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A recipe of the month! Well, Holy God, Benjy!! I thought we were never going to get another one of those…where’ve you been, recipe of the month man? Well, I took a couple of months off. Not off from doing everything, you understand, I just gave myself permission to not write one out if I didn’t feel the urge. I fully expected the boss to be on my case but that didn’t happen so I chanced another day off when the next deadline fell. I half-guessed you’d all be on holidays anyway, sitting by your holiday caravans, grilling those amazing black bean mushroom burgers I offered up a while back.
To be honest, and I shouldn’t say this here of all places, sometimes I just get fed up with the whole internet thing. If you’re doing it because you feel you have to, blogging feels like chucking your best apples over a high wall and hearing no sound of them landing. Or ‘wasting my sweetness on the desert air’ – as the great/notorious Brother Stan used to say when he felt the boys in his class were devoting their attention to inner thoughts and cloud formations.
So it is a bit ironic that the reason I hauled myself back in here was because of an incident on the internet. Feedback is feedback, you might say, but last week someone who smiled and said thanks going out the door proceeded to go home and use a well-known review site to call on world leaders and all who follow them cravenly to desist from throwing their hard-earned cash at Cafe Paradiso. Stay away!, she cried, in capitals. The reasons for her disappointment were many, including walls, chairs, toilet doors, cold small soup, ice cream she suspected of being bought in, bread she found a tad difficult to gnaw through, music she suspected to be – horrors! – jazzish and…a main course she declared to be a nutloaf…in capitals…as though whipping off the emperor’s new clothes. Hoopla! Nutloaf!! Sorry, I keep meaning to do big letters when I write ‘capitals’ but can’t bring myself to, it seems so shouty.
There’s a very serious side to all this. The staff who worked that night cooking for and serving a guest who gave no hint of dissatisfaction until she hit the computer at home are very upset, both at the method used and the inference that they are careless, vain and deceitful in their work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To work at the high standards that those in Paradiso do, for the hours they do and at the levels of intensity and passion they bring to it, there is no room for vanity or anything vacuous. Anyone who knows what it takes to maintain standards in a good restaurant can recognise the dedication of our staff, the respect they have for their ingredients and their customers, and the humility required to work long hours to the standards they set themselves.
This is a difficult time for the restaurant industry in Ireland, as it is for any industry. To survive, we in Cafe Paradiso have had to get better at what we do, be more efficient, work harder and longer, charge less and cut the invisible corners so the customer still gets the best of what we can do. It was particularly hurtful that a Cork resident would take the trouble to sign up to and use a travel site to so strongly put down a local business, to the point of resorting to those dreaded capitals to warn visitors to stay away, all without the courtesy of speaking to us about her complaints.
Most people in the industry keep quiet about tripadvisor, hoping they get more positive spin than bad. Others try to manipulate it, which isn’t that hard unfortunately. More wish it wasn’t there at all, cross their fingers and hope the public can see through the sham, the vindictive and the blatant self-promotion to the sincere reviews by travellers, while wondering why it isn’t policed with anything more than tokenism. Adam Raphael of The Good Hotel Guide in the UK has run a long campaign to get tripadvisor to sort itself out, with little success. It’s profitable, it pops up on your screen ahead of its more cautious rivals, so why should it care about authenticity, objectivity and honesty?
I won’t go on much more about it, except to say this – if it is a guide for traveller’s, wouldn’t it be a good frontline protection against abuse and vindictiveness to not allow locals post, especially those with no previous posting record?
The main course that led to our reviewer’s moment of lucidity was the old classic we call couscous cake for short, the long title being the sentence at the top up there. I know a lot of people love it, which is why we rarely take it off the menu. (In fact, the only reason we ever do is a bit like taking a car off the road for service – take it off when it’s purring well, park it for a bit, then fine-tune everything before taking it out again.)
Here’s the recipe. It’s a long one, but most of the bits can be made or part-made in advance, and the pepper jam is something you will find very useful for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks.
Sweet & Hot Pepper Jam
4 red peppers, roasted & peeled
500g ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded & diced
2–-4 fresh red chillies, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, ground
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, grated
250g caster sugar
100mls balsamic vinegar
200mls thick yoghurt
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ripe tomatoes, finely diced
4 fresh green chillies, chopped
2 tsps whole cumin seeds
400g cooked chickpeas
Feta, Pistachio & Couscous Cakes
200mls warm water or stock
2 medium red onions, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, ground
½ tsp turmeric
pinch of paprika
200g feta, coarsely crumbled
40g shelled pistachio, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
2 eggs, beaten
2 large handfuls kale or chard, coarsely chopped
large pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon
1 clove, ground
zest of 1 orange, finely grated
1 tsp each orange and lemon juice
To make the pepper jam, pulse the peppers and tomatoes in a food processor to get a coarse puree. Put this in a pot with the chillies, cumin and ginger. Put this puree in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 50-60 minutes, stirring often. until the mixture has become thick and jammy. Scrape the sides of the pan with a spatula occasionally too. Cool and store in a fridge, or preserve the jam in sterilized jars.
To make the coriander yoghurt, put the chopped coriander in a food processor with a little of the yoghurt and blend to get a green puree. Add the rest of the yoghurt and blend very briefly to get green sauce of thick pouring consistency.
To make the spiced chickpeas, put the olive oil, diced tomatoes, chillies and cumin seeds in a pan over medium heat., bring up to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes until the tomatoes have softened. Add the chickpeas and some salt, and continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes more until the tomatoes have become a thick, highly spiced sauce.
Now make the couscous cake mix. Soak the couscous in 200mls of warm water or stock and leave for 15 minutes. Fluff up with a fork or your fingers.
Fry the onion in a little olive oil over medium heat for two minutes, then add the spices and garlic and cook for two minutes more. Stir this into the couscous, with the feta and fresh coriander. Chop the pistachio coarsely and stir into the mix. Season with salt and pepper. Add the beaten eggs just before you fry the cakes.
To cook the cakes, heat a large heavy frying pan over low heat. Place four metal rings, of 9-10cm diameter, in the pan and brush their inside surfaces and the pan itself with olive oil. Pack each ring with the some of the cake mix, pressing gently on the top of each. Fry the cakes gently for a 7-8 minutes before flipping them over to cook the other side for a further 7-8 minutes, until they are cooked through and the outsides are slightly crisped.
While the cakes are cooking, heat some olive oil in a pan over high heat. Add the kale or chard and cook, stirring frequently and occasionally adding a splash of water, until the greens have wilted. Add the spices and citrus and cook for one minute more. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.
Put some citrus greens on each plate and place a couscous cake on top of each portion. Top with a spoon of the pepper jam and drizzle some coriander yoghurt around the plate. Finally spoon some spiced chickpeas beside each cake and serve.