Friday 21 February 2020

Celebrating Indian Cuisine - the Inaugural Royal Cuisines Festival

On a recent trip to India I was invited to attend the Inaugural Royal Cuisines Festival in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. From the middle of the 19th century until 1947 when there were 150 princely states, tikanas and jagers in Central India, can you imagine the richness and diversity of the food culture?

The Madhya Pradesh Tourism association created this colourful festival to highlight the heritage and food culture of the province and share the flavours that were hitherto only accessible to those who were guests of the royal families. 

Many of these recipes are still jealously guarded within families and in some cases known only to the cooks. Ten royal families accepted the invitation of the Tourism Minister Surendra Singh Baghel, to participate. The event was held at the Minto Hall Palace, the former home of the assistant viceroy of India and launched by the first minister of Madhya Pradesh in the midst of a media frenzy. 

Field kitchens were set up behind the palace where the royal couples watched over their chefs and students from the Bhopal Institute of Hotel Management while they prepared their dishes. 

Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat from the Sarwaniya Royal family was preparing an intriguing family speciality called Chicken Sula. First the chicken was marinated overnight, then it was covered in a secret masala spice mix, then cooked and wrapped in overlapping chapatti and tied into a parcel before being cooked in a pit in the ground. Ravi was adamant that the recipe was secret but the Royal house of Garha in the nearby kitchen was equally adamant about the importance of sharing so the recipes and techniques would be passed on to the next generation. He told me that recipes had been lost in the past because they had ‘died with the cooks’, who have refused to share their legacy. 

Many of the royal families are now impoverished but some like the Holkar Royal family of Indore and Maheswar has embraced the hospitality business and have restored some of their palaces, as with Ahilya Fort, on the banks of the River Narmada in Maheswar. Prince Richard Holkar, a descendent of Queen Ahilya Bai who ruled from 1755 to 1795. Richard, a superb cook, divides his time between India and his second home in Paris. His cooking maintains the authenticity of the Holkar flavours using beautiful fresh produce from his organic farm and gardens. Guests come from all over the world and return over and over again to this hidden gem well off the beaten track. His chef Krishna, cooked three dishes, stuffed baby aubergines, Batteyr Survedar Quail Curry and Rosso Golla Espresso, Krishna was super excited when the first minister Kamal Nath personally complimented him on the Quail Curry and asked for a tiffin box of it to take home. 

Students from the Bhopal school of hospitality were honoured to have the opportunity to participate in the event, they were stirring huge metal kari’s of masala, making chapatti on a stone in the gardens and most exciting for them was having their photos taken with Indian celebrity chef, Harpal Singh Sokhi in his turquoise and orange turban. I did so many spontaneous interviews for Indian TV and my photo appeared in several Indian newspapers. 

In most people’s mind, the city of Bhopal, where the festival was held, is firmly connected to the Union Carbide Tragedy of 1984, when a gas leak was responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 people. The incident understandably decimated the tourist industry both in the city and surrounding area. This was my first visit, to what is a truly beautiful city, built around two large lakes with two outstanding museums, the Tribal Museum and the Museum of Man as well as an unforgettable Chowk (bazaar). 

The Royal Cuisines Festival was a brilliant excuse to visit, otherwise I might never have gone, but if you are planning a trip to India, add Bhopal to your itinerary, it won’t be inundated with tourists. 

Monday 10 February 2020

Warming Winter Stews

Love these crisp frosty mornings, fortunately my commute is just two or three minutes across the courtyard to the converted apple barn that has housed the Ballymaloe Cookery School for over 20 years now so I don’t have to worry about icy roads. Instead I day dream about the unctuous stew or casserole I’ll make for supper so I want to share a few of these with you.

Can you imagine anything better to look forward to than a bubbling pot of deliciousness, if you have a magic slow cooker or crock pot the aroma will greet you when you arrive home, battle weary after a day’s work – what could be more comforting?

There are a couple of golden rules to making a really good stew, choose the less expensive, cuts of meat more muscular such as shoulder or breast of lamb that benefit from slow cooking, flank or shin or beef, chicken thighs rather than breast which dries out easily. Some cubes of fat streaky bacon, or pickled pork add richness and a base of aromatic vegetables add sweetness. Onions, carrots, celery, perhaps a few cloves of garlic or a sprig or two of woody herbs.

