ellenlunney

Weekend Food

Blueberry & Buttermilk Scones, July 2016

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I was in the States a few weeks ago with Ryan and his family, staying outside Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard for the third time. As well as being incredibly beautiful, Martha’s Vineyard is also a very interesting, complex, many layered place, and always it stays on my mind for months after I’ve been.

Although it only spans about 20 miles, the island has 4 reasonably big towns and a handful of large villages, all of which are remarkably different from each other. It has a hospital and a school (a couple of schools?) and a busy bus service, but many of its properties are occupied for only a couple of weeks a year by holidaymakers, creating a palpable divide between its year-round residents (most of whom live ‘up-island’) and those who come for a few weeks each summer (- as the joke famously goes, ‘summer people, and some aren’t’).

Despite this strange duality (or perhaps because of it), the island is sort of ageless – although its shops, trends & food scene are cutting edge, the overall ambience could be straight from any decade from the 30s to the 50s to the 90s to now.

It doesn’t have many branded shops; it’s incredibly safe and the towns are carefully zoned to maintain their old charms. It’s white clapboard houses and hydrangeas and biplanes and polished wood yachts and American flags and help-yourself farm stands and sweet, heaving diners. It’s stoic, gorgeous families on the beach, bundled up in jumpers & towels on grey days. It’s a place where pretty much every child takes part in the 4th of July parade. It’s old white Chevrolets being passed down through the generations along with the properties as island cars. It’s old money, it’s new money, it’s Kennedy town. It feels like it hasn’t changed much, as if there hasn’t been much need, because everything was so nice to begin with.

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This timeless, classic quality carries through to the food too – both the newest restaurants and the old island favourites all feature the same sort of food – clam chowders, all-day sandwiches, fried chicken & seafood, stuffed quahogs, grilled whole lobster & luscious buttered lobster rolls, bluefish, salad greens from the island, seasonal ingredients like peaches, tomatoes or blueberries, ice cream sandwiches, coffee cakes, muffins, pancakes, scones; maybe with a new riff, maybe not. There is a uniformity there, a series of the same regionalised motifs, which makes the food on Martha’s Vineyard feel almost like its own cuisine; its own thing.

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One example of this is the way that anytime you order anything blueberry flavoured on the island – be it a muffin, scone [they seem to eat even more scones than we do], a stack of pancakes or crumb cake – it will always arrive cheeringly, thrillingly splodged with fat, sweet, juicy fresh blueberries. These feel like an enormous treat every single time when you’re more used to fake dried out & artificial flavoured blueberries, as we are in Ireland. Try the scones below and be converted.

AMERICAN-STYLE BLUEBERRY & BUTTERMILK SCONES

These aren’t quite scones as we know them, as they’re slimmer and crumblier. More like soft, fluffy biscuits, which, coincidentally, is what Americans call our scones…

The secret to making them light and lovely is to handle the mixture as little as possible.

Makes around 8

2 cups of self-raising flour plus extra to dredge

115g cold butter, cut into small cubes

3tbsp granulated sugar

100ml buttermilk

1 cup of fresh blueberries

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 large egg, beaten

Preheat your oven to 180°c and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment. Stir together the flour & sugar. Cut in the butter and then rub it in lightly with your fingers, lifting the mix into the air slightly as you do. Stir in the blueberries. Whisk the buttermilk, egg & vanilla extract together in a jug and then pour over the flour blueberry mix. Stir together very lightly with a fork until it has only just come together – it will probably be a wetter mix than you’re used to. If the mixture seems too dry add a splash more buttermilk. Flour a work surface and tip the mix out onto it. Bring it together lightly into a large round, patting it into a circle that’s about an inch thick (I rolled mine out a little too thinly as I was determined to use my new star shaped cookie cutter). Cut into wedges, brush with a little beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for around 22 mins, or until golden brown and nicely baked through. Transfer to a wire rack to cool or serve warm from the oven with butter & jam and enjoy immediately.

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Honey & Ginger Shortbread, June 2016

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HONEY & GINGER SHORTBREAD

Just a short, sweet recipe for a rainy summer’s day – my mum’s amazing honey & ginger shortbread, which no one can resist at tea time, or at any other time.

