ArchiveApril 2003

New York, New York

Just a few weeks ago a book tour to the US took me to three cities, New York , Pennsylvania and Minneapolis . It was just a few days before the war broke out and on the face of it everything seemed normal, but somehow there was an uneasy calm. I was staying in the centre of Manhattan around the corner from the theatre district near Times Square .
News headlines were endlessly snaking across the Radio Building . Huge brash signs and posters everywhere, screaming, bouncing, gyrating, flashing to get your attention. 
This is New York, incorrigible, shameless, endless hard sell but so exciting. New Yorkers seemed to have bounced back after September 11th, ,   restaurants were full again but underneath many are still traumatized. Nineteen months later many people still find it almost impossible to talk about the experience. Others can’t stop, each struggles to find release from the horror.

Despite the buzz, restaurateurs are very apprehensive, now that war has broken out there’s more talk of recession. People are spending less, ‘eating in’ is the new ‘eating out’. A foodie friend, who can usually be relied on to have her finger on the gastronomic pulse of the Big Apple, explained that apparently in this era of fiscal constraint New York is awash again in simple gastronomic pleasures. Fancy hamburgers are the hot new dish,  short beef ribs and pork belly are all around town. “Destination dining” has given way to the cult of the neighbourhood restaurant. Home cooking is the trendy phrase among the members of the cognoscenti.

Even the city’s most lauded and adored Italian chefs are focussing their considerable energies on the safest time- honoured favourite- they’re opening pizza joints.
When I was there everyone was flocking to Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, the newest spin-off of Babbo owned by the dream team chefs, Mario Batali, Jason Denton and Jo Bastianich,  whose restaurant Esca I’ve waxed lyrical about before in these columns. 

Opened recently, Apizz is another hot spot for gourmet pizza. Here there are oblong pizzas, scissored into portions according to the customer’s whim and sold by the 1lb- a Roman idea. There are 20-30 different types of chewy burnt crust and generous toppings of earthy ingredients like artichokes, wild boar, homemade sausages and salami. This is a cash only establishment- another interesting development.

The buzz words are local, earthy, bio-dynamic, hand made, neighbourhood, craft, fresh squeezed ……. Several of the young chefs are not just liasing with the farmers to raise their really good produce, but are actually getting involved in growing produce and raising animals themselves.

Casare Casella’s spit grilled sausages served with white beans and a sprig of rosemary at Beppe are made from pigs reared on his own farm.

Danny Meyer, owner of Grammercy Tavern and Craft says”all the best food is about slow cooking cuts of meat” I had a superb lunch at Craft where the food is served ‘family style’ in bowls and platters along the centre of the table. Chef Tom Collichio’s short ribs were quite simply sublime, I bought his book on the strength of it just to try the recipe.

New York is awash with terrific restaurants at present, sadly one simply doesn’t have enough time on a short trip even though I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday and sometimes afternoon tea too.

For those of you who can take advantage of the current cheap airfares, don’t miss Lupa, another of Mario Battali’s places, great gutsy Italian food.
Union Square Café is still a great favourite , meriting  top ratings in the Zagat Guide to new York City restaurants,  and if you are down in that area at the weekend go to the Farmers’ Market in Union Square to get a glimpse of the food scene and then after an amble through the stalls reward yourself with a mug of hot chocolate with a home-made marshmallow melting on top, at the City Bakery.

And finally, for a real neighbourhood restaurant seek out the place all my foodie friends are whispering about, Prune 54 East 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, where maverick chef Gabrielle Hamilton is quietly becoming a new cult. 

There’s so much more but I’ve run out of space - next week breakfast in the Big Apple.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria – One Fifth Avenue   Tel 212 995 9559
Craft – 43 East 19th Street (between Broadway and Park avenue ) Tel 212-780- 0880
Gramercy Tavern – 42 E. 20th Street , (between Broadway & Park Avenue S. ) Tel 212 -477- 0777
Lupa – 170 Thompson Street (Bleecker and Houston Station) Tel 212-982-5089
Babbo-  110 Waverly Place, (between MacDougal St   & 6th Ave. ) Tel. 212 -777- 0303
Grammercy Tavern – 42 East 20th Street (Broadway and Park Avenue ) Tel 212-477-0777
Prune- 54 East First Street (between 20th and 21st Streets) Tel 212-677-6221
Esca – 402 West 43rd Street ( 9th Avenue ) Tel 212-564-7272
Beppe- 45 East 22nd Street (between Broadway and Park Avenue South ) Tel 212-982-8422
City Bakery – 3 W. 18th St. (between 5th & 6th Avenues) Tel 212- 366 -1414 
Apizz – 21 Eldridge St. (between Rivington and Stanton Streets) Tel 212- 253-9199
Zagat Survey  2003 New York City Restaurants -   published and distributed by Zagat Survey, LLD, 4 Columbus Circle,  New York, New York 10019, Tel. 212 977 6000, e-mail:newyork@zagat.com.  www.zagat.com    
Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course Cookbook has just been nominated for a James Beard award in the US , published by Kyle Cathie Ltd UK , Gill & Macmillan in Ireland and published by Penguin in USA as Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cooking School Cookbook.
Darina’s back to basic recipes.

