Do Looks Matter?…

Yes. Put simply, when it comes to food, looks matter. Greying mushy peas are never going to win a fight with a charred, juicy steak, dripping its pink juices liberally over a stack of golden french fries. Anyone to whom sticky off-white rice pudding with a wrinkled film of skin seems more appealing than a toffee-coloured chocolate brownie, piled with fat blushing raspberries and a dusting of icing sugar, ought not to be trusted. Not every meal can, or should, be an obstacle course for the senses, but they all start with the eyes; get the first impressions right and you’ll usually have a dish to remember.

That’s not to say that your food should be flashy. What is more important is serving up your dish in a style that ties together all of its elements, that suits its origins and intentions, and adds to its overall character. In order to demonstrate what I mean, I have prepared three different versions of the same dish: fresh and delicious tuna tartare. Each dish has different flavours and garnishes and the presentation is intended to reflect its individual style.


Case Study: Tuna Tartare

1. Classic

This dish is elegant and classy. Whilst a definitive original tartare recipe doesn’t exist, I think this one is pretty authentic; it is certainly the most paired down of the three, with the fewest ingredients. Diced tuna is mixed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, some finely diced shallot and chervil or dill. As an optional extra squeeze in a small amount of lemon juice just before serving (too soon and you denature the fish, effectively ‘cooking’ the surface of the diced cubes, meaning they are no longer the desirable vibrant and fleshy pink). The flavours are very clean and simple, allowing the natural sweetness of the tuna to shine through. For this reason it is very important to use the highest quality, freshest tuna you can get your hands on – everything from colour to texture and flavour depends on this (see tip below). For added elegance top with a quenelle of caviar and a very thin, toasted bread crisp. I served this tartare on a round, white plate, to offset the colours and maintain the classic, unfussy feel. Dress with a fine drizzle of good olive oil and a little syrupy balsamic before serving this dish as a classic dinner party starter.

classic

Classic Tuna Tartare, Caviar, Bread Crisp


Tip:

When buying an expensive item like tuna steak, it’s important to look for quality. The flesh should be firm and springy in texture, and deep pinky red in colour. Most importantly, the meat shouldn’t have any kind of ‘fishy’ odour, but should simply smell almost salty, and of the sea. For the best results when dicing, place the fish into the freezer for about half an hour to firm up. This will make slicing into the muscle much easier, and prevent tearing or other damage. The result will be visually and texturally better, as the cubes will be neater and more uniform.


To Drink:

A dry white wine, such as a minerally Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley, is perfect for this classic dish. Its flinty and citrus aromas will compliment the clean, sweet fish perfectly.


2. Deconstructed

This tartare is bolder, and more rustic than the last. It’s strong flavours include dijon mustard, cornichons, capers, shallots, chives and lemon, as well as rich and silky egg yolk, to temper some of that acidity. The flavours being so bold, the presentation calls for a totally different style from the classic elegance of the previous dish. For this reason I opted to ‘deconstruct’ the tartare, which, although it sounds fancy, is hugely simple, as well as fun to eat. Simply dice all your ingredients finely and heap them in little piles around a mound of glistening fresh tuna, dressed simply in a little olive oil. The chunky, rustic look is best offset by a wooden serving board, which matches the bold and unapologetic flavours. I served this alongside some mini bruschetta-style toasts in order to allow people to pile their chosen flavours high. If serving as a starter, opt for a quail’s egg yolk; if a main, go for a hen’s egg. If you don’t like the idea of serving them raw, separate the yolks from the whites and poach for 30 seconds in gently simmering water, and allow to cool slightly before serving.

deconstructed

Deconstructed Tuna Tartare

(Clockwise from top – capers, quail’s egg yolk, lemon, bruschette, dijon mustard, salt and pepper, chives, shallots, cornichons)


To Drink:

The strong flavours of this tartare can stand up to a bit more depth. Look for a strong dry rosé (often the Spanish ‘Rosados’ have more body than their French counterparts and are kinder to a budget) for example one of the Garnacha wines from Navarra, which are both fruity and tangy. Or, if you prefer red, you could even opt for a light Loire red such as a Chinon.


3. Modern

This last tartare is fresh and zingy. Bright asian flavours, which are a classic match for tuna (think lime, coriander, chilli, ginger, sesame etc) and even brighter colours make this a feast for eyes and tongue. The tartare is sitting on a ring of cucumber carpaccio (unfortunately the picture doesn’t show this very well), over a smear of lime and avocado purée. I served this dish on a rectangular, black glass plate, which acted a bit like a mirror. The presentation was more modern, and more structural (the tuna was pressed in a ring mold to make a neat cylinder), with two chive stems used as a garnish, as well as black sesame seeds which matched the plate nicely. Next time I might use a piping bag for the avocado, to create a more interesting pattern.

asian

Modern, Asian Tuna Tartare


Tip:

For this dish, the avocado needs to be perfectly ripe in order to create the exact bright green to offset the tuna. In order to check for ripeness when buying, don’t squeeze avocados. Everyone else has been doing this, and may have damaged the outside flesh making it feel ‘squidgier’ than it is. Instead, lift the brown nub at the top of the fruit. If it comes away easily and the dip underneath is bright green, it is ripe. If it is brown it is over ripe. If it won’t come out or is white underneath, it is not yet ready.


To Drink:

As a purely personal preference, coriander, lime and ginger put me more in the mood for searingly cold lager, but if you’re going for wine, stick with white to complement the freshness of the dish. The flavours are bold and can stand up to a little more complexity than the first dish, so look for something with deeper, fruitier notes, such as an oaked Sauvignon Blanc, or if you’re feeling more adventurous (which seems appropriate here) a dry Riesling.


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Around the World: Vietnam

Vibrant, healthy, and delicious, Vietnam has one of the most varied and exciting food cultures in the world. From street food snacks to feasts comprised of multiple dishes for all to share, traditional recipes differ from region to region, giving this cuisine huge diversity. Fresh ingredients, particularly various herbs and vegetables, make for dishes with an uplifting, colourful appearance. Abundant dipping sauces and dressings feature fish sauce heavily; this most mysterious of ingredients somehow makes everything taste more delicious, yet left to its own devices has the rotting odour of a corpse, fish or otherwise. Don’t be put off, the wet cat smell will not translate to your food.

In the past few weeks, despite never having been to Vietnam, my brain seemed to take up residence there. All I could think of was Vietnamese food, and I spent all of my time researching its culture, its traditions, and most importantly its dishes and ingredients. The timing was fortunate, with the upcoming visit of my good friend Robyn, expert on all matters Asian-cuisine, giving me the perfect excuse for experimenting. Having spent some time travelling around South East Asia, and tasting everything on offer, there was no-one better to teach me some of the tricks, and help me recreate an authentic taste of Vietnam here in Dublin.


The Food:

Bún chả:

These are grilled pork meatballs, served with dressed rice noodles and herbs. Although it sounds simple, the flavours are surprisingly subtle, though unsurprisingly delicious. The classic fish sauce, lime, rice vinegar and sugar water dressing adds a moreish, savoury hit to the dish, and the meatballs have a subtly sweet note which comes from the addition of a little melted sugar syrup. This gives the pork a rich caramelised flavour, whilst also keeping the meat succulent and moist.