Combining the traditional buttery comfort of shortbread with the rich, exotic, slightly unusual flavour of crystallised ginger, these biscuits turn out crumbly, chewy and utterly delicious. They also only take about 25 minutes to make from start to finish, so they’re a great option to make if you have guests coming around and don’t have much in the cupboard. I keep a small bag of crystallised ginger on hand at all times for this very reason.

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Makes 16

150g plain flour

75 butter

25g caster sugar

1.5 tablespoons of thick honey

50g crystallised ginger, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 170c. Rub the butter into the flour then stir in the sugar and honey. Add the chopped ginger. Stir then bring it together with your hands on your work surface, kneading the dough gently for a minute or so. Press the mixture into a small floured or parchment lined tin, using your fingers to press it into the corners. Flatten the top by pressing down on it with a spatula. Bake for around 20 minutes, or until a deep golden. Cut into squares and sprinkle with caster sugar while still warm then transfer to a cooling rack. If you want them chewier, return them to tin for a few minutes in a hot oven and cool them again. Store in an airtight box.

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Chickpea & Chard Eggs, June 2016

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One of the first dishes I came up when I was a teenager was chickpeas on toast, which involved frying drained tinned chickpeas in butter with some sort of spice (coriander & cumin seeds, usually) and lots of diced garlic, and then dumping the lot on top of buttered granary toast (it had to be granary). I’d make it on Wednesday afternoons, after I’d made my weekly surreptitious trip to the college library (going to the library was not a cool thing to do, but someone had to read all those Margaret Drabbles).

I still love chickpeas on toast and I really think I was onto something with it now – the garlic brings out the nuttiness of the chickpeas, and the fact that it’s so simple means that you can really enjoy the flavour of each of the ingredients. I’d recommend it for days when you’re not at your best, as it’s the best comfort food going and very quick to make. With a few tweaks & additions and a little gussying up, it also works as a very fine brunch option too.

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CHICKPEA & CHARD EGGS with nduja & herbs

Serves 4

4 eggs

2 tins of chickpeas, drained

25g butter

Large handful of chard, stems removed & roughly chopped

2 heaped tbsps nduja (or finely diced chorizo)

1 large clove of garlic, diced

Herbs of your choice

Olive oil

Fry the garlic in the butter over a medium heat. Add the chickpeas & nduja and continue to fry till the chickpeas are well coated. Season with salt, pepper and any spices you’re using. Add the chard and continue to cook until it wilts. Make 4 wells in the chickpea mix and break the eggs in. Dot each yolk with a little more butter and cover the whole pan with a lid. Cook until the egg whites are firm but the yolks are still soft. Top with herbs, black pepper, parmesan shavings & a little olive oil. Serve with toast & lots of garlicky yogurt on the side.

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Boxty Pancakes, May 2016

DSCN6778As a proud Fermanagh native, my dad has been making boxty for as long as I can remember. He tried several versions – there are several versions – on us before we settled on the boxty pancakes here, which are a revelation – light, savoury, flavoursome; the definition of ‘more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’ food.

We have the pancakes every Christmas Eve, served with a big feed of baked eggs, sausages, bacon & pudding if we can convince our mother to buy it. Since we love the pancakes so much, he’s started making them throughout the year for us now too.

Boxty is a bit of a production to make, and there are a couple of strange steps, like squeezing the starch out of raw potato, but stick with it – I promise you it’s totally worth it.

BOXTY PANCAKES [on the pan]

Perfect for feeding a crowd for breakfast

Serves 6.

1 lb. raw  floury potatoes

1 lb. cooked floury potatoes

1 lb. plain flour

2 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

Buttermilk

Wash & peel the raw potatoes. Grate them onto a large piece of muslin cloth. Wring them tightly, catching all the starchy liquid in a basin.

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Put the leftover potato from the cloth into another basin, and mash the cooked potato over it.

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Leave the potato starch in the basin until starch sinks and the water on top is clear. Pour off the water and scrape the starch on top of the potatoes. Mix well, then sieve the flour, salt & soda over the top and stir.

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Make a well in the centre of the flour and add enough buttermilk to make a batter that has a loose, dropping consistency. Beat well until mixed. Leave for a few minutes before frying.

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Heat a frying pan and grease lightly with a piece of buttered kitchen paper. Once hot, drop spoonfuls of the batter onto it, cooking 3 or 4 at a time and flipping when golden. Keeping them warm in the oven while you fry the rest. Serve with butter, tea, and all the makings of an Irish fry.

