Comfort Food to Beat the January Blues


Well here we are at last in 2021, full of hope and expectations and good riddance to 2020. It’s been quite the upheaval for each and everyone. The Covid 19 Pandemic has forced us to rethink so many aspects of our lives, our values, our global food and distribution systems…

It has shown just how vulnerable we are and taught us many valuable lessons on how to be better prepared for future crisis. Almost overnight back in March, the entire world was plunged into uncharted waters, everyone from governments, the entire medical system, multinational food companies, artists, musicians, teachers, publicans, chefs…. all scrambled to cope with unprecedented challenges. The shock of coping with the heartbreak of bereavements, the prospect of loosing a job, racking our brains to think of other income streams to survive – our lives changed beyond recognition.

This experience has forced us to pause and to readjust our priorities, to realise how futile it is to waste our lives embroiled in never ending battles for wealth, status and power.

The brilliant thing is that even in a pandemic we all need to eat.

Restaurants have reinvented themselves offering Take Outs, meal kits and family suppers. Food trucks are popping up everywhere, from Ballynamona Strand to Inishowen serving everything from fish and chips to ramen and fajitas.

Farmers Markets have quite rightly been declared an essential service. Branches of NeighbourFood, the online Farmers Market started by Jack Crotty in Barrack Street in Cork in early 2019 are popping up all over the country and now also in the UK.

Newspapers, On-line websites, Click and Collect options continue to be introduced by locally owned Irish businesses. The ongoing crisis has also created a myriad of opportunities for people to start little businesses at home in their spare room, garden shed, garage or kitchen. Many have discovered entrepreneurial genes they never realised they had, desperation has fuelled creativity.

Buying local has turned into a mainstream trend. Lockdown has forced us to explore what’s available in our local area and Wow, what treasures we have discovered. Local butchers, bakers, farmers, fish smokers, artisan preservers, honey producers….

So over Christmas, many people were on a mission to buy only local produce and crafts. The penny has really dropped that money spent in small local shops, saves jobs, creates opportunities and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than giant retailers flying products in from all over the world. More than 2/3 of the €5 billion we spend on- line every year disappears overseas, whereas every €100 spent in the local shop is worth €500 in real terms to the local community, how good does that feel?

So let’s continue this collective mind-set and be proud of the difference our contribution can make to Ireland. Meanwhile, a column of comforting food this week – family favourites that put a smile on everyone’s face and help beat those January blues….. Don’t forget to order a seed catalogue so we can plan to grow some of our own veggies and herbs this year.

Traditional Roast Stuffed Organic Chicken with Gravy

Serves 6

Who doesn’t love a roast chicken dinner with lots of gravy and delicious roasties. A traditional roast stuffed chicken with lots of gravy is a forgotten flavour for many people, partly because unless you have access to a really good bird the smell and flavour will be quite different to one’s childhood memory.  People often feel that making stuffing is too bothersome but if you keep some breadcrumbs in the freezer it can literally be made in minutes. 

Should I cook the stuffing inside the bird or cook the stuffing separately? 

The best place for the stuffing is inside the bird where it absorbs lots of delicious juices as it cooks.  Do not overfill the bird otherwise the heat may not penetrate fully.  This is particularly important if you are using an intensively reared bird which may be infected with salmonella and/or campylobacter. Wet or dry brining the chicken even for a few hours ahead hugely enhances the flavour and reduces the cooking time by 15 – 20 minutes (see below).

‘Dry’ brining, just rub dry salt all over the bird and slip it into a resealable bag, leave for 7 or 8 hours, pat dry before roasting.

4 1/2 – 5 lbs (1.5 – 2.3kg) free range chicken, preferably organic

Giblet Stock

Giblets (keep the liver for a chicken liver pate), and wish bone

1 thickly sliced carrot

1 thickly sliced onion

1 stick celery, sliced

a few parsley stalks and a sprig of thyme


1 1/2oz (45g) butter

3oz (75g) chopped onion

3-3 1/2oz (75-100g) soft white breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons) finely chopped fresh herbs eg. parsley, thyme, chives and annual marjoram

salt and freshly ground pepper

a little soft butter


1 – 1 1/2 pints (600-900ml) of stock from giblets or chicken stock


sprigs of flat parsley

Basic Brine for Chicken, Duck or Pork (optional)

Brining greatly enhances the flavour of chicken, duck or pork.  We brine whole turkeys (48 hours), chickens and ducks (5-6 hours), chicken breast (30-40 minutes depending on size).

To make basic brine, mix together 40fl oz (2 pints/5 cups) water and 3 3/4oz (105g/1/4 cup) salt in a suitable size container with a cover (stainless steel, plastic or enamel are ideal). A little sugar may be added to the brine, even a few spices. Add the bird or joint, cover and chill in a refrigerator or keep in a cool place and brine for chosen time.

Drain well and dry before cooking.

First remove the wish bone from the neck end of the chicken, this is easily done by lifting back the loose neck, skin and cutting around the wish bone with a small knife – tug to remove, this isn’t at all essential but it does make carving much easier later on. Tuck the wing tips underneath the chicken to make a neat shape. Put the wish bone, giblets, carrot, onions, celery and herbs into a saucepan. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, skin and simmer gently while the chicken is roasting.  This is the basis of the gravy.

