Mussels with Tomato, Fennel and Feta

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Weekend trips to Holland are not the best for my waistline. Holiday food traditions have sprung up over the years, and are difficult to escape. A kaasbroodje, liquid cheese wrapped in puff pastry, as a late breakfast on the train out of Schiphol. Bitterballen, balls of shredded meat wrapped in bechamel and deep fried dipped in mustard, as a reward after long cycles across the coastal dunes. Freshly made Turkse pizza, or lahmacun, from the elderly Tunisian/Greek man on the main street who takes more pride and satisfaction in his culinary skills than a Michelin chef. Fresh bread from the market with chunks of hard goats cheese, devoured on the banks of the canal because the ducks there have developed not only the size, but the tenacity of feral cats and will snatch food straight from your hands.

One of the only healthy traditions which has sprung up is cooking a large pot of mussels, a staple at Dutch supermarkets, at some point in the weekend. Mussels are full of vitamins and acids which are said to help brain function and reduce inflammatory conditions. While this may not be the most photogenic dish, it is a very tasty one, especially combined with a dollop of aioli and fresh bread to mop up the sauce. The recipe is adapted from the ever reliable Morito cookbook. The recipe allows for some mussels to be thrown out, because it’s never a good idea to take a chance on shellfish.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter/tapa

Ingredients

  • 1 sliced bunch of spring onions, green and white parts
  • 1 thinly sliced bulb of fennel
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 5 finely chopped cloves of garlic
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon chilli flakes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar or honey
  • 50ml white wine
  • 1 kilo mussels
  • 150g feta, crumbled
  • 1 handful of chopped fresh tarragon
  • Olive oil

Method

  • Sort through the mussels and find every mussel that is open, even slightly.
  • Tap each opened mussel sharply on the side of a counter top or sink.
  • If it closes, keep it.
  • If it stays open, throw it away.
  • If you’re not sure, throw it away.
  • Rinse all the now fully closed mussels thoroughly with water.
  • Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat and cook the fennel and fennel seeds slowly for five minutes.
  • Add the chopped spring onion and cook for another five minutes.
  • Add the garlic and chilli flakes and cook for a minute or two more.
  • Add in the tomato, sugar/honey bay leaves and white wine and bring to the boil, then reduce to the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
  • Bring the mixture back to the boil and add the cleaned mussels to the pot.
  • Put on a lid, and cook until the mussels are opened (about 3-4 minutes).
  • If there are any closed mussels when the majority have opened, discard them.
  • Stir in the tarragon and feta, and stir immediately.

 

 

 

Heron and Grey, Dublin

imageHaving a view of a fortune tellers stall from your seat is not usually an auspicious start to an evening of fine dining. However, despite a visit from Michelin within a few months of opening, Heron and Grey is definitely not your average fine dining establishment. Following in the footsteps of Canteen and Fish Shop,they are located in Canteen’s old spot in Blackrock Market in deepest, darkest South Dublin . They serve a five course (really nine courses) explicitly seasonal set dinner menu for 48 euro a head, with a shorter two or three course lunch menu. What is particularly unusual is that they have managed to do this without, on the evening I visit, any meat, and with only one fish course. While this is business as usual for me, for my parents and brother, it’s a bit of a change. This innovative (for Irish palates) approach could be because head chef Damien Grey hails from Australia. Front of house is provided by Andrew Heron (hence the name), who does a great line in friendly banter combined with an encyclopaedic wine knowledge.

imageI had looked at the menu in advance, which follows the ever popular list three ingredients with no description format, and honestly, there was not a single thing on it which I would have picked out myself given the opportunity. So it was doubly impressive that this was one of the best meals I have had in years. One of the great things about Heron and Grey is the size. The kitchen was literally five feet from our table, so any query we had about the meal or how a dish was prepared was happily answered by the chefs as we worked our way through the meal. We started off with freshly cooked bread and whipped pine needle butter. I’m not sure pine needles and butter needed to be introduced, but it was certainly an interesting flavour. We then moved on to the first dish, burnt goats cheese with tempura courgette flower,  lemon gel, chipotle mayonnaise, and a black garlic puree. The overall effect was rich, but cut through with the lemon gel for balance. Impressively, the chipotle did not dominate the more subtle flavours of the goats cheese and courgette flower. It was my parents first introduction to chipotle, having been immune to the burrito wars of the past few years in Dublin, and it’s safe to say they were converts. Our next course was a tasty cauliflower cheese dish in a glass bowl, with pickled shallot, and blow torched on top to finish. This was the only one of the four cheese involving courses which my cheese fearing brother couldn’t manage, and we battled for his portion. image

