I'm back from my brief hiatus! We got married last week so I have been a little busy.
I'm back from my brief hiatus! We got married last week so I have been a little busy.
The first time I was in Paris, a few years ago, I pretty much subsisted on confit de canard. To me, life was good if I was tucking into a plateful of crispy-skinned duck leg, with its succulent meat, accompanied by some sauteed potatoes, and maybe some braised red cabbage or a simple green salad. A piece of duck confit might also show up in a dish of cassoulet, though I was more like to have that Stateside at a French restaurant, and never tried it in Paris until this year. The duck confit was never fancy, nor should it be. This is a simple food stuff, as glorious and flavourful as it is, using meat that has been preserved using ancient preservation techniques. Essentially it is duck legs that have been slowly cooked preserved in rendered duck fat - once the meat has cooked in a dutch oven or similar vessel you can store the whole legs in a large jar that has been filled to the brim with the duck fat, which will then solidify and preserve the meat. I've been threatening to actually make my own from scratch for years, though have yet to get around to it. My sister made it very successfully last year at her house, and I know it is just something you need to get around to and invest the time in. To serve you simply take a leg of duck, and scrape as much fat off as you can before grilling, broiling, or pan frying, until it is heated through and the skin gets nice and crispy. Two years ago I had a fanastic meal at Chez Robert & Louise, that favourite haunt of Tony Bourdain groupies and many a Parisian. Dinner that night was six escargots followed by a plate of duck confit and the restaurants excellent sauteed potatoes. I posted a fairly glowing review afterwards on Chowhound, and sent my sister and her husband there a few months later, and was eagerly looking forward to when I might get to visit again.
The first time I was in Paris, a few years ago, I pretty much subsisted on confit de canard. To me, life was good if I was tucking into a plateful of crispy-skinned duck leg, with its succulent meat, accompanied by some sauteed potatoes, and maybe some braised red cabbage or a simple green salad. A piece of duck confit might also show up in a dish of cassoulet, though I was more like to have that Stateside at a French restaurant, and never tried it in Paris until this year.
The duck confit was never fancy, nor should it be. This is a simple food stuff, as glorious and flavourful as it is, using meat that has been preserved using ancient preservation techniques. Essentially it is duck legs that have been slowly cooked preserved in rendered duck fat - once the meat has cooked in a dutch oven or similar vessel you can store the whole legs in a large jar that has been filled to the brim with the duck fat, which will then solidify and preserve the meat. I've been threatening to actually make my own from scratch for years, though have yet to get around to it. My sister made it very successfully last year at her house, and I know it is just something you need to get around to and invest the time in. To serve you simply take a leg of duck, and scrape as much fat off as you can before grilling, broiling, or pan frying, until it is heated through and the skin gets nice and crispy.
Two years ago I had a fanastic meal at Chez Robert & Louise, that favourite haunt of Tony Bourdain groupies and many a Parisian. Dinner that night was six escargots followed by a plate of duck confit and the restaurants excellent sauteed potatoes. I posted a fairly glowing review afterwards on Chowhound, and sent my sister and her husband there a few months later, and was eagerly looking forward to when I might get to visit again.
I live in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, and I really covet space. What I most covet, however, is a few square yards of dirt to grow some vegetables in. I was very pleased to read this week that the Obamas are planting a kitchen garden at the White House, and resolved to rig up some kind of herb and tomato garden outside one of my windows this year.
When I was a kid we had a vegetable patch at the end of our back garden, which was not uncommon in Ireland (and Britain) in the 1970s - certainly I remember a lot of gardening shows on TV and cooking programmes that would allude to using one's own garden bounty. We had the garden going most of the year round, and we variously grew runner beans (this was always our biggest crop, we'd eat them later from the freezer for months), sweetcorn, peas, purple-sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, carrots, parsnips, beets, rhubarb, onions, and horseradish (this one was a scourge - very hard to control and would appear everywhere in the garden, even years after you thought you'd gotten rid of it) along with radishes, scallions, lettuces and tomatoes in a "salad patch". We also had a few soft fruit bushes - redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries, and gooseberries - and strawberry beds, as well as two apple trees and a sour cherry tree. We would make our own compost from garden cuttings, or order horse manure or spent hops as fertilizer. It was always hard work breaking the ground after the winter to get the garden ready for spring. We'd spend hours out there in frosty weather turning soil, a little robin keeping us company as he grabbed meaty worms from the fresh soil while we dug.