Keep both the vegetables and the meat nice and chunky so they don’t disintegrate during the long slow cooking.

Sear the cubes of meat in a little goose fat of olive oil on a hot pan to start with. This simple step caramelizes the meat juices and add extra flavour, then toss the vegetables in the pan before adding to the stew pot or casserole, stock will add so much more flavour than water but a dash of wine, cider or beer, though not essential, add complexity. The seasoning is all important; a generous sprinkling of good salt and freshly ground black pepper early on will be absorbed in to the dish. You can taste and correct the seasoning at the end but it’s difficult to get it right if you’ve forgotten to season earlier.

For stewing and braising the cooking temperature is crucial, it must be slow cooking, reduce the heat the moment the liquid comes to the boil, cover the pot and keep it at a mere simmer until the meat is meltingly tender, 80°C is perfect – What food writer, Jane Grigson called “a mummer” with the liquid swirling gently but only bubbling now and then. Boiling ruins a stew!

Remember traditionally only the meat from older more mature animals was used for stewing. The flavour was richer and during long slow cooking the connective tissue dissolves into gelatine which adds a silky texture to the finished dish.

I also like to include some bone in the stew, it adds an extra depth of flavour – ask your butcher for a couple of slices of marrow bone to add to a beef stew it adds really magic. Now at last we can get more mature animals, chat to your family craft butcher they’ll know the provenance of the meat.

Venison and Parsnip Stew

If time allows, get this started the day before, the flavour will be even better, but ‘needs must’ if you are racing against the clock just mix all the ingredients in the casserole, bring to the boil and cook gently until the venison is tender and unctuous.
Baked potatoes work brilliantly with venison stew but a layer of potatoes on top provide a wonderfully comforting meal in one pot.   Scatter lots of fresh parsley over the top.

Serves 10

1.3kg shoulder of venison, trimmed and diced – 4cm


300-350ml gutsy red wine
1 medium onion, sliced
3 tablespoons brandy
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, lightly crushed black pepper
Bouquet garni
Seasoned flour

225g fat salt pork or green streaky bacon, diced -4cm
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
225g small mushrooms, preferably wild ones, but flats have lots of flavour
2 large onions, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
2 large parsnips, diced
1 large clove garlic, crushed
450ml beef or venison stock
Bouquet garni
Extra butter
Lemon juice
Salt, pepper sugar
8-12 potatoes

Lots of freshly chopped parsley

To serve
Green vegetable – eg Brussels sprouts, calabrese, cabbage

Horseradish sauce – optional

Season the venison well and soak in the marinade ingredients for at least an hour or better still overnight. Drain the meat well, pat it dry on kitchen paper and turn in seasoned flour.
Meanwhile, brown the pork or bacon in olive oil in a heavy casserole, cooking it slowly at first to persuade the fat to run, then raising the heat. Transfer to a large bowl.  Next sauté the mushrooms in batches on a high heat, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and transfer to a plate, keep aside to be added later.
Add a little more olive oil to the casserole, brown the venison in batches and add to the  bacon.  Add the onion, carrot, parsnip and garlic to the casserole, with a little more olive oil if necessary, toss and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add to the bacon and venison in the bowl. Do not overheat or the fat will burn. Pour off any surplus fat, deglaze the casserole with the strained marinade, bring to the boil. Add back in the venison, bacon, vegetables and garlic and enough stock to cover the items in the casserole. Put in the bouquet garni, bring to a gentle simmer on top of the stove.  Cover tightly with the lid of the casserole.   Transfer to the oven and cook until the venison is tender.
Test after 1½ hours, cover the entire stew with the peeled potatoes.   Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, cover with a paper lid and the lid of the casserole and continue to cook for another hour approx. until both the venison and potatoes are cooked. Add back in the cooked mushrooms, return to the boil for 2-3 minutes.
Finally taste the sauce, it will need seasoning and perhaps a little acidity, use lemon juice or a couple of spoons full of crab apple jelly.
Serve with a nice big dish of brussels sprouts, calabrese or cabbage and some horseradish sauce.
Scatter with lots of freshly chopped parsley.
Good to know -  For the best results, cook this kind of dish one day and then reheat the next, this improves the flavour and gives you a chance to make sure that the venison is really tender.

