Food editor TRISH DESEINE dispels the notion that all FRENCH CUISINE is fancy in her recipe for spring lamb stew …
Arriving recently at Cork Airport from Paris, I was approached by a woman at the baggage carousel. “Do I recognise you? Are you the chef?” I don’t bother correcting this with, “No, not a chef, a cook” any more as it simply confuses people, and so just smiled and said “yes”.
The woman went on, “Ah yes, I thought it was you, I was given your French cookery book as a present and recognised you from the cover.”
Now this was flattering, the book in question is ten years old and I hadn’t slept very much for the past few days. Quite delighted, I said, “Oh that’s lovely. Which dishes do you like making from it?” Unapologetically (Cork, like) she answered, “Och I never cook from it. All that French food? Far too fancy, and you can never find the ingredients.”
There’s nothing like a straight-talking Irish woman to keep you from any notions you might be having about yourself. I made a quick getaway, but her words stung. Firstly because, even after all these years, this cookery writer still imagines readers will actually cook her recipes, despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary.
Apparently the average dishes made per book ranges between one and seven out of the 80 to 150 usually printed. But what made her comments stick in my mind most was her impression of French cooking as “fancy” and its components obscure when I had tried, but very obviously not hard enough, to keep everything as simple as possible.
How, then, do writers of Middle Eastern cookery, such as Sabrina Gaynor or Yotam Ottolenghi get away with their long lists of ingredients and exotic sounding recipes? I think the answer lies in the imaginary journey you take when shopping for novel ingredients in dreamy new dishes. Each page of their books feels like a magic carpet to an exciting faraway culinary kingdom. Perhaps the sound and sight of French cuisine has become slightly stale, even to those who never have, and will never try it.
Meanwhile in France, they are happily oblivious of any Corkonian downgrading of their food traditions. The “cuisines d’ailleurs” sections of food stores stay relatively small and separate compared to the vast choice of national foodstuffs on offer.
In the midst of the “ultra processed” debate raging in Ireland and the UK, I popped back to my local Monoprix to check out how my ex-neighbours were food shopping these days and found it, reassuringly, pretty much the same. The ready meals were marketed as gourmet, not bulked out with potatoes or pasta and came in dainty portions for one.
The crisp and popcorn section was only a couple of metres wide, stuck in a corner next to the soft drinks, well away from the (extensive) shelves of wines and spirits sitting beside the cheese counter. At the checkout you were tempted only by a few magazines, some chewing gum and healthy fruit snacks. It was raclette season, so seasonal displays were filled with charcuterie and raclette cheeses in myriad flavours, and forms. And the “foreign cooking” section was still next to the household items, towards the exit, like an afterthought, a self contained, weird mishmash of expat comfort foods and alluring, intriguing, incomprehensible (to me) packaging from Portuguese to Korean. Looking at the rows of Fortnum and Mason jam and McVities’ Digestives, I remembered how glad I had been to find lemon jelly, custard creams, oatcakes and Branston pickle when I had been homesick and everything beyond those few shelves seemed not so much fancy, but alien!
Tom Yum crab tomatoes
I say Tom Yum, but really use any curry paste or spice mix you fancy here. Make sure the tomatoes are plump and robust enough for filling.
For 4; 25 minutes preparation
4 plump medium-sized tomatoes
200g fresh crab meat
1 tbsp tom yum paste
2 tbsps coconut cream
Slice the tops off the tomatoes, keeping the hats intact and leaving enough of a cavity to get your spoon in.
Scrape out the insides of the tomatoes, discarding the seeds and juice. Chop the flesh and mix it with the crab meat and coconut cream. Add the curry paste or spices to taste, mix well and season with salt if needs be.
Fill the cavities of the tomatoes, pop the lids back on and serve. They are fine left to chill in the fridge for a few hours until it’s time to eat.
Navarin d’agneau Spring lamb stew
I had to give you this recipe, as not only is it from the book “Airport Lady” has never cooked from, it has to be one of the most Irish feeling of French dishes. And with lovely tender spring lamb in our shops, it’s also bang in season.
The French name for this light and earthy “Navarin” stew comes from navet, or turnip in French. You can stick to turnip, carrot and potato if you like, but don’t feel too terrible if you’d rather reach for the “foreign”’ asparagus, courgettes or mangetout in your supermarket or greengrocer’s. A little bit of “fancy” does no harm now and then.
For 4; 10 minutes preparation, 1 hour cooking
A dash of olive oil
1kg shoulder of lamb, cut into 3cm or so chunks
3 or 4 carrots, peeled and cut into 5cm or so batons
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 bouquet garni – bayleaf and thyme
4 good handfuls of spring green vegetables, asparagus, mange tout, fresh peas, green beans, baby new turnips, baby new potatoes
In a heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil and brown the meat with the carrots and onion. Pour in enough cold water to cover the meat, stirring and scraping up the tasty goodness on the bottom of the pot.
Add the tomato paste, the bouquet garni and a little salt and pepper, bring to the boil, put the lid on and simmer gently for about 45 minutes, topping up with water if it evaporates too quickly, or until the meat is tender.
Take the pot off the heat, remove the meat and keep it warm. Reduce the stock to intensify the taste, but leave enough to ensure a nice swim for the vegetables. Then put the meat back in and adjust the seasoning. (If you are in a rush, you can skip this part.)
Steam the green vegetables separately, keeping them nice and crunchy, then add to the navarin just before serving.
Really more of a tip than a recipe and an excuse to buy and keep harissa in your cupboard. Mixing harissa into homemade or decent shop-bought mayo gives you a fantastic accompaniment to steamed vegetables, lobster, seafood, fish and chips – or, let’s say it, just the chips.
Serves 4; 2 minutes preparation
4 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tsp good harissa paste
Juice of half a lemon or lime
Mix the ingredients together and serve immediately.
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