Let's start with a bit of honesty: becoming a dad has been the single hardest thing I've ever done. Instagram may tell a different story, but for every smiling family shot and sweet memory, there have been countless sleepless nights, the onslaught of dirty nappies, and days where you have no idea how to keep it all together. Nobody can prepare you for the life change that ensues and I think, nearly three years in, we're still attempting to find that new pace.
That being said, there are plenty of wonderful moments, first steps, birthdays and all those little milestones that make this stage really special. There was a certain sense of irony as I was planning the recipes for my new TV show, Donal's Family Food in Minutes, in the depths of lockdown earlier this year, kids hanging out of us as we attempted Zoom calls, family visits through windows, and brief walks outdoors spent sidestepping strangers. It was a time when we all longed for big family meals shared around the kitchen table - the stuff we had dreamed of when living far from home with two small children. As we stare down the barrel of a tumultuous winter, I have filled each episode of the new series with recipes that bring warmth, comfort and perhaps a little certainty to uncertain times.
Say what you will, but I do believe making and eating sticky toffee pudding slathered in salted caramel sauce can heal a great many woes. So, as we collectively transition to a whole new view of what time spent with loved ones looks like, I want to share some recipes from the new show that may ease the change. A one-pan Italian-American winter warmer made with chicken thighs and Italian sausage infused with white wine and vinegar for a tangy, rich finish; a showstopper shepherd's pie with slow-braised lamb shanks topped with velvety mash; and, finally, that super-satisfying sticky toffee pudding.
Cook time: 3½ hours Serves: 6
Excuse the expletive above, but this is next-level shepherd's pie. It's one that perhaps takes a little longer to prepare but is a total showstopper for your next night in with a glass of wine.
2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper, to season
4 lamb shanks
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
6 fresh thyme sprigs
750ml fresh chicken stock
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp tomato ketchup
For the mash:
800g potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
100ml double cream
1 free-range egg yolk
6 spring onions, finely sliced
Sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a casserole over a medium heat. Season the lamb shanks and brown all over, then set aside. Add the rest of the oil to the pan and soften the onion and carrots for 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for a minute or two more.
2. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, pour over the stock and stir through the tomato purée and Worcestershire sauce until combined. Season well and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook gently, partially covered, for 2½ hours, turning the lamb occasionally, until the lamb shanks are tender and falling apart and the sauce reduced.
3. Meanwhile, make the mash. Put the potatoes in a pan of cold salted water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes until tender.
4. Drain and tip back into the pot, then place over a low heat and allow them to steam and dry. Next add the butter, the cream and the egg yolk. Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes until smooth and creamy. Stir in the spring onions and season to taste.
5. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan 160°C, gas mark 4).
6. When the lamb is tender, shred the meat from the bone into the sauce, stir in the ketchup and transfer to an ovenproof baking dish. Top with the champ mash, using a spoon to make a nice topping. Give the topping an extra sprinkle of ground black pepper and bake in the oven for 25 minutes, until the top is starting to brown and the mince is bubbling up around the edges.
Cook time: 40 minutes Serves: 4
Known as shoemaker's chicken, this is a tangy and rich Italian-American classic that infuses chicken and sausage with white wine, vinegar, pickled peppers and herbs for a truly hearty one-pan supper.
3 tbsp olive oil
300g Italian sausage or herb sausage, thickly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2cm pieces
2 red onions, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
2 sprigs of rosemary
150ml white wine
2 tsp white wine vinegar
300g new potatoes, halved
75g pickled peppers, such as Peppadew or Guindilla
Handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan 160°C, gas mark 4). Heat a large ovenproof pan over a high heat. Add the oil, sausage and chicken, turning to brown all over. Remove from the pan and set aside.
2. Add the onion, garlic and pepper to the pan and cook for 5 minutes until softened a little. Add the rosemary, white wine and vinegar, bubble for a minute, then put the chicken and sausage back in the pan. Add the potatoes, the stock and the pickled peppers.
3. Season well and put in the oven to cook for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the sauce has thickened a little. Serve scattered with parsley.
Cook time: 1 hour Serves: 6
This version is an ideal family favourite as there is no fussing around with little moulds - instead the batter is poured into a big serving dish, baked in the oven and slathered with salted caramel.
For the pudding:
150g light muscovado sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp black treacle
2 large free-range eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g self-raising flour
150g medjool dates, chopped
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Tub of vanilla ice-cream, to serve
For the sauce:
100g unsalted butter
150g dark muscovado sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
150ml double cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Generous pinch of sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan 140°C, gas mark 3). To make the pudding, grease a 20cm round ovenproof dish. Beat the butter and sugar together in a free-standing mixer until light and fluffy.
2. Add the golden syrup, treacle, eggs and vanilla slowly and continue to mix. When this is done, turn down the mixer to a slow speed and add the flour. When this is mixed well, turn the mixer off.
3. Bring 250ml water to a simmer in a small saucepan with the dates. After cooking for a few minutes, add the bicarbonate of soda. Be careful, as this mixture will foam up. Add this to the flour mixture when it is still hot. Combine the two, then pour into the prepared cake tin. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until firm and slightly springy to the touch.
4. Meanwhile, make the toffee sauce. Melt the butter, sugar and golden syrup together in a small pan until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cream, vanilla and salt; bring to a steady simmer for 3 minutes until the sauce has nicely thickened. Remove from heat.
5. Drizzle the sticky toffee sauce all over the pudding and serve in the centre of the table with a tub of vanilla ice-cream.
Good things to eat
In the latest cookbook from a true Irish master of cookery and indeed food writing, Rory O'Connell shares a fresh and inspiring collection of good things to eat. His careful and considered approach to ingredients is one I have always admired, and the recipes in this sweet but substantial cookbook are beautifully brought together with Rory's own illustrations. A modern Irish classic for passionate home cooks and beyond. @rorysfood
McNally Family Farm
I've been stalking McNally Family Farm's Instagram since we moved home to Ireland. Finally, we made time to visit on a quiet Friday morning and were blown away by all the unique organic vegetables that are simply a cook's dream, plus chicory, romanesco, Vietnamese coriander, speckled borlotti beans and artisan produce. We'll make it a weekly pilgrimage. @mcnallyfamilyfarm
Sunshine After The Rain
I mentioned all those lovely little moments of calm with the kids and recently we've been doing our best to celebrate them, particularly as the seasons change. We're getting all set for Halloween now - the house is filled with pumpkins, witches and ghosts, and we're enjoying this time where even the excitement of spotting a rainbow is a true win!