Monday, 20 June 2016

Book Review: Tasting Rome by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill

There is something really special about Italian food and with its reliance on using the best fresh seasonal ingredients that are available it is easy to understand why. However, it’s also easy to fall back on time-worn perceptions of Italian cuisine and believe that it’s primarily centred on pizza, pasta and ice-cream. The truth is that the food of Italy is far more complex and varied than you might first think and each region has its own unique culinary customs and traditions which are best experienced by visiting those places and eating as the locals do. This is as true with regard to the food of Rome as it is to the food found elsewhere in Italy.
In Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavours and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City co-authors Katie Parla and Kristina Gill want to show us Rome as it really is. This they do by reference to the food found in the different neighbourhoods around the city and through the many tempting recipes that they have included in this sumptuous book. With the turn of each page, the reader learns new things as they are brought on a gastronomic tour of the city.
Tasting Rome
Parla and Gill are respected food and travel writers/journalists and have both lived in Rome and Italy for a number of years. Parla has written over 20 food and travel books and her work has appeared in a large number of publications including the New York Times and Bon Appétit. She also writes on her blog. Gill is the Italy based food and drinks editor at Design*Sponge – a much respected lifestyle blog. As a photographer she has also worked for National Geographic, Traveler and Kinfolk.
Despite its Imperialistic past Parla and Gill show us that there is little that is lavish or ostentatious about Roman food but rather that it is characterised by its simplicity and a no-nonsense approach to the ingredients that are used. Put simply, Roman cooking is instinctive and based around using whatever produce is freshly available and in season. I was keen to start cooking and try out some of the recipes.
Rather than dividing the chapters of the book into traditional courses like antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, and dolce, Parla and Gill chose to structure the book in a way that highlights new classic dishes but also acknowledges the importance that certain dishes have played in Rome’s culinary past. Consequently, the eight chapters in the book encompass topics such as Snacks, Starters & Street Food; Foraging Rome; Bread & Pizza and Drinks.
I decided to kick off my recipe road-test with Cacio e Pepe Suppli (Rice Croquettes with Pecorino Romano & Black Pepper). Here Parla has adapted the flavours found in Cacio e Pepe – a pasta sauce made from Pecorino Romano and coarsely ground black – and has used them in an updated version of the deep-fried rice croquettes which are a popular street-food in Rome.
Suppli ingredients
I started by making a simple risotto flavoured with Pecorino Romano – a salted sheep’s milk cheese that has roots in Rome stretching back two thousand years – and let this cool before forming it into little individual croquettes around a central core of mozzarella. After dipping each croquette into flour, beaten egg and fine breadcrumbs, the croquettes are deep-fried until golden brown. The suppli are eaten whilst still warm so that the melted cheese centres can be enjoyed in all their glory.
I love classic suppli and didn’t believe that they could be improved on… but the recipe in Tasting Rome surpassed all expectations. The recipe was easy to follow and whilst some technique was involved even someone with limited cooking skills could make them. I loved them and thought this updated version was inspired.
Biscotti just out of the oven
As a keen baker, I am invariably drawn to recipes for breads cakes and biscuits so decided to make the Almond and Cinnamon Biscotti. The recipe in Tasting Rome was inspired by the biscotti which are unique to the Roman Jewish Tradition. There are approximately thirteen thousand Jews in Rome – a city with a population of almost 4 million – but the community’s influence on the food culture of the city is immense. As Parla and Gill acknowledge, this is due in part to three centuries of isolation in a walled Ghetto (from 1555 to 1870), living on limited food resources out of which they developed a unique cuisine called the cucina ebraica romanesca which “coaxes intense flavour from paltry resources”.
I love biscotti so this recipe containing whole almonds and cinnamon immediately appealed. Although American Cup Measurements were used, the book contains a handy conversion chart and in no-time at all I had the ingredients weighed out and the dough mixed up. I then shaped the dough into two logs and popped them into the oven for their first baking. Once out of the oven the logs were sliced into individual biscuits and baked for a second time to dry them out. This recipe makes a large amount of biscuits, but I wasn’t complaining as they were absolutely delicious. They also were easy to store and remained beautifully crisp, stored in a tin for a number of days after I had made them.
I then decided to make the Frittata di Zucca (Pumpkin Frittata). Like most of the recipes in the book, this used simple ingredients and was easy to make, merely requiring the cracking of a few eggs and the chopping of some vegetables which were then combined in a large frying pan to make the flavoursome frittata which was wonderful eaten at room temperature but also equally tasty eaten cold at a family picnic the following day. I loved it.
Panna cotta is served in most Roman restaurants, so I felt duty bound to make the Panna Cotta alla Menta con salsa di Cioccolato (Mint Panna Cotta). At its simplest panna cotta is a set-milk dessert, commonly flavoured with vanilla but easy to adapt to incorporate other flavours. This version was gently flavoured with vanilla but had a good hit of mint. It was incredibly easy to make and I quickly had it mixed up and poured into ramekins. They were left to set in the fridge overnight and the following day I turned them out onto individual serving plates and served them along with the wonderful chocolate sauce suggested in Tasting Rome. They were outstanding.
Panna Cotta
I decided to finish my recipe road test with the rather enticing Crostata di Prugne di Sara Levi (Sara Levi’s Plum Crostata with Almond Crust. This beautiful fruit tart was topped with a lovely pastry lattice which I thought looked fabulous albeit complicated to achieve. Fruit tarts are hugely popular in Rome and are seen everywhere; – they are even often enjoyed for breakfast. The version in Tasting Rome is based on a recipe by Chef Sara Levi of the Rome Sustainable Food Project and is truly exceptional. I found the pastry a little difficult, but not impossible to work with and thoroughly enjoyed creating the lattice on top of the tart. Whilst this recipe was more complicated and time-consuming to make than many of the others in the book the final result made all the effort worthwhile. For me it was the highlight of my recipe-testing and I have made it a number of times since.
Crostata prior to baking
Tasting Rome is a beautiful book which is extremely informative and very well-written. The photography throughout it is exceptional. If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that I own many cookery books that I have never actually cooked from. They sit on shelves gathering dust and serving no real purpose. The recipes in Tasting Rome are recipes that you will want to cook. The food is beautifully presented and the recipes are well laid out with easy-to-follow instructions. But the thing that really sets this book apart is the fact that you really feel as if you are getting a true taste of this most iconic of cities. This book is an absolute must for anyone who loves Italy and wants to learn more about the city, its people and its food.
I defy anyone to read this book and not want to immediately book a flight to Rome.
Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavours and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City is published by Clarkson Potter and is available to buy at Amazon
This book review first appeared in
Crostata ready to serve