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Coconut & Lime Buns, May 2016

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There was never any cupcakes in our house when we were growing up, nor fairy cakes, nor queen cakes. But there were ‘wee buns’, and once, when I was very lucky, a single, perfect butterfly bun that had been kept in the fridge for me till I came home from school at 12. This was treats looked like in our house: small, rare, homely, unassuming.

Nowadays, when it comes to treats, everything in the wider world is topsy turvy; caught between the two poles of gargantuan, nose-covering cupcakes with salted caramel syringes stuck into them on the one hand, and the seemingly endless (and definitely joyless) crumbly healthy bites that have become so all pervasive in cafés and on Instagram, invariably heralded smugly with the bowing emoji and lots of exclamation marks.

But, if you want a treat that’s not unhealthy, why not just have a small version of a normal treat? I hear myself asking over and over again, in a small voice. Instead of making a whole rake of dried date and agave syrup balls, and blurring the boundaries between ‘treat’ and ‘overall lifestyle’ so that one becomes indistinguishable from the other, why not just eat a little bit of icing on a small homemade bun every so often instead? Why not just keep treats as treats?

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These cupcake & lime buns are definitely just that – a small, cheerful treat that would be ideal for a summer birthday or wedding or communion or afternoon tea in the garden on a rare sunny day.

COCONUT & LIME BUNS

Makes 12 small buns

For the buns

110g self-raising flour

110g caster sugar

110g butter, softened

Zest of a small lemon

Zest of a small lime

1 tsp lemon extract

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 eggs, beaten

For the icing

50g butter, softened

100g icing sugar

2 tbsp coconut cream (optional)

Zest of a lime

2tsp lime juice

50g coconut shards

Preheat your oven to 180ºc & line a muffin tray with cupcake cases. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale & fluffy. Add the lemon and lime zest & the extracts and beat in the eggs. Sieve in the flour and fold in gently. Spoon the mixture into the cases, allowing ew mabout a tablespoon of mixture for each one. Bake for around 15 minutes, or until nicely golden and well risen. Transfer to a cooling tray.

For the icing, mix the butter with the icing sugar and coconut cream (you’re looking for the thicker stuff in the container rather than the liquid). Add the lime zest, saving a little to garnish the top of the buns. Toast half of the coconut in the oven for a few minutes and mix with the remaining shards, crumble slightly and set aside. When the buns have cooled, spread about a teaspoon of the icing over each with a knife. Dunk them into the coconut shards and add a small pinch of lime zest to each before serving. Add sparklers for extra summer fun.

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Buttermilk & Sea Salt Ice Cream, May 2016

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My mum has always used a lot of buttermilk in her baking, be it in Ulster-style griddle-cooked soda bread, cheese scones, boxty pancakes or in her ‘loaf in a dish’, all of which are absolutely delicious. Buttermilk is almost a magic ingredient when combined with baking powder & flour, producing light, fluffy, full-flavoured breads & griddle cakes that are way more than the sum of their parts, and it has long been widely revered throughout the Irish countryside for this trait, as well as for its many other benefits.

Every time I’d try a teaspoon of the buttermilk itself though I would invariably wince – so sour, so savoury – and one or other of my parents would tell me that buttermilk used to be the refreshment of choice during harvest time, as it was so quenching. Now, I suspect that what this may have been was actual butter milk, ie, the liquid produced butter making, rather than the thick, lassi-like ‘cultured’ buttermilk that’s more widely available now, but I wondered if buttermilk would do its same trick of becoming wonderful when combined with other ingredients in ice cream too.

After making a simple cream and lemon zest base, I stirred in a ‘gill’ of buttermilk or so (an old imperial measurement for a quarter pint) and then tipped the lot into my ice cream maker. As well as echoing and enhancing the citrus flavours from the lemon zest, the buttermilk also gives this ice cream a certain depth. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s as familiar & refreshing as it is unusual, making it perfect for those rare, hot, perfect Irish summer days.

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BUTTERMILK & SEA SALT ICE CREAM

Serves 6

150 ml single cream

150ml double cream

200 ml whole milk

2 egg yolks

2/3 cups of caster sugar

150 ml buttermilk

Zest of a lemon

1tsp vanilla extract

Pinch of sea salt, to serve

Freeze the ice cream maker bowl the night before. Set a large heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Add the egg yolks, sugar, whole milk, creams, vanilla extract, lemon zest and heat until simmering gently but not boiling, stirring all the while. Transfer to a large jug and refrigerate for an hour or two, or until completely chilled. Add the buttermilk to the cream mixture and stir. Pour slowly into the churning ice cream maker. When the ice cream is ready, transfer to a dish and freeze for another couple of hours. Sprinkle a tiny pinch of sea salt over each scoop before serving.

