- mixed nuts and seeds
- fresh pomegranate
- 1 babygem lettuce
- clump of Moroccan mint
- clump of curly parsley
- 5 cherry tomatoes
- ½ cucumber
- cup of bulghar wheat
- juice of one lemon
- tblsp of extra virgin, olive oil
- ¼ grated carrot
I love mackerel. It’s a cheap, oily fish, packed full of omega 3 fatty acids. It’s best eaten fresh, unless you want to pickle or smoke it.
When I was ten years old my family packed me off to a Gaeltacht, a district in the west of Ireland where the Gaelic language was used as the primary language. They were, usually, remote, backward regions where, it appeared to us ‘townies’, they were still awaiting the arrival of the 20th century. And this was in the ’60s.
Now the Gaeltacht I got sent to was on a small Atlantic island, off the west coast of Galway, so remote, then, there was one ferry to bring you out there but no pier to land you. Instead, you were disembarked from the ferry, which carried livestock as well as humans, into small, fishing dinghies, called currachs and then rowed ashore, with the chickens, maybe a goat, too.
Students were put up in the houses of the locals, for which their family paid and it was a major source of income for the islanders. We were, usually, roomed three to a room and when you weren’t in the house, for meals and sleeping, you were in the local school or wandering and exploring the tiny island.
Happily, one of my companions, with whom I was roomed, was from the same school as me so that made the loneliness less painful and the adventure, more fun. The other boys in the house were from different parts of Ireland and, in our case, from different parts of Dublin.
We soon learned there were ways of playing our more working class backgrounds to our advantage. For example, we got an egg for breakfast every morning with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of cereal. So far, so good. The eggs were, almost inevitably, boiled. The bean a tigh or woman of the house, kept chickens so the eggs were fresh. We soon found out the boys from the posh districts of Dublin couldn’t deal with the notion of fresh eggs, as in, straight from the chickens walking around in the yard. We played that up and so got more eggs than our share.
Evening meals were always mackerel, freshly caught, gutted and thrown on your plate, most likely with a boiled potato and, either baked beans or frozen peas. I could never get enough of them.
These days, I buy my mackerel from my local fishmonger and there’s always plenty of it, a testimony to its popularity. I buy them whole and if you do, check these signs. First, the eyes, are they clear? If they look milky, forget about it. Then check under the gills and again, look for signs of wear and tear. A little blood is fine but if it looks off colour, murky, then, again, forget about it. Touch the skin. If it’s good and firm, that’s fine. If it feels, even just a tad slimy, forget about it.
The best way to cook a mackerel, I believe, is to fry it. You could barbecue them, too. You can also cook them in the oven, bake, broil or roast, whatever you like, they are, in the end, all the same.
Years of experimenting has given me two favourite recipes, one is mackerel with mustard and that involves frying a mackerel fillet in butter and oil, skin down, to get it brown and crispy, then putting it in a warm oven, while you cook the sauce, a traditional white sauce with mustard and anisette or pastis.
Heat a skillet. add a knob of butter and melt until it sizzles. Season the mackerel skin with salt and black pepper and add to the pan. Turn down the heat. The mackerel will cook nicely, but not stick to the pan. Cook it until the edges are cooked then turn it over for half a minute, befor putting it back, flesh side up and placing in a warm oven.
Drain off some of the oily mixture in the pan and add another knob of butter, until melted. Add a small drop of milk and stir, to create a roux. Add more milk and keep stirring until the flour and butter combine in to a silky smooth sauce. Now add a spoon of mustard, English, Dijon or wholegrain and stir, again. Next, add a splash of pastis or anisette and stir, again, until combined. When you’re satisfied with the consistency of the sauce, plate your mackerel and pour the sauce on top. Delicious.
My other, favourite mackerel dish is to cook and serve it whole with a gremolata, a mixture of herbs, onion and seasoning. This method is best, baked. Brown the sides of the fish in a pan, first, then stuff the inside with the gremolata – I like finely chopped red onion, a clove of garlic, lemon juice and a bunch of parsley, chervil and mint – then placed it in the oven, heated to 180°, for ten minutes.
Every Friday, when I was a child, just before lunch, a small, blue Bedford van would pull up in our neighbourhood and the man who drove it, would open the two back doors and then shout, ‘Fresh herring, fresh herring.’
It was as sure as clockwork and people did set their watch by him, because when he hit the neighbourhood it was an hour from lunchtime and herring was on the menu. Strangely, herring disappeared from my diet since I moved from that town in Donegal in the north west of Ireland.
