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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The Essence of Summer

June is here and it’s time to make the annual batch of elderflower cordial. An aunt of mine always made this when we were children. I loved it, so a few years ago I started to make my own. The flavour is unique and refreshing, and heralds the arrival of summer for me.

Elderflowers are everywhere at the moment

Beautifully scented, frothy cream elderflowers are to be seen all over the fields and gardens of Ireland at the moment. They will be around for the next couple of weeks, so seize the moment!

I have given guideline quantities below, but the amount of sugar, water or lemons you use can be varied to taste. Most people use more sugar to water than I have here.

Ingredients:

20-30 elderflower heads

1.5 kg of sugar

2 litres of boiling water

2-4 lemons and/or limes

50g of citric acid – available from pharmacies

Method:

Gather your flowers (not from roadside trees, too polluted). Gently shake them to remove tiny insects.

Make up a syrup by pouring the boiling water over the sugar in a large pan. Keep stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Thickly slice the lemons and limes and add these to the pan (you can zest these first and add that too if preferred). Stir in the citric acid. Now add the elderflowers. Cover the pan with a cloth and leave the mixture to steep for 24-48 hours.

Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or muslin (I have also used coffee filters) to remove flowers and fruit. Bottle in very clean bottles using a funnel. Glass bottles are best but I have used plastic ones too, enabling me to freeze some of the cordial.

Dilute for a taste of summer

Serving suggestions:

  • Dilute the cordial with sparking water. Add ice and a slice and a sprig of mint for a delicious summery drink
  • Add a splash to a gin and tonic, or to a white wine spritzer
  • Pour over vanilla ice cream
  • Use to sweeten rhubarb, gooseberries or strawberries
  • Add to salad dressings

Second photo by Claire Sutton (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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Fresh from having to buy his own Guinness in Moneygall (didn’t we learn from Primary Colours that elected officials never carry their money?), the Obamas have now been subjected to the Great British Barbecue. The name in itself is bothersome because to an American, a ‘barbecue’ is a deep South tradition involving whole chickens, racks of ribs bigger than the average Corgi, and heaps of ‘special recipe’ barbecue sauce with lashings of Jack Daniels.  It’s a very different meal from the array of charred processed meats that we Europeans might indulge in; that’s ‘grilling’, a softy Yankee art form.

Now *that’s* what I call a barbie

(image c/o Wikipedia’s ‘Southern Barbecue’ entry)

Still, semantics aside, the men were  jockeying for position over the burgers (cue much giggling about Nick Clegg being relegated to coal-prodding duty) whilst Michelle Obama and Sam Cam served the salads.

The obvious political photo-ops aside, this was bound to provoke yelps of ‘but why can’t the women be on sausage duty?’ (perhaps more tastefully put than that, and ignoring the obvious point that the real work will be done by a bunch of Secret Service guys dressed up as caterers).

The whole idea of the barbecue as the last bastion of testosterone makes me giggle. In my ‘mixed marriage’, my vegetarian husband is firmly in charge of any kind of ‘green shit’, whereas the position of Meat Mistress is equally firmly mine. Every year, when the weather gets good, my thoughts turn to firestarting in the proximity of gas canisters, to finding the best short ribs known to (wo)man and to experimenting with the marinades to see which bring the best flames (what’s a barbie without a blaze atop it?).  After ten years with my husband, I’ve learned to love the green stuff, and all winter long, we generally eat the same veggie food. But at the first glimpse of sunshine, the carnivore in me rises up from the core and my thoughts turn to juicy steak, to salmon with soy sauce, to prawns with roasted garlic. OK, so we’re pretty good at figs and balsamic, at grilled asparagus, at Portobello mushrooms in Hawaiian spices. But there’s nothing masculine about THIS grill queen. If I were the President’s wife (one can dream), I’d be barging in there, apron akimbo, desperate to get at the good stuff.

And it does beg the question; what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primaries? Would she have been allowed her time with the tongs whilst Bubba, a Southern-barbecue aficionado, tossed salads and discussed Erdem with Sam? Perish the thought.

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I’m not a big fan of dieting (who is?) but I do get a little thrill when I can find a way to make my favorite comfort foods a lot healthier. Whether it’s lasagna or burgers, comfort foods are generally great for the soul but terrible for the waistline.

After a few experiments, I figured out how to make a fantastic batch of baked onion rings that are as crispy and satisfying as the fried variety. I also created a lighter version of a pizza Margherita, one of my go-to dishes at any Italian joint. My pizza doesn’t have the heft of the original but the flavours are all there, and while it won’t fill you up quite like regular pizza it’ll squash that craving without the guilt.