Next up was a dish of black Russian tomatoes with salted cherries, wasabi creme fraiche, wasabi snow and a tomato consomme gel. Gels and snow feature heavily here. Following this was a delicate plate with fennel cured diced corvina with fish roe, yuzu curd, crisped skin and a squid ink rice cracker which was a particular favourite, even for a fish sceptic like myself. I had no idea Ireland even had corvina, a fish more typically found in Pacific waters, nor had I ever seen it on a menu here, but apparently it was freshly caught off the south coast. The strong marine flavours from the squid ink, roe and corvina were balanced perfectly with the creamy yuzu curd to make a light but satisfying dish. This was followed (I know, it really was 9 courses) with a palate cleansing puree of pear and liquorice with a chardonnay vinegar reduction to add a little bite. Our next course was a comforting portion of aged rice risotto with olive oil and parmesan, and a garnish of pickled enoki mushrooms and crisped quinoa, grains and fennel seeds. We were then provided with a cheese course consisting of a dab of soft Crozier Blue cheese on a homemade lavash bread with red currant.image

We switched from our Albarino and Syrah at this point to the impressive dessert wine list complete with Muscat, Sauternes, a red dessert wine, tawny port and Pedro Ximenez. Even with so many courses, and varying appetites in the group, we left comfortably full, which is an impressive achievement that many tasting menus cannot claim.  Our final two courses were a coconut creme with pineapple marinaded with rum and spices with a coconut snow, and a final secret dessert of chocolate mousse, praline crisp and a chocolate which we were told they had made once for a particular diner, and had been so popular they decided to serve every night. This sums up the whole experience really. Heron and Grey is a warm, generous kind of a place, without a hint of pretension despite all the gels, snows and Michelin worthy cooking.

Heron and Grey 

Blackrock Market, 19a Main Street, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

Ph: 01 212 3676/ 087 608 3140

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A Brief Guide to Alsace, France

IMG_0632Alsace is an odd region. Tossed between France and Germany for a few hundred years, it’s a little bit of both and neither. It’s mainly known for its wine, choucroute, and as the spiritual home of the great Parisian brasseries, established by Alsatian refugees in the Nineteenth Century. Despite its traumatic history, the region has a chain of dozens of perfectly preserved medieval villages and towns, stretched at intervals of a few kilometres along the 180km Route Des Vins between Strasbourg and Colmar. We used Colmar as our base for exploring the biggest cluster of villages which ring around the city over three days. Alsace can be more than a little bit twee at times, but when you are walking around the empty streets of a perfectly preserved medieval village like Bergheim or sitting in a vineyard watching storks swoop among the vines, it feels like stepping back into another age. It’s also a dream come true for anyone who is really interested in wine.

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I have to say that Alsace was not the culinary destination I had hoped for.I have read a lot about the amazing Alsatian food culture but didn’t see much evidence of it. In Colmar, we struggled to find a restaurant that served anything other than overpriced choucroute and tarte flambé. There is only so much sauerkraut a person can take, and I had expected a mix of traditional and more innovative spots, but didn’t find them. A lot of our meals ended up being in our apartment and comprised of local Munster cheese, terrines and rilletes bought from local shops together with baguettes. This is pretty much my dream meal, and handy for the budget, but not what serious foodies might be looking for on holidays.

IMG_0659Colmar is not your typical city break kind of city, it is quiet with no cafe/bar culture of note. Despite both France and Germany being known for this, it seems to have bypassed Alsace. Except for a few dodgy looking clubs and Irish pubs, Colmar is deserted after dinnertime. There is a strange reluctance about local wine. Restaurants rarely tell you anything more about the wine they serve than the grape variety, and we found one wine bar in the whole city.

This is maybe because Alsace seems to have a very casual relationship to wine. In all my travelling in France, Italy and Spain, I have never seen a place where wine is so much a part of the fabric of the region. Everyone makes it. Really, truly everyone. We passed through villages where every second house was selling its own bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. All of the land, from small gardens, to the hillsides and fields between villages, is covered in vines. Any notion you have of wine tasting as an elite activity will be put to rest pretty quickly when you taste a glass of cremant given to you by a man in mud covered wellies, which you enjoy with a view of his tractor. Wine making is very traditional here, with most winemakers being the same family operation that has been around for hundreds of years, and outsiders frowned upon. With all that in mind, here are a few of the things we picked up from our trip:

Food:

Restaurant Edel, Eguisheim

This was the meal of the trip. Foie gras tarte flambé. It was everything I never knew I wanted. The restaurant is attached to a butchers shop on one of the main squares in Eguisheim with a view of a church spire with nesting storks who periodically swoop over the square. There is a large terrace to sit and enjoy the food with a glass of local wine. Tarte flambé is an Alsatian pizza dish made with creme fraiche, onions and lardons of bacon that is served absolutely everywhere. Here it was served with chunks of pan fried foie gras, many many many pieces of foie gras, far more than should be possible for the price of 14 euros. It should have been too much, and for lesser mortals, it might be. But for me, it was perfection. Himself had an equally excellent pie of duck confit, foie gras and cepes (also 14 euros) which could also be bought to bring home from the butcher shop. We genuinely contemplated cycling out across the fields from Colmar to Eguisheim again that night to go again, before discovering it only opens during the day, and was closed the following two days.

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Wine Bar Un des Sens, Colmar

This was the one wine bar we found in Colmar, located up a dark windy cobbled road that was completely deserted. They have lots of Alsatian wines by the glass and bottle, and a selection of small plates for around 10 euro to go alongside. You have to order something small to eat to order wine, it seems to be a licensing requirement. We ordered a charcuterie plate and a vegetarian plate, and two glasses of white wine from Eguisheim. It’s a cosy, friendly kind of place to while away an evening and try some great local wines.

Le Comptoir de Georges

Another restaurant attached to a butchers shop, we almost didn’t go in due to the deeply tacky decor, as exemplified by the white glitter stag who presided over our meal from a window ledge. They serve a reasonably priced selection of local specialties with a few bistro classics thrown in to the mix. While my rabbit leg with mustard was fairly average, the steak tartare with frites that himself ordered was perfect. It was served as a generous helping of freshly chopped, grassy beef topped with an egg yolk, and surrounded by baby gem leaves filled with chopped cornichons, capers and shallots, so you could mix it up exactly how you wanted. There is a canal side terrace that was too cold when we visited, but would be perfect in summer if you want to escape the watchful gaze of the nine plaster of paris wild boar who adorn the main dining room.

Wine Tasting

Almost every village we went to had dozens of winemakers offering wine tasting. This can be literally in a shed next to someones house, or a proper bar. Usually you wander in to an empty room and wait for someone to realise you are there. With one notable exception in Eguisheim, you won’t be charged for tasting 2-3 types of wine, but etiquette dictates that you should buy a bottle at the end. The average price for a bottle of Riesling or Pinot Blanc is usually about 7 euro, with late harvest (Vendange Tardive) Riesling and Gewurtztraminer going up to the mid twenties and beyond. Edelzwicker, a random blend of leftover grapes usually used by Alsatians for cooking with, is best avoided.

The best wine tasting experience we had was at Achille Thirion, in the cave on the edge of Orschwiller (they also have a shop in the centre of Saint Hippolyte). We spent almost an hour there being guided through the entirety of their wine list by a lovely sommelier from Quebec, who gave us an amazing overview of how wine-making in Alsace works, the subtle differences between the grapes at different elevations and the harvests. We ended up leaving with about ten bottles to bring home with us. Another lovely one to visit is Bruno Sorg, a slightly pricier (although still very reasonable) cave in a sixteenth century courtyard in Equisheim, that had a wonderful Gewurtztraminer. Domaine Hueber et Fils, on the Rue de Colmar between Beblenheim and Riquewihr, offered some lovely pinot noir, to the soundtrack of some truly awful house music and a snoring Alsatian dog.

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Villages to visit

The villages are usually only two or three kilometres apart, and it can be  difficult to distinguish between them. Our favourites from the trip were largely the predictable tourist ones like Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr. If you are in high season I imagine they are swarmed with other visitors, so quieter villages could be worth exploring. Bergheim is a  medieval walled town near Ribeauville with some interesting looking restaurants (they were all closed when we visited), and a ring of kitchen gardens below the walls. Mittelbergheim seemed more like a hilltop village in Provence, with a long street of peaches and cream coloured house. It also appeared to have the highest concentration of wine producers of any village. Barr had a lovely feel of faded grandeur, although it was a complete ghost town when we visited on a Saturday afternoon, with a single bakery providing the only sign of life while its restaurants and shops remained closed.

Cycling

The Route Des Vins has an accompanying cycle path with good signposting, that goes along smaller roads and lanes off the main route. Most of the villages are mainly at the  base of the foothills, so the cycle routes are quite easy for beginners to manage, with very gentle slopes and a lot of flat stretches. Cycling also means you can actually drink some of the wine you are tasting, without resorting to the inelegant spit bucket discretely placed on the side of the bar. Eguisheim is a completely flat 7km cycle from Colmar, but we also made it as far as Riquewihr, which was a little more challenging at 25 km with a steep final ascent. We rented city bikes from Velodocteurs at Colmar train station for €8 per day.