Bun cha 3

Sweet Pork Meatballs, Dressed Noodles, Coriander, Spring Onion, Lime

Gỏi cuốn:

Raw Vietnamese spring rolls, summer rolls or salad rolls are typically filled with a variety of fresh shredded vegetables, such as carrots, spring onions, or bean sprouts, and aromatics such as ginger and herbs like coriander and mint. They also include cooked rice vermicelli noodles, and meat such as shredded pork or chicken, and fish such as prawns or other light seafood. As both Robyn and I have borderline unhealthy obsessions with shellfish we went for a big selection of prawns, scallop roe, squid and octopus, which we flash seared first in a pan with a little garlic, chilli and lime and left to cool.

spring roll ingredients 2

Ready to roll – all of our fillings assembled

The dipping sauce is much the same as the dressing for the meatballs. You find this classic sauce on almost every table, made with fish sauce, chilli, lime juice, sugar water and rice vinegar. It is perfect for dipping these fresh little rolls, which look and taste beautiful.

spring roll 2

spring roll 1

Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Octopus, Prawn, Squid and Scallop

Chicken Satay:

Unsure whether all of our guests would be as keen to put visibly sucker-covered tentacles into their mouths as we were (which, as it happened,they all were) we opted for this ever popular quick and easy addition to our menu, which was as delicious as it was fuss free. For those unsure if they are ready to experiment, this kind of thing is great for easing in new tastes. Not that this dish should be reserved for them; the satay sauce is a foodie’s drug. I can think of few things quite so addictive as the sweetly salty tang of this peanut dip.

chicken satay 1

Grilled Chicken Satay Skewers, Satay Sauce, Whole Peanuts and Spring Roll Dip

Chilli Scallops and Squid with Shredded Salad:

Finally, my personal favourite dish was this rainbow coloured wonder. The seafood was seared in a very hot pan in some chilli and garlic oil, then tossed with a little lime and fish sauce to finish. I scored the squid diagonally before cooking, the benefits of which are two-fold: firstly it helps the squid to curl up prettily into a kind of spiral roll, and secondly it helps all of the flavours penetrate into the flesh, sticking in the little grooves. It barely takes a minute to cook the fish, and it is very important not to overcook.

fish salad 2

The salad is made out of ribbons of carrot, and courgette and spring onion, with added beansprouts, coriander, mint, chilli, ginger, garlic, peanuts and sesame seeds. For a really authentic hit you can try and source some green papaya and add that in too. Sadly, early spring in Dublin is not the time or the place for such spoils.

The bright, crunchy vegetables, combined with the sweet and succulent fish, the heat of the chilli and the fresh flavours of ginger, coriander and lime give you a combination which no-one is going to forget in a hurry. Serve this dish as an impressive starter at any dinner party, or as part of a Vietnamese-themed feast, and you will have very happy guests.

fish salad 1

Chilli Scallops and Squid with Shredded Salad

For now then, my sudden Vietnamese obsession has been sated, and will hopefully lie dormant until I get the chance to visit in real life. If you have never tried the food, give these dishes a go. Instructions are on the recipe page, and they are all quick and easy to prepare, requiring no special tools or skills. I promise you will not be disappointed!

Over the next few months The Food of Life will, among other things, be taking a food tour of the world, trying out some old favourites and getting to grips with new dishes. Do you have a favourite cuisine? If so, let me know what you think I should try next. Suggestions are always welcome, and I would love to give them a go.

The Amazing Burger Project

Is there a perfect burger? I’ve been trying to find it for a long time. The problem, though, is that there are as many perfect burgers as there are people who eat them: everybody has their own version. So many people have attempted to discover it—Heston Blumenthal, in his series In Search of Perfection, as well as the chefs at both Modernist Cuisine and Chefsteps, to name but a few. Not everyone has a chemistry lab for a kitchen however, and whilst one day I hope to try one of their masterpieces, so far we’re doing alright at The Food of Life. This project is the fruits of my research, only this time the results are more rewarding, and more delicious, than ever before.

TABP

Burgers are the iconic fast food, but recently there is an ever-growing trend towards the so-called gourmet burger. To go from hamburger to ‘glamburger’, everything from the brioche bun and finest, hand-minced cuts of organic beef, to the exotic fillings and sauces in between are carefully considered from every angle. Sometimes though, these burgers can lose track of their humble roots: no-one likes a social climber, and the burger is on the high-risk list. Monstrosities filled with kobe beef, white truffle, lobster, beluga caviar, saffron, edible gold leaf and more, costing upwards of £1000, are created as publicity stunts, the ever-successful snare of ostentatious gluttons worldwide. (This burger was actually created by London restaurant Honky Tonk.)

The problem with this kind of cooking, if we can call it that, is that it is not so much a calculation of flavour and texture combined, but more a sum of the most expensive foods in the world, all thrown together; when cost becomes a qualifier, you know there’s something wrong with the club you’re looking to enter. This extravagance becomes all the more unpleasant when you consider the structure of a burger. Messy, unrefined, and rightfully so, there is just no presenting this dish as anything other than a big pile of food between two fat wedges of bread. Not exactly the natural habitat of lobster and caviar. Something about throwing every delicacy you can think of together, smothered with a fat blob of champagne mayonnaise, definitely doesn’t feel right. If you had to fork out that kind of money for a good burger, they certainly wouldn’t be the worldwide phenomenon they are today. That suggests to me it can be done better on a budget.

The patty is the foundation of every burger. Beef is the popular option but, I find, can end up dry. This is quite simply due to the fat content of the meat. In order to achieve a perfectly juicy beef burger, a large amount of fat must be added, for both flavour and texture, and ideally a high quality cut of good meat should be used. People have attempted to work out ideal fat to meat ratios for the perfect beef burger, and the consensus is roughly 40% fat. Personally, I find the idea that I have to bite into an almost half fat-half meat cholesterol bomb  in order to get a perfect juicy burger, pretty unappealing. Dare I go one step further and say that I find that beef can make for a fairly boring burger, flavour-wise? Besides, beef goes against the affordable burger ethos, because in order to get a good beef burger, you need more expensive cuts. Over the past few months I have been asking people what their perfect burger would be, and the majority opt for beef, because, I am guessing, that is what we are used to. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy beef burgers when they are done well, I just think we can do better. Better burger meats have more flavour, and a naturally higher fat content: pork, lamb and duck are excellent examples. Meaty, oily fish, such as fresh tuna, also make excellent alternatives.

The Amazing Burger Project comes in two parts. First I ran a competition, asking participants to contribute their own version of the perfect burger. As a prize, I made the winning three participants their own burger. These burgers were very interesting. Firstly, the winner was actually a veggie burger. Secondly, these were among the fairly few entrants who did not opt for beef. In the interest of fairness to beef however, I also created two ideas for great beef burgers, to go along with the other winning three.

The second part of The Amazing Burger Project comprises my own top three ultimate burgers. One of them was created by Michel Roux Jr. on Food and Drink, and it was really this that inspired the whole project. I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I had to make and eat this burger, and the recipe can be found on the stolen goods page. The other two are my own recipes; they are combinations which I think work particularly well.


The Amazing Burger Project: Part 1

Without further ado, the winning entrants of The Amazing Burger competition are…

1. The Sinéad (by Sinéad Murphy): Chickpea and pink peppercorn burger, cumin spiced pear compote and creamy goat’s cheese.

Sinead 2
Sinead 1

As soon as I read this suggestion I knew it would work, and I could almost taste it already. I had a great time creating my own recipes for the individual elements of the burger, which all appear on the recipe page. Chickpeas are an excellent, robust vegetarian alternative to meat; their simple flavour works as a carrier for any additional ingredients, and the texture is the perfect mix of soft but firm necessary for a good burger.

2. The Fergus (by Fergus Grant)Pulled pork burger with caramelised onions, melted cheddar, smoked paprika, jalapeños, garlic mayo and lettuce.

