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Monday, 24 March 2014

Post the Seventy-fourth (in which our heroine despairs for the future of manners)

Manners, eh?  If your parents were anything like mine, you had it drilled into you early and often just how important manners are.  Please.  Thank you.  Excuse me.  After you.  Such small words, but with such a big impact.  And, as the cliche oft-observes, they cost nothing.  So why are they becoming more and more uncommon, if you'll allow me a small pun?  I'm running the risk of sounding really old and cantankerous here, but I've noticed a definite decline in the level of manners I see on a daily basis in the past few years, and it really, really irks me.  As I said, they cost nothing more than a nano-second of your day, so why do people treat them like a precious resource that there's only a finite amount of?

Upbringing is clearly a large factor in how unmannerly or otherwise a person is.  For years, I just assumed that everyone's parents were the same as mine and that no-one escaped the constant reminders of "Where's your manners?" that everyone in my family was subjected to.  Sadly, much observation has disabused me of this notion.  Sitting in my local pub yesterday afternoon, I watched as two young boys ran riot around the place - spilled plates of food, threw chips at eachother, mashed said chips into the floor and generally made life unpleasant for those around them.  Not once - literally, not one single time - did their parents (or, it has to be said, any of the large group of adults with them) look over from their own table to check on their offspring, let alone have a word with them to tell them to dial it the hell down.  Manners extend to more than just saying please and thank you; a concept that clearly hadn't occurred to these people.

There seems to be this idea now that manners are a strangely old-fashioned concept in today's vulgar, self-entitled "I'll behave however I damn well please" culture.  I actually don't think anyone is ill-mannered on purpose (or at least I hope not).  I think it's just that people have become so self-absorbed that it simply never occurs to them to consider whether and how their behaviour is affecting others.  People who won't avert their eyes from their phone for the two seconds it takes to place an order with wait staff generally aren't deliberately rude, they simply haven't stopped to consider that what they're doing is rude in the first place.  Same with holding doors open for people.  I do it without fail.  In fact, I'm probably guilty of doing it for people who are that little bit too far away, making it necessary for them to do that little half-run to the door cause they don't want to leave you waiting there too long.  But I've lost count of the number of women (and, sadly, it's nearly always women) who've let doors slam in my face when I'm walking in directly behind them.  Again, I highly doubt any of them are doing it in any kind of consciously bad-mannered way.  I'd guess that if you ran after them all and asked did they realise what they'd just done, 9 out of 10 of them would be mortified, but they still do it.  And I'd love to know why.  If I realise, and you realise, and any number of readers of this blog who are currently nodding along in agreement realise that some actions, or lack thereof, are inherently rude, why do these people not?  Were they never told in the first place, or have they just forgotten?

I'm not advocating a return to Emily Post levels of formality here.  Nothing of the sort.  But if people could be just a *leetle* more mindful of their behaviour, life would be unutterably more pleasant.  No?

So don't forget to thank me for this delicious recipe, for which I, in turn, must yet again thank Paul Flynn and Lidl.  We eat a lot of sweet potatoes in my house, but usually as an accompaniment, so I was only delirah when I spotted this recipe, which has them as the star of the show, in a main course.

Baked Sweet Potato with Feta - serves 2

2 sweet potatoes, scrubbed                          4 tbs olive oil
20g butter                                                     2 cloves garlic, crushed        
Good pinch hot chilli powder                      85g pumpkin seeds
200g rinsed spinach                                     200g feta cheese

1. Preheat your oven to 180C.  Cut your sweet potatoes in half lengthways.  Drizzle a baking tray with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt & pepper.  Lay your sweet spuds cut-side-down on the tray and roast for about 40 minutes, maybe a bit longer if they're particularly mahoosive.  Like all potatoes, they're done when you can easily slide a knife into them.

2. About ten minutes before they're done, melt the butter in a pan and add the garlic & chilli powder.  Add the pumpkin seeds and toast for about 5 minutes, making sure they don't burn.  Add the spinach, bung a lid on, lower the heat and allow to wilt for 2-3 minutes, tossing every so often.

3. Plate up the sweet potatoes and squeeze the insides out a bit.  Divide the spinach mix evenly amongst them and crumble over the feta.  Enjoy.

Depending on your appetite (and the size of the spuds, obviously), a half potato may actually be plenty even for a main course.  That was certainly the case for me.  The good news is, these reheat really well, so the leftovers are perfect for bringing in to work for lunch.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Post the Seventy-third (in which our heroine wonders if her luck is changing)

Your heroine has oft-wondered if she was, perhaps, born under a bad sign.  To quote that great sage and philosopher, Homer Simpson, if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.  My family stopped sharing tips on horses with me years ago, so legendary is my rotten luck.  You could have Arkle in a fixed race with seven pregnant mares and a lame gelding, and if I backed him, he'd fall.  I once missed out on my dream job due to a series of tiny-but-cumulative events that led to me arriving at the interview half an hour late, with an unreadable CV, to a hiring manager who thought I didn't know how to send an email.  I generally don't bother entering competitions cause the last thing I won was a pink plastic money box in the shape of a bear dressed as a policeman when I was in senior infants.

I'd like to think there's a glimmer of change on the horizon, though.  Last Friday, I randomly texted into a radio station I don't even normally listen to register for a competition.  Within ten minutes, they'd called me asking if I wanted to play.  "Sure!" says I, understandably reluctant to admit to them that I had no idea what it was I was actually going to be playing.  Anyway, the upshot is, I won €140, which will make a handy dent in the Paris trip.  Ok, so I could have won 5 grand if I'd known Barack Obama's middle name (it's Hussein) and which Aussie golfer won the Open last year (Adam Scott), but still, it's a start, right?  Then, yesterday evening, my sisters and I won €50 on a scratchcard.  We're not exactly going to be retiring on it, but it's the price of a few drinks and you wouldn't step over it if you saw it lying in the street, like.

