Norn Iron: Dance bands on the Titanic
Regular readers of this column [Oxymorons of the world unite! – Ed] probably know the score; I take an idea and run it into the ground. At the recent talk by Douglas Roche in Belfast there was a comment from a participant about Northern Ireland being a dancehall which has two bands playing, one at either end of the hall. It was such a marvellous and insightful image I thought I’d run with it awhile.
The dancehall is of course Northern Ireland. The two bands are, respectively, the loyalist/unionist band and the republican/nationalist band. Most people in the hall have come to listen and dance to one band or the other, a few are prepared to wander between the two, but as the two bands insist on playing simultaneously there is an unholy cacophony of sound. Of course if they wanted, which they don’t, they could take turns and one band support the other while it played in turn, but that doesn’t happen.
The result is painful for everyone. To slightly adapt a song (All I Remember) associated with Christy Moore but written by Mick Hanly, this turns it from ‘Ballrooms of Romance’, and the battle of the sexes, to the battle of the sectarianisms, and the ‘Ballrooms of Necromance’:
“In ballrooms of necromance in Belfast and Derry
I stood like John Wayne by the wall
Lined up like like cattle we wait to do battle and fall...”
The two bands, to try to get themselves heard, of course try to play as loud as they can. But they make no effort to actually win over supporters of the other band, they are just shouting, rather than singing, to their own followers. Many of those who become uncomfortable with the noise cannot wait to get out of the dancehall altogether. Even the image of a dancehall itself takes us back to the past. And standing on other’s toes is an art form in itself in Northern Ireland.
V & V (7): The many guises of potatoes
Continuing our quick jaunt around the possibilities of vegetarianism and veganism, we come to the ‘humble’ potato which should be considered anything but that since it is nutritious and versatile. The pre-Famine diet of potatoes and buttermilk might have been boring but it was healthy enough and the danger lay in the (forced) over-reliance on a vulnerable product – when blight hit, the result was tragedy and disaster. In the modern era, Irish people now eat much less potatoes than even twenty of thirty years ago but they are part of tradition and a tradition it is well worth maintaining. In parts of east Africa, ‘our’ spuds (as opposed to sweet potatoes) are known as ‘Irish potatoes’. And some older people in Ireland can still think a dinner isn’t a proper meal without them.
Potatoes can go as an unnoticed part of a main meal or they can be the main feature or part of the main feature. They fit both roles well (though perhaps it is a shame for any part of a meal to go unnoticed), their versatility is quite amazing, we are so used to them that often they are given neither the attention nor time they deserve.
Starting at the fast and simple end, we have potatoes boiled or steamed (the latter is much preferable to boiled I think), and we cook them in a pressure cooker. New potatoes are simply superb by themselves, or possibly steam or pressure cook them with some mint leaves. If you are not having to feed a large group and therefore need all of your pot for that one meal, you can cook some extra which can be used within a few days for a potato salad or fried potatoes. New potatoes obviously just need washed and any bad bits removed but for several months, until you are getting main crop potatoes with heavy skins, I would scrape off any rougher skin and dirt and leave what skin I can (tastier and more nutritious). Depending on your inclination you can of course boil/steam potatoes in their jackets at any time of year and let the eater take the skin off if they wish.
Mashed potatoes are so ubiquitous that again they can be denied their rightful place. The normal Irish approach is to add some butter and a little bit of milk, with a bit of seasoning. This is close to champ of which there are many varieties and recipes, and many ’champ’ions, and those who champ at the bit to get at it, ho ho. Champ has quite a bit of milk put in as well as the butter, and uses chopped chives or scallions (spring onions for those outside these shores) – in Darina Allen’s recipe you bring these to the boil in the milk and simmer for a few minutes before adding to the potatoes but I would usually just throw them in. You can also add pepper and salt though in the interests of a low sodium diet I personally don’t add any salt.
If you are vegan then olive oil is probably best but you can experiment with different oils and, while you could use soya milk instead of cow’s milk you could also experiment with onion stock. You can add fried onion, I like it almost caramelised, instead of the scallions or chives. Personally I like a fair dollop of wasabi powder (horseradish, but you could use horseradish sauce or even cooked fresh horseradish if you have it) but not all the family go for it so I only do it on occasions; if you aren’t used to using wasabi, taste as you add it so you don’t become a wasabist.