Fergus 1 Fergus 2

Good pulled pork is perfection; any half decent entry including pulled pork had a good chance of making the top three. However, this one, with its perfect balance of sweet, smoky, fiery and salty is any barbecue fanatic’s dream.

3. The John K ( by John Kennedy): Grilled chicken burger with smoked bacon, fried egg, fried banana, sweet chilli sauce, and lettuce.

John 1

John 2

This burger won its spot for sheer boldness. Bacon and banana isn’t a new combination (nor is chicken and banana) but it was never one I was hugely drawn to. However, frying the banana gives it a caramelised char and appealing gooey insides. Mainly though, the addition of rich egg, spicy, garlicky sweet chili sauce, and crunchy lettuce, just makes the whole thing make sense.

I also made two beef burgers that night. The first is my favourite beef burger (a strange mix of French, German, Italian and American, but I like it) and the second is Ian’s (messy but good).

4. The Olivia (by me): Beef burger with blue cheese sauce, smoked Black Forest ham, black olives, onion rings, cornichons, and lettuce.

Olivia 2

Olivia 1

Sliced black olives in brine may not scream gourmet burger, but they are my weakness, and so have their place. One of those tin cans of Crespo olives would make an ideal present for me, except that it would last in my fridge precisely half a day. I love them. The Black Forest ham is amazingly smoky; it has a kick that more delicate cured versions, such as Parma ham, don’t. For the blue cheese, I like to use a creamy cheese such as Gorgonzola (piccante not dolce, it still needs a punch) or in Ireland, Cashel Blue. Just mash it up with a fork, with a spoonful of sour cream (this is also a great dip for buffalo wings). If you can get your hands on crème de Saint Agur, that would be even better, but normal Saint Agur is too strong.

5. The Ian (by Ian Sewell): Beef burger with bacon, cheddar, fried egg, mashed avocado, mayo and lettuce.

Ian 2

Ian 3

This burger stays really moist because of the egg yolk, mayo and particularly the avocado. Use really crunchy lettuce such as a few snapped off baby gem leaves, to avoid the whole thing becoming too limp and squidgy. There is only one place for sad, wilted, shredded iceberg lettuce in a burger, more like strips of cheap paper than fresh green vegetable, and that is in a fast food chain.

All of these burgers combine exciting flavours and textures which blend to create a delicious and satisfying mouthful. They also contain at least one element which stops the burger from becoming dry, which is very important. Give any of them a go, and you won’t be disappointed; they were very well received!


The Amazing Burger Project: Part 2

The second part of the burger project involves my top three favourite burgers. Granted, one of them isn’t my own recipe, but it is so good I had to include it. I made them into sliders (mini burgers), which is a great way to to try several combinations at once.

Sliders

Sliders – Asian Tuna (bottom left), Duck and Vacherin (bottom right), BBQ Pork (top)

1. BBQ Pork burger, smoked cheddar, apple slaw

This burger patty has so much flavour, I’d happily eat it alone. The pork mince is mixed with caramelised shallots and apple cubes, barbecue sauce, sage and thyme. Make sure to use really crunchy apple in the coleslaw – personally I think green apples like Granny Smiths have the right amount of bite, and I like the slightly more sour taste they have in comparison to red apples. Although it is not necessary, if you wanted to you could add some smoked streaky bacon.

2. Asian tuna, cucumber and coriander salad, lime+horseradish dressing

Make sure to use really fresh tuna (not canned!). This burger is very light and fresh, filled with beautiful pinks and greens that look as delicious as they taste. It is also very healthy, making a great alternative for anyone looking for something less calorie-loaded. For anyone not averse to raw fish, the burger mix alone makes a delicious tuna tartare (before being shaped and cooked).

3. Michel Roux Jnr’s Vacherin stuffed duck burger, shallots and girolles

Perhaps posher than its friends on the list but, in this case, the expense is justified. Duck is the perfect meat for a burger: flavoursome, and with a high fat content. The flavours are rich, but clean; nothing is overly complicated. As a bonus feature, the cheese is placed in the middle of the patty, so that you bite into a secret pocket: an oozy, gooey, melting surprise. Perfect.

Sliders 2

 

Sliders 1

Burgers this good deserve the best, and that means good quality brioche buns. Think of it like a dress code—serving these in a limp, tasteless and chewy bun would be like appearing on the red carpet in a tracksuit. Brioche burger buns are moist and rich, with a soft, yielding texture, both easy to bite into and great for soaking up juices. They have the added bonus of a lovely shiny exterior, both aesthetically pleasing and robust enough to keep the whole thing from falling apart, but in no way ‘crusty’. I love all kinds of bread-making, so I made these from scratch, but you can find brioche burger buns in good supermarkets. Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread though, a rewarding bonus.

Sliders 3

As if all these weren’t enough, here are some more suggestions for amazing burgers:

1. Chicken burger with brie, bacon, cranberry and avocado – a classic combination, old but good.

2. Teriyaki Salmon burger with cucumber, spring onions and wasabi mayo – another Asian fish burger, again very healthy, with serious flavour!

3. Mint and Rosemary lamb burgers with feta, rocket, olives, tomato and yoghurt dressing – the ‘Greek’ burger, this would be amazing cooked on a charcoal barbecue on a hot day, the herbs and yoghurt make it very refreshing. Match with an ice cold beer.

4. Portobello mushroom burger with pesto, grilled halloumi and spinach leaves – another great vegetarian option, Portobello mushrooms have the added bonus of already being burger shaped. This one is super quick and easy to make, but no less delicious!

Flags

As always, recipes can be found on the recipe page. Any more suggestions for perfect burgers? Let me know what your favourite combinations are.

Weekend Away

Food and romance go hand in hand. Sometimes though, it can be difficult to find the perfect meal to share. Cooking for two presents problems that other numbers don’t, because individual tastes are more important to consider when making food for two people. For large groups though, the focus might be more on getting everyone fed than preparing each individual’s all-time-favourite dish. Having a meal with a friend or partner can be a wonderful shared experience, and as fun as going out to eat often is, eating in and cooking for each other is more personal, and for me, more romantic.

Not that I needed it, but this past Valentine’s weekend was the perfect excuse for more cooking. After stuffing the car with food shopping, leaving little room for anything else, we set off for the country for a few days to celebrate; the dishes that emerged are my ultimate romantic meals.


The Food:

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day, so they say. Wrong. Firstly, on the weekend, breakfast should be brunch, which has much more exciting connotations. Secondly, at the risk of being exiled by the “cereal club”, one I don’t mind taking, I hate the stuff. Mr Willy Wonka himself agrees with me: “Do you know what breakfast cereal is made of? It’s made of all those little curly wooden shavings you find in pencil sharpeners!” I’ve always thought of it more as chewy, soggy, bland, artificial cardboard, disguised underneath a sugary crust, and a load of cartoon animals on a (cardboard) box. Either way, I don’t understand the hype, and not having a particularly sweet tooth, I am just not in the mood for anything sugary; cereal, pastries, or otherwise, in the morning. No, brunch is much more my thing.