So, I've taken these two very small windfalls as veritable proof that Good Things Are Going to Happen to Me.  End of.  Being an unrelenting cynic and skeptic hasn't exactly availed me of much, so I'm trying on positivity for a while.  It feels a bit weird and doesn't necessarily fit very well, but I'll soldier on regardless.  Might as well get myself some crow's feet to go with the frown lines I already have, eh?

Anyway, on with the food.  Small windfalls notwithstanding, your heroine is still pretty much perma-broke, so the economic recipes shall continue for the foreseeable.  This dish is cheap-as-chips to make and is one of those great ones that you can make a massive pot of and eat for a couple of days, as the flavour just keeps on improving.  The quinoa also makes a great work lunch, with a spinach salad on the side.

Moroccan Chicken Stew - serves 4

4 chicken fillets, cut into strips                            2 onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed                                        1 red & 1 yellow pepper, sliced
1 sweet potato, peeled & cut into 1" chunks        Tin of chickpeas
Tin of tomatoes                                                     1 tbsp Ras el Hanout*
Tsp each cumin, paprika & harissa paste              1/2 tsp each cinnamon & turmeric
Handful of cashew nuts

1. Heat a splash of oil in a large pot and saute the garlic and onion until just beginning to colour.  Add the chicken, sweet potato, peppers and all the spices except the harissa paste. Give everything agood stir and cook for five minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes and harissa, turn down the heat and allow everything to simmer away for a good hour, stirring every so often.  This should be quite a thick stew, but if it looks like it's getting a bit too dry, throw in a bit of chicken stock.

3. After an hour, add the chickpeas & cashew nuts, and taste to see if it needs more of any of the spices.  Simmer for another ten minutes, then season and serve with the quinoa below.

Chilli-lime Quinoa - serves 4

160g quinoa                                      300ml chicken stock
1 red chilli, finely diced                    2 fat cloves garlic, crushed
Zest & juice of 1 lime                       Knob of butter

1. Give your quinoa a really aggressive rinse in loads of cold water, then strain in a sieve.

2. Melt the butter in a large-ish pot, add the chilli, garlic, lime juice & zest.  Bring to a high simmer and allow to reduce to an almost paste-like consistency.

3. Add the quinoa to the paste, stir well and toast for three minutes.  Add the stock, cover and lower the heat to a bare bubble, and cook until the quinoa has absorbed all the stock.  This can take anywhere between ten and twenty minutes.  Don't stir the quinoa while it's cooking.  When the stock has absorbed, remove from the heat but allow to rest with the lid still on for another ten minutes, then fluff with a fork, and serve.

*What the frig is Ras el Hanout?
It's a Moroccan spice blend that literally translates as "Top of the Shop", as different spicemongers all had their own recipes for it, and basically the more fancy ingredients there were in it, the flasher you were.  You can buy it in good delis, but it's ridiculously easy to make, and it's dead handy to have in the press as it can be added to loads of dishes.  You can totally make this stew without it, but it won't have quite the same depth of flavour.  There are as many "recipes" for Ras el Hanout as there are spices that can go in it, but if you fancy having a bash at making your own, here's the combo I came up with:

4 tsp coriander seeds                          3 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds                               1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cardamom seeds                        2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cinnamon                       1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper                          Pinch salt

1. Stick all the seeds and the peppercorns into a dry pan and toast over a high heat until they're just beginning to "pop".  This will happen incredibly fast, so don't even attempt to leave the room or you'll burn the arse out of your pan and all your lovely spices.

2.  Tip into a pestle & mortar and grind to powder.  Add the powdered spices and the salt and mix well.  Store in a clean glass jar in a cool, dry place, and it'll keep for a good three months before it starts to lose its potency.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Post the Seventy-second (in which our heroine joins the "I Hate January" brigade)

Possibly for the first time ever.  I'm usually not a January-hater.  Hell, I was born in January so it can't be all bad, right?  In fact, I was usually more in the "February is evil" camp.  Cause, like, everyone expects January to be miserable, so that's ok, but February kind of sneaks up on you and goes "Hey, guess what?  January is over and you've been paid and it's officially spring, but  - surprise! - I'm going to be horrible and depressing anyway!  Joke's on you!"  Much like Tuesdays do after you've struggled through Monday and expect the following day to be marginally better, but it never is.  February is the Tuesday of months.

However, this year I am kind of feeling the anti-January vibe.  There's even a newly-coined word for the utter apathy and woe-is-me-ness that it entails - Jannui.  (I'd love to take the credit for that, but unfortunately I can't.  Kudos to whoever did come up with it, though.)  It's so apt, though.  All anyone really wants to do in January is lie around the house feeling sorry for themselves and fantasising about winning the Lotto.  But instead, we're all forced to feel like we should be joining the gym, or dieting, or training for a marathon or an Iron Man or a decathlon or something.  Enough, I say!  My mother has the right idea.  She says that January is not a month for starting anything, it's a month for hibernating and curling up at home.  My body agrees; all I want to do when I get home after work every evening is nest.  Unfortunately, the powers-that-be in DCU don't agree with this philosophy, and have set two assignments to be completed before the 10th of February.  I've one done, and am working on the other, so unfortunately evenings curled up on the couch with a good book are not in my foreseeable for a few weeks yet.  Damn you, DCU!

*shakes fist*

Speaking of winning the Lotto, you'd have to feel sorry for the poor schmucks who won the "jackpot" on the 18th of January.  For any of my non-Irish readers who mightn't be familiar with the story, the lottery jackpot on that date was €3.5 million and was won, by not one, not two, not even three but SIX separate winners.  Wouldn't you be sick?  Sitting there checking your numbers, realising you'd won and going "I'M RICH!  I'M RICH BEYOND MY WILDEST DREAMS!!!", imagining all the things you were going to do with the money, only to find out that sorry, no, you're not getting 3.5 million big ones after all, you're only getting 500 grand.  I don't care what anyone says, I would be RAGING.  We were discussing it in the office, and you know how there's always one person who has to pretend to be magnanimous to the point of not caring.  "So", this person says to me "You're saying you'd prefer nothing to 500 grand???  Tchaw."

