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Thursday 27 February 2014

A Celebration of Sandwiches

The gCounter
We are a nation of sandwich eaters. Every cafe, counter and hatch does its own variation, with ingredients ranging from withered lettuce to flash fried steak, from slathered 'spread' to flavorful aioli. But which is the best? Sally and John McKenna recently took this question to the streets of Dublin and the Twitterverse to find out. From an close-fought battle the Pulled Pork from Brother Hubbard was crowned the Capital's 'ultimate sandwich'.

Last year the Hellman’s Best Sandwich Competition saw food establishments asking their customers to vote for their favourite sandwich in Ireland, and the people of Galway people proved we were particularly fond of ours. The title of 'Ireland’s Top Sandwich' went to The Cellar Bar on Galway's Englinton Street. They won the day thanks to Chef Aidan Cleary’s tempting 'Cajun Spiced Chicken Ciabatta'. Not only that, the City of the Tribes also scooped a runner-up spot in the same competition with the Warm Toasted Ciabatta with Beef Medallions from McCambridge’s, proving that Galway is Ireland’s overall top spot for sandwiches. The three winners were awarded a trophy, and professional panini grills, which will come in handy for this year’s competition which is shaping up to be a lot tougher.

A lot of people wrongly consider a sandwich to be a simple construct of a sliver of processed meat or a square of processed cheese between two pieces of white sliced pan. They think that a sandwich is just a sandwich. Sadly, this tragic, flaccid excuse for a meal is a lunchtime staple for too many who will never know the magic of a lovingly made 'buttie'. Let's face it, no truly good sandwich is ever going to win any awards in the health stakes but then if you are looking for a low carb, paleo option you'd better have a salad.

If, however, you do like a nice sandwich now and again, what and where is the best sandwich in Galway? Like breakfast, sandwiches are a matter of personal taste. People feel strongly about the one they buy, they are closely linked to where they live, work or socialise. There are places that are new and cool and places that are institutions - my own extremely well-researched preferences are the long- running 'Hot Tuna on Foccacia' in Anton's, the newcomers G Counter Club Sandwich and the 37West Chicken Melt. McCambridge's is the place to go when you want to go off-piste. Here your sandwich doesn't have to follow any rules. It doesn't have to have any salad in it. Or cheese. Or ham. The menu board is just a list of suggestions. You get what you want, how you want it. Stuffing with beetroot? No problem! Sounds grim but hey, it's your sandwich.

From months of intensive testing and an incredibly close-fought battle, not including the franchise-type like Subway and O'Briens, who are a little lacking in both passion and personality. My crack team of sandwich connoisseurs have come to a decision. The best sandwich in Galway at this moment in time is... the Bánh Mì at the Bierhouse, Dominick Street where the boys from Entre-pans have been taking the art of sandwich making to a whole new level. From their tiny open kitchen in the Bierhouse, these master sambologists serve a short but brilliantly diverse menu of five sandwiches. A celebration of sandwiches in all their forms made to a very high standard, the others to chose from are - the three cheese grill; a smoked mackerel or tofu Po' Boy; their SBLPT, (a smoked bacon BLT with the genius addition of fried potatoes) priced around €6/7.

Bánh mì
A bánh mì is essentially the only sandwich in Vietnamese cuisine and it is quite a tour de force, with crusty baguette, hot seasoned pork, creamy pate, fresh coriander and a drizzle of mayonnaise. Entre-pans' take on it has a wonderful mix of flavours with an excellent crunchy fresh savoy cabbage 'slaw, studded with pear and apple and garnished with a perfect cucumber pickle. Each and every bite filled with intense and delicate layers of flavors, add a portion of house spuds at €2.50, potatoes sautéed in butter with onions and a tipple from the Beirhouse's extensive menu of craft beers and this sandwich will be hard to beat.

Thursday 13 February 2014

a matter of taste...

Loughrea, charming lakeside town or the last outpost of civilization before you reach the dangerous 'midlands', a place similar to Middle Earth inhabited by orcs, elves and dwarves. You'd be well advised to play it safe and stay inside of our county borders, and if you do, it is quite possible to dine well in Loughrea.