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Jersey Royals, May 2016

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New season potatoes are always a treat. As well as being buttery & delicious with a slightly nutty flavour, Jersey Royals were traditionally the earliest of the lot, arriving in to the UK from late March onwards; a sign that spring must surely be on its way.

I was in Jersey two years ago (it’s a wonderful place; go if you can), but I didn’t get to sample the famous potatoes, as the season was long over by September. When I saw them on sale yesterday I decided that I had to give them a go at long last after reading so much about them while on the island.

But what to serve them with? Mint is the traditional accompaniment to new potatoes but since I had roasted them in olive oil & salt rather than steaming them in the usual way I wanted to pair them with a stronger, more robust, flavour. Since I did have a lot of mint to hand, I decided on a punchy salsa verde, tossed lightly with the potatoes just before serving. It was absolutely delicious, and would be the perfect side for early summer barbecues & outdoor gatherings.DSCN7209

JERSEY ROYALS WITH PISTACHIO & MINT SALSA VERDE

Serves 4

16 Jersey Royals or other new potatoes

Olive oil

Smoked sea salt

A large handful of mint & parsley

A small handful of pistachio nuts

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 large clove of garlic

A generous squeeze of lemon

Roast the potatoes skins on in a little olive oil & salt in a hot oven for around 25 to 30 minutes. Roughly dice the garlic with the pistachio nuts and then blend with the mint & parsley leaves, the vinegar, the lemon juice and enough olive oil to give it your desired consistency. When the potatoes are tender, transfer to a warmed bowl and mix with the salsa verde. Serve with more chopped herbs, peas, radishes and buffalo mozzarella for a lovely & light spring meal.

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Peanut Butter Brownies, April 2016

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Peanut butter is one of the strongest flavour memories from my childhood. It tastes like the end of the 10am news with Moira Stuart on BBC1 and the start of Playdays; a slice of bread spread with it and folded over and eaten in a few bites. It tastes like hiccups; a tablespoon of it downed in one as a catch-all cure to over-excitement, eating too fast and other ailments of being small. It tastes like my first baking endeavours – a batch of peanut butter cookies proudly made from a Dorling Kindersley baking book, ‘Makes 16‘ written over the recipe in fussy childish print.

Oddly, after years of eating peanut butter all the time, I’m fairly ambivalent about it now. Small amounts are fine, and I like satay, but I couldn’t eat peanut butter out of the jar any more. I do like it with chocolate though, as I think it brings out the best in both flavours, providing a slightly savoury ballast to the sweetness of the chocolate and rounding out the slight heaviness of the peanut butter nicely.

Indeed, Niki Segnit, author of the fantastic Flavour Thesaurus points out a similarity between the two flavours, noting that the Spanish word for peanuts is cacohuette. Thinking about this chocolate-peanut butter “flavour harmony”, I decided to swirl some into the batch of brownies I made yesterday as an experiment, and, unsurprisingly enough, they turned out pretty damn delicious.

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PEANUT BUTTER SWIRL BROWNIES

Another relic from my childhood, this basic brownie recipe is the best ever, hands down. To make the peanut butter version I’ve made here, all you need to is heat the peanut butter gently and swirl it lightly into the batter before baking.

Makes nine big ones or 16 smaller bites. 

4 oz (115 g) butter

6 0z (170 g) semi-dark chocolate

4 0z (115 g) caster sugar

4 oz (115g) self raising flour, sieved

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp water

3 tbsp chunky peanut butter

Preheat oven to 170°c and line a 9 inch×9 inch baking dish with parchment. Melt the chocolate in a large saucepan with the butter and the two tablespoons of water over a low heat. Add the sugar and vanilla and stir in so that it is fully incorporated and dissolves. Allow to cool. Sieve in the flour and stir in the beaten eggs. Mix fully and then pour it into the baking dish. Microwave the peanut butter until liquid and pour on top of the brownie mix. Use a knife to make swirls through the chocolate, being careful not to incorporate the peanut butter too completely. Bake for around 20-25 mins, or until a knife comes out fairly clean (but not spotlessly clean – brownies need a bit of chew). Cut into nine or 16 squares while still hot. Then either lift the parchment out onto a cooling rack or leave them to cool in the tin if you’re bringing them somewhere.

