Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Backin' Belfast / St. George's Market

St. George's Market

My friend Maeve hosted a Sylvia Plath retrospective on February 11th, marking the 50th anniversary of Plath's death. I stayed with her over the weekend, and I hope I acted as a foil to all the stresses that come with hosting an event single-handedly! Not that she needed the support, an impressive crowd filled the large lecture hall in the University of Ulster lecture hall. In fact, it was the only Sylvia Plath event on the island of Ireland. So congratulations to Maeve for pulling it off so successfullly. She had some engaging speakers, from Plath academics to poetry students, and she gave some impassioned speeches of her own. Maeve is big on promoting Plath studies, removing the layers of myth that come with biographical readings of Plath.

A selection of Plath books donated by the publisher Faber and Faber, especially for the Retrospective.

This time last year my only experience of Belfast was from the motorway. Thanks to Maeve for introducing me to the sights and sounds of the city, I've grown to love the place! When I was up last Spring I visited Titanic Belfast and The MAC.

Due to the trouble in the city before Christmas, local businesses have been running the Backin' Belfast campaign to combat the bad press surrounding the city over the past few months and to encourage people to visit Belfast and support it's vibrant local businesses, who were hit badly by the decline in turnover over the Christmas. On twitter they've been using the hashtag #backinbelfast to offer discounts in local restaurants, as well as printing it on t-shirts and other merchandise.

Vegetarian paella - not sure why there's two forks, I wasn't going to share!

Lily Pink Bakery treats

No visit to Belfast is complete with a visit to St. George's Market. There I visited Belfast blogger, and friend, Claire at her stall - The Lily Pink Bakery, where she sells a popular selection of delicious cupcakes.

The place was buzzing, we skipped breakfast and decided to get brunch at the market. I had vegetarian paella, Maeve and her pal got burritos. Finding a table is a bit of a challenge in the mid-morning, so you do a bit of ducking and diving, but you get to enjoy your food at the end of it! All our food was very tasty and fresh!

One of my favourite stalls at the market is the Blue Door Studio where a mother and daughter team make these very contemporary, quirky birthday cards. I bought a gin one for my desk, for the days I need cheering up (there alongside Tavi's First Kiss Zine from 2010)! The illustration is taken from an original pen and ink drawing by Sarah Majury and you can buy her work from her Etsy shop 'White Hart'.

I wandered around the stalls for a cheeky browse, they sell everything you could think of under the lofty Victorian roof of the market. Cakes, jewellery, retro clothing - an abundance of locally made crafts and goods, and it heartens me to see the place so bustling with people eager to buy local. I'd love to see something similar in Sligo, or the North-West. Though, Belfast has the population to cater for it. I do remember enjoying a similar market whe I was in Leeds in the autumn.

Lovely copper studs from Beadmag.

I purchased these lovely copper star earrings from beadmag, made in Belfast, at the Silver Trilogy stall (I assume its a collective of 3 jewelry sellers). Now I have much less money, I'm not inclined to buy cheaper bits of jewellery from high street shops. I cleared a lot of my trinkets out in January. I'd rather buy items made from more quality materials when I can afford it. Copper is very expensive now, but I thought these were good value for £10! I love how you can see the indentations in the metal.

My top purchase was this hot chocolate from the O'Conaill stall. They've recently set up shop in Belfast. Their flagship and only other store is in Cork, and has been high regarded for many years now. As I giddily waited, for my dark chocolate drink to be prepared, I jokingly expressed my dissatisfaction at being stranded in the middle of the two best chocolate shops in Ireland, over a 3 hour journey each way! I don't know if the poor fellow running the stall has any sway in the company, but I was insistent that they open a store in Galway at least! There's plenty of greedy chocoholics in the West!

Find out more about the #backinbelfast campaign here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Meat Free Monday / Posh Mac & Cheese

Already a pattern is beginning to become apparent with my meat free meals, I prefer easy to prepare, economical and comforting dishes (which coincidently are the same three words I'd probably use to describe my lifestyle, but anyway). Dishes that you enjoy making and sharing. This week it is the ultimate comfort food dish, and my favourite macaroni cheese recipe.

