House & Home

My Kitchen Essentials

I recently wrote a brief piece on the things to think about if you are planning on building or renovating a kitchen for the lovely people of  McMullin Design and this got me thinking about that things I actually use in my kitchen.

There are certain things I couldn’t do without and that I use so regularly they usually live on the counter top rather than in a cupboard, here is a list of a few of these things:

Cast Iron Skillet

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My skillet lives on the cooker, it never gets put away. I have had it for years and have seasoned it several times so it is still as good as new. It is my go to pan for crisply fried eggs, a well seared steak or duck breast. I love that this pan can go in to the oven, it is great for frittata and tarte tatin, however I have on a few occasions scalded my hand by forgetting that metal handles are very hot when they come out of the oven.

Microplane
I once dedicated a whole post to my microplane so great is my love for this simple item. I use it to grate chilled butter and lard for pastry, zesting citrus fruit, and grating everything from cheese to garlic.

Silcom Pastry Brush
All I will say about this is that you will appreciate never having to remove an errant bristle from the top of a beautifully egg washed pie every again.

Digital Scales

Credit: Victoria Owens

I was old school in my choice of scales before I was gifted my digital scales and I have to say I don’t think I would go back, I much prefer the precision of this to spending five minutes trying to figure out exactly where the dial is pointing on an old fashioned weighing scales.

 
Cup Measures

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I love the ease of using cup measures, there is something deeply satisfying about plunging a cup measure in to a bag of flour and then levelling the top with a knife, it makes me feel like a proper baker.

 
Measuring Spoons
I have excellent spoon measures and the best thing about them is that they are more pointed than rounded so the teaspoon actually fits in to even the narrowest of spice jars, this may seem like a small thing but not being able to easily get a teaspoon of cumin out of a Sharwood’s jar was a definite source of frustration for me.

 
A Wooden Spoon and a Balloon Whisk

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It is old fashioned, scorched and stained but I love my wooden spoon. Back in the days when I couldn’t afford an electric mixer I managed to make many elaborate deserts and cakes with just a balloon whisk and my wooden spoon although I did once lose a spoon and a plastic bowl to a particularly solid piece of butter, somehow in my attempt to soften the butter I put the spoon through the bottom of the bowl snapping the handle as it went. The balloon whisk I use for sauces, custards and on days when I feel in the need of a workout I still use it to whisk egg whites

 

Sugar thermometer

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I never knew I need this so much until my Mum bought it for me, my chips have never been crisper and I have used it for everything from donuts to rosehip jelly to orange curd to jam.

These are just a few of my kitchen essentials, what one thing can’t you cook without?

Moon Acreage: Sound Financial Investment or Immoral Speculation

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The crisis is back. Dublin is facing a significant housing shortage; with buyers’ beginning to queue for five days before houses open for sale to the public. Property prices in urban areas are beginning to rise, rents are inflating accordingly, while rural areas struggle to gather enough property tax to maintain basic services. Once again as the bubble swells, it’s all beginning to feel a little bit Deja-vu, as we are assured that it is absolutely not a bubble and that there will indeed be a soft landing. People are once again desperate to get on the property ladder as soon as possible, fearing that if they wait prices will once again soar astronomically.

 

A nasty new trait of this second bubble however is the position of the lowest rung on the property ladder. With dramatically fewer units being built each year, many first-time buyers are being forced to buy second-hand homes. Most of these current home owners are still being scorched by negative equity, so the bottom rung is not the price of the fire-sales of the crash, but rather a price at which previous owners can afford to walk away at (unless of course you are fortunate enough to find a new estate with fixed prices opening in your area). Planners are predicting that the shortage of affordable homes in the city will push the commuter belt out as far as Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, forcing long commutes on already weary workers. It is no wonder that people are beginning to look around for alternative accommodation.

 

The question remains however, how far will they go this time? While the desperate among us quote house prices in Leitrim for €45,000 and less, in the Celtic Tiger Era it was not unknown for commuters to undertake a two or three hour daily trek from Gorey, Athlone, Edenderry or Portlaoise. The agreement being that it was possible to buy land and build for a fraction of the city prices and that there was no traffic on the commute once outside the city limits. Usually there was a vague Council Development Plan to improve public transport to these new urban hubs, so really these commuters were early pioneers whose properties were bound to dramatically increase in value at any time now.

 

A friend of mine took this reasoning one step further, and looking at the advancements being made by Virgin Galactic to commercialise space travel, she figured out that her quality of life and her work/life balance could