Monday, 24 November 2014

Easy Food Home Cook Hero Finalist 2014 - Pasta alla Norma

For those of you who do not know, Easy Food is a magazine for home cooks published in Ireland. I subscribed to it when I arrived in Belfast, and I have been following it then since. 
In 2011 they started an annual competition to find the best home cooks in Ireland, the Home cook hero awards. This year I entered the competition, and,  to my surprise, I was one of the finalists. The competition ran on the magazine for weeks. Aspirants sent their recipes to the magazine and 3 were selected for each of the 10 categories. My version of Pasta alla Norma was selected in the pasta category, sponsored by Barilla. 
One windy and rainy November morning I headed to Cooks Academy, in central Dublin quite early on in the morning. I had to cook the dish for the 3 judges, with the other 2 finalists in my category. I arrived so early that I was sent to have a cup of coffee before an early start of the day. Thank to that, I had an extra dosis of cafeine in the form of yet another double espresso to help me with the day ahead.

The guys from the academy and from the magazine were absolutely brilliant at all times. I also met the Barilla representative before the competition. I was on my own, but some of the other contestants came with some relatives or friends, so a small group of excited amateur cooks was getting ready before the time for cooking started. 

The funny bit is that the competition in the morning was completed with a black tie dinner in one of the most luxurious hotels in Dublin, The Selbourne. Both the morning cooking and the evening gala were the base for a TV show aired the following week on TV3Ireland. You can see the full show in here. You can see me around minute 27, and right after that you will also see who won in my category -which, as you'd have already imagined, was not me, ooops!

Me and the two other girls in the pasta category were the first to start. And we were also the first to talk to the camera. Soon after that, all our stuff was ready waiting for us to start cooking, and our cooking slot started. I should say that the 45 minutes ran incredibly fast. Other groups were starting soon after ours, and the cook academy was getting full of teams of excited home cooks trying to do their best for the day. 

We were the first in finishing and bringing our dishes to the judges. Soon right after that, the morning contest was over for us, we were supposed to know who had won in the evening gala, although by then (if it had not been clear enough before) it was already a fact who had been the lucky winner, and most of it was finished for us. They took some photos and we were basically done for the morning. 

 Me and my Pasta alla Norma at the Cooks Academy, Dublin

Barilla also got me as a gift a chef jacket. My first cook jacket ever! Thanks a lot, Helen, for everything during the day. It was really nice meeting you! Thanks to every one at Cooks Academy, you were really brilliant! And thanks to all the people at Easy Food Magazine. You made a great job with the contest, the cooking, the gala. Very well done all..  It has been one of the nicest experiences connected to food that I have had so far and my first appearance in an Irish TV channel, so far.... 

So, now I am also officially one of the finalist at the 2014 Easy Food Home Cook Hero Awards.

The recipe that I prepared for the contest is a traditional italian recipe. It has auberginies on it, which is one of my favorite ingredients. I publised this recipe in my blog, back in Spain, years ago. Below you can find the recipe. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do at home.

Pasta alla Norma

Ingredients for 2 people

1 medium eggplant
4 ripe tomatoes (or a can of chopped tomatoes 500 grams)
1 or 2 cloves garlic (to taste)
1 chili (or chile, chili powder, or similar-optional)
Basil leaves
A few tablespoons of ricotta (optional)
Olive oil (optional -if you follow a low fat diet, you'll fin in the directions how to avoid it)
80 to 100 grams of pasta: Rigatoni, Tortiglioni or similar  (adjust quantity to taste)


NOTE: I have made this sauce with almost no oil. (Yes, you can) as I explain below. If you prefer to make the sauce as usual, it will be perfect, too.

Cut the eggplant into medium cubes. Put in a bowl, add salt and let it loose the excess water.

Put the pasta to cook in salted water and cook according to manufacturer's instructions, trying to let it al dente.