Homemade Goat’s Curd, April 2016

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I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by the fact that I don’t enjoy goat’s cheese. I like strong flavours and other ‘grown-up’ foods but never could get beyond a mouthful of goat’s cheese. Too breathy, too powerful.

Then I discovered a way that I could eat goat’s cheese and actually enjoy it – goat’s curd, which is made by simply separating goat’s milk and straining the curds from the whey.

It’s very trendy in London restaurants at the moment, and with good reason. With its light, fresh, subtle flavour; delicious, slightly tangy creaminess and its soft fluffy texture, goat’s curd is both an entry-level goat’s cheese and something else entirely separate, and it goes amazingly well with the young spring vegetables that are starting to appear in the shops. Try it dotted over a warm salad of broad beans, asparagus and blanched tenderstem brocccoli and be converted too.

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HOMEMADE GOAT’S CURD

1l full-fat goat’s milk (this is quite widely available now, but if you can only find a skimmed version, just use a high fat Greek yoghurt and a good splash of whole cow’s milk to compensate)

150g Greek yoghurt

Juice of half a lemon

Salt, pepper, fresh herbs and olive oil to serve

Pour the milk into a large saucepan and bring it just to boiling point then lower the heat. Stir in the yoghurt and add the lemon juice slowly, stirring gently all the while. The goat’s milk should now be completely separated, with lots of small curds floating on the surface. Take it off the heat and leave to sit for ten minutes to allow the curds to come together. Line a sieve with muslin and place securely over a saucepan or large bowl. Spoon the curds into the sieve, wrap the ends of the muslin together slightly and leave to drain for around 30 minutes. Press it gently from time to time without squeezing. (I squeezed mine a little too much, but it was still delicious). When it has reached the consistency of ricotta, transfer to a bowl and either serve with bread, drinks, olive oil and fresh herbs, dot over a salad or serve with warm lemony vegetables.

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Nettle Soup, April 2016

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With Marlay on our doorstop, the first few weeks of April invariably involved a nettle picking trip when I was growing up. Rubber gloves would be donned, a plastic bag would be found (in my mind’s eye it was always a red and white striped bag), and we’d all troop off down to the park with my dad to watch him picking them. Back home, they’d be transferred to a basin and my mum would pick out the youngest tips to make soup with.

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And what a soup! I don’t think it’s just nostalgia speaking when I say that it’s one of the nicest spring dishes out there. It tastes clean, comforting and very, very good for you, and it has a beautifully Irish flavour that just seems right for this time of year, especially when served with brown wheaten bread or homemade cheese scones. Best of all, it’s quick, easy and fun to make, and once you start looking, you’ll see that there’s no shortage of nettles in this country.

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NETTLE SOUP

1 basin of tender young nettle tips, picked from the very top of the plant with rubber gloves and rinsed

1 large onion, peeled & diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled & diced

2 medium potatoes, peeled & cubed

Around 1.5l good quality chicken stock

Pinch of nutmeg

150 ml cream

25g butter

Salt & pepper

Fry the onion in the butter till golden, then add the potato, season and continue to cook for 10 minutes, or until the potato is starting to soften. Pour a little boiling water over the nettle tips and add to the pot, holding a cupful of the leaves back. Sauté gently for a couple of minutes then add the stock. Cook at a simmer until the potatoes have softened. Purée with a hand blender. Add the remaining nettle tips, cook for a minute or so and then blend lightly again – this step will brighten up the colour nicely. Add the cream, stir well and serve in bowls with more black pepper and thyme leaves.

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Grape Focaccia, March 2016

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There was a lovely feature in The Telegraph last Saturday which featured ten or so British politicians reminiscing about their Easters past: the food; the traditions; the people.

After I’d read most of them I noticed that while the pieces were all beautifully and quirkily written, the majority shared a lot of common flavours & threads – the private pleasure of finding a slightly musty year-old chocolate on the annual egg hunt, say, or the delight of a fresh, sticky hot cross bun on a bright spring morning. But when I think about the Easter celebrations my friends and family have here there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same level of consistency in foods, activities or celebrations – I can’t even remember what my own family usually eat on Easter Sunday.