I can't say I've that much of a sweet tooth. I always go for savory snacks, I like my drinks bitter or sour, I rarely eat candy, and I seldom order dessert when I eat out - or when I do, I share. However, there are a whole bunch of things I love, which I manage to eat in moderation - such as gelato, sorbet, creme brulee, tarte tatin, chocolate, licorice, salted caramels, red velvet cake ...
In Paris recently we had some amazing crepes with a salted caramel sauce, washed down with a nice glass of calvados. Shortly after as we got home from the trip I started looking for a recipe so I could replicate that dessert. I did a Web search and decided to make a batch of caramel sauce from a recipe I found on smittenkitchen.com, though I made mine a tad lighter than their one. It turned out great, brought me right back some I'd had in Paris this past February, and it kept really well in a jar the fridge (still good more than 3 weeks later). We used it on a bunch of things, including crepes (on "Pancake Tuesday") and ice cream.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is "What is Irish Cuisine?". The strength of any food prepared and eaten in Ireland usually lies in the native raw ingredients - as an island, and one with many lakes and rivers, fish and seafood are plentiful; cows graze in grass fields (they are largely fed on an all-grass diet, except in winter, when they eat silage, which is a fermented grass product.); lots of vegetables and fruit are grown locally (others are imported from Israel and the greenhouses of Holland, amongst other places) ...
A good traditional Irish dish will be a simple affair allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. Although widely used today, what traditional Irish cuisine - especially country cooking - lacks is many of the herbs and spices that many other European countries leverage in their cooking, only showing up occasionally. Perhaps one reason for this, amongst many, is that the Romans never conquered Ireland, so could not leave their culinary legacy, to name one group whose brought seeds and grew plants as they settled throughout the world. In Ireland, two millenia ago, they found a place that was simply too cold, as their name for it informs us: Hibernia - "land of winter". Certainly there was some later trade with Spain and other countries with a legacy of flavourful cuisine, and many of the large manor houses, as well as middle- and upper-class city-dwellers near sea-ports, may have had access to spices, but for the most part they are absent from the few "traditional" Irish dishes, where the cooks relied on a few wild green herbs to add flavour to their meals.
So, today is St. Patrick's Day. I'm sitting in my Greenwich Village apartment, listen to the noisy throng outside on Bleecker Street move from bar to bar, wondering if I'll get any sleep tonight. I was even out for a pint myself (just the one, though I've some more in the fridge) at the Slaughtered Lamb on West 4th Street. All around the country people have been tucking into corned beef and cabbage with gusto. Corned beef and cabbage, is Irish-American, not native-Irish per se, an example how adaptation and use of local ingredients by immigrant ethnic groups leads to all kinds of legitimate new cuisines. Back home we'd eat bacon and cabbage (bagun agus cabaiste in Irish*), which is a traditional Irish dish, and one often eaten on St. Patrick's Day, along with potatoes - either boiled or as champ, which is mashed potato with chopped scallions in it. Not sure why corned beef came to be used in the USA, perhaps beef seemed "fancier", a way of showing one's relative prosperity in America, than the pork and ham products they'd like have eaten more of (when they even ate meat) back home. Regardless they are both essentially "boiled dinners" and can be made entirely in a single pot if one likes.
Tonight I made "Dublin Coddle" at home, not having had the foresight to procure some boiling bacon on time. I ate coddle several times as a child, though it wasn't exactly a staple in our house - I think my mum tried to steer us clear of many of the traditional Irish dishes as she experimented with international cookery. Dublin Coddle is a simple one-pot affair, a simple stew based on sausages and bacon (use rashers, the meaty kind of back bacon you can find at Irish and English specialty stores), and cooks fairy quickly. It is not very complex, but has a broth that is more flavourful than the startlingly few ingredients might suggest. Don't be tempted to mess around with the ingredients - don't, for instance, use a chicken stock as a base, don't brown the meat before adding the other ingredients, and don't use any herbs other than some parsley. But most of all, don't add a carrot for colour or flavour (just as you shouldn't with Irish stew). Regarding potatoes, in general the Irish like a floury potato, which will break down a little in the broth. You could try mixing your potatoes, one waxy, one floury, so you have some potato in the stew with a little more body, if you like.