Monday, 13 June 2016

Chapter One, Parnell Square North, Dublin 1

There are those who will argue that Michelin has had its day as supreme judge of the good, the bad and the ugly of the restaurant world but the stark reality is that the award of a Michelin star attracts customers through the doors and for many it still serves a purpose in assessing the standard of a restaurant.

Chapter One
Gaining a Michelin star is not easy as it requires focused determination but holding on to one is just as challenging as the standards achieved must be maintained on a daily basis. However, this is precisely what Ross Lewis has managed to do since first gaining a star for Chapter One in 2007 in his role as head chef. Housed in the basement of the Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square in the north inner city, Chapter One is co-owned by Lewis and Martin Corbett. This imposing Georgian building, at one time the home of whiskey distiller John Jameson, underwent renovation a number of years ago. Period features were retained and the property now exudes an air of genteel elegance which is in keeping with the style of food that is served. Here you will find dishes that seamlessly blend classic technique with modern innovations. Moreover, Lewis has adopted a partnership approach with Irish food producers and the menus offered reflect this at every turn.

From the moment you arrive at Chapter One, you realise that exemplary service is part of the whole experience; staff are friendly, attentive and above all highly professional. They are well briefed on all aspects of the menu and able to answer any queries that you might have regarding the food and drink on offer.
As we sat in the comfortable bar area sipping our pre-dinner drinks - a Jimmy Hendrick’s (€14) made with Hendrick’s Gin & St. Germaine Elderflower liqueur for me and an Old School G&T (€12) made with Dingle Gin for my companion, we looked at the range of menu options and quickly decided to go for the 4-course Dinner Menu (€70 per person). The restaurant also has an impressive wine list but on this occasion we were content with our drinks from the House Speciality Cocktails listed.