Well, obviously, no, I'm not saying that.  Don't be so deliberately obtuse.  I'm saying I'd prefer three and a half million quid to 500 grand.  Duh.

Anyway, onwards we march with the Lidl "Feed a Family for €50" series, which, until we win the lotto, will remain relevant.  Today's is the penultimate recipe, and it's a good 'un.

Turkey Satay - serves 4

1 pack turkey breast strips                           425ml can coconut milk
300g basmati rice                                         2 tbs crunchy peanut butter
1 red onion, thinly sliced                             2 cm piece ginger, peeled & grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled & grated                  1 tbsp soy sauce
Tsp cayenne pepper                                     Salt & pepper

1. Heat a little oil in a wok and fry the garlic, onion & ginger over a medium heat for three minutes, until just beginning to soften, but not colour.

2. Add the coconut milk, peanut butter & soy sauce and bring to a simmer, stirring to melt the PB.

3. Add the turkey, mixing well to make sure it doesn't stick together.  Cover and simmer gently for approx. 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile cook the rice according to the packet instructions.  Stir the cayenne into the satay, season and taste, drain the rice, and serve on warmed plates.

Notes:  Now, Paul has a bit of a blooper in his recipe, as he has an instruction to "add the spring onions" towards the end of the recipe, despite spring onions not making an appearance anywhere in the ingredients list.  Anyway, I'm not a fan of warm spring onions, so I don't feel the need to add them.  What I did do was increase the red onion from a half to a full one.  I also chopped a red chilli and fried it off with the ginger and garlic at the start, and added a packet of sugar snaps in the last five minutes of cooking, mostly cause they were in the fridge and I wanted to get rid of them.  They worked really well, though, so they'll definitely be a permanent fixture in this from now on.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Post the Seventy-first (in which our heroine muses on a rant)

So, I was having abit of a bad day there a week or so ago and posted an impromptu rant on Facebook about the things that were particularly bothering me at the time.  I was expecting a bit of a backlash against it, but instead it generated mostly agreement.  So I thought I'd flesh it out a bit here, mostly as an exercise to see if these things are still annoying me just as much today, on a Friday, when I'm feeling remarkably more zen about the world as a whole.

1. People who can't spell. I'm being visually assaulted from all sides of my Facebook newsfeed. Buy a fucking dictionary already.

God, this drives me mad.  The internet/social media has an awful lot to answer for with regards to the dumbing down of an entire generation.  Dis, dats, dese and dose everywhere.  Wat, youse, shud of, I seen, I been - it's endless.  And not only can these people not spell, they actually seem perversely proud of the fact.  It boggles my mind, it really does.  Have they any - any - idea how unutterably stupid they appear? Prbly not.

2. News outlets reporting speculation from other news outlets as actual news. Oh, so the Indo said that Sean O'Brien is on the verge of signing for Toulon? Better stick it in our next bulletin, so.

Spin 1038 actually did this, in an actual news report.  "The Irish Independent has reported that Sean O'Brien is likely to sign with French side Toulon later today."  That's not news!!!  That's just you passing on someone else's opinion.  Jesus wept.

4. The Book Depository. Gimme my poxy books, now.

They've all since arrived, two of them about an hour after I'd written that post, and the third the following day, so it's all good.

5. People right-onning Gabourey Sidibe. I've no time for internet trolls, but let's not kid ourselves that she's some kind of role model for positive body image.

Ooh, this is a biggie for me.  If you're not familiar with the background, Gabourey Sidibe, a morbidly obese actress drew a lot of flack online after the Golden Globes for her appearance.  She allegedly responded "To the people commenting on my weight, I'm just going to go cry in my private jet while I fly to my next job" and the quote, predictably, was everywhere in the following days with people going "Boom!" and "You tell them haters!" and "You go girl!".  Now, while I think that professional internet trolls are the lowest of the low, I really don't think anyone should be holding Sidibe up as a role model for positive body image.  Glorifying either end of the weight spectrum is a bad idea.  It doesn't really matter how "happy" Sidibe is, the fact of the matter is that she's staring down the barrel of some major, major health problems.  Cheerleading that is downright dangerous.

6. This week.

Which is now last week.  But yeah, it was a bad 'un.  Assignment hell, destitution, cabin fever.  Actually, now that I think about it, this week isn't all that different.

7. Motor tax.

My car is eight years old.  It is worth approximately two grand.  It is not fancy, or flash, or high-performance in any way.  I taxed it for three months last week, plus a month's arrears, and it cost me €257.

My friend K's car is one month old.  It's worth approximately forty-eight grand.  It is extremely fancy, and flash, and gorgeous in every imaginable way, and I would date it if I could.  She taxed it for the entire year last week, and it cost her €200.  You can see the reason for my annoyance, I'm sure.

8. Idiots who can't park.

Forget the zombie apocalypse, the major plague that seems to be spreading across the nation lately is the inability to park.  It's DEFINITELY getting worse.  Why that is, I don't know.  A symptom of the fact that people just have absolutely zero consideration for others these days?  Perhaps.  But regardless, here's a tip for those of you who might find it slightly challenging:  those lines on the ground provide a handy guide as to where your car should actually end up.  Have a fucking look at them once in a while.

9. Whichever genius thought 700 metres was sufficient distance between two of the busiest exits on the M50.

Namely the Red Cow and Ballymount.  I actually find it hard to even write about this, it annoys me so much.  Suffice to say that traffic queuing to get off at the Red Cow regularly backs up the full 700m to Ballymount, so that people trying to get on from Ballymount can't go anywhere.  And nor can anyone else, because the entire rest of the mainline gets snarled up with people trying to get over into the exit lane.  Slow clap to whoever came up with that design.

10. Men.

Oy vey.  That's a topic for a whole 'nother day.  I've harshed my Friday mellow enough.

