Saturday, 4 December 2010

Super Value in Village Shops

The last weekend of my stay at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Next Friday we have the written exams and the Farewell Dinner, on Saturday at 11 we have a farewell coffee and that's it. Except it isn't. For all of us this course has been a life changing event and the memories and friendships will stay with us forever. Ballymaloe doesn't let students go either, you become part of a community, a special group of people joined by desires and experiences, which encompasses students and staff alike.

But that is next week and I still have one more cooking session, two Demonstrations and a practical and three written exams next week. So how to fill the final weekend. DIFFERENTLY!!!! So I ironed today and commenced a little filing some 24 hours early. Radically shocked by this huge innovation I did have to sit and recover over coffee whilst debating the state of the roads and paths and doing the complex equations of (need for Milk) x (viscosity index of local footpaths) / desire to keep all limbs intact.

Yesterdays thaw had frozen overnight leaving most surfaces glassy and the sight of pedestrians and vehicles pirouetting delicately or executing triple toe sulkos with a cross buttock and press persuaded me to remain in until calcium deficiency caused demonstrable osteoporosis or it warmed up and melted out. An ideal opportunity to file and cross reference. Except I suddenly remembered that I had always intended to carry out an audit of the number of chimneys visible from the lounge and compare it with those visible from my room thus producing a multi level analysis of heating habits on a small rural housing development. With global Armageddon predicted this could be vital research. Then I needed to check the grout in the shower for signs of shrinkage, the tumble dryer filter needed cleaning, my pens placing in alphabetical order by name of sponsor, my socks replacing four square in the drawer etc etc etc.

Before I knew it it was 2 and one of my housemates said that she would try to get to Midleton but, as she did not really drive in icy conditions, she would be grateful for some company. Yay Cinderella would go to the ball!!

It had improved vastly when we left though Swan Lake was still frozen solid and bizarrely was covered in wading birds walking on the ice with the usual ducks and swans nowhere to be seen.

On we travelled to Hurley's Supervalu possibly the finest shopping emporium in Midleton and very recently winner of the all Ireland award for cleanliness food hygiene and safety.
For those of you who don't know Supervalu is a federation of independent supermarkets. Each is locally owned and run and committed to local produce. They often win Supermarket of the year for their range  of foods, commitment to fairtrade and sustainability and support for local producers and communities. I like shopping in any of them.

So in we walked and things were different where was the fruit and veg section usually found just inside the door?

was it further down where bread should be?

and why was there a huge crowd milling around just where I wanted to go? The answer soon arrived as a glass of Irish Coffee was thrust into my hand, though wine or filter coffee were available had I preferred, and I was steered towards a table groaning under the weight of bruschetta with pate, smoked salmon on brown bread, salmon and cucumber sandwiches and hot sausages. "Welcome to the Annual Customer Christmas Party" announced the Manager "Our way of saying thank you to all our customers".

Shopping with a warming drink and a few tasty treats inside you is more fun than the usual way and I was so swept away by seasonal bonhomie that I bought an extra pack of butter- entirely forgetting that I now had seven days to consume 1kilo of butter. But hey, it's Ballymaloe and the three main food groups are Butter, Cream and Brown Sugar (all in moderation I hasten to add), so no real problem there.

By the time that we left the store they had forgotten that we had been in so, on my way to return the trolley and reclaim my € coin I thanked the Assistant Manager profusely as I accepted his gift of an Irish Coffee and a free run of the buffet trough.

Darkness was falling so we left to return home and refrigerate our purchases but on the way back we popped into the Village Greengrocer in Castlemartyr. To call it a mere Greengrocer is to suggest that Harrods is a corner shop. You know that the produce has to be good when it is delivered daily to Ballymaloe. And yes it is a village Greengrocer

But it is so much more think Deli, think the best of local, think cafe, think I must call in next time I am passing through.

So there you have it. The last Saturday passed as a day of retail and foodie thinking. Next Saturday it's dinner at Ballymaloe House for your (by then) former student of Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Vietnam and the big thaw

The last day of the last full week at Ballymaloe. There's a strange feeling about the place, part panic at the thought of next week's exams, part I want to go home, part I want to stay here for ever. I guess that this is the same for every course and I am certain that ours is no different to the hundred plus that have gone before.