Things to avoid

Visiting between October-April – We went in March and it very much felt off season. We went through entire towns where every restaurant, cafe and shop was closed, on a Saturday afternoon. While it was evocative to walk through deserted villages, it was also annoying if you wanted to actually see and do anything in particular. The tourist towns like Kayserberg and Ribeauville were still busy but a lot of smaller villages were just completely closed down.While I think it probably gets very busy in summer, there would definitely be more to see and do in April/May or September/October than off season.

Sundays and Mondays – Everything but the most touristy of tourist shops shuts. Restaurants, shops, supermarkets, museums, towns. Everything. The only exception to this is specially designated tourist towns like Eguisheim and Ribeauville.

Obernai – I do not understand how this town is listed in all the guides, it was charmless and filled with tacky souvenir shops, with none of the beauty of places like Riquewihr or Eguisheim.

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Smoky Sweet Potato Fries with Feta, Burnt Lemon and Wild Garlic Dip

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This recipe is inspired by two Dublin sister restaurants, JoBurger and Crackbird. JoBurger was the first place I ever tried sweet potato fries, and I’m pretty sure the first place that sold them in Dublin, back in the dark days at the end of the Celtic Tiger. It was a pioneer of the casual gourmet fast food scene. It was and is a place where the menu told you they had put a lot of care and attention into it, but it was served in a setting where the music, decor and nonchalant staff feel more at home in a club. A lot of places offer this now, but JoBurger to me remains the best for a very simple reason: they know their food (with a hat-tip to Bunsen, another Dublin burger place that keeps their food game on point).Dublin is rife with gourmet fast food places passing off frozen oven chips, supermarket burger buns and pulled pork slathered in hot sauce to disguise the lack of flavour who looked at the business model, but forgot to factor in the food knowledge. 

This recipe recreates the sweet potato fries from JoBurger with the whipped feta dip from Crackbird. The sweet potato fries are a little different, coated in polenta to keep the outside crispy, and smoked paprika and chilli to add a bit of heat. Feel free to add more paprika, I use even more than this when I’m making these for myself, but not everyone is as mad for it as I am.  If you can’t find wild garlic, you can substitute with a finely chopped clove of garlic.

Serves 4 as a generous side

Ingredients:

  • 2 x large sweet potatoes (about 1.5kg in weight)
  • 4 tablespoons polenta
  • 3-4 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
  • 1-2 teaspoons of chilli flakes (optional, I use mild pul biber flakes)
  • Neutral oil e.g. sunflower or rapeseed
  • 200g feta
  • 2-3 tablespoons Greek yoghurt
  • 1/2 large lemon
  • Small bunch wild garlic (15-20 leaves)
  • A handful of spinach leaves
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 190C.
  • Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into finger sized wedges.
  • Mix the polenta and paprika together with a decent amount of salt and pepper.
  • Toss the sweet potato fries in a large bowl with 1-2 tablespoons of neutral oil, then add in the polenta mix and toss well to coat the fries.
  • Lay them out on foil lined baking trays so that none of the sweet potato fries touch each other (you will need to do this in batches) and roast in the oven at 190C for about 20 minutes until the fries are crispy and browned on the outside, and soft in the middle, carefully turning them halfway through so they crisp evenly.
  • Meanwhile, burn the lemon half on a hot pan until blackened and completely soft on the cut side (you can also skip this step and use the lemon juice straight up).
  • Crumble the feta into a bowl with the yoghurt, wild garlic and spinach and blend with a stick blender until smooth.
  • Add the juice of the burnt lemon, and the honey to taste (I like things very citrusy, so I usually scape all the lemon flesh in, add it slowly until you get the taste you like).
  • Serve with the warm sweet potato fries.

Locks, Dublin

imageI’m a creature of habits when it comes to eating in Dublin. While I will happily try new places, there’s still a small list of restaurants I come back to time and time again. If I want a casual catch-up with a friend, it’s probably going to be Fish Shop, or the wine cellar in Fallon & Byrne. For a bit more of an occasion, it will be Etto, The Greenhouse or Forest Avenue. For cheap and cheerful, M&L Szechuan or Bunsen. I think I will now be adding Locks to this select list. I have been twice since the start of the year, and am already trying to figure out when my next visit will be.

