There are some people who can rattle off a book in a few weeks. For most, it takes months, often years to write a cookbook and in some cases the end result is the culmination of a lifetime’s experimentation.
There’s a delicious ‘phew’ moment when you send the manuscript in to your publisher and then there is the anticipation of the publishing date, the subsequent launch, media coverage and book signings, but what if the important launch date coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic?
Well, that’s been the experience of several well-known food writers plus others who have written their very first tome.
I’m particularly thinking of Ryan Riley, whose first book Life Kitchen was published on March 5 and is dedicated to the memory of his mother Krista who died in 2013 from lung cancer. Ryan was just 18 years old, his life changed immeasurably as he watched her bravely battle through the final months of her illness.
Among the many heart-breaking challenges his mother had to cope with, he noticed that the ongoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy adversely affected her sense of taste. Many foods tasted different, Kirsta lost her ability to enjoy food which she had always loved at a time when she most needed the nourishment and comfort.
Ryan’s subsequent story is a fascinating journey from winning £28,000 from an initial £20 in a ‘once off’ foray into a casino with a friend, to setting up a food stall in Camden, a spell in publishing and eventually cookery writing and food styling. He was determined to honour his mother’s memory in some way and became fascinated by the foods that appealed to cancer patients’ tastebuds.
He joined up with Professor Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for Study of the Senses at the University of London. He was also greatly encouraged by Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who encouraged him to do his first ever class at River Cottage. Several years and several hundred free pop-up classes later, Ryan has established his cooking school in Mowbray Lodge in Sunderland, his home city.
Life Kitchen is full of recipes, layered with umami flavours that have appealed to the many cancer survivors with whom he works.
Maura O’Connell Foley is another first-time author and her beautifully produced and self-published book, My Wild Atlantic Kitchen is the culmination of Maura’s life in food. She comes from a long line of spirited and entrepreneurial women, known to be ‘great cooks’. Her mother was a professional cake maker in Frasers Tea and Cake Shop on Haverstock Hill in Hampstead and opened a tea shop in Kenmare on her return to Ireland in 1950.
Later Maura cooked alongside her mother in the Purple Heather Tea and Cake Shop, opened the Lime Tree in 1963 and later Pakies on Henry Street. More recently she bought Shelburne Lodge – which was lovingly restored to a registered guest house. Maura was also an early member of Euro-toques, and travelled widely to add to her knowledge. She kept her finger on the pulse of the global food scene.
The introduction in My Wild Atlantic Kitchen is intriguing, worth the price of the book alone — but the classic recipes are also gems, beautiful stylish, delicious and the kind of food that one returns for over and over again. Maura is much loved and respected as a hugely influential presence on the Irish food scene with her own quintessential style.
This comes from a life in food and a love of the beautiful Irish produce from the local farmers, fishermen and artisan producers whom she has supported and showcased on her menu for decades before it became fashionable. This book is a ‘keeper’ that you’ll return to over and over again.
Both are available online but try to order from your local bookshop who also need your support more than ever.
Makes 1 omelette
"I have been serving omelettes since the 1960s and know a good omelette pan is crucial; if you can get a heavy iron one, they are the best. Fresh organic farm eggs at room temperature seasoned with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper are another essential. The eggs must not be overmixed, just lightly beaten, and although cream has not been used in my omelettes in the past, I definitely do so now.
"For this omelette we use Gubbeen chorizo, which has a distinct and refined flavour. It is produced by Fingal Ferguson in Schull of the Ferguson family, famed for their Gubbeen Cheese."
Generous knob of butter, for cooking
1 tbsp Gubbeen chorizo or good quality chorizo, cut thickly and diced
Few leaves of wild garlic (when in season), plus an extra leaf and the flower to garnish or 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
1 small cooked potato, diced
1 tsp snipped fresh thyme leaves, plus extra to garnish
3 eggs, seasoned and lightly beaten with a fork
2 tbsp cream
In a heavy-based omelette pan or medium frying pan, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the chorizo, potato, garlic leaves or garlic and half the thyme leaves and sauté gently for a few minutes until the chorizo starts to crisp. Gently mix the cream into the lightly beaten eggs.
Pour the egg mixture into the pan and allow to set and start to coagulate. With a wooden spoon, gently move the cooked outer parts of the omelette into the centre; continue doing this until all the egg is cooked, being careful not to stir too much (the gentler you are, the lighter the finished omelette will be). Sprinkle the remaining thyme leaves over the centre and gently fold the omelette in half in the pan.
Serve immediately, garnishing with garlic leaves and flowers if available or a few fresh thyme leaves.
From My Wild Atlantic Kitchen, self-published by Maura O'Connell Foley.
"We’ve been teaching this recipe at Life Kitchen since our very first class. Pancetta, Parmesan and peas bring that sought-after umami hit, while mint leaves and chilli wake up the senses. And, of course, tagliatelle offers comfort that is so inherent in every bowl of lovely pasta. If you don’t eat meat, crab (another provider of umami) is a worthy substitute."
