California here I come…

Ever since I started the cooking school with my brother Rory O’Connell in September 1983, I’ve tried to go to California at least every second year to check out what’s happening on the food scene and to get an idea of the trends that are coming our way.

Originally it would take 4 to 5 years before things became mainstream over here. Needless to say, nowadays with social media, ideas travel much, much faster. Nonetheless, a visit to the West Coast can keep one ahead of the curve for at least a year or two.

The main raison d’etre for the trip was to attend several events to celebrate the launch of The Ballymaloe Desserts book, written by JR Ryall, Head pastry chef at Ballymaloe House, who worked alongside Myrtle Allen for many years, and carefully carries on the tradition of a sweet trolly piled high with the irresistible sweet treats that the guests have looked forward to at the end of their Ballymaloe meal for almost 60 years. JR has also added many of his own specialties to the repertoire, gradually over the years always respecting Myrtle’s philosophy and flavours…

The first event was in Los Angeles at Lulu in the Hammer Museum. JR, collaborated with former Chez Panisse chef, David Tanis and his wonderful team to recreate a selection of Ballymaloe deserts. The second event was at Caldo Verde in the Proper Hotel downtown. Both events were sold out and oversubscribed, and the fun thing for us was that so many people who had come to Ballymaloe over the years turned up to dinner as well as lots of Ballymaloe Cookery School alumni. It was like a wonderful party every night, The flavours brought back memories for so many, and sent them all on a trip down memory lane…

The food at Lulu was absolutely delicious, totally seasonal, small plates of good things made from ingredients carefully chosen at the crack of dawn from the Farmers Market by in-house, forager, Dorothy Pirtle…

I visited four different Farmers’ Market in LA, Santa Monica and South Pasadena with Dorothy and was fascinated to discover that she was not the only Forager, dashing from stall to stall just as soon as the markets opened to find the choicest things. All the top restaurants in LA were sourcing from the farmers market with the passionate young foragers from each establishment vying with each other to pick up the freshest items to put on their menu. That’s what I mean by walking the walk not just talking the talk…an all-too-common practice over this side of the world.

Apart from Lulu, I visited several other restaurants including Great White on Melrose owned by past student, Juan Ferriero and his wife Liza, who met and became engaged at the Cookery School in 2019.

There I enjoyed, possibly the best burger of my entire trip, which Juan was happy to tell me included 20% juicy beef fat, the reason for its succulence and delicious flavour. I was so proud of him…

So, what trends did I notice…Well, there was Crudo, (raw fish) in some shape or form on virtually every menu. Oysters were everywhere with the tasting plates from different bays around the coast, Tinned fish is a huge trend and virtually every café has a canned fish offering, not just sardines, tuna and salmon, but octopus, cockles and clams, mussels, mackerel…There was even a café in Grand Central Market in LA called Kippered…

It was right in the middle of the date and citrus fruit season, delicious, juicy fruit, but my best find was several varieties of kumquats that one can eat, skin and all, bittersweet and gorgeous, unlike the variety we get over here, which is altogether more bitter and really needs to be cooked.

Lots of Korean, Japanese food and Japanese ingredients even at the farmers markets. Greatly enjoyed our meal at The Ramen Shop in Oakland, put it on your list if you’re heading for the West Coast. Mother Wolf Restaurant on Wilcox Ave also richly deserves a mention. LA really is throbbing.

Sadly, San Francisco feels like a busted flush, very much a victim of its own success. Real estate has become so crazily expensive that restaurant staff simply cannot afford to live in the city, or even in Oakland or Berkeley. In the midst of it all, there is a beyond appalling homeless problem. I spoke to a dog walker who told me he was earning $150,000 a year but still could not afford to live in San Francisco…such a beautiful city if you have money but it’s in crisis at present. I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle on my way home and there in the property section were houses advertised for $20 and $24 million despite the techie crisis…

Feels like San Francisco is no longer leading the way, although I did have several delicious meals there too including one at Zuni, where there was yet another launch for the Ballymaloe Deserts Book, might be the most launched book that ever was…

Everything I ate at Rintaro, the Japanese restaurant on 14th Street was memorable, I also loved several café bakeries and salon du thé… Don’t miss the flaky buttery Kouign-Amann at b patisserie on California St and superb baking in the The French Spot on Larkin St., a rundown part of town where you get a full-on glimpse of the other side of San Francisco but well worth a visit for the superb viennoiserie and coffee and The Mill on Divisadero where they do the most expensive but utterly delicious toast in town…Anyone for almond butter, sea salt and honey on whole-grain sourdough toast $7 or egg, garlic sage butter, flaky, sea salt and pepper on country bread for $9. Despite the prices, there’s a line out the door from morning till night, because all the toasts are super delicious.

