Monday, 24 November 2014

Easy Food Home Cook Hero Finalist 2014 - Pasta alla Norma


For those of you who do not know, Easy Food is a magazine for home cooks published in Ireland. I subscribed to it when I arrived in Belfast, and I have been following it then since. 
In 2011 they started an annual competition to find the best home cooks in Ireland, the Home cook hero awards. This year I entered the competition, and,  to my surprise, I was one of the finalists. The competition ran on the magazine for weeks. Aspirants sent their recipes to the magazine and 3 were selected for each of the 10 categories. My version of Pasta alla Norma was selected in the pasta category, sponsored by Barilla. 
 
One windy and rainy November morning I headed to Cooks Academy, in central Dublin quite early on in the morning. I had to cook the dish for the 3 judges, with the other 2 finalists in my category. I arrived so early that I was sent to have a cup of coffee before an early start of the day. Thank to that, I had an extra dosis of cafeine in the form of yet another double espresso to help me with the day ahead.

The guys from the academy and from the magazine were absolutely brilliant at all times. I also met the Barilla representative before the competition. I was on my own, but some of the other contestants came with some relatives or friends, so a small group of excited amateur cooks was getting ready before the time for cooking started. 

The funny bit is that the competition in the morning was completed with a black tie dinner in one of the most luxurious hotels in Dublin, The Selbourne. Both the morning cooking and the evening gala were the base for a TV show aired the following week on TV3Ireland. You can see the full show in here. You can see me around minute 27, and right after that you will also see who won in my category -which, as you'd have already imagined, was not me, ooops!


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Me and the two other girls in the pasta category were the first to start. And we were also the first to talk to the camera. Soon after that, all our stuff was ready waiting for us to start cooking, and our cooking slot started. I should say that the 45 minutes ran incredibly fast. Other groups were starting soon after ours, and the cook academy was getting full of teams of excited home cooks trying to do their best for the day. 

We were the first in finishing and bringing our dishes to the judges. Soon right after that, the morning contest was over for us, we were supposed to know who had won in the evening gala, although by then (if it had not been clear enough before) it was already a fact who had been the lucky winner, and most of it was finished for us. They took some photos and we were basically done for the morning. 

 Me and my Pasta alla Norma at the Cooks Academy, Dublin

Barilla also got me as a gift a chef jacket. My first cook jacket ever! Thanks a lot, Helen, for everything during the day. It was really nice meeting you! Thanks to every one at Cooks Academy, you were really brilliant! And thanks to all the people at Easy Food Magazine. You made a great job with the contest, the cooking, the gala. Very well done all..  It has been one of the nicest experiences connected to food that I have had so far and my first appearance in an Irish TV channel, so far.... 

So, now I am also officially one of the finalist at the 2014 Easy Food Home Cook Hero Awards.

The recipe that I prepared for the contest is a traditional italian recipe. It has auberginies on it, which is one of my favorite ingredients. I publised this recipe in my blog, back in Spain, years ago. Below you can find the recipe. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do at home.



Pasta alla Norma

Ingredients for 2 people

1 medium eggplant
4 ripe tomatoes (or a can of chopped tomatoes 500 grams)
1/2onion
1 or 2 cloves garlic (to taste)
1 chili (or chile, chili powder, or similar-optional)
Basil leaves
A few tablespoons of ricotta (optional)
Water
Salt
Olive oil (optional -if you follow a low fat diet, you'll fin in the directions how to avoid it)
80 to 100 grams of pasta: Rigatoni, Tortiglioni or similar  (adjust quantity to taste)

Preparation

NOTE: I have made this sauce with almost no oil. (Yes, you can) as I explain below. If you prefer to make the sauce as usual, it will be perfect, too.

Cut the eggplant into medium cubes. Put in a bowl, add salt and let it loose the excess water.

Put the pasta to cook in salted water and cook according to manufacturer's instructions, trying to let it al dente.

Put half a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan, or a couple of oil-sprays and spread with a paper towel just to prevent sticking. Place over medium heat with onion chopped very fine. Before it starts to burn, a minute or so, add two tablespoons water and cook the onion over medium heat. Add garlic, chilli or pepper if using, and cook about 5 minutes, until onion starts to be done. 

Add the eggplant, cover the pan and let it cook slowly about 5 minutes, until eggplant begins to release juices. Uncover, stir and keep 3 or 4 minutes. If the eggplant begins to cling to the bottom, add a few tablespoons of water, stir and continue cooking.