Of course, back then, in the 1960s, most Irish families ate fish on a Friday, particularly since it was a requirement of your pastoral duty as a Roman Catholic, to abstain from eating red meat. Herring was a good choice because it was cheap, readily available, nutritious and tasty.
It was about that time, too, that tastes were changing, particularly those of younger generations now exposed and completely susceptible to slick marketing and tv commercials. It wasn’t long before we all wanted to eat hamburgers, like they have in the movies or curries, particularly the kind that came in a packet and all you did was add the boiling water. But most of all, come Friday fish day, we demanded fish fingers, outraged and indignant that no-one had ever told us about these anatomical aberrations that were, clearly, tastier than a sea fresh herring, hopping on the griddle.
Strangely, although I went through my own phase of digital piscine rebellion, I never lost my yearning for fresh fish, in whatever shape or size. Now, I live on an island and you might think, for that reason, there’s plenty of fish available and eaten. Sadly, not enough of either, since the bulk of the fish caught in Ireland gets exported and much of the rest gets served for high dining in fancy restaurants or deep fried in batter by fish and chip shops.
The herring, unfortunately, lost favour with the Irish diner, largely because they almost disappeared from local fishmongers and that, in turn, because of EU quotas and over-fishing.
Of course, I’ve eaten plenty of herring since but usually of the ‘Bismarck’ variety, i.e. pickled and wrapped around a pickled gherkin or Scandinavian style in a dill and mustard marinade.
So whenever my local fishmonger has fresh herring in stock, I’m first in line and at 3 for a €1, well, I bought six and decided to pickle them. And while I was there, I grabbed a couple of mackerel fillets.
First, you have to fillet the herring. Cut off the head and tail then slit the fish open, along the belly from neck to tail. Clean out the guts, then flatten the herring out, flesh down and rub the handle of your knife along the spine. Turn it ove, again, skin side down and the backbone should detach, easily.
Rub the fillets with sea salt and soak, preferably overnight, in cold water. Take the soaked fish fillets and wash off the salt. Mix the vinegar, onion and spices in a bowl. Cut the herring into bite size pieces and place in the mixture. I like to eat them on a bed of lettuce with some fresh cucumber and olives and a glass of crisp, dry, white wine.
When I eat prawns, they have to be spicy. This a recipe that’s packed with heat and flavour.
Heat half the coconut milk in a pot or wok and bring to the boil before simmering for ten minutes, to reduce. next add the yellow curry paste and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally. After another ten minutes, add the fish sauce, the rest of the coconut milk and the tomatoes. Cook for another five to ten minutes, allowing the sauce to bubble gently and reduce. Finally, add the prawns and allow to cook in the sauce for three to four minutes. Withdraw from the heat and pour into a serving dish. Garnish the plate with strips of chilli and coriander. Squeeze the juice of the lime over the mixture, before serving with boiled rice.
¹Yellow curry paste
mix these in a blender or pestle and mortar, until reduced to a fine paste. This should keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks, in a fridge.
So the sun was shining and the night before, I’d been to Brother Hubbards, a little restaurant in Dublin which features Middle Eastern style, festive food as its table d’hote menu. I couldn’t resist returning to those sun kissed dishes that are, often all at once, aromatic, sweet and spicy and, almost above all, colourful. They are wholesome, too, with those essential additions of grains, nuts, seeds and fruits.
It takes time to put all these things together but when you do, you can pack away what’s left over and it’ll keep in the ‘fridge for another couple of days so you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or simply mezze munchies, when you want to lounge about, over a glass of crisp and zingy, white wine, like a chenin blanc.
The main meat dish, lamb with okra, is very simple to make, with a simple range of ingredients and a powerful flavour.
(for two people)
Heat the olive oil in a pan, at a low setting and when warm, add the chopped onion, then the garlic, until softened. Now add the lamb cubes and increase the heat so the lamb browns, evenly. When the lamb has been browned, cover it with water, put a lid on the pot and cook for half an hour, keeping an eye on it so the water doesn’t evaporate and the lamb gets burned. While this is cooking, heat your oven to 190º, place the okra on a baking dish and toss in olive oil, then place it in the hot oven for 30 minutes. After half an hour, add the 7 spice seasoning to the lamb, along with the tomato pureé and the okra and return the mixture to simmer for another hour over a low to medium heat, until the sauce has reduced and the lamb is tender and cooked. Season with salt and black pepper and serve with Lebanese flat bread.
For the salads, there is an infinite variety of things you can put together. I like to have something green, something crunchy, something sweet and fruity, something hot and a whole lot of spicy aromas. You can make hummus with sun dried tomatoes, bell peppers or beetroot. You can add nuts like pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. Then, there’s dates, prunes, apricots or sultanas; fresh fruit, like apples, oranges, figs or pomegranate.