I adapted this from a Jamie Oliver recipe I cut out from the Sunday Times Style magazine yonks ago. I left out the bacon, and to be honest, for a culchie like me the only 'posh' element of this dish was the addition of the white wine and the fresh herbs. It was delicious nonetheless, though I don't think the wine made much of a difference.

& A tip - if you're not a white wine drinker and probably won't finish the bottle after using it for this recipe, freeze the remainder of the wine in an ice cube bag or tray. You can then use this leftover wine straight from the freezer in any future recipes that require the addition of white wine, such as a risotto.

I have put into brackets the elements I left out, I've never had breadcrumbs in a macaroni cheese and I think its fruitless to convince me otherwise. We only eat soda bread in my house (#culchieproblems), and the healthy five grain bread my mum gets probably wasn't what Jamie had in mind for this carbfest. I like mine with a crunchy golden crust on top, with piles of carby, creamy goodness nestled comfortably underneath.

50g butter
1 leek, or 3 stalks celery (or BOTH), cleaned & finely sliced
4 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
4 tbsp flour
100ml dry white wine
400ml milk
(250ml double cream)
100g cheddar
50g vegetarian parmesan
A good pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
(2-3 handfuls breadcrumbs)

- Preheat oven to 180C. Cook macaroni pasta in boiling salted water according to time on packet, usually 10-12 minutes. Drain and set to one side.

- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the leeks/celery and thyme leaves. Turn down the heat, put a lid on and leave to soften for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so they don't stick.

- Add flour and cook over a gentle heat, stirring constantly for a couple of minutes, until it forms a roux. Then gradually add the wine, beating with a whisk, to form a thick paste. Cook for a further 2 minutes, then beat in the milk (and cream), and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Mix in the cheeses and cayenne, season to taste and stir until everything has melted and the sauce is smooth.

- Combine the sauce and cooked pasta. Then tip into an ovenproof dish. (Sprinkle with breadcrumbs). Grate cheese over the top. Put in the oven for 25 minutes, or until top is golden and the dish is bubbling at the edges.

- Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with a salad, or greens (see below).

- Should serve 6 people, but usually 4-5 if you like second helpings as much as I do. Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, and is highly addictive!

As this is such a wickedly stodgy dish I served it with some green veg on the side. I wilted some spinach with garlic, olive oil and nutmeg in the pan, some lightly stir-fried mangetout peas and some sliced bell peppers. Any green vegetables you have knocking about in the fridge should be fine.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gelato Diaries: The Sequel

GPOY: my gelato face

Three weeks ago, I went on holiday to Florence and Rome with my best friend Tara, who now lives and works in Dubai. We wanted to go somewhere before the tourist season got into full swing, and we both love Italy so a compromise was easy. Of course, the first thing I set about doing as soon as I'd booked my ticket was to search out the best gelato places in Florence, and Rome.

We had three full days in Florence, with one and a half days in Rome. I had read that Florence is the gelato capital of Italy, (and as such, the world!). The rest of the itinerary could wait - as I applied myself to the task of sourcing the best gelateria to visit while we there. Thanks to my wonderful friend Tara who patiently accompanied me on my quest.

I only got to four gelateria in the end, and I have ranked these in terms of my favourites.