Restaurants and pubs in Loughrea have a fair selection of good quality meals and snacks using locally sourced ingredients. The hotels too have locally sourced cuisine on the menu with great local lamb and beef farmed nearby. As in any sizable town there are, of course, takeaways offering fast food, fish and chips, Indian and Chinese.  For something a cut above you can't go wrong with the pizza and pasta at il Porcetto from their affordably priced menu. 'The Hungry Bookworm' a lovely eclectic cafe and wine bar and where you can enjoy their variations on classic dishes while also perusing the literary classics is well worth exploring too. 

My latest visit to Loughrea was to 'Taste Matters' a small restaurant at the West Bridge end of town. The large commercial building it is housed in is not going to win any beauty contests but they make the very most of their space with plain wooden tables and chairs, bare floors and slatted timber ceiling. The walls are hung with bright works by local artists, it has a certain charm and cheerfulness to it.

The stated aim is to serve ‘honest, fresh tasty food in a friendly casual environment’ and under the direction of Slovakian chef Michal and his front of house partner Jirka from the Czech Republic, they certainly manage that along with their friendly, efficient staff. The point here is the food, which is sort of brilliant. 

Most of the dishes are born of careful shopping, the seafood chowder and winter salad especially are won or lost with their ingredients. A simple slice of pork belly on a fennel spiced red cabbage puree is wonderful, the brie melt was enjoyable with a lovely beetroot and celeriac slaw although the bread was a dense foccacia rather than the advertised sourdough.

The menu changes regularly, according to what is in season, main courses are typically organic salmon, duck breast and roast loin of lamb or pork stuffed with black pudding.

A slow cooked rib eye is so, so tender, almost at the wonderful point of total collapse into its celeriac and dill sauce. The sauce so shiny you can see your reflection in it. A piece of pan fried hake is crispy skinned perfection on one of the nicer risottos I've found outside of Italy, creamy and studded with green peas and fresh pesto.

Desserts were a good chocolate mousse, an excellent zesty lemon tart, a chocolate cake with the right amount of 'gooeyness' in the middle and a passion fruit parfait. They were all very good with the lemon tart winning 'best in show' for that night. For those of you doing the maths here, no we didn't eat four desserts by ourselves! I brought the children, there's a great kids menu too.

The compact organic and biodynamic wine list (featuring wines from small family-owned vineyards in Chile, France, Italy, Argentina and Spain) contains just 16 wines with the majority of them at €26 and below. All are offered by the glass, half carafe or bottle and there is a nice touch with the 'Wine Flight' three glasses of white, red or dessert wines of your choice reasonably priced at €12. A couple of Irish craft ciders, a Czech Pilsner on draft and O'Hara's bottled beers from Carlow round out the drinks menu nicely.

Michal and Jirka have the magic formula, Jirka at the front of house is hugely likable, while Michal in the kitchen is clearly talented. The cooking is both traditional and innovative and best described as European fusion, inspired and influenced by many cuisines. These guys also have the best prices for tea and coffee, with a tea costing only €1.50, while coffee is €2 - and their coffee is great.

Taste Matters have been building up a good local clientele and were certainly worth the drive from Galway. The restaurant was busy when we visited, all tables filling quickly and a large family party of seventeen. Another testament to the broad appeal as the family ranged from toddler to retirement. Booking would be advised especially on a Friday or Saturday. These guys know what they are doing, now they just need everyone else to know what they are doing too. People of Loughrea, this is a clear case of use it or lose it. 

Taste Matters, Millennium house, West Bridge, Loughrea. Tel: 091 880010

Thursday 9 January 2014

a very good year...

This is no ordinary sandwich, this is a gCounter sandwich.