Put half a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan, or a couple of oil-sprays and spread with a paper towel just to prevent sticking. Place over medium heat with onion chopped very fine. Before it starts to burn, a minute or so, add two tablespoons water and cook the onion over medium heat. Add garlic, chilli or pepper if using, and cook about 5 minutes, until onion starts to be done. 

Add the eggplant, cover the pan and let it cook slowly about 5 minutes, until eggplant begins to release juices. Uncover, stir and keep 3 or 4 minutes. If the eggplant begins to cling to the bottom, add a few tablespoons of water, stir and continue cooking.

Add the tomatoes. If they are fresh, clean pieces skinless and cut into cubes, if they are packaged, add them directly with their juice. Cook another 5 minutes. Add chopped basil leaves. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Drain the pasta (without passing it through cold water), mix with sauce and serve decorated with basil leaves and a dollop of ricotta cheese. This cheese is not too fatty, but if you prefer not to use it, your pasta will still be delicious.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Warm goat cheese, grilled peach and raspberries salad

There is never enough time for all I want to do. I am sure this is not just my problem. Too much things to do, and still days only have 24 hours, can you believe it? I have been wanting to publish this recipe for weeks, but for one thing or the other it has been going down in my to do list. It might sound a bit strange to use now nectarines. Well, I can tell you guys, they were absolutely perfect when I prepared this, very late summer, at the end of the season. 

I can say, however, that I have a great excuse for my delay in publishing over the last couple of weeks. I am planning to write a full story for that with all the details, but it will not be before next Saturday. Well, I promise this is not the teaser for my next new movie… but it will be on Saturday, 15th November when the Easy Cook Home Cook Hero awards gala will be aired on TV3 Ireland (1.40 pm). The point is that a couple of weeks ago I was told that one of my recipes had been selected to take part in the contest.
As you can imagine, for the last two weeks, I have  been testing the recipe in a more systematic way to be certain that the results would be consistent, and I have had even less time than usual. I won’t complain, though, as I can only thank the organizers for what has been one amazing experience for me as an amateur cook and food blogger.
So, as promised, I will give you all the details as soon as I can, but in the meanwhile, let me go back to this salad.

I love berries. I love their tanginess, and the sharpness that they add to savoury dishes. I had seen something like this salad in an Australian food magazine, and with that as the initial idea, I decided to mix a couple of things and give it a try. I ended up using this salad as the starter for a dinner party at home. I really enjoyed the results, and I guess my friends also liked it. 

At the end of the day, it is a salad (quite an obvious starter), but it is quite a salad. The combination of grilled nectarine with its caramelized juices, the warm, about-to-melt goat cheese and the tangy raspberry vinaigrette makes this a total winner. This mix of flavours, textures and the temperature contrast make this a truly special salad.
So, apologies for my huge delay in publishing this. Now you will be ready to try this when nectarines are on season again. 
A small trick if you want/have to avoid the oven: use a pan with wax paper instead.

Warm goat cheese, grilled nectarine and raspberries salad 

4 nectarines
Some mix crunchy salad leaves 
A handful of raspberries
Goat cheese (3-4 slices per person)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Raspberry vinegar (or light white wine vinegar) 
Black Pepper

I could not find raspberry vinegar myself, so I squeezed some raspberries with 4 tablespoons of a light white wine vinegar and let the mix rest for a while. You can skip this step if you find the raspberry vinegar, or just skip it all together.
Put the grill in high heat and add just a little olive oil. You might want to spray or use a cooking brush for this. Once the grill is hot, put the nectarines, cut into eights, and grill them until they get golden brown. 
Put the letuce, nectarine and some raspberries in a serving plate and season. 
Prepare a vinaigrette with 3 parts olive oil and 1 part of the vinegar and add to the salad. 
Put the pan in high heat and add a bit of wax paper. Put the cheese on top, until it starts to get warm and lightly melted. Put on top of the salad and serve inmediately.