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Locks strikes a great balance between serving the kind of cheffy food you couldn’t make yourself at home while having an informal, friendly atmosphere. You can tell it’s a restaurant run by enthusiastic chefs who know the business, namely Keelan Higgs (formerly of The Greenhouse and Chapter One), and Connor O’Dowd (formerly of Chapter One and Dax) together with Paul McNamara (Head Chef at Etto). All of the staff manage to be both genuinely friendly while also being incredibly efficient and they know the menu inside out. It’s a cosy place to spend an afternoon, with great people/swan watching from the canal outside. While I like the spare industrial look a lot of Dublin restaurants have these days, there is a lot to be said for a restaurant with comfy chairs and tables big enough to actually fit the food you order. I really enjoyed the music as well, with a playlist including Bob Dylan, John Martyn and Tom Waits. I’m glad to find a restaurant putting some thought into what kind of atmosphere they want to create through music, instead of lobbing on some miscellaneous mid-90s ambient dance and calling it a day.

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My most recent visit was for a lazy Saturday lunch with my parents to celebrate various things.We started off with three slices of freshly baked seeded rye-style bread presented with a homemade smoked trout butter while we waited for our starters.There was a special starter of beetroot, fennel, lardo and smoked yoghurt that day which came highly recommended it. I disregarded it, completely jaded as most people are at this point by the trope of beetroot starters that most Dublin restaurants offer. That was a mistake. While everything we had was fantastic, this was the standout dish. Chunks of roasted beetroot and mandolin thin slices were draped with cellophane thin sheets of lardo, and matched with large blobs of smoked yoghurt. The yoghurt was rich and creamy and tangy from the smoke, without the slight bitterness that yoghurt often has. I’d tried the excellent crispy pigs head starter on my last visit, so I opted for the salmon tartare with avocado and horseradish together with a glass of prosecco, because I am a South Dublin cliche. While it hit all the right notes, balancing richness with fresh flavours, the beetroot provoked the most serious food envy.

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For my main course, I went for hake with cauliflower, spiced mussels and caper brown butter, with a generous sampling of  my mum’s pick of guinea fowl with parsnip, pickled chanterelle and endive. The fish was melting and tasted like it had been plucked straight from the sea a few minutes before, with just the right amount of brown butter to compliment it without drowning out the delicate flavour. I had a crisp glass of Portuguese Arinto wine to go along with it. We ordered a portion of chips, and purple sprouting broccoli with lardo to round things out. The chips were among the best I’ve ever and despite all being quite full, resulted in the awkward “no, you have the last one” stand-off that is typical of Irish dining experiences. I  finished off with a glass of oloroso sherry and  a rhubarb and custard dessert which was pleasant, in a comforting nursery food way, if not earth shattering. My mum opted for a hefty cheese plate containing large wedges of Knockdrinna and Coolatin with home-made crackers which she kindly shared.

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The prices here for the set lunch and early bird menus are incredibly reasonable. €28 for three courses of this calibre of food at lunch is outrageously good value. Our entire bill, with plenty of wine, extras and coffee, came to €175 for three people. The wine list is extensive, with lots of glasses on offer from €6.50 and bottles starting from €27. As well as that, they offer sherry and some Irish craft beers.  They also serve a decent children’s menu, which is a great idea in a neighbourhood like this. While it’s only March, I think it’s going to be a challenge to find a better meal than this in 2016.
Locks, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, (01) 416 3655

Cassoulet

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Cassoulet is the anti-Valentine’s day dish. It takes all the stereotypes about French food being refined, romantic and poised, and turns them on their head. It’s a pretty vulgar dish really.  As many different bits of meat as you can find, bound together with beans and duck fat. So much duck fat. Horrifying amounts. By the time you finish making this dish, the very air in your kitchen will be greasy. This is not a dish you cook for a romantic date. A reasonable person will take one look at your red, shiny, duck fat laced face peering into a pot of bubbling meat, and run the other way. Cassoulet is the gastronomic method of letting yourself go. 

It is also a meal you make when you have too much time on your hands.It really does take the guts of an afternoon to make. This is not the best dish to impress with because despite being very tasty to the casual observer, it looks straightforward. If that is what you want, try this Chorizo Stew. I prepared a few days in advance by making the chicken stock from the remains of Roast Chicken with Leeks and Dill or you could just buy some good quality stuff (not the cubes, not for this). This serves four people pretty comfortably, especially with bread for mopping up after, and a green salad.