Vestri Cioccolato D Autore
Borgo degli Albizi, 11 50122 Firenze

Picture this - a warm breeze on your face as you stand in a typical Florentine alleyway, uncertainly contemplating this cramped chocolate shop. We stepped inside and admittedly it was a little chaotic looking, the gelato counter was nowhere to be seen on first glance. The gelato counter is selective - they must only do certain flavours on certain days, as you are given a small menu card to choose from. The gelato is stored deep inside silver steel containers, and somehow this excites me more than the colourful pillows of gelato we see in many of the other typical gelateria. It's like you are being made privy to something sacred, a taste of something heavenly stored inside a gilded shrine. I had a coppa of Florentine vanilla and dark chocolate infused with Sicilian oranges. A Roman friend of mine advised me that you judge a gelateria based on how good it's basic flavours taste. I don't think there are any words to accurately describe the gelato here, I didn't want it to end. It was like I had come home and tasted vanilla for the first time, it was truly a transformative ice-cream experience that was incomparable to any that had come before it. The chocolate was rich with the subtle tang of the orange coming through, not cloying like you imagine Terrys Chocolate in ice-cream form to be.

It was so good that I had to go back immediately after, after shyly asking Tara if she wanted to try it again because I was sure that unless I was to return to Florence one day, I would never experience that euphoria again. To my sheer joy, they offered affrogato. In the winter months you can buy cioccolata calda, which is hot chocolate, but not just any hot chocolate, Italian hot chocolate, darling. So I had a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream with toasted almonds, and rich hot chocolate poured over the top, filling my cup to brim. Heaven, heaven, heaven. If I was proposed to with a cup of this, I'd accept right away.

Gelateria dei Neri
Via dei Neri, 22, 50122 Firenze

This was the first gelateria we called into, after a long day of exerting my optical senses musing over art in the Uffizi; I wanted to give my mouth an equally deserving sensory experience. This cosy gelateria has framed photographs adorning the walls, showing 'Gelateria dei Neri' cartons chilling out in locations around the world, a bit like that garden gnome in Amélie. They had a fine selection of chocolate ice cream here, you had 8 size options to choose from, which is quite common in Italian gelateria. I had pistachio and dark chocolate, both wonderful, the dark chocolate was particularly rich, the sort of flavour that lingers in your mouth afterward, in the best possible way.

Gelateria La Carraia
Via dei Benci, 24, 50122 Firenze

Having spent our first two nights in Florence, north of the River Arno, we went Southside to visit Palazzo Pitti. La Carraia is conveniently located beside the Ponte alla Carraia. I found this particular store the most reasonably priced of all the gelateria we visited, and the best value for money. I wasn't keen on the green and yellow colour scheme, but as we ate our gelato on a bench outside, a painter and decorator van pulled up outside and the man in the car disembarked to take a photo of the interior. If only most of my thoughts came to fruition as conveniently. Here I had the pistachio and hazelnut, both satisfying, I particularly liked the nuttiness of the hazelnut, it would be delicious with a dark chocolate.

Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40 00186 Rome, Italy

In my 'research', a few sources described this place as touristy. When we arrived in the early afternoon, this place was very busy. It is probably the largest gelateria I've been to, with a very elegant, wood paneled, old fashioned interior with a wealth of gelato flavours to choose from, I reckon there were at least 40. I expect this place gets a very high turnover of customers, as there was a very specific system in place - you paid for your gelato at a till inside the door, and presented your receipt at the counter when you made your gelato selection, after fighting your way through dozens of other customers. I got chocolate and pistachio con panna (with fresh cream), and I am sorry to say that it was the least memorable of all the Italian gelato I've had. The chocolate was strangely bland and in my disappointment I found the pistachio forgettable. I'd recommend going to the GROM around the corner, it's part of a chain - but they serve delicious, organic gelato.

I also found this retro (circa 2001) 'Gelato Tour' of Italy, with film photographs to illustrate the piece! Instagram is great in that in lets the user share the experience right away.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Meat Free Monday / Minestrone Soup

I have a few blog posts lined up ... in my mind, so I'll get around to typing them out shortly. Now for my semi-regular Meat Free Monday post. This week its a recipe I've been making regularly for the past 3 years. It's Donal Skeehan's Hearty Minestrone Soup. Its very simple to make, nothing fancy, just honest, warming goodness. It's great for using up odd-shaped pasta shells that seem to accumlate in my cupboard.