The reason is eggs. In any shape or form, cooked properly, I love eggs. Of course, you can have them for breakfast, but brunch sounds more luxurious, and sometimes includes cocktails, so I’m sticking with it. One dish encapsulates brunch, and you will find it in one form or another on every menu: Eggs Benedict (or the salmon version, Eggs Royale). Personally I prefer the latter, although I wouldn’t say no to either. Thick sliced ham can be a bit much in the morning, and besides, eggs, salmon and hollandaise are like the power trio of the food world. Nothing will set you up better for a day of romance; strong and soft, smoky and salty: smoked salmon is the sexiest of foods. On top, its soulmate, are the perfect poached eggs, their fat orange yolks oozing gently down the sides. Finally, all this deliciousness is topped with rich and buttery hollandaise; the softest and warmest of blankets. No-one can resist the sunshine tones, and perfectly married flavours of this dish. It will literally bring a smile to your face.

eggs royale 1

eggs royale 2

Eggs Royale

On a technical note, whatever kind of bread you go for on the bottom (muffins, bagels, thickly sliced fresh crusty bread, etc.) I suggest whacking it on a searing hot bar griddle before assembling. You get an attractive charred stripe effect and it injects the whole thing with a deeper, smokier flavour. A little chive, dill or parsley scattered on top and the whole thing is dressed to impress.

eggs royale 4

Keep the yolks runny!

I wouldn’t typically call lunch a romantic meal. I love lunch; it’s the best time for eating, it means getting a break from work, and if I could only have one of the three meals a day lunch would be it, but it just isn’t very romantic. I don’t know why.

There is one exception to this rule, and it’s a pretty good one. The picnic. In the romance stakes, a picnic is the hare and the tortoise of lunches, taking an unpromising contestant to new heights. Anyone who says picnics are for summer isn’t a real fan, because the best thing about them is that, with a little creativity, and a lot of fun, you can have a picnic anywhere. For us, it was a car picnic at the top of a mountain that my tiny car simply wasn’t meant to drive up, although it was worth it for the view. And that’s the excitement of the picnic: you never know what you’re going to get. In the summer, it’s probably going to be wasp stings and ants all over your quiche, so don’t turn your nose up at the winter picnic too quickly. Have one in your car, in your living room, in your garden shed, in a tent, round a campfire, in a fort, in a tree house, under the kitchen table. It doesn’t matter. Improvise.

picnic

Picnic for Two

Sandwiches are the traditional option. Wrap them in brown paper and string for a vintage bistro effect, and then go to town on your fillings. Our picnic sandwiches contained bacon, brie, crushed avocado and rocket, with a small amount of redcurrant jelly, which I prefer to cranberry, because it is sharper and less sweet.

In the village where I’m from, the cocktail sausages pictured are the stuff of legend. Since I was a very small girl, at every Christmas drinks, village hall gathering, summer fête, halloween party, bonfire night and everything in between, Rosemary, Queen of the village, head of every committee, occasionally feared but mostly loved, would bring out these little sausages to the delight of all, but particularly, of my sisters and I. In fact, not to the delight of all, because nobody else even got a chance. They were gone in two minutes flat; we left every time, happy, full, and with extremely burnt tongues because, too impatient to wait, we devoured the lot straight from the oven.

I tried for years to recreate the taste of these sausages, which have a sticky honey-mustard coating. I still don’t know Rosemary’s exact recipe (I’m convinced that she has a secret ingredient which she’s not telling me) but I did discover that you have to add ketchup. The taste is now close enough that I can at least satisfy rogue cocktail sausage cravings whenever Rosemary isn’t around. Strangely enough, if there is a secret ingredient, I don’t really want to know what it is. I don’t think these sausages would be quite right unless Rosemary had made them herself. That’s the funny thing about food.

cocktail sausages

Rosemary’s Cocktail Sausages

Finally, the chocolate covered strawberries. More nostalgia here; these are what we ate on one of the first dates we went on, which was, incidentally, a picnic. I’ve tried all kinds of chocolate, and for whatever reason, Lindt extra creamy milk chocolate is the best one. It is rich and smooth, and melts beautifully. It stays thick whilst still getting runny, so that dipping is easy, but you end up with a hard shell of chocolate, rather than a bendy, flaky one. It also sets extremely quickly, and sticks to the strawberries well. Maybe it would be more arty to leave the green bits on the strawberries rather than slicing off the tops. My concern here was with eating though, and it’s easier without.

chocolate strawberries

Chocolate Covered Strawberries

I have two options for dinner. Seafood chowder is one of my favourite foods to share. It is rich and creamy, and there is nothing more rustically comforting than mopping up the tasty juices with some fresh bread. Yet it is also elegant, and the seafood makes it special enough for the occasion. Incidentally, it is often served with a dark dense soda bread, or Guinness bread (particularly in Ireland). Whilst I don’t object to this as it does taste delicious, I find that the density means it is not porous enough to soak up the liquid properly, and in any case, the dish does not require additional flavour, which is why I usually go for some fresh, yeasty bread such as a farmhouse loaf.

chowder 2

Seafood Chowder

On the other hand, if you want something a bit more substantial, you can never go wrong with a steak. For a really luxurious dish, serve it with some buttery chive mash, crunchy greens and an alcohol infused jus (whisky or red wine are good options – nothing too sweet). For this dish I cooked the steak very gently under water in a vacuum sealed bag (sous vide) so that it was perfectly rare all the way through, and then finished it by searing the outside in a very hot pan to form a dark crust.

steak 1

steak

Rib-eye Steak, Chive Mash, Tenderstem Broccoli, Red Wine Jus


What are your favourite dishes to share? I’m always on the look out for new ideas so let me know!

New Year Nibbles and Other Stories

ready to roast

Happy New Year! 2015 holds some exciting new ventures for The Food of Life. Subscribe for more missions of discovery, including a hunt for the best burger ever, new twists on some old classics, and more…

For now though, here are some updates from 2014’s highlight of the foodie calendar: Christmas. Pack away your January blues for this feast of winter fare: here’s to the one day of the year when the visual elegance of your plate MUST suffer at the hands of greed.


christmas dinner

A Christmas Feast

goat's cheese gratins

 Mini Goat’s Cheese, Caramelized Onion and Pine Nut Gratins

  salmon and dill mousse

Salmon and Dill Pâté Blinis

venison canapes

Smoked Venison, Pickled Red Cabbage and  Apple Toasts

salami canape 1

Camilla’s Savoyard Salami and Dolcelatte Bites

salmon and champagne caviar 1

Salmon and Chive mousse, Homemade Champagne Caviar

salmon scotch egg

Smoked Salmon Scotched Duck Egg, Lemon and Caper Mayonnaise

duck confit

Confit Duck Leg, Braised Lentils, Balsamic Reduction

poached salmon 1

poached salmon 2

Whole Poached Wild Salmon, Poached Prawns, Dill Mayonnaise, Samphire and Cucumber

rib of beef

Roast Rib of Beef

veg

Glazed Carrots, Bacon and Chestnut Brussel Sprouts

turkey

Turkey, Glazed Ham, Pigs in Blankets, Stuffing

Stuffing: Not just for Turkeys

In the run up to Christmas I have been thinking a lot about what, in my opinion, is the most exciting part of any Christmas dinner: the stuffing. No, I do not mean the dense, cloying mass that comes out of a cardboard box and sticks to the roof of your mouth when moistened with added water. Not for me the sour, synthetic tang of powdered onion and herbs dried so long ago they have forgotten they were once a living, growing plant.