We were then shown to our table in an intimate corner of the restaurant where we chatted together and happily nibbled on the breads, including an excellent Brioche, which had been freshly sliced for us from the bread trolley by our waiter.

Our first courses were both beautiful to look at. A Salt Baked Beetroot with Smoked Almonds, Pine & Beetroot Curd was colourful and delicately presented in an almost playful fashion. This dish was a celebration of beetroot where everything on the plate worked to highlight its unique earthy sweetness. The rather sassy pink beetroot curd was made by whipping puréed beetroot with goat’s curd and was an innovative and delicious interpretation of that classic pairing. The unique qualities of this humble vegetable were revealed as the different flavours and textures came into play with each mouthful that we ate.

Rabbit Terrine
A Japanese Pearl Tapioca with St. Tola Goat’s Cheese, Organic Spinach, Mushroom Juice and Irish Shitake was an intensely flavoured yet surprisingly light dish to eat. Tapioca – a starch which is extracted from the cassava root has the ability to make many people shudder as childhood memories of claggy ‘frog-spawn’ puddings come flooding back at the mere mention of its name. Here it was served in a small bowl of a deeply savoury and umami-rich mushroom broth along with spinach and the mildly flavoured St. Tola. This was such a clever dish where each element retained its own identity but worked in harmony with the others. I loved it.

Moving on my Rabbit Terrine with Fermented Sweet & Sour Pear, Foie Gras Parfait & Pickled Mustard Seeds was another fantastic dish. Rabbit can be tricky to cook as it has a tendency to dry out and it turns grainy if even slightly overcooked. Presenting it as a terrine is always a sensible option as this is much less likely to happen. This terrine was excellent and packed full of the mild-tasting succulent rabbit meat where both the dots of foie gras parfait and the pear accentuated its underlying sweetness. Highly addictive pickled mustard seeds added texture and lent the dish a subtle piquancy.

For me, the Cured Mackerel with Smoked Mackerel Rillette & Warm Potato Pancake, Buttermilk & Dill was one of the highlights of my meal in Chapter One. I was immediately drawn to its simple sophistication and its clean, coherent flavours. Mackerel is a fish that is abundant in the waters around Ireland, yet we often treat it with disdain. This dish would convert even the most hardened cynic as it showcased the mackerel’s versatility by presenting it lightly cured and also as a flavoursome smoked rillette. Mini potato blini, a buttermilk dressing and a few drops of dill oil completed the dish.

John Dory
I am a huge fan of John Dory so there was an inevitability about my main course choice of John Dory with Fermented Horseradish and Cauliflower, Lindi Black Pepper, Pickled Red Dulse and Mussels. All the dishes in our meal up until that point had possessed an air of daintiness, so I was quite surprised by the sizeable piece of fish that I was served. Not that I am complaining as the John Dory had been expertly cooked with an exquisitely mild flavour which worked well against the meaty texture of the cauliflower ‘steak’ and the assertive flavours of the fermented horseradish. Pillowy soft mussels and pickled red dulse tasted of the sea whilst the lindi pepper – a new one to me - added a spicy heat that reminded me of a hotter version of freshly ground black pepper.

My companion’s Rare Breed Pork Cuts with Crushed Swede and Pickled Walnut, Creamed Cabbage and Tea-Smoked Sausage was a joyous gathering of meaty delights where all attention was on the quality of the pork that had been used. Tender loin of pork appeared alongside melt-in-the-mouth pork belly and an excellent tea-smoked sausage. The dish also included a wonderful creamed cabbage, broccoli and was finished off with a rich-flavoured jus and a dark and brooding pickled walnut purée which was to die for.

My sweet tooth is legendary and I am well- known for my love of desserts and all things pastry. If I’m honest I am probably in the latter stages of a severe sugar-addiction so it is somewhat surprising that the thing that I loved most about both the desserts that we ate in Chapter One was their restrained sweetness. I was amazed how the flavours of individual ingredients shone through and how my mouth didn’t feel coated in sugar. The man responsible, Head Pastry Chef Darren Hogarty has a sensitive and thoughtful approach which comes across in the desserts that he creates.