So, onwards with the budget feeding.  I know I already said it, but I really am sorry that this is taking so long.  What actually happened is that I had them all made and photographed and ready to go.  And then I somehow managed to delete all the photos, so I had to go and cook them all again.  Which is taking forever because I've been up to my mincers in college work for the past couple of weeks.  The bad news is, the last two recipes are going to be even longer in coming as I won't be cooking again til Monday.  Forgive me, please!

Anyway, today's recipe is a slightly more grown-up version of bangers and mash.  Don't be put off by the thoughts of the apple; they're a classic combination with pork.  In fact, my mother will attest that I used to regularly have a sausage with an apple for breakfast when I was younger and have a bite of each at the same time.

Bangers, Pudding and Mash with Caramelised Onion - serves 4

8 jumbo sausages                              1 black pudding, cut into 12 slices
2 onions, finely sliced                       6 medium potatoes, peeled & quartered
1 tsp sugar                                         1 tbs mustard
2 knobs butter                                    Oil, salt & pepper
1 apple, peeled, cored, quartered and finely sliced

1. Melt one kob of butter with a little olive oil in a pan and gently sweat your onions with a lid on for 15 minutes, until nice and soft.

2. In the meantime, boil the potatoes til nice and tender, then drain and leave to steam dry for 5 minutes.  Stick your sausages and pudding under the grill.

3. Add the apple and sugar to the onions, toss to mix, then leave the lid off and cook on a slightly higher heat til everything is nice and golden.

4.  Return the potatoes to the pot and mash with the other knob of butter, the mustard, a splash of milk and plenty of salt & pepper.

5. When your sausages & pudding are cooked on all sides, divide the mash between four plates, place two sausages and three slices of pudding on top and heap with the caramelised apples and onions.

Suggestions:  As you can see, I added a pea puree to this.  The colour really adds to the look of the dish, pea & pudding are a classic combo, and it's always nice to up the veg quotient in any dish.  Anyway, it couldn't be easier to make.  Cook 500g of frozen peas, drain (but reserve a tablespoon or so of the cooking water) and blitz in a food processor with a tablespoon of mint sauce, loosening with the cooking water if needs be.

The other great thing about this dish is that if you are cooking for fewer than four people you can just cook what you need, and keep the extra sausages and pud for a cooked brekkie at the weekend.  Happy days.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Post the Seventieth (in which our heroine goes to work sans foundation)

And no-one drops dead of shock.  Or asks if I'm sick.  Or even seems to notice at all.  See, I was standing in the bathroom on Monday morning about to put my foundation on and I really looked at my skin for a moment or two and went "Your skin is in great nick, why are you bothering?"  So I took a giant leap and forewent the foundation.  And have done so every day since.  I'm rocking a bit of bronzer, mascara, lip gloss, and, of course, my eyebrows.  I can't go out without my eyebrows or I look like Luann van Houten when Kirk hustled her out of the house before she was quite ready.  Years of over-zealous plucking in my teens and early twenties have left me with two tiny inverted commas over my eyes.  Which is ironic, really, considering I looked like Eugene Levy until I was about 13.

Anyway, the ditching of the foundation is not some kind of grand feminist gesture.  Nor is it borne out of some half-formed idea that my skin needs to "breathe".  I've always found it amusing the way some women (usually the ones who don't really wear make-up) think that foundation is some kind of impermeable mask that nothing can penetrate.  Nope, it's half laziness and half out of a desire to save money.  Obviously, not wearing foundation on a daily basis will make a bottle last that much longer.  It's a sad fact, dear readers, that more than two years after the inception of this blog, I'm still perpetually broke.  Obviously, this cavalier attitude to make-up will last only until I get my next whopper spot, but for the time being, I'm enjoying it.

In other news, Leinster made it out of the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, and have Toulon away in our quarter final on the weekend of April 5th.  The fixture is yet to be confirmed, but given that Toulon are the reigning champions, I'd be amazed if we didn't get the plum Saturday evening slot.  And even though they are the current cup-holders, I'm quietly confident that we can beat them.  They're a big, heavy-hitting team whose entire game plan rests on bludgeoning their opponents into the ground and getting as many penalties as possible for Johnny Wilkinson to convert.  If we can break their gainline and keep our discipline, particularly in the first half, I think our superior fitness will be the key difference in the second.  Unfortunately, I won't be there.  I'm going to Paris for the Six Nations in March, so unless an unexpected windfall comes my way, I won't have the money to do both.  The good news is, if we win in the Mayol, we have a home semi final, so at least there's no away trip to worry about there.  Cardiff I'll worry about if and when the time comes...

Jeez, make-up and rugby in the same post.  I wouldn't think there's too many blogs out there mixing the two.

Anyway, apologies for the extremely drawn out nature of the "Feed Your Family for Fifty Quid" series.  I've been in assignment hell since the 6th of Jan and, unfortunately, that tends to eat into my free time significantly, as I'm sure you can imagine.  Today's recipe is by far my favourite of the entire collection, and I've made it loads of times since I first discovered the booklet.  Just please, please, please don't be tempted to use chicken fillets instead of the thighs - they'll be dry and boring and just meh.  Irish people are remarkably weird about using "other" parts of the chicken, I'm not sure why.  Thighs are by far my favourite piece of chicken; they're about eleventy million times tastier than fillets, they never really dry out no matter how long you cook them for and they're cheap as chips.  I suspect a lot of peoples' aversion to them stems from the fact that many folk (my mother being a prime example) don't like meat that actually looks like it was once an animal, so anything with skin or bones is an automatic no-go.  Well, I have news for you people - if you can't hack the fact that your meat used to be a living, breathing, sentient animal, complete with a face and eyes and everything, then you've no business eating meat at all.  It's as simple as that.  If you're going to be a carnivore, the least you can do is accept and respect the fact that something died in order for you to eat it.

