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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Rua, Castlebar

It's a family affair at Rua

New research from Bord Bia has revealed that supporting local businesses is a key consideration for members of the public when eating out. Which may go part of the way to explaining why there is nearly always something of a queue up the stairs for a coveted seat in this small, but perfectly formed cafe on Spencer Street in Castlebar, Co Mayo. With the same research showing that over two thirds of the population rated ‘the use of Irish and local produce’ as important when eating out for a meal, if you venture over the border to Mayo, Rua's impeccable pedigree of the origin of all elements on their plates delivers. And then some.

Cafe Rua was started by Anne McMahon, a lovely and remarkable woman who, if her circumstances had but been different would have undoubtedly given Myrtle Allen a run for her money. With a life long love of food, she realized her dream and opened Cafe Rua on Antrim Street when her two children had flown the nest. I can taste her beautiful chicken liver pate and the 'proper' apple tart as if it was yesterday. It is a testament to her that both those items are still on the menu to this day.

When Anne, not so much retired, (she is still active in the bakery) stepped back from the business, Cafe Rua passed to the next generation, Aran and Coleen McMahon. A gift not just for them but for all of us. Colleen now runs the show at Café Rua and they expanded to Rua on Spencer Street, a split level deli and cafe, in 2008. Two restaurants with pride, character and a strong philosophy.

Rua has a style all its own. On the ground floor is the indecently pretty deli. With interior design by Colleen, a lady with more style than should be allowed, she certainly knows how to make a space both beautiful and inviting. Here they specialize in all things Irish, featuring in particular Mayo, Galway and the West. They also do takeaway coffees, breakfasts, soups and lunch dishes. Out front there's an antique table groaning with fantastic breads, bakes and tarts. Siofra heads up the delicatessen and any of the staff can advise regarding matters of cheese board, hamper or gift basket from their extensive range. A very deserving winner of the McKennas 'Retailer of the year' award for 2012. There’s so much to Rua that you could eat there all day every day, for breakfast, lunch, and even buy the elements of your dinner to throw together quickly at home. Maybe a Sheridan's duck leg confit on a bed of Rua's own red cabbage, with a bottle of Cotes du Rhone? Yes please! I myself am never without some of their Rua tomato and apple chutney in my fridge.

Upstairs is a casual cafe with a short, seasonally influenced menu board and a happy atmosphere. The last few times I was in it also had 'An Taoiseach' adorning one of the tables. I am not sure if he's a permanent feature there, but I suppose he must enjoy a Rua tray bake as much as the next Mayo Man.

We were seated in the middle of the room, and quickly decided on our order. The girls had Rua's delicious homemade lemonade, an order of thick Nadurtha (formerly Noodle House) papardelle with a rich ragu sauce and garlic toasts; and sausages (Kelly's of Newport) with creamy mash, while myself and my current husband shared a 'Rua Mezze platter'.

If by Mezze you are thinking humous, olives and flat bread, you would be wrong! Aran has something of a lighthearted attitude to food, his humor and a little touch of wackiness shines through, making the Rua Mezze platter as Irish as Hector Ó hEochagáin. The platter featured a taster of one of the soups of the day, a thick and earthy beetroot broth with nuggets of St Tolas goat cheese crumbled on top and scattered with shards of cucumber for extra crunch. Some local cheese, notably a lovely rustic nettle type I hadn't met before, an ironically retro hard boiled egg dressed with homemade mayo which had a distinctive citrus tang. Slices of the house pate served with a beetroot relish, pickles and the freshest salad leaves, the pitta bread replaced by thick slices of their own brown bread.

We followed the sharing platter with an open steak sandwich for him, sweet sautéed onions piled high on a soft toasted 'Blaa', with fried potatoes, an appely coleslaw and a pleasantly hot horseradish mayo for 10.95. I had a beetroot and feta tart, well seasoned, light and with pastry that was flaky and buttery. It came with potato and dill salad and a hailstorm of pomegranate seeds hiding among the mixed leaves. Indeed the assorted salad leaves and sides are always a particular joy. The crunchy apple slaw with the steak sandwich the perfect foil for the tender beef, and Steven Gould's salad leaves a million miles removed from the supermarket packet ones.

The desserts seem to look at you with a 'come hither' gaze. Resistance is futile, so we didn't. We usually all pick out a dessert before our mains have even reached the table. Picking with some difficulty from the display of chocolate brownies, bakewell tart and a magnificent looking blood orange upside down cake, the girls both had the seasonal fruit pie. I recognized it as Mammy McMahon's 'proper apple tart', the fruit sliced, and baked in a golden pastry crust crumbling under the slightest pressure and crowned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and not a crumb was left behind. A pear and chocolate roulade and a choux pastry with hazelnut praline filling completed our meal.

