Friday, 24 February 2012

Half Way!!

Half Way

Shorbread biscuits sandwiched with raspberries, fresh cream & dotted with raspberry fool
So we are in week seven now and I know I say it every blog but the time is just flying!! Last week we had exams which created some anxious students, myself included. With the time going so fast I want to press  pause, the friends for life that I have made, all the things I have learned and generally just having the time of my life is leaving me sad that in five weeks time it will all be over L. I am the kind of person to look on life as the glass is half full as opposed to half empty so I am trying not to think about the end, I am just enjoying the journey and making the most of it. Yes I will then start on a new journey in my life, who knows where it will take me,  but I will not have the chance to spend a more fantastic twelve weeks of my life with what I consider to be my extended family down here in Ballymaloe. These short twelve weeks will be a time I will always remember. When I am 70 I will be able to cast my memory back to all the fun times spent in Mrs. Walshes cottage and all the nights in Ballycotton having a few pints in the Blackbird after a stressful week with all the gang, sighing because the short crust was too thick or a complaint of that manor. Time please slow down!!!!!

As I mentioned week six consisted of two types of exams containing a few different elements. In the first exam we had to identify 10 different herbs (submitting 2 recipes we had done for every herb) and 10 different salad leaves by touch,  taste and obviously by looking at them. We then had to present and pour a glass of wine as you would in any good restaurant. This was followed by putting out a place setting specific to the menu, for instance I was asked to set the table for a 3 course meal with soup. Usually you would have 2 knives and 2 forks however because it was a 3 course meal with soup as the starter you omit the salad fork, (small fork) which I did thankfully, and place a soup spoon on the outside of the starter knife.

Valentines Day in Ballymaloe

Potted shrimp with chilli & garlic
After this we waited patiently and we were called into kitchen 2 where the practical side of the exam took place. Techniques such as segmenting a citrus fruit, frying, scrambling and poaching eggs (the Ballymaloe way) filleting a fish, jointing a chicken and various other techniques were expected of us. It was done by complete lottery ,  fortunately my practical consisted of frying an egg, segmenting an orange and every student had to make a paper piping bag and chop and sweat an onion. I was happy with this but I felt slightly cheated that I didn’t have to do something more challenging but I suppose it was the luck of the draw. I had practised jointing a chicken and filleting a fish a couple of times so I was nearly expecting to have to do these techniques but it wasn’t to be. Results came through and I got 88% for my herb and salad identification exam and 100% for the practical so I was happy with that. I knew I had confused a few herbs in the exam so I was not expecting to get full marks but I was very optimistic about the practical results seen as I considered it to be easy.

So back to the food and we have had a few different days in the time since my last blog. Tapas, pizzas and choux pastry were the main events of last week. The pizza demo was on Friday morning and Rory managed to create so many mouth water pizzas and dough related meals. Like most people I love pizza, especially a good one and it is something I would like to possible pursue in the future with regards to a traditional pizzeria in Ireland or wherever I end up? Again I do enjoy the odd tapas and I love the whole experience of a tapas restaurant because you get a little bit of everything. There is nothing more frustrating when you go to a nice restaurant and you would happily order everything on the menu. This is why tapas is so great because you can order a few dishes to share. It is a trend really taking off in Ireland at the moment and London is a particular hotspot with several successful tapas bars popping up.

A choux heart

Raw Ingredients
The Result
Choux pastry = profiteroles and who doesn’t love profiteroles stuffed with cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce!? We learned how to make choux last week and it is surprisingly easy to do but the consistency of the mixture is vital so once you do it right then it’s plain sailing…….famous last words I hope not!! With the watchful eye of my teacher Florie, she guided me to making the perfect profiteroles. I was delighted with them and so was she. More importantly they tasted exactly how they are supposed to, DELICIOUS!!! See the photo's. I thought it would be interesting to take a photo of all the raw ingredients for the choux pastry profiteroles and then to take a photo of the final result. This is what I love about cooking, taking a few fresh ingredients and turning them in to something delicious which most importantly puts a smile on someone’s face. That’s what it is all about in my opinion, cooking food to make people happy. It is a simple as that!! Whether it is beans on toast or a Michelin standard plate of food, if it puts a smile on someones face then you have succeeded J

