chop into 5cm lengths, place in a small, ovenproof dish with the freshly squeezed juice of one orange and three tablespoons of runny honey. Cover with foil and bake in a pre-heated at 180 C for about 15 minutes. Take out and leave to cool although to be honest this works equally well served warm.

For the polenta cookies, I take 80g butter, 80g sugar, 50g gluten free flour and 125g polenta. I rub these together in a bowl and then mix in one beaten egg and the rind of an orange. On a baking tray with buttered lining paper, I spoon the mixture in little blobs no bigger than a 2 Euro coin to make really sweet little cookies. They don’t take long to cook – about 7 minutes maximum at 180C. This recipe will make about 20 plus cookies.

The ginger cream is lightly whipped double cream in whatever quantity you like. Add sugar to taste and a glug of ginger wine. Plate them all up just before you serve.

dsc_0150My polenta cookies are based on an old Jamie Oliver recipe which I have used for years as an accompaniment to roast, poached or macerated fruit. The golden biscuits take flavours well and are great with lemon rind replacing the orange to accompany Strawberries or blackberries and delicious with baby figs poached in Marsala wine and cinnamon. I’m making them with gluten free flour but feel free to use standard flour.

20170305_141521.jpgOf course while that Roast pork is slowly cooking and crisping, you have to serve something to whet the appetite. So we are mixing the spare rhubarb, honey and orange syrup from your oven proof dish with a very good slug of Dingle Gin, over ice, topped up with Fevertree tonic and served with a segment of orange and a pretty stick of rhubarb for swizzling. All of which takes me right back to 1971 and that early memory of rhubarb. But I can tell you that this tastes a darned sight better.


Bread, Buttermilk and Roses…


My mum was never a complainer. But as a family matriarch in the large Irish diaspora of Nottingham she really did resent the complete lack of buttermilk in England when we were growing up. The nineteen seventies provided many wondrous things. However, decent bread was not one of them. In the era of tasteless, white, sliced, convenience the monotony was broken only when my mother baked her soda bread for us. And to us, soda bread was not really bread at all, it was a Sunday afternoon treat designed to lure six children to the kitchen with the hungry eyes that only children from large families will recognise when it comes to getting your fair share of food.

This was the bread that was never allowed to cool. And since wholemeal flour did not seem to exist until at least 1981 it was always made with white flour. By a strange process of osmosis it seemed to absorb all the butter in the house as we demolished slice after slice of the still steaming loaf.

But back to the buttermilk. I confess that I did not really know what buttermilk was until I was about 21 years old. Sure, I had an idea because it sounded like a very nice amalgam of two favourite foods – butter and milk – but what had it to do with baking? In the absence of the real thing, Mum used to have her own “soured milk” on the go for a day or so before she baked soda bread. It seemed to involve adding baking soda to milk and leaving it in an old chipped brown and cream china jug on top of the fridge. I remember it did not look or smell pleasant, particularly in warm weather. That this strange, sour milk was the harbinger of wonderful, soda bread only added to the mystery, as Mum swiftly and lightly combined the ingredients in a bowl with floury hands.

Even now in England you can find buttermilk only on the shelves of larger supermarkets, and there is just one variety, which comes in pathetic little pots. So I sort of feel obliged to bake bread with lashings of buttermilk in Ireland. But not in a dutiful way, more as a sort of homage to my departed Mother, Sadie, who inspired me to cook from a very early age and still inspires me today with that ability she had to rustle up a feast for unexpected visitors without batting an eyelid, always to her own recipe and using whatever she happened to have in.

There is precious little to be had from my garden in the sparse months of February and March, bar Rhubarb (which is next week’s blog), so instead I will concentrate on producing the essential fuel for all Irish gardeners. Brown bread, wheaten bread, health bread, Mammy’s brown cake, call it what you will.