Baked Onion Rings

2 onions, peeled and cut into thick slices (rings!)

4 tablespoons white flour

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 eggs, beaten

1.5 – 2 cups (just use a tea or coffee cup) of Japanese panko* breadcrumbs

Olive oil or plain oil spray

Preheat the oven to 200 C. Put the flour, paprika, garlic powder and sea salt into a large, Ziploc bag. In batches of a half-dozen or so, place the onion rings in the bag, close and shake so that the rings are lightly coated with the flour mixture.

Place the beaten eggs in a large shallow dish and toss the coated onion rings into the egg to give them a light coat. The flour coating has to go on first as otherwise the egg mixture will not stick to the onion.

Put the panko breadcrumbs into another large Ziploc bag. Again in batches, place the onion rings into the bag, close and shake until the rings are coated in the breadcrumb mixture.

Place the rings on a large baking tray and lightly spray with the oil spray. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown on the outside. Serve with ketchup or your favorite sauce.

*Panko breadcrumbs are available at most Asian food markets and are essential for this recipe as they are super crispy!

Super Light Pizza Margherita

2 whole wheat flour tortillas

1 small jar of pizza sauce

A few slices of low-moisture, skim mozzarella

10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 200 C. In the meantime, heat up a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place one of the tortillas in the pan, watching it carefully so it does not burn. It’s good to try to crisp up the tortillas a bit before they go into the oven. Flip it every minute or so, until it starts to get a little crisp – about 4-5 minutes. Repeat with the other tortilla.

Put as much or as little pizza sauce on each tortilla as you like, divide up the slices of mozzarella between the two tortillas and add the tomato. Bake for 8 minutes on a large baking tray, remove from oven and add fresh basil. Slice and serve while hot.

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I’ve been vegetarian for almost 9 years, but before that I was such a picky eater that I a) didn’t like cheese b) had never tasted tomato soup c) was scared of baked beans and d) couldn’t contemplate the thought of pizza (see: cheese issues).

Thankfully, my palate has been forced to evolve since then, and now I love cooking hearty, healthy meals from scratch. I’m no whizz in the kitchen, but this dish is so easy, quick and tasty, that I usually make it once a week.

Here's one I devoured earlier

CHICKPEA & POTATO STEW FOR TWO

Ingredients:

1 large red onion, roughly chopped
2-3 chopped cloves of garlic
1 red chilli, chopped (and de-seeded if you don’t want it too hot)
1 large potato, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 large sweet potato, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can of chopped tomatoes
1 veg stock cube
1 inch of grated ginger (optional)
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 tablespoon of cumin
1 tablespoon of coriander
Salt & pepper to taste

 Method:

1) Fry the onion, potatoes and garlic on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes

2) Stir in the spices, chilli and ginger and continue to fry for 2 minutes

3) Stir in the can of tomatoes and the chickpeas. Dissolve the stock cube in a jug of 350ml of boiling water, and add to the pot, along with salt and pepper to your taste.

4) Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and allow to simmer until the potatoes are tender, and the sauce begins to thicken, constantly stirring as the mixture has a habit of sticking to the end of the pot (or maybe it’s just my crap pots?)

5) Once the liquid thickens, take off the boil, garnish with coriander and serve with brown rice or couscous. Eat. Pat belly and sigh contentedly.

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I discovered Hummingbird Cake while visiting friends in the Deep South during Easter a few years ago. They told me it got its name because each bite is so good that it makes a person hum with satisfaction! Once I tried a piece, I had to agree that it was aptly-named…

This cake became famous after it was submitted to the February 1978 issue of ‘Southern Living Magazine’ by one Mrs L.H. Wiggins of North Carolina. It has since been claimed as a Deep South recipe thanks to its quintessentially Southern ingredient, the pecan nut! The Southerners I know like to serve it over Easter but once I got home, armed with the recipe, I began to make use of it all year round.

Hummingbird Cake is like a cross between banana bread and carrot cake, except the cream cheese icing is richer due to the chopped pecans. Traditionally, it usually has three or more layers, but I stick to two because too many layers of icing can make it over sweet for my taste. It’s an easy cake to bake once you’ve all the ingredients in ‒ toasting the pecans is the only fiddly part of the recipe.