As a meat eater, I like stuffing to find its base in some kind of mince or sausage meat. However, vegetarians don’t despair, the alternatives to boring old breadcrumbs are many and varied. Chestnuts are an obvious seasonal choice, but you could also go for pulses like lentils, chickpeas, or butter beans. Once you have a base the possible flavour combinations are infinite. I love to add dried fruits such as apricots, cranberries or figs; they absorb the leaking juices, becoming plump and succulent, and in turn keep the meat moist. Herbs such as sage, parsley, thyme or lemon thyme can be used in abundance, and freshly diced garlic, shallot or onion are a must. You could also try grated apple or pear, lemon or orange zest, and crushed walnuts. For added richness go for spices like ground juniper, nutmeg and plenty of black pepper, and perhaps add a festive splash of booze such as a fortified wine, or even something stronger like whisky (which would be wonderful with a strong herb like rosemary). Anyone looking for a meat feast could add diced smoked pancetta, black forest ham, or chopped chicken livers. In short, the party is in the stuffing.

However, I love stuffing so much that in my house it doesn’t just live in the Christmas cupboard. Stuffing your meat is versatile, impressive yet easy, economical, and most importantly exciting. Cheap and uninspired cuts can be stretched out into a feast for the masses by filling them with all sorts of flavours and textures, and what’s more, can usually be prepared in advance and left covered in the fridge waiting to cook. Here are a few of my regular favourites.


First on my list of prime stuffing cuts are chicken legs. In fact, any bird legs would work just as well (duck legs are my favourite) although remember, the smaller the bird the more fiddly the preparation. Chicken legs though, are just the right size, cheap and readily available. Anyone who thinks they prefer breast to leg, you are, I’m afraid, wrong. The leg meat is juicier, more tender, has more flavour, and is more versatile. I make this with whole legs which I bone out first; if you have a sharp knife this is no trouble. If you can’t face the task then you can buy thigh fillets instead, but you will need twice the quantity of the whole legs.

Chicken legStuffed chicken leg

 

 

 

 

Boned out, flattened chicken leg (left), Stuffed (right)

Once you have your meat boned out, you need to flatten it out with a meat tenderizer or rolling pin. This is an important step for stuffing boneless cut, but not for joints. For this chicken ballotine you then add your stuffing mix down the middle, roll and wrap in bacon or prosciutto if desired, then seal in some tin foil before slowly poaching. For the stuffing, get creative with your combinations. In the dish below I used goat’s cheese, fig and walnuts. I have made the same dish with chorizo, chickpea and herb stuffing, and for duck legs I have used a chicken liver and pistachio stuffing. It is difficult to go wrong, so get creating! Finally, after poaching, brown the ballotines off in a frying pan, before slicing diagonally to serve.

Chicken ballotine 1 Chicken ballotine 2

Ballotine of Chicken stuffed with Goat’s Cheese, Fig and Walnut, Garlic Spinach, Potato Rösti

Duck ballotine

Ballotine of Duck stuffed with Liver and Pistachio, Saffron Fondant Potato, Pea and Asparagus Duxelle

Boneless pork loin chops are cheap cuts, but with a little love, delicious. For extra flavour and tenderness they could be brined for a few hours before cooking (a brine solution with added fennel seeds, peppercorns, and lemon zest works well). Again they need to be beaten out flat, in order that they can be easily folded in half to stuff. The stuffing is placed on one half and then sealed in – in the dish below I pannéd the folded chops before flash frying. The stuffing mix was made with prosciutto, shallots, sage and dried apricots.

Pork chop 2

Parmesan crusted pork chop stuffed with apricot, sage and prosciutto, spring onion mash, mustard green beans

Apricot stuffing complements pork well. Below is a whole boned out pork loin that was stuffed with a rich apricot stuffing made with cream, rosemary, breadcrumbs and shallots. It was then drizzled with balsamic vinegar to cut through some of that richness, and make the pork even sweeter and juicier, then rolled, tied and roasted. The meat juices make delicious gravy. If you have leftovers the next day, stuff them into a roll with some peppery rocket, apple sauce, wholegrain mustard or mayonnaise and make your efforts go even further.

Stuffing mix

Creamy Apricot Stuffing

Pork loin

Boneless Pork Loin, Apricot Stuffing, Balsamic

As always, all recipes can be found on the recipe page. Happy cooking and Happy Christmas from The Food of Life!

Birthday Baking

A birthday cake is one of the most personal gifts you can give. Everyone has their own tastes and interests, and a cake is a blank canvas which you can turn into a reflection of these. You don’t need to be an expert baker to create a masterpiece: less is more. A simpler cake often has a more effective impact, as over-fussy cakes can be dated.

Things to consider:

  • The occasion and number of people the cake is for – is it a many tiered affair, or would a simple sandwich cake do the trick?
  • The tastes of the person it is for – there are endless flavour combinations to choose from. Fruits, flowers, nuts, chocolates, caramels, vanilla, spices. Also consider how these will affect your colour palette. Personally I am not a fan of cakes which use colouring, as it often ruins the texture, and seems unnecessary apart from as a novelty. It is better to work with the natural colour palette of your batter, which usually has better results.
  • The interests of the person it is for – this is important when you decorate the cake. Do they have any particular hobbies? Do they have a favourite sweet or chocolate? Do they have a favourite book, movie or character? All of these things can be incorporated into the decoration.
  • Texture – is the cake base sponge, flourless, biscuit cake, cheesecake etc? Match the texture with the decoration. If you are using icing or fillings is it better to use buttercream, fondant, royal icing, chocolate, cream, jam, ganache etc?
  • If you are going to add candles, or other non-edible decorations, consider how they fit with the overall effect. Once you have decorated the cake, the finishing touches should add to the final product.

Last week I made a birthday cake for a die hard peanut butter fan. The original idea was to make a giant Reese’s peanut butter cup, but student life means I am not equipped with sculpting and moulding tools, and I decided to go the easier route of a triple layer chocolate sponge, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache, and peanut butter cups to decorate. Sounds fancy, but it was actually very simple.

birthday cake 1

Chocolate & Peanut Butter Birthday Cake

I have various obsessive tendencies (sadly I didn’t take the picture above, the horror of the collapsing candle would never have happened had I been in charge) and quite frankly, the idea of attempting to achieve perfectly smooth buttercream frosting without the correct tools was enough to get my palms sweating. I knew that even the tiniest crease would, in all likelihood, result in many sleepless nights to come, so I settled on an altogether less dangerous route: a loosely textured finish to the icing, with the silky ganache dripping luxuriantly over the sides. This low maintenance brand of lazy perfection required only a large knife, a teaspoon and a pouring jug, (in contrast to some of the cake decorating tool kits I have seen which would look more at home in an operating theatre than a kitchen).

The photo below gives a better idea of the icing finish, which I achieved by swirling a teaspoon up and down the surface in horizontal figures of 8. Mercifully, all candles have been restored to their rightful place.

birthday cake 2

Recognisable chocolates and sweets can be used to great effect for decorating cakes. Consider using long thin chocolate bars such as chocolate fingers, curls or kit kat fingers vertically around the sides of a cake. Maltesers can have a surprisingly sophisticated effect, particularly when dusted with icing sugar. Dolly mixture will give you a vintage look, macaroons are elegant, and character sweets such as gummy bears or Percy Pigs are great for children’s cakes. Not just useful for birthdays, themed cakes for Halloween (gummy worms in chocolate soil), Easter (mini eggs of course) and Christmas (pearl and silver balls with edible glitter create a very pretty snowstorm, with white Ferrero Rocher for snowmen) will light up any festivities. Once you’ve got your base, whether it’s a single sponge or a multi-tiered tower, the possibilities to get creative are literally endless!