A bitterly cold night - by Shanagarry standards as we live in our own micro climate- had deterred some of the early morning walkers but at 6:55 as the espresso coursed through my veins in a chemical kick start and a cafetiere brewed on the side we had visitors. It was a colleagues birthday and we had arranged with his walking partner to invite him in for a birthday boost. He later reported that the second half of the walk was completed in record time due mainly to the injection of rocket fuel.

Still there was work to be done and by 7:30 I was on my way to school as a bright dawn lit up the sky below the cloud base.

My tasks today Vietnamese Spring rolls and Chocolate Ice Cream. The day began badly. I started with the dipping sauce for the Spring Rolls. A volatile mix of Fish Sauce, Garlic, Chillis and sugar it was knocked up and tasted. If the Americans had my sauce instead of Napalm, today Big Macs would be the national dish of the noble People's Republic. Fortunately as history relates "the outcome of any war is determined by the will of the people not by one or two new fangled weapons" ( Chairman Mao). Then the sauce was knocked over!!

The similarity to Napalm was reinforced as it began to eat into the work surface at a rate of knots. Handiwork with a cloth restored the situation and the only loss was that of time and my dignity. The second time around the sauce behaved and the lid of the jar tightened properly ensuring that no further spillages would occur.

On then to the ice cream. This was a mousse based confection which involved heating water and sugar to the thread stage, adding it to egg yolks whipped light and fluffy, folding in melted chocolate, adding whipped cream and freezing. This worked well and we did not have to make the chocolate cups to put the ice cream in - just as well as I have done this every Friday for the last three weeks.

Back to the Spring rolls. A julienne of cucumber and carrot was piled on a bed of rice noodles and wrapped in a Vietnamese Spring Roll wrapper.

These are made from rice paper, dipped in water to make them pliable and partially transparent. The actual rolls are eaten cold or in this case raw. Once the roll had reached half way four prawns were carefully placed on top of the roll with a Coriander leaf in the middle and the roll then finished. Due to the transparency you can see the prawns and leaf through the roll and they are quite spectacular. They are also time consuming and finicky but well worth doing if only to wow your guests. With a cunning plating they were ready for tasting. Straight 6.

I have not bothered with the photos of chocolate because you have seen similar before.

At lunchtime it rained, falling on icy surfaces with predictable results. "The car park is very slippy" announced Darina, "It's Feckin' Lethal" commented a student who had just been there. Plans for an evening in Ballycotton were abandoned like the cars which failed to make it up the slight hill into the aforementioned village.

Demo saw the return of Rory in strangely humanitarian mood. He explained how the Lobsters would be gently placed into a pan and slowly heated until they went into a coma at 40degrees - whilst he could still put his hand into the water - and would "slip away at 50.

Whilst they slipped unaware into a new state he demonstrated some amazing cakes, scallops and Lamb Tagine - yes, the L word again. A very good recipe for Romanesco ( the green architectural Italian Cauliflower) and a less successful one - in my opinion for Chicory.

But Rory would not be the chef he is without a display of swordsmanship which would have made him a tricky opponent in a duel. O'Connell 9 Challengers 0. O'Connell through to Europe where he will face Alfonso Jaccarino..

The Lobster, now demonstrating its change of state by a change of colour from blacky-blue to deep red, was brought to the chopping board and deftly bisected.

What a great way to end the week with fresh Lobster in your tasting. Sadly we will not be cooking these on Monday, and even the Scallops that we will are currently stuck in West Cork by the weather. I just hope for a thaw before I cook John Dory for my exam on Wednesday.

Incidentally Rory has a great Blog on Blogspot with some stunning recipes and great comment by the man himself.

Oh well, one week to go, this time next week the blog will be delayed as we have our end of course party!!!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Skating Away, on the thin ice of a new day

The big freeze continues, the other day I noticed, as we passed, that Swan Lake was frozen over and flocks of incoming avian visitors were performing unintended acrobatics on landing. Bit like us really. The anticipation and excitement of the Wine exam has passed. Now we face the practical on Wednesday and three written exams on Friday then as they say around here "Sin e"- that's it.

But there's still work to be done. Today was a bit curates egg - good in parts. Skate wing proved no issue whatever. The Filleting knife cut through the sandpaper skin without resistance and, covered in a court bouillon, the skate poached  happily.