Rua really is a great spot to eat, the food is thoughtful and considered, and great value when you consider the quality of ingredients, skill and service. Take away or enjoy in. There is always something happening, and it's well worth signing up to their email list or following them on Facebook to keep up to date. 'Cooking the Books' is running until February 2nd where they feature a different special and dessert everyday from some of their current favourite titles like 'Jerusalem' by Yottam Ottolenghi or 'The Ard Bia Cookbook' as well as 10 % off the selected cook books for the entire week at the deli. Pancake Tuesday sees crepes for sale to take home as well as 500 ml tubs of their own pancake batter. There's also their very popular monthly evening meals and bespoke Valentine's Day hampers.

The food is generous with something comforting about it, served up by passionate staff who know and love what they do, by family for family. Through these two generations, the McMahons and their team have made food that feels like a gift and I'm sure that this is not the end of their story. I'm keeping my eye on young Paddy McMahon - he is a grafter who likes his grub, two of the main requirements for the business. Since he's only eight we shall have to wait a while to see how this one turns out. No pressure then, Paddy! And if you do go and see Enda there - let him eat cake.

All Taoiseachs are sources and produced locally at Rua
Rua are now taking bookings on 094 9286072 for dinner at Spencer Street for both Thursday 14th and Friday 15th February. This is a 3 course menu for €29. www.caferua.com

Written for and published in the Galway Advertiser January 31, 2013.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Il Vicolo...

Good Things Come in Small Packages... Il Vicolo, Galway.

In the olden days, my favorite lunch in Galway was a bowl of minestrone soup in Bar Cuba. It was 'proper' minestrone made by a charming and talented Italian native, Tony. And it was the best soup in all the land. But Tony left, Cuba closed and no other minestrone ever lived up to his. Luckily for me the soup is back and better than ever in Il Vicolo where Tony now works, and he is as charming as ever.

Il Vicolo on the corner of Buttermilk Walk beside the 'Auggie' is open for over a year now and has been a firm Galway favourite almost from day one. They serve a good breakfast with their oven-baked eggs in ciabatta being particularly popular and a hearty 'full Italian' worth eating at least once before you die.

The wine list, exclusively Italian, is very well chosen and deserves exploring some evening with a selection of cured meat and cheese plates to keep the wine company. There are more than fifty wines and prosecco, with more than twenty available by the glass. Cocktails and some favourite digestifs are listed on the menu also.

But back to the food. The Minestrone alla Genovese is a true, rustic minestrone. Delicately seasoned, with borlotti beans, vegetables and pasta, a slick of flavour-packed pesto and topped with a generous fist full of parmigiano melting into it. Paired with some fennel seed studded brown bread, it was even better than I remembered it. The spiced pear salad featured my favorite Italian cheese, taleggio, with toasted walnuts was also very good, with a sweet and delicious dressing. Priced at €12 the 'local mixed greens' that it sat on were indeed local in so far as I saw Chef bringing in the bags of salad from the local shop. Cheeky!

My current husband had one of the specials, spaghetti with spicy Italian sausage in a rich tomato sauce. This was one of those 'lick the plate clean' dishes that you don't ever want to end.

For a little something sweet it came down to a choice of two cakes - frangipane with glacé cherries and white chocolate or a flourless chocolate. We ordered the almond cake, mostly because it looked like a giant 'Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell', but in a good way, and a double espresso which was excellent and arrived promptly. Then we waited for the cake. And waited. And then waited a bit more. When it did come with apologies for its tardiness from the waiter it was one of the nicer almond sponges I have tasted, with just ground almonds and no artificial essence to spoil it.

There is a daily deal of soup, any bruschetta or pannini plus a coffee for €10. Midweek dinner deals are great value with a starter and main course on Tuesday or any pasta and a glass of their lovely vino on Wednesday, both offers set at €15. With specials like 'pan-seared fillet of cod with scallop and chive cream on seakale and garlic polenta' on their evening menu it comes as no surprise that this is the venue of choice for other restaurants' staff parties. The downside is that the restaurant is 'dinky' sized and only seats 26, so getting a seat when it's busy is the equivalent of finding a golden ticket in a Wonka Bar!

Il Vicolo Cafe, Restaurant, Wine Bar. 5 Buttermilk Walk, Galway. Tel: (091) 535 922. Email:ilvicolocafe@gmail.com

Written for and published in the Galway Advertiser January 24, 2013.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

emergency tomato soup

Very quick emergency tomato soup with garlic & cheese croutons.