Okay, less rant, more recipe:

Chicken & Sweet Potato Traybake - serves 4

8 chicken thighs                                1 large sweet potato
3 red onions                                      1 red pepper
1 bulb garlic                                      2cm piece of ginger
1 tbsp curry powder                          Olive oil

1. Scrub your sweet spud, but leave the skin on.  Slice down the middle lengthways, then chop into 2cm chunks.  Peel & quarter your onions, deseed your pepper & cut into 8, and peel your ginger and cut into matchstick-sized pieces.  Separate the garlic cloves, but leave the paper on.  If there's a lot of excess skin on your chicken thighs, then trim them a bit.

2. Lob everything into a large metal baking tray, drizzle over about a tablespoon of oil, then sprinkle over your curry powder (you can use a bit more than a tablespoon if you want).  Season with salt & pepper, then get right into everything with your hands to make sure it's all really evenly coated, especially the chicken.  Don't be tempted to add too much oil, as the chicken skins will render quite a good bit more during cooking.  Make sure the chicken thighs are skin-side-down on the bottom of the tray, then pop into an oven pre-heated to 180C for 15 minutes.

3. After the 15 minutes, turn the chicken over and toss the veg around a bit, then return to the oven for another 25 minutes until everything is golden and sticky and gorgeous, and serve immediately.

This is fine served on its own, but as you can see, I love it with a massive pile of baby spinach and some crumbled feta.  Also fab to drizzle over is natural yoghurt loosened with a little water and seasoned with a pinch each of cumin and cayenne pepper, and a tiny grind of salt.  Just writing this post has made me very glad I'm having this for dinner again tonight!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Post the Sixty-ninth (fnarr fnarr!)

Yes, I did have a snigger at the post number.  I'm of the opinion that when certain things stop being funny, you're officially old.  Chief among them are farts, out-of-context rude words/terms and people falling over. It's a funny old thing, getting old.  I'll be 32 this day week, but I still feel about 19.  If you jumped out from behind a door and asked me when I did my Leaving Cert., I'd say about 3 years ago.  It was 15 years this June.  I've bought a house, been married, been made redundant, been through the breakdown of that marriage, but I still often wonder when I'll start feeling like a grown-up.

Conversely, I've known people who were old their whole lives.  We all have.  I look back now on the parents of certain childhood friends who were always dowdy, fussy and, y'know, ancient, and realise that they were actually only a few years older than I am now.  How does that happen to people???  Are they just born old?  My mum says it about her own mother - she always wore "old lady" clothes, she always had "set" hair, and she would never, ever chillax and have a drink with my granddad, even though they owned a pub.  I can think of several neighbours of my parents off the top of my head who I'd put in the same bracket.

I know they say you're only as old as the man you feel (which would have made me 28 up until very recently), but the older I get, the more I think that age (or youth) is genuinely a state of mind.  And I definitely think a lot of that is down to the attitude of your own elders.  My parents are both in their sixties, and they're two of the coolest people I know.  My dad in particular (as any readers who've ever met him will attest) is possibly the biggest messer I've ever come across.  And his parents were the same.  They died within three months of eachother when my granddad was 77 and Nana was 76 and people go "Sure that's a great age" and I go "No it wasn't".  They had a better social life than I do now.  Anyway, we're straying dangerously into maudlin territory here, which wasn't the aim of this post at all.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I might be (almost) 32, I might be (in the eyes of those more mature than me) coming across as quite pathetic, but d'you know what? I don't care.  I'm not advocating a Peter Pan approach to life, but there are certain things I really, really hope I never grow out of, because the day I do, I'll have grown old.

So here's to eternal youth, even if only in our minds.


Anyway, if, like me, you still think farts are one of the funniest things on the planet, then you'll appreciate this dish.  This is the leftover cod bake recipe, and as I said, I enjoyed it a lot more than the actual bake.  So, if you fed four people with that the first night - sorry.

Cod Bake Fishcakes - serves 2

2 portions of leftover cod bake                        3 eggs
2 tbs flour                                                        Tin of baked beans

1. Crack one of the eggs into the leftover cod bake and mix well.  Add a little leftover seasoning if you think its needed.

2. Sprinkle the flour onto a large plate.  Shape the fish mix into four cakes and dredge in the flour until evenly coated.

3. Heat a good glug of oil in a pan and fry the fishcakes for five minutes, making sure they slide easily if you give the pan a shake before turning over.  Cook the other side for another five minutes, then stand them on their sides for a couple of mintes each to achieve a uniform golden-brown colour.

4. While the fishcakes are cooking, heat the beans with a shedload of black pepper and a dash of Frank's Red Hot Sauce if you have it.  At the same time, poach two eggs*.

5. Divide the beans between two warmed plates, sit the fishcakes on top, and top with the poached eggs.  Marvel at how much better than last night's meal it is.

*Poached eggs seem to be up there with risotto in terms of perceived difficulty - people for some reason think they're nigh-on impossible to make, when they're really ridiculously easy.  So, here's a quick Egg Poaching 101 for you.

1. Never keep your eggs in the fridge.  The "shock" of putting a cold egg into hot water or oil just never ends well.

2. In a wide, shallow pan heat three inches of water with a tablespoon of vinegar and a good pinch of salt.  Bring it to a very gentle simmer - a rollicking boil will just break up the egg when you add it.

3. Crack your egg into a ladle.  Then, very gently slide it into your simmering water.  And then just don't touch it for about two minutes.  It will initially look like it's going fucking everywhere in the water, but it will come back together if you just ignore it.

4. When the white is just set, remove extremely gingerly with a slotted spoon.  Drain on a folded-over kitchen towel, then gently roll onto whatever it is you're serving it on.

Yis can all thank me later...

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Post the Sixty-eighth (in which our heroine doesn't like the recipe)

Sorry, Paul.  But it just did nothing for me.  Too much potato and not enough flavour.

