The Rachel Papers - Rachel Allen on her Nordic mother
Her latest cookbook began as a walk down memory lane with her Icelandic mother, but it evolved into a general reflection on the fleeting nature of childhood and a mother's love. Rachel Allen tells Sarah Caden that her own 'lion cub' sons are suddenly taller than she is; how she juggles home and her busy career; and how she'll never stop needing her own mum. Rachel also shares exclusive recipes from her new book
Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30
'Do I always sound harassed when you speak to me?" asks Rachel Allen. You can tell by the way she asks that she wants the answer to be no. Rachel doesn't want to be that person. And she works hard at making sure it's not the case, if that's not a contradiction in terms.
Still, when I speak to her, it starts off on a slightly frazzled footing. She's multi-tasking, to say the least. Well, there's the job of talking to me, there's prep for her working visit to the Ploughing Championships the next day, and there's a meeting in an hour and a child to be collected and brought to gymnastics. Oh, and then, after a few minutes of chat, she remembers that there are biscuits in the oven earmarked for the Ploughing, and if they burn the whole afternoon is up in smoke, so to speak.
Harassed, no, because Rachel is always full of good cheer and nice company and endlessly positive and grateful for the good luck of always being in demand. But busy, yes. And quite the juggler, definitely.
This is often Rachel Allen's busiest time of year. It's the time that she most often has a new book out, usually with a TV show to film to accompany it, and all of the attendant publicity to do. In the summer, though, she says, things slow down. Relatively.
A year after the publication of Coast, which was inspired by the wildness of the Irish seas and seashore and the ingredients they yield, Rachel has a new book, Recipes from my Mother. If Coast looked out and away beyond the edges of this island, Recipes from my Mother is a cosy, family-focused, home-centric cookbook.
In part, it's about Rachel's own mother, Hallfriour, who moved to Ireland from her native Iceland, when she was only 19, having met and fallen in love with Rachel's father, Brian O'Neill. The book is abundant with recipes from Hallfriour's native country, like thick yogurty skyr, rye bread and Icelandic caramel potatoes. It also contains stories from her childhood and family photographs of Icelandic kids in their elaborate home-knit jumpers, skiing and sledding and living a life far from Rachel's upbringing in Dublin and adult life in east Cork.
"The book started out as just recipes with my mum," Rachel says, "because I feel very aware of my Icelandic heritage and I wanted to explore Iceland food-wise. But let's be realistic, the Scandi-food thing is gorgeous and amazing but it's a bit a couple of years ago and I didn't want people to think I was just jumping on that bandwagon. So then the book evolved into something else."
In a way, what this book evolved into is a reflection on the comfort we take as adults from the food of our childhood. The recipes aren't only those eaten in Iceland by Rachel's mother as a girl, or recreated by her in Ireland. In there too are recipes from friends who told Rachel about the food they cook to evoke mammies and grannies and loved ones. Also, it features the Allens, Rachel's in-laws who are huge figures in her adult life, both personally and professionally.
"It became about more than me and my mother," Rachel says. "I realised that it was about all the lovely stories I kept hearing from people once I told them what I was doing. It sparked off their memories. So, for example, there's a recipe for shortbread that was from Patricia, my running friend, whose grandmother passed it down the family. I loved how everyone I told about it had a recipe and a memory."
So, the end result is about Rachel and Hallfriour, but also about nostalgia and a sense of belonging, about attempting to create continuity, as we pass to our children the tastes and memories of our own childhoods.
"I loved how writing the book led to all the proper chats with Mum about her home and the people in the photos and what they did and how they lived," Rachel says. "Mum's not overly private," Rachel says, "but she's not in the spotlight, either, and I didn't know, at first, if she'd agree to using the photos, but they bring so much to it. Because she talked about her grandparents and her parents and how, as children, they lived near the docks and they would go and get the fish from the fishermen and the bread from the baker nearby. It brought Iceland alive to me.