 

Easy Entertaining

Having guests for dinner can go two ways: hellish nightmare of frazzled hair, sweaty brows, and smoky kitchens, or blissful demonstration of prowess in the vein of domestic God/Goddess, à la Nigella. We all start out with glorious visions of the latter, only to fall from grace, usually with disgraceful displays of bad language, into scenes reminiscent of the former. The routes of ordering pizza or popping to M&S for a posh ready meal (occasion/guest dependent), though useful in an emergency, can be disheartening. Surely the Gods of hearth and home never find themselves on the phone to Domino’s at 8.00 on a Friday evening?

The secret to a good evening, for both you and your guests, is to keep things simple, and prepare in advance. These basic tips are the path to success:

  1. If you are serving more than one course, make sure that at least one of them is ready and waiting to go well in advance, presenting only a simple matter of serving up, rather than any last minute cooking.
  2. TIN FOIL – even the most carefully executed timings may go wrong, particularly with unpredictable ovens. Cover anything that is ready a little early (particularly meat that is resting) with tin foil or keep in a warming oven and concentrate on the rest.
  3. Sharing food is fun – people enjoy tucking into platters and passing dishes around. It’s a social occasion after all. Pile a single dish high with bits and pieces to eat, and let your guests do the work sharing them out.
  4. If you are feeding more than 4-6 people, single ‘all-in-one’ dishes like a pie or tart that can be cut up and handed out are more suitable than individual plates made up of multiple components, and will make life easier.
  5. Don’t try any radical new equipment, techniques or unfamiliar recipes. Even if you succeed you don’t need the added stress.

The Food:

All the dishes below have been made in recent months for entertaining. They are good examples of the kind of dish that will make your life easy, but are sure to impress and delight your guests.

1. Tempting Terrines:

When it comes to feeding a small crowd (think 8-12 people) I recommend finding your inner Julia Child and heading the terrine route (I don’t mean the greying hard-boiled eggs set in slimy aspic kind). A terrine is a mixture of complementary savoury or sweet ingredients, cooked or prepared in a rectangular mould and then left to cool and set so it can be sliced to serve. There are few satisfactions so great in life as successfully unmoulding a terrine; there is not an ounce of hyperbole in that statement, I intend it completely seriously! Particularly if you are doing several courses though, this is a winner; savoury terrines make exciting starters and sweet ones make elegant desserts. They can be made several days in advance, left to sit in the fridge, ready to umould and slice prior to serving. Terrines are usually an assembly job, and a little bit of effort in these early stages will pay off ten-fold. The most important thing to remember is that the more neatly you assemble your ingredients to start with, the more attractive the final product will be.

terrine 1

Mixed Game Terrine, Pickles and Caramelized Onion Marmalade

To ensure stability, attractive presentation and the best flavour, savoury terrines are often encased in some kind of wrapping. The above game one is held together by thin sliced smoked streaky bacon, and the fish terrine below is wrapped in leek leaves which were pre-blanched and then scraped thin with a knife.

fish terrine 1        fish terrine 2

 Terrine of Crab Mousse, Smoked Eel, Leek & Watercress

A terrine can be made in different ways. The meat terrine above was assembled with all raw ingredients, then cooked in a bain marie and compressed overnight in the fridge to get the best texture out of the meats. The fish terrine was assembled out of layers of ingredients which were already cooked so only needed to be weighed down and pressed in the fridge until ready to serve.

To serve you need a very sharp knife to cut through the layers neatly (particularly with the smoked eel which is quite firm). The game terrine was similar in flavour to a pâté, and was served with some some toasted spelt bread and the pickles. The fish terrine was very rich (the crab mousse was made with brown and white crab meat, sherry, mustard and cayenne), peppery with watercress, and also had a thin layer of potato, so didn’t require anything additional to serve other than a lemon wedge and some rocket leaves.

terrine 2terrine 4

Serving suggestion: Game terrine, Caramelised Onion Marmalade, Pickles, Spelt Toasts

fish terrine 3

Serving suggestion: Terrine of Crab Mousse, Smoked Eel, Leek and Watercress, with Rocket and Lemon

Sweet terrines can be even easier than savoury depending on how you make them. Again, I recommend avoiding the fruit-set-in-jelly route and go for something a little more user friendly, such as a frozen terrine, a bit like a sorbet or ice cream block. This chocolate one below can sit in the freezer for up to a few days waiting to be served.

chocolate terrine

Frozen Triple Chocolate Terrine with Raspberries and Chocolate Sauce

2. Bits and Bobs

If you’re going for something a little more fun and casual, but still want a sit-down meal that isn’t just canapés or finger food, this kind of dining is the way to go. Simply place the food on the table and let everyone dig in and help themselves. The dish below is the perfect example: it is versatile, fun, easy to prepare, and the circular shape makes it easy access for the whole table. It can be made with any fish, meat or veg of your choosing; you simply place a spoon of the mixture into the well of separated out baby gem lettuce leaves. The bright colours, fresh Asian flavours, and all inclusive style dining are sure to cheer up any gathering.

lettuce cups

Peanut, Lime and Coriander Salmon in Lettuce Cups

I served this particular version as an informal starter, with some salted peanuts in the middle for picking at. If you want to make it into a main course, place a bowl of rice with a serving spoon in the middle, perhaps mixed with some peas and a soy, lime and peanut dressing made with a tablespoon each of peanut butter and lime juice, and two of soy sauce. Incidentally, this is a great dish for entertaining anyone on a diet, particularly if you use fish (there is no peanut butter in the actual fish mix in the lettuce cups, only chopped peanuts).

3. Pies, Tarts and Pastry

These kinds of dishes are useful for feeding a crowd, as you are only required to make one dish which is shared out amongst everyone. The dish below is my current go-to dish for feeding vegetarians. It is impressive looking, but might just be one of the quickest and simplest things I have ever made, requiring only 4 ingredients. It is also delicious; die hard meat eaters have had it for dinner without complaining about the lack of animal protein.

plait 1

plait 4

Goat’s Cheese and Roasted Pepper Plait

All you need is a sheet of puff pastry which you lay vertically in front of you. Visually divide the pastry into vertical thirds and slice diagonally down the two sides of the pastry at about 1.5 cm intervals, leaving the middle section whole. Then drain a jar of mixed roast peppers in oil and lay these in a line down the centre of the pastry sheet, top with sliced goat’s cheese, sprinkle on some thyme (or herb of your choice), salt and pepper, and alternately fold the strips of pastry down the sides over each other, to create the plait. Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with poppy seeds if you wish, and bake until puffed and golden. You can use any fillings of your choice, including meat (pre-cooked). Anything that works on a pizza would be great here. Simply slice it up at the table, pass round a salad bowl, and everyone’s happy.

Making a tart for dessert is another way to make your life easier. Make it in the morning, and leave it in the fridge or covered and out of the way. Tarte Tatin is always a crowd pleaser. Having said that, I confess to finding it a little dull. There is something nostalgic about the idea of an apple-caramel combination that I personally find never quite lives up to the idea I have of it in my head. I like to spice up the original recipe by using different fruits and flavours. One of my favourite recipe books ‘Heston at Home’ by Heston Blumenthal has a recipe for peach and rosemary tarte tatin. As soon as I saw the title I knew I had to try it. I served it with some vanilla ice cream and the rosemary caramel alongside.

peach tarte tatin

Peach and Rosemary Tarte Tatin, Vanilla Ice Cream

This recipe will be the first appearing in the ‘stolen goods’ section soon. It is easy and delicious, and if peaches aren’t in season you can use the canned variety (try to get the ones in fruit juice not syrup if possible).

Ultimately, having people for dinner should be a pleasure not a chore, so whatever you choose to go with, make sure to enjoy it!

