Friday 27 August 2021

A Thousand and One Names for Pasta

Life without pasta - can you imagine? Well I can, though I would no longer want to contemplate a scenario where the 'go to' pantry ingredient was unavailable. You may not remember when you first tasted pasta because it's always been in your life...but I certainly do. It was in the late 1960's, soon after I had started in Ballymaloe House kitchen…’Children’s Tea’ was served every evening at 5.30pm - essentially supper. Myrtle loved to cook delicious food that the children loved to eat so the over-picky eaters didn't miss the junk.

On this occasion, word came from the dining room that one child would only eat spaghetti tossed in butter with a sprinkling of grated Cheddar. What was spaghetti? It certainly wasn't available in our local village shop at that time so someone was dispatched to Midleton to find a few packets. I was intrigued… Subsequently spaghetti became a favourite item on the ‘Children’s Tea’ menu.. That child who ate nothing but pasta for the entire stay is now a hugely successful international business man with a penchant for gourmet foods...

Actually, now that I think about it, we may have had macaroni in our village shop in Cullohill in Co. Laois earlier but spaghetti was a new discovery for me.

I keep wondering just how many pasta shapes there are, certainly hundreds, it's difficult to do an exact count because some have different names in different regions and dialects. Pasta manufacturers and cooks occasionally come up with new shapes or new names for old shapes - the possibilities are endless, depending on who you ask. In food historian Zanin De Vita's Encyclopaedia of Pasta, she encountered 1,300 names for pasta, which of course takes in both historical and dialect names.

Remember, alphabet pasta - alfabeto and then there's are also stelline (little stars), quadrucci (little squares), puntini (little dots). 

All pasta starts off fresh whether it's handmade at home or extruded from a machine in a factory which is then destined to be dried so it lasts indefinitely ready for us to use at a moment's notice.

I love the way pasta can be a simple supper or a luxurious main course for a special dinner party. It's the quintessential ‘handy’ ingredient for spontaneous summer meals... 

The smaller shapes are delicious served in a chicken or vegetable broth, maybe add some peas and sprinkle with a dusting of Parmesan and not just for children.

Fettuccini A'lfredo - strands of pasta, mixed with cream and butter (thickened quickly over a gentle heat) - is rich and gorgeous and lends itself to seasonal additions.

Try it with:
Lobster, prawns or scallops and chopped fresh herbs.  
Sauted cougettes and garnished with torn courgette flowers.
Smoked salmon and parsely.
Roasted pumpkin and rocket.
Red pepper and rocket.

It is also lovely to just add some delicious fresh vegetables: peas, beans, seaweed or wild greens depending on the season or what you can find in your local Farmers Market. 

Friday 20 August 2021

Chasing Smoke: Cooking Over Fire Around The Levant

Even if you didn’t know Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, you’d have to be intrigued by this title Chasing Smoke, and its bright orange cover. There are many cookbooks these days so it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd but this one certainly does.

It’s a third book from the ‘Honeys’ who own the much loved London restaurants, Honey & Co, Honey & Smoke and Honey & Spice.

Where there is smoke, there is fire and this irrepressible couple have been following the trail of smoke all their lives. They tell me that where there’s fire, food, friendships and memories are made.

Sarit and Itamar at our kitchen table

Their own fires burn brightly at their grillhouse Honey and Smoke at the northern end of Great Portland Street in London. The irresistible smell of aubergines, onions, courgettes and squash charring over coal and wood smoke wafts out onto the street to tempt the passers-by to follow the trail to the source of the delicious smells.

This book takes us across the Levant as Sarit and Itamar visit their favourite cities in Alexandrea, Egypt, Amman, Jordan, Acre, Israel, Adana, Turkey and Thessaloniki in Greece. They’ve really get a knack for ferreting out the most delicious simple, flavour packed dishes – could be a meal for two or a mouth-watering joyful feast for your family and a few friends. Perfect timing…exactly the sort of food I want to eat now that we can have a little get together outdoors, lots of fresh air and tantalizing smells.

Sarit and Itamar really are masters of cooking over fire. I love how they pass on many of the tips and tricks they’ve learned over decades of grilling both at home and in their restaurants - there’s even some rainy day advice. In Chasing Smoke, they’ve put together a beautiful collection of recipes from all over the Middle East from the most famous grill houses to the humblest roadside kebab houses, even cooking over a circle of stones on the sea shore.

I also learned about balcony cooking, the reality for so many in high-rise apartments but it doesn’t matter where you live, one can cook safely over a little grill and reawaken the hunter gatherer within us all.

Thursday 12 August 2021


If you have been meandering along the country roads for the past few weeks, you’ll have seen swathes of fluffy cream flowers along the verges, tiny sweet fragrant blossoms clustered together in irregularly branched cymes. The plant grows 2-4 foot tall and is called meadowsweet. The legendary Tudor botanist and herbalist John Gerard called this wildflower that blossoms from the end of June until mid-September ‘Queen of the Meadows’, and described how it ‘delighted the senses and scented people’s houses’. It is sometimes called mead wort and thrives in clammy meadows and ditches and along river banks. 

Meadowsweet delights me too and I love it for a myriad of reasons, not only the fact that it comes into season just as the elderflowers fade. I’ve been using the latter in a myriad of ways but from now until September, it’s the turn of frothy meadowsweet. It has many medicinal qualities and is known to contain salicylic acid, one of the components of aspirin and has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. Herbalists value it for its many medical qualities, bees and hoverflies love it too.