"I suppose I've been to Iceland eight times in all," she says, "but it has always felt familiar to me and I've always felt very sure of my Icelandic roots. But my mother spoke very little Icelandic to me as a child. Maybe it was because it was more unusual to be foreign in Ireland then. But now, I really regret that. I wish I spoke it fluently and I wish I could speak it to my children."
It's interesting as you read about Hallfriour and her life in this new book to see the parallels with Rachel's own path. Hallfriour came to Ireland as a teenager, fell in love, married and settled here. And the degree to which she embraced her new life is all over this book. The recipes attributed to her aren't just Scandinavian; there's also her St Patrick's Day bacon and cabbage, her roast chicken, and her rice pudding.
Rachel also could be said to have adopted a new world when she trained at Ballymaloe as a teenager and, to a great extent, never left again. She has joked in interviews in the past that her husband Isaac says she stayed for him, though she doesn't agree. The fact is, though, that as a young woman, Rachel found her passion for cooking. As result, she found Ballymaloe and Isaac and, ultimately, the life they have made together there with their three children - Josh (17), Lucca (15) and Scarlett (8).
You have to wonder if the reflective mood and mindset of this book is indicative of a moment that a lot of people, mothers in particular, have as their children teeter on the brink of adulthood. Josh, she says, has started working in Ballymaloe. Lucca is in his Junior Cert year in school, but his real passion lies, outside of the teenage norm for most boys, in youth motor racing.
"He has been looking seriously at Formula 4 and he was just over in England," Rachel says, "meeting the team people. It's extraordinary, really, you know. He'd be driving cars that look very like Formula One cars, and it's hard to watch the racing for a mother, but it is amazing to see your child develop a passion for something and to know what they want to do with their life."
Scarlett is still her baby, but Rachel has that sense of time suddenly speeding up with the boys. Her career as what you might call a celebrity chef began 12 years ago, when the boys were quite little and the time is bound to have passed at lightning speed.
"When the boys were really tiny they were like little lion cubs," Rachel smiles as she remembers. "There's only two years between them and they were a real little unit; but so physical and hectic and always pouncing on each other, like little boys do. I remember my mum saying it all goes so fast and me thinking that time would never pass.
"And now they're taller than me," she laughs.
"My mum reminds me that when she was my age, my sister and I had already left home," Rachel adds. "We had gone and she found that really sudden and shocking and I can see that now."
Rachel knows her children aren't going anywhere yet, but there is that sense of reflection in her and in her new book that probably speaks to a lot of fans who feel like they've spent their youth and adulthood with her.
Perhaps, Rachel worries about being perceived as busy because, for mothers in particular, busy is often a pejorative. It's a way of saying you're distracted from your family and that's something Rachel never is. In fact, the proof of it is on the pages of her new book.
"I don't panic when it gets quiet, as it often does over the summer," she says. "I go back to teaching at the [Ballymaloe Cookery] school and they are very understanding if I come and go and I have wonderful relaxed time with the children when they're off school."
"It's all about the family, really," Rachel says. "And I'm so emotional about my family and connected and proud, you know? And I think about how much I need my mum's advice and help still now, and you don't really let go completely. I'll always need her and I hope my own children feel that way too."
'Recipes from my Mother' by Rachel Allen is published by HarperCollins on October 20.
Chicken Kiev is a classic for good reason — crisp, crunchy breadcrumbs surrounding a juicy chicken breast enclosing a pocket of melted garlic butter. This version has the added bonus of lemon and Parmesan cheese, too. A firm family favourite.
4 chicken breasts, skin removed
2 garlic cloves, crushed with a pinch of salt
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
75g (3oz) butter
40g (1½oz) Parmesan cheese, grated
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons plain flour
120g (4oz) breadcrumbs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
25g (1oz) butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
To serve: leafy salad or seasonal vegetables
1 Pierce the thick end of the breasts with a thin sharp knife. Push the blade of the knife down to near the thin end of the breast, being careful not to cut right through the flesh. Sweep the blade from side to side to make the pocket wider on the inside but keeping the incision small. This will help to stop the lovely garlic butter leaking out. Set aside.