I am starting with my own “just throw it together” brown bread. I know the measurements are supposed to be precise with baking, but don’t be too precious about it because this really will cope with a bit of “adjusting”. Start by placing all the wet ingredients in a large mixing bowl – 500ml of buttermilk (in which I dissolve a heaped tablespoon of dark brown sugar) and a tablespoon of olive oil. I use Macroom Extra Coarse Wholemeal for my flour and the dry ingredients are 400g flour, 100g of pinhead oats, (if you can’t get them blitz some porridge oats instead) 50g mixed seeds and a few more for luck, one teaspoon of baking soda and half a teaspoon salt. Then add the dry ingredients to the bowl. Mix well and remember we are not dealing with dough, more of a stiff cake mix. You will have pre-heated your oven to 170 degrees. Take a loaf tin with one of those greaseproof paper inserts things. Scrape the mix into this and bake for fifty minutes, after which you can reduce the heat to 160 for about twenty minutes.  If the loaf is baked through it will sound hollow when you tap it on the bottom. Just stick it back in for five if it’s not quite there. It will come out looking lumpy and bumpy, but the way I see it that all adds to the charm.

While it’s baking I will do an urgent job on the roses in the garden – another homage to my mother. Climbing red roses, rambling white roses, hedgerow roses and pink rose bushes adorn my garden, or will if I can sort out the Black Spot, which just loves the mild, damp climate of West Cork. So, I am being brutal. Cutting away every hint of the dreaded fungus and checking for blighted leaves around the base of the plant. I will burn the diseased leaves and twigs to eradicate all trace. Believe me this will be worth all the bother in summer and will help avoid any temptation to use a fungicide.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, unlike my seven year old self I recommend that this bread is better left to cool down completely before eating. It’s a good “keeper” and will last me and my husband about five days if we are feeling restrained.  It is such great bread for breakfast with home-made jam or honey and it’s of course a soup accompaniment extraordinaire. But it’s as the base for an open sandwich or Irish Smørrebrød that it comes into its own. I cut thin slices and spread thickly with butter first and then top with either rich liver pate and dill flavoured gherkins or Union Hall smoked salmon, with crème fraiche mixed with grated fresh horseradish from my garden.  And a really great topping from the team at Scandi Kitchen is a base of smashed peas loosened with some lemon juice and olive oil with wafer thin slices of fennel and apple topping some lovely Union Hall smoked mackerel. I know it sounds a bit odd but it really works those smokey, salty, sweet, sharp flavours. We serve these with a cold Icelandic White Ale from Einstok or a nice glass of Baltimore’s West Cork Brewing Company stout. And although it is in some ways a world away from Sadie’s soda bread in her exile in Nottingham, the smell of the baking, the wonderful crust and crumb, the extravagant use of butter all takes me back to the delights of a simple home-made loaf now with the unmistakable tang of real Irish buttermilk that my Mum missed so much.

No Apologies for Starting with Soup

My daughter once remarked to me that foods are strongly linked with her most vivid and treasured memories. The taste of a plate of food can transport her instantly to a different place and time. So, as an enthusiastic cook and gardener and the daughter of an Irish “mammy” who has inherited that deep seated need to feed others  the thought of creating a memory or evoking a wonderful time and place through preparing a dish or a meal appeals deeply.

This  blog is combining my love of my West Cork vegetable and fruit garden, my delight in feeding others and my enthusiasm for the abundance of great local produce in this very special corner of Ireland in which I am lucky to have my home.

Every week, I’ll start with the ingredients, wander through the garden, talk about the recipes and the memories, the places and the people that this food evokes in me. Feel free to try the produce and the recipes and share your food memories with me.