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 medium onions, quartered
8 pork sausages (chipolata or other Irish or English breakfast sausage)
Freshly ground black pepper
Large sprig of flat-leaf parsley, and more, minced, to garnish
Salt, to taste
In a large pot, place the sliced potatoes in one layer, followed by the onions, then the sausage, then the bacon. Add a good few spritzes of black pepper, and the sprig or parsley. Add cold water to just cover. Bring to a boil slowly, and then simmer over medium heat for about 30 more minutes. Skim the surface occasionally to remove any scum. Check the seasoning, and add salt if required (the bacon may have been salty enough) and more black pepper. Serve in bowls, sprinkled with chopped parsley.
We drank some Murphy's Stout with ours. Yes, yes, not a Dublin drink at all, so I was mixing it up a little. La Fheile Padraig Sona Daoibh,everyone!
* We don't call the language "Gaelic". It is called "Irish", if you are referring to it in English. If you are speaking Irish, then you can call it "Gaeilge".
One of my favourite childhood scent memories, and a favourite smell to this day, is sardines grilling on an open fire on the beaches of Southern Spain, where we used to spend family vacations. We used to go every year to a little fishing village called Los Boliches, which has since been absorbed into the municipality of the more partying-orientated Fuengirola, though Los Boliches still retains its own sense of identity along this stretch of the Costa Del Sol.
In the early days, from the mid-seventies to the early 80s, the main road along the seafront was still lined with little fisherman's cottages, before they gave way to new developments in recent decades. Early every morning, shortly after midnight, the fishermen would push their boats out into the Mediterranean, and return later in the morning with their catches, just as holidaymakers were settling onto the beaches for a day's sunbathing. Enthusiastic local kids would help the fishermen haul their catches and boats out of the water, dragging them up the beach. The daily catch would end up in a few of the beach shack seafood restaurants, or get sold at local markets.
There was a very strong sense of the sea, and the fishermen's livelihood, being a central part of Los Boliches, as there was in many similar towns along the coast, many of which had not yet totally succumbed to tourism. Every year there would be a festival of Santa Carmen, the Virgin of the Sea. During this festival a garland-covered effigy of the virgin would be carried from a local church, on the shoulders of local sailors in white uniforms, along the narrow village streets to the seafront, led my the parish priest. The whole route was lined with participants and onlookers, and the air was fragrant with incense. As the reached the water, by now a huge throng of people behind them, they waded in shoulder deep for a blessing of the waters - and thus the fisherman's lives - before making the return journey. Fireworks followed, and a general fiesta took place for several days. Many fishermen lost their lives along this stretch of the Mediterranean each year, and a regular sight around town was widows who dressed in black for the rest of their lives after they lost their husbands.
Every few hundred yards you'd have a beach shack, called a "chiringuito", which over the years have modernized without losing too much of their charm. Each chiringuito - the one we went to, and I still visit, is called Los Nausfragos - also ran the sunbeds and other amenities on a stretch of beach. You could get a couple of sunbeds and a parasol in the morning, head up to the shack for lunch, or have them bring you something down, maybe head back home for a siesta during the really hot part of the day, and then resume your beach-activity in the late afternoon. These restaurants specialize in the seafood they get from the fishermen each morning, and also have a few other dishes - pork, chicken, hamburgers for the fixed-in-their-ways touristas.
My favourite things to eat there are some simple grilled monkfish or red snapper, or maybe some deep-fried whitebait, or a paella. And the sardines. The smell of them cooking is unforgettable, and punctuates walks along the promenade in the evenings, as one gets closer to another chiringuito. They grill the sardines, which are large, in old fishing boats that have been filled with sand - five or six each on a bamboo skewer, in front of a fire built using old olive wood, which imparts its complex smoke. The sardines, which had been sprinkled with sea salt before grilling, are served with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of wedges of fresh cut lemon. Washed down with a cold San Miguel or Mahou. Really simple, and probably just about perfect.
[photo coming when I get my scanner working!]
Last night I was determined to put a meal on the table using just stuff I already had in the fridge.