Florence Bowe’s Crumpets

A great standby, 'Crumpets' can be made in minutes with ingredients you'd probably have in the house. They are also the ideal solution if you've got nothing in the tin when a friend drops in for tea, because they only take a few minutes to make and children love them.

My Auntie Florence makes the best crumpets I know, the problem is one always eats too many!  
Top Tips

If possible allow the batter to stand for an hour before using.
Use a non-stick pan – makes it easier.
Cook over a medium heat – you may need to make one or two first before you get the heat just right.
Don’t turn the crumpets on the pan until the bubbles burst, otherwise they will still be semi-raw in the centre.
Makes 15 approx.
½ lb (225g) white flour
¼ teasp. salt
½ teasp. breadsoda
1 teasp. Bextartar (cream of tartar)
2 eggs, preferably free range
8 fl ozs (250ml) milk
2 ozs (55g) castor sugar
1 oz (30g) butter
Sieve the dry ingredients into a bowl and rub in the butter. Drop the eggs into the centre, add a little of the milk and stir rapidly with a whisk allowing the flour to drop gradually in from the sides. When half the milk is added, beat until air bubbles rise. Add the remainder of the milk and allow to stand for one hour if possible. *  Drop a good dessertspoonful into a hottish pan and cook until bubbles appear on the top. It usually takes a bit of trial and error to get the temperature right. Flip over and cook until golden on the other side. Serve immediately with butter and homemade jam or better still apple jelly.

* They are usually lighter if the batter is allowed to stand but I've often cooked them immediately with very acceptable results!

Braised Short Ribs 

2 tablesp.salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 large, meaty beef short ribs, (about 4 lbs), cut in half  (ask your butcher to cut each rib in half, since smaller ribs are easier to handle, this will leave you with 8 short ribs)
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
8 fresh hot cherry peppers 
4 fl.ozs sherry vinegar
16-24 fl.ozs (450-650ml) home-made chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
Heat the oven to 350F/180C/regulo 4
Heat the oil in a large deep ovenproof casserole over medium-high heat until it shimmers.  Salt and pepper the ribs and cook them, in batches, until they are nicely browned on all sides, about 20 minutes.
Remove the ribs and add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, 2 sprigs of thyme, and salt and pepper to the casserole.   Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes, then add the peppers.  Continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and browned, 5 to 10 minutes more.

Return the ribs to the casserole.   Add the vinegar and enough stock to come up the sides but not over the ribs.   Bring the braising liquid to a simmer.  Add the tarragon and remaining thyme, then transfer the casserole to the oven and cook at a very gentle simmer (just an occasional bubble) for 1 hour.   Turn the ribs and continue cooking until the meat is tender and comes easily away from the bone, about 1½ hours more.

Transfer the ribs and vegetables to a plate.  Bring the braising liquid to a simmer and skim off the fat.  Reduce the liquid slightly (just so it has a little body), then return the ribs and vegetables to the casserole.  Simmer just long enough to reheat the ribs, then serve.
Cherry peppers are about the size of large cherry tomatoes and are sweeter and fleshier than normal chillies.  They are also known as Hungarian peppers and can be found by that name bottled.   You could also substitute with a red chilli –about 3 inches long and not too narrow – red chillies are sweeter than green, being riper.
Another alternative would be to use an equivalent amount of red bell peppers and a pinch of red chilli flakes.