You will never go hungry if you have a few tins of tomatoes in the larder. This quick meal can be made in ten minutes when you have little time to cook and seemingly nothing in the fridge. A little bit of toasted bread makes it more substantial and with a little roast garlic and talegio compound butter from the freezer melted on top it transforms into a feast.

400 gr can of cherry tomatoes
100 ml beef stock or vegetable stock
A few drips of tabasco
Some Worcestershire sauce, a tablespoon or so
1 tsp sugar
Chives, basil or a few rocket leaves to garnish
Salt & pepper
Creme fraiche (optional)

Empty the tin of tomatoes into a saucepan. Add a splash of worcestershire sauce, the sugar and seasoning and a few drops of tabasco to taste. Add the stock and bring to the boil for a minute or two. Then either puree with a stickblender till smooth or pass through a sieve. Ladel into bowls and garnish with some fresh herbs and creme fraiche (if using) and serve with toasted crusty bread.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Hummingbird Cake

Hummingbird Cake is such a lovely name for a cake. The roasting of the bananas gives it the most mellow of flavors, sugary, rich and delicious. Its origins are in the deep South of the USA, full of chopped pecans, crushed pineapple, and bananas frosted with a delicious cream cheese icing. This is a cake for a crowd or a celebration. A winter cake that reminds you of the summer months to come.

Cake Ingredients:
250g flour (3 cups) gluten free or regular
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
225g (1 cup) granulated sugar
225g (1 cup) light brown sugar
3 large eggs
200ml, 7floz (1 cup) vegetable oil
2 teaspoons  vanilla extract
160g (1 cup) pineapple, fresh or tinned, crushed
4 large or 6 medium-small bananas, roasted in their skins. (See below*)
100g (1 cup) chopped pecans

Frosting Ingredients:
175g (1½ sticks) butter, chilled
3 x 8 ounce packets of cream cheese, chilled
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
175 g icing sugar, sifted (1½ cups powdered sugar)
150g (1½ cups) finely chopped pecans

Makes 12 -16 servings

*First roast the bananas in a moderate oven preheated to 180°C, 350°F, gas mark 4. Place them on a lined baking sheet with there skins left on. Bake in the oven for 12 - 15 minutes until the skins are black (the bananas will leak out some juice, this is perfectly OK). Remove from the oven and let them cool until they can be handled. Peel the bananas and mash the flesh in a small mixing bowl. Set aside. Leave the oven heated to 180°C.

Butter and flour 3 x 9" round baking pans. Line the bottoms of each pan with parchment paper. Sift flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt together into a bowl and set aside.
In a second mixing bowl combine the granulated and brown sugar. Add the eggs and stir briskly by hand into a smooth mixture. Whisk the oil and vanilla into the sugar and egg mixture until smooth. Add the flour mixture all at once and fold to combine the mixture fully. Add the crushed pineapple, mashed banana and the pecans.  Stir just until combined, be careful not to over stir.

Divide the cake batter evenly between the three pans and place in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes until cake bounces back to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the pans for 5 minutes then turn out onto cooling racks, peel off the parchment paper and allow to fully cool before frosting.

To Make the Cream Cheese Frosting:
Cube the butter and place in the bowl of a standing mixer. Beat on low speed, gradually increasing speed to medium until the butter is still cool but has softened together (about 3 minutes).
Cut the cream cheese into 1 inch strips and add to the butter.  Mix at medium speed until fully combined, and smooth.
Add the vanilla, lemon zest and slowly add the sifted powdered sugar.  Beat until well blended, increasing speed to beat on medium-high for 3 minutes or until the frosting becomes light and fluffy.
Fold in pecans by hand.

Bring it all together:
Place the first layer of cake upside down (the bottom of the cake will be frosted) on the serving plate. Cover with a thin layer of frosting. Place the second layer of cake right side up (flat cake bottom onto the frosting) and frost the top of this layer. Place the last cake layer with cake right side up and use the remaining frosting to cover top of cake and the sides. Allow the cake to stand at room temperature for a while before serving and store any uneaten cake in the refrigerator.  This cake is a little bit nicer when made the day before you want to serve it.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

my favourite sandwich...

The sandwich is undoubtedly one of life’s simplest culinary pleasures. Open-faced, hot, cold, sweet or savory and with an endless combination of fillings, everyone has their favorite. Sandwiches don't usually require a recipe, but my favorite, the Croque Madame is one of the exceptions. This sandwich was first invented by Beyonce. After eating a croque-monsieur  for the first time, she was inspired to pen her most famous lyrics  "If you liked it then you shoulda put an egg on it" and so the croque-madame was born. I jest of course.