Darina said on the first day that we will be competent cooks come the end of the course and up until week five I didn’t think I had progressed as much as I had hoped. However come week six, and this week my opinion has changed. I am managing to stick to my order of work each day, getting plated up on time and using the various techniques I have learned in my every day cooking in a competent fashion. Before I came to Ballymaloe I had set it in my head that once the course had finished I would be able to cook anything. I wasn’t naïve but I don’t think anything can really prepare you for a commercial, fast paced kitchen. Yes life in Ballymaloe is fast paced, we hardly get a minute to ourselves, but in reality a commercial kitchen is something that has to be experienced by an individual to really get the hang of things. It is here, in Ballymaloe, where I feel that as a student of the school I will come in to my own because I will have learned all the techniques that come with being a chef and I will be able to put them in to practise once I land my first job.

As a person who very much enjoys going out to restaurants I am very much a savoury kind of guy. For a lot of people dessert is the highlight of a meal and that is fine but for me it has got to be savoury. Don’t get me wrong I love a great dessert as much as the next person but give me a great main course any day. Funnily enough since starting in the school and I have learned that in fact I think I prefer to prepare desserts, puddings, biscuits and all things sweet. I find it easier to plate up a delicious apple tart of even a few profiteroles and make it look pretty. I enjoy the presentation side of the food afterall we eat with our eyes first. In demo every afternoon I find myself day dreaming off and thinking of how I could present the dish I will cook the following day? How can I make it look prettier?(It is ok for a guy to use the word prettier when he is talking about food, just putting it out there). My mind runs away with myself and I really look forward to plating up and challenging myself to make my plate of food look incredible. Of course it’s a given that the food must taste as good as it looks but make a plate of food, delicately put it together piece by piece, like a jigsaw that you have done before, to serve up and hopefully put a smile of a face!


I am off to eat my chilli con carne now, I made it last week and portioned it in to plastic containers for evenings like this when I don’t feel like cooking.

Dream Big!!
Meringues anyone?

Sunday, 12 February 2012


Dates Stuffed with marzipan

Darina had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that in week 5 there tends to be a dip amongst students. The four weeks previous takes its toll and students get tired. It amazes me because she is not often wrong and again she was on the money. A bug has been doing the rounds and a good few students caught it, me being one! Sunday morning began with me being ill and carried into Monday causing me to miss the mornings cooking and the afternoon demo. Thankfully I am over it now.
Mondays afternoon’s demo was dedicated to breakfast. Muffins, pancakes, granola, bucks fizz and of course the Irish Fry, to name but a few, they were all demonstrated to us by Rory. I unfortunately missed it but I was told that it was great as many people down here are looking to open small café’s and breakfast is a big seller especially for the weekend trade!!
Rachel's Mushroom Soup
Most weeks we are introduced to a new producer who supply the school with a product. This week Martin Conroy, a local free range pig farmer, came in to talk to us. His sausages are 90% pork and the remaining 10% consists of herbs, breadcrumbs and spices. Your normal brand name sausage may only contain 65-70% pork and the remaining 30-35% is god knows what but it is not very appetising I can assure you that. Their farm is local to the school and they sell all their produce within 15 miles of the farm thus reducing the distance the product has to travel. I have come to learn that food miles/carbon footprint is very important and that it is something I have never considered until now if I am in the supermarket doing my shopping. Let’s say for instance you head down to your local supermarket to buy a bottle of vino. You are stuck between two bottles, the Riesling from Germany which is mass produced, or the organic Sauvignon Blanc which has travelled from Australia. It is more than likely that although the Riesling has only come a short distance, across the Continent from Germany, the producing of the wine has had more of an impact on the environment than the Sauvignon Blanc that comes from a small vineyard in Australia. Something to think about next time you pick up a product in the supermarket.