I’ve run out of space, but I want to share a few recipes for some of the delicious things I enjoyed on my recent visit to California.

Crudo with Salmon Eggs and Fennel Flowers

One of the many crudo recipes we love.

Serves 8-10

450g (1lb) very fresh mackerel, bream or sea bass

freshly squeezed juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon

salmon eggs

24-50 fennel sprigs (or flowers in season) depending on size

flaky sea salt

Chill the starter plates.

Fillet the fish, if necessary and spoon some of the freshly squeezed juice over the fish. Cover and chill for 15-20 minutes depending on thickness. Slice into paper thin slices. Arrange in a line of overlapping slices in the centre of the plate, spoon little blobs of salmon eggs along the middle and decorate with fennel sprigs and flowers in season. Serve immediately.

Egg in a Hole

Inspired by Mill Bakery in San Francisco. 

A feast for one.

1 thick slice of country bread, 2.5cm (1 inch) thick

Garlic and Sage Butter

25g (1oz) butter

1-2 teaspoons fresh sage, finely chopped

a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice

1-2 cloves garlic, well crushed

1 fresh organic egg

flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

First, make the garlic and sage butter.

Cream the butter in a bowl, stir in the sage and a few drops of lemon juice at a time.  Add the crushed garlic.  Use immediately or form into a roll and wrap in greaseproof paper, screwing each end so that it looks like a cracker.  Refrigerate.

Heat a non-stick pan on a low to medium heat.

Remove a circle of bread from the centre of the slice of bread, slather one side with garlic and sage butter. Pop onto the pan, butter side down, cook for 3-4 minutes until crisp and buttery on the base. Flip over, then butter the top side. Crack an egg into a cup and slide into the cavity. Cover the pan with a Pyrex lid or a plate and continue to cook until the egg is just set in the centre. Sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt and a little freshly cracked pepper. Enjoy immediately.

David Tanis’s Chickpea Salad with Green Chutney

This salad is also delicious topped with roasted small potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin, cauliflower or any other seasonal vegetable.  

Serves 4-6

375g (13oz) dry chickpeas, soak overnight. 

Next day, cover with fresh water, bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 45 minutes until cooked. 

Alternatively use 850g (1lb 14oz) cooked chickpeas

Green Chutney

50g (2oz) coriander leaves and tender stems

10g (scant 1/2oz) mint leaves

50g (2oz) baby spinach leaves

1 Serrano or jalapeño chilli (add more chilli if you like it hotter)

good pinch of salt

2 teaspoon sugar

1-2 tablespoons water to bind


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

pinch of cayenne

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice


4-6 radishes, thinly sliced

2-3 ‘jammy’ soft-boiled eggs, halved

fresh coriander, roughly chopped

To make the green chutney.

Purée all the ingredients in a blender – add the water if necessary.  This makes a bright green medium spicy green chutney.  Best used on the day it is made.

Drain the chickpeas and place in a deep wide bowl. Season generously with salt and a drizzle with the olive oil. Add the toasted ground cumin, garam masala and a pinch of cayenne. Add a good squeeze of lime. Toss well, taste and adjust the seasoning.

Just before serving, add 2-3 tablespoons green chutney and toss again. Serve the remaining green chutney in a separate bowl.

To Serve

Garnish each serving with the soft egg half, some thinly sliced radishes and coriander.

Zuni Café Roast Chicken with Warm Bread Salad

‘You don’t need a brick oven for this perfect roast chicken from the legendary chef Judy Rodgers — but you do need a hot one, and a day or so to dry-brine the bird before using it. If you don’t have the time to dry-brine, don’t. You’ll still end up with one of the best roast chickens you’ve ever had. Just dry the bird really well with paper towels before seasoning and dab it again before putting it into the sizzling pan. Rodgers’s technique, which involves drying and seasoning the chicken, then flipping it while cooking, results in a wonderfully browned bird, with crackling skin and moist meat. Serve it over a bread salad, as she did, or with well-dressed greens and a baguette. You win either way.’

Serves 2-4

1 small chicken, 1.2-1.6kg (2 3/4 – 3 1/2lbs)

4 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary or sage

sea salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Sprinkle the chicken all over with salt 1-2 days before serving. Remove the lump of fat inside the chicken (render for roast potatoes). Pat the chicken very dry (a wet chicken won’t brown).

Slide a finger under the skin of each of the chicken breasts, making 2 little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.

Using about 3/4 teaspoon sea salt per 450g (1lb) of chicken and pepper to taste, season the chicken liberally all over with salt and the pepper. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity and on the backbone. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate.

