Do you have memories of any great meals eaten in the past and if so, have you ever tried to recreate them in your own kitchen? My answer to both these questions is, yes, but my attempts to reproduce that dish eaten, say on a foreign holiday, have invariably been unsuccessful and I never know why.
I recall, for example, a May evening when I was swept off my feet by a spaghetti alle vongole served to me in a trattoria on a Roman street. Try as I might, I have never been able to recreate that dish, as I remember it. You may argue that the difference really lies in the ambience, the noise of Rome, the smells of Italian food, the warmth of the summer air, the smooth service of that Italian waiter. Of course, I cannot reproduce the Roman backdrop in my small kitchen but I do have all the ingredients that delivered that dish to me, and logic suggests, does it not, that I should therefore be able to replicate it exactly, here in the West of Ireland? I shall continue trying.
But not all my efforts to recapture the magic of food from the past have ended in failure, and this month I propose to share with you two very different recipes, which evoke for me exceptional culinary memories. In sharing them with you, I also have in mind people who, like me, live alone. Cooking for oneself is always a challenge and I realise that since taking over this column, I have not catered for this category of person. As it happens, both recipes will also be of interest to vegetarians.
In the mid-1980s, my wife and I took the family to Crete on a holiday. At that stage, both of us had been to Greece many times before and were in agreement that it was not a country one would visit for its food. Before leaving, a friend had recommended a taverna near the famous Minoan ruins at Knossos; we were told to order mezédhes, similar to the Spanish tapas or the Italian antipasto. As the holiday neared its end, we remembered that we had a wedding anniversary to mark and off we went to the Knossos restaurant. As instructed, and with no great expectation, we ordered the mezédhes. We were blown over; this was a truly memorable meal. Amongst the many dishes served was baba ganoush but, being then simple culinary folk, we did not recognize it. Identification of this dish came many years later and on the other side of the world.
We were living in Hong Kong and a dear friend invited me to have lunch with her in a Lebanese restaurant in Wanchai. It was a tiny place in a back street run by a middle-aged Lebanese couple. Being a foodie and an Australian, Arja knew her way around ethnic fare and she did the ordering. Down on the table came mezze, like its Greek counterpart, an assortment of different foods, and there again was this mysterious dish that tasted divine. This time, I was told it was baba ganoush and that it was made principally of mashed aubergines. I have since made this dish and it is the exception to the general rule. Made by me, it tastes just as good as it did in Crete and Hong Kong. I owe the Observer Food Monthly a debt of gratitude for this recipe.
2 aubergines, about 600-650g
Juice of ½ lemon
1½ tbs tahini paste
2 tbs natural yoghurt
2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 sprig of thyme, leaves picked
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, to drizzle A few pinches of sumac, or a little chopped flat-leaf parsley, to sprinkle
Preheat the oven to 220ºC/Gas 7. Prick each aubergine several times with the tip of a sharp knife and place both on a lightly oiled baking dish.
Roast in the hot oven for about 40 minutes until the skins are wrinkly and the aubergines feel soft when lightly pressed. Leave the aubergines until they are cool enough to handle, then peel away the blackened skins and put the flesh into a colander.
Press with the back of a ladle to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Blitz the aubergine flesh in a blender. Add the lemon juice, tahini, yoghurt, garlic, thyme leaves and seasoning. Blitz briefly, check for seasoning, tip into a bowl, cover and place in the fridge for at least an hour.
When cold, spoon the baba ganoush into a serving dish, drizzle a little olive oil over the surface, sprinkle with sumac or the chopped parsley and serve with warm flatbreads
Apart from being much less exotic, the second recipe has origins closer to home. When I was a student in Dublin light years ago, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association operated a restaurant on the north side of Stephen’s Green, between the Shelbourne Hotel and the top of Dawson Street. It was divided into two sections. In one, you could have a regular three course lunch and in the other, delicious snacks.
Wholesome and plain was how one would describe all the food served in the Country Shop, as the restaurant was called. Now, not many men penetrated this establishment but I had a male friend, who was much addicted to its fare, and so we were often to be seen in the snack section. I expect that the three course lunch on offer would have been beyond our slender means. Our favourite dish by far was Welsh Rarebit and one day, I had the temerity to ask for the recipe, which is now reproduced below. It is truly authentic and delivers exactly the delicious flavour of that Country Shop dish.
110g cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbs flour
1 tbs butter
2 tbs milk
1 slice of bread, lightly toasted
Preheat a grill to a medium temperature – 3-4 on a scale of 1-5
First make a roux. In a saucepan over a low heat, melt the butter and combine with the flour. Add the milk to the roux, stir in vigorously and you should then have a very thick paste.
Remove from the heat, add the cheese, combine thoroughly with the paste and spread evenly over the toasted bread, making sure that you cover the bread completely. Place under the grill and cook until the top is golden brown and bubbling – about 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately.
While the above is the original recipe as given to me orally, you could vary it by adding a small amount of mustard or a few drops of Worcesteshire Sauce. If you wanted to be a little more daring, you could also substitute beer for the milk. I serve Welsh Rarebit with sausages (as they did in the County Shop, as an optional extra !) and a tomato salad with lots of mustard in the dressing.