Colcannon is another well known traditional Irish mashed potato dish; it has cooked cabbage or kale mixed with the mashed potato (again with milk and butter). This is the basic recipe and while the cabbage might be steamed or boiled I usually sauté it (cook with a small amount of oil in a heavy pan and put on the lid, when necessary add a small amount of water so it doesn’t burn). Again you can add chives or scallions and I would use well cooked onion – you can sauté the onion and cabbage together. A simple and great traditional dish. For vegan colcannon again use olive oil and your choice of liquid (soya milk or vegetable stock).
A very tasty curried potato dish can be created by putting cooked, steamed potatoes which have been chopped to the size you want into a curry sauce and heating together a little. Don’t overcook the potatoes or they may go mushy and you want them to stay together. Your curry sauce can easily be vegan: Sauté onion and chilli, and possibly add chopped mushrooms near the end of cooking (you can add anything you like). Put in enough flour to make a roux (I use wholemeal flour) and then gradually add water, stirring to ensure a mix and heat gently, adding more water if you need to thin it more as it thickens. Add some vegetable bouillon or a stock cube (or use vegetable stock instead of water at the previous stage) and your curry flavourings. Alternatively you can use lentils as the curry sauce base which adds protein (I vary it, and it also depends what else in the meal will have protein). You can just use curry powder but using freshly ground spices (e.g. cumin and coriander seeds) makes the taste much superior; I use a coffee grinder for grinding spices and seeds in general (e.g. linseed). Taste and add additional spices or flavourings as desired. Add in the diced potato and heat gently, and stir frequently, so the pot doesn’t get burnt. Eat.
When roasting potatoes I use sunflower oil but some swear by olive oil. Depending on time and your inclination you can parboil them (partly cook the spuds) before putting them in the oven. Experimentation, and enough time in the oven at the right temperature, are needed to get your desired degree of crispiness. Or potatoes can be just part of a mix of roasted roots which can include onions. Roasting or frying up previously cooked potatoes you can use whatever flavouring you want to try – the list is endless including possibly herbs like rosemary or spices like curry or fenugreek.
Baked potatoes are great but need a decent sauce or butter when it comes to the eating. Finding spuds with reasonable skins is key to preparing them for baking; clean well and cut off any bad or discoloured bits. If you have a perfect spud you still need to cut off one or two small bits so there is no risk of your potato exploding in the oven. I do put on a wee bit of salt on baked potatoes before cooking but that is according to personal preference. Baked potatoes need an hour and a half in an oven at gas mark 4 – 5, 180 – 200’.
For potato salad there can be many different dressings and combinations. I tend to use a mixture of mayonnaise and yoghurt but, as a vegan alternative, olive oil is also very good, you could use a vegan yoghurt. You can use chopped red onions, chives or scallions as a basic flavouring but I much like about half and half chopped chives or Welsh onions (like the stems of big scallions) and chopped parsley. You can add cooked or raw veg – e.g. cooked peas or corn, uncooked chopped pepper or fine raw celery. I wouldn’t add salt since it should be flavoursome enough without it (and if using mayo it has salt) though I would tend to add some black pepper. Depending on your potatoes and how well they hold together, you should cook them enough but not too well so as not to have mashed potato salad, where the potato goes all soft - but if that happens don’t worry, it is still tasty.
Irish boxty and Swiss rosti are closely related fried grated potato dishes or families of dishes. There are endless varieties of both it would seem and I am not an expert. Despite the words being a bit similar in English they are totally separate etymologically; boxty comes from ‘arán bocht tí’ or ‘poor house bread’. But don’t let that name put you off. And it looks like if you make one you’re also making the other, so you can ask people whether they would like boxty or rosti but only make it once! You can check out some recipes online or Darina Allen’s ‘Irish Traditional Cooking’ has a number.
Recipes for boxty vary according to whether you use the starch that comes out of the spuds on grating them, add flour, or eggs, or other ingredients, and whether you use parboiled potatoes, raw potatoes or a mixture of the cooked and raw. In my limited experience, using olive oil is probably easier than using butter as it seems to be absorbed less and therefore the boxty is less likely to burn. What follows is ‘my’ recipe; I use onions for extra flavour. Wash your spuds well, enough for 3 – 4 people, and leave the skins if you can (if they are terrible just peel them). Grate the spuds into a colander and rinse off the starch, leaving to drain. Halve a couple of medium onions and slices into lengths. Put a generous amount of olive oil into a heavy frying pan, add half your grated potato, then spread out the onions, season with salt and pepper to taste, and then the rest of the grated potato. Press it down a bit; it will reduce in height a bit and ‘come together’ as it cooks. Cook using a medium heat checking it is not burning and if need be add more oil or turn the heat down. Use a slice to check underneath periodically.