Ready Steady Cook

Another game this week. This was brought on in part by the same restlessness in the kitchen that I described in ‘Food for the Family’, but mostly because of a very tight budget! Anyone looking for a cheap, fun date night, or even a night of fun with friends that doesn’t involve multiple pints in the pub, give this a go… you never know what you might come up with.

My boyfriend and I recently moved into our new flat, and wanted to celebrate with dinner. We hit a snag, in that neither of us had money to spare that week. Not to be deterred however, I decided we would get around the problem by turning the night into a ready steady cook style game, in which with a limited amount of money we would each do a food shop, then assemble our ingredients, and try to make dinner out of them. The concept of cooking together is a foreign one for us; I am bossy, and unwilling to share my kitchen… Ian is lazy and wouldn’t want to share it anyway. Still, no game is complete without rules, and we compiled ours nonetheless:

  1. We were allowed €5 each to spend in the supermarket on any ingredients of our choosing.
  2. We were not allowed to see what each other had bought until we got home.
  3. We were allowed to use any ingredients that were already in the house as this wasn’t counted within our €5. (If you consider this cheating, try finding enough for an entire meal for €5 in a Dublin supermarket that isn’t just noodles, pizza or a ready meal, and then re-consider).
  4. Everything that we bought had to be included in the meal somewhere.
  5. We had to jointly decide on what to cook, and then make it together.

food shop

Our collective ingredients assembled

The big reveal left us with:

  • new potatoes
  • tin of sweetcorn
  • smoked bacon
  • frozen peas
  • prawns
  • butter
  • chocolate chip cookies
  • and finally, Ian’s “wildcard” ingredient, a jar of Bisto.

Not much to go on. Luckily we had a few more ingredients in the cupboards. These were the additional items we used:

  • garlic
  • thyme
  • chicken stock
  • double cream
  • mature cheddar
  • chorizo sausage
  • risotto rice
  • 1 onion
  • red wine
  • left over spicy tomato sauce

As a starter we went for creamy sweetcorn soup, with crispy bacon and mature cheddar.  We then settled on a spanish theme for our main course, with a chorizo and prawn paella, and a kind of patatas bravas. And for dessert, chocolate chip cookies!

I must first confess to an odd relationship with soup. I am extremely suspicious of soup. Soup, it seems to me, is dangerous culinary territory. Why liquidize an entire meal when you could eat it whole? Why lose the contrast of colours, textures and flavours in a murky mulch of blitzed baby food? … Of course, this is not what soup should be, although sadly it too often is. The questionable re-birth of yesterday’s leftovers is not soup’s only incarnation. But this is why we must be careful with soup. It is too easy to throw a group of ingredients together and rely upon the fact that, in their final state, they will not be easily distinguishable from each other. A good soup dish has a reason to present the ingredients in liquid form.

Our reason was contrast. The dish was built up in layers of flavour and texture: first a chunky sweetcorn base, not yet subjected to ferocious liquidization, scented with garlic and thyme. Then the silky smooth yellow soup, sweet and mellow. Next the crisp dark bronze, salty bacon. Finally the strong creamy cheddar, beginning to ooze into the warm soup.

 

soup 2soup 4

Sweetcorn base in the bottom of the serving dish

soup 3

The soup is added before the garnish

soup 1

The final dish!

I have called our main course a paella, because of the chorizo and prawns, which is a very spanish combination, but really it was more a paella flavoured risotto, which used red wine in the absence of white. It was a delicious and fun experiment, although I’d be uncomfortable serving it to anyone Spanish or Italian; I was taught not to play with my food.

paella

Chorizo and Prawn Paella

The wildcard ingredient, Ian’s Bisto, was used in the patatas bravas. I was in favour of throwing it away, but rules are rules, and all that we needed was some creative thinking. We sprinkled it over the diced potatoes as seasoning before roasting, which worked well (I often do this with crumbled stock cubes, which is delicious). Not exactly haute cuisine, but certainly not bad for a couple of fivers.

patatas bravas

Spicy Tomato Patatas Bravas

So whilst you might say we got lucky, the game worked out. In fact, we were so full that neither of us managed to finish the meal… cookies and leftovers were saved for lunch the next day. I thoroughly recommend trying this, it was great fun. Give it a go and let me know what you come up with!

 

Into the Wild

When I’m at home in England, I am incredibly lucky to always have access to fresh ingredients which I can trace from field to fork, or which have been caught in the wild by my dad, a true caveman at heart. This is such a rustic pleasure, and one that, now I live in central Dublin, is mostly unattainable. Supermarkets tend to stock a basic and limited selection of popular meats and cuts, which they know will leave the shelves before their over-cautious sell-by dates roll around. On the rare occasion they do branch out, there still remains the issue of traceability, which is murky at best. There are very few good specialist butchers and fishmongers (a sad sign of the modern-day all-consuming black hole that is commerciality) and besides, I don’t always have the luxury of being able to afford such a lifestyle. That however, is simply no excuse for not eating well; if they could do it in Southern Italy during the war, then I can certainly do it in Dublin today.

In fact, it’s the Italians who we can learn the most from here. World experts on taking cheap, local (yet high quality, fresh, and tasty) ingredients and turning them into something fantastic, the Italians can make a banquet out of a pile of bones. To really understand exactly what I mean by this, I can do no more than recommend you watch ‘Two Greedy Italians’ with Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo, in particular the episodes on Cucina Bianca and poor man’s food. But for those of us who don’t have the financial backing of a culinary empire, or ready access to Italy’s finest produce and exports, how can we re-create affordable luxury in our own homes, whilst remaining wild at heart?

The answer to this is simple: we must find top quality ingredients, with high flavour pay off, that:

  1. Are in plentiful supply—we all want what we cannot have, and buying into such an attitude has always meant that rare commodities have automatic value. The more readily accessible something is, the less we are willing to pay for it; this seems to make sense, and yet there are many fantastic ingredients that are far more valuable in terms of flavour than their price might suggest, usually because getting your hands on them won’t cause you too much trouble.
  2. Are ethically sustainable—this of course relates to the previous point; the more sustainable an ingredient is, the more available it is. But the question of ethics is an important one. Often, ingredients that are not raised ethically have inferior flavour. You only need to compare a battery farmed chicken with a free-range, corn-fed chicken to know this to be true. Ethically raised ingredients are closer to this idea of ‘the wild’ and ‘the rustic’, and whilst we might not be able to get all of our food this way anymore, that which we can is certainly the tastier for it.
  3. Do not require lengthy processing or maturing times—the more human involvement which goes into a food’s production, the more it will cost. So, whilst aged balsamic vinegar, mature parmesan, cured ham and oaked wine, are both plentiful and usually ethical, their production efforts and costs all add to their expense. (Incidentally, I’m just pointing out what contributes to cost here, not suggesting we avoid these ingredients. That would be a tragedy!)

Here I champion two ingredients which fit these criteria. They are both widely available all over the world, environmentally friendly, ethical, sustainable, cheap, but most importantly, packed full of delicious flavour! Use them wisely, and you will always have a feast to hand…


 The Food

Ceps, Chanterelles, Blewits, Girolles, Morels, Porcini, Oysters, Shiitakes, Trompettes… Mushroom varieties are endless, and grow all over the world. Some are more expensive than others, usually because they are rarer, but, get them dried, buy them fresh, pick them in the wild, even grow them yourself if you’re a real fanatic (make sure you know what you are getting, some are poisonous)—ultimately, mushrooms are everywhere and have a wonderfully versatile, earthy aroma which you can use to flavour endless dishes. Whilst the same cannot be said of luxury cuts of meat or fish, few people are going to pick a fight with you over the ethics of mushroom picking, so when money is tight and you need to create something impressive on a budget, fungi are your friends.