It is, at its most basic a ham and cheese sandwich with added "je ne sais quoi". It makes a perfect brunch or supper. This sandwich is not for packed lunches, it requires to be eaten immediately without a moments hesitation. Beloved in French cafés and bistros, there are many methods of making it. I prefer to bake them in the oven (you save a few calories and it's particularly useful if you are feeding a crowd for brunch), but a frying pan or grill is more common (That's skillet or broiler to you lovely Americans).

You will need some good bread, traditionally plain store-bought white is used, but I prefer something with a bit more character. My favorite at the moment is a nice spelt bread with honey and sesame seeds. This is also an excellent way of using left over ham, otherwise buy some thinly sliced baked ham from the deli counter, slimy packet ham is not ideal. The cheese should be Gruyère, Emmenthal will do or a sharp cheddar if you are desperate. The sauce on top is béchamel, never hollandaise or mornay. Don't skimp on the Dijon, it adds a really nice flavor. The egg is usually fried but poached is fine also.

2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp plain flour
175g cup milk
A pinch each of salt, freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, or more to taste
About 3 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated, more if you like
4 slices of your choice of bread
6 thin slices of ham
Dijon mustard
(makes two)

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Make the béchamel sauce. Melt butter in a small saucepan on medium/low heat until it just starts to bubble. Add the flour and cook, stirring with a whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking continuously, cook until thick. Remove from heat. Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in a third of the the grated Gruyère. Cover and set aside.

Lightly brush 2 of the bread slices with mustard. Add the ham and divide the remaining Gruyère cheese between them evenly. Top with the other bread slices.

Spoon the béchamel sauce onto the tops of the sandwiches. Sprinkle with the remaining Gruyère cheese. Place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes, or until the cheese topping is bubbly and lightly browned.

(You can also assemble the sandwiches and fry them each side in a frying pan in a spoon of oil or butter, finishing them under the grill with the béchamel sauce on top.)

Cook two eggs sunny side up, until the white is set and the yolk still runny, and put on top of each sandwich. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and/or black pepper and serve immediately.

No sandwich is more delicious in my opinion.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

I'm so hungry I could eat a horse...

What a hullabaloo - horse meat in the burgers no less. But why are people buying frozen burgers of questionable origin when it couldn't be simpler to make your own from lovely Irish beef. Buy your meat from a good butchers or even the supermarket, there are not many horses trotting through either. You can buy premium steak mince but the cheaper stuff is also nice and the extra fat keeps it lovely and juicy. But the real secret to a really, really great burger is a splash of fish sauce. You know the stuff, smells disgusting and fetid, it is made from elderly anchovies after all, but its pure umami brings out the savory depth in foods and will make the best burger you will ever taste. So here's what to do.

2 lbs minced beef
1 1/2 tablespoons Fish Sauce
1 egg
1 teaspoon fresh ground Black Pepper

Burger sauce
4fl oz good quality tomato ketchup
2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp sweet paprika
A good few drops of hot sauce or tabasco

Other stuff
4 tbsp olive oil
2 large red onions
2 large handfuls of crispy lettuce leaves
2 juicy tomatos, sliced
4 gherkins sliced thinly
6 slices of cheese
6 plain wholemeal rolls or sesame buns

In a bowl, combine all burger ingredients together, smushing the beef with your hands. Leave to sit for 20 minutes. Shape into a balls and then flatten into burger patties.

While the burger mix is resting, caramelize your onions by slicing them very finely and then cooking them in  3 tbsp of the olive oil over a low heat in a heavy based, non-stick pan. The onions take around 15-20 minutes to caramelize properly but it's worth it. Cook until golden, sticky and just starting to get a little crispy and then add a pinch of salt.

In between watching the onions, mix together the ingredients for the sauce, adding the hot sauce at the end cautiously and tasting after every drop or two until your preferred level of 'zing' is reached.

Put the bread into the oven to warm while you cook the meat patties in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil over high heat, for a couple of minutes each side. Don't fry them slowly or they will get tough and loose all their juicy-ness. Pile on the lettuce, gherkin and fresh tomato, add the hot beef patty and top with the cheese so that it melts deliciously on top. Use your favorite cheese but I like processed sliced cheese for a proper melty cheese burger experience. Feel free to mix it up with any other condiments of your choice, I like a few jalapenos sometimes or maybe some beetroot if you are a lovely Australian. Then the caramelized onions and pink burger sauce. Pure beefy perfection.

This makes quite a lot of big, meaty burgers, I often make them quite a bit smaller especially if I am serving them with chips and salad and shape the left over meat mixture into walnut sized balls which I freeze or put covered in the fridge and cook the next day in a tomato and basil sauce for a second dish of Italian style meatballs

And there you have it. Delicious, juicy, healthy burgers, without a trace of 'my Lidl pony' in sight.

Sushi & Sashimi at Wa Cafe.

