Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Baked leeks, with bechamel.

Simplicity itself, lifted straight from the encylopaedic pages of the Silver Spoon. Measurements will be vague, imprecise, and guesstimated wherever included.

I'm a lover, not a baker.


A packet of leeks. My packet of leeks contained three.

For the bechamel


Flour (very circa 60g)

Butter (again, circa 60 g)



Black pepper

Cheese (Emmental and Parmesan), grated.


Bring a saucepan to the boil. Top and tail the leeks, and strip off the outer leaves if necessary.

Boil the leeks in lightly salted water for about 10 minutes.

Drain the leeks, and leave them aside for 10 minutes. In a sauce pan, melt a little butter, and gently saute the leeks. Place the leeks in a greased oven dish, and using the saucepan, make a bechamel (see below)*. Flavour the bechamel with a little grated nutmeg, black pepper, and sea salt. For this recipe I used circa 60g each of flour and butter, and an unknown quantity of milk.

Pour the bechamel over the leeks. Sprinkle with the grated cheese, and then the breadcrumbs.

Slap in a preheated oven, uncovered, at gas mark four for about 20 minutes, mid shelf. Check regularly. Remove when the topping is golden.

*For a quick Bechamel, gently melt a knob of butter, say 50g, and when that melts, add in roughly the same amount of sifted plain flour, whisking continually over the heat. Preheat some milk, so that it can be added warm.

Gradually, whisking continually, add the milk little by little (to avoid lumps), allow the sauce to bubble slightly - the bubbling releases and activated the thickening starch, and allows the sauce to come together(if the sauce doesn't bubble, it will thicken up unexpectedly when you reheat it). Add enough milk - gradually, - until the desired thickness is achieved. Normally until the sauce will coat the back of a spoon, but for certain sauces I make it thicker, and certain, thinner. This can then be flavoured with whatever the hell you want. Just black pepper and salt. Mature blue cheese. Gruyere. White wine. It's good for lasagne too.

It should look a little something like this. Sweet tasting slicing of wintry deliciousness. I've also added dry white wine to the bechamel for this dish, and it has worked well. A good stilton instead, lightly added, would underscore the sweetness of the leeks well. Bon appetit.

Memories, mk2

I'm at the circular table, sitting in the two tone cream and burning orange kitchen, my chair jammed up against the corner. The smallest space. Being the youngest I could most easily wriggle into it. My fathers 3/4 pint mug filled. A plate of toast. Pots of Fruitfield marmalade with slivers of zest. Everyday orange juice. A lifetime of sqeez. It's faintly powdery taste remains with me. In the seventies, they never manage to make it taste entirely reconstituted.

It's the sense of abundance from my mothers kitchen that remains with me. Cone shaped plates of food, heaped high. That generous sense of ampleness, with more to come. And always enough for another person. Friends would sometimes be staggered, especially in my college days, by the physical size of the meals we had.

Pork chops with apple sauce. A kidney still attached on my fathers plate, slightly shiny and chocolate redbrown. Heaps of potatoes. Processed peas. Yorkshire relish. I still can't eat potatoes, boiled or mashed, without a generous dollop of yr.

Flash fried steaks, caramelised onions, pepper and salt. Pan drippings poured over boiled potatoes. Mushrooms done in the same pan.

Beef stew, food for days, finished off as a Saturday lunchtime soup. Sweet, the soup tinged orange. Bisto mixed with cornflour as stock. Sweet meet boiled gently for an hour and a half, falling apart on the spoon. The smell and taste and colour and warmth of the memory wells up through all my senses. I can taste the white pepper sweetness of it on my tongue. I can feel it heating me on a November afternoon. I can see the short nod my mother always offers after she has served everyone up. When she has checked each plate, each pot and pan, and everything in the kitchen is exactly as it should be. Plates heaped high, bowls filled. Ample food available. Thick brown bread cut and buttered. That short nod that signalled she was about to eat. That said "that's my family fed".

The metallic crack of the biscuit tin, and the slightly sickly slightly stale smell of custard creams. fig rolls, and rich tea.

Bicuits and cold milk before bed. Gently persuading my mother to up the pre bedtime rich tea ration, and regularly succeeding. My mother never can refuse to give food, of any description. To eat is to live, to feed is to love.