2013 was a fascinating year in the world of food. We met the Cronut, a delicious donut-croissant hybrid. We filled our boots with Korean Kimchi and pickled anything that could fit in a kilner jar. We munched our way through veritable bouquets of flowers strewn on our wooden platters and washed it all down with beer from the local micro-brewery. The biggest news of course was the food fraud of the 'Horsemeat Scandal' with food manufacturing companies finding themselves in deep manure as a Euro-wide problem was uncovered. There was a second blast of the stun gun to the meat trade with the Irish Farmers’ Association discovering that many Irish brands of sausages, bacon and ham are not Irish at all. But at least they are made from pork, folks, so that's something we should be grateful for, right? With consumers understandably more cautious, we can only hope that lessons have been learned.

RIP DaTang Noodle House
It's been a very good year for food in Galway, with just a few minor blips. Notably the recent sudden loss of DaTang Noodle house, a way of life for many people over the years. It will be sadly missed by myself and others I'm sure. But Chi is there now and I'm sure, while it is not the same, it will be equally as well received in that thriving little part of town. We also had the closing of Cava in Dominick Street. But proving that you can't keep a good restaurant down they bounced back a few months later. I've have dined deliciously at Cava's reincarnation Cava Bodega more than a few times since it opened this May. For its pork skin crackling and a wealth of other riches, this has become one of my favorite places for sending family and friends with kids. Never close again please!

There were great complete newcomers to the scene also. The very trendy G-counter opened at the end of April in Wellpark with good food in a fun, casual setting. Its menu consisting of a variety of oversized sandwiches, salads, rotisserie chicken and an on-site bakery with lots of sweet treats became popular from day one. Similarly, less than a year open is West37, down the busy road behind NUIG, teeny tiny, with student life coming and going. The Chicken Melt sandwich cost seven quid, lasted just seven minutes, but I think about it every day. Why can't all sandwiches be that good? Chez Azur with its stunning views out over the docks brought a welcome addition to the upscale, high-end side of things and the prawn, mint and petit pois starter I had there was one of the best dishes of the year without a doubt.

Chez Azur
Happily, also, Aniar managed the feat of keeping their Michelin star. The amount of hard work and pure dedication that goes into being awarded a star is an impressive feat, the collective stress then of keeping it under the watching eyes of your peers is another thing entirely, but they seem to have perfected the formula. Curiously, with the vagaries of TripAdvisor, Aniar currently has a ranking of 34 in Galway, outclassed seemingly by An Cupan Tea, The Front Door and O'Connors Pub amongst others. Ah TripAdvisor, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

The experts and trend forecasters have their lists all ready as they do every year. More chefs cooking invasive species? In 2014, they tell us, we can expect to see more locavore chefs doing their part to do away with invasive species by finding creative ways to cook with them. Grey squirrel with giant rhubarb anyone? The farm-to-table trend will continue to grow, with restaurants taking things to the max and continuing a trend pioneered long ago here in Ireland by the good people at Ballymaloe.

Here in Ireland we tend to like to do things our own way however, so while the rest of the world will apparently be sous-videing at home, devouring sunchokes, embracing beef as 'the new pork' and eating high-end Mexican food (apparently not the contradiction it might appear to be), here are my own predictions for the food scene in the West for the coming year. Yes, it's true! I can tell the future.

Craft ciders continue to rise.
So, if 2013 was the year of the pig, with pulled pork and suckling pig featuring on many menus, then 2014 looks to be shaping up nicely to be the year of the goat, with small producers popping up with artisan products from milk, yogurts and cheeses. As the microbrewery market in Ireland continues to rise, there’s still room in the market for great craft ciders. Be on the lookout for more variations like apple wine and a rather spectacular apple brandy now being produced in Ireland. And finally there will be a lifting of the smoking ban here in Galway restaurants. Yes, there will be smoked everything, from lamb to yogurt to fudge. If you can eat it, they will smoke it. So put that in your smoker and here's to lighting up 2014.

Published in the Galway Advertiser  2/1/2014

Thursday 5 December 2013

'Celebrating Irish Salmon' by Máirín Uí Chomáin

Celebrating Irish Salmon is a new and very beautiful book from food writer Máirín Uí Chomáin. This Connemara native is a former chair of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, an active member of the Slow Food movement, and holds an honorary MA from NUI Galway in recognition of her commitment to home economics.