Next make the stuffing, sweat the onions gently in the butter in a covered saucepan until soft, 10 minutes approx. then stir in the white bread crumbs, the freshly chopped herbs, a little salt and pepper to taste. Allow it to get quite cold unless you are going to cook the chicken immediately. If necessary wash and dry the cavity of the bird, then season and half fill with stuffing. Season the breast and legs, smear with a little soft butter.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Weigh the chicken and allow about 20 minutes to the lb and 20 minutes over – put on middle shelf in oven. Baste a couple of times during the cooking with the buttery juices. The chicken is done when the juices are running clear.

To test prick the thickest part at the base of the thigh, hold a spoon underneath to collect the liquid, examine the juices – they should be clear.

Remove the chicken to a carving dish, keep it warm and allow to rest while you make the gravy.

To make the gravy, tilt the roasting tin to one corner and spoon off the surplus fat from the juices and return the roasting pan to the stove. De-glaze the pan juices with the fat free stock from the giblets and bones (you will need 1-1 1/2 pints depending on the size of the chicken). Using a whisk, stir and scrape well to dissolve the caramelized meat juices in the roasting pan. Boil it up well, season and thicken with a little roux if you like (the gravy should not be thick). Taste and correct seasoning, serve in a hot gravy boat.

If possible serve the chicken on a nice carving dish surrounded by crispy roast potatoes and some sprigs of flat parsley then arm yourself with a sharp knife and bring it to the table. Carve as best you can and ignore rude remarks if you are still practicing but do try to organise it so that each person gets some brown and some white meat. Serve with gravy and bread sauce.

Use the cooked carcass for stock. 

Best Fluffy Potato Mash Ever

Serves 4

900g (2lbs) unpeeled potatoes, preferably Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

300ml (10fl oz) creamy milk

1 whole egg

1-2oz (25-50g) butter

4 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs e.g parsley, chives, tarragon, lemon balm (optional)

Scrub the potatoes well. Put them into a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are about half cooked, 15 minutes approx. for ‘old’ potatoes, strain off two-thirds of the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put on to a gentle heat and allow the potatoes to steam until they are cooked. Peel immediately by just pulling off the skins, so you have as little waste as possible, mash while hot (see below). (If you have a large quantity, put the potatoes into the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade).

While the potatoes are being peeled, bring about 300ml (10fl oz/1 1/4 cups) of milk to the boil. Add the egg into the hot mashed potatoes, and add enough boiling creamy milk to mix to a soft light consistency suitable for piping, add the freshly chopped herbs and then beat in the butter, the amount depending on how rich you like your potatoes. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.


If the potatoes are not peeled and mashed while hot and if the boiling milk is not added immediately, the potato will be lumpy and gluey.

Classic Fish Pie

It is difficult to write a hard and fast recipe for fish pie because it depends on what kind of fish you have access to. But make sure the fish is fresh, there is plenty of sauce and you have lots of fluffy mashed potato on top.  hard-boiled eggs to the fish pie to spin out the fish. A little smoked haddock and a few sautéed mushrooms is a nice addition to this recipe, but don’t use more than 110g (4oz) unless you want the flavour to predominate.

Serves 6–8

1.1kg (21⁄2lb) fillets of cod, haddock, ling, hake, salmon or pollock or a mixture, skinned

salt and freshly ground pepper

18 cooked mussels (optional)

150g (5oz) onion, chopped

10g (1⁄2oz) butter

225g (8oz) sliced mushrooms, preferably flat

600ml (1 pint) full-cream milk

1 fresh bay leaf

Roux (see recipe)

a little cream (optional)

1 teaspoon thyme leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

110g (4oz) peas, fresh or frozen (if they’re fresh, they’ll need to be blanched)

900g (2lb) fluffy Mashed Potatoes

To Serve

Parsley Butter  or Dill Butter (optional)

1 large pie dish (1.2 litres) or 6–8 small ones

Cut the fish into 150g (5oz) chunks and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Wash the mussels, if using, and put into a shallow pan in a single layer. Cover and cook for about 3–4 minutes over a medium heat, just until the shells open. Cool, pull out the beard and remove from the shells.

Sweat the onion in a little melted butter on a gentle heat until soft but not coloured, remove to a plate. Increase the heat, add a little more butter, sauté the sliced mushrooms in batches in the hot pan. Season with salt and pepper and add to the onions.

Put the fish into a wide sauté pan or frying pan in a single layer, cover with the milk and add a fresh bay leaf. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and simmer gently until the fish is just cooked, about 3–4 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Remove the fish to a plate with a slotted spoon, and carefully remove any bones or skin. Discard the bay leaf.

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

Bring the cooking liquid to the boil and thicken it by whisking in the roux. Add a little cream, if using, and the chopped thyme and parsley, mushrooms, onions, chunks of fish, mussels and frozen or blanched fresh peas. Stir gently, taste and correct the seasoning. Spoon into a single large or 6–8 small dishes and pipe fluffy Duchesse potatoes on top. The pie may be prepared ahead to this point.

