Hearty and Wholesome


Nowadays more than ever before we need comfort food! So I’m going to devote my first column of the year to simple homely dishes guaranteed to warm and cheer the family when they traipse in tired and hungry from school or after a long days work. Hearty wholesome dishes that will fill the kitchen with the smell of delicious home cooking. The sort of food that everyone will want to tuck into around the kitchen table.

A few weekends ago, when I was down in Kerry at the Listowel Food Fair, I popped into see Mary Keane in JB Keane’s pub in Church Street.  Mary is a hugely entertaining woman with a lyrical Kerry lilt and a no nonsense approach to life – she loves her food and brought me into her own kitchen to teach me how to make proper Listowel Pies some time ago. When we were chatting away about food, Mary reminded us that ‘the kitchen table is a fierce important thing in every home’ – how right she is and how quickly many of us have abandoned it for the sofa in front of the telly. So perhaps this is the time for a New Year resolution to ban the ‘damn telly’ out of the kitchen or at least have an unbreakable rule that it doesn’t get switched on during meal times. Even if people are arguing it keeps the lines of communication open!

Better still, cook together – peeling and chopping really can be fun when everyone is chatting, squabbling and having a laugh. It helps to share the workload and best of all it passes on the cooking skills in an effortless easy way. While times were good many didn’t reckon it was worth bothering to learn how to cook but boy, have we had a wake up ‘call’. In changed circumstances we now realise the value of being able to scramble a few eggs or whip up a spontaneous pasta. So how about a delicious bubbly cauliflower cheese, spaghetti and meat balls, chicken and broccoli gratin or a strata, the latter is the savoury version of bread and butter pudding. My current favourite is Butternut Squash and Sage Strata from Alice’s Cookbook – published by Quadrille – by Alice Hart, a name to watch.  Alice serves it with garlic toast but on New Years day it would be good with a big green salad of Winter leaves with a new seasons olive oil dressing.

Follow it up with a steamed pudding, apple fritters, or an old fashioned rice pudding with a golden skin on top – perfect for a chilly January day.


Meatballs with Spaghetti and Fresh Tomato Sauce


If you’d prefer the, the minced beef mixture can be shaped into a burger, fried and tucked into a soft bun.


Serves 6


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

900g (2lbs) freshly minced beef

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as marjoram, or a mixture of parsley, chives and thyme leaves

1 organic egg, beaten

salt and freshly ground black pepper


Tomato Sauce

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

225g (8oz) onion, peeled and sliced

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

900g (2lbs) ripe, peeled and chopped tomatoes or 2 x 400g (14ozs) tins chopped tomatoes (or use

salt, freshly ground black pepper and sugar

To serve

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

150g (5ozs) Cheddar cheese or a mixture of Mozzarella and Parmesan, grated

450g (1lb) spaghetti


flat parsley leaves

First make the meatballs, heat the olive oil in a heavy, stainless-steel saucepan over a gentle heat and add the chopped onions and garlic.  Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until soft and slightly golden. Allow to cool.

Put the freshly minced beef into a bowl, add the cold sweated onion and garlic, add the herbs and the beaten egg.  Season the mixture to taste.  Fry a tiny bit to check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Divide the mixture into about 24 round meatballs. Cover and refrigerate.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce.  Heat the oil in a casserole or a stainless-steel saucepan.  Add the sliced onion and crushed garlic, toss until coated, cover and sweat over a gentle heat until soft.  Add the peeled and chopped tomatoes, mix and season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sugar (tinned tomatoes take more sweetening).  Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, uncover and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes or until thick and unctuous. 

Heat a frying pan over a medium heat; add 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Cook the meatballs for 8-10 minutes turning from time to time.  When they are cooked, transfer to an ovenproof serving dish. Add to the hot tomato sauce, turn gently to cover.  Pop into a preheated oven at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.  Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large saucepan of boiling water.  Drain and turn into a hot serving dish.  Spoon the meatballs and tomato sauce over the top, sprinkle with grated Cheddar or a mixture of Mozzarella and Parmesan.  Sprinkle with lots of flat parsley leaves.

Cauliflower Cheese

This recipe is also perfect for Romanesco and if you want to make it more robust one could add a little diced chorizo or crispy bacon.