The salmon has been part of Ireland’s natural heritage for over 10,000 years. From time immemorial, the ‘prince of fish’ has been caught and eaten here, bartered and traded, celebrated in lore and legend, almost as much a symbol of Ireland as the harp or the shamrock. 'Celebrating Irish Salmon' presents over 100 recipes by acclaimed chef Máirín, with contributions from other cutting-edge chefs, smokehouses and fisheries and including all of Ireland’s Michelin-starred restaurants. Ken Whelan, our foremost fisheries scientist, provides contextual notes on the history of salmon in Ireland, and Walter Pfeiffer’s vibrant, contemporary photographs bring the dishes to life.

This book is the definitive book of salmon from lifecycle and history, covering cooking terms and equipment, starters and canapés, brunches and lunches with extensive beverage matching as a bonus. The thing that appeals about Máirín's food is its freshness and flavour, equal parts comfort food and lighter, more exotic tastes. 'Celebrating Irish Salmon' is Máirín’s fifth cookbook and is my favorite (so far) and one of the best books of the year. This is a book for everyone and more especially a taste of Connemara and the West of Ireland. She has penned a gem guaranteed to whet the appetite of seafood lovers. It seems there are as many ways to cook salmon as there are stars in the sky and here captured between the covers of this handsome tome are some of the very best. The book's second launch at Lough Inagh Lodge in Recess, Connemara, on Sunday, December 1st was attended by what must surley have been record numbers for an event of this kind. Testament to the high regard in which Máirín is held.

As I have been writing my little column for the Galway Advertiser for 2 years now and have met many people who work with food, from producers, farmers, chefs to writers and photographers. I am lucky now to count many of them as friends. But few people I have come across have made as much of an impression as Máirín. A unique woman and a beautiful soul with a large dollop of 'devilment' running through it all. She has the warmest of smiles and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her emotions are never far from the surface and is just as quick to be moved to tears as reduced to peels of laughter. When it comes to the list of 'who's who' and evaluating the very best of modern Irish cuisine, it will be impossible not to have some link to the pioneering spirit of this ghillie's daughter from Connemara, who I am proud to consider as a friend.
Máirín Uí Chomáin {pic by Mona Wise}

Celebrating Irish Salmon is published by Artisan House Editions in Letterfrack, Co Galway and is on sale in all good bookstores, priced at €20. It is also available at www.artisanhouse.ie with a special launch offer of two books for €30 plus p&p.

Published in The Galway Advertiser, 5/12/2013

Saturday 2 November 2013

Festive Foodie Gift Challenge

This is my first time hosting a guest post and it's a good one. I met a lot of lovely people on my Page to Plate course back in May and one of them was the lovely Karon Grieves. She is a Scottish homecrafter with a particular interest in the concept of the larder, something fast dying out from refrigeration and our marvelous invention 'the utility room'. She is also a freelance author, the resident expert on BBC Radio Scotland for all things homely and has published a few books for you to peruse. I love her blog and her photography is just wonderful. But most of all she is funny, fiesty and a good friend... and she boils a perfect 6 minute egg. Do join in the challenge if you can, her book is a little treasure as is she. She also has very big feet #justsayin'. Over to you Karon!

Hi I’m Karon from Larder Love and I’m thrilled to be visiting here with Amee and to be able to share one of my recipes and a bit of fun news with you. To celebrate the launch of my new Bookette, Gourmet Gifts For Christmas (available from my web site www.karongrieve.com) and the Ebook version which is available now on Amazon Kindle I am hosting a Bloggers Challenge on my web site during the month of November.

Festive Foodie Gift Challenge

It is all about 'Foodie Gifts' and I’d like everyone to share their favorite foodie gift idea (from homemade drinks to cookies, jams, pickles, jellies and preserves, anything you can eat or drink in the gifty department) with a recipe (must have photo on your post and only one entry each please),  the challenge ends on Monday 18th November I’ll get a guest blogger to choose their favorite and the winner will receive a paperback copy of my Gourmet Gifts For Christmas. All the entrants will then have their photos and links to their blogs and recipes listed on my blog Larder Love during the build up to Christmas.