Add the tomatoes. If they are fresh, clean pieces skinless and cut into cubes, if they are packaged, add them directly with their juice. Cook another 5 minutes. Add chopped basil leaves. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Drain the pasta (without passing it through cold water), mix with sauce and serve decorated with basil leaves and a dollop of ricotta cheese. This cheese is not too fatty, but if you prefer not to use it, your pasta will still be delicious.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Warm goat cheese, grilled peach and raspberries salad




There is never enough time for all I want to do. I am sure this is not just my problem. Too much things to do, and still days only have 24 hours, can you believe it? I have been wanting to publish this recipe for weeks, but for one thing or the other it has been going down in my to do list. It might sound a bit strange to use now nectarines. Well, I can tell you guys, they were absolutely perfect when I prepared this, very late summer, at the end of the season. 

I can say, however, that I have a great excuse for my delay in publishing over the last couple of weeks. I am planning to write a full story for that with all the details, but it will not be before next Saturday. Well, I promise this is not the teaser for my next new movie… but it will be on Saturday, 15th November when the Easy Cook Home Cook Hero awards gala will be aired on TV3 Ireland (1.40 pm). The point is that a couple of weeks ago I was told that one of my recipes had been selected to take part in the contest.
As you can imagine, for the last two weeks, I have  been testing the recipe in a more systematic way to be certain that the results would be consistent, and I have had even less time than usual. I won’t complain, though, as I can only thank the organizers for what has been one amazing experience for me as an amateur cook and food blogger.
So, as promised, I will give you all the details as soon as I can, but in the meanwhile, let me go back to this salad.

I love berries. I love their tanginess, and the sharpness that they add to savoury dishes. I had seen something like this salad in an Australian food magazine, and with that as the initial idea, I decided to mix a couple of things and give it a try. I ended up using this salad as the starter for a dinner party at home. I really enjoyed the results, and I guess my friends also liked it. 


At the end of the day, it is a salad (quite an obvious starter), but it is quite a salad. The combination of grilled nectarine with its caramelized juices, the warm, about-to-melt goat cheese and the tangy raspberry vinaigrette makes this a total winner. This mix of flavours, textures and the temperature contrast make this a truly special salad.
So, apologies for my huge delay in publishing this. Now you will be ready to try this when nectarines are on season again. 
A small trick if you want/have to avoid the oven: use a pan with wax paper instead.



Warm goat cheese, grilled nectarine and raspberries salad 

4 nectarines
Some mix crunchy salad leaves 
A handful of raspberries
Goat cheese (3-4 slices per person)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Raspberry vinegar (or light white wine vinegar) 
Salt
Black Pepper

Preparation
I could not find raspberry vinegar myself, so I squeezed some raspberries with 4 tablespoons of a light white wine vinegar and let the mix rest for a while. You can skip this step if you find the raspberry vinegar, or just skip it all together.
Put the grill in high heat and add just a little olive oil. You might want to spray or use a cooking brush for this. Once the grill is hot, put the nectarines, cut into eights, and grill them until they get golden brown. 
Put the letuce, nectarine and some raspberries in a serving plate and season. 
Prepare a vinaigrette with 3 parts olive oil and 1 part of the vinegar and add to the salad. 
Put the pan in high heat and add a bit of wax paper. Put the cheese on top, until it starts to get warm and lightly melted. Put on top of the salad and serve inmediately. 



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Food and Drink Show NI 2014

Saturday was an incredibly entertaining day for me. As you all know by now, for sure, last weekend from Friday to Sunday, the Food and Drink Show Northern Ireland was on show at Kings Hall Pavillion.  As a food lover, spending the day in a Food Show is always a great plan. But it is even better to have such a great experience thanks to the guys from Food and Drink NI. 

I missed it last year. But this year I was lucky enough to win two VIP tickets from their Baking Challenge.  So, on Saturday, I invited my friend D. and we spent the day discovering the products from NI, watching cook demos and enjoyining the great shows from Rachel Allen and John Torode at the Moy Park Theatre. 

Below you will see just a sample of the show:

 


Some of the great fresh fish from Silver Fin.






Great tomatillos from Love Olive, New Olive  Company.  Linda was simply brilliant talking about her products and her company. The Majorcan conection also had something to do, here ;-)


Belfast Craft beer looked great. It was probably a bit too early in the morning and we could only take a photo of it. Willing to try it, though, as I have heard so much good about it!


Granny Braid's handmade fudge

I actually bought some duck eggs from Earl's Abbey Farm. They had also the traditional stuff, and quail eggs. I have used quail eggs before, but I should say I was really surprise by the ducks' ones. I had never tried them. I am looking forward to test them.






The girls from Bite to savour were also brilliant on explaining their  products and their new winter/Christmas boxes. I should say I particularly liked her logo and her packaging. It is simply so cool! Loved it.


2014 has been an absolutely brilliant year for NI at the Great Taste awards. Quite many of the products I had heard of were all in the same place at the same time for us to taste. It was simply great to taste the carchoal matured cheese with its deep black colour and its intense flavour, from The Four Seasons.



Craft cheese maker Julie Hickey, form Dart Mountain Cheese, knows her business so well. I loved her Dart Mt. Dusk , an ash coated semi hard cows milk cheese that she served at perfect room tempearture and I could appreciate in all its flavour. Simply great.