Ingredients

  • 350g haricot or cannelini beans, soaked in cold water overnight
  • 750ml chicken stock
  • 1 onion, peeled
  • 1 head of garlic, unpeeled, plus 4 cloves
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250g chunk of solid pork fat, or one small unsmoked ham hock
  • 2 confit duck legs and their fat (about 6 tablespoons)
  • 250g pork belly
  • 4 garlicky sausages like Toulouse or Kielbasa, whatever you can find really
  • 1 tbsp sun-dried tomato past
  • 120g breadcrumbs

Method

  • Drain the beans well and put them in a large, ovenproof casserole.
  • Pour in the chicken stock until it comes about 3cm above the top of the beans, then add the onion, whole head of garlic, herbs and bacon fat or ham hock.
  • Bring it all to a boil, then cover and simmer for about an hour and a quarter, until the beans are tender but not mushy.
  • Fry the duck, pork belly and sausages separately in plenty of duck fat until crisp and golden.
  • Once they have cooled, chop the sausages into large chunks and pull the meat from the duck legs in as large pieces as you can manage.
  • Remove the onion and herbs from the beans and discard.
  • Pick out the pork fat and discard.
  • Squeeze the garlic cloves from their skins and mash to a paste with four tablespoons of duck fat and the fresh garlic cloves.
  • Stir in the sun-dried tomato paste. Preheat the oven to 160C.
  • Drain the beans, reserving the liquid.
  • Pour the beans, and meat into the casserole dish, together with the sundried tomato and garlic paste.
  • Top it up with the stock from the beans until just covered.
  • Fry the breadcrumbs in one tablespoon of duck fat, and top the cassoulet with a layer of them.
  • Bake for about 1 and a half hours, until you have a thick golden crust, with bits of liquid bubbling through.

Chickpeas and Kale

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I know, a recipe called chickpeas and kale is the kind of thing you will only click on in the depths of January guilt. It sounds bland, and unnecessarily wholesome. But bear with me. I had seen the recipe for chickpeas and spinach in the Moro cookbook dozens of times while leafing through it. And I had ignored it. Every single time. It sounded boring, it didn’t involve cheese or tahini and I worked off the logic that there were so many amazing recipes in there, there also had to be some duds. I was wrong. Every recipe Sam and Sam Clarke turn out is consistently wonderful, and often deceptively simple. When this recipe appeared on Food52’s Genius Recipes column, and again on Smitten Kitchen, my interest was finally piqued.

I’m trying to get back into the swing of cooking quick and easy work meals after a long Christmas break, and this recipe fit the bill. I adapted it extensively from the original, using a different spice combination, white wine vinegar instead of red, kale instead of spinach and added some tomato sauce (inspired by Smitten Kitchen). It’s easy, wholesome and inexpensive to make, which is perfect for January cooking. You can prepare the bread paste in the advance and keep it in the fridge, so the whole thing can be assembled in about ten minutes. When I first cooked this it was at the end of a twelve hour working day which had been followed by a cheeky pint. Every route to my house from work involves passing at least one chipper so I felt like I should get a medal for cooking this at 9:30pm.

I can’t properly articulate why this recipe is so good, because I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s some magical alchemy involved in the combination of the sharp vinegar, rich breadcrumbs, earthy chickpeas, mineral kale and the, well, garlicky garlic. This is a recipe I can see myself making again and again.

Makes two generous main course portions.

Ingredients

  • 75g slice of bread, torn into small cubes
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon mild chili flakes, like aleppo chili.
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
  • 200g kale washed, with the spines removed and leaves torn into small pieces
  • 2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
  • 2 tablespoons ,of any basic tomato sauce, passata, or 2 teaspoons tomato puree mixed with two tablespoons of water
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Olive oil

Method

  • Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
  • Add the bread cubes and fry until golden, turning frequently.
  • Add the garlic Herbes de Provence and spices and cook for one minute more, stirring frequently.
  • Remove from the heat, and blend in a pestle and mortar, or with a stick blender together with one tablespoon vinegar to form a paste.
  • Wilt the kale in batches in a hot frying pan with a little bit of water  to prevent burning and a sprinkling of salt, then leave aside.
  • Add the bread paste to a frying pan together with the chickpeas and tomato sauce and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat to combine well.
  • Add the wilted kale and cook for a few minutes until heated through and well combined.
  • Top with smoked paprika and serve warm.

Tuscany Part Two: Chianti and San Gimignano

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Travelling Around Tuscany

One of the many reasons I picked Tuscany for a week long visit, was how easy it was to get around by public transport, at least from the major cities. We managed a week long round trip involving Florence, several Chianti towns, Certaldo, Siena and Lucca, all through buses and trains, and ended up spending around 60 euro on transport the whole week.

