Armed with two trusty air fryers and a store cupboard that includes everything from instant mash to cheese singles, Karol and Gina Daly might seem unlikely food stars - but their The Daly Dish and Mr Dish Instagram accounts has earned the husband and wife almost 120,000 followers.
From their semi-D kitchen in Longwood, Co Meath, 40-year-old Karol and 39-year-old Gina Daly, who have been married for 12 years, have attracted their online following by reinterpreting so-called 'bold food' and making them less naughty.
It started in 2018 when a frustrated Gina started posting recipes and photographs on Instagram in a bid to keep tabs on what she was eating. Having previously lost eight stone, the mum of two put half of it back on after a fun holiday in America in 2015.
"The Daly Dish started out as a diary of what I was eating for the day, because I felt it might make me accountable if someone was watching it - even two people."
Karol has now followed Gina onto Instagram and launched his Mr Dish page last year. The family dinners enjoyed by their children - 11-year-old Holly and 9-year-old Ben - are eaten up on social media. Gina's The Daly Dish account has just hit 95,000 followers the day we meet for coffee and Karol has almost 25,000.
The food in the book, dishes like dirty fries and cheesy curry beans on toast, might leave a Cordon Bleu-trained chef crying into his bain-marie, but the couple have made a name for themselves in the culinary art of fakeaways.
"The best response from people is to the really bold food, the likes of burgers and the southern fried chicken. Karol and I are known as the 'dirty food' people," says Gina.
The secret to toning down 'dirty food' and making it more healthy is to use leaner meats and little or no fat or oils when cooking.
A personal brand based around food was never in their plans, Karol and Gina tell me. Between them, Gina and Karol have lost over 10 stone in the last nine years but for Gina, she yo-yoed. Four stone off, four stone back on.
"When I started my Instagram account in August 2018, I was 18 stone 10lbs. I dropped three stone and the food in the book helped me get to the weight I am now," she says.
Karol grew up in Bray, Co Wicklow, while Gina comes from in Lucan, Co Dublin. Losing her mum at 17 meant that Gina dad and herself started to eat out a lot and her weight began to creep up. "I always associate being happy with eating out with my dad," she recalls.
When The Daly Dish cookbook was announced last month, it amassed over 3,000 pre-orders within days and created unprecedented demand on Eason's website. According to publishers Gill, the couple have smashed all Irish retail pre-order records.
Gina laughs when she tells me about her lack of background in cooking.
"My dad has said to me: 'When did you learn to cook?' But I didn't. I was the first person to say I hadn't a clue. It was a case of, this is what I like to eat. I can almost tell you what ingredients are in it so I'm going home and I'm going to try and make it."
A teenage job in the local chipper hardly seems a likely place to start acquiring culinary insights - but little did Gina realise back then, as she made up the coating for the takeaway's southern fried chicken, that one day a secret condiment would form part of her 'fake makes' arsenal of tricks. It turned out to be lemon pepper, which is the 'secret' ingredient in some of the couple's most popular recipes. Lemon pepper is the zest of lemon mixed with cracked black pepper - and when the Dalys first used it in a recipe they posted on Instagram, it triggered such a rush to buy it that some stores were left scratching their heads as to where all this interest was coming from.
It's hard not to draw comparisons with the Pinch of Nom brand, the brainchild of UK-based friends Kay Featherstone and Kate Allinson. The women started out sharing their slimming recipes on Facebook, then segued into a website before releasing a cookbook that went on to be the fastest selling non-fiction title in history. But Gina kicks into touch any suggestion that her and Karol were influenced by Pinch of Nom.
"I had heard of them but they would not be an inspiration at all," says Gina.
"I'd never heard of them," Karol chips in. "I was inspired by Gina. I mean the whole story of the weight loss is that we found dieting boring. We were eating the same thing all the time so we wanted to eat something different and make the kind of food you want to eat".
Despite helping her shed pounds, compiling the book, Gina didn't count calories, something which differentiates it from the Pinch of Nom model, where recipes come with nutritional information.
"It's not something that I would have even known where to start with," she says.
Gina's favourite recipe is her homemade satay sauce with beef. It is their most remade dish, she says, closely followed by their spice bag, which then spawned the spice-bag burger (recipe right) and let's not forget that gooey cheese sauce poured liberally on top.
"Oh, people go mad for the cheese sauce," says Karol, before Gina cuts in to explain how she came up with it by experimenting with cheese singles, pickle juice and hot sauce. The result is something not dissimilar to the cheese sauce you get in the cinema with nachos.