When you’re ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to 240°C/475°F/Gas Mark 9.

Depending on your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 250°C/500°F/Gas Mark 10 or as low as 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 during roasting to brown the chicken properly.

Choose a shallow roasting tin or dish barely larger than the chicken or use a 25cm (10 inch) saucepan with a metal handle. Preheat the tin over a medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast side up in the tin – it should sizzle.

Place in the centre of the oven and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce the temperature slightly. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the tin should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10-20 minutes, depending on size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5-10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45-60 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the roasting tin and put on a plate. Pour the clear fat from the tin, leaving the drippings. Add about 1 tablespoon of water to the hot tin and swirl. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting tin to drain the juice into the drippings. As the chicken rests, tilt the roasting tin and skim the last of the fat. Place over a medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape.

Cut the chicken into 8 pieces and pour the tin drippings over the chicken.

Warm Bread Salad

This is, quite possibly, the bread salad to end all bread salads. Judy Rodgers, the legendary chef and bread lover, developed it to serve alongside roast chicken, but it’s perfect paired with any roast meat. Bread chunks are mixed with a sharp vinaigrette, softened currants, toasted pine nuts and lightly cooked scallions and garlic. Everything is piled into a roasting pan then slid into the oven just before the chicken comes out and stays in while the chicken rests (if you’re not making it with chicken, heat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8, turn it off and pop the salad in for 15 minutes). At the last minute, toss the bread mixture with arugula and vinaigrette. Top with the jointed Zuni Café roast chicken.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon dried currants

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon warm water

2 tablespoons pine nuts or cashew nuts

225-300g (8 -10oz) slightly stale ciabatta or other open-textured white bread

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar, approximately

salt and coarsely ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves, slivered

25g (1oz) thinly sliced scallions

4 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock

110g (4oz) rocket leaves or mustard greens, rinsed and dried

Place the currants in a small dish, add the red wine vinegar and warm water, and set aside.

Heat the grill. Place the pine nuts or cashew nuts in a small baking dish, and toast under the grill until very lightly coloured. Set aside.

Cut the bread into three or four large chunks. Closely trim off most of the crust and reserve, if desired, to toast and use for breadcrumbs or croutons. Brush the bread all over with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Briefly grill the bread chunks, turning until crisp and golden on the surface. Remove from the oven, trim off any charred tips, and tear the chunks into the irregular pieces, from 5cm (2 inch) wads to large crumbs. Place in a wide metal, glass or ceramic salad bowl.

Whisk 50ml (2fl oz) olive oil with 1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of this dressing over the bread and toss.

Place one tablespoon of olive oil in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and scallions, and cook, stirring constantly over a low heat until softened but not coloured. Add to bread and fold in with the drained currants and pine nuts. Drizzle the salad with stock and toss. Taste a couple pieces of bread. Add a little more vinegar, salt and pepper if necessary. Toss well, and transfer to a baking dish. Cover loosely.

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.

About 30 minutes before serving.

Put the bread salad in the oven, turn off the heat, and leave for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven. Return the salad to a bowl. Add the greens, remaining vinaigrette, and enough of the remaining olive oil so the bread is not dry. Toss again. Serve with Zuni Café roast chicken.

Lulu in LA Bay Leaf Ice Cream

Special thanks to David Tanis for sharing this exquisite ice cream recipe.

Makes 10-12

900ml (1 1/2 pints) of milk

450ml (16fl oz) cream

15 fresh bay leaves

1 pinch of salt

1 cinnamon stick, break in half

260g (scant 9 1/2oz) caster sugar

peel of 1 organic lemon

12 egg yolks

Put all the ingredients except the egg yolks in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring slowly to the shivery stage, turn off the heat and allow the flavours to macerate for at least an hour.

Whisk 12 egg yolks until light and fluffy gradually pour on the flavoured liquid whisking all the time.

Return to the saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly backwards and forwards with a straight end wooden spoon until the light crème anglaise coats the back of the spoon. Pour into a stainless-steel bowl and chill over ice, stirring regularly.

Churn in an ice cream machine.

Serve a ball of ice cream in chilled bowls on top of a blob of softly whipped cream (yes, that’s not a misprint)

Sprinkle with bay leaf dust and serve as soon as possible.

Bay leaf dust.

Dry the fresh bay leaves in a dehydrator until crisp, about 24 hours at 46°C/115°F (alternatively, hang up somewhere to dry at room temperature for a couple of days).  Whizz in a clean spice grinder, sieve, and store in a dark sealed glass jar.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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