On our third day in Florence, following a tip from the Guardian we took a bus from central station for a few euro, and an hour later found ourselves in Panzano, in the heart of the Chianti countryside. The route took us through the most postcard perfect Tuscan landscape (after about 20 minutes going through some dreary Florentine suburbs) and brought us back through Greve, the epicenter of the Tuscan wine and food scene. It was the perfect day trip to allow us to actually get to try some of the wine, and not have to worry about spitting it out, or windy country roads.

Getting from town to town once outside the cities was tougher, and to get from our second base of Certaldo to San Gimignano by public transport would have taken over an hour and a half, involving two connections, despite being only 12km. So instead, we cycled. It was entirely uphill on the way out, and there were tears (mine), blood (mine) and a monstrous amount of sweat (both of us) involved, but now that I can blank out that bit, and the memory of shrieking every time I saw a dead snake on the road, it was one of the highlights of the trip.

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Panzano

Panzano is the tiniest of tiny villages, which can be entirely circumnavigated in about five minutes, which makes the amount of people at Dario Cecchini’s trio of restaurants, the target of our visit, even more impressive. Cecchini is a celebrity butcher (yes, there is such a thing) and a graduate from the Michael O’Leary school of PR. In the BSE crisis in 2001 he held a funeral for the Bistecca di Fiorentina, the region’s signature dish, and his butcher shop still displays its tombstone on the outer wall. He was holding court in the butchers shop when we arrived, to a soundtrack of 80s hair metal, with his staff handing out glasses of red wine and crostini topped with flavoured pork fat.

We made our way upstairs to his packed budget endeavour, Mac Dario (one of three meat themed restaurants he has on site). Getting a burger in Tuscany seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s raved about all over food websites and blogs so that was what we went for. The region around Florence prides itself on its beef, though it’s maybe harder to impress an Irish person on that front than most. €10 buys you sage roasted potatoes, a rosemary breadcrumb coated burger, and homemade mustard and ketchup, all of which were lovely, if not perhaps quite living up to the hype. There was a €20 set menu that looked more interesting, but way beyond our appetite. The budget restaurant is based exclusively outside on a terrace, with a slightly less than scenic view over a car park before the hills appeared in the distance. After ordering and devouring our food, we noticed plenty of more savvy customers ordering bits and pieces from the €20 menu, like plates of steak tartar, and Tuscany tuna (a raw pork dish). If I were to go back, this is definitely what I would do, or go to one of the more upscale restaurants on the site. At the end of the day, a burger is a burger, and Tuscany has a lot more to offer than that.

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Greve

Greve is the base camp for exploring Chianti, a small surprisingly modern town filled with wine shops, centered around the lovely and more authentic looking Piazza Matteoti. After a lap of the town we settled on Antica Macelleria Falorni, which claims to be the oldest butcher shop in Italy, and which is still run by its founding family. This was not the old fashioned wood-panelled butchers that you imagine every Tuscan village has, but rather a modern, well-oiled and very clearly tourist aimed machine. Set over three shop fronts in the square it featured a butchers shop, restaurant, cheese room, and wine tasting machines. To buy food you ordered from the counter and waited with a ticket for your meal, to buy wine you bought credit on a card, which could then be used to fill a glass from the different machines that allow you to try tastes, half or full glasses of local wines. There was an extensive butchers shop with lots of different cuts and pieces of cured meat, vacuum packed and ready to go in your suitcase. We ordered a plate of different local pecorino cheeses, and set about tasting the different wines. This was not what I pictured when I ventured into the countryside, and I’m sure the naked commercialism and tourist driven outlook of the place might put a few people off, but for me it was a lovely place to spend an afternoon sampling wine and local specialties.

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San Gimignano

San Gimignano is the most touristy of the touristy Tuscan hill towns, with crowd pullers such as not one, but two medieval torture museums. That being said, even on a sunny Saturday, after that vicious uphill cycle, it was impressive. It’s not a town for eating on a budget, and every restaurant was pretty crowded, so we wandered around before settling on a pretty average cheese and boar prosciutto sandwich from one of the many delis with a stuffed wild boar outside. A word to the wise, most bread in Tuscany is pretty bad, at least the standard bread that gets left on your table, or used to make most sandwiches. It is dry, sliced country loaf style bread, entirely devoid of salt and much flavour. Cordelia would never have said “I love you as much as meat loves salt” if she had tried this monstrous bread. To make up for this, for dessert, we managed to avoid the massive queue for Dondoli gelato on the Piazza Cisterna, the world champion gelateria for several recent years. There are a wealth of flavours on offer, and te staff move so quickly you don’t get to read them all before deciding, so we ended wildly gesturing at three different types to try. The guy in front of us ordered just vanilla gelato, and I am still disappointed in him two months on. We tried a combination of orange, mascarpone, amaretti biscuits and something else called Michele, and a mixture of marsella wine and nuts (I think, it’s been a while). While I have to go on record as saying it was not as good as Talento Gelato in Arbour Hill, it did make me understand the obsessive love of gelato that tourists in Italy espouse on their return.