Like every meal in the seventies I make no apology for starting with soup. After all it is February. Storm Doris is brewing as I write. And the strong, staunch, survivor vegetables in my garden lend themselves to being slowly cooked to bring out the soft, savoury flavours. Leek and Potato Soup is an obvious choice for a day when the last of my leeks are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves. But the great thing about leeks is that however scabby and horrible they look after being bashed about by Atlantic storms, once you remove the outer leaves, the wonderful smell of fresh leeks hits you. And this soup is so simple and easy. Just three or four leeks sliced, same of peeled potatoes, a pint and a half of chicken or veg stock and a couple of fresh bay leaves if you so desire. That is it. The polar opposite of an Ottolenghi recipe. Soften the leeks in a little olive oil or butter, add the potatoes and stock and boil. Then simmer for about twenty minutes. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves before you blend to a very silky smooth consistency. Season and serve. Irish Brown bread and butter is in my opinion compulsory. Not compulsory but providing a welcome kick of salty, savoury, porky crunch is a crumble of lightly fried Clonakilty Black Pudding on top just before serving. This will serve two or th20180228_142716ree or four depending on whether you like seconds and how big your bowls are. For me this is the winter gardener’s ideal lunch. You have turned the compost heap, cleared the raised beds so they are awaiting your spring gardening plans, you have fed and mulched the fruit bushes, planted your broad beans and collected seaweed from Toe Head to make a rich fertiliser for your seedlings. What could be better than a bowl of steaming soup just thirty minutes from garden to table.

My second recipe is really neither a soup or a stew. It is true peasant food. It can be varied depending on what you have in your garden, fridge and store cupboard. Cheap, filling and nutritious. Piled high with flavour and designed to feed a crowd, it’s a great family evening meal. We call it Currabeg Kale Soup but in all honesty Kale is just one of many ingredients, which  can easily be replaced with whatever leafy greens you have swaying around in your garden. It draws on the Italian Ribolitta and Minestrone but also the French Cassoulet but has been adapted by me for our Townland of Currabeg in the West Cork Parish of Castlehaven.

20180228_142518The best thing about this soup is its adaptability to the ingredients you have access to but also to your choice of seasoning. It can be vegetarian or full on carnivore. I am giving you my version, but that will probably have changed by the next time I cook it. So here goes: you’ve finely chopped a large onion, two sticks of celery and a large carrot. Lightly fry them in oil in a large pan for about ten minutes and by all means add some lardons of Gubbeen bacon if you want to add a smokier, savoury element. At this stage I add one teaspoon of chilli flakes, one heaped teaspoon of fennel seeds, three bay leaves and two crushed cloves of garlic and carry on lightly frying for a couple more minutes. By now the kitchen will smell gorgeous and you will be feeling hungry. Throw in a tin of tomatoes or any old tomatoes that have been lurking in the fridge or on the window sill a little too long. Add a couple of pints of stock, which can be chicken or vegetable. Leave to simmer on a very low heat for about forty five minutes and just give it a stir occasionally. Meanwhile go and pick a large bunch of kale, cavola nero, chard or spinach from the garden. Larger tougher leaves are fine for this. Wash well, because even though pests are not as keen on Kale as the more succulent greens, slugs still use the dark green, thick, blistered leaves as sort of umbrellas to shelter from Atlantic storms in my garden. Roughly chop the leaves into mouth sized pieces (remove any stringy stalks) and proceed to your store cupboard. Grab a tin of beans, not baked beans, but any other beans will do. I have used chickpeas, haricot beans, borlotti beans, cannellini beans and kidney beans to good effect. All work well. Add your beans and your greens and cook for a further ten minutes. Its ready to serve. Big bowls only, please. You can grate parmesan over the top, and serve with crusty white or brown bread. And you can very easily make this into a more substantial meal by adding sausages which have been browned all over at the time that you add the tomatoes and stock. We have done this with garlic and herb sausages, merguez sausages, small cooking chorizos and Italian style sausages made at Walsh’s Butchers in Skibbereen with equally good results. When it has morphed into a sausage stew we serve it with mashed potatoes. H

When I think about this soup, wherever I may be I am immediately transported to my garden in West Cork. And this is a soup that should never be eaten alone. It is a sharing and caring dish. So it places me very firmly at my kitchen table with friends and family after a day of hard work in the garden, an afternoon kayaking at Reen Pier or a walk at Rineen Woods at sunset. I love the simplicity of this ever changing and generous one pot meal with a glass of wine – nothing too fancy though, this is peasant food at its most glorious. So tonight, batten down the hatches, make soup and prepare for the imminent arrival of Doris.