There is room for water in the middle of all of this food and drink. David, from Glacier, though I was kidding when I took his photo. Well, here you are.


Buchanan's Turkey is another of the Great Taste 2014 awarded products (well, and also 2013 for what is worth) that we have at hand. Anyone in need of any suggestions for where to buy your Christmast Turkey? Well, now you know... 


To be honest, I am not a cider girl. I am much more into beer. But, having said so, I should admit that I absolutely loved Long Meadow Cider, and I guess that my friend D. who is more an expert than myself really liked this stuff. Made from Armagh apples, from a family business, you can taste the clean, honest artisan process in every sip. Another must for me, really.

I admit this is one of my regrets of the day. Even on Saturday, it was far too early for us to test this great Gin. The girl in the stand was simply brilliant at explaining all the scents that we could identify in this artisanal gin. I will definitely buy this. And what do you think of the overall look of the bottle, the label and so? Could you get cooler than that? I really, really liked this stuff. 



I should admit this is another of my many limitations. I am quite useless to appreciate a good baklava. I am afraid I do not have a sweet tooth. And for baklava you really need a very sweet one. I tried those ones above from Nuts in Bulk and even for a non-lover as myself, they were really good.


 GreenMount Farm was also awarded  a Great Taste Gold for their game pie. I am really sorry, the photo does not make justice to the pie at all (by the way, the light for the photos was terrible inside, sorry for the poor quality of the photos, in general-). You can find them on Friday and Saturday at ST Geroge's Market if you do not plan to do all the way to Richhill. 




















The guys in the stand at Neary Nogs told us the wonders of their artisan chocolates. I really fancied the Espresso chocolate, and we were the last 2 people in trying (at least for the day) their raw chocolate. Being a chocolate lover myself, I should said I was particularly happy to be offered something I have never tried before (which, at certain point in your life, and when you are so obsesed as myself for chocolate, I would say it is a good thing). I was happy to provide my feedback to this product under development. Looking forward to see the final version on sale, guys!

 

Being Irish products undoubtely attractive, it is clear that the other focal point of the day was in the cooking demos. I would only suggest a bit more of early information from the organizers. In my view, disclosing the program so late, is simply contraproductive. Tomake the most of it, it really makes sense to plan your day ahead. I could attend 2 demos at Safe Food Open Kitchen. First, Asha Chada (above) guided us to a chicken curry with chapatis in 30 minutes. It was really nice to follow her demo, and her worries for the short time for the dish to be properly cooked in so little time. I have kept those heads in the photo as the man on the left is her husband, and at some point in the presentation I really felt as if I were sitting at their kitchen, with them talking to each other as if we were a group of friends they wanted to entertain at their place. So authentic! She really catched me with the chapatis. I am trying them at home sooner than later. 



The other demo at the Safe Food Open Kitchen was conducted by Andy (I guess that's his name, so please, correct me if I am wrong) from Mourne Seafood Bar. He provided a 30 minutes masterclass in oyster preparation. Being that interesting, I have to admit that he simply got me while he was preparing the demo and opened all those oysters so easily.... I guess he had opened one or two before Saturday.



I attended Rachel Allen demo, and we were so lucky to have such good places! (Thanks again for the tickets!!!). 
She cooked in front of us 4 recipes from her last book on baking, "All things Sweet". Of course you need more time for that, but she managed to do a brilliant (and so, so, fast) presentation that we really felt like in a live TV show. As it could not be other way, we went right away after the demo to buy her book and had it signed. She was really kind and professional! 
It felt really strange for me. I moved to Ireland only 1 year ago, but I had been frequently visiting Dublin for the last 8 years or so. I remember perfectly the first time I saw one of her books, and when I bought it. I did not even know who she was back then. And there I was, several years after that, a lot of baking and blogging, and cook book reading after, having my new book signed by her. It felt really, really strange. In a very nice way, but strange.


The last demo we attended (and the last of the day) was the one from John Torode. What can I say? He is a profesional entertainer, he has done this so many times before he could do it sleeping. He was the last of the day, and there were only a few of us in the theatre. I learned that he is also producing his own brand new wine as he higlighted several times. Apart from that, well, I should admit that cooking a steak (as perfect and juicy as it could be) and some pasta did not impressed me much, and probably did not impress most of the audience, either. It is not that you expect that extra mile from these demos (of course not, it is more than anything about the celebrity and the TV character, and we all know that), but do you really need a chef to cook a steak and some pasta? Really?

I could not finish this post without her photo. I am only so sorry to have missed her name. Because this no name lady was as gorgeous as you see in the photo with us. After a long day at the reception she was simply great with us when we asked a couple of things! Thanks a million, really.

I am planning already for next year's show. Will you join me then?