Lamb and Pearl Barley Stew and Fresh Herb Gremolata 

A substantial pot of stew fortified with pearl barley, this is really good with lots of gremolata sprinkled over the top. It is a variation of Irish stew, which is the quintessential one-pot dish – the recipe for the original Ballymaloe version can be found in my Forgotten Skills of Cooking book.

Serves 8-10

350g (12oz) piece of green streaky bacon (blanched if salty)
1.8kg (4lb) gigot or rack chops from the shoulder of lamb, not less than 2.5cm (1 inch) thick
well-seasoned plain flour, for dusting
a little extra virgin olive oil, for frying
350g (12oz) mushrooms, thinly sliced
700g (1 1/2lbs) whole, small onions – baby ones are nicest
350g (12oz) carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
150g (5oz) parsnips, peeled and thickly sliced
400g (14oz) pearl barley
approx. 2.8 litres (4 3/4 pints) homemade lamb or chicken stock
sprig of thyme
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Gremolata
4 tablespoons (5 American tablespoons) chopped mixed herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, chervil and mint
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 generous teaspoon grated or finely chopped organic lemon zest
flaky sea salt, to taste

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

First make the stew. Cut the rind off the bacon and cut into approx. 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes. Divide the lamb into 8 pieces and roll in the well-seasoned flour.

Heat a little oil in a 25cm (10 inch)/3.2-litre casserole over a medium heat and sauté the bacon until crisp. Remove to a plate. Sauté the mushrooms, season well and set aside. Add the lamb to the casserole in batches, with a little more olive oil if necessary, and sauté until golden. Heat control is crucial here: the pan mustn’t burn, yet it must be hot enough to sauté the lamb. If the pan is too cool, the lamb will stew rather than sauté and as a result the meat may be tough. Remove the lamb to a plate. Add another splash of olive oil to the pan and sauté the onions, carrots and parsnips until golden. Return the bacon and lamb to the casserole, together with the pearl barley. Season well, pour in the stock, add the thyme and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and transfer to the oven for 1–1 1/4 hours until meltingly tender; the cooking time will depend on the age of the lamb and how long it was sautéed for. Add the mushrooms about 30 minutes before the end.

Meanwhile, make the gremolata. Mix together the chopped herbs and garlic in a small bowl, add the lemon zest and season to taste with a little flaky salt.
Once the casserole is cooked, remove the thyme and season to taste. Leave the casserole to sit for 15–30 minutes to allow the pearl barley to swell. (If necessary, the casserole can be reheated later in the day, or the next day.) Serve bubbling hot, sprinkled with the gremolata.

Beef and Agen Prune Stew

Serves 6 – 8

This is a rich and delicious stew that just gets better and better. The flavour deepens when made the day before. Serve with polenta, tagliatelle or some fluffy mashed potato and a tasty green salad, as you wish.

18 Agen mi-cuit or semi-soft prunes, stoned
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
400g (14oz) carrots cut into 1cm slices
285g (9 1/2oz) onions, sliced
1.35kg (3lb) well-hung stewing beef or lean flank, trimmed of fat and cut into 4cm (1 1/2 inch) cubes
1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
150ml (5fl oz) red wine
150ml (5fl oz) brown beef stock (see recipe)
1 x 400g (14oz) tin of chopped tomatoes
8 medium potatoes, washed and peeled at the last minute
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a good green salad and some polenta, tagliatelle or mashed potatoes, to serve (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325ºF/Gas Mark 3.

Place the prunes in a bowl, cover with boiling water and set aside to soak.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 25cm (10 inch)/3.2 litre (5 1/2 pint) casserole over
a gentle heat and cook the sliced carrots and onions for 10 minutes, covered, until soft. Remove from the pan and set aside on a plate.

Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the casserole over a medium heat until almost smoking. Add the pieces of beef and sear on all sides in the hot fat. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Pour in the wine, stock and chopped tomatoes and bring slowly to the boil, stirring. Add the onions and carrots back to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 1 1/4 hours.

Arrange the whole peeled potatoes on top of the meat and vegetables and replace the lid. Return the casserole to the oven and continue to cook for a further 1 hour or until the meat is tender. Add the whole drained prunes and chopped parsley about 15 minutes before the end.

Serve with a green salad and some tagliatelle, polenta or mashed potatoes, if you like.