I had some penne I'd picked up recently at Raffetto's on Houston Street - though they make fresh pasta, in my opinion they are best dried pasta purveyor in the city. Not sure where it comes from, but I've always had consistently good results with it. Penne is my "house pasta", along with linguine. In the fridge I had had a small end piece of a hot sopressatta that I'd gotten at Faicco's on Bleecker Street (a superb Italian Pork Store) a couple of weeks ago. I also had half a bunch of young asparagus in the vegetable and some fresh thyme. Nolan loves various kinds of dried sausages, and asparagus is one of the few vegetables he'll eat without too much protest, so I figured I'd base something around those. I decided to do something with an cream and egg yolk base, both of which I nearly always have around, and that I'd throw in some parmesan cheese. I also wanted to use a little cooking apparatus as possible, so this was going to be a one-pot affair.
I learned to use lemon zest to finish a lot of things from a chef friend of mine who relied on it as one of her culinary signatures, and I think it is very effective when used in the right places. The above dish is basically a carbonara-type sauce with some veggies thrown in, and a dried sausage instead of pancetta. You could used various types of salumi, I think, and a few vegetables could be substituted for the asparagus - peas for instance, maybe even some butternut squash to take it in a different direction. Herbs-wise, you could use fresh oregano or marjoram, or go lighter with something like basil, or parsley. You could also throw in the red pepper flakes at little earlier if you want the dish to be hotter.
Last night we went to the widely anticipated Minetta Tavern, on MacDougal Street, pretty close to our apartment in Greenwich Village, to celebrate Tamara's new job. The place was bought about a year ago by restaurateur Keith McNally, of Balthazar and Pastis fame, and turned into a bistro with most of the original decor - tin ceiling, tiled floor, framed caricatures on the walls, etc. - either left intact or carefully restored or replaced.
I'd never eaten at the original, which used to have a little press clipping in the window saying it was Matthew Broderick's favourite restaurant, though I did pop in for a cocktail a couple of times shortly before it closed. The new menu is largely French with some Spanish influences. When we arrived we stood at the bar and had a couple of house cocktails - a "Josephine" which was gin, apricot liquor, and elderflower liqour-based, garnished with a liqour-infused dried apricot, and a "Ginger on the Rocks" (I think that's the name, I'll update later if not) which was bourbon, absinthe, muddled limes, and ginger ale. Both were good, the latter especially well-balanced.
We started out with the Roasted Bone Marrow, served with toasted baguette soldiers and onion confit. It was nice, but even though we shared it it proved to be a little too rich as a set-up for our meal. Another problem is that the fat in bone marrow can congeal quite quickly, and the way the bone is cut - lengthways instead of the more common cross cut - meant this happened before we'd finished it. The bread service was good, the butter especially delicious, and served at a good spreadable room temperature.
For main course Tamara had the Trout Meuniere which came with crabmeat and brioche croutons, and I had the Poulet Fermier Roti - I'm a sucker for roast chicken, and will always try it in this kind of place. It proved to be a winner, and it came served with mashed potato and spinach. We got a side of Pommes Anna, which were actually the highlight of the night for me - beautifully cooked in duck fat, tender and wonderfully crisp on top, with a light sprinkling of fresh thyme and sea salt to serve, and presented in a small cast iron casserole. I'd go back to the bar and order a drink and a dish of those any evening!
We washed everything down with a bottle of Cotes de Jura, a 2005 I think. It was light and dry, and complemented our dishes quite well. We finished up with Pots de Creme, which came as a trio of coffee, vanilla, and chocolate cremes.
Service was very good, from the front of house, through to the bartender, the waiter, and the busboys. We initially showed up on spec at 6:00 to see if they'd take us, but it was full - not too much surprise there, the place just opened the night before. We snagged a 9:30 reservation, and when we got back a few hours later they remembered us by name without even going to the book, which was nice. I'd like to make this my neighbourhood place, though right now it is going to be really hard to get into. I do want to try one of their two burgers soon (they have a classic and a deluxe type burger), as well as the pig's trotter. I also spotted Beamish stout on the bar menu, which I'd have tried except we were celebrating and a cocktail seemed more festive.
Guinness is the stout of choice in Dublin, brewed as it is on the banks of the River Liffey which runs through the heart of the city. I first started drinking it around the age of 20, I think, having cut my teeth in beer drinking with dreadful Irish-brewed versions of American and Australian beers and lagers. For a long time Guinness had been perceived as an old man's drink, but through successful advertising campaigns in the 1980s it began to reach a younger audience. My dad was a Guinness drinker, draft pints, and I remember my grandfather - on my mother's side, a Dubliner - drinking Guinness which he poured from a bottle.