Easter lunch has to be lamb

I absolutely adore this time of year, everything in the garden is springing into life and the first of the new fruit and vegetables are just ready for picking. In the kitchen garden there are pale tender shoots of seakale hiding under the terracotta forcing pots and lots of delicate pink rhubarb stalks for tarts and compotes. Already we have had some spears of asparagus- just enough to have a tiny feast. 
Down in the wood the wild garlic has also made its appearance and we have been putting the tender leaves into green salads and soups and scattering the pretty white flowers as a garnish over salads and starters. However, the main excitement this week was when I took my reluctant and more than sceptical students on an expedition to gather young spring nettles and watercress to make soup. I cockily assured them that if one clasps the nettles firmly one doesn't get stung - 'We want a demonstration' they taunted, 'No problem' says yours truly who got roasted alive - Wow, Spring nettles really do sting! - so needless to say much hilarity at my expense so we quickly resorted to rubber gloves. - Here's our recipe for nettle soup which hopefully will purify the blood.
Watercress is much easier to pick, it can of course be bought in bunches in many supermarkets, but if you want to gather some yourself make sure the water in the stream is clean, no animals directly upstream. As children we always collected it in Spring, along the banks of the stream that flows through the Chapel meadows outside the village of Cullohill.

The water must be constantly flowing, watercress is packed with vitamins and minerals and its peppery taste is irresistible in salads as well as soups – its at its best and must succulent at present.
The main course for our Easter lunch has to be lamb. You’ll need to order young Spring lamb a week or two ahead – I know many people choose salmon or turkey for Easter, but for me it wouldn’t be Easter without sweet, succulent Spring lamb. You’ll need to order it ahead from your local butcher. Leg, loin or shoulder can be roasted, the latter is the most delicious of all, but more of a challenge to carve than the leg. 
Young carrots would be delish and if available the first Irish potatoes. If not, why, not make a gratin of potato and spring onion and cook it underneath the lamb so that all the juices are absorbed by the potato – saves making gravy too.

Use the first mint leaves to make a simple mint sauce. Serve a green salad of young Spring leaves – sorrel, rocket, watercress, claytonia or just mixed leaves. Scatter a few primrose flowers over the top to emphasise Spring – yes, they are edible and delicious too.
For pud for our Easter lunch – Rhubarb Tatin served with soft brown sugar and cream.
After all of that you’ll enjoy a long walk in the country or along your local strand.

Have fun and happy Easter.

Watercress or Nettle Soup

There are references to watercress in many early Irish manuscripts. It formed part of the diet of hermits and holy men who valued its special properties. Legend has it that it was watercress that enabled St. Brendan to live to the ripe old age of 180! In Birr Castle in Co. Offaly, Lord and Lady Rosse still serve soup of watercress gathered from around St. Brendan's well, just below the castle walls.
Many older people particularly still like to eat nettles several times during the month of May to purify the blood and keep away arthritis for the coming year.

Serves 6-8
12 ozs (45g) butter
5 ozs (140g) peeled and chopped potatoes
4 ozs (110g) peeled and chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pint (600ml) water or home-made chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 pint (600ml) creamy milk
8 ozs (225g) chopped watercress or nettles (remove the coarse stalks)

Melt the butter in heavy bottomed saucepan, when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the watercress. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the stock and milk, bring to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the watercress or nettles and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes approx. until the watercress or nettles are cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser or food processor. Taste and correct seasoning.

Glazed Carrots

If you have never cooked carrots before you might like to try this method of cooking them. Admittedly it takes a little vigilance but the resulting flavour is a revelation to many people and you won’t cook them any other way again.
Serves 4-6
1 lb (450g) carrots, Early Nantes and Autumn King have particularly good flavour
½ oz (15g) butter
4 fl ozs (100ml) cold water
Pinch of salt
A good pinch of sugar
Garnish 
Freshly chopped parsley or fresh mint
Cut off the tops and tips, scrub and peel thinly if necessary. Cut into slices ⅓ inch (7mm) thick, either straight across or at an angle. Leave very young carrots whole. Put them in a saucepan with butter, water, salt and sugar. Bring to the boil, cover and cook over a gentle heat until tender, by which time the liquid should have all been absorbed into the carrots, but if not remove the lid and increase the heat until all the water has evaporated. Taste and correct the seasoning. Shake the saucepan so the carrots become coated with the buttery glaze. 
Serve in a hot vegetable dish sprinkled with chopped parsley or mint.
Tip: It’s really important to cut the carrots into the same thickness, otherwise they will cook unevenly. 
You must keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn, particularly if its your first time. 

Roast Spring Lamb with Mint Sauce

Young Spring Lamb is sweet and succulent and needs absolutely no embellishment apart from a dusting of salt and pepper and a little fresh Mint Sauce.
For me this is the quintessential taste of Easter.

