The first time was back in 2002, when I put a spoon into a bowl of turnip and brown bread soup, and tasted something that was nothing less than food for the Gods. It had been cooked by the brilliant Catherine Fulvio, who had just taken over the running of Ballyknocken House, near Ashford in County Wicklow.
Ms Fulvio cooks like a dream, but this dish showed something even more than dreamy cooking: it revealed the cook’s ability to ennoble the humblest of foods: the everyday turnip.
Four years later, Nick Price of Nick’s Warehouse in Belfast cooked some creamed swede to accompany a dish of confit of Gloucester Old Spot pork. It isn’t often that you get an entire room of diners to applaud a chef when he comes out to say a few words at the end of an official dinner, but the roomful of eaters raised the rafters in applause for what Mr Price cooked. Above all, I think, we were applauding that turnip purée, which was so silky, so fine, that it stopped us all in our tracks.
And just a couple of weeks ago, at a weekend pig cookery course in Carmel Somers’ Good Things Café in Durrus, West Cork, Ms Somers showed us how to cook turnip. You peel it, you cube it, you add in lots of grated ginger, salt, pepper and olive oil, and then you roast it. Nothing could have been simpler, and nothing could have been more delicious.
“This is turnip?! This is divine!” we all hooted, amazed by what talented cooks can show you when they bring their skills to the simplest of things.
Now, you may never have had a Road to Damascus moment with a turnip, or at least not yet, but when this sort of thing happens to you, you realise that the humble turnip is just one of those modest winter foods we take for granted.
Parsnips. Cabbage. Leeks. Belly of pork. Pigeon. Blood oranges. Apples and pears. Pumpkins. Mussels. Walnuts and chestnuts. These foods have too few champions nowadays, in a culinary climate where we have become mesmerised by the foods of the Mediterranean.
But Mediterranean foods don’t suit our winter climate, when we want food to give comfort, succour and satisfaction, as well as deliciousness. You don’t crave sunshine foods when you need something rib-sticking to withstand the cold and the closing of the light at 4.30 in the afternoon.
Our neglect of winter foods is even more of a disgrace when you consider that we have, in our culinary arsenal, what is perhaps the defining winter dish of all time. “Irish stew is the common denominator of all the meat and potato daubes and, by virtue of its purity, it may be the best”, wrote the late Richard Olney in his classic book, “Simple French Cookery”, a text that I, and many others, consider the single greatest cookery book of all time.
Olney’s championing of the dish is right and proper, and it is a shame that we have let the French steal the idea and rebrand it in multiple forms as meat and vegetable daubes. The purity of Irish Stew defines exactly what winter cooking offers us: root vegetables allied with cheap cuts of meat, subjected to long, slow, patient cooking, and in the end offering something that transcends its quotidian cast of ingredients.
This is cooking that bestows comfort on us, and we should value and respect that comfort. In her book “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow”, the Northern Irish food writer Diana Henry writes that “The Danes in particular get great succour from food in the autumn and winter. Hunkering down in a café filled with candlelight to eat a cardamom-scented pastry with a big mug of coffee is what they describe as “hygge”, an untranslatable term meaning “cosy, warming, life-affirming”.
What a lovely term: hygge. Hygge Cooking, “What would you like for dinner, dear?”. “Oh, just give me a big hygge”.
Just think of all the dishes you know that are Hygge Cooking: Dublin coddle. Belly of pork with pickled prunes. Colcannon. Cabbage with garlic. Turnip and brown bread soup. Ham hock with bacon. Irish Stew. Squid with potatoes. Buttery champ. Sausages and polenta. Pumpkin and lentils. Tartiflette, that gorgeous, gooey mass of potatoes and cheese that works so well with Irish farmhouse cheeses. Sheridan’s Cheesemongers include a fine recipe for Tartiflette on the box of their duck confit. It goes like this:
Preheat oven to 200C. wash & parboil 300g of baby potatoes for 10 minutes. Dice a small onion and 2 slices of bacon (or lardons) and sauté in a little extra-virgin olive oil till soft. Slice potatoes, add to the pan with 1 glass of dry white wine, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a shallow buttered dish and cover with 20g Durrus cheese cubed (rind removed), season and mix gently. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
A new dish I discovered recently is lamb necks cooked with anchovies, from an impressive book by Jennifer McLagan called ‘Cooking on the Bone”. This is just the sort of slow-cooked, ultra-cheap, sticky and unctuous dish that spells out winter. The lamb necks cost me less than four euros, and all you need otherwise is a little red wine, some red wine vinegar, some anchovies and some rosemary leaves. It’s slow, and it’s simple:
Lamb Neck with Anchovies
8 pieces trimmed lamb neck
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
250ml lamb stock
2 garlic cloves, sliced
6 anchovy fillets, rinsed
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, chopped
125ml red wine vinegar
125ml dry red wine
Make sure the lamb neck pieces are trimmed of all excess fat. If you can still see a band of sinew surrounding any of the pieces, make a few nicks in it to prevent the pieces from curling as they cook.
Lightly coat the bottom of a large heavy frying pan with the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Season the lamb lightly with salt and generously with black pepper. Add the lamb to the pan, in two batches if necesssary, and brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the browned lamb to a plate and discard the fat from the frying pan.
Add half of the stock to the pan and bring to a boil, deglazing the pan by scraping up the browned bits from the bottom. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the lamb neck, in a single layer if possible, and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes, turning the lamb once. Make sure there is always a little liquid covering the bottom of the pan.
While the lamb is cooking, put the garlic, anchovies and rosemary in a food processor. Process until finely chopped, then add the wine and vinegar and process again.
After the lamb has simmered for 30 minutes, stir in the anchovy-vinegar mixture and bring back to a simmer. Cover tightly and braise for 1 to 1 and a half hours, or until the lamb is very tender. Turn the lamb pieces every 30 minutes, and make sure there is always liquid covering the bottom of the pan.
Transfer the lamb necks to a warmed platter and keep warm, loosely covered with foil. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the juices have reduced to about 175ml and are slightly thickened and glossy. Check the seasoning, and add salt if necessary. Pour the sauce over the lamb and serve.
Lamb neck with anchovies is the sort of dish that marries beautifully with polenta, the hearty corn meal staple that is presently fashionable amongst food lovers, but which is a dish many older people in Ireland remember with dread from their childhood, when they called it “yellow meal”.
Strangely enough, I have found that children love polenta, but I used not love to cook it for my kids because it was so much work: an hour spent stirring corn meal? No thanks. But then one of those eye-opening recipes came in a book by the great American writer, Paula Wolfert.
What on earth was I doing stirring polenta for yonks, when all I needed was to pop it in the oven and let the oven do the work? The great benefit of this recipe is not just simplicity, but also the fact that if you make 2 cups of polenta, you will have left-over polenta to fry until it is crispy and crunchy, which is the way the kids love it best of all.
For soft polenta, use 5 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. For medium polenta, use 4 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. Serves 6.
2 cups medium-coarse cornmeal
8-10 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
Preheat oven to 350F. Generously butter a 12-inch casserole. Add cornmeal, water, butter and salt and stir until blended. Bake uncovered for 1 hour and 10 minutes, then let it stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Other lovely things to pair with polenta are bolognaise sauce, and some good sausages in tomato sauce, just the sort of cooking that gives you a big hygge.
Roast Figs, Sugar Snow by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley
Cooking on the Bone by Jennifer McLagan is published by Grub Street
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert is published by John Wiley