Everyone loves receiving something homemade, it shows how much you care for the recipient that you took the time and trouble to make something especially for them. A gift of food is even more special, something that can be enjoyed and shared, savoured and remembered long after the festive season is over.

Here is a simple recipe for Raspberry & Thyme Vinegar (from Gourmet Gifts For Christmas) which is so pretty and makes a wonderful gift. Look out for vintage bottles for packaging, I used an old vanity bottle. Just make sure bottles are sterilised and have vinegar proof lids.

Raspberry & Thyme Vinegar

100g/3 1/2oz fresh raspberries
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon caster sugar
200ml/3 1/2fl oz white wine vinegar

Bring everything to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to infuse overnight and allow to cool completely. Strain and bottle. Use on salads and add a dash to soda for a great drink.

Huge thanks to Amee for inviting me on to her blog and letting me share all this with you.
Merry Christmas when it comes!
Karon x

Wednesday 16 October 2013

chewy chocolate chip cookies

These big chewy cookies come originally from The River Cottage Family Cookbook. I use a bag of chocolate chips instead of chopping up a bar to cut down the workload even more, making them perfect for after school cooking with the kids. They are easy-peasy, taking no more than 10 minutes to make, and 10 to bake. They are also an excellent ice-cream sandwich cookie, simply fill with chocolate or vanilla ice-cream when they are completely cooled and return to the freezer to firm up a little before passing out to the troops.

125g salted butter
100g caster sugar
75g soft light brown sugar
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
150g plain flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
100g milk chocolate chips

Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan. Put both sugars into a mixing bowl, pour in the melted butter and beat well with a wooden spoon. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into the bowl and stir them in, then add the chocolate. You should have a pretty sloppy sort of mixture.

Dot heaped dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to 2 baking sheets lined with baking parchment, leaving a good 4cm in between each one as they really spread out. Place in an oven preheated to 190C and bake for 8–10 minutes, until the cookies are turning pale golden brown.

Remove from the oven and leave on the baking sheets for a couple of minutes to firm up. Then carefully lift the baking parchment on to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. Inevitably they will be eaten as soon as they are cool enough not to burn fingers. Makes  about 16 very large cookies.

P.S. These are Holly Stephens favorite cookie, so I hope you make them up to standard, mammy Sinead. No pressure, like!

Friday 11 October 2013

Cava Bodega

This inconspicuous premises on Middle Street has certainly had a chequered past in the last 20 odd years. It once housed The European Table, if anyone remembers, with a large and very bizarre water feature. Their solution to having their main dining room in a windowless basement was to paint some windows on the walls. Usually I can remember everything I ate in every restaurant I have ever visited, but strangely for me I can't remember anything I ever ate there. I'm sure it must have been deep fried brie and seared duck breast sort of a place. Sometime after that it was the popular (re-located) Scotty's, with long queues on the stairs for a seat in the best burger joint in town. It spent a short while as Mustard. I never did go in there as I was always next door slurping noodles in DaTang. It then lay vacant for quite some time until just a few weeks ago when it took on a new persona.

Now it is a comfortable home to Cava Bodega, a reincarnation of the hugely popular Cava of Dominick Street. That premises having closed in January following a rental dispute. I could find many clichés to use here, 'every cloud has a silver lining', or 'when one door closes another one opens' but it will suffice to say that the rental dispute just might be the best thing that ever happened to Chef Patron, JP McMahon. The opportunity to do something different, but do it the same, is a rare thing. There has been a much needed cull of the menu, they have gained a better room for their style, the very definition of up-cycle, re-use and re-purpose. Disused barrels as lampshades, raw wood, brick and concrete, old wine boxes brought to life again as a bar. As before, the kitchen and floor staff are second to none.