Serves 6-8
1 leg of Spring lamb
salt and freshly ground pepper
Gravy
1 pint (570ml) lamb or chicken stock
a little roux
salt and freshly ground pepper
Garnish
Sprigs of fresh mint and parsley
Mint Sauce 
If possible ask your butcher to remove the aitch bone from the top of the leg of lamb so that it will be easier to carve later, then trim the knuckle end of the leg. Season the skin with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put into a roasting tin.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4. Roast for 1-1¼ hours approx. for rare, 1¼ -1½ hours for medium and 1½- 2 hours for well done, depending on size. When the lamb is cooked to your taste, remove the joint to a carving dish. Rest the lamb for 10 minutes before carving.

Meanwhile make the gravy. Degrease the juices in the roasting tin, add stock. Bring to the boil and whisk in a little roux to thicken slightly. Taste and allow to bubble up until the flavour is concentrated enough. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Mint Sauce

Traditional Mint Sauce made with tender young shoots of fresh mint only takes minutes to make. Its the perfect accompaniment to Spring lamb but for those who are expecting a bright green jelly, the slightly dull colour and watery texture comes as a surprise. Thats how it ought to be, try it.
2 tablesp finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablesp. sugar
6-8 tablesp boiling water
2 tablesp. white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put the sugar and freshly-chopped mint into a sauce boat. Add the boiling water and vinegar or lemon juice. Allow to infuse for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Roux
4 ozs (110g) butter
4 ozs (110g) flour

Melt the butter and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally. Use as required. Roux can be stored in a cool place and used as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred. It will keep at least a fortnight in a refrigerator.

Gratin of Potato and Spring Onion

Potato gratins are a tasty, nourishing and economical way to feed lots of hungry people on a chilly evening, this recipe could also include little pieces of bacon or a lamb chop cut into dice, so it can be a sustaining main course or a delicious accompaniment as served here with Easter Lamb.
Serves 4 as a main course
Serves 6 as an accompaniment
3 lbs (1.5kg) 'old' potatoes, eg. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks
2 bunches of spring onions
1 oz (30g) butter
3-6 ozs (85-170g) Irish mature cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2-: pint (300-450ml/13-1: cups) homemade chicken, beef or vegetable stock
Oval ovenproof gratin dish - 122 inch (31.5cm) long x 2 inch (5cm) high
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6. 

Slice the peeled potatoes thinly, blanch and refresh. Trim the spring onions and chop both the green and white parts into approx. 3 inch (5mm) slices with a scissors or a knife.

Rub an oven proof dish thickly with half the butter, scatter with some of the spring onions, then a layer of potatoes and then some grated cheese. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Continue to build up the layers finishing with an overlapping layer of potatoes, neatly arranged. Pour in the boiling stock, scatter with the remaining cheese and dot with butter.

Bake in a preheated oven for 1-13 hours or until the potatoes are tender and the top is brown and crispy.

Note: It may be necessary to cover the potatoes with a paper lid for the first half of the cooking.

Rhubarb Tarte Tatin

This delectable tart is an adaptation of a traditional recipe which was originally cooked in a bastable over the open fire – everyone adores it.
One could also add a couple of teaspoons of freshly grated ginger to the rhubarb, but try it unadorned at first, its seriously good.

Serves 8-10
In season: late spring
900g (2lb) red rhubarb
255-285g (9-10oz) granulated sugar

Topping
310g (11oz) flour
20g (¾oz) castor sugar
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
55g (2oz) butter
1 egg
175ml (6floz) full cream milk, approx
egg wash
granulated sugar

23x5cm (9x2inch) round tin. We use a heavy stainless steel sauté pan which works very well, if you don’t have a suitable pan, par cook the rhubarb slightly first.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/regulo 8
Trim the rhubarb, wipe with a damp cloth and cut into pieces about 2.5cm (1inch) in length. Put into the base of a tin or sauté pan, sprinkle with the sugar. We put the stainless steel sauté pan on a low heat at this point while we make the dough.

Sieve all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and rub into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Whisk the egg with the milk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquid all at once and mix to a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and roll into a 23cm (9inch) round about 2.5cm (1inch) thick. Place this round on top of the rhubarb and tuck in the edges neatly. Brush with a little egg wash and sprinkle with granulated sugar. 

Bake in the fully preheated oven for 15 minutes then, reduce the temperature to 180C/350F/regulo 4 for a further 30 minutes approx. or until the top is crusty and golden and the rhubarb soft and juicy.
Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes. Put a warm plate over the top of the sauté pan, turn upside down onto the plate but be careful of the hot juices. 
Serve warm with soft brown sugar and cream.