Every time I visited New York in the ’90s, I always made a point of eating, at least once, in a small Lebanese restaurant on Broadway, near Greenwich Village. I don’t know if it’s still there but, if I close my eyes and clear my thoughts, I can bring myself back there and the wonderful ‘fattoush’ house salad, for example, which boasted fresh green herbs like mint and parsley, chard and baby spinach, pine nuts and sesame seeds and above all, it was always ringed with segments of the juiciest mandarin oranges and flecked with pomegranate seeds.
While I could never emulate Ibrahim’s, mouth watering salad, I knew I needed something like it, for the green part of my meal. So I mixed shreds of baby gem lettuce and baby spinach with fresh mint and parsley, quarters of cherry tomatoes, cubed, fresh cucumber, finely sliced onion and green peppers, finely diced, cubes of dried apricot and lightly, dry roasted, pumpkin seeds. On top of this, I added a dressing made of white vinegar, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and lemon zest with a tsp of zumac.
There are some ingredients, like seeds, nuts and grains, that are essential in all Middle Eastern dishes but, just as essential, are lemon, aubergine and legumes, particularly chick peas. Now, it would spoil a meal if all these ingredients were chucked in to every dish so I went for aubergine, which I pierced, all over, with the sharp point of a knife and placed in a hot oven until it softened. Many recipes tell you to peel them, I don’t. When it’s soft, cut it up into chunks, add some lemon zest and juice, half a cup of tahini, a clove of, finely chopped, garlic and a tblsp of olive oil and then pureé. Sprinkle it with pomegranate seeds to add a fruity crunch and serve. It’s my equivalent of a baba ganoush and it’s delicious and filling, even when served alone with leaves of crisp, baby gem, lettuce.
Next, a beet salad that is as simple as it is tasty. Slice four, cooked beetroots, finely. Slice a red onion, finely. Add 2 tblsps of red wine vinegar and allow to stand for ten minutes or more, before serving.
Finally, a salad of shredded carrot and ginger with spring onion, sliced, and dry roasted sesame seeds with golden sultanas and 1 tblsp of balsamic vinegar.
For the harissa, I mixed six fresh and two dried chillies, together, and roasted them with a little olive oil for twenty minutes in a warm oven. To this mixture I added lemon zest, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and a tsp each, of cumin and coriander seeds, dry roasted. Add some more olive oil and whiz them all together into a paste.
A fatteh is a Levantine dish distinguished by the inclusion of crispy, even stale, pitta and yoghurt. In this one, I’ve used lamb but you could substitute shredded chicken or make a purely vegetarian version with aubergine, chick peas or courgette, or any combination, thereof.
The ingredients are easy to come by and will be available from the nearest Middle Eastern store or even your local supermarket. The salad I made to accompany it is equally simple to put together and very flavoursome and refreshing. Fatte is often served as a breakfast dish and an evening snack.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add the minced lamb and stir, until brown. Now add the onion and garlic, both finely chopped and cook for a couple of minutes until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes and the spices. Allow to cook, on medium heat, for another three minutes.
Place pittas in a heated oven until crispy and warm.
in another pan, dry roast some pine nuts until they colour and release their oils.
Mix some of the garlic and mint with the yoghurt and set aside.
The lamb should now be ready to plate up in a serving dish. Once its transferred, take the two cups of baby spinach and add it to the hot lamb so it wilts. sprinkle a handful of the chopped parsley over the top. Now add a dollop of the yoghurt mixture and finally, sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top.
Cut up the warm and crispy pitta bread and decorate the serving dish so each piece is available for soaking up the lamb. Fatteh is a communal dish.
Potato and fennel salad
Boil the two potatoes for twenty minutes, then drain and reserve.
Cut the fennel in fine strips.
Toast the sesame seeds, gently.
When the potatoes are cold enough to handle, cut them up in quarters and place in a serving dish. Now add the fennel strips, the olives and the parsley.
Mix the olive oil, juice of one lemon and the spoon of mustard, to make the dressing. Pour this over the salad and add the sesame seeds. Sprinkle the sumac over the salad.
¹sumac Sumac is a dark red powder made from the crushed and dried berries of the sumac bush, a plant that is common in north Africa. It has a very pleasant citric, lemony flavour.
The sun is shining, spring is in the air and there’s nothing better than a healthy, fresh tasting dish like this, courgettes stuffed with a spiced rice and turkey mixture and topped with a dressing made of natural yoghurt, coriander, lemon juice and lime zest.