The recipe in question is the cod bake from the Lidl "7 Family Meals for €50" booklet.  See, the first time I made it, I veered quite substantially from the recipe.  In fact, I barely followed the recipe at all.  I tend to do that quite a lot.  I can't remember exactly what I did, but I kept the fish separate from the potato, and instead of mashing the spuds, I parboiled and grated them to make a crispy, rösti-style topping.  And it turned out really well.

However, as I said at the start of this series of posts, these recipes aren't my own, so for the purposes of the blog, I'm posting them as they were created.  So I made this again the other night, according the recipe, and what a disappointment it was.  But if you've done the shop, you'll have the ingredients, so I'll give you the recipe regardless.  And who knows, you might love it - maybe I was just having a particularly bad night in the kitchen.

Cod Bake with Spinach & Mint - serves 4

2 cod fillets, cut into 2cm pieces                            6 potatoes, peeled & halved
3 spring onions, finely sliced                                  250g frozen peas
Large double-handful baby spinach                       50g grated mature cheddar
2tbs butter                                                               1 egg
200ml chicken stock                                               1 tsp mint sauce
1 tsp horseradish sauce                                           Salt & pepper

1. Put the spuds on to boil.  When they're cooked, drain and mash with the horseradish sauce.

2. Add the fish, spring onions, egg, salt & pepper and mix well.

3. Butter a casserole dish and spread the mix into it.  Dot with half the butter, top with the cheese and bake in an oven preheated to 170C for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese is golden and bubbling.

4. In the meantime, bring your chicken stock to the boil with the remaining butter.  Add the spinach, allow to wilt, then add the peas & mint sauce and cook for two minutes.  Divide between warm plates, then top with a piece of the cod bake and serve immediately.

Suggestions:  I'm not sure why I'm bothering, as it didn't make any difference, but if you're not a fan of horseradish (I'm not), you can substitute a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard for it in the mash.

Now, here's where we're going to diverge temporarily from the Lidl recipe book.  As I've said, there's only two people living in my house, so all of these recipes have done us for two nights thus far.  However, this did so little for me that I actually couldn't face the thought of eating it two nights in a row.  So, on the second night, I made fishcakes out of the leftovers, and they were much better.  So, the next post will be the recipe for them.  Not much good to you if you eat the lot tonight, obviously, but it's still a way to get two meals out of the same ingredients for anyone who's only feeding two (or one, or three) people at a time.

Hasta luego, amigos.  And if anyone has better luck with this recipe than me, be sure to say so in the comments.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Post the Sixty-seventh (in which the Heineken Cup quickens)

Possibly the last Heineken Cup, in its current form, anyway.  Irish readers, even those with virtually no interest in rugby, will be well aware that PRL (Premiership Rugby Ltd., i.e. the English clubs) attempted a breakaway from the ERC this year.  In a nutshell, they wanted more money from the communal kitty, believing that the Premiership is a superior competition to the Rabo Direct Pro12, and, as such, they should be entitled to more money and more qualification slots.  They initially managed to get the French on board, but they abandoned ship shortly afterwards and rowed back in with the ERC.  So then the Welsh regions jumped on the breakaway competition wagon, but they're such a non-entity in European rugby at the moment that winning them over must surely seem like a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for Quentin Smith et al.

Anyway, the debate about the future of European cup rugby is definitely worthy of a post in its own right.  Nobody knows what form the competition will take next year, so for now, all we can do is enjoy the current showdown.  Round 5 finished this weekend with Leinster grinding out an away win against Castres to see us topping our pool, with Ospreys at home on Friday to finish out the pool stages.  All we need to qualify is a losing bonus point, while a bonus-point win would give us a very vague chance of getting a home quarter-final.  However, as shite as Ospreys have been this year, they have ever been our bogey team in the RDS, so a losing bonus point would do me, quite frankly.  Round 6 always throws up a few surprise results, but as it stands, the quarter finals look likely to shake out as follows:

Toulouse v Saracens
Toulon v Ulster
Clermont v Leinster
Leicester v Munster

Clermont.  Again.  I honestly don't know which team will dread that fixture more.  Travelling to the Stade Marcel Michelin is always a daunting prospect, and our back-to-back losses to Clermont put us out of the competition last year.  Having said that, revenge is always a great motivator.  And I don't think there's any team in the knockout stages who'd relish the prospect of hosting us.  It's going to be a very interesting set of quarter-finals, that's for sure.

So, onwards to the food.  Today's recipe is the third of the Lidl "7 Family Meals for €50" collection.  I should point out at this juncture that I'm not posting these in the order they appear in the booklet, but rather the order I felt like cooking them in.  This is the "Sunday dinner" of the booklet, probably because it's the most expensive dish of the lot.  But you know me, I'm nothing if not rebellious, so we had this for dinner on Friday night instead.  It might sound a *little* esoteric for the more beige-palated amongst you, but you really should give it a go, even if you think you don't like one or more of the individual ingredients, because they really do marry brilliantly together to give a whole that's a lot greater than the sum of its parts.

Pork Chops with Gorgonzola and Roasted Pears - serves 4

4 pork loin chops                                     4 pears, cut in half & cored
4 small onions, peeled & quartered         100g gorgonzola
20 sage leaves                                          1 tsp sugar
12 baby potatoes, quartered                     3 tbs olive oil
Knob of butter                                          150ml water
Salt & pepper

1. Preheat oven to 180C.  Put the potatoes, pears and onions into a large baking tray, drizzle over the oil, season with salt & pepper and give everything a good toss to coat.  Dot with the butter, scatter over the sage leaves, add the water, then cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes.

2. Remove the foil, jack the heat up to 200C, sprinkle over the sugar and return to the oven for another 10 - 15 minutes until everything is lovely and golden.

3. Meanwhile, pan-fry or griddle the pork chops for 3 minutes on each side, finishing with it on its side to crisp up the fat. 