Top Tips 

Wild garlic
Wild Garlic also known as Ramsoms (Allium Ursinum) and Three cornered Garlic (Allium Triquetrum), also known as Snowbells, are in full bloom all around the countryside at the moment - many people will recognize them and smell them, as they go for walks, but not many realize that they are, not merely edible but a most delicious addition to sauce, salads and soups.

Fresh Mint
Bunches of fresh mint are now available in the supermarkets, spearmint has the most delicate flavour. Use for Mint sauce or make a fresh mint infusion –bring fresh cold water to a boil. Scald a china teapot, take a generous pinch of fresh spearmint leaves and 
crush them gently in your hand. The quantity will depend on how intense an infusion you enjoy. Put them into the scalded water. Pour the boiling water over the leaves, cover the teapot, and let them infuse for 3-4minutes. Serve immediately in china cups.

Easter Eggs 
All the shops have a range of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies – look out for little ones to hide around the garden for the Easter Egg hunt – Marks and Spencer, Lily O’Brien and locally made Eve Chocolate and O’Conaills who sell at Midleton Farmers Market. Have a tempting peep at Hot Chocolate in Cork’s Castle Street.

The Basic Hamburger

Mince has always been looked on as the poor relation, a less desirable cousin of prime rib or sirloin. Something to be endured on days when the budget is a bit tight, but just because it’s relatively inexpensive doesn’t mean it is any less delicious.

There are a myriad of mouth-watering, yes I mean mouth-watering dishes that can be made from mince. From juicy hamburgers to saucy meatballs, from Bolognese sauce to crunchy Middle Eastern Kibbeh – one just needs to add a sprinkle of ingenuity and a liberal flavouring of herbs or spices or maybe both.

As ever the key to deliciousness is the basic raw material, it’s crucially important that the meat is well hung but freshly minced. I know that many people say that mince stays fresh for several days, I disagree and find that even when it is carefully refrigerated it sours and the flavour becomes tainted so plan to use fresh mince on the day. If your best-laid plans go awry because you are unexpectedly asked out, then shape it into a shallow block and pop it in the freezer – it will keep for 1-2 months but gradually deteriorate. However, for best results it’s best to use it within a few days. Pork, lamb, chicken, veal or even tuna can be minced but in this article I’m going to concentrate on beef mince because it is the most widely available.

Quality of the mince varies according to the cut of meat, ironically very lean cuts e.g. round can be very dry unless a percentage of fat is added. Flank, chuck and other cuts from the shoulder are fattier and have a sweeter flavour and juicer texture.

The accompaniments to mince can make the magic. The hamburger bun, lettuce, juicy tomatoes, mayonnaise, melting cheese, all enhance the experience of eating a burger. Spicy mince is so delicious wrapped in crispy lettuce leaves or stuffed into a pitta pocket or rolled up in a tortilla. Slice the top off a crispy bun, scoop out the crumb and fill generously with a juicy mince, well flavoured with fresh herbs and spices. Serve with a blob of Guacamole and some Jalapeno Relish or sweet chilli sauce.

Stuff well-flavoured mince into giant pasta shells, layer it up with a cheesy macaroni or simply sauté it off and add it to your favourite well-seasoned pasta sauce.

Tiny meat balls are also irresistible smothered in tomatoey sauce or just cooked on the pan, then served with a tasty dip. Spear them with cocktail sticks for ease of eating – so many ideas – one could quite easily eat mince in a different way for weeks on end.

Darina’s Back to Basics

Basic Hamburger

If you are complete beginner why not start by making your own hamburger.
The hamburger, the universal fast food, immortalized by the Americans and enjoyed by the rich and famous, the down and outs and all the rest of the world as well.

It can be a feast or a travesty simply a burger in a bun or an elaborate creation with lots of sauces and pickles. Hamburgers, love them or hate then they're here to stay and with a bit of effort they can be Simply Delicious.

The secret of really good hamburgers is the quality of the mince, it doesn't need to be an expensive cut but it is essential to use the beef on the day it is minced. A very small percentage of fat in the mince will make the hamburgers sweet and juicy.

Serves 4-6
3 ozs (85g) onion, finely chopped
½ oz (15g) butter
1 lb (450g) freshly minced beef - flank, chump or shin would be perfect
½ teasp. fresh thyme leaves
½ teasp. finely chopped parsley
1 small egg, beaten, preferably free range
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Olive or sunflower oil

First peel and chop the onion finely. 