Cut the courgettes, length ways, in half. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and black pepper, then place them in an oven, pre-heated to 200∘, until soft. Remove, set aside and allow to cool.
Put the stock in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then add the rice.
Heat a little oil in a saucepan. Add the minced turkey (or chicken) and cook until it begins to brown. Now add the garlic, cinnamon, Lebanese 7 spice* and tahini and cook at medium heat, for another two minutes.
Take the courgette halves and remove the seeds. Fill the boats with the turkey and rice mixture, drizzle with olive oil and return to the oven, for five minutes, until warm through.
Add the chopped coriander, lemon juice and lime zest to the natural yoghurt and mix well.
Dry roast the pine nuts in a pan until slightly coloured.
Remove the stuffed courgettes and plate. pour the dressing over the top and then sprinkle with the roasted pine nuts.
*Lebanese 7 Spice is slightly different to the 7 Spice mixtures used in other North African cuisines. It can be bought, ground and mixed, at most Middle Eastern food stores but if you take the time and the trouble to do it yourself, the results are better. The ingredients are Allspice, black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fenugreek and ginger.
Pork Belly, Chinese flavour is a simple dish, good value and slow cooked. This is not a Chinese recipe, though, but there are some Chinese flavours that compliment this dish, like star anise.
If you live in Dublin, you’ll be used to the taste of pork. I’m sure that at one time in Dublin there were more pork butchers than general victuallers. Most of those old pork butchers are concentrated in working class areas in the city, a reflection of pork’s place in the class structure.
In my neighbourhood, Dublin’s Liberties, there are, at least, four butcher shops within a two minute walk from my home. And the good thing about them is nothing goes to waste.
The Liberties, as the area is known, is a working class enclave in the centre of the city. It takes its name from the old manorial jurisdictions granted to neighbouring townlands of the city of Dublin from the 12th century. The liberties were granted, under license, to the landowners of the manorial districts and they, in turn, undertook the responsibility of administering these districts and provided such essential services as water, lighting, sewage and quite often, a police and judicial service. Liberties granted tyo these districts included tax free status and even the right to collect taxes in their own districts.
Through the centuries, these districts became the hub of local trade and industry. For example, in the 17th century a huge area of The Liberties was populated by French Hugeunots , escaping French religious persecution. They established The Liberties as the hub of a weaving industry that carried on up to the 19th century.
The Liberties also had abattoirs, distilleries and breweries, the most famous of the latter is, of course, Guinness of James’s Gate. When I first lived in The Liberties, beside Weaver Square in the Hugeunot Tenters’ district, in the 1970s, the two most distinctive odours in the neighbourhood were the smell of cooking hops and curing pork.
Pork was cheap and, for that reason, popular. In the 19th century many families kept pigs and chickens in their own yards and laneways, neighbourhood slaughterhouses flourished. One of the most popular dishes, associated with The Liberties, in particular, was Coddle, a stew of potatoes, onions, pork sausage and chunks of off cut, cured ham. But that’s for another blog.
Pork belly is a long neglected dish in fine cooking that in recent years has enjoyed a resurgence and even, elevation, to haute cuisine. I call my recipe, Chinese flavoured because while I cooked it in a fashion I’ve known since my childhood days, I added a few spices, like star anise, to give it a little more zing.
Score the pork belly skin, diagonally, with the tip of a sharp knife. Turn 180∘ and score again, diagonally, until you have a diamond pattern of scores, exposing the fat. Rub coarse sea salt, liberally, into the skin.
Heat oven to 180∘.
Heat an oven dish on the top of the stove and add a tblspn of olive or vegetable oil. Add the onion, finely sliced and the celery, chopped and sweat gently. add the garlic, chopped. Smash the star anise and cardomoms and add them to the sweating vegetables.
Place the pork belly in the hot pan, skin down, to give it some colour and seal in the salt.
Add the fennel seeds to the sweating mixture and then place the pork belly in the pan, skin side up. add the chicken stock up to the level of the skin but not covering it. Bring this mixture to the boil before placing it in the hot oven. Allow to slow cook for 2.5 to 3 hours.
Remove the pork belly and set aside to rest.
Drain the fat from the top of the reduced mixture in the pot and place, once more, on a, heated, stove ring. Add a spoon of Dijon mustard and stir to integrate, while the sauce reduces some more.
Slice the pork, preferably with a serrated edge knife, before serving, with the sauce.
Simple, delicious, filling, flavoursome and bloody good value; are these points sufficient to have you go out and explore those curious pork cuts? I hope so. Four cheeks cost me a total of €8, or €2 each. Mind you, the real work happens before you begin cooking.