And although I wish Easter was a bit more of a set occasion here, as it seems to be elsewhere, I’m glad too of the spareness of it in Ireland – having no set formula for Easter frees us up, and allows us to celebrate in whatever way we fancy, with whatever food we want, and with whomever we like. Which, when all is said and done, is probably even more fun than an egg hunt.

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GRAPE FOCACCIA

This gorgeous grape-studded focaccia is perfect for sharing, and your guests will be equal parts surprised & delighted by the combination of the light, savoury bread with the rich, sweet, warm, juicy roasted Sable grapes. In fact, it’s so good that it may well just become a bit of an Easter tradition in your house…

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Makes 1 very large focaccia or two medium-sized rounds

3/4 cup warm water

2 tbsp milk, slightly warmer than the water

2 tsp caster sugar

1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast

2 cups plain flour, plus more for dusting

2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for brushing and oiling

1/2 tsp sea salt

1 large handful black Sable grapes

1tsp coarse sea salt

Handful of rosemary, thyme or wild garlic

In a large bowl, stir together the water, milk, sugar and yeast. Let the mixture sit until foamy, around 3 minutes. Add the flour, olive oil and fine sea salt to the yeast mixture and bring together with your hands. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 8 minutes. 

Brush a large bowl with olive oil. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover the top with a little more olive oil. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise in a warm place until it doubles in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Knock the air out of the dough and then turn it out onto a floured surface, dividing it into 2 balls. Brush two large baking sheets with olive oil and place the balls of dough on them. Dip your fingers in olive oil and press each ball of dough into a medium-sized circle. Cover again with the towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 180ºc. Sprinkle the coarse sea salt and herbs evenly over the dough and dot with the grapes. Bake for around 15 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and puffed up. Serve warm from the oven.

Happy Easter!

o Ø Ö Õ o

Springtime Mezze, March 2016

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Walking home through Phoenix Park the other evening I noticed a small group of women picking something in the brown wintry scrub, rooting through leaves and twigs and packing whatever it was they were collecting into plastic bags.

Since they were searching so close to the ground, I thought at first that they were looking for mushrooms. When they saw me watching them with curiosity they switched from their language to English and showed me what was in their bags – tiny, new season nettles, growing so close to the ground that I hadn’t recognised them from my vantage point up on the path.

‘They’re very nutritious – do you eat them here too?’ one of the women asked. I said that we did, in soup, but as I walked away I was puzzled – why were they picking them so early? The nettles were still several weeks away from being at their towering best.

Maybe the first new leaves are seen as the healthiest in their country, I thought, or perhaps, more likely, they just couldn’t wait any longer to have something green and growing; a new springtime flavour to brighten up the repertoire for the week.

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This is how I feel when I see clumps of wild garlic or three-cornered leek growing in their secret shady spots at this time of year – I can’t help but grab a handful for adding to stir-fries or pasta dishes, and I’m always thinking of new ways to use to let them shine; as in this white pizza I made on St Patrick’s Day a few years ago, and in the lovely feta starter below, which is sort of a springtime mezze.

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SPRINGTIME MEZZE

Serves 4. Double or triple as required

200g feta

1tbsp natural yoghurt

Zest of a lemon

A large handful of wild garlic or three-cornered leek, chopped

Black pepper

To serve

Toasted pitta

Olive oil

Place the feta in a bowl and break up with a wooden spoon. Add the yoghurt and beat until it starts to combine. Add the lemon zest, black pepper and the chopped wild garlic or three-cornered leek and stir until well mixed. If the feta is very crumbly you may need a tiny bit more yoghurt but don’t add too much – you need quite a thick consistency for rolling them. Shape into small balls, top with more chopped wild garlic or leek and either set in olive oil or serve a small bowlful alongside a platter of them, along with lots of shards of warm toasted pitta.

Tahini Cookies, February 2016

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“I think”, Ryan contended, as we finished our peanut brittle chocolate cake and coffees and began to survey the Notting Hill café, his voice low, “that Ottolenghi is actually a sweets man.”

It was certainly a controversial statement. After all, most of us first  have become familiar with Ottolenghi through encountering his legendary salads at dinner parties and family gatherings over the last few years. Those gorgeous, layered, complex, savoury platters that everyone has a riff on yet which still speak so clearly of Ottolenghi and his way of cooking: the bowls of giant cous cous and charred vegetables, strewn with herbs and spices from distant places; the customary deep slick of hummus and olive oil at the side of a plate that have become his signature.