Dingle Gin Soup
With my recently discovered passion for gin, the Dingle Gin Soup with Flavours of Cucumber, Malted Milk Ice-Cream, Basil & Milk was always going to appeal and with its complex yet refreshing flavours, this proved to be the case, but the “Hadji Bey’s” Rhubarb & Rose Homemade Turkish Delight and Citrus Shortbread, Vanilla Cream with Lemon & Thyme Ice-Cream with its crumbly shortbread, spectacular Turkish Delight and slightly sour but perfectly poached rhubarb was the one that I was still thinking about days later.
We decided to forego tea and coffee and after another G&T each, we wandered happily off into the night after our meal.

The food in Chapter One is meticulous in every aspect and it is obvious that a great deal of thought and planning has gone into each dish. Ross Lewis invites you, through the food that he cooks, to view Irish ingredients in new ways. This he does calmly and without the culinary fireworks that so many chefs rely on these days. There is something fundamentally reassuring about the food that he calmly and confidently produces and yet it still manages to feel exciting. I found this hugely appealing and can understand why Chapter One is considered one of the country’s top restaurants.

Chapter One
18-19 Parnell Square North
Dublin 1

Telephone: 01-8732266

This review first appeared in

Rhubarb & Rose

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Idle Wall, Westport, County Mayo

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. They say that as you get older you tend to revisit the past more often and that you are able to remember things that happened years ago with sparkling clarity. I have certainly found this to be true and whilst I struggle to recall things that I did a couple of days ago, my recollection of events from the past is as clear as day. For me, many of these memories are seen through the prism of the foods and the meals that I have eaten. Whilst some memories centre around typical family celebrations others involve events specific to my own life. I fell in love with someone for the first time over a Beef Carpaccio dish and subsequently had my heart broken over Moules Marinière. I can barely remember the individual concerned or why I was so smitten in the first place but I remember what we ate and how I felt. Food has the ability to do this;- a point which was reinforced by my recent meal at The Idle Wall.

The Idle Wall
After achieving great success as Head Chef at the Winding Stair and then as Executive Chef at the British Embassy in Dublin, Chef/Proprietor Aine Maguire - a native of nearby Newport - was keen to return to her home county and set up her own restaurant. This dream was finally realised last year when she opened The Idle Wall in Westport. With its focus on locally produced, seasonal food the restaurant proved instantly popular, both with locals and also with visitors to the town and it was recently announced as Best Newcomer (Connaught) at the 2016 Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) Awards.
Named after a local landmark where, in the past, dockers would sit and wait for casual work at the busy harbour, The Idle Wall is located beside the entrance gates to Westport House looking out onto the town’s picturesque waterfront. From the moment you first step into the restaurant you get a real sense that nostalgia and food memories have played a huge part in Aine’s food. The menu is peppered with her interpretation of dishes from her childhood and is immediately appealing.

Although it had been a beautiful day, the evening on which we visited had turned distinctly chilly so we were glad to be seated beside an open fire in the simply decorated and unpretentious dining room. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls and these along with patterned china placed in a random fashion on shelves add to the overall homely feel of the room which we found charming.

Shortly after we had made our menu choices, Aine appeared carrying a large basket of bread from which she served us thick slices of a Brown and a White Soda Bread. She explained that the latter had been made using buttermilk that she had smoked over turf. I was intrigued and curious to see what the bread tasted like. The audible moans of pleasure started with my first bite and by the time I had finished the slice, I was whimpering like an idiot. I LOVED it. Anyone who burns turf will know that it has its own distinctive and almost sweet aroma which permeates everything. My grandmother used to have a turf-burning range oven and I can remember how, after visits to her house, the smoky perfume lingered on in our hair and clothing. Eating Aine Maguire’s delicious soda bread was like being forcefully thrust back to those times and I found the experience strangely moving. The breads were served with two butters, a plain and a turf-smoked version.
My guest for the evening decided on the Deep Fried Crispy Duck Egg, Pickled Red Onion, Chorizo & Reek View Farm Salad (€8.50) to start. The egg had been expertly cooked with a moreishly crispy exterior and a wonderfully runny yolk that oozed seductively onto the lettuce leaves mingling with the very tasty and nicely balanced salad dressing. Thin slices of fried chorizo added some spicy heat which was welcome against the rich creaminess of the duck egg. Memory started playing its tricks once again and I was reminded of the egg and lettuce salads I had in my youth.