4. Split the potato & pear mix between four warmed plates, scatter over the gorgonzola and top with a pork chop.  Enjoy!

Suggestions: I spread both sides of the chops with wholegrain mustard before cooking.  Also, the second time I made this, I added the gorgonzola to the baking tray for the last couple of minutes in the oven rather than waiting til it was plated up, and it made for extra-delicious oozey meltiness.
By the way, you should totally use the leftover gorgonzola to make the blue cheese butter used in the Mexican Lasagna post from last week.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Post the Sixty-sixth (in which our heroine ponders on her decision to go back to college)

As long-time readers and people who know me in real life are aware,  I "went back" to college in 2011 (the quotation marks are because I don't actually physically go to lectures, it's a distance degree).  That decision was motivated partly by boredom, partly by a nagging feeling that I was somehow "lesser" because I didn't have a degree, and partly by desire to prove something to myself.  What that something was, I'm not quite sure.  2.5 years later, I'm still slogging along and will be halfway through my degree this May.  The reason for the snail's pace of progress is that I'm only doing two modules a year, because a) I can't afford any more than that, and b) I'm doing two very wordy subjects, and would pretty much have to give up my job in order to do any extra modules, which would kind of defeat the purpose of doing a distance degree in the first place.

While I've never been the most diligent student, my motivation this year is at an all-time low, mostly due to the fact that I find the two modules I'm doing incredibly dull - Literatures of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Land, Politics and Society in Ireland: 1800-1922.  Never have I been as tempted to drop out as I am at the moment.  I sit here marvelling at the stupidity of spending the guts of eleven grand on a poxy Arts degree.  When I tell people I'm doing a degree they always go "Oh, what are you planning to do with it?" and I'm forced to mumble "Erm, nothing, really."  Cause let's face it, there really isn't anything you *can* do with an Arts degree.  On its own, anyway.  So I have spent a lot of time since September wondering why the hell I'm putting myself through this, all for a big fat nothing.  I could keep my sponds and use the time I'm spending studying to do something else.  What else, I'm not sure, but you can be guaranteed it would be a lot more fun than slogging through Paradise Lost or trying to pinpoint the reasons for the rise of Fenianism in the 19th century.

So what's stopping me?  Stubbornness.  And fear.  Fear that if I don't see this through, I will forever be confirmed in my mind and the minds of my family as a person who is incapable of seeing anything through.  I admit that this perhaps isn't really the noblest of motivations for doing well in college, but dammit, it's all I have.  My steadfast refusal to give my family the opportunity to exchange sage glances and go "I knew she wouldn't stick it" to eachother.  That, and the feeling of supergalactic creamy oneness that will envelope me when I'm standing in DCU, receiving my degree, basking in the knowledge that I will never again have to lug those stupid folders around with me.

Anyway, enough of the academic navel-gazing.  I promised you the Lidl/Paul Flynn recipes for 7 Family Meals for €50, and recipes you shall have.  Today's is a perfect Friday night dinner, and should be a hit with both adults and kids.  I'm not going to lie, I was really tempted to replace the baked beans with kidney beans, but for the sake of experimentation I stuck to the recipe, and dammit if the end-result wasn't fookin' delish, man.  It's actually one of my two favourite recipes out of the seven.

Meatball & Bean Casserole - serves 4

2x 12 packs of meatballs*                                    Tin of baked beans
Tin of tomatoes                                                     1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed                                         2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp paprika                                                          Half a chicken stock cube
Salt & pepper

1. Heat your oil in a large ovenproof pan or casserole, and saute the garlic and onions until just beginning to soften.

2. Add the meatballs and allow to colour, turning every so often, until everything is a lovely golden-brown. 

3. Stir in the tomatoes, beans and paprika.  Crumble in the stock cube, then cover and pop into an oven preheated to 160C for half an hour.

4. Remove from the oven, stir, season, then serve with potato of your choice.  As you can see, I did little wedges, mostly because they could go into the oven with the casserole (hey, we are being frugal this week after all).

* As I mentioned in the shopping-list post, if you can get one pack of beef and one pack of pork meatballs, do that.
As these aren't my recipes, and the whole basis of the €50 week depends upon using the ingredients as listed, I'm not going to be making any adjustments to them in the writing.  I will, however, add some suggestions for tweaks/additions you could make, if you happened to have any of the extra bits handy.  But believe me, every recipe in the collection is perfectly lovely without any changes.  I just can't help myself sometimes.
Anyway, a pinch each of cumin, cayenne, cinnamon and ground coriander will add even more depth to this dish.
Let me know how yis get on, and if anyone with particularly fussy kids can report back with their seal of approval, I'm sure others would appreciate it.
We shall speak anon, dear readers.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Post the Sixty-fifth (in which our heroine lauds a laudable effort)

Lauds.  What a great word.  If you are a regular newspaper reader, you will have noted the many articles that appeared before Christmas stating that food poverty was on the rise in Ireland.  Most of these articles featured quotes from lower income families complaining that it's too expensive to eat properly, and stating that it's far cheaper to buy processed muck like frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets and chips.  At the risk of sounding like a total knob, it's been my long-held opinion that this is complete and utter bollox.  The only thing stopping a lot of families (not just lower income ones) eating decent, fresh food is laziness and ignorance.  It's not cheaper to stick chicken nuggets and waffles into the oven, it's easier.  That's pretty much all there is to it.  Aldi do six fruit and veg and two meat special offers every week.  You could plan your menu around these and eat very well for little money, but God forbid people would actually put a bit of effort into their kitchen exploits.

I'm acutely aware that all of this may be coming across as a bit of a pop at lower income families.  It's not.  I know plenty of people with no money worries who also eat a neverending selection of beige shite.

Anyway, food poverty and socio-economic debates aside, many of us are trying to stretch our salaries further than ever, so any way of being a bit more food-savvy is often welcome.  And around September or October of last year, Lidl stepped up to the mark in this regard.  They teamed up with Paul Flynn of the (fabulous) Tannery in Waterford and created a feckin' brilliant little booklet called "7 Family Meals for €50".  It contained a full shopping list and recipes for seven meals which each served four people.  What I absolutely loved about it was that wasn't dumbed-down or patronising - the recipes are varied, balanced and full of flavour - and I suspect that some of the tastes may have been a bit of a revelation for a lot of people who maybe weren't all that adventurous in the kitchen beforehand.