In keeping with my Italian theme, wild mushroom risotto is on the menu; nothing says ‘affordable luxury’ better. Relatively cheap and easy to prepare, risotto is the ultimate in forgiving when it comes to cooking. Done properly it is creamy and indulgent, sophisticated in both flavour and texture. Whether you’re doing it the posh way with shaved truffles, parmesan, and a good wine, or keeping it simple with stock and yesterday’s button mushrooms from the back of the fridge, make a good risotto and you’ve got yourself a banquet.

photo 2

Wild Mushroom Risotto, Poached Duck Egg Yolk

I prefer using dried wild mushrooms for risotto, which is good news for anyone looking to recreate this dish, because these are the most readily available in supermarkets. Dried mushrooms have had their flavours intensified, but most importantly, as you re-hydrate them in hot water you obtain the magical (free) ingredient, in the powerful mushroom stock they leave behind once drained (never throw this liquid away, it will turn your risotto a lovely rich, chestnut-brown and give it the most fantastic flavour). Besides, it seems a shame to chop, fry, and simmer fresh wild mushrooms, which come in such an amazing array of shapes and colours, leaving them indistinguishable from each other, and their dried brothers and sisters. If you do get your hands on some fresh wild mushrooms, fry them whole in some garlic and parsley butter until lightly crisp, and use them to garnish the main dish in place of the egg yolk, to create a beautiful textural contrast.

The egg white here has been removed as it makes no contribution to the dish, flavour, texture or colour-wise. The fat, golden yolk on the other hand, oozing its silky innards all over the rice, completes the creamy texture and complements the mushrooms to perfection. Use whatever eggs you fancy; hen’s eggs will also be delicious. Simply separate the yolks from the whites before immersing in gently simmering water for 30 seconds to a minute.

In my recipe for this risotto I give the option to use different alcohols at the de-glazing stage. Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, and dry white wine all work well, with varying results; I encourage you to try them out and see which you prefer. The wine you drink with the dish will depend on what you select. If one of the former three, go for a fruity Italian red, such as a Barolo or Barbera. Allow them to breathe and mellow out a little before serving, or they will overpower the mushrooms. If you go for a white wine, usually my favourite with risotto as it cuts through the richness well, go for a smooth, full-bodied, dry white such as a Pinot Bianco from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the North-East of Italy.


Tip: Italians will tell you that you should always use a wooden spoon, not a metal one, to make a risotto, in order to avoid breaking the rice grains apart. If this happens the risotto will turn into a stodgy, doughy, unpalatable blob. I think the metal spoon may not be so much the culprit here as over-vigorous stirrers, who sadistically whip their rice as if in the hope that they might pop it in the oven and watch it rise. On the other hand, if you don’t stir it enough, the starch won’t leak out of the rice. This is what creates the creamy, sticky sauce that coats the risotto, and without it you would have a dry, semi-fluffy result. So, as with all things in life, give it just the right amount of love and attention, and you will be rewarded.


For an even quicker, cheaper Italian take on wild mushrooms you can also go the equally delicious pasta route. Opt for wide ribbon pastas such as pappardelle and fettucine; these will hold creamy sauces well. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, make your own fresh pasta using fresh egg yolks and “00” grade flour—the flavour is unparalleled.

mushroom pasta

 Wild Mushroom Pappardelle


Tip: If you can’t find a wide flat pasta such as the above, and aren’t feeling up to making it fresh yourself, snap dry lasagne sheets lengthways, to achieve an uneven ‘maltagliati‘ effect, and then boil in plenty of salted water as you would usually cook dried pasta. Alternatively, par-boil the sheets whole until pliable, then slice into strips to achieve a more even result, before finishing off the cooking process.


For the second of my ‘wild at heart’ ingredients, we look, not to the land, but to the sea. Regarded for a long time as the under-dog of the mollusc world, there are many reasons why we should all be eating more mussels. These shellfish act as a natural filtration system in the ocean; they pose no threat to other species, living off plankton and other microscopic nutrients, cleaning the water as they go. Farmed mussels are grown en masse on ropes suspended in the sea, and are readily available everywhere. These are beneficial for the environment as collecting mussels from the wild involves ripping up the ocean floor—there is no difference in quality between the two types, except perhaps that farmed mussels contain less sand and grit, another bonus. Mussels are fairly hardy, growing in different climates all over the world: sustainable, ethical, environmental, what more could you want?

The answer is flavour, and luckily, when it comes to mussels, you get it by the bucket load. Fresh mussels taste and smell of the sea, and there is nothing so able to conjure the roar of waves in your ears, the whistle of wind in your hair and the tingle of salt on your lips as a steaming bowl of these little coral beauties, nestled in their darkly gleaming shells.

Whilst shellfish might seem like a luxury item, from a price point mussels are remarkably good value. Depending on where you buy from you can find a kilo for easily less than a fiver (serves 2 greedy people, 4 as a starter). However, they do have a very short shelf life, and need to be alive when you cook them, so eat them on the day you buy them.

mussels 1

mussels 2

mussels 3

Mussels in Cider with Bacon and Leeks, Poppy Seed Roll

I made this dish for a group of friends, some of whom had never tried mussels before, and it’s safe to say they went down well! Mussels are often cooked in white wine which is always delicious, but I wanted something a little bolder to go with the bacon and leeks. Make sure you find a good dry or medium-dry cider though, none of this apple syrup that grates the back of your teeth with excess sugar. Bacon, and in fact any kind of salty cured meat, particularly pork, always goes well with shellfish. For the best results go for smoked bacon, which has more impact. Experiment with the herbs: traditional fish herbs like tarragon would work, or thyme for more robust dishes (such as this one). However, my favourite with mussels will always be fresh flat-leaf parsley. There is an almost metallic, iron tang to parsley, which may sound unappealing, but, when paired with the salty mussels in their sweet sea-flavoured juices, there’s no fighting it. It makes sense.

I served some home-made rolls alongside the mussels, scattered with blue-black poppy seeds which matched the shells beautifully. If you’re feeling particularly ‘European bistro’ go for some thin, golden french fries to mop up the juices. However, I find the bread does this job better, and, there being something far more rustic in a bread roll than a french fry, gives the whole thing a more authentic feel.

bread rolls 1 bread rolls 2

White Poppy Seed Rolls

In terms of wines, the above-mentioned Pinot Bianco would be an excellent match, or, if you can find it a Ribolla Gialla from the same region, which is slightly lighter bodied. Advanced cold fermentation technology is used to produce these wineskeeping the finished product very fresh and crisp, making it an ideal match for shellfish.


Tip: As noted above mussels must be alive when cooked as they have a short shelf life and will go bad very quickly once dead. Any that are open before cooking, and do not close up when given a sharp tap, should be discarded. Similarly, any that do not open once cooked should be avoided. Pull out the ‘beards’ and scrape any barnacles off the muscles before giving them a scrub and running under a cold tap to remove any sand or grit before cooking. If you can buy them cleaned or get your fishmonger to do this for you, so much the better.


On a final note, if you can’t decide which to go for first, mushrooms or mussels, then why not pair them together? It may sound strange, but the two can be an excellent match, particularly when married to their very best friends, garlic and chilli. Whilst on holiday in Spain this summer I made a linguine dish with oyster mushrooms and mussels that worked extremely well. Sadly I don’t have any photos, but the recipe can be found, along with the others from this post, on the recipe page. Happy cooking, happy eating!