This is also a great family recipe, especially if yours don't like spicy or exotic dishes. I have my own bottle of tobasco in the cupboard and will likely turn into one of those people who carry it in the handbags. It's simple and full of vegetables that can be purchased cheaply from any supermarket.

Ingredients: (Serves 4)
1 courgette, chopped into small chunks
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 x 410g tins cannellini beans
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped into small chunks
2 litres/4 pints homemade or shop bought veg stock
75g/3oz wholewheat spaghetti, broken into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons of olive oil
A good pinch of paprika
A good pinch of sea salt

- In a large pot, heat the olive oil and fry the garlic cloves and onion for a couple of minutes or until they become soft.

- Add the celery, carrots and courgette and cook for five minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and stock, and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

- Add the wholewheat pasta, paprika and cannellini beans. Give the soup a good stir and cover. Cook gently for a further 10 minutes or until the pasta is cooked.

- Season with a little sea salt and serve straightaway. I add a few glugs of tobasco to my bowl for some heat.


This is brilliant for bringing in a soup thermos to work, and is very economical to make. It pleases everyone really!

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

St. Patrick's Weekend / Irish vintage on Etsy

I've updated my Etsy shop with some vintage Irish clothing, for the weekend that's in it! Use code 'Sligo' for 10% off your order if you buy anything!

Happy St. Patrick's weekend/day!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Meat Free Monday / Shepherd's Pie with Sweet Potato Mash

For reasons I set out before, I'll be posting a meat-free monday recipe, tried and tasted by recovered fussy eater, and vegetarian (of 9 years) on ... Mondays! Very good. Ready? Ok, here we go.

I adapted this from a BBC Good Food recipe (they've some excellent recipes posted online). The sweet potato mash and the addition of red wine really transform this dish from a bog standard shepherd's pie to something you'll want to make again and again.

I had tins upon tins of red kidney beans. I seem to acquire them, probably because they're only about 20c a can, and the cheapest tinned beans I can buy in my local supermarket. So I substituted the green lentils for kidney beans, but will certainly be doing this again, with lentils, to see what the texture is like. So feel free to try either. I didn't add cheese or butter - I used olive oil to keep this dish vegan, and the mash was awesome anyway, so there.

A wee tip - I rarely buy fresh herbs because they're expensive, but when I'm making a special recipe, I chop up the remainder, put them in a mini plastic tub or sandwich bag and freeze them, where they keep well for the next couple of months. I did this with the thyme in this recipe.


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, halved and sliced
2 large carrots (500g/1lb 2oz in total), cut into sugar-cube size pieces
2 tablespoons thyme, chopped
150ml water
200ml red wine (vegetarian friendly)
400g can chopped tomatoes
2 vegetable stock cubes
2 cans of kidney beans (drained), or 410g green lentils

Sweet potato topping
950g sweet potatoes , peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil

- Heat the oil in a frying pan, then fry the onion until golden. Add the carrots and all but a sprinkling of thyme. Pour in the wine, 150ml water and the tomatoes, then sprinkle in the stock cubes and simmer for 10 mins.

- Add the kidney beans, then cover and simmer for another 10 mins until the carrots still have a bit of bite.

- Meanwhile, boil the sweet potatoes for 15 mins until tender, drain well, then mash with the olive oil and season to taste. Pile the bean and veg mixture into a lasagne dish, spoon the mash on top, then sprinkle over the remaining thyme. (The pie can now be covered and chilled for 2 days, or frozen for up to a month.)

- Heat oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5. Cook for 20-30 mins if cooking straight away, or for 40-50 mins from chilled, until golden and hot all the way through. Serve with green veg (I served it with grilled asparagus) or a salad on the side.


I can't begin to tell you how good this was! It was deliciously rich, with the addition of the red wine. My meat eating family literally licked their plates clean. Job done. My only struggle was trying to take a decent picture of this that didn't look like pie slopped on a plate - besides making adorable mini shepherd's pies for each person, I think its very difficult for an amateur to make a shepherd's pie look as good as this one tasted.

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