Melt the butter in a low-sided saucepan and toss in the chopped onion. Cover and sweat on a low heat until soft but not coloured, allow to get cold. In a bowl mix the mince with the herbs and beaten egg, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the cold onions and mix well. Fry off a tiny bit on the pan to check the seasoning, correct if necessary. Then shape into hamburgers, 4-6 depending on the size you require. Cook to your taste on a medium-hot pan or grill pan in a little oil, turning once.

Burgers can be stored covered in the fridge for several hours before cooking.

Top Tips

Wet your hands with cold water before shaping the burgers to prevent the mixture sticking to your hands. 
If the hamburgers are being cooked in batches make sure to wash and dry the pan between batches. 
Burgers should not be more than one inch thick, otherwise it will be difficult to cook them through. 

Homemade hamburgers are a vast improvement on mass-produced burgers. There are endless ways to serve them – cheese burgers, bacon burgers, chilli burgers, blue-cheese burgers, mushroom burgers. …….

Spicy Moroccan Meatballs with Yoghurt and Banana Raita

These spicy meat balls have a secret centre
Makes 6
1 lb (450g) minced beef or shoulder of lamb
4 cardamom pods
1½ teasp coriander seeds
1 clove
¼-½ teasp of chilli powder
2-3 small cloves garlic mashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 egg, preferably free range

2 tablesp. approx. cream cheese mixed with 1 teasp. chopped parsley, optional

Yogurt and Banana Raita

Remove the seeds from the cardamom and discard the pods. Grind the seeds with the coriander and clove, add to the minced lamb with the chilli powder and crushed garlic. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Fry off a tiny bit to check the seasoning. Divide the mixture into 6, shape each portion into a round 4 inch (10cm) diameter approx. Put a teaspoonful of curd cheese and parsley into the centre, gather up the edges so that the filling is completely enclosed. Repeat with the remainder of the mixture. Cover and chill until required or barbecue or fry immediately on a medium heat in a barely oiled frying pan. They will take about 5 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with a Green Salad and Banana and Yogurt Raita.

Banana and Yogurt Raita

Serves 8-10
Delicious served with either these meatballs or with mild madras curry, surprisingly it keep for days in the fridge and we've also enjoyed it as a pudding.

2 heaped tablesp. (2 ozs (55g) approx.) raisins or sultanas
1 oz (30g) blanched slivered almonds
7 fl ozs (200ml) natural yogurt
3½ fl ozs (90ml) cream or 3½ fl ozs (90ml) sour cream
1 tablesp. pure Irish honey
3 firm ripe bananas
pinch of salt
4-6 cardamom pods

Pour boiling water over the raisins or sultanas, leave for 10 minutes, toast the almonds. Mix the yogurt with the cream, add the honey, taste and add more if needed. Add the raisins and almonds, remove the seeds from the cardamom pods, crush in a pestle and mortar, slice the banana, season with a pinch of salt and add to the yogurt. Turn into a serving bowl and chill for an hour if possible.

Serve with curries and spicy dishes.

Yuk Sum

Serves 4
A delicious Chinese way of eating mince – one of my absolute favourites. 
2 tablesp. olive oil
1 teasp. ginger, freshly grated 
2 tablesp. spring onion
8 ozs (225g) minced beef or streaky pork
2 ozs (55g) mushrooms, chopped
1 oz (30g) celery, finely chopped
1 -2 tablesp. Oyster sauce
salt and freshly ground pepper
Iceberg lettuce leaves
Garnish
a of a cucumber approx. cut into 3 inch (5mm) thick julienne
8 spring onion 'sweeping brushes'

Heat a wok until very hot, add the olive oil, then add the grated ginger and spring onion, toss for a second or two, then add the meat, cook on a high heat until almost cooked, then push the meat up to the side of the wok, add the chopped mushrooms and toss until cooked. Add the celery, mix with the mushrooms and meat. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add the oyster sauce. Toss for a minute or two more. Taste and correct seasoning.

Put some crisp iceberg lettuce onto a plate, spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the meat mixture into the centre of each. Garnish the plate with julienne of cucumber and a couple of spring onion 'sweeping brushes'. Eat immediately by wrapping the meat, cucumber and spring onion in the lettuce to make a parcel.

Darina’s Top Tips 

Wet your hands with cold water before shaping the burgers to prevent the mixture sticking to your hands. 
If the hamburgers are being cooked in batches make sure to wash and dry the pan between batches. 
Burgers should not be more than one inch thick, otherwise it will be difficult to cook them through. 