Baked apple with cinnamon sugar and marzipan

On Wednesday Darina’s sister, Blathnaid Bergin, came in to talk to us. She owns and runs a restaurant and kitchen management course in Abbeyleix, a similar set up to the 12 week certificate course I am doing. She has been in the business for many years and aside from running the school she does a lot of consultancy work and is a restaurant advisor. She began by playing an episode of Ramsey’s Kitchen nightmares. The restaurant he went in to save was called “Momma Cherrie’s Soul Food Shack”. Every 15 minutes or so she would pause and ask us a few questions such as why the business was not working even though the food was good etc. Blathnaid said as potential restauranteurs we could learn a lot from his show as it points out key areas where cafes and restaurants fall down.
My pan fried scallops with beurre blanc sauce

Rory's raspberry fool (we will be making this tomorrow)
The main thing I learned from Blathnaids lecture was that before you even sit down to write a business plan, choose a location or decide on a name for your café/restaurant you need to know your menu. The menu will dictate the clientele you will look to attract, the styling of the restaurant and what style of food will you will be serving? Lots of questions need to be answered but once you have decided on your menu then you can progress to the next stages. One thing that really stuck out in my mind was that Blathnaid mentioned that if we were opening a café, open it on the sunny side of the street. I thought this was a great simple point that usually would not strike people however it makes perfect sense. Who wants to sit on the dark shaded side of the street, although it’s not like we are guaranteed 50 days of sunshine in Ireland, we are lucky to get 10!! I learned a huge amount from this lecture and thankfully Blathnaid comes back this Wednesday to continue so no doubt I will have learned a few more tips, I will keep you posted!!

On Thursday morning I was cooking a Chicken casserole dish, Ulster champ and buttered cabbage. I arrived in to the kitchen nice an early to get some prep work done in the hope that I could keep to my order of work and make things generally easy for myself. First on my list of things to do was to chop the carrots, fairly mundane and straight forward!! However through a lack of concentration the heel of my chef’s knife, of which I had just sharpened, came down on the corner of my finger, CHOP!!! Next I stopped, lifted up my hand and saw a juicy fingertip and most of my nail fall off the knife and in to my hand. It took me a few seconds to realise what I had done. I stood there looking at this piece of flesh, finger nail still attached, saying to myself “Is that a piece of finger, my finger??”  Of course it was! Who else owned it. Straight to First Aid I went to have it bandaged up! Pam, first aid nurse and great cook, saw it and kind of made a curious face almost to say “wow that’s a good chunk!”. Keeping it dry is important and I have to wear a plastic glove on my left hand when cooking. It is a nuisance but it is very Michael Jackson esque!!

The English Market 

Lots of fresh Fruit & Veg
An array of great sambo's
On Saturday myself and a few others decided to head in to the English Market in Cork City Centre. It was strange to see civilisation, traffic lights and roundabouts because we are so immersed in the cookery school Monday to Friday. I had heard a lot of good things about it. My expectations were high and I was not disappointed at all. The vast selection of fresh fish, meat, fruit, veg and Artizan producers was overwhelming. The array of cheeses and cooked meats were amazing. I felt like a child in a shop that sold sweets AND toys!! The selection was so great that I had to do a couple of laps just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Once I had done this I was happy that I could begin my shopping, God forbid I had missed something!! Myself and two of my house mates decided we would cook a nice dinner. We decided that seen as our technique exam is on this Friday we would buy some whole fish and fillet it ourselves. After much deliberation and help from the very nice fishmonger from Ballycotton Seafood I decided to buy a Turbot (flat fish), Cora bought a Gurnard (round fish) (Gurnard is very similar to monkfish but far cheaper. It is not as well known but well worth trying) and Takashi bought a Sea Bass (also a round fish). I was shocked at the price of the fresh fish we had bought. It was sssssoooo cheap.  My fish was €9, the Gurnard was €4.50 and the sea Bass was €5.50. I find it hard to understand how fishermen make a living considering such fresh produce was so cheap. I am in awe of fishermen and what they do and have a new appreciation for fish too. We rounded up some veg and headed back to the bubble that is Ballymaloe.