Rice Balls with sesame seeds and steamed edamame beans.

For the majority of the population of the world, it would be unthinkable to sit down to dinner without a pot of hot rice on the table. There to soak up sauces and juice, sitting at the centre of the plate, making it a meal. We Irish, of course, take similar comfort in potatoes, refusing to have a main meal without them. Boiled, roasted, mashed with butter, even pizza or pasta come with a side of potatoes in some households.

The crimes committed by everyones favorite Uncle, 'Ben', has put a generation of Irish off eating this glorious grain. They imprisoned it in a perforated bag jail cell and stripped it of taste, nutrition and dignity. It deserves so much better. Long-grain, short-grain, brown, black and red, there is a rice for every dish, from a classic risotto or paella to biryani and kedgeree. And who among us could say no to a creamy rice pudding with a dollop of homemade jam?

Older people especially regard rice with deep suspicion. My own dear father nearly starved to death on a recent visit to Japan. A well travelled gent, he bowed at traditional tea ceremonies and enjoyed being the tallest man in the room for a change. But the raw fish and rice was not something that any Irish septuagenarian would willingly ingest. A giant Toblerone from the airport duty free that he had in his suitcase was the only thing that kept him from certain death. But I digress.

Japanese green tea.
At Wa Cafe the rice is soft, sticky and delicious and the food is excellent. Even my dad would find something to eat in here. A cosy little spot just off the docks, the lovely and unassuming Yoshimi is the woman behind Wa Cafe. They've got Sushi rolls, Miso soup, Japanese style sandwiches, salad, bento boxes and authentic Japanese green teas. The menu is short with a rotating choice of specials ensuring there is always something new. Knowing as we do, that the Japanese are the only people on earth to ever manage the culinary magic trick of making tofu palatable, it is no surprise that there is a good choice for vegetarians. There are chopsticks, but they will give you a fork and not laugh at you if (like me) you need one.

We met up with my new BFF Mona Wise, the food columnist for The Sunday Times. As the food writer for the Galway Advertiser I am contractually obliged to hang around with another food writer and we are geographically convenient for each other. She is the Jay Rayner to my A.A. Gill, if you will. Mona had the sashimi plate, ten generous slices of raw fish. Salmon, tuna and sea bass for €12, straight from the boats, the fish could not have been any fresher. The Tempura Don with prawns at €10 was the choice of my current husband, with plentiful prawns, peppers and other vegetables in a perfectly fluffy and crisp tempura batter served on some of that excellent rice.

Pork Katsu from the Bento Box.
I had a Bento set of two Osouzai (Japanese Tapas). I choose Pork Katsu and Teriyaki Beef Burger with some refreshing grated daikon radish, both very delicious and served with a bowl of rice balls anointed with sesame seeds and one of delectable edamame beans for €9. The Bento set is quite generous, it's hard to finish one by yourself and two would be enough between three. A Bento is a take away lunch box in Japan, and all of the fare at Wa is available to go at a lower price.

Considering everything is made fresh, the order was very fast to arrive at the table. Along with a couple of mugs of deeply savory miso soup to warm the cockles when we first arrived and an apple and elderflower juice the bill for the three of us came to €39.

A warm mug of miso soup.
The daily specials are written on a cute blackboard and so too is a tea of the month, currently chrysanthemum tea for January. Wa is a friendly cafe with efficient service and tasty food, a must for fans of sushi and sashimi and those who need a bowl of rice steaming on the table to make it a meal.

We passed on the small selection of desserts, enticingly exotic as they sounded. Matcha green tea marble cake or aduki bean ice-cream, anyone? I just treated myself to a Toblerone for afters instead. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Wa Cafe, 13 New Dock Street, Galway City. Tel:091 895850. E-mail:info@wacafe.net
Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 12-3pm & 5-9pm. Friday-Sunday 12-9pm.
Wa Cafe have a stall at the Galway Market every Saturday also.

Written for and published in the Galway Advertiser. January 17, 2013.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

custard creams...

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me". 

So said C.S.Lewis and while one small cup of tea a day is plenty for me, I do feel sad when a good book is finished. My real love will always be children's books, the feel of the paper, smell of the ink, the weight of a hardback in my hand, and the charm and colour of the illustrations.

There is nothing quite like a feast of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or Edward Lear to keep me happy, except maybe my little people to read them to. A good book demands tea and the accompaniment of a proper biscuit. These are the most proper of all biscuits, the classic custard cream. They are great to make with children as they are so easy, quick and fun. They taste so much better than the packet ones and they are another way for me to use up the big canister of custard powder I have been left with after Aunty Angela's unexpected septuagenarian romance allowed me to purchase the wretched stuff. For those of you wondering, custard powder is basically just cornflour (cornstarch) and a touch of yellow food colouring and can be substituted for same.