Sweet Chilli Sauce
No kitchen should be without this perky sauce, which can be used as a dip, sauce or a flavouring for fish, meat, vegetables and stir fries – from Asian shops, Cork Market and many supermarkets. 

Tortilla Chips
Great for a nibble or to scoop up a dip. Now available not just in speciality shops but in local shops, supermarkets and even some forecourts around the country – check the flavourings, some are bizarre, I enjoy the original best.

Pitta Bread
Turkish flat bread, the everyday bread in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, but now a firm favourite not only in Europe, but in the US and Oz. This versatile soft flat bread forms a pocket as it cooks, perfect.for filling with salads, meats or vegetables, available from most supermarkets as well as ethnic shops. They can be frozen and reheat perfectly wrapped in foil in a moderate oven or quickly under the grill.

Oyster Sauce
A ‘must-have’ staple – a flavourful Cantonese sauce made of oysters, water, salt, cornflour and caramel colouring, essential flavouring in Chow Mein and Chop Suey, but if you’re not that adventurous, its still worth having a bottle in your fridge (keeps almost indefinitely) for adding to stir-fries, meat or seafood dishes or noodles or even mince- it’s a splendid flavour enhancer.

Babington House

The long avenue up to Babington House was sprinkled with drifts of snowdrops, I thought, it’s quite true Babington House spoils you for anywhere else. This special place is a country house hotel near Frome in Somerset - not all frills and flounces but simple, sophisticated and unfussy. From the moment of arrival one feels kind of easy, comfy and unhurried.

This was my second visit, this time I was back as “guest chef” on the invitation of the manager Justin Greene, formerly of Browne’s Townhouse and Brasserie on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. He has been at Babington House for almost a year now - he loves his job and has introduced several new concepts since his arrival, including the guest chef programme – I felt very chuffed to follow in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver and other fancy celebs

Babingon House and its sister hotel, Soho House in London are the brainchild of Nick Jones. Nick is incredibly engaging with great sense of fun and a brilliant feel for lifestyle. His hotels are like fantasy homes but with all the modern ‘must have’ trimmings. They appeal hugely to the young arty creative set who adore the unstuffy atmosphere where they can kick off their Jimmy Choo’s and slip into wellies.They revel in being able to detox and have an all day treatment in the Cowshed, or one can breakfast at four in the afternoon or have Champagne and Caviar or a Babington Beefburger on a floury bap, maybe a duck shepherds pie.

They can also bring along the kids (not an option in many posh country house hotels), and be sure that they’ll be able to relax because the kids will have raced off to the Little House where they are looked after by trained and fun nannies.

There’s childrens’ tea every day, the sort of food kids love with lots of chips and sausages, pasta with tomato sauce and great pizza from the wood burning oven.

For the older ones, there are ponies, goats and a pot bellied pig, lots of duck and tame water hens. If it rains there’s Scalextric, a train set, videos and lots of computer games.

Last time we visited, the proportion of kids to grown- ups seemed to have tipped the balance, not surprising considering the temptations. Nowadays the proportion of kids to grown ups is carefully managed and there’s a child free hush in the panelled library.

In the corner of the room a humidifer hums as it keeps the Montecristos in optimium nick and the snooker table confounds expectations – it’s covered in red baize. 

It’s that kind of place. Several sitting rooms and bars, stylish and comfy contemporary furniture easy with the past. Home from home for the vodka and vitamin crowd who want to live life to the full.

One sitting room can be converted into an edit suite to suit any production and doubles as a private dining room or meeting room. The dining room can accommodate anything from a grand ball to a board meeting.

The breakfast room with its wood-burning oven opens out onto a terrace for barbecues overlooking the lake.

The Georgian house is surrounded by 17 acres of grounds- a floodlit hard tennis court for midnight volleys and four grass courts for Wimbledon hopefuls. There’s even a pitch for football and cricket, less sporty types with a lower boredom threshold like me, can reveal their primitive streak on the croquet lawn.

The bedrooms are simple with polished floors and contemporary furniture, state of the art tellies and heaped goose-down pillows, superabundant warm towels, big bars of soap and a heady selection of oils and lotions,great big roll top baths for sociable soaking. Shower heads the size of soup plates made me think of the daily irritation of the dribbling shower at home.