The thing about Guinness that surprises most people who've yet to try it is that is it light. The body is light compared to many beers, and it doesn't contain many calories. However, the taste is a little bitter, which led many novice drinkers to cut it with a little blackcurrent cordial, such as Ribena (a concentrate of blackcurrant juice and sugar). Living in the States now, I don't see this custom at all, as blackcurrent is not a flavour that is really in the mainstream, and I'm hoping the practice has died out back home!
I happily admit though that Guinness is not my favourite stout, even if I'm betraying my Dublin roots. I'll probably go with Murphy's, brewed in Cork, for that. You can get it quite readily in a few New York bars (Molly's Shebeen on 3rd Ave and 22nd St pours a nice pint). It is not as bitter as Guinness, so maybe a little more approachable as a first stout. Then there's Ireland's other brand of stout, Beamish, also from Cork, and in a distant third place after Guinness and Murphy's in terms of popularity and availability. I consider Beamish, which I really like, and I'll jump on it if I see it on tap, to be the RC Cola to Guinness's Coke, and Murphy's Pepsi.
Whichever stout you drink, always make sure that it is poured correctly, and that you drink it correctly. It is poured in a two-step process, the barman leaving it to rest after it is about 2/3 - 3/4 full, before topping it off. My advice is not to order it in a US bar where they're all about volume and filling glasses and pitchers with Budweiser as fast as they can. Once your cold pint is placed in front of you leave it to rest until it is completely settled. All motion should have stopped in the glass, and there will be a creamy white head on top of a deep black liquid - you'll see the colour go from a dark brown to black as the head settles. Now you're ready to drink. Don't sip. Take gulps. The head will leave rings down the glass as you drink, and when you're finished you should see about 8 to 10 rings. Enjoy!
When I was a kid I wanted to be a chef. I caught the bug early on at home, helping my mum out arond the kitchen. My earliest forays into cooking were mainly in the area of pastry. I remember mixing up cake mixtures, rolling out pastry for tarts, kneading dough for bread. The first recipe I devised on my own was for a ginger snap biscuit - I seem to recall it contained flour, brown sugar, ground ginger, and butter.
We also make a lot of candy - hard toffee (butterscotch was our favourite) and fudge mainly. We also occasionally made Turkish Delight, marshmallows, and coconut ice (there's a retro candy for you, crazy pink and white stuff - I think it is based on an Indian sweet, coz I've tasted stuff like that from places in Jackson Heights, but given an Anglo name).
Speaking of marshmallows, my friend Jai in Seattle made some amazing marshmallows recently that she sent us. So moist and pillowy! She ought to be making them full-time. Also speaking of marshmallows, Tamara made Nolan a batch of pink rice crispie treats recently to take to school on Valentine's Day. I'd not had them before - when I was a kid we'd make rice crispie cakes with chocolate instead of marshmallows. They are super-easy to make, and were a staple at kids birthday parties back in the day. The also make a good lunchbox treat. I made a batch a few nights ago and they were a big success.
Back to the childhood cooking lark, I loved picking up cookery books from the library - much to the amusement of my teacher, and bemusement of my classmates - when we took class field trips to the village library, and I spent hours poring over cooking magazines at home. My mother had a good collection of cookbooks, amongst them a couple by the then-popular Graham "Galloping Gourmet" Kerr. It was actually from one of his books that I had an early taste epiphany, as I took a fresh strawberry and sprinkled it with freshly-ground black pepper. Try it, it works!
Of course I never did get to become a chef. Fast-forward about 8 or 10 years from when I had first started cooking, and many of the options presented to me were less-than-appealing. Certainly I could have gone the old-school route and headed off to a kitchen somewhere abroad and apprenticed (though I was probably already a little old, and spoke very little French, or any other foreign languages). In Ireland it seemed to me that the only cooking courses were aimed at those interested in working in hotels, corporate cafeterias or institutional kitchens. This was Ireland in the late-1980s, deep in recession, and there were very few restaurants, and we didn't have a culture of eating out and fine-dining on a regular basis. Like any other field, prospects were quite bleak, so I chose a different path, and spent some time in the family business. There was also another issue that would have been problematic had I chosen a culinary career at the time - my vegetarianism.