My Turbot
We filleted our fish together, helped each other out and the end result meant that we had several delicious fillets of fish ready to be cooked. It was a very satisfying exercise and once you learn how to fillet a fish you won’t buy pre-filleted fish again as it is a way of saving you money. Now,  I am no expert, but I think fish is best cooked simply. Dip both side of the fillet in seasoned  flour, shake off excess and fry in some oil and butter. It’s good to know that if you add oil and butter to the pan the oil has a higher burning point but you still get that nice taste of butter without it burning. Just before removing from the pan squeeze some lemon juice over the fish and serve. This is what we did and to accompany our fish we cooked brussel sprouts (remembering not to cover with a lid because it is green veg) with crispy pancetta dressed in olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, glazed carrots and good old fashioned mashed spuds. For dessert we cooked the most simple of all, rice pudding (we stirred some raspberry jam through it) See recipe below. It was all divine and the silence at the dinner table is always a great sign. It was a nice way to finish off a long week.

Our feast!!

Talk soon for more culinary delights!!

Ballymaloe Old Fashioned Rice Pudding

Serves 6-8

Preheat oven to 180C

100g Pearl Rice (short grain rice)
50g Sugar
Small knob of butter
1.2 litres of milk
1 Vanilla pod and seeds (optional)

Put rice and sugar into pie dish. Scrap out pod seeds and add to a pan with milk, bring to the boil. Add boiling milk to pie dish, remove vanilla pod if using. Bake in the oven for 1 to 1.5 hours. Don’t be alarmed as the top of the mixture will brown in the oven. The mixture should be soft and creamy with the milk having been soaked up. A good tip is to pit your pie dish on the oven shelf before you pour your boiling milk in. This will save you the hassle of walking with the pie dish to the oven trying desperately hard not to spill any of the boiling milk.

Great served with a blob of any jam or even some stewed apples.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Week Four and it comes as no surprise that time is flying. In the evenings I usually come home, get a bite to eat and somehow musture up the energy to do some exercise, gotta keep the pounds off, or so I thought!! Being a skinny fella I expected my time in Ballymaloe would help me to put on weight. A three course meal every day, without fail, rich but healthy foods and lots of nibbles would in theory help to pile on the pounds….or so you would think. As strange as it may sound I was driving home to Dublin on Friday evening I was looking forward to getting on the weighing scales, optimistic that I would have put some meat on my bones. Not a chance! Got home, onto the scales and not an ounce heavier. God damn fast metabolism!!! Miche and Stu looks like I will certainly be winning that middle age spread bet, come the ripe old age of 35!!Ha ha!!

Ballycotton Shrimp with Homemade Mayo
Instead of driving back down to Cork on Sunday I decided to leave early Monday morning. As usual I was very excited to get back to a place which is gradually becoming somewhere that feels like home, the kitchen. Driving along the M8 at 6.45 and a song came on the radio. One of my favourites, Green Day “Time of your Life” This song reminds me of a school friend who tragically passed away in 2005. My thoughts moved to my cousin who also tragically passed away 2 years ago under circumstances very close to home. Two young guys with everything to live for! It was this song/moment that made me realise that you have to make the most of life.  Strangely this brought a smile to my face knowing that I had upped sticks from a safe job to follow a passion and it is something everyone should do. Life is too short so make the most of it!!!!! ; )

Same again but with some cucumber & onion pickle

Darina is away in India for a few weeks so Rory and Rachel are running the school. My menu on Monday consisted of roast Guinea Fowl with potatoe and parsnip crisps, gravy and redcurrant sauce. Surprinsgly my mornings cooking went very well and my teacher was very happy with the fruits of my labours. I have to apologise because I bring my phone to class every day with the intention to take a photo of the dishes I have cooked but I am so eager to dig in and try the dishes that I forget. It’s after I have mangled the dish and eaten the majority of the food on the plate and think “Hmm I forgot to take photo’s again, must remember tomorrow!” but I usually never remember. I have a head like a sieve ; )

My Apple Pie from last Friday with whats supposed to be a love heart in the centre. Tasted great!