100g butter
120g flour
50g caster sugar
2 tablespoons custard powder
1/2 tsp vanilla essence

40g icing sugar
25g or two tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 teaspoons custard powder

Preheat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Cream together the butter and sugar, sift in the flour and custard powder and bring together with the vanilla essence until a roll-able dough is formed. Alternatively combine all ingredients in a food processor, and then form the dough by hand.

Flour a surface and roll out dough to roughly 6mm thickness. Press your choice of cutter in to the dough, ensuring there is a duplicate of each shape you cut. Place shapes on a baking tray, greased and floured). Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Beat the icing sugar and vanilla together in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Sift the icing sugar and custard powder together and beat gradually into the butter, and then use to fill the custard creams once they are cool. Place a bit on the bottom of one biscuit, and sandwich with another on top. Once set the custard creams can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

roast garlic & talegio bread...

Garlic butter is a compound butter, basically a 'flavoured' butter. These butters are endlessly versatile. A flavored butter acts as a sauce, in essence and any flavoring can be added. Chopped herbs with lemon zest will go great with fish or red wine and shallots with steak for example.

Now, I have never met a cheese I did not like, but Talegio is one (from a very long list) of the cheeses that I love. A compound butter made with Talegio is a glorious thing. It is quite a strong smelling cheese, but its flavour is comparatively mild with a sweet tang to it. When heated, it loses most of its strong smell and is just sweet and salty and delicious. If you can't find any then Fontina is a reasonable substitution and a ripe Brie would do if you were stuck.

Roasting the garlic first gives you loads of garlic flavor without the harshness of raw garlic, and it is delicious on toast as well. You could just add some sliced parma ham, dressed rocket, a nice bottle of red wine and you'd have a one of my favorite easy suppers for two. 

I always make plenty of this butter as it freezes very well, and I do it in small batches. Then whenever you have limited time to make a meal, take some chicken breasts or a pork chop, add this on top and simply bake in the oven for a quick meal with some salad or steamed veg. Or cook some wide ribbon pasta like tagliatelli and toss through a spoon or two in the hot pan pan, finish with some basil and you have a mac and cheese for grown-ups. 

1 head of garlic
300g Talegio cheese – softened
200g butter – softened
1 bunch chives – chopped
Sea salt and cracked clack pepper
1 sourdough loaf - a day or two old.

Roast the garlic first. Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Cut a garlic head in half around the middle and wrap in aluminum foil and put it into the preheated oven. Cook for an hour or so. When done, you'll find the garlic cloves have turned into a soft, fragrant and caramelized mass, that will practically jump out of its papery case. Just squeeze the garlic flesh out or remove with a fork. 

Remove the rind from the Talegio, cut into chunks and mix with the butter and chives. Season liberally with pepper and sparingly with salt. Empty all the garlic flesh into the cheese and butter mix, then mash it around with a fork a little. C'est tout. 

Cut slices vertically into the bread and stuff full to bursting with the butter mix. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and bake in a hot oven (about 200ºC) for 20 minutes. Remove, unwrap and serve immediately.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Il Porcetto & Organic Veg

There are many little jewels hidden round the town, villages and countryside here in the West. I have written here before of the importance of having a few good recommendations to avoid the soulless food of the forecourts. In Loughrea, a town whose bypass has done it many favors as the traffic is not manic as years gone by, there is just such a jewel and a reason to pause there awhile.
II Porcetto at Christmas time.
Il Porcetto's dining area is divided into a number of small, cosy dining rooms. Nostalgic and rustic, it's like a New York neighborhood Italian restaurant has been picked up and dropped on the main street of Loughrea. The rustic style red and white checked tablecloths bring to mind all the great Italian cinematic references, 'The Godfather', 'GoodFellas' and 'Lady and The Tramp'. The owner seated us. Gavino, a native of Sardinia has one of those accents you could listen to all day long. Service is fast and efficient and comes with a charming smile.

The lunchtime starters are mostly bruschetta and there is a selection of mains of chicken, pork, steak or sea bass served with salad and a choice of rosemary potatoes or chips. Priced mostly at €8.99 and up to €15.50 for the beef, their prices are more than competitive. We had come purposely to try the pasta and pizza, however, as good friends of ours had been recommending them to us for some time. So try them we did.

A half portion of the Spaghetti Carbonara was the choice of the littlest one. There's nothing like a good carbonara. Unfortunately, most carbonaras are nothing like a good carbonara either. Carbonara can be tricky to make well, mostly, I suspect, because it is so simple. Egg, cheese, cured pork, pasta and black pepper with little margin for error. This one arrived to the table as good as ever I have encountered. The plentiful, rich and creamy sauce coated the perfectly cooked pasta, all crowned with an avalanche of grated parmesan. I had to taste quite a bit of it you understand, to make sure it was not to hot for the little one. I am an exemplary mother.

