'Food evokes such memories': says chef Rachel Allen
Most of us have a soft spot for our mothers' cooking, and for Rachel Allen, it's inspired her latest cookbook. The Irish chef talks to Keeley Bolger about her Icelandic heritage, why 'foodies' didn't exist when she was growing up and food as nostalgia
THE world might just latching on to an idealised Nordic way of life, but chef Rachel Allen has long been fully conversed in it.
Growing up in Dublin, with an Icelandic mum and Irish father, Allen embraced both cultures, and she's not surprised all things Scandi have become so popular.
"If it's not the great Nordic [TV] dramas, it's the food, or how to be hygge... It's funny," says the 44-year-old Cork resident with a laugh.
"I read one of those hygge books recently, and actually I identified with every bit of it. I always feel really at home there," the mum-of-three notes of Scandinavia.
"I've always loved the design. I've always loved the architecture, the furniture, the fashion, the food.
"I love all the fish and how they use a lot of dill. There's mild aniseed-y flavours, even liquorice is used in food a lot. I love the way they use barley and oats. And baking is something I come back to time and time again. They use quite a lot of cardamom, and I just absolutely adore it. I often find myself sneaking some cardamom and cinnamon into batters."
Allen's mother Hallfridur – a former art student, who was 19 and visiting Dublin for a weekend when she met Allen's father – was a creative cook, and fused Nordic with Irish standards. She'd leave comforting casseroles bubbling away in the Aga, and whip up cardamom-infused cakes, igniting a young Allen's interest in food in the process.
But central as food is to her life, the chef, is dubious about calling herself a 'foodie'.
"When I was growing up, it wasn't about people being 'foodies'," she says.
"I was born in the 70s, it was a different thing then. Mum loved to cook and put food on the table. We didn't go to farmers' markets but we always had great food from the butcher down the road, always lovely casseroles and soups. I took it for granted then, and of course, growing up, you realise, 'Wow, she really did a great job'."
Now, Allen celebrates that 'great job' in her latest cookbook, Recipes From My Mother.
It also draws on the beloved dishes her friends' mums passed down to them, from soda breads, to kedgerees and creamy rice puddings, and acknowledges the influence of her mother-in-law, renowned chef Darina Allen, through their years working together at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School – which is also where Allen found her calling and met her now-husband Isaac, after enrolling on a course there at 18, and where she still teaches today.
It was a great opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.
"It's funny how food evokes such emotions and memories and nostalgia for people," she says. "Someone would say, 'I remember we used to always have stewed plums with custard', and then I thought, 'Actually I should be including these lovely recipes as well'. I feel the book is full of memories."
Fancy cooking up some lovely memories of your own? Here are three recipes from Allen's book to try at home...
:: ROAST RATATOUILLE WITH FETA
2 red peppers
2 yellow peppers
175ml extra-virgin olive oil
24 cherry tomatoes
4 red onions, each cut into 6 wedges
2 aubergines, cut into slices 5-7mm thick
2 courgettes, cut into slices 5-7mm thick
200g feta cheese
30 black olives
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing:
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1tbsp sherry vinegar
2tsp coriander seeds
2tbsp chopped fresh coriander
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6. Rub the whole peppers all over with one tablespoon of the olive oil, place on a roasting tin and roast in the oven for 45-60 minutes.
Meanwhile, halve the cherry tomatoes across the equator and place in a bowl, then add the onion wedges. Pour 75ml of the olive oil into the bowl and toss to coat the vegetables, then season with salt and pepper. Push the peppers up to one end of the roasting tin and tip the tomatoes, onions and all the oil in the bowl into the other end of the tray. Place back in the oven to roast. When the tomatoes are juicy and tender and the onions are roasted and golden, tip them out onto a large serving plate and set aside.
The peppers at this stage might be tender; if they are, take them out, place in a bowl and cover with cling film. Pour the juices from the tray over the tomatoes and onions. If the peppers are not yet cooked, pop them back in the oven.
Place a griddle pan over a high heat to get nice and hot. Meanwhile, place the aubergines and courgettes in a bowl, pour the remaining oil over them and season with salt and pepper. When the griddle pan is good and hot, place the slices in a single layer (you'll need to do this in batches) on the pan and cook for two minutes on either side until deep golden in colour. Take out and place with the tomatoes and onions on the plate.
When the roasted peppers have cooled enough for you to handle, peel off the cling film and peel and deseed the peppers. Discard the peel and seeds but keep all the juices – pour these over the other vegetables on the plate. Tear the pepper flesh into strips and arrange over the vegetables.
Next, make the dressing. Place the oil and vinegar in a bowl. Put the coriander seeds into a dry frying pan over a medium-high heat and cook for a minute until roasted and slightly darker in colour. Tip out into a mortar and grind with a pestle while still hot and add to the dressing. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed.
Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables, crumble over the feta and scatter with the olives and chopped fresh coriander.
:: SMOKED HADDOCK, BLACK PUDDING AND LEEK GRATIN
350g potatoes, cut into 5mm slices
A tiny pinch of grated nutmeg
1 sprig of thyme
1 garlic clove, crushed
250ml regular or double cream
250g smoked haddock, cut into 1cm pieces
175g leeks, sliced into 5mm half rings
125g black pudding, quartered lengthways then cut into chunks
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Green vegetables or salad, to serve
Start by putting the potato, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, cream and milk in a saucepan with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and bring up to a gentle simmer, then set aside to infuse.
Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.
Melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the fish, leeks and black pudding and sweat gently to soften for eight to 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the fish mix to a one-litre pie dish. Remove the sprig of thyme from the potato and layer the discs of potato over the fish mix in the pie dish. Pour the creamy milk from the saucepan over the potato and fish. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until golden on top and bubbling.
Serve with green vegetables or a green salad.
:: ALMOND FINGERS
(Makes about 24 fingers)
75g butter, cubed, plus a little melted butter for brushing the tin
175g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50g caster sugar
1/2tsp baking powder
1 egg, separated
1tsp vanilla extract
4tbsp sieved apricot jam
50g icing sugar
A few drops of almond essence
25g flaked almonds
Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Brush all over the inside of a 20 x 30cm Swiss roll tin with a little melted butter. Or you can line the tin with baking parchment, if you prefer.
Place the flour, sugar and baking powder in a bowl and whisk to mix. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. Add the milk and vanilla extract and whisk to mix. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix to a dough.
Tip the dough out onto a floured work surface, dust with a little flour and roll out to a rectangle to fit the prepared tin. Transfer to the tin and smooth out so that it is evenly spread in the bottom of the tin. Spread the apricot jam evenly over the dough.
Place the egg white in a bowl and whisk until frothy. Sift in the icing sugar and add the almond essence, then spread thinly over the jam. It will be quite sloppy. Scatter the flaked almonds over the top.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown all over.
Take out of the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes, then cut into fingers to serve.
:: Recipes From My Mother by Rachel Allen is published by HarperCollins, priced £20. Available now.