Before I could disagree, Ryan went on to qualify his point, noting that every one of the salads we had eaten (we ordered seven between us) had had some play on sweetness at their core – a tangle of charred red peppers on one; a swirl of roasted sweet potato and creamy, nutty, faintly honeyed tahini in another.

Back at home and trying Ottolenghi’s recipe for tahini cookies a few weeks later, I realised that Ryan was right – so many of the ingredients that Ottolenghi has brought to the fore over the last few years have a subtle, mellow, rich sweetness to them; a sweetness that brings out the best in smoke, char or bitterness, and in turn in our cooking too. These cookies, which come from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook show just this characteristic – the sweetness in them comes more from the flavour of tahini than the sugar, and they’re all the nicer for it.

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TAHINI COOKIES

130g caster sugar

150g butter, at room temperature

110g light tahini

1/2tsp vanilla extract

25ml double cream

270g plain flour

Pinch of cinnamon

8 dried apricots, diced

Preheat the oven to 180c. Beat the butter and sugar till it’s pale and creamy. Add the tahini, vanilla and cream, then the flour, and continue to beat. Once the dough has come together, transfer to a work surface and knead gently for a couple of minutes. Pinch off chunks of the dough, roll into balls and transfer them to parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving a good gap between each cookie. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar and some sesame seed if you like and press some dried apricot into the centre of each. Bake for around 10-15 minutes, or until nicely golden. Once cooled, transfer to an airtight box.

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Blood Orange & Polenta Cake, February 2016

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I always think that autumn is my favourite time of year but then January ends and February rushes in with all of its unexpected light and my heart does a somersault every year – there’s sun in rooms that have been dark all winter and crocuses in scrubby flower beds, and remarkably enough it takes me by surprise every single time.

I’m mesmerised by the flavours and colours of food at this time of year too – the bright, lively citrus tones of Seville and blood oranges, and the zippy, energising dark greens of kale and tenderstem broccoli and leeks that just seem so appropriate for the rising light levels and the cautious push into the new season that February brings.

With all of this in mind, and with my family coming over for tea and to see the new place we’ve just moved to, I decided to make a cake that would highlight the bright early spring flavours and colours that I love so much.

After realising that I’m now a 30-minute walk from any shop that might sell ground almonds for a damp almond & orange cake, I settled on this lovely blood orange & polenta option instead. It turned out to be perfect for the occasion: bolstering and sunny and wonderful with a cup of tea after a chilly walk around the Phoenix Park…my new area!🙂

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BLOOD ORANGE & POLENTA CAKE 

Keeps for up to a week – just wrap it up tightly in parchment and store in a tin.

Zest & juice of 2 blood oranges

140g polenta

200g self raising flour

250g caster sugar

250g butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1tsp orange extract

For the topping

1 blood orange, sliced thinly

100ml orange juice

25ml water

3tbsp caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 160°c and line a medium sized, steep-sided baking tin with baking parchment. Cream the butter and sugar with the vanilla and orange extracts. Once pale and fluffy, add the eggs one at a time, mixing well until each is completely incorporated. Add the flour and polenta and mix thoroughly. Stir in the zest and juice of the two blood oranges and combine fully. You should have a nice, smooth, reasonably thick batter at this point.

Transfer the batter to the parchment-lined tin and bake for around 35 minutes, or until deeply golden and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once done, cool the cake on a rack. Meanwhile, with the peel still on, slice the remaining blood orange as thinly as you can. Bring the water, orange juice and sugar to a rapid boil. Reduce the heat and add the blood orange slices and continue to cook for around ten minutes. Once the blood orange slices are soft and the syrup has reduced by about half take the pan off the heat. Make holes in the cake with a fork. Arrange the blood orange slices over the top of the cake, overlapping them slightly if desired. Spoon the syrup over the cake. Serve slices of it with big dollops of crème fraîche and a hot pot of tea.

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Got me on an upswing…

River Café & January Salad

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One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that cities are a lot more fun if you avoid a) the city centre core and b) any of the attractions that first spring to mind when you think of that city’s name. Instead, the café, restaurant and neighbourhood should be what you build the bones of your day around; these, after all, are what we tend to continue to discuss at length afterwards, even years down the line.