2 Add the garlic, parsley, butter and grated Parmesan to the lemon juice and mix well to combine. Divide the flavoured butter into four and stuff one piece into the pocket of each chicken breast, pushing it well down inside.
3 Put the beaten egg in a low, wide dish. Mix a good pinch of salt and pepper into the flour and place in a similar dish, then add the lemon zest to the breadcrumbs and place in a third dish.
4 Toss the breasts one at a time into first the flour, then the eggs and lastly the breadcrumbs, making sure they are thoroughly coated at each stage. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6.
5 To fry the chicken, put the butter and olive oil into an ovenproof frying pan and heat until foaming. Add the four breasts to the pan and fry on one side until golden brown, then turn them over and pop the pan into the oven for 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the breasts.
6 When the chicken breasts are cooked through and golden all over, serve with a leafy salad or seasonal vegetables.
Iced banoffee cake
If the banana-toffee twosome is your thing, then try making this version of a banoffee cake that can conveniently be made ahead and stored in the freezer until serving.
For the base:
200g (7oz) digestive biscuits
75g (3oz) butter, melted
For the toffee sauce:
n 75g (3oz) butter
n 50g (2oz) brown sugar
90g (3½oz) golden syrup
30g (1&Qtr oz) plain flour
75ml (3fl oz) regular
or double cream
75ml (3fl oz) milk
For the filling:
800ml (1 pint 9fl oz) vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
Grated chocolate, to serve
1 Put the base of a 23cm (9in)
springform cake tin upside down
in the tin (so that the lip of the base is facing down) and secure the clasp.
This will make it easier to slide the
cake off the tin base when it’s ready to serve.
2 Put the biscuits in the bowl of a food processor and whizz to the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs (or place in a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin). Tip them out into a bowl, add the melted butter and mix well, then tip into the tin. Press firmly into the bottom of the tin to create an even layer, then flatten the surface and place in the fridge while you make the toffee sauce.
3 Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the brown sugar and golden syrup and bring to the boil, then add the flour and whisk the mixture over the heat until it is smooth and thickened. Next, pour in the cream and milk, whisking all the time, and continue to boil, while whisking, for another 2 minutes until thickened. Take off the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
4 Peel the bananas and cut into slices 5mm (¼in) thick, then lay evenly over the biscuit base. Once the sauce has almost cooled, pour it over the bananas. Place in the freezer for 5–10 minutes and take out the ice cream to soften slightly. Spread the slightly softened ice cream over the toffee sauce to cover it completely, then return to the freezer until the ice cream is firm.
5 When ready to serve, scatter the cake with the grated chocolate and cut into slices. Serve straightaway.
Mussels with tomato, chorizo, sherry and parsley
I’m very grateful for the fact that we had a good varied diet growing up at home, and mussels were one of the things that I loved to eat. This is a wonderful dish, inspired by the holidays we had in Spain when I was a child.
2kg (4lb 6oz) mussels in their shells
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
200g (7oz) chorizo, peeled and diced
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
600g (1lb 5oz) very ripe tomatoes,
peeled, deseeded and chopped
60ml (2½fl oz) dry Fino or Manzanilla sherry (optional)
4 tatblespoons parsley, chopped
crusty bread to serve
1 Wash the mussels very well in the sink with lots of fresh running water. Discard any open mussels or any that are not tightly shut and don’t close when tapped, or ones with broken shells. Pluck off any visible beards — the fibrous tufts sticking out on the flat side between the two shells. Set the mussels aside in a bowl in the fridge.