Monday 3 February 2020

A Weekend in New Orleans

New Orleans – The Crescent City, nestled into a bend in the Mississippi river is truly wonderful – you might want to add it to your US bucket list. I was enchanted by the architecture, the live oak lined streets, the buildings and the creole cottages each with porches, verandas and its own unique features. The street cars date back to 1893. I particularly loved the old French Quarter, Marigny, Burgundy and the Garden District, the vibrant art and culture scene... and of course the food!

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Image: Best New Orleans
It was a quick trip, barely two days but I packed a tremendous experience into that short time – enough to make me long to return. 

I didn’t get to do a proper cemetery tour, one of the star attractions of New Orleans, with their Greek and Roman sepulchres and palatial mausoleums. My visit didn’t actually coincide with any of the festivals that New Orleans is famed for. Yet the city abounded with jazz and blues, and the swish new airport has been called after Louis Armstrong. There were even vases of fresh flowers in the loos – there’s style for ya…!

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Hotel Peter and Paul -  Image: Here Magazine

I stayed at Hotel Peter and Paul, owned by a former Ballymaloe Cookery School student Natalie Jordi and her husband New York Times Journalist, Brett Anderson. A four year restoration of a historic New Orleans church, school house, rectory and convent, now with 71 bedrooms. I was tickled to find myself in the Mother Superior’s bedroom, complete with a king canopy bed, adorned with tassles and holy fillials. But this is a food blog, so I‘ll concentrate on the many new Orleans specialities I managed to taste on my far too brief visit.

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Mother Superior's Bedroom at Hotel Peter and Paul - image:

My first taste of New Orleans was at a super cool café, Molly’s Rise and Shine in the Irish Channel for a brunchy lunch before a tour of New Orleans. Loved every bite, a huge glass of fresh orange juice squeezed just moments earlier, roasted carrot yoghurt with granola and other good things, a southern biscuit (moist, tender scones to you and I) with sausage scrambled egg and pickles and Texas toast – one inch thick triangles of toasted brioche like bread with a little bowl of superb butter and jam on a speckled blue enamelled plate. Don’t miss their sister restaurant Turkey and the Wolf if you make it to New Orleans – superb sandwiches with a permanent queue.

My sojourn didn’t coincide with the famous crayfish season so I missed those but went along to an iconic Irish pub Erin Rose – with a Lill Killer Po Boy joint at the back. The name is short for Poor Boys a term apparently coined by the Martin brothers during the 1929 Street Car strike when the brothers served this kind of robust sandwich to the hungry strikers.

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Po Boy - Image:

To make a New Orleans Po Boy, split a French bread roll, crackly crust and soft fluffy interior, slather with a spicy mayo, add pickles and shredded salad, maybe some freshly chopped herbs or tomatoes and a topping of roast beef or fried sea food. Ours was packed with shrimps and was almost a cross between a Po Boy and a Banh mi – a meal in itself and quite the challenge at 10am in the morning but I take my research very seriously so I tucked in with gusto. Next stop Congregation Coffee and cool café, superb pastries and a tempting potato and turnip soup with horseradish dill and mushroom and a braised rabbit sandwich with blue cheese and watercress.

Image: Levee Baking Co. com

Christina Balzebre’s, Levee artisan bakery just off Magazine Street was also exceptional, superb naturally leavened bread, and handmade pastries. I bought a crusty baguette and some other tempting confections for my picnic on the plane and then headed over to St James’s Cheese Company for cured meats, Vermont cultured butter and some farmstead cheese. Lunch was at Peche, a James Beard award winning restaurant where I tasted Hush Puppies with honey butter.

After an intriguing tour through New Orleans, dinner that night was at Apolline where chef, Michael Shelton, cooks contemporary American food. I got to taste okra in New Orleans, one of the many good things I ate there. 

Upperline, New Orleans
Upperline Restaurant Image:

My final meal was at the iconic Upperline Restaurant on Upperline Street, classic New Orleans dishes, contemporary Creole cooking and a warm welcome from the utterly charming, feisty 80 year old hostess JoAnn Clevenger – definitely the ‘hostess with the mostest’ in the whole of New Orleans  described variously as ‘a girl scout with gumption’ and ‘the one dress hostess’.

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JoAnn Clevenger - Image

I tasted so many classic New Orleans dishes, fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, turtle soup, gumbo, and Upperline’s famous pecan bread pudding with toffee sauce – all so delicious…

I really long to go back to New Orleans and next visit maybe I’ll have time to taste the famous beignets from Café du Monde