“Life is a rollercoaster” warbled Ronan Keating – and despite not being a fan of boybands, and looking back at the past 10 days here at Cooksister HQ, I have to say that I think he had a point. The Big Thunder Mountain experience started with a plunge into discovering that somebody I know is saying some pretty slanderous things about me behind my back. Of course, these things are not meant to have reached my ears, and I without implicating those who brought them to my attention, I can’t even openly confront or rebut them. It’s a surprisingly disempowering and enraging experience – and not one I would recommend. I keep reminding myself that the way in which I conduct my online and offline life constitutes its own rebuttal – those who have spent any time observing me will know this. But my faith in even this conviction had been shaken.
Then the rollercoaster sped up to a crest again as I prepared for the London Food Photography & Styling Workshop and a visit from my sister-from-another-mother Meeta. For me, teaching is always such an uplifting and energising experience, and together with all the laughs I shared with Meeta, my spirits and the gloom of the previous days lifted. And then of course, this week the rollercoaster plunged again watching unthinkably tragic events unfold in South Africa, which have upset and unsettled me more than I could have imagined. Despite avoiding as much of the unseemly, vicious media circus coverage as possible, I am bombarded with it every day and I am constantly asked what I think about the case, as if being South African somehow means I can provide a rational explanation for everything that is going on. I am devastated anew every day by the loss of a young and innocent life; the loss of a national icon; our eagerness to tear down those we idolised only months before; and our contempt for the presumption of innocence (something which, as lawyer, I have always believed in wholeheartedly). But most of all I am appalled at the media coverage, where it seems you can make up any story you want, print it and when it is proved to be untrue, you don’t retract it but leave it hanging in the air like a bad smell, just waiting to be Googled out of context by somebody who then thinks they know the “facts”. There is nothing edifying in any of this, and no possible good outcome for anybody concerned, and it weighs inexplicably heavily on my heart.
I was desperately in need of comfort on the night I reached for Comfort and Spice, a handsome cookbook written by my friend Niamh Shields back in (gulp!) 2011. At the time, she invited me to one of her launch events together with Denise, Ailbhe, Sig, Liz, Dan and others, where she cooked up a storm, mostly from the book: superb bacon-infused vodka Bloody Marys; bacon jam (yeah, baby!); blaas (a yeasted Irish bread); potato pancakes topped with smoked salmon and cucumber relish; and then the piece de resistance: overnight-cooked pork shoulder covered in sublime crackling and served with a spiced apple relish. I have been meaning to write about the launch ever since but it seemed silly to do so 18 months after the fact – but here is my Flickr album of photos of the Comfort & Spice dinner, including some very silly shots of us hiding behind our books
Rather than the traditional sections, the book is divided into chapters including Brunch, Speedy Suppers, Long Weekend, and Sugar & Spice. Recipes are written in Niamh’s trademark conversational style and reading the recipes is rather like chatting to her in person. All the recipes are easy to follow (she even makes homemade cheese seem achievable!) and packed with flavour. As anybody who reads her blog would expect, there are many recipes featuring pork in all its wonderful forms, as well as some Irish-inspired dishes – but generally the book meanders happily through world cuisine, stopping in here and there to try something delicious – from pumpkin gnocchi, to pork belly dumplings, to lamb samoosas, to Vietnamese summer rolls. And the chatty writing style means it is the kind of book that you could curl up on the sofa and read, rather than treating it only as a reference book for cooking. My only niggle is that if you are cooking from the book, it is impossible to get it to lie open on a kitchen counter unless you break the spine – but this is a common problem with softcover recipe books. If you like personable writing and achievable recipes that will impress your friends without chaining you to the kitchen, this is the book for you.
The recipe I chose was a soothing and comforting red lentil soup, both because it seemed to be packed with the flavours I love but also because it takes almost no time to prepare. Red lentils are sold without their husks, meaning they contain less fibre than their green or brown lentil cousins, but they cook much faster and break down more easily – perfect for soup. The Harissa croutons were a revelation – crispy, spicy and decidedly moreish. Make sure your guests don’t nick them all in the kitchen while you are still stirring the soup! The only changes I made to Niamh’s recipe were the use of a red instead of a green chilli, and a quick whizz with an immersion blender to break up the spinach leaves before serving. If you are feeling in need of comfort (and a little bit of spice!) I can’t recommend this soup highly enough.
DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of the book for review purposes but received no other remuneration to write this post and all opinions are my own.
- 1 Tbsp harissa paste
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt & black pepper
- 100g bread, cubed
- 1 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp sunflower/canola oil
- 1 mild red chilli, chopped finely
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1.25 litres chicken or vegetable stock
- 150g red lentils
- 200g baby spinach leaves
- fresh lemon juice
- Pre-heat the oven to 150C. Mix the olive oil and harissa, add salt and pepper to taste, then toss the bread cubes in the mixture to coat. Spread the cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp, shaking the sheet a few times to ensure even crispness.
- Heat the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan untill aromatic (watch them as they burn easily), then crush to a powder with a pestle and mortar.
- Add the vegetable oil to a pan and saute the shallot for five minutes or so unti translucent but not browned. Add the cumin, chilli and garlic and cook for a further 30 seconds.
- Pour in the stock and add the lentils. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes or until the lentils break down. Stir in the spinach until wilted, give the soup a quick whizz with an immersion blender, then add a squeeze of lemon juice.
- Serve hot, topped with the harissa croutons.