We very much followed these resolutions when we were in London last weekend for a mini-break. Bar a walk on Hampstead Heath, we didn’t do any of the usual touristy things this time, and the trip was all the better for it. We spent most of our time wandering around residential enclaves like Fulham, where we were staying, just beside the bustling North End street market (and close to an Emma Bridgewater store, which was in sale); Notting Hill, where we had lunch at Ottolenghi (more on this in a later post), a wander around the streets and a meal at Polpo; and Hampstead, where we had a wintry walk on the Heath, a nose into the nice shops, and pints, pub grub and muddy dogs at the exceptionally charming Holly Bush pub above the town.

Since we only had a short amount of time, I decided that I wanted to go to places which have loomed large in my mind for years rather than trying to hunt out the latest, coolest, trendiest spots. With that idea in mind, we booked lunch in the River Café as a special treat, given that I have wanted to go there for about a decade, or ever since I started reading cookbooks and British newspapers when I was a teenager. We were a little early for our 12.30 booking, so we wandered down the walkway along the riverside, enjoying the bright sunny weather, the rowers on the Thames and the happy bustle of Saturday morning in what’s actually a surprisingly suburban part of the city.

Inside, it’s the confidence and the calmness of the place that strikes you, with big windows; lots of bright light and sparkling chrome; cheerful, brazen pops of colour that speak of all the positivity and push of the 1990s. The staff are comfortable in the room, and so are the customers, out for Saturday lunch with their families and friends. They have been here before; they know what they like; they wear open collared shirts and pick their favourites off menu. But there’s nothing arrogant about the place, and although it’s certainly a little more pricey than your usual lunch, it’s relaxed, and the atmosphere remains informal: children are welcome, old and young dine together, and many guests seem to be celebrating special occasions. It’s a bright place for celebrating happy moments.

The food carries this same feeling and is sure enough of itself to be kept completely simple. At the entrance to the room is a giant bowl of fresh artichokes, and at the back a wood fired grill stands sentinel to the open kitchen; both book-ending the room with the slick touches of Italian authenticity that have kept the River Café at the front of the game in London dining for almost 30 years.

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What really makes the River Cafe so compelling though is the quality of the ingredients and the cooking that’s on offer. I had a plate of prosciutto di San Daniele with boiled artichokes, almonds and a honey and lemon peel reduction to start, along with a blood orange and prosecco aperitivo; while Ryan had the creamiest buffalo mozzarella I’ve ever tried, which came with a simple tomato, olive oil and sea kale salad. For my main, I had handmade tagliatelle with crème fraîche, rocket, parmesan and Amalfi lemon, which was exceptionally good and he had spaghetti with red mullet. Dessert was coffee and two homemade ice creams – roasted almond and an almost burnt, honeycomb-flavoured dark caramel delicacy. It was all wonderful.

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Later, in Gatwick, delayed by a tiny bit of snow and reading the Observer Food Monthly magazine in Pret, I came across a profile of French chef Gregory Marchand, discussing the influence that London has had on him as a cook – the potential of the place; the Italian-inspired techniques that he learned at the River Café. I showed the piece to Ryan to explain why I wanted to go there too, to say, this has been an influence far and wide for a long time, and indirectly, although I hadn’t tried it till now, on me too. I wanted to try it for myself, and it didn’t disappoint, not at all; I loved it from start to finish.

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JANUARY SALAD

This is based on a recipe by Gregory Marchand, with a few little additions to keep the flavours of the River Café alive in my mind, such as the artichoke and blood orange. The bitter radicchio pairs beautifully with the sweet blood oranges and the  parmesan & smoked prosciutto – perfect food for brightening days.

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Serves 2

2 blood oranges

12 mint leaves

A large handful of bitter leaves, such as radicchio, chicory & rocket

Juice of half a lemon

Olive oil

Salt & black pepper

8 slices of smoked prosciutto or speck

Parmesan shavings

Half a jar of marinated artichokes, drained

Peel the blood oranges and cut into 1cm-thick wheels. Put them in a bowl and the mint leaves, marinated artichokes and bitter leaves. Season with lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil and salt & pepper, and toss gently with your hands. Arrange the salad and slices of prosciutto on two plates and add some parmesan shavings, a drizzle of oil and a few more mint leaves. Serve with warm slices of toasted sourdough.