1 large onion, very roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 red or green chilli, roughly chopped
Vegetable or rapeseed oil
200g (7oz) smoked bacon lardons
100g (3½oz) Parmesan, grated, plus extra to serve
2 tsp salt, plus extra to season
400g (14oz) dried tagliatelle
A large handful of frozen peas
A small handful of mint leaves, torn if large
Freshly ground black pepper
Pulse the onion, garlic and chilli in a food processor to finely chop. (Or, finely chop by hand.)
Place a frying pan on a medium–low heat and add a glug of oil. When hot, add the chopped mixture and the lardons and season with salt. Cover with a lid (or use foil) and sweat on a low heat for 20–30 minutes, removing the lid to stir occasionally, until the onions have melted to a golden paste.
Meanwhile, beat together the grated parmesan and the eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Bring a pan of water to the boil, add the 2 teaspoons of salt and cook the tagliatelle according to the packet instructions. Two minutes before the end of the cooking time, take 2 ladlefuls of the cooking water and stir it in to the parmesan and egg mixture.
Then, add the frozen peas to the pan with the pasta. When the pasta is cooked, drain it with the peas and tip everything back into the pan.
Add the Parmesan and egg mixture and the onion and bacon mixture to the pasta and peas and stir – the sauce will take 2–3 minutes to heat through; just keep stirring and it will turn glossy and coat the pasta. Transfer to a serving dish and scatter over the mint leaves and extra parmesan.
Taste and Flavour Fact
Carbonara is a classic pasta dish, involving several sources of umami and many different textures. The addition of cooling mint, a trigeminal stimulant, offers piquancy, making this version of carbonara especially good for those with a diminished sense of smell.
"The Life Kitchen classes have touch me so much about my guests’ favourite things to eat when living with cancer. Something that comes up a lot is marmalade. This is my marmalade-y take on a bread-and-butter pudding."
6 croissants, halved lengthways
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 tablespoons orange marmalade
250g (9oz) vanilla custard
10 cardamom pods, cracked
4 tablespoons caster sugar
1 lemon, zest and juice
Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Open the halved croissants and butter the bottom halves, then slather on the marmalade. Replace the tops and tuck the croissants into an ovenproof dish so that they fit snugly.Place a saucepan on a medium heat, add the custard and cracked cardamom pods and bring to a gentle boil to help the flavour to infuse.
Remove the pan from the heat and leave the custard to cool slightly, then pour it through a sieve over the croissants, discarding the cardamom pods.Bake the pudding on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes, until the top is browned. Mix together the sugar and the lemon zest and juice and sprinkle the mixture over the pudding. Return the pudding to the oven for 5 minutes to glaze, then serve.
From Life Kitchen by Ryan Riley (Bloomsbury Publishing, £20).
Ground-elder (Aegopodium Podagraria)
This pernicious ‘weed’ grows with vigour and enthusiasm in damp, shady places throughout the British Isles. The good news for all of us is you can eat it and enjoy it all the more because it is such a pest in so many gardens. Ground-elder is best harvested in Spring before it flowers: the young leaves can be added to the green salad bowl and are also delicious cooked like spinach and tossed in butter or extra virgin olive oil.
We also make a delicious Foragers’ soup with it (see recipe below). Herbalists like John Evelyn and Nicholas Culpeper wrote of its ability to cure gout and sciatica, hence one of its popular names, ‘goutweed’, or ‘bishop’s goutweed’.
Throughout the seasons one can gather wild greens on a walk in the countryside — foraging soon becomes addictive. Many greens are edible and some are immensely nutritious. Arm yourself with a good well-illustrated guide and be sure to identify carefully and if in doubt — don’t risk it until you are quite confident. Don’t overdo the very bitter herbs like dandelion.
50g (2ozs) butter
110g (4ozs) diced onion
150g (5 ozs) diced potatoes
250g (9ozs) chopped greens — alexanders, nettles, wild sorrel, a few young dandelions, wild garlic, borage leaves, wild rocket, ground elder, beech leaves, chickweed, watercress
600ml (1 pint) light chicken stock
600ml (1 pint) creamy milk
75g (3ozs) chorizo or lardons of streaky bacon
Extra virgin olive oil
Wild garlic flowers if available
Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan. When it foams, add potatoes and onions and turn them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the hot stock and boiling milk. Bring back to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the greens and boil with the lid off for 2-3 minutes approx. until the greens are just cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Purée the soup in a liquidiser. Taste and correct seasoning.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Add the diced chorizo or lardons of streaky bacon, cook over a medium heat until the fat starts to run and the bacon is crisp. Drain on kitchen paper. Sprinkle over the soup as you serve. Use the chorizo oil to drizzle over the soup also and scatter a few wild garlic flowers over the top if available.
Some artisans have set up online shops, pop-up farm gate shops, veg box schemes and direct order for take-out. slowfoodireland.com/producers/
Rumours has it that some of the smaller producers’ goods have been delisted in the multiples, so seek out your favourite artisan foods, farmhouse cheeses, smoked fish in your local supermarkets. If you can’t find them, enquire when they will be in stock again.
Irish farmers and producers need all our support now — they too are superheroes and as Leo reminded us, not all superheroes wear capes, some wear wellies.