The couple haven't held back when it comes to bringing lots of personality to their food journey, with touches of Dublinese sprinkled joyfully throughout the book. Gina calls things "masso", which is short for "massive" - another word for "fabulous" used in the capital. Gina even has "masso" tattooed on her right wrist.
The story of how the couple met is a colourful one. Back when they were both working in O2, Gina initially thought the 'Karol' she was chatting with on email was a woman. Once that confusion got cleared up, the two went out on a date. Two weeks later, they were engaged. Six months later, they married.
"I never thought he'd be interested in me," says Gina. On that first date, Karol changed his name on her phone to 'My Hubbie' and told her that that was what he was going to be.
"I was weak!" Gina recalls. "And I still haven't changed it - 12 years later."
The pair are enjoying the freedom that self-employment offers them. Gina, who studied art, graphics and print making in Ballyfermot, is an illustrator and works in the wedding sector, and along with Karol she also runs The Bitch Box, an online greeting-card company. Working at home gave them the opportunity to start food blogging.
Karol recalls: "When Gina was doing a food diary, it kickstarted us to do things differently. We love our takeaways and going out for food but we said, 'Let's try and make it at home but make it healthier and involve the kids.' The one thing with us is that we love to make an event out of cooking and on Fridays we'll do a fakeaway and have everyone around."
And it's not just the recipes and banter that followers are tuning into their Instagram stories for, Gina tells me. "There's music in our house from the first second we get up in the morning. My favourites are Arcade Fire and Future Islands. Karol loves all music. When we were doing [Instagram] stories, people were like, 'Oh, the music in your house is deadly,' so that's why we put up a playlist they could cook to."
For Karol, who used to be in a punk band, this was a very natural progression. A further chance for self-expression was the series of striking tattoos he got on his neck and both hands after he left the corporate sector.
By their own admission, life hasn't always been so smooth for the couple. Gina had an ectopic pregnancy just two months before their wedding and times were tough financially, living on just one salary after their daughter, Holly, was born. Then Gina became pregnant with Ben. And Karol has made redundant not once, but twice.
"We sat down and really looked at our lives and how we were going to do things so as not to rely on anyone else," Karol recalls. "We started working for ourselves, doing what we loved, and because we were so focused, this kind of happened. We were working at home so we had the time and space to do the food blogging, and then this book came about."
Now they are happy to see where their blogging will take them. They are good, they say, at saving, and any extra income would be for their future and the future of the kids. They love travel so a family holiday could be on the cards.
On the subject of weight, Gina is frank. "The only time I was unhappy about weight was when we were going out anywhere. They were the only times where I'd kind of have a meltdown about my weight. I never felt bad about myself because I was never made to feel bad about myself. I only ever had somebody telling me I was gorgeous and a ride."
Ironically, while Gina is a professionally trained illustrator, there are none of her drawings in the new book. "I'll work on that for the next book," she laughs.
You can follow Gina and Karol on Instagram @thedalydish and @mister.dish
Recreate your favourtie takeaways at home with the The Daly Dish Fakeaways.
Mexican night is one of our favourite nights in my house. Even the kids love this little spicy number. Bang on the tunes and get cooking, this will be one you will repeat on the weekly!
Low-calorie spray oil
500g lean minced beef
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp hot sauce
½ x 400g tin of red kidney beans, drained
1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
1 onion, sliced
1 x 400g tin refried beans
200g cooked rice
1 small tin of sweetcorn, drained
4 wholemeal wraps
30g Cheddar cheese, grated
Light sour cream
1. Start by making the filling. Heat up a wok with 4-5 sprays of oil and brown the mince, then add in the soy sauce, paprika, smoked paprika, chilli flakes, garlic powder, chilli powder and hot sauce.
2. Add in the kidney beans, stir well, then add in 100ml of water to loosen the mixture and create a small bit of sauce.
3. In a separate pan fry off your pepper and onion until the onion is translucent and leave to one side.
4. Mix the rice (which must be recently cooked) with the sweetcorn and leave to one side.
5. Now it's time to assemble your burritos. Warm the wraps for about a minute in the microwave to soften. Now lay them out, add a layer of refried beans down the centre of each one, then dollop on the mince mixture, a few spoonfuls of rice and sweetcorn, some pepper and onions, a sprinkle of cheese and a few dollops of light sour cream.
6. Hold the sides of the wrap and give all the ingredients a little shake to mix together, wrap that bad boy up and repeat with the remainder of the wraps and mixture. This will be so bursting with flavour, you'll probably want a second one.
I love a spice bag and I love a burger, so it was only inevitable this was going to happen: combining two of my favourite things to make one epic creation. This crispy chicken burger layered in a bun with veg and chips and drizzled with curry cheese sauce is just deadly!