2 Heat the oil in a saucepan large enough to hold all the mussels. Add the chorizo and fry a little, but do not allow to get too dark. Next, add the shallots and garlic and cook for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes and sherry (if using) and, finally, the mussels. Put the lid on and turn the heat up to high. Shake the pot from time to time and cook until the mussels have opened — about 5 minutes.
3 When all the mussels have opened (discard any that remain closed), sprinkle with the parsley and divide among the bowls. Serve with crusty bread.
Grilled pork chops with tomato and smoked paprika butter
A simple flavoured butter is a great little embellishment, which can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for a few days, or even in the freezer for a few weeks. This tomato and smoked paprika butter also works with barbecued sweetcorn or lamb. I use the ‘sweet’ smoked paprika, but use the ‘hot’ if you fancy a kick.
For the tomato and smoked paprika butter:
100g (3½oz) butter, slightly soft
½ teaspoon tomato puree
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the chops:
4-6 large pork chops
extra-virgin olive oil, for frying
To serve: crushed potatoes and wilted greens or salad
1 First make the tomato and smoked paprika butter. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Wrap in cling film or baking parchment, roll into a log and chill in the fridge until firm.
2 Season the pork chops with salt and pepper and rub with a little oil. Heat a griddle pan and fry the chops for 5-8 minutes on each side until golden brown and cooked through.
3 Serve on warm plates with a few slices of the butter melting over them. Serve with crushed potatoes and wilted greens or salad.
TIP: If you have more butter than you need, roll it into a log, wrap in baking parchment and keep it in the freezer. It will last for ages.
Linguine with crab, garlic, chilli and parsley
One of my favourite pasta dishes of all, this classic pairing of sweet crabmeat with savoury garlic, chilli and parsley also happens to be the fastest supper around. Don’t forget to hang on to some of the pasta cooking water to add back in if it starts to dry out.
500g (1lb 2oz) linguine, or other pasta, if you prefer
45g (1¾oz) butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced
Qtr-½ red chilli, to taste, deseeded and chopped
250g (9oz) white and some brown crabmeat (if possible)
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated Parmesan cheese to serve
1 Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add the pasta and stir in a teaspoon of salt, then cook for the length of time specified in the packet instructions or until al dente.
2 While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter with the olive oil in a pot over a medium heat. Add the garlic, chilli, salt and pepper. Cook until the garlic is just beginning to turn a pale golden colour, then remove from the heat and set aside.
3 When the pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving about 100ml (3½fl oz) of the cooking water. Pour the garlic-chilli butter into the pasta cooking pot, add the crabmeat and return to the heat to warm the crab through. Add the drained pasta and toss with the sauce to coat — add a little of the retained cooking water if it looks too dry. Finally, stir in the chopped parsley and serve with grated Parmesan.
Duck legs with Puy lentils and onions
A wonderfully wintry main course that combines gloriously rich duck legs with earthy lentils and sweet golden onions.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 duck legs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 onions, quartered through the core
2 garlic cloves, sliced
120g (4oz) Puy lentils
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
100ml (3½fl oz) duck or chicken stock
200ml (7fl oz) red wine
Pinch of sugar
Wilted greens or green salad, to serve
1 Preheat the oven to 240°C, 475°F,
2 Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole over a medium heat. Sprinkle the duck legs with salt and pepper and fry, skin side down, until golden brown, then turn them over and cook for a further 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
3 Next, fry the onions in the casserole until golden around the edges, then add the garlic, lentils and tomatoes and cook for another minute or two. Add the stock and wine, bring to the boil and return the duck legs to the casserole, then season with the pinch of sugar and the salt and pepper.
4 Cover the casserole with a lid, then place in the oven and cook for 60-80 minutes until the meat comes away easily from the bone.
5 Serve with wilted greens or a large green salad.
TIP: To peel tomatoes, use a sharp knife to score a cross in the base of each one, cutting through the skin. Place the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with boiling water, and leave for 15-20 seconds. Drain and rinse in cold water, then peel off the skin — it should come away very easily.
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