With Skate you skin and fillet after cooking as it is easier, and so it was. The skin slid off and the fillets were removed with a Palette knife. A quick dressing of a Coriander Vinaigrette and it was a big 6 pointer in the tasting.

Mary Jo's Chocolates proved more of a challenge. I want to know who Mary Jo is so that I can punch her lights out. On paper not too hard. Make a ganache, chill it and cover in chocolate. So Chocolate melted in Cream and cooled, Grand Marnier added and chilled.

Next pipe the ganache into little dots on silicone paper and chill again. Meanwhile melt more Chocolate and add some cooking oil. Dip the chilled ganache in the Chocolate with the aid of two forks and leave set. Problem: the ganache was so light in texture that even the residual heat of the melted chocolate melted the surface area and meant that the covering slid off. When it did stick it used loads so there was a general shortage by halfway through and they were shedding chocolate faster than a mangy dog sheds hair. Melt more chocolate and re-dip. Not much improvement.

Finally I got sufficient to put up a tasting plate though the iced mint decoration looked better than the chocolate.

I was, however, told that they tasted nice. Meantime one of the colleagues in the kitchen joined Mary Jo on the hit list after her chocolates, perfect in every respect and decorated with piped white chocolate were displayed as the kind of result that it was possible to achieve.

Shortly before I went on a homicidal revenge mission I had to adopt best behaviour. Chef Factor (Irish TV series) were filming at Ballymaloe and had chosen our kitchen to do the background shots and fillers. From Rambo I turned to Peppa Pinc (Peppa Pig to non Welsh speakers) acting reasonably and exuding bonhomie and love for my fellow man. By the time that I went to lunch the red mist had raised a little and I postponed horrible and slow deaths for a while.

The Demo was entertaining and covered ice cream several ways, Pork En Croute, seventy things to do with Smoked Salmon and Spring Rolls. Tomorrow I shall be cooking Chocolate Ice Cream in Hand Made Chocolate Cups, and Vietnamese Spring Rolls. It will also be the last time that I cook on a Friday and will mark the end of the last full week of cooking.

I leave you with a few photos of the kind of food that I will try to recreate tomorrow.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Zen and the art of Christmas Tree Mechanics

Ignorance they say is bliss, so with the Wine exam looming I achieved a state of total zen like tranquility. Not so some of my housemates who had broken nights and possibly for one a sleepless night. I slept like a baby till 6:10 and decided that the extra 20 minutes until the alarm were not worth it so into the shower. This had an unfortunate knock on effect. Little did I realise that the person in the next room had forgotten their watch after a weekend at home and was relying on my getting up and moving around to wake them. Hence, whilst I was still luxuriating in the steamy confines of the bathroom I heard them leave their room and head downstairs. Joining them just after 6:30 I heard about the movements of the previous night and the innumerable cups of coffee and tea that had been drunk in the quest for Wine knowledge.

By 7:55 we were all in school dressed in whites and waiting for the 8am exam. 22 minutes to answer 100 multiple choice questions later I was out. To an extent I surprised myself with the knowledge that I had accrued over the series of lectures but not excessively hopeful of achieving the 60% pass mark. If you do not like wine there is a barrier to totally understanding it. Still, I had given it my best shot and went off to the Dining room for a cup of coffee finding other students who took less time than me already in residence.

From there it was in to Demo at 9:15 for the Christmas Demonstration. OK it was only December 1st but there would be no more Wednesday Lectures or Demos so now was as good as any time for it. Darina did not practice swordsmanship on any innocent creatures today but took revenge on a Turkey and a Goose by introducing large quantities of stuffing into their recently vacated body cavities.

Following this we saw Almond Paste - NB not commercial marzipan - being applied to a Christmas Cake before it was toasted golden in a hot oven. The resultant toasty covering and the comparative youth of the cake made for a truly impressive taste and an interesting combination of textures.

A range of mince pies and other mincemeat products were demonstrated and some consumed still hot though the star of the show was the Chocolate Christmas Tree. Melted Chocolate is spread into crosses of diminishing size and cooled. Once cool they are assembled in layers, largest to smallest, and secured in place by a drop of melted chocolate. Dressed with Icing Sugar to replicate snow and garnished with Holly Leaves and small Christmas Figurines they formed an impressive and edible centrepiece for any Christmas table or display.