My starter of Smoked Mackerel, Horseradish Cream & Salad (€8.50) also came presented with the same salad but it managed to feel like a very different dish where the soft and beautifully smoked mackerel was the star of the show. The fish which had been smoked on Achill Island was one of the best that I have eaten and quite different to the leathery versions that sadly, are too often available in our supermarkets. A large spoonful of a well-judged horseradish cream completed the dish.

Pork Chop
Both main courses had a real comfort-food feel to them.  My guest’s Andarl Farm Rare Breed Pork Chop with Cabbage & Ham Hock (€22) consisted of a lightly brined but sizeable pork chop which was pan-fried and then served on some insanely good and very buttery cabbage. The perfectly cooked pork which was supplied by Andarl Farm in Brickens, County Mayo was tender yet meaty and full of flavour. It was served with a light cider and fennel gravy and some good old-fashioned applesauce. My Roast Caramore Lackan Cod Mornay (€24.50) was a simple dish in its conception but one which showcased the quality of the ingredients that had been used. The sauce which was made with Irish cheddar cheese, English mustard and cream was rich and full of assertive flavours that married well with the meaty cod. I licked the plate clean.
Both mains were served with a selection of roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables but we also decided to order a side of Homemade Chips and Béarnaise Aioli (€3). The chips, with their crisp exteriors and lovely fluffy centres were heavenly and we greedily gobbled them down. We regretted not ordering more.

Cod Mornay
To accompany our meal we decided on a bottle of a 2013 Italian Costadoro Rosso (€28) which with its light but supple dark fruits and well-rounded finish was easy to drink and a good compromise given our quite different main course choices.
Even though our appetites were well sated, we found the dessert menu impossible to resist so we decided to order one apiece and share them equally between us. First up was Cuinneog Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Green Apple in Sauternes, Honeycomb & Bee Pollen (€6.20). The panna cotta was served in a small bowl with a spoonful of the apple compote on top. The compote had been made using Sauternes - an almost honey sweet dessert wine - which was perfectly paired with the grassy bee pollen and the crispy honeycomb. This delicate dessert was nicely balanced as the panna cotta itself had not been overly sweetened.

Pavlova Blobs
Our other dessert choice - Pavlova Blobs with Rhubarb Compote & Cream (€6.20) consisted of a single meringue that was crunchy on the outside with a gloriously chewy interior. It was topped with some stewed rhubarb and was a no-nonsense dessert. We loved it and the memories it summoned up of family Sunday dinners.
Service throughout our meal was friendly and attentive and in keeping with the generally ambience in the restaurant.  I loved the food that I ate during my meal and I found that the whole experience resonated on a number of levels, stirring emotions and memories from deep within me. The restaurant scene in Ireland seems to be going through a renaissance at the moment and with chefs like Aine Maguire it is not hard to see why.

Put simply… The food in The Idle Wall is food that you will want to eat.

The Idle Wall
The Quay
County Mayo

Telephone: 09850692

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Restaurant Review: The Boat House, Bangor, County Down

Appearances can be deceptive and at first glance, the small stone building perched on the edge of a packed car park in the bustling seaside town of Bangor in County Down looks like the least likely place to find the first restaurant in Northern Ireland to be named in The Sunday Times Top 100 Restaurants List for the UK. This honour was bestowed on The Boat House last November and came hot-on-the-heels of an award of 3 AA Rosettes - making it one of only 4 restaurants in Northern Ireland to achieve this standard.

The Boat House
As we approached the building we quickly realised that we were in the right place and that this diminutive structure, which was originally built in the 1840s, was indeed the home of The Boat House, a restaurant owned by Dutch brothers Joery and Jasper Castel with the former also taking on the role as Head Chef.

Once inside we passed through a shoebox sized reception/bar area with a tiny kitchen located to one side before being shown downstairs to our table in the comparatively spacious dining room. Decorated in neutral tones with monochromatic table settings, the room retains many of its original features including the heavy iron rings where the boats were once moored.