Sunday roasts which seemed to be the size of my childhood head. Boiled ribs, pink, and steaming and salty and delicious. Gammon steaks, grilled. With pineapple. Signalling the introduction of one more foodstuff into my diet. Two if you include the vague approximation of fruit as a foodstuff. Lamb chops, or rack, slathered with vinegary mint sauce fresh from a colmans jar.

The seemingly endlessly large jumble of washing up that followed, preceeded by the endlessly large jumbe of arguments about whose turn it is. Sunday tea. Cold cuts. Cheddar cheese with yr. Brown bread, butter, and dunnes pate. Thick slabs of everything. Jam tarts, or homemade appletart.

This is the stuff of my early life. These are the memories which still inform my own food. The feelings that I hunt down each time I sit somone down at my table. I have my own ritual of completion, much like my mothers, the same urgent sense of hospitality, no, more than that. That same sense of urgent care and pleasureable responsibility. That same sense of generosity and ampleness of spirit found in the hands of both my father and mother....

What are the tastes that have made your memories? Wagon wheels in your lunch box. Dairylea? Pleasantly plastic easi-singles in sand-filled beachside sandwiches? Fizzle sticks. Dib dabs....

Tell me. I'd like to know.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Reading Nigel Slater's post in this weeks Observer, publicising his new book.

Interesting idea - the actual, real food that characterises the British food identity, past and present. Jammie Dodgers, tea cakes - those glutinously addictive marshmallow and chocolate wafer domes. The perfect way to eat a kit kat. Obsessively. Keeping the tin foil perfectly unruffled. And nibbling off the chocolate sides in precisely the right order.

It made me foggily remember our first family visit to an upmarket restaurant. Blakes, of Stillorgan, then a wine red plush carpet seventies slice of steakhouse delight. Waiters in uniforms with red waistcoats. Velour. A rare fabric in my life, and one unfamiliarity convinced me expressed exclusivity. That curious working class feeling stuck with me for many years, far into my twenties. That sense of being fundamentally out of place I always tended to experience in anything above bistro level.

Dressed in my best, striped, pink green and white cotton grandad shirt, and a pair of subchinos. I was an odd shy child, and the dinner was, in part, I think, to commemorate something I had done. Or achieved. Or had done to me successfully.

It's curious how quickly the memory of a smoke filled restaurant at evening time has become nostalgic.

I do remember thinking that it was a strange way of celebrating, as I barely ate anything as a child, and became cantankerously close-minded in the presence of anything that wasn't mince stew. At my fathers instigation, (i.e he picked up the menu and ordered for me, checking with occasionally with me by saying "You'll like it") I ordered steak, through my somewhat optimistic proxy, fried onions, potatoes, with peas on the side.

And I remember liking the experience. I remeber it, perhaps, as the first moment when I bagan to expand my ideas of what was good to eat. When something, even something so simple, was capable of pleasantly surprising me. It took a good couple of years for my horizons to expand to anything like a reasonable degree. The memory of that journey in my life is filled with all sorts of pleasant nooks and crannies. Moments that stay with me, that remind me of things, that are filled with associations.

The smell of raw onion, and fresh mince frying on a pan, as my father pounded out more fresh, homemade hamburgers on a Friday or Saturday night to wean us off the frozen, corn husk and soya packed variety. With black pepper. Black. My mothers Dublin coddle, combining all sorts of things in an addictively warm and homely set of concoctions. I can remember the smell and taste of the very first one she cooked. Corn on the cob with fresh butter. Frozen peas. Frozen peas.

It got me thinking about the food that makes up or sense of ourselves in Ireland. But thats another post.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Post on the Guardian

For my own reference. Me mouthing off on the Guardian website, about this story.

It's Ode On a Grecian Urn.

And it's no trip through the daisies. It begins with a nascent classical rape scene, which has yet to happen.

And it arguably gets increasingly, and cantankerously bitter as it continues, meditating on death, the cold immortality of art, and the essential hollow fleetingness of all endeavour. Ritual, religion, sex and death. Tradition, youth and gods. Those daises you are tripping through too. All dust. All flesh is grass, eh?

Hey. Wait a second. It's a meditiation on sex,death, and human experience that's not written in a Hemmingway style?

Still. Take a look at the final lines and reflect, eh?

""Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

And heres the kicker. And lets put this in muscularly masculine prose just for the sheer "I've got a set of testicles and I'm not afraid to swing them" hell of it.

Hell. Those last lines seem to be talking about aesthetics.