The active set spend most of their time in the ‘Cowshed’ – so named because in a former time it was just that. Now, however it’s a beautifully converted space devoted to mind and body. So if you really want to feel that you deserve your dinner, go to the gym or have a swim through steam misting the air over two graphite pools or you might want to learn self defence, yoga or baby massage.

If this all gets too much, step into the Babington House cinema with a love bomb- herbal tea or fresh organic orange juice- better still let them pummel scented oils into every pore.

Since our last visit a Mongolian yurt and a tepee have been built near the lake and you can now choose from a selection of massages for total mind and body rejuvenation – just what I needed on this occasion, but sadly I was there to cook a dinner and not merely to be pampered.

Barnaby Jones and his team in the kitchen gave me a warm welcome, we had lots of fun and got a terrific response to the Spring dinner. 

We started the evening with drinks in the playroom where we met the guests. The meal was served family style, everyone mingled and sat at large tables, 12, 10 14’s …

The food was served on large platters so people shared and helped themselves. This immediately engendered an atmosphere and a spirit of conviviality. Within a short time complete strangers were chatting amicably and were bosom pals by the end of the evening.

Many come regularly to these guest chef evenings because of the social element as well as the food. 

In the other dining room the regular Babington House menus were being served. ‘Small plates’, winter regulars, wood oven baked pizzas, or one could opt for a Babington choice- 3 courses to share, chefs choice changes daily. Couples who would rather not spend time making decisions could opt for a menu for 2 people to share – 3 choices of starter and main course and pudding on large white platters, a brilliant idea for both the kitchen and guests.

Sadly, I had to whizz home next day but not before I’d had a delicious lunch at QV (Quartier Vert) in Bristol- a favourite restaurant of which I’ve written previously in this column.
Aer Arann flies direct from Cork to Bristol daily.
QV , White Ladies Rd, Bristol. Tel 0044 1179734482
Babington House, near Frome, Somerset. Tel 0044 1373812266. www.babingtonhouse.co.uk 
World travellers may be interested to know that Soho House New York opens in April. 
Soho House, 29-35 9th Avenue New York. Tel – 001 212 6279800.

Candied sweet potato soup

500g sweet potato
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
sprig of thyme
80g brown sugar
50g butter
1 pint beer
½ pint orange juice
salt and pepper to taste

Peel and cut the sweet potato to a large dice, sweat the onion, garlic, sweet potato and thyme in the butter for a few minutes. Add the brown sugar and increase the heat to caramelise the sweet potato and onion mixture. Once well coloured and sticky, deglaze the pan with the beer and boil to reduce. Add the orange juice and enough water to cover and gently simmer until the potato is soft. Remove the thyme and blend the soup to a fine puree. Adjust the seasoning and thickness if required with a little more water. 
Finish with freshly ground pepper.

Seared scallops, orange cardamom reduction

3 Large fresh scallops
Mache/ lambs lettuce
1 litre fresh orange juice
3 cardamom pods
1 orange cut to segments

Place the juice and cardamom in a stainless steel pan, reduce over a medium heat until a thick syrup is formed. Place syrup in a glass jar and keep refrigerated.
Clean and trim the scallops, heat a non stick pan and add a little clarified butter and oil. Heat until almost smoking and add the scallops seasoned with a little sea salt. Cook on one side until well coloured and then turn for another 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and keep in a warm place.

To serve, toss a bunch of mache lettuce with 5 orange segments, olive oil, salt and pepper and a little lemon juice. Dress the salad in the centre of the plate, place the seared scallop around the salad and then drizzle the plate with the orange cardamom syrup. Finish with freshly ground pepper.

Rump of lamb, aubergine caviar, coriander yoghurt

200g trimmed lamb rumps
2 large aubergines
olive oil
50ml natural yoghurt
1 tblsp chopped coriander
handful of wild rocket
lemon juice
salt and pepper

Split the aubergines length ways and score the flesh, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with olive oil. Chargrill on both sides to give a smoky flavour then sandwich the two sides back together, wrap in foil and roast in a hot oven until soft. Open the parcel and scrap out the pulp with a spoon. Place in a clean pan and cook to reduce, adjust the seasoning and add a little olive oil.

Season the lamb rumps, sear in a hot pan and then roast in a medium hot oven for 10 to15 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Mix the yoghurt with a little lemon juice, salt and the chopped coriander.

Place the warmed aubergine caviar on the plate, carve the lamb rump and place over the caviar. Finish the plate with a spoon of the yoghurt dressing around the plate, ground black pepper and a few rocket leaves.

Letters

Past Letters