Pig’s cheek comes with a lot of baggage and to get to the treasure, the tiny, fillet fine, cheeks, you need a sharp filleting knife. Once you’ve trimmed off all the fat and skin, cut the remaining cheek meat in half, flatten and dust with seasoned flour.
On the side, you’ll need one, finely sliced, red onion and at least two cloves of garlic gently crushed.
Heat some olive oil in a pan. Add the finely sliced, red onion and cook until soft and slightly carmelised. Put aside and reserve.
Put a little more oil in the pan, if needed, then add the cheeks, dusted with seasoned flour and allow to brown.
Now add a glass of medium dry sherry, a tablespoon of smoked paprika, a spoon of cumin powder and the garlic. Mix everything to combine the flavours and then add a half pint of stock (chicken or beef) and stir, before placing in a medium hot oven (180º) and cooking, slowly, for 90 to 120 minutes
At this point, just as you’re putting the dish in the oven, I added some new potatoes, cut in quarters, and chunks of fresh, baby carrots.
Prepare some almond flakes by dry roasting in a pan until brown and crispy. Finely chop some parsley.
Some people like to serve this dish with buttery, mashed potato. I like the potatoes braised with the meat, sauce and carrots. You could use rice, too.
When serving, sprinkle the toasted almonds and parsley over the dish. The pig’s cheeks will melt in your mouth and a nice glass of rioja will help it on its way, in style.
Every cook understands, not everything goes to plan and sometimes, by circumstance or availability, that creative improvisation can create surprises.
I live in a small apartment with limited facilities, right in the centre of a city. Fresh food is a priority and, when possible, it should be priced reasonably. There are two weekly farmers’ markets but the choice of produce is often limited and quite often, outside my price range.
All these things in mind, I took a walk to Meath St, where there’s a fish shop, a pork butchers, a bakery and a butcher shop. Starting at the fish shop, they had a special offer of an entire fillet of naturally smoked haddock for a very reasonable €2. So that was my dinner dish decided.
Now, I live just a five minute walk away, so I put on some slow cooking pig’s ears before I left my apartment. My intention was to simmer them, over four hours, in a stock with onion, celery, garlic, carrots, parsnip, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and a drop of soy sauce.
The haddock deal was too good to ignore, though, so I figured I could still use the pig’s ear but cut in strips, coated in flour and flash fried and eaten cold, later, as a snack with some hot sauce.
So back to the shopping at hand, I dropped in to the pork butchers and ordered four pig’s cheeks for tomorrow, then into Jack Roche’s greengrocer’s, where I bought pears, apples and oranges. Hey, I was low on fruit and no visit to Meath St is worthwhile without dropping in to see Jack. First, there’s always some good music playing – Jack loves to listen to classical crooners like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett – and Jack is also a local community activist as well as an entertaining raconteur.
And that’s the sheer pleasure of living in a community where everyone says hello and passes the time of day with you, as you do your daily shopping. That’s even more ironic when you think this is the same area where the funeral of a murdered drug gangster was held the day before.
When I got home, I checked my pig’s ears, put my shopping away and sat down to do some writing. Here’s another irony; two schools, many businesses and at least six bars in the neighbourhood closed down yesterday because of this gangster’s funeral and fear of reprisals from the rival gang who will bury one of their own tomorrow and what am I writing? Crime fiction, that’s what and more than fifty times a day, I ask myself, why?
Writing does help me relax, though. I checked on my pig’s ears and they were soft and tender so I took them out of the stock and put them aside to cool. Time was moving on so now it was time to get the dinner on the show.
So here’s what I did. First, I put on some water to boil to which I added potatoes. Now I favour baby new potatoes because they have a low glycaemic index (G.I.) rating which is good for diabetics. After five minutes, I put a colander on top of the pot with the boiling potatoes so I could steam, first, the baby carrots, then trimmed French beans and finally, a couple of meaty chunks of the smoked haddock.
Now I had a sauce to think and what better than the stock from the pig’s ears. First, I added some chilli and let that cook for a while then I whizzed it all down to a smooth-ish sauce; it had been cooking so long before, it had reduced and only traces of the chilli remained intact. A quick taste, mmmm, and it was all ready to plate up.
Oh, and naturally smoked haddock is far more preferable than the usual smoked haddock available in many fish shops; y’know, the luridly yellow stuff that looks like it could light up a geiger counter, like jackpot day in Las Vegas.
And there’s plenty of haddock left; more than enough for a traditional kedgeree for breakfast.