The Boat House has an impressive gin list so we decided to forego wine and kick off our lunch by sampling some. My choice -Jinzu (£7) was an unusual combination of British Gin and Japanese Junmai Sake. I loved the initial burst of fresh juniper which gave way to zesty yuzu citrus flavours and subtle floral hints of cherry blossom. It made a wonderful G&T. By way of contrast, my companion’s Bathtub Gin (£5.50) was infused with a range of botanicals including coriander, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom and was full of bold flavours. It made a very different but nonetheless enjoyable G&T.
Bread Roll
Aside from a standard à la carte menu, The Boat House offers a 5-course lunch tasting menu (£40) which we decided to go for. The dishes weren’t listed but we were feeling in adventurous form and more than happy to go-with-the-flow and see what delights Joery Castel had in store for us.
After grazing on brioche-like Home-Baked Bread Rolls served with butter drenched in virgin olive oil, we tucked into our first course of Copeland Island Crab, Kohlrabi, Apple, Nasturtium, Russian Kale, Chives and Buttermilk Pearls. This was a beautifully presented dish which possessed a lightness that made it an ideal opener to a 5-course meal. Everything on the plate served a purpose and worked to accentuate the wonderful quality and sweet flavour of the crab meat. Crisp apple appeared in thin slices alongside compressed discs of slightly peppery kohlrabi whilst everything was brought together in a cohesive fashion by the buttermilk which appeared in the form of a dressing and as ‘pearls’. This was a dish which had been executed with sensitivity and an appreciation of the ingredients used.
White Asparagus Soup
Known as spargel in Germany where it is hugely popular, white asparagus is not something that you often see on Irish menus as we tend to favour the green un-blanched version. Here it was used to make a delicately flavoured White Asparagus Soup where the slightly herbaceous and gentle nutty flavour of the asparagus still managed to come through. I liked the simple, no frills presentation and smiled at the almost menacing looking shark-fin shaped piece of charred asparagus emerging from the centre of the soup. The soup had a loose consistency but retained enough creaminess to make it feel indulgent.
Next up was Loin of Irish Lamb, Black Garlic Espuma, Almond Couscous & Asparagus. I am not normally a huge fan of couscous. I don’t dislike it but most versions I have tried have tended towards the bland and have been unexciting or else loaded with too many other ingredients that overwhelm the palate. In Joery Castel’s hands this was not the case. With a restrained touch, he managed to create one of the best couscous dishes that I have eaten. Well-seasoned and herby with textural contrast provided by toasted flaked almonds, it was topped with a nice selection of salad leaves and a shard of crispy chicken skin. It was the ideal accompaniment to the succulent lamb. I also loved the umami-rich flavour of the very on-trend black garlic presented as an espuma which floated cloud-like on top of the lamb. This was a measured and well-thought out dish.

Loin of Lamb
Duck with Beetroot, Plum & Smoked Potato Mousseline was another corker of a dish which made sense on the plate. The duck had been cooked sous-vide in a water bath before being finished off in the pan and was as tender as you can get. Beetroot is a classic pairing with duck but it is a combination that can feel a little tired. Here it appeared in three guises - roasted, as a powder and as a gel. The dish was completed by an almost sticky plum purée and a deeply flavoured jus. It was outstanding.

Our meal finished with a sumptuous dessert of White Chocolate Ganache, Poached Rhubarb, Grenadine & Rhubarb Gel, Lavender Foam, Granola where all the elements spilled out onto the slate on which it was presented in a seemingly random fashion. In reality, of course, they had been placed with precision and a sense of purpose. Rhubarb with its inherent sourness works well against the sweetness of white chocolate and I savoured every mouthful of this delicious dessert.

Duck, Beetroot, Plum
In many ways the food in The Boat House appears simple but this belies the technique involved in creating each dish. It is obvious that a lot of thought and planning has gone into the food and whilst each dish is considered, it never feels bound by the shackles of fine dining. Flavours and textures dance together in perfect harmony and along with service delivered in an unpretentious and friendly manner they serve to create a memorable dining experience.
The Boat House
1a Seacliff Road
Bangor BT20 5HA
Northern Ireland

Telephone: 00 44 289 146 9253

This review first appeared in
Jinzu Gin