When, after 15 minutes or so the underside looks like it is done, turning golden brown, loosen the boxty if need be and place a large plate on top, turn over, put some more oil on the pan as necessary and slide the other side of the boxty onto the pan. Cook for another 15 or so minutes. You can keep it hot in the oven or also eat it cold. You may need to slice it with a knife. It’s tasty stuff.
There are many ways of doing potatoes in the oven; baked, roast, or sliced in a gratin dish. While you can cook sliced potato along with garlic and cream, you can also just use milk, putting a layer of potatoes, a layer of sliced onion, and a top layer of potatoes, wet it with the milk and put some small pieces of butter on top and maybe some paprika. You probably only need to get the milk level up to about a third of the height of the potatoes in the dish – it will bubble up anyway. Cook at 4 - 5 on the gas scale or 180 – 200° electric for 90 minutes or more. Using cream instead of milk makes for a richer dish and you can also add garlic or other flavourings.
However the lacto-vegetarians shouldn’t have it all their own way. You can do a very good vegan potato bake; I have used an onion gravy (an onion cube thickened with cornflour), fairly liquid as opposed to thick as much of the moisture will evaporate in the oven anyway, though I imagine you could use plain unthickened vegetable stock, homemade or bought. I have added some dried parsley for additional flavour but you could use any herbs or flavouring including garlic. I use a 25 x 18 x 4.5 cm dish to serve 3 people. I put my three layers (potato-sliced onion-potato) and pour on the onion gravy, again only to a third or half of the height of the potatoes. I then spoon on some olive oil to cover the top, just 4 dessertspoonfuls for this size dish. Either lacto-vegetarian or vegan this is going to take an hour and a half, maybe more, in the oven at gas 4 – 5, 180° plus; if you want it crispy turn the oven up, if it’s getting too dry or crispy cover it with tin foil. Great stuff. And if you don’t manage to eat it all, this kind of potato dish is also good cold.
Potato bread bought commercially is usually made with reconstituted potato. But for a little time and effort you can make the real thing for about a quarter of the cost. It’s quite easy, it just takes time and, once you mix the flour with your mash you need to cook the potato bread straight away because after half an hour or so it starts to go gloopy (a highly scientific term indicating that it becomes sticky and almost impossible to work with). Potato bread freezes really well so I cook a couple of kilos of spuds to make into potato bread and get maybe 50 or so pieces.
Cook your potatoes to completely soft and mash immediately and well, trying to ensure there are no ‘unmashed’ bits. If you like you can add some butter, marg or oil when mashing to make it slightly richer but you don’t need to do this. I don’t add salt or anything else but you can add salt or pepper if you like. Leave the mash to cool completely. Weigh your mashed potato and add one quarter of the weight of the spuds in plain white flour (wholemeal flour discolours and this looks funny though is edible). Mix it completely; I initially use a knife, then a fork, then my hands.
Flour your table or rolling out space and take a fist size piece of the potato dough and roll it out into as much of a rectangular piece as you can – if you want rectangular or square pieces of potato bread, I would usually get around 8 slices from a fist sized piece of dough. When thin enough – maybe 4 – 5 mm, not too thin or it will fall apart, cut it up into the size of pieces you want and cook it dry (no oil needed) on a moderate heat on a heavy pan or skillet (I use two pans at the same time to speed up the process) until speckled golden brown and firm; you need to lift it carefully, perhaps with a knife if it is sticking to your surface, when putting it on to cook, and shift it regularly with a slice so it doesn’t stick. Put on a baking tray to cool. You may need to clean up you pan periodically so there aren’t burnt bits and burnt flour on it when starting the next batch; I just wipe it with kitchen roll.