Strangely lunch today was of the Christmas variety. Both Goose and Turkey were succulent and tasty and the traditional vegetables well seasoned and cooked. Made a change from Lamb and, with a choice of Pumpkin or Mussel Soup, I opted for Cinderella's Carriage and enjoyed lunch.

The afternoon Demo concentrated on Student Requests. One housemate was desolate that his "How to debone a Kudu" had not made the shortlist but was cheered by Baked Alaska, nice Brownies, Brown Bread Ice Cream and Eggs Benedict. I particularly enjoyed watching and tasting the Paella which was cooked to a family recipe and looked and tasted spectacular.

Finally some 9 and a half hours after we left for school we were free to come home.

When do we get the results of the exam? Who knows. We do not get our final results until February and do not know whether the results of Wine are included in those or separate as there is a sponsored prize for the person who comes top. Oh well, what would I do with a bottle of Bollinger and a case of wine?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

From Death's Door

Cold with nasty bouts of freezing. Not the weather but how I felt this morning. The cold which had challenged my supply of handkerchiefs yesterday had now taken up serious residence and totally blocked sinuses were the order of the day. I turned the alarm off at 6:30 and fell back into bed. Awaking again at 7:45 I made my way downstairs to meet school bound colleagues and make the first Lemsip of the day.
To cheer myself up I decided that some schadenfreude was in order so 5live via the web. Tales of London paralysed by 0.2cm of snow cheered me though I felt for those who had real amounts of snow and well sub-zero temperatures and were battling on regardless. As I woke and warmed the pain came back into my joints and I seriously considered declaring Man Flu.
Common sense prevailed and a cool analysis of the situation indicated that repeating the pasta and pastry experience this morning was less important than actually making it to the Wine exam at 8am tomorrow.
Coffee and toast reinforced that view and I determined that I would read through the Wine notes so that I had some chance of answering the 100 multiple choice questions which I would face tomorrow.
More dire weather reports from the UK made the small snow showers falling here seem insignificant but ,since East Cork does not usually attract snow, it was an issue as the roads are not gritted and most people have little experience of driving in snow.

Luckily we can walk across the fields to get to school. Last evening’s tasting of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar had been hampered by the fact that only one of the new season Extra Virgin Olive Oils had arrived, the others being stuck in Dublin by the weather.
As the morning wore on more doses of Lemsip and more and more coffee began the cure that I hoped for. To go to the Demo or not? Taking the Wine exam was more important so I continued to relax and recuperate. In addition to the exam tomorrow we would have a full day of Demos with the Christmas Special kicking us off. It would at least be held in December which is a vast improvement on the average supermarket where Christmas appears to start on Easter Bank Holiday Monday.
Without much kitchen action to report upon today I have the chance to opine on Christmas. Now my position is clear I do not like Christmas. Actually I hate Christmas, and for the following reasons:
Ludicrous amounts of food are purchased for a very brief period – far more than could ever actually be consumed during the time – and a huge amount is wasted. If we seriously want to save the planet cutting back on Christmas would be a very good start.
The popular diet changes to overloads of sugar and carbohydrate.
Foods which would never gain shelf space, let alone be eaten suddenly achieve ‘must haveness’ I give you Cheese Footballs, Mixed Nuts, Dried Dates, Egg Nog and there I rest my case.

Gallons of alcohol are purchased and forced upon people at every opportunity. The pubs are full of once a year drinkers out for a good time. They may have one but any regular user of an establishment will have hundreds of amateur drinkers occupying their space, disrupting the pub and often causing trouble or just throwing up.
Everyone is expected to go to the Office Christmas Lunch. Now if you suggested that everyone went out in March or September they would look at you with bemusement at least and possible homicidal intent. Yet, at Christmas you have to go out. So you do. Inevitably they will have chosen a venue where the full XMAS Party XPERIENCE will cost only £9.99.
Think about it. If the meal, ‘free glass of wine’ and entertainment cost £9.99 the total cost of the food is about 78p. So, pressed rolled Turkey, frozen veg and Yorkshire Puddings, Industrial Gravy and all reheated in a microwave, followed by a hideous bought in dessert constructed entirely from e numbers and fat. Anyone for a good time?
But above all it is the commercialisation of Christmas that really gets me. Apart from the Easter start date people who cannot afford it are cajoled or shamed into over extending themselves for fear of being considered mean or even worse poor. Christmas is not just for Christmas it’s for three years at 29%APR.
And finally in this rant: People who turn their houses into replicas of Blackpool or Las Vegas. I do not want to see reindeer prancing across roofs, giant illuminated inflatable Santas, imitation icicles with 200kw lights inside, or neon messages of exhortation.