The other little lady ordered the Pizza Margherita with a choice of two extra toppings. For €8, this 12" was exceptional value with plenty for her and slices to share with me. The crust was fantastic, chewy, yeasty perfection. Spaghetti Cozze e Vongole for the current husband was a generous dish of pasta, again expertly cooked with fresh clams and mussels in a white wine sauce. The clams were plump and tender, the sauce bolstered with exactly the right amount of chilli to make it zingy, not stingy.

It being January and as I am on the obligatory diet, I had a salad. 'Insalata Con Pollo' an undressed mixed salad with grilled chicken and lots of parmesan shavings, provided to the table with balsamic in a bottle. It was nice, but I was a bit full after all the pasta and pizza I had stolen to properly enjoy it.

The ladies had a single scoop of good quality ice cream for dessert. Ice cream here comes in the three most important flavors, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla or 'plain' as we Irish call it. Desserts are made in-house and a small tiramisu was light and lovely. I celebrated the success of my diet with a dessert which proved to be the sole misstep of the meal. A chocolate panna cota, which had been overly gelatined. The set was far too solid and it had, alas, lost its wobble. The girls and I ate it anyway, it was chocolate after all.

Desserts come on some lovely earthenware delph,
with not a slate or mirrored plate in sight.

Make sure to get to an ATM before you go as cards are not accepted. Don't worry. You won't need that much cash as our meal for four with one childs portion, fruit juice for the kids one coffee and desserts all round came to only €44.17. If you pass through Loughrea on business or pleasure and if you are hungry this is the place to go. The prices are modest for food of this quality and the room is picture postcard Italiano. I wish there was an Il Porcetto where I live.

Il Porcetto Ristorante, Pizzeria, Wine Bar. Main Street, Loughrea. Tel: 091 870 633

My new year's 'diet' brings me nicely onto my next subject. I am, of course, a great believer in eating well and apart from the water we drink there is nothing more important than the food we consume. If it is fresh, healthy and free from man-made chemicals then it will help us stay happy and healthy. But it is surprising how difficult it is to accomplish the simple task of eating well.

This is the work of the people at Green Earth Organics farm. "People are busy and there are so many conflicting facts out there; sometimes it is hard to actually know what is good and what isn’t good for us," said Kenneth Keavey of Green Earth Organics. "I like the idea of being able to turn to one place and get all I need to prepare great tasting meals, and know without having to look at labels that this is proper food; food that has the freshness and taste our grand-parents were used to."

It is time to begin harvesting two of the year’s most sought after crops at the farm, purple sprouting broccoli and the first local fresh organic salad. You can get these delivered to your door at no charge in a lovely fresh organic veg box. Why not start the year in a convenient and healthy way? Get a box delivered to your door each week. There is no charge for delivery and I have found that when you know the produce is coming it encourages you to get into the kitchen and use it.

The good news is that you and I can order online today at www.greenearthorganics.ie  (Get 10% off orders over €20 by using the code RF0519 when you order online) or by calling 091-793768.

Written for and published in the Galway Advertiser. January 10, 2013.

Taxing Times for Wine...

I think it is fair to say that the developing Irish wine market has hit something of a snag. Thanks to the unbalanced and quite frankly, bizarre new tax on wine, all of our small retailers will have to increase the cost of wine in their shops at various stages between now and the New Year as their duty-paid stock runs out. This means that their customers will see various price increases per bottle, as many of the big supermarkets may very well hold their price, either by losing margin or by negotiating better deals with the big wholesalers. That some wine shops will close is certain, as the difference between what they can offer their customers and the below-cost selling of the supermarkets widens even further.

It is this below cost selling by the multiples that has been blamed as the cause of many of the social problems associated with alcohol. They unfairly use alcohol as a loss leader to build market share in the grocery sector. Yet the loophole still exists that when alcohol is sold below cost price, the retailer is entitled to a refund of the VAT differential, meaning in effect, that the Government and taxpayers (that's you and me folks!) are subsidising any large retailers who can afford to sell alcohol below cost price. This is not by any means a fair or level playing field. In the absence of any coherent, balanced national retail strategy, it is up to us as local people to buy from local businesses who wish to make an honest living by selling quality products to us.

The traditional arguments leveled against these independent traders is that they are too expensive. This is simply not true. To attract people into their shops independents have to stock wine at the lower end of the price range as well as the more expensive wines, and these lower priced wines are nearly always of a much higher quality than the equivalent you will find in many of the supermarkets. They're also probably made by a human rather than a factory and by buying one of these bottles you are keeping them and their family in business.