500g potatoes, peeled and cut into chips
Low-calorie spray oil
1 egg, beaten
25g instant mash (in its dry form) or breadcrumbs
1 tbsp lemon pepper
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp Chinese five spice powder
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
2 large chicken fillets, sliced in half horizontally
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
Salt to taste
3 light cheese singles, torn
1 tbsp medium curry powder
60g wholemeal burger buns x 2
Iceberg lettuce, washed and torn
1. If not using an airfryer, preheat the oven to 220°C.
2. Start with the chips. Rinse and drain well before popping them in a microwave-safe bowl and zapping in the microwave for 12-13 minutes, then spray with the oil, pop on a tray and put in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. If using an airfryer, pop them in for 15 minutes at 190°C, shaking and respraying halfway through. When ready, leave to one side.
3. Put the beaten egg in a shallow bowl, then in another bowl mix the instant mash (or breadcrumbs, if using) with the lemon pepper, ginger, five spice, chilli flakes and garlic powder. Stir to combine. Now dredge your chicken pieces (which should be quite thin) in the beaten egg, followed by the spice mix, making sure each piece is coated evenly.
4. I like to cook the chicken pieces in the airfryer with a spray of oil for 20-25 minutes at 190°C, or you can put them on a tray in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, turning and respraying halfway through until golden and crisp.
5. While the chicken is cooking, prep your veg. Spray a little oil into a wok and add the garlic, fry until turning brown then add the pepper and onion. Cook until the onion is translucent and the pepper softened.
6. Now throw your chips into the wok with the veg, give a good twist of salt and toss them around for 5 minutes to heat back up.
7. Meanwhile put the cheese singles in a small pot with the water and curry powder and stir over a medium heat until melted - this is going to be poured over the burger for extra massoness.
I feckin’ love an aul spring roll, but I bleedin’ hate the grease dripping down onto my fingers, also the bloat and the guilt, so... I made a Daly Dish alternative that is much lower in calories. I used rice paper and loaded them with vermicelli rice noodles and a rake of veg. Don’t be put off by the lengthy instructions — I just want to make this recipe foolproof for you!
4 asparagus tips
1 red pepper, deseeded and finely sliced
4 spring onions, finely sliced lengthways
1 carrot, peeled and finely grated
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp oyster sauce
½ tsp Chinese five spice powder
½ tsp puréed ginger
1 block of vermicelli rice noodles
4 sheets of rice paper (you will find this in any Asian food market)
Low-calorie cooking spray
1. Get a non-stick pan nice and hot, throw in the asparagus tips, pepper, spring onion, carrot and garlic and fry off until al dente then add in the sauces and spices (but not the noodles yet).
2. Toss everything together and add a drop of water just to stop everything from sticking and to get a little sauce going that will coat all the veg.
3. For the noodles, put a block in a bowl, pour boiling water over it and let sit for 5 minutes, then drain the noodles and add them to the veg in the pan and mix well. Keep at a gentle simmer on a low heat.
4. Now for the rice paper. The stuff is very sticky, so keep your hands wet when handling. You have to wet it with warm water to get it to soften up and this is where you will either become a black belt in the art of spring roll making or you’ll fire it out the window!
• Fill a large bowl with warm water.
• Take a rice paper disc and hold it between finger and thumb with both hands at the top.
• Dip it into the water and start to spin it quickly through your fingers in the water. Think of turning a car’s steering wheel, with your fingers always staying at ten to two. The trick is to not let it soak, you are just giving it a quick spin in the water to dampen it all over!
• Lay it out on a piece of baking paper. Don’t worry if it still feels a bit stiff, it will quickly go super soft and transparent and sticky (top tip, keep a little bowl of warm water to dip your fingers in for when you are ready to roll it up).
Okay… hard part done, you then just want to add in the filling. Imagine the rice paper as a clock so I can tell you how to fold it:
12 o’clock is pointing away from you;
6 o’clock is pointing towards you;
3 o’clock is the right side;
9 o’clock is the left side.
5. Place a good portion of the noodles and veg in the centre of a prepared rice paper sheet and spread out.
6. Leave about 2 inches each side (left and right) and fold these towards the centre.
7. Then lift the 6 o’clock flap and bring it over the top of the filling and the tucked bits... stick it down just behind the filling (kind of tuck it) and start to roll it until it’s all nice and tidy and stuck together and looking like a spring roll, and that is the end of that! Repeat the process with the other three.
8. You can eat them straight away or if you prefer them with a little crunch, pop them in the air fryer at 180°C for 10–15 minutes with a light spray of low-calorie cooking oil and they will crisp up!