The Queen of the Kitchen, Rachel Allen

Your Irish mother was right.  There are two things you need to turn a house into a home -- love and decent cooking. Get those two things right and you’re well on your way to enduring happiness.

But you don’t just become a good cook, do you?  If it was easy we’d all be Julia Child, I suppose.  The truth is it takes practice and a little persistence, and where you turn for help when you are starting out will make all the difference.

Some cookbooks just want to turn you into an unspeakable show off, plying your friends and family with ridiculously overwrought recipes that seem calculated to impress rather than satisfy. The experience can be so off-putting that you’ll decide on the spot you were wasting your time as you crack open another frozen meal from Stouffer’s.

But this doesn’t have to happen to you. There are options. In fact the first real skill you’ll pick up as a budding cook is to find out exactly where to turn to for help.

So let’s hear a word of thanks for Rachel Allen, 40, already one of the world’s most successful cookbook writers, with over a million books sold. Her beautifully illustrated new book, Rachel’s Irish Family Food (Harper Collins, $29.99) is like a manifesto of the best of Irish cooking.

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She’s too modest to say it herself, but this book represents over 20 years of tried and tested Irish recipes that will expand your own repertoire and turn you into an authentically Irish cook, regardless of your experience to date or where you live.

It’s the cookbook Allen has always wanted to write, being an inspired list of some of the most nourishing and seriously comforting Irish dishes, all featuring the incredible produce to be found on Irish farms.

“How I started the book was to ask myself, what food do I love to eat at home?” Allen tells the Irish Voice. “I asked myself what celebrates the best of great Irish produce that isn’t just traditional? In other words ,what are we eating now?”

A lot of Irish cooking is sophisticated in its simplicity, Allen realized, so she stresses that every element in a recipe has got to be good quality.

“I want it to be the kind of cookbook that people can pick up and say, ‘Oh great, I can make this dish tonight and this dish tomorrow.’ From breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert to the more expansive dinner party fare. I wanted to cover all of it.”

As an 18-year-old teenager from Dublin, Allen attended the world famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co. Cork run by Darina Allen.  But it was more than just another course of study because she found her true calling there she says, going on to marry Allen’s son and raise her own family as she continues teach an incredibly popular course on baking at Ballymaloe.

The best bit of advice she ever got from Darina Allen was given when she first arrived at Ballymaloe as a student, she confesses.  Start with the best possible ingredients and that way you’ll end up with something great, Allen told her.

“It’s also the most important thing we can do for ourselves, to feed ourselves and others well. I love a treat as much as anyone, but I do believe that food should be nourishing as well. I think if you have the right ingredients then you will stay healthy too,” she said.

Rachel’s Irish Family Food is a timely comeback to your snooty non-Irish pals who associate Irish cooking with the over-boiled, under seasoned offerings of our near neighbors in Britain. We know we don’t do that, and finally here’s the proof.

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The new book takes stock of the range and sophistication of Irish cooking. Our baked goods are simply world class, Allen argues, as is our range of dairy products and homegrown crops. If the best food comes from the best ingredients then it’s no wonder this book will fly off the shelves.

Almost everyone loves food, after all. It can be a powerfully emotional experience too.

What Irish person abroad hasn’t been utterly delighted to see some really well made soda bread or a full Irish breakfast laid out on the table in far flung destinations like Sydney or Singapore? It’s a deep connection to our culture and a history, and it’s thrilling.

“Irish food is very produce led,” says Allen. “We don’t have a cuisine as such so our cooking is really about the great ingredients.

“The upside to all the rain that we have in our climate (which we have been having all day today!) is our fertile soil. We have fabulous dairy and wonderful meats, and being such a small island we have wonderful shellfish and seafood too. So the new book is about celebrating all of that.”

As the most successful cookbook author in Ireland, Allen uses her Irish heritage to provide recipes for every occasion and for every taste. It’s the kind of food that the Irish eat every day.

Rachel’s Irish Family Food does include traditional dishes like the Dublin coddle and Irish stew, alongside many potato dishes, but it’s the kind of wholesome food that has evolved in the way we tend to eat as families.

“We don’t rely heavily on spices or a huge amount of herbs, so the ingredients have to speak for themselves and they have to be good quality,” says Allen.

“I’m a mum and I’m quite busy, so recipes have to be practical as well. I want to be able to look around my kitchen and say, ‘I’ve already got most of those ingredients, great!’ I want the book to be easy and accessible. It’s the kind of Irish food that I cook for myself.”

A good Irish cook will say to him or herself, that piece of cheese I have is really great, what can I do with it? That’s how we learn to make a feast out of ingredients we have to hand, Allen says.

“Some people misinterpret Irish food. Maybe they think it’s very stodgy or flavorless. I don’t believe it is,” Allen says.

“We are like the Asians; we love our broths as well. So many of the dishes in the book have been selected from watching people I know cook. What they cook and how they cook it is where the magic happens.”
One of her favorite recipes in the new book is Chicken Open Pot Roast, she confesses.

“It’s French in influence because its got Dijon mustard and lemon in it, but it’s also hearty and Irish without being heavy or stodgy. The best of both worlds!”

When one of Allen’s American friends looked at her sideways and asked, “What on earth is Dublin coddle?” she had the answer right away.

“I told her, ‘You know what, you have to try it!’ If you’re feeling under the weather or hung over it’s the most restorative and nourishing food you can eat I think. That the magic of Irish cooking.”

"Rachel's Irish Family Food: 120 classic recipes from my home to yours" is available on Amazon.