No if ever a ‘green tax’ was needed it should be applied to anyone who indulges in external decoration of the festive strain. And while we are at it another good green tax would be £2,000 per year tax on caravans which block roads, increase fuel consumption and road wear and are free to use at present. So there.
At that point iI feared a relapse and decided to post and then make coffee, swallow more meds and re read my Wine Notes. Should you hear a howl of anguish around 8:01 tomorrow morning you will know that my patented system for dealing with multiple choice questions does not actually work.

Monday, 29 November 2010

White Hell

Though nothing compared to Wales, East Cork this morning was still - if not blanketed- gently wrapped in a gossamer layer of snow. The temperature had been around zero all night and was not expected to rise during the day. If Met Eirean are to be believed the worst is yet to come.Still there's work to be done and that means leaving the comforts of home to cross the Shanagarry tundra. Feeling not a little like Ivan Denisovitch I left and headed towards the twinkling lights of the school, pausing only to record the scene in the Herb Garden.
As the warmth of the kitchen gradually seeped into my bones I contemplated the day's tasks. Irish Coffee Meringue and Mussel Soup, neither highly taxing. The Meringue would take an hour in the oven so it had to be started first.

Whisking two egg whites and 4 oz icing sugar into stiff peaks should take around 15 minutes. At 25 I had an impressively shiny and definitely thickening liquid. At 30 it remained the same. The white haze of depression descended and I decided that I had to ask for help. "You're nearly there give it another 5". 5 minutes later and no discernible difference so back for assistance. "Did you use the egg whites from the container?" "Yes, we were told to use them up and not separate eggs just for meringue." "Looks like they might be contaminated, try again with two fresh eggs".

Some nifty cracking and separating and new whites lay in my scrupulously clean and dry bowl. With trepidation I turned on my electric beaters, a second failure would have been soul destroying. This time the task was over in 5 minutes and a glossy, dry peak of meringue rose from the bowl like a mini Matterhorn, more icing sugar and two teaspoons of instant coffee powder were added to give a speckled effect. . Swift spatula work and a palette knife produced low discs of meringue perfectly fitting the circles that I had drawn on parchment paper and into a 150 degree oven they went. 45 minutes later they emerged and went off to cool down.

Time to tackle the soup. Onions were chopped, Herbs prepared and 3lbs of Mussels scrubbed and consigned to the saucepan with the other ingredients and 15 fluid ounces of wine. As the mussels opened they were removed, shelled and put aside. The cooking liquid was strained through Muslin to ensure any gritty bits were left behind and the liquid returned to the pan to reduce. I have to say that I did not find the taste of the liquid exactly scintillating and even after reduction, thickening with a roux and then diluting with boiled milk any improvement was marginal. Just before serving the Mussels were returned and a little cram added before a garnish of Parsley was scattered on.

The Meringue discs were sandwiched together with whiskey flavoured whipped cream and then decorated with piped cream and other exciting elements such as coffee beans. I have to admit that my meringue was whipped away straight after tasting so the photo is not of mine but it was along pretty similar lines.

The tasting went well with my favourite comment being on the soup. You made it taste as good as it can, usually they are horrible.If I am honest, and why not, I must say that I would reject that particular soup if the Salvation Army were feeding me on the street, many however would like it.

The afternoon demonstration was another 35 ways with Pasta, concentrating on filled parcels. My mind however was wandering as I turned to the third handkerchief of the day and concluded that I might be starting a cold.

Somehow I hung on until the end of the Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar tasting but was relieved when at 7:30 we were let go.

Tomorrow will either be tales of mortal combat with Pasta or 33 ways with Lemsip. Only tomorrow will tell.