Wednesday’s morning lecture was given by the sommelier of Ballymaloe House and the head of Australian wines in Ireland John McDonnell. He introduced us to various wines from Australia. As I said in one of my previous blogs my knowledge of wine is terrible, something I really have to brush up on before the exams.  As you do, 10.00am on a Wednesday, sipping away on a sparkling white wine, followed by a selection of other wines from Australia and Germany. I learnt so much about Champagnes and wines, some of which I think I will share. I am sure for the experts in the house this will be a bore but for a beginner like me I was all ears. Considering there is so much wine in the world Australia supply 25% of the wine to the Irish market and produce about 4% of the world’s wine, the same amount as the region of Bordeaux. To some it may seem obvious but I didn’t realise that you can make white wine out of red grapes as long as you omit the skin of the red grape as this is what gives red wines it juicy red colour. The root of grape growing, the vines, have various maturing times. In the first 3 years a vine is at its growing stage and won’t really produce any grapes for wine making. 3 – 10 year old vines and they begin to produce grapes for wine making but the quality of the grape is not that grape, oh I mean great. Gradually over the years the quality gets better but it is not until a vine is 40 years plus that the quality is exceptional. Believe it or not some wines may contain fish eggs. Adding fish eggs to wine is a process called “fining”.  Fish eggs or egg whites are added to the vat of wine which helps to remove sediment and floaties (have not a clue what floaties are) and the fish eggs are heavier than the liquid and therefore sink all the unwanted extra’s to the bottom of the vat thus effectively cleaning the wine.

 Wine is all in a worlds of it’s own but there is always a special occasion that calls for a bottle of bubbly. Champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region in France in order to carry the name, similarly balsamic vinegar can only be called balsamic vinegar so long as it was produced in Modena, Italy. How does champagne get its bubbles I hear you ask! Well wine ferments and then is bottled and a second fermentation is allowed to take place in the bottle which produces CO2 and results in bubbles trapped in the bottle. Next time you decide to buy a bottle of champagne check out the label and see if it says traditional. This was the original method of making champagne where the bottles filled with the bubbly is very very gradually turned,  either by hand or by a a machine called a gyro plate, until the neck of the bottle faces the ground and all the excess sediment has settled in the neck. This process happens from anything between 2-5 years. The neck of the bottle is then put into a brine mixture just below 0 degrees which freezes the sediment. The frozen sediment is then removed, the bottle is topped up with fresh Champagne and then capped. The other method, known as the “Transfer method” involves pouring all the Champagne into a pressurised vat (this keeps all the bubbles in). The sediment sinks to the bottom and then the Champagne is removed via a tap. I sincerely hope I haven’t bored you but I thought it was a very interesting morning topped by a few glasses of wine.

Wednesday afternoons lecture was simply titled “Afternoon Tea”. It consisted of some delicate delights demoed by Rory. Tunisian orange cake, cup cakes and sandwiches were whipped up. Not just any sandwiches but sandwiches made and carved from the inside loaf of bread and served in its own crust. Check out the photo below. I was fascinated by this idea and even more fascinated to find out that, in London, one would expect to pay £60 for such a loaf of bread. A great idea and one that I will certainly try my hand at!! Watch this space.

The chest of Sanwiches

It was announced on Monday that in just two weeks time we will have our first set of exams. They will consist of a identifying various herbs and salad leaves and we will also be required to perfect some techniques such as chopping and sweating an onion, segmenting oranges and making the perfect short crust pastry. I have been practising some of these techniques with the spare few minutes I get in the mornings cooking so I will continue to do so and hope that I can pass with flying colours.

Rory's Whisked Sponge

Blog again soon, going to enjoy my weekend in Dublin and start to prepare for the exams. Happy eating folks!!Nom nom nom nom!!!!!!!!!!!