Last year I seem to have spent a lot of time eating pork belly. This year the theme was flowers. Sometimes a welcome addition to a plate, sometimes so heavily strewn on the ubiquitous slate so as to make a dish look like a Catholic primary school's tribute to Our Lady. Not anything you would wish to dig your cutlery into, unless perhaps you had had the foresight to bring your gardening folk along. Cava Bodega quite sensibly took this opportunity to jettison most of the micro salads, the pea shoots and the flower arrangements, and while the plates are still pretty the food is allowed to speak for itself. I went along to Cava Bodega for their opening where they served a selection of their delicious pinchos (Spanish canapé) and glasses of cava (naturally!). There was a 'block party' feel to the evening as the local tight-knit hostelries and restaurants joined together to welcome this former 'Westender' and to make them feel at home.

JP McMahon, Galway's answer to Fergus Henderson, always walks about with a pigs head under his arm or a fine jambon over his shoulder, if we are to believe the publicity shots for his three restaurants. The day I went for supper in his newest restaurant, he had no meat about his person that I could discern. It was of course possible that he had some charcuterie in his chefs whites but it would have been rude of me to inquire as to the contents of his pockets. In Cava Bodega he serves my kind of food, the edible magic that results when pig meets spice and curing time and magnificent cheeses, piled on bread with piquillos and a drizzle of olive oil. The slow cooked cheeks, hearts and extremities that I love, and that were simply not available in Galway when Cava closed.

Their cellar carries a wide variety of very good Spanish wines and sherries. The wine menu is divided into a number of categories based on the character of the wine, for ease of ordering depending on preference. There are some beers, ciders and of course cava. The menu, though suffering from a bit of origami, is equally easy to navigate, divided into vegetable, fish and meat sections, nibbles and desserts. Tables are provided with excellent bread, oil and vinegar and, as is the case with a tapas menu, the scaled down portions means expanded choice. We ordered four tapa to start off with and an elegant slate of goats cheese and fig cake arrived first. Pigs cheeks followed quickly and were tender, but not falling apart in a sweet, aromatic soup of apple, sultana and tomato. Earthy chicken hearts in cider with chorizo were devoured, using the bread for mopping up the thin juices, greedily like candy. Pigs head fritter with beetroot and hazelnuts was next with not a scrap left on the plate. I realize this is starting to sound like Hannibal Lecter's last supper but deciding we still had a little bit of room we ordered a lamb heart dish stuffed with chorizo and cooked in beer, this required a refill of the bread basket for even more mopping up. A little dessert of blackberry ice-cream, leaning nicely towards a sorbet rather than gelato, with perfectly ripe fresh figs, and just two edible blooms, completed our meal. The bill came to €38.25 for two - excellent value for the quality and variety we enjoyed.

If you want 100% authentic Spanish tapas we are lucky enough to have the excellent Lunares on Woodquay for that sort of thing. Cava manages not to fall into the trap of trying to be too authentic, a danger especially in a tapas bar with no Spaniard in the kitchen. It is its own invention, with the best of Irish and Spanish produce it is neither truly and completely one nor the other, but balanced between the two food cultures, a see-saw, back and forth. They pick and choose the parts that work best and melt them into one or the other, meandering pleasantly between both accents.

I could look for something to criticize, the menu layout is clumsy requiring constant twisting to find the right way up to read it, the signage is not properly centered over the door, but hey, I'm just clutching at straws here. Of the three Restaurants owned and operated by husband and wife team JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey in the EatGalway Group, it is Cava Bodega, even more so than Michelin starred Aniar, that has earned a place in peoples' hearts and certainly in my own. I will always pick Kai over Eat, if I have managed to walk that far down the West, I may as well keep going, a personal preference. Aniar is a food concept, intellectual eating, a different experience entirely. But Cava Bodega, for me, is just right. Welcome home.

Cava Bodega, 1 Middle Street Mews, Middle Street, Galway. Open from 5pm to late, 7 days a week. Telephone: (+353) 91 539 884. Bookings: bookings@cavarestaurant.ie

Written for and published in The Galway Advertiser, 10 October 2013.