Which is not a million goddamn miles from talking about what tastes good. And it's bang on the money for what looks good. Aesthtics. How in the hell could that have nothing to do with good food?

These are lines that hook right into the mainline, and wrap themselves electrically around the base of the brain and sqeeze some truth into that reptilian little bugger that we all think with. They go right down into the cortex of the thing. Right down deep in that "three meals away from barbarism" place we all associate food and sex and death with. Because it's about those things. It's a beautiful and bitter little slice of profound human experience. And it's not always a pleasant thing.

There's a place for muscularly masculine writing. And there's a place for writing that has a refined sense of the aethetic. Above all there's for good, accurate, genuine journalism that gets it's facts right. (How do you feel about getting the title wrong? And did you read the poem before you used it to make a point?)

Too often, that masculine bent in prose is an excuse for the writer to celebrate themselves at the expense of their subject (I'm thinking of Anthony Bourdain's last several years of self-celebratory prose ripping it's publicity seeking way through whatever lies in his path. I'm thinking about Songs of the Doomed. I'm thinking everything Hemmingway wrote that he hadn't the guts to hate.)

Good writing is good writing. It's about truth. And whether poetic, masculine, feminine, childlike,'s got blood in it. It's got truth in it. And it's about what it's about.

Here endeth the sermon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A roving a roving a roving I'll go....

Note. Blogger keeps eating my tables, pictures, and formatting. For the moment, I give up. Pictures are missing, spaces magically appear, and my sanity patience and teeth are cracking under the strain of it all. I'll sort it out later.

Unknown mushroomUnknown mushroom
Blackberry puree
Unknown mushroom
Guilder berries
Unknown MushroomRosehipsSloes

Above, the uncertain results of a weekends worth of foraging in the great Northwest. Pictured, several uncertain varieties of mushroom, as well as Haws, Guilder berries, Junipers. Blackberry puree, Sloe berries and Rosehips.

The Blackberries got made into sugar free jam, recipe courtesy of the Gorgeous C.


925g of blackberries

285g of honey

Juice of half a lemon

3 heaped teaspoons of agar agar

1 1/2 apples, peeled and chopped up.

Method. Pick through your blackberries, discarding any that are rotten. Add the chopped apples. Puree them, and add the honey. Separately, juice the lemon, and add the agar agar to it, an mix. Reserve.

Heat the blackberries, stirring enthusiastically and constantly. Have some in the background to critique your stirring technique almost as enthusiastically. Allow to boil. The stirring is important as it guarantees an even boil, so all the mix pasteurises. Add the agar agar mix, and stir, returning to the boil. Immediately, pour into sterilised jars - to sterilise jars, boil them in water, and remove them just before jarring, allow to dry off, and use.

Lid the jars tightly, and turn them upside down. Let the jars cool. Keep them at below 7 degrees celsius, and use within ten days of opening.

It tastes fantastic, missing that heavily artificial sugar taste I'm used to. This acually tastes primarily of fruit. The jam we got was quite runny, so perhaps more agar agar next time.

The weekends foraging was interesting. The chestnits I posted about last time are almost ready, browning on the trees. Apparently, the last week in September is the best time to harvest. They are not quite ripe - but will ripen in the bowl - and the squirrels haven't finished off the crop.

For Rosehips, (centre, 3rd row) late September is good for picking, after the first frost. Typically hips are made into syrup, normally using 1 to 1 gugar and hips, and the syrup is used on desserts, and as a basis for juice. Choc full of Vitamin C. This year, however, there are too few Rosehips on the bushes to make picking worthwhile. A standard syrup recipe can be found here.

For Haws(2nd row, 3rd picture). Well. Amongst the most bounteous of hedgerow fruits, apparently, normally they are made into syrup or jelly. This recipe will have to wait. It's in a book Leitrimwards. Suffice to say it's of the quince jelly type, served after dinner with cheese. As a filler, HFW has a recipe in the Guardian, good for Rowan, Elder and Hips too.

Ditto Guilder berries (2nd row, centre).

Finally, sloes, (3rd row, 3rd picture). Sloe gin or sloe wine. These should be harvested in October/November, again, best after the first frost. Sloes are the driest tasting fruit on the face of the earth. Even thinking of eating one makes my mouth contort in fur covered memory.

More to follow as and when. I'd be curious about harvesting haws, as there are so many. And I'm especially curious about this, another HFW special from those good people at River Cottage. Blackvberry flavoured whiskey. A fine thing.