I haven't seen the booklet instore for a while, so I thought I'd share its contents here.  If you're trying to broaden your culinary horizons a little, trying to make your food budget go that little bit further, or just plain curious, I really, really recommend giving this a go.  Obviously, all the recipes serve four people, so if you're cooking for fewer than that, you can have the leftovers the following night, or bring them to work for lunch, and your fifty quid will go even farther.  What's not to love?

So, first things first - the fixins'...

Shopping List

3 pack of garlic                                       Root ginger
Pot of parsley                                          Pot of sage
Large sweet potato                                  1 red pepper
Bunch spring onions                               2 bags white onions
Bag red onions                                        Bag of pears
Bag of funsize apples                              Bag of baby spinach
2x 12 packs meatballs*                           Pack of pork loin chops
Pack fresh turkey breast                          Pack chicken legs (I actually use thighs)
Pack of 2 fresh cod fillets                       6 free-range eggs
8 pack sausages                                       1x black pudding
Gorgonzola cheese                                  Grana padano/Parmesan cheese
Mature cheddar cheese                            Tin of baked beans
Tin of tomatoes**                                    Pack of basmati rice
Packet of spaghetti                                  Tin of coconut milk
Bag of frozen peas

*If you can get one pack of beef and one pack of pork, do it.  The flavour combination really adds to the dish.

**I've said it before, but I much prefer to buy tins of whole tomatoes, and whizz them myself in the mini-chopper.  They're cheaper and tend to be better quality than chopped ones.

So, that's your €50 shop.  If you're really lucky, some of the fruit & veg will be on special offer the week you do your shopping.  Also, the great thing about this list is that stuff like the ginger, rice, pears and apples won't be completely used in the recipes, so you'll have it either in the press or to stick in lunchboxes for the week.  Of course, you may already have some of the stuff at home, in which case you won't even need to buy it.  Get a bottle of wine with the savings - you deserve it.

Speaking of having stuff in the press, Paul does assume that you have some basic seasonings and condiments already, which I'll list below.  Obviously, if you don't have these, you'll need to buy them, which will push up the cost of the shop a little, but the good news is that once you have them, you won't need to buy them again for ages.

Store Cupboard Ingredients

Crunchy peanut butter                                   Cayenne pepper
Paprika                                                           Curry powder
Soy sauce                                                       Mint sauce
Horseradish sauce                                          Mustard*
Olive oil                                                         Chicken stock cubes or bouillon
Milk                                                               Real butter
Sugar                                                             Salt & pepper

*The recipe that uses the mustard calls for English, but I prefer wholegrain, so that's what I use.  It's up to you.

So, that's the foundation laid.  Go and do your shopping tonight, and we'll get stuck into the recipes in the next post.

Oh and one last thing - Lidl have an ongoing partnership with Paul Flynn, who is creating one-off recipes for them.  Keep your eye out for the cards instore, cause everything I've made from them so far has been lovely.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Post the Sixty-fourth (in which our heroine endures the post-Christmas slump)

Back to work.  Le sigh.  I've yet to decide which is the more depressing return to work - the post-Christmas or post-holiday one.  I think I'm going to plump for post-Christmas, mainly because everyone else is going through it at the same time so it becomes a kind of contagious meta-depression; a black cloud of despair hanging over every workplace in the country.  And it doesn't really matter how long you have off either, does it?  It'll still feel like you never left the bloody office in the first place.  I've had two full weeks off.  Felt like about two seconds.  So of course, today I'm partaking in the age-old return to work tradition of planning my next holiday.  Well, it's more fantasising about than planning, but you get the idea.

The other great January tradition in which everyone partakes is bringing your lunch to work with you.  I'm actually quite good at doing this all year round, so it's extra annoying when you can't get next or near the kitchen in work for the entire month, and all the lunch amateurs keep exploding their beans in the microwave or insist on putting filled sandwiches in the toaster, which then sets off the fire alarm.  They've actually taken our toaster off us in work for this very reason.  No joke.  Toaster access revoked indefinitely.  We got a sandwich maker instead, but if anyone has a successful method for toasting a bagel in one of those, I'm all ears.

I made a giant pot of soup yesterday for lunch for the week.  Unfortunately, displaying the lack of foresight that regular readers will recognise as having come to characterise this blog, I used a recipe I've already given you.  So you're getting a dinner recipe instead.  If, that is, you consider some melted cheese and salad a) a recipe and b) dinner.  I do, ergo I give you:

Baked Camembert - serves 4

1 whole camembert                             1 loaf ciabatta or other crusty bread
Bag of baby spinach leaves                 Sliced tomatoes & onions
Whole cornichons                               2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil
1 tbs balsamic vinegar                        1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Salt & pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.  Pop your camembert into a ceramic dish and cut a cross in the top.  Bake for 10 minutes, then carefully peel back the cut edges of the rind.  Return to the oven for another 15 minutes.

2. While the cheese is baking, mix together the oil, vinegar and mustard.  Season to taste, and whisk the bejaysis out of it to emulsify.  Assemble your salad and slice your bread.

3. Lay the whole lot out on the table and allow everyone to help themselves.  You could also add some parma ham or other deli meats if you're the kind of person who balks at the idea of a meatless dinner (we all know at least one).

I'll allow that this probably isn't the best meal idea if you're trying to kick-start a bit of New Year weight loss.  But screw it, January is miserable enough without adding foodie self-flagellation to the mix.

As an aside, the one bright part of my return to work this morning was the arrival in the post of some vouchers from the lovely people at Glenisk, so keep your mincers peeled for some dairy-inspired recipes over the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, hang in there, folks.  Friday's coming.