To finish cooking, cook in the oven for 10–15 minutes if the filling and potato are warm, or for 30 minutes if reheating the dish later. Flash under the grill if necessary to brown the top. Serve with dill or parsley butter.

Cullohill Apple Pie

This is my most requested apple pie recipe, made with this brilliant break-all-the-rules pastry. It’s made by the creaming method so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter. Although a simple apple pie is a top comfort food for most of us – one can of course, add a few plums or blackberries from the freezer or how about adding a little left over mincemeat…

Serves 8-12


225g (8oz) butter

40g (1 1/2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12oz) white flour, preferably unbleached


675g (1 1/2 lbs) Bramley Seedling cooking apples

150g (5oz) sugar

2-3 cloves

egg wash-made with one beaten egg and a dash of milk

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados sugar (a sprinkling of this sugar makes the apple pie into something totally mind-blowing)

tin, 18cm (7 inches) x 30.5cm (12 inches x 2.5cm (1 inch) deep

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

First make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food mixer (no need to over cream). Add the eggs one by one and beat for several minutes. Reduce speed and mix in the flour slowly. Turn out onto a piece of floured greaseproof paper, flatten into a round wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle.

To make the tart

Roll out the pastry 3mm (1/8 inch) thick approx., and use about 2/3 of it to line a suitable tin. Peel, quarter and dice the apples into the tart, sprinkle with sugar and add the cloves. Cover with a lid of pastry, seal edges, decorate with pastry leaves, egg wash and bake in the preheated oven until the apples are tender, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked cut into squares, sprinkle lightly with castor sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar.

Winter Fruit Salad with Sweet Geranium Leaves

A brilliant way to use up a selection of frozen fruits.  Sweet geranium (Pelargonium Graveolens) and many other varieties of scented geraniums are every present on our windowsills here at Ballymaloe.  We use the delicious lemon scented leaves in all sorts of ways, occasionally we use the pretty purple flowers also to enliven and add magic to otherwise simple dishes.  The crystallized leaves, all frosty and crinkly are wonderful with fresh cream cheese and fat juicy blackberries.

Serves 8-10

A mixture of any of the following frozen berries.

110g (4oz) raspberries

110g (4oz) loganberries

110g (4oz) redcurrants

110g (4oz) blackcurrants

110g (4oz) small Strawberries

110g (4oz) blueberries

110g (4oz) fraises du bois or wild strawberries 

110g (4oz) blackberries


325g (11oz) sugar

450ml (16fl oz) water

6-8 large sweet geranium leaves

Put all the freshly picked berries into a white china or glass bowl.  Put the sugar, water and sweet geranium leaves into a stainless steel saucepan and bring slowly to

the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  Boil for just 2 minutes.   Pour the boiling syrup over the frozen fruit and allow to macerate for several hours.  Remove the geranium leaves.  Serve chilled, with softly-whipped cream or Vanilla Ice-cream or alone.  Garnish with a few fresh sweet geranium leaves.

Winter Berry Jelly with Sweet Geranium Leaves with Sweet Geranium Cream

Sometimes when we have a berry salad left over, particularly if there is more juice than fruit we make it into a jelly.  Use 4 teaspoons of gelatine to each 600ml (1 pint) of liquid.  Pour into a bowl or individual bowls (we use Ikea glass tea light holders). When set serve with softly whipped cream or sweet geranium cream (see recipe) and decorate with geranium leaves.   

Sweet Geranium Cream

4-5 sweet geranium leaves approx.

1 tablespoon lemon juice

150ml (6fl oz) cream

sugar to taste, optional

Crush the leaves in a pestle and mortar with the lemon juice, add the cream and stir, (the lemon juice will thicken the cream, if the cream becomes too thick add a little water.)

Taste, if too bitter add a little sugar, remember the sauce should be tart.

Best Ever Rice Pudding

We absolutely love a creamy rice pudding it’s one of the greatest treats on a cold winter’s day. You need to use short-grain rice, which plumps up as it cooks. It’s almost a forgotten pudding and it’s unbelievable the reaction we get to it every time we make it at the Cookery School.

Serve with softly whipped cream a sprinkling of dark brown sugar – the same one that I serve with the Cullohill Apple Pie, no house should be without a packet of that soft dark sugar…

Serves 6–8

100g (3 1/2fl oz) pearl rice (short-grain rice)

40g (1 1/2oz) sugar

small knob of butter

850ml (1 1/2 pints) milk

 To serve

Softly whipped cream

Soft dark sugar (Barbados)

1 x 1. 2 litre capacity pie dish

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/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 1/4 – 1 1/2 hours approximately (usually the latter but keep checking). The skin should be golden, the rice underneath should be cooked through and have absorbed up the milk, but the rice pudding should still be soft and creamy. Calculate the time so that it’s ready 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.

Serve with softly whipped cream and a sprinkling of soft dark brown sugar and maybe a compote of poached fruit.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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