Serves 6-8

1 medium sized cauliflower with green leaves


Mornay Sauce

600ml (1 pint) milk with a dash of cream

a slice of onion

3-4 slices of carrot

6 peppercorns

sprig of thyme or parsley


salt and freshly ground pepper

150g (5oz) grated cheese, e.g. cheddar or a mixture of Gruyére, Parmesan and Cheddar

1/2 teaspoon mustard


Chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/gas mark 8.

Prepare and cook the cauliflower. Remove the outer leaves and wash both the cauliflower and the leaves well.  Put not more than 1 inch (2.5cm) water in a saucepan just large enough to take the cauliflower; add a little salt.  Chop the leaves into small pieces and cut the cauliflower in quarters or eighths; place the cauliflower on top of the green leaves in the saucepan, cover and simmer until cooked, 10-15 minutes approx. Test by piercing the stalk with a knife, there should be just a little resistance. 

Meanwhile make the Mornay Sauce. Put the cold milk into a saucepan with the onion, carrot, peppercorns and herb.  Bring to the boil, simmer for 3-4 minutes, and remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

Strain out the vegetables, bring the milk back to the boil and thicken with roux to a light coating consistency. Add most of the grated cheese (reserving enough to sprinkle over the dish) and a little mustard. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, taste and correct the seasoning if necessary. Spoon the sauce over the cauliflower and sprinkle with the remainder of the grated cheese. The dish may be prepared ahead to this point.

Put into the preheated oven or under the grill to brown. If the cauliflower cheese is allowed to get completely cold, it will take 20-25 minutes to reheat in a moderate oven. 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.  Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.


Gratin of Chicken and Broccoli


Serves 4-6

This is one of those dishes that can be mouth-watering or a complete disaster. Its success depends on the broccoli being carefully cooked so that it is bright green and just tender.

1 x 1.5kg (3lbs 5ozs) chicken*, free range if possible

2 carrots, sliced

2 onions, sliced

sprig each of thyme and tarragon

a few peppercorns

300ml (1/2 pint) homemade chicken stock

450g (1lb) broccoli florets

110g (4ozs) mushrooms, sliced

knob of butter

175ml (6fl ozs) milk

150ml (1/4 pint) cream

2 teaspoons tarragon or annual marjoram


25g (1oz) buttered crumbs (see recipe)

1-2oz (25-50g) grated mature cheddar cheese

lasagne dish (25.5 x 20.5cm) 10 x 8 inch

Put the chicken into a saucepan or casserole with the onions and carrots, add a sprig of thyme, tarragon and a few peppercorns. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 1-1/4 hours or until the chicken is tender.

Meanwhile cook the broccoli florets in boiling salted water until al dente (see recipe). Drain and refresh under cold water, keep aside. Sauté the mushrooms in the butter on a hot pan season with salt and freshly ground pepper and keep aside also.

When the chicken is cooked remove the meat from one side and carve into bite-sized pieces. Keep the rest for another recipe,* or double the rest of the ingredients.

Strain and degrease the cooking liquid, add the cream and milk, bring to the boil, add the tarragon or annual marjoram, simmer for a few minutes, thicken to a light coating consistency with roux, then add the chicken to the sauce. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Butter an ovenproof lasagne dish, put a layer of broccoli on the base, scatter the mushrooms on top and cover with the creamy chicken mixture.

Mix the Buttered Crumbs with the grated cheese and sprinkle over the surface. Reheat in a moderate oven 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for 15-20 minutes and flash under the grill until the top is crunchy and golden. Serve immediately.

Buttered Crumbs

2 ozs (50g) butter

4 ozs (110g) soft white breadcrumbs

Melt the butter in a pan and stir in the breadcrumbs. Remove from the heat immediately and allow to cool.



4 ozs (110 g) butter

4 ozs (110 g) 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.



Treacle Pudding

The name is a bit misleading because we use golden syrup instead of treacle. It’s sweet and sticky and lovely.