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Crispy Spiced Chickpeas

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After many years as an atheist, I recently found myself at mass. Afterwards, I was struck by how automatically the responses and prayers came back to me and my similarly lapsed family after years of neglect, buried somewhere in a part of my brain that could be dedicated to more practical things. We have so many of these automatic responses in our head. If you ask any Irish person of my generation, they will be able to reel off, word for word, the instructions given to us in our end of school aural Irish exams. And if you tell someone that you don’t eat breakfast, they will automatically tell you that it is the most important meal of the day. I know this, because I have heard that phrase more times than I can count.

I have never warmed to breakfast. I don’t like eggs or milk or any of those healthy sensible things that people start their day with. No matter how many berries, spoonfuls of honey and sprinkles of cinnamon you put on porridge, it is still just dressed up cardboard paste to me. What I do like are breakfasts that are indistinguishable from lunch or dinner. After the amazing fatteh I had in Berlin, I started thinking about how I could adapt a meal like that into a healthy, portable work breakfast, and came up with the idea of oven roasted chickpeas.These chickpeas gave the crunch I liked in the fried bread from fatter but not the fatty heaviness. Topped with some greek yoghurt mixed with tahini, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some torn up mint leaves, they make a simple breakfast. 

The trick is to get the plumpest chickpeas you can find, the ones that have been slightly overcooked so they are starting to split. Chickpeas from a jar are good for this, also the cheaper supermarket brands like Lidl. The plumper the chickpeas, the crispier the outside coating becomes, I can’t explain why. I like to make a big batch, which can be stored in an airtight container in a fridge for 5 days or so. This makes four breakfast servings, or you could mix them with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, fresh mint, dill and yoghurt dressing to make Morito’s famous crispy chickpea salad.

Ingredients

  • 2 x 400g tins of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon each any combination of: smoked paprika, turmeric, ground cumin, mixed spice, garam masala (about four teaspoons of spice in total)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

  • Toss the chickpeas in oil, then the spices, salt and ground pepper.
  • Roast in the oven at 200C for 30-40 minutes until crisped and browned.
  • Keep for up to five days in an airtight container in the fridge.

 

Saag Aloo (Potato and Spinach Curry)

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There are a lot of things that I cook regularly, that do not make it onto the blog. These are the everyday, usually unphotogenic dishes that make up my weekly diet. It’s hard, in the incredibly styled world of food blogging, to resist the urge for every recipe to be a manicured showstopper, photographed in the natural light that I rarely see at this time of year. But that obviously isn’t an accurate depiction of how I eat. While I dream of being the kind of person who whips up duck confit, beetroot meringues and the like on a daily basis, that just isn’t a realistic possibility when you work a more than full time job. Most meals I cook are based on whatever vegetables were left on the special offer shelves at Lidl at 9pm as I walked home from work or the gym. On days like that, to steal a phrase from Dylan Moran, you’re just thinking how adventurous it would be to eat a meal with two colours.  This is a recipe for that kind of day. It’s easy, with a lot of ingredients from the store cupboard, it’s cheap, it’s filling and it’s quite wholesome. I like to make a big batch of this alongside a big batch of Chickpea and Lentil Salad or some stewed peppers to have in the fridge over a couple of days as a quick and healthy dinner. You can roast the potatoes in advance, and then make the sauce in about 10 minutes. Usually the potatoes for saag aloo are fried, but that takes a lot more active time, and a lot more fiddling around. This serves four as a side dish.

Ingredients

  • 750g baby potatoes
  • 1 red onion
  • 250g fresh spinach
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped ginger
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • Neutral oil

Method

  • Cut the potatoes into bite sized chunks.
  • Toss in neutral oil, 1 teaspoon turmeric and salt and pepper.
  • Roast in the oven at 200c until golden and crispy, approx 40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, make the sauce by slicing the onion and sautéing in a few teaspoons of neutral oil over a medium heat until softened, around 8-10 minute.
  • Add the spices, garlic and ginger and cook carefully (it might spit a big at first).
  • Stir frequently to avoid the garlic burning.
  • After 2-3 minutes add the spinach, and let wilt.
  • Add the tomato paste and 100mls water and mix well with the spinach and spices to form a sauce.
  • Cook until most of the water has dried out and the sauce is quite thick.
  • Toss the potatoes in the sauce, check seasoning and serve with Greek yoghurt.