Ingredients:

110g pecans
390g plain flour, sifted
400g white sugar
3-4 medium-sized ripe bananas, mashed
227g can crushed pineapple ‒ don’t drain the juice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, beaten
180ml sunflower oil
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Icing:

60g unsalted butter at room temperature
227g cream cheese at room temperature
450g icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
55g finely chopped pecans

To garnish:

pecan halves

Method:

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Grease two 9 x 2 inch round cake tins and then line the bottom of the tins with a circle of baking paper.

Line a baking tray with more paper and then place the pecans on a baking tray. Bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly toasted. Let them cool and then chop finely.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

In another large bowl, mix together the eggs, oil, vanilla extract, pineapple, mashed bananas and finely chopped pecans.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir and mix thoroughly together.

Divide the batter evenly between the two tins and tap the side of each tin to level out each layer.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the tins from oven. After about 10 minutes turn the tins onto a wire rack and let the layers cool completely before icing them. Remove the baking paper from each layer.

For the Icing, beat the butter and cream cheese with an electric whisk on low-speed until smooth.

Gradually add the sifted icing sugar and blend until smooth.

Mix in the vanilla extract.

Finally, stir in the finely chopped pecans.

To assemble, place one layer, top side down, onto your serving plate. Spread with about a third of the icing.

Place the other layer, top of cake facing up, onto the icing.

Spread the rest of the icing over the top and sides of the cake.

Garnish with pecan halves.

Refrigerate the cake for about an hour to give the icing time to set.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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Dragons’ Den, The Apprentice, Take Me Out, Come Dine With Me … we nicked ‘em all, and now we’ve nicked Masterchef too. As of yesterday, RTE/Screentime Shinawil are taking applications for the first Irish series (come on, you Saturday Dishers), in which Nick Munier (Pichet, Hell’s Kitchen) and Dylan McGrath (The Commons, Peacock Alley, Mint) will take the places of John “that’s a beautiful plate of food” Torode, and Greg “give us a cuppa tea and I’d polish off the lot” Wallace.

Antonia Hart enjoying some television

Antonia Hart enjoying some television

Wouldn’t it be a great way to restore national pride, generate income and create jobs if some Irish production company were to come up with a really cracking show that every television station in the world was just tripping over its shoelaces to buy? I’ve been racking my brains but I’m not coming up with anything, and I keep stumbling against cod Irish themes (usually to do with wakes and talking shite – have I been reading too many short stories of the fifties?) but it definitely needs to be culturally neutral if it’s to fulfil its international sales potential. Also, every time I think I have a good idea, it turns out to be a vague but actual memory of a programme I’ve seen before. Surely tv companies never have this problem.

 

Could we train ordinary people to become circus performers and culminate with a national tour?

Bring up three children for ten years, each according to a different parenting manual, and allow a public vote on the most successful child/parent unit?

Encourage ordinary citizens to perform minor surgery, with a cash prize if the patient doesn’t notice?

Or what about over twelve weeks building a mini-dream-state, with a government, legal system, health and education services, and a little cultural context? If it seemed to work well, we could sell citizenship.

I know, they’re all just variations on a theme. Well, if you’ve any ideas pass ‘em on. In the meantime, we all get on with generating and consuming food every day, so in many ways are just rehearsing for Masterchef. The beauty of that idea is that we are all potential contestants. Get your application in by 27th April. Do you love or loathe Masterchef, by the way?

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It came out of the blue. At a family Sunday lunch in a local trattoria, my eight year old daughter made an announcement; “I want to be a thin girl”.

Her dad and I exchanged significant glances. Where was this coming from? Food, weight and dieting have never been an issue in our house. We own a set of scales but they spend most of their time covered in dust. We all love food and have been visiting restaurants regularly as a family since the children were babes in arms. They eat everything, from Chinese dim sum to big bowls of mussels on holiday in France. We encourage healthy eating but are not puritanical about treats, and have never forced them to finish everything on their plates.

Not something an eight year old should be doing

The thing is, she is a thin girl. She’s tall for her age, slim and, most important of all, healthy. The last thing I want is for her to start obsessing about food or feeling guilty about eating the things she enjoys.

Slightly floored by her declaration, I told her that she is already a perfect size. “But I want to be thinner” she replied. At this point I felt like shouting “Where are you getting these stupid notions?” My mind was racing. What is she hearing at school? Is it the American teenage comedies she watches on TV? Or is her desire to take up less space in the world the inevitable outcome of being surrounded by images of ridiculously thin models and celebrities? I bit my tongue and just told her that if she carries on dancing, cartwheeling and rollerblading she’ll be fine.

We moved on to other topics of conversation and she happily finished off her pasta and ice cream cone. No need to worry then – for the moment at least.

(Photo by puuikibeach on Flickr)

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