Neither are these mass-produced wines, but wines with character that represent a place and where you can taste the connection between grape and soil. Independent wine retailers hunt out the best of these producers, build relationships with growers and pay a fair price for the wines.  Then when they sell it to us, they do it with more than a touch of customer service and you always learn something new. The staff in good independents love to help out customers. They know their vino and love recommending just the right wine for the occasion whether its a wedding, party or a bottle to drink with a good steak. Often you get to try before you buy and if you get good advice once, you will almost certainly go back for more.

I know it's easy just to pick up a bottle or two when you are in the supermarket, but now is the time to be making more of an effort to buy from independents, it is no different to supporting your local butcher or bakery. Businesses like Cases Wine Warehouse, Thomas Woodberrys, Sheridans and McCambridges are always reaching out to consumers by running tastings and events. We should all respond by making more of our purchases from them. They also often supply to our restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels across The West, helping them to achieve that higher standard and diversity that has been recognized more and more in Galway in recent years. These will either in turn have to reflect the tax increase or find cheaper suppliers that will almost certainly come with a drop in standards.

However you buy your wine, and assuming you are lucky enough to be able to still afford it, why not pop into your local independent wine merchant and say Hello! Because, thanks to Mr. Noonan, without you they won't survive.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


The end of December with but one day to go till the start of the new year. The house had been hit by a veritable hurricane of small, pink clothing The combined forces of Santa and a little girl's December birthday had filled the house with tons of plastic. A previously unknown horror had entered my life, the truly vile invention that is 'Moon Sand'. A force so insidious and evil that I could see no way to defeat it. The children had begun to make the relatively short word 'Mum' into a five to six syllable long whine that was slowly working on my already questionable sanity. And there was another week of this to go before the holidays were over.

I was hungry, but the aprés Christmas food fatigue had set in and I could think of more things that I definitely didn't want to eat than anything I did want. One thing was sure, I was not making anything myself. I packed up the family and we headed of to Lunares. Myself and the children were deposited at the foot of the colourfully-painted stairs next to Barr an Caladh in Woodquay, while my current husband went of to park the car in lashing rain that could only be described as biblical.

We were wet, cross and crabby, but all that changed when we entered a room that was cosy with a roaring fire in a wood burning stove. Picture a cross between a quiet taverna down a windy cobbled Spanish street and a flamboyant 'Changing Rooms' makeover by the foppish Laurence Lewellan-Bowen. I have been in many restaurants where thousand of pounds have been spent on the decor and they have not managed to achieve half of the ambiance of this room. It may be oil cloths, paper napkins and held together by emulsion paint but this place has a charm all it's own. It felt exactly like being on holidays.

The drinks listed include a good choice of sangrias by the glass or 2 litre jugs for tables; a comprehensive list of reds; a short list of whites (all Spanish of course) and including one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs for only €5 a glass; some imported Spanish beers and an organic Spanish cider that is the first thing on my extensive list to try when I go back.

This is a place for sharing if ever there was one. The Children's menu is short and to the point, soup and any half portion of tapa of their choice. There is a lot of food here that would appeal to even the pickiest of children. Ignoring the soup, we ordered two half plates each of tapa for the children, the Albóndigas (meatballs) which were incredibly soft and flavorful served with crispy fried potatoes and in a smooth vegetable sauce. The also had the mussels in an excellent smoked garlic broth.

A beer for Daddy at lunch time? Must be on our holidays!
We also ordered some of the more usual tapa to compare to the Spanish standard, keeping to the rule of one and a half plate per person, Croquetas, Patatas Bravas and some very tasty Chorizo in Cider. All were expertly prepared and in quite large quantities. The Iberian ham croquettes were very popular with the children and since they came four to a plate they were bartered for some meatballs and mussels. Every piece of bread that was provided in what I first thought was a ridiculously large basket was used up mopping up all the delicious sauces from our various bowls and platters. The bill for the four of us, with five very generous plates between us came to €40 including two juices and a beer. And we were utterly stuffed.

I wasn't going to tell you about this place, I wanted to keep it for myself. But if you do go, and you really should, if you see a slightly frazzled woman in the corner with a Spanish cider and a large plate of Iberian jamon, muttering to herself about 'moon sand' - leave her alone, she's on her holidays!

Woodquay, Galway, Ireland. Phone: 091 445618 / 091 445734

Opening Times: Lunch 12-5pm Dinners: 6-10pm Brunch: Sat & Sun 12-5pm

Written for and published in the Galway Advertiser. January 3, 2013.