Your potato bread can then be kept in the fridge for up to a week or frozen for future use. Potato bread can be toasted, grilled or fried and is very handy for a quick meal and usually goes down well. Talking of potato and flour mixtures, you can also do a flour-and-mashed-potato base for a pizza which is excellent (the flour which has been mixed with marg or oil is wetted and bound together by the moisture in the mashed potato); I’ll maybe give you the recipe another time.
Potatoes – you are spoiled for choice in how to cook them. And I haven’t even mentioned chips; many swear by the ‘cook twice’ method, I don’t bother if the oil is hot enough and you don’t try to cook too many at once – better do two lots than one big one where the temperature of the oil doesn’t get hot enough.
[Whoa, that’s a whole treatise of more than two and a half thousand words just on cooking spuds! You do pratie on – Ed] [Tuber or not tuber, that is the question – Billy] [You can make your lazy bed and lie on it – Ed] [I am inviting people to explore potatoes, I don’t want to drill them into it.... – Billy]
Richard Branson’s disastrous attempts to get a commercial flight (Virgin Titanic, sorry, Virgin Galactic) up into ‘near space’ has already resulted in four deaths and a serious injury (three deaths in a previous fuel explosion). It is not even to go up into orbit, it is just intended to get above the earth’s atmosphere, experience weightlessness briefly, see the curve of the earth, and plunge down again. In the recent crash of the last test attempt there was speculation about the fuel mix but it looks like it may have been a malfunction with the re-entry system. The intention has been to charge six rich commercial passengers a quarter of a million dollars (US$250,000) each.
It is easy, and probably accurate, to make a comment about rich men and their toys or vanity projects. It is hard to see that there is any worthwhile scientific gain to be made. But, aside from the deaths, what is obscene is the fact that any ‘near space tourists’ will probably be using their entire lifetime’s just allocation of carbon in a couple of seconds. Branson has at times proclaimed himself to be green, which is a bit laughable from someone owning an airline. But this venture is climate profligacy of the worst sort. It is so wasteful and violent to our earth and its people, in the context of what it is facing with climate change, as to be totally obscene. Branson must be living on another planet – not one with a global warming catastrophe looming - to even attempt to justify such megalomaniac lunacy, to use an appropriate term.
An English man’s home is someone else’s fracking site
The dangers of allowing rampant economic development to ride roughshod over the wishes of individuals and communities is well illustrated with current moves by the Conservatives, sorry, Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, in Britain to allow fracking deep under people’s homes without their permission. If the proposals go through frackers could use, and leave, any substance to facilitate the extraction of gas and oil. The government have said they wouldn’t allow anything ‘hazardous’ to be left. One moral there is that you don’t know what is ‘hazardous’ until after the damage is done. This is one issue where communities there would be very unwise to cave in, to coin a phase. Hopefully the debate on fracking in Ireland will continue long enough for other countries to prove that it is an enormous and environmentally costly cul de sac instead of going straight to green energy and conservation – which would create far more jobs in the long term anyway than fracking ever could.
Those looking for or who might enjoy a hugely entertaining and informative read about growing up in Norn Iron during the Troubles should get to grips with Tony Macaulay’s autobiographical trilogy ‘Paperboy’, ‘Breadboy’ and ‘All Growed Up’ (the last on his student years in Coleraine). The Troubles and sectarian divisions do rear their head in this story of someone from the upper Shankill in Belfast but you may be too busy laughing, or even empathising, at his latest escapade, naivety, or relational issue to notice – and the Troubles and sectarianisms are usually an important backdrop rather than the main focus. I will never think of after shave in the same way again.
‘All Growed Up’ (published this autumn by Blackstaff Press) brings this series to an end and, while his story may get continued it will not be in the same format of an intelligent and searching but in other ways gormless youth who tries out his commitment to peace and understanding. It could not continue because, as the last book proclaims in its title, at the end he is ‘all growed up’. Ahhhhhh. What was most intriguing in the last book is how he tries to pass through the minefield of the different worlds he inhabits; that was a theme in the previous two books as well but in the last undertaken in young adulthood. I enjoyed the journey but it takes real skill and bravery to open your adolescent self up to public gaze in this way, even if it is for the (successful) entertainment and edification of the public.
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There we go, it’s time to get the spuds on. See you again in another month when, aaarrrggghhhh, Christmas will be just around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Christmas break as much as anyone else and time to spend with family and friends and away from busy-ness. It is just getting there that can drive me up the walls. See you soon, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).