Serves 4–6

7g (1⁄4oz) soft butter

2 tablespoons golden syrup

juice of 1⁄2 lemon (about  2 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons white breadcrumbs

110g (4oz) butter

110g (4oz) golden caster sugar

2 organic eggs

150g (5oz) self-raising flour

grated zest of 1 organic lemon

2 tablespoons milk

For the Sauce

3 tablespoons golden syrup

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

600ml (1 pint) pudding bowl

Brush the bottom of the bowl with soft butter. Mix the syrup with the lemon juice and breadcrumbs. Spoon around the base of the bowl. Cream the butter, add the caster sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Stir in the flour and grated lemon zest, add enough milk to make a softish mixture. Spoon into the bowl. Cover and steam for 11⁄4 hours. After steaming, carefully remove from the pan and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove paper. Carefully turn it upside down onto a warm serving dish (the syrup will be scalding hot). Serve with lightly whipped cream or Homemade Custard

To steam a pudding

Choose a deep saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Fill about halfway with water and bring to the boil. Lower the pudding into the saucepan. Cover and boil gently for required time. Keep checking the water level regularly – it needs to remain at least halfway up the bowl.

To cover a pudding bowl

Take two layers of silicone or greaseproof paper or tin foil and pleat in the centre to allow for expansion. Lay flat on top of the bowl – there should be enough to come down over the sides. Secure the ledge with cotton string. Make a handle for ease of lifting.


Apple Fritters

Funny how one sometimes forgets a recipe; we hadn’t had these for ages, but I remembered them recently and they taste just as good as ever. As children we particularly loved fritters because they used to fry into funny shapes, which caused great hilarity. These can also be shallow-fried in a pan. You can add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the sugar to toss the apples in for extra flavour. Serves 6–8

110g (4oz) plain white flour

pinch of salt

1 organic egg

150ml (5fl oz) milk

good-quality vegetable oil, for frying

450g (1lb) cooking apples (about 4), Bramley’s Seedling or Grenadier

225g (4oz) caster sugar

Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl. Make a well in the centre and drop in the egg. Use a whisk to bring in the flour gradually from the edges, slowly adding in the milk at the same time. Leave the batter in a cool place for about 1 hour.

Heat the oil in a deep-fryer to 180°C (350°F). Peel and core the apples. Cut into rings, no thicker than 1cm (1⁄4in). Dip the rings into the batter and lift out with a skewer, allowing the surplus batter to drain off, then drop into hot fat, a few at a time. Fry until golden brown, drain well on kitchen paper. Toss each fritter in caster sugar. Serve immediately on hot plates with softly whipped cream.



Old Fashioned Rice Pudding

A creamy rice pudding is one of the greatest treats on a cold winter’s day. You need to use short-grain rice, which plumps up as it cooks. This is definitely a forgotten pudding and it’s unbelievable the reaction we get to it every time we make it at the Cookery School. It’s always the absolute favourite pudding at my evening courses. Serves 6–8

100g (31⁄2oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)

50g (2oz) sugar

small knob of butter

1. 2 litres (2 pints) milk

1 x 1. 2 litre (2 pint) capacity pie dish

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Put the rice, sugar and butter into a pie dish. Bring the milk to the boil and pour over. Bake for 1–1 1⁄2 hours. The skin should be golden, the rice underneath should be cooked through and have soaked up the milk, but still be soft and creamy. Time it so that it’s ready just in time for pudding. If it has to wait in the oven for ages it will be dry and dull and you’ll wonder why you bothered.

Three good things to serve with rice pudding:

•           Softly whipped cream and soft brown sugar

•           Compote of apricots and cardamom

•           Compote of sweet apples and rose geranium





Art student Eileen Hutton studied at the Burren School of Art. The nest she built at Ballymaloe Cookery School from hazel twigs and moss were responsibly removed from Slieve Carron Nature Reserve as part of the Burren Conservation Volunteers’ effort. The nest will be on public view from 9am to 6pm in the conservatory at Ballymaloe Cookery School until the end of January. www.eileenhutton.com

The Cook’s Book of Ingredients published by Penguin is the ultimate visual reference guide to ingredients from around the world, enabling cooks to learn how to choose top-quality produce, and get great results in the kitchen. The book features over 250 classic recipes from basil pesto to fruity jams, helping readers to get the most out of each ingredient, and create dishes they will enjoy again and again.

New Seasons Olive Oil – the first of the new seasons extra virgin olive oil is available in the Ballymaloe Cookery School Shop – a perfect present for a special foodie friend. 021 4646785.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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