But we can also enjoy it in the kitchen. I’ve been adding to my repertoire of meadowsweet recipes for the past few summers. It flavours custard deliciously which can then be churned into meadowsweet ice-cream. You can imagine how fragrant meadowsweet panna cotta and crème brûlée are – infuse the milk for rice pudding. It also makes a delicious cordial, lemonade, spritzer or
a simple tea. Strew a few blossoms on the base of a cake tin while making a sponge and/or add some to a lemony icing. Try flavouring end of season rhubarb compote for a delicious surprise and I’ve had success with both rhubarb and ginger meadowsweet jam plus it also combines well with gooseberry to make a delicious compote. How does meadowsweet gin and tonic sound? Infuse gin for a week or two as you would sloe or damsons. Strain and enjoy. 

Keep your eyes peeled for meadowsweet as you drive through the countryside. Pop it into a vase on your kitchen table, it will perfume the entire kitchen while you decide on delicious ways to enjoy it…

Meadowsweet Tisane

From spring onwards when the herb garden is full of an abundance of herbs, we make lots of tisanes and herb teas. All you need to do is pop a few leaves or flowers into a teapot, pour on the boiling water – and allow it to infuse for a few minutes. Infinitely more delicious than the dried herb teabags.

You can combine herbs and flowers including: meadowsweet, lemon verbena, rosemary, sweet geranium, lemon balm, spearmint, peppermint...

Bring fresh cold water to the boil. Scald a china tea pot, take a handful of meadowsweet flowers and crush them gently. The quantity will depend on the strength of the herb and how intense an infusion you enjoy. Put them into the scalded teapot. Pour the boiling water over the flowers, cover the teapot and allow to infuse for 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately in a glass or china teacups.

Rhubarb and Meadowsweet Compote

Serves 4

450g (1lb) field rhubarb

450ml (16fl oz) stock syrup (dissolve 175g/6oz of granulated sugar in 300ml (10fl oz) of water and boil for 2 minutes)

4-6 sprigs of meadowsweet

Cut the rhubarb into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Put the cold syrup into a stainless-steel saucepan, add the rhubarb and meadowsweet. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for just 1 minute, (no longer or it will dissolve into a mush). Turn off the heat and leave the rhubarb in the covered saucepan until just cold. Remove the meadowsweet, serve with lots of softly whipped cream sprinkled with meadowsweet blossoms.

Meadowsweet Syrup

Makes 400ml (14fl oz)

225g (8oz) sugar

300ml (10fl oz) water

10-15 meadowsweet heads

To make the meadowsweet stock syrup: Put the sugar, cold water and meadowsweet into a saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to cool. Strain and store in the fridge until needed.

Meadowsweet Lemonade

3 lemons

225ml (8fl oz) meadowsweet syrup (see above)

750ml (1 1/4 pints) water


meadowsweet heads

Juice the lemons. Add the syrup and water. Mix and taste. Add ice and meadowsweet to garnish.

Meadowsweet Gin

It’s great fun to organise a few pals to pick some meadowsweet and have a meadowsweet gin-making party. Either enjoy it neat or put a measure of damson or sloe gin in a glass, add ice, a slice of lemon and top it up with the finest tonic.

50g meadowsweet (heads)

350g (12oz) granulated sugar

1.2 litres (2 pints) gin

Put the meadowsweet into a sterilised glass Kilner jar and cover with the sugar and gin. Seal tightly.

Shake the jar every couple of days to start with and then every now and then for 2-3 weeks by which time it will be ready to strain and bottle. It will improve on keeping so try to resist drinking it for another few months.

Friday 6 August 2021

Summery Salads

Delicious as they are, let’s throw out our preconceived notions of traditional salads, and get wildly creative with both dressings and flavour combinations...

Choose beautiful greens, not just a bag of mixed salad leaves. Seek out crunchy heads of Little Gem, speckled Castelfranco, bitter red chicory, Endive and Radicchio, peppery watercress sprigs, dandelion leaves, pea shoots, crunchy little romanesco florets....

Add lots of soft fresh herbs... mint, chervil, coriander, basil, tarragon, can’t you just taste the combination.

Kale and Hispi or Savoy cabbage are transformed when sprinkled with flaky sea salt then given a good massage until they are soft and silky.

Ramp up your dressings....

The classic formula of 3 parts oil to 1 part acid seems so samey.....

To add extra zizz, try a perkier 2 parts oil to 1 part acid, could be wine, cider, sherry or champagne vinegar or freshly squeezed citrus juice...

But let’s get extra adventurous... how about…

Natural yoghurt, lime and harissa....

Grape seed oil, rice vinegar, miso and grated ginger...

Mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, garlic and gochujang...

Extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar and maple syrup...

Roasting or grilling transforms vegetables like carrots, radishes, broccoli, cabbage or romanesco florets. Be bold, use a high heat for maximum caramelisation and sweetness.

Raddichio, chicory, kale and Romaine are also brilliant grilled.

Some pickled vegetables – chillies, cucumbers, red onions, grapes, radishes, rhubarb really add extra oomph to a salad.

Think about texture as well as flavour. Add crunchy corn or potato chips, crispy fried onions or shallots or slivered garlic.

Toasted walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashew nuts or roasted nuts are always a pleasing addition...

Crispy pork scratchings, garlic croutons or chunks of nut brittle can also be a delicious surprise.

Shaved radishes, scallions, fennel, kohl rabi or beets submerged in cold water with lots of ice will crisp deliciously and can be done several hours ahead. Add a dice of membrillo for extra sweetness and a little unexpected pop of flavour.

Slivered chilli, salted anchovies or sardines or grated horseradish or burratta are also brilliant flavour enhancers.

Where to stop…really, the world’s your oyster so throw caution to the wind. I also love to occasionally finish a salad with a little grating of lemon zest…