Friday, 27 April 2012

Sarkozy and the Cup on the Sill

February 2012
We used to gallop down the lane.  It was an old farm access lane  with some abandoned cottages and old farm buildings on it.  For a long time it was perfect for galloping as it had a grassy middle bit and was not surfaced, so was easy on hooves.  Then the Celtic tiger stalked into this rural backwater and people realised that they could sell sites to townies and get big money.  All of a sudden old cottages had signs put up outside that they were seeking planning permission for big ugly dormer bungalows, double-fronted garages, septic tanks etc.

The old disused cottage at the end of the lane before the sharp turn was one such.  The kids used to laugh at the cup left on the window sill.  They used to wonder who had left it and how long it would last.  Surprisingly it lasted years.  It lasted long after the sign seeking planning permission had yellowed and gone brittle.  The sign is still there weathered and faded. 

The kids grew up and grew out of horses and I was busy at work.  Our last dog had been knocked down on the road and I swore I would get no more.  The lane was forgotten.  Then a dog reappeared in my life and I realised how much I had missed having one and getting that welcome when you return home only a dog owner can understand.  Another dog followed and I had to think of routes to walk them where I could let them off the lead to get some serious sniffing and exercise in.  I remembered the lane.  By now it had been partially surfaced and had a huge house built on it.  But the old disused cottage was still there with the mug on the sill. 

On one of my walks I discovered a donkey in it's garden.  He was alone and was only contained by a rope strung loosely across the front of the property.  I called him, not expecting him to react but he ambled over and I spent a few minutes rubbing his ears and talking to him.  I got to enjoy stopping to have a chat with him and tried to remember some carrots or apples as a treat.  I felt he was very lonely.  One day last summer it was hot and when I arrived I saw he had pushed in the front door of the cottage and was lying in the hallway.  It was obviously cool there.  The dogs startled him and he jumped up, skidded and ran out around the back.

Then one day I passed and I couldn't see him.  I ducked under the rope and walked around the back - no sign.  I went into the house and there was a newspaper on the table faded and dated 1974.  There was a cheque book and a few bills on the window sill. But there was no sign of the donkey.  I came out and walked back down the lane in the direction of home.  Surprisingly, I discovered the donkey standing forlornly at the gate of the big, new house.  There were horses in the paddock at the front and he was looking in at them.  His feet were like platform wedges and I realised he had trouble walking and appeared to rock from side to side.  I continued on and met the farmer at the other end and asked him did he know anything about the donkey.  He said the descendants of the owners of the cottage had emigrated to England and were very annoyed at the donkey in their garden as no one had asked to leave him there.  I asked him for the number of the people in the big house.  I returned home and got my car and drove back down.  The donkey was still standing there.  I rang the house and the woman told me she could not let him in as he was a stallion and she had mares.  I said I would take him home but I no longer had a horse box.  I told her he needed to have his hoofs trimmed as he was having difficulty walking.

She then offered to put him in one of her stables overnight as her blacksmith was coming the next day.  I told her I would pay for his feet to be dressed.  Next day she rang and said he was done, so I walked down with a head collar and rope to collect him.  She offered her French au pair to walk behind him and shoo him along.  I put him in the field at the back of my house and he seemed really happy to have company and action.  But then at night, when he was lonely the bellows started and the long foghorn "hee-haw" struck up.  The sound was so loud and echoing I was sure he could be heard in the village over a mile away.  What the neighbours thought is another matter and I was worried they would start to complain.

I asked a friend to lend me a pony to put in with him until I found a home for him.  The pony arrived and the bellows subsided.  I contacted the Donkey Sanctuary and they sent out a lady who explained to me they were full up and I would just have to keep him until they had a vacancy.  Then one day, he and the pony got out on the road and I was terrified they would cause an accident or get injured.  I thought of Twitter and tweeted I needed to find a home for the donkey, who by this stage I had named Sarkozy.  The reason being, he was small, was well-endowed and when I first got him he appeared to have high heels (his feet were so bad).

Sarko meeting Halfpint
The tweet was not noticed so I sent it to a well-known restaurant critic and food writer asking him to retweet it.  He duly did and another food writer messaged me to say she might have someone who would be prepared to take him.   She gave me the name of a man who had a garden centre in Cork and said he would give me a call.  I knew straight away by talking to him he was genuine and Sarkozy would have a good home with him.  He said he would put him in with calves initially and would then try to get a friend for him.  He wanted to put a petting zoo into his garden centre in order to attract more business.  But most importantly he used to have horses and lived on a farm.

A week or so later he arrived to collect Sarko with the food writer and her husband.  They loaded him up and very kindly returned the pony to his own home en route.  They then called in for a cup of tea and we had a great chat.  They promised me they would keep in touch and let me know how he was getting on.  As promised, they have kept me updated with photos of Sarko - at Christmas in a crib in the garden centre, up to his knees in straw with lambs beside him.  He looked so happy and it was a far cry from a cold, lonely cottage garden.

I went down to visit him last February and he recognised me.  He was standing in a field and when I went over he nuzzled me the way he always did looking for treats in my pockets.  Then when I went to leave he followed me.  I was sad to leave him but so happy that he had at last found a good home.  He looked so well in contrast to when I had found him (he had lice and his coat was very patchy from scratching and his skin was inflamed.)  I had treated him before he left me but I hadn't seen the results.  He now had a full, fluffy winter coat. 

Lots of animals have been abandoned and forgotten now the Celtic tiger has slunk off to better pastures and there are abandoned cottages all over the country.  Sarkozy was a lucky donkey to have been abandoned in a cottage with a cup left on the sill, an action that had struck a chord with us all those years before.

Part of the lane remains as it was all those years ago

The cottage boarded up now and the cup is gone

Planning permission sign still up

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Fabulous Fish Pie

At this time of year (spring but still cold) when you want comfort food, but don't want a heavy stew-type dish this fabulous Fish Pie is perfect.

I make the potato topping more interesting by adding some celeriac, and whole grain mustard or finely chopped curly kale (obviously when it is in season).

450g mixed fish selection (cod, smoked undyed haddock, salmon)
A good hand full of fresh or frozen prawns, squid rings, muscles (defrosted)
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
1medium carrot chopped
1 stick of celery chopped
1 leek finely sliced
Sprig of fresh thyme
Chopped parsley
1 bay leaf

50g butter
50g flour
Approx 250 ml milk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper

6 good sized potatoes (floury variety)
Either half a celeriac or a good bunch of kale

Firstly sauté the vegetables and herbs in some olive or rape seed oil.  Cover the pan to allow them to cook in their own steam.  If you add them undercooked to the pie they will not cook properly.

In another pan add the fish pieces into enough milk to just cover it and place on a low heat until it just changes colour.  Do not attempt to boil or overcook it.  Defrost the shell fish and squid if necessary and dry off any excess water. Set aside.  Drain the fish and reserve the milk.

Make a bechamel by melting the butter in a pan, add in flour, stirring to cook it for a minute.  Add the milk from cooking the fish slowly and keep stirring until the sauce thickens.  Add more or less milk depending on the consistency.  Add some salt, pepper and the Dijon mustard.  Stand the sauce aside to cool.  When it is cool add the fish and the shellfish.  Add in the cooled vegetables.  Stir gently and transfer to an oven proof baking dish.

Make the potato topping by steaming or boiling the potatoes and celeriac if using.  Mash and add some butter, milk, wholegrain mustard and seasoning to taste.  If using the kale, wash and place in a pan and cook on a low heat as you would with spinach.  Remove when wilted, chop finely and mix into the mash.  Adding some nutmeg gives a lovely flavour.

Pipe the mash onto the fish mixture and place into a preheated oven at 160 deg C until nicely browned and bubbling.  If you ripple the potato with a fork you will get a nice crispy effect.

This fish pie freezes beautifully.  Cut into portions sizes when cool. Then when you don't feel like cooking or are in a rush you can defrost it in minutes in a microwave and reheat.

Tags: Fabulous Fish Pie  Fish Food

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Rant on Food Waste

With a large percentage of the world's population suffering from hunger and malnutrition you would think that the western world would be aware and cognisant of food waste.  You would also think that in times of recession people would be even more conscious.  Well you would think!  However, sadly this does not appear to be so.  For a good number of years including the last few depressing ones, I have been horrified at the amount of waste by individuals and by businesses.  I have seen and heard of people who open their fridge; look at an item and the "use by" or even "sell by" date and casually throw the item in the bin.  Without even opening it or smelling it......

Since I have had contact with chefs, I have also been appalled at the waste in hotel and restaurant kitchens.  My son and my ex-partner - both chefs, have brought me meat and fish trimmings for my dogs.  I was always delighted to receive them, however, increasingly my delight turned to horror at the waste of perfectly good meat.  Huge long pieces trimmed off a fillet of beef.  Equally long pieces cut off a salmon.  These "trimmings" included perfectly lean meat that with a bit of actual trimming could have been minced and turned into burgers, lasagnes, shepherd's pies, fish cakes etc.  A daily budget item on a menu or a special.

I often wonder are managers and owners aware of this or do they approve of it.  Apart from the sheer, wanton waste there is a waste disposal cost.  Is it a case of they do not have the manpower to put in the few hours it would take every week or is it just laziness?   Are head chefs not held accountable for waste?  Can businesses afford to literally throw food away?  I think not; but I am constantly hearing how hard it is to be profitable in a food business, with the excessive costs such as wages, rates, utilities etc.

I have also heard that food businesses cannot donate excess or "waste" food to homeless shelters or the poor in case they are sued for causing food poisoning. Now don't even get me started on how ridiculous our rules on food safety have become, because I think they are a lot to blame for the-check- the-date-and-bin-it brigade.  The human constitution has evolved to withstand a substantial onslaught from germs.  If we hadn't we would have been wiped out a long time ago.  Whatever happened to common sense?  If it looks bad and smells bad then the chances are it is bad.  If not; rely on your taste buds especially if you know your fridge is at the correct temperature and you have handled it correctly from the time you purchased it.  I know one thing - it works for me. 

Tags: Food Waste  Food Reuse  Food

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Hands off our Buns!

Can you imagine the entire American continent and possibly Canada as well watch an episode of Fair City where two of the characters are sitting on the steps of a block of apartments eating buns or fairy cakes and chatting about their love lives?  On foot of this they rename cupcakes - buns!  Slightly implausible?  Well correct me if I am wrong but is this not what we have done this side of the Atlantic?  I had never heard of cupcakes before Sex and the City and I lived in the US as a student for 18 months a good number of years ago.

 Cupcakes were so called originally because they were baked in individual pottery cups before muffin tins were available. They may also have been named after the method of measuring the ingredients using cups.  Here, they were referred to as fairy cakes - particularly if they were iced and they also may have had the tip of the bun sliced off, cut in half and placed on top of the icing to resemble the wings of a fairy.

We baked fairy cakes as kids for parties and special occasions.  Buns were more bog standard - often not iced but they may have had dried fruit added or just were a plain Victoria mix.  As far as I can see the recipes for cupcakes and fairy cakes/buns are basically the same.  Some people swear by addition of yoghurt to a mix to keep them fresher for longer. 

The craze for cupcakes this side of the Atlantic seems to be never ending and ever more fanciful decorations and toppings are being thought up every day.  They have now become popular as wedding cakes.  I can only imagine my grandmother's words if she had been alive to witness this fashion.  In her day it was traditional to have the rich fruit cake; iced and decorated in tiers so that the top tier was preserved as the Christening cake for the first child. 

The thing that bugs me most about the cupcake craze is not the concept of the cupcake itself but the desire to slavishly follow fashion set by America.  It is almost as if we have to rename our fairy cakes or buns to make them more desirable and to sell.  Traditional American baking fashions and methods are to be no less admired than our traditions; but why sell out on our own?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Ode to a Knife

Recently a few posts have popped up about essential pieces of kitchen equipment foodies/amateur cooks would be hard pressed to do without. Everyone has certain items they feel are vital - including me.  When I cook in a strange kitchen, which I have done a lot lately, I find myself very put out that my favourite pieces are not to hand.  My most essential is a trusty old wooden-handled steak knife.  Strange it might seem as I have the Wusthofs, the Victorinox, the ceramic and the Japanese single piece steel (actually I don't have, but my son does) and most of the time he leaves them here rather than have them ruined in a professional kitchen.

My 10" cooks knife - when sharp is brilliant for crushing garlic, chopping herbs, "julienning" carrots or celery but my old wooden knife is the best for almost everything else.  It slices tomatoes with ease, it peels apples, it chops, it shreds, it slices and it most importantly feels like an extension of my hand.  I almost die if I can't find it.  I have banned anyone from putting it in the dishwasher and I have spent days hunting it down when it has gone missing.  If I go to cook anywhere else I take it before anything else.  I have searched every kitchen shop in vain to try to find something to replace it as it has a crack in the handle.  In short, I don't know what I will do when it eventually goes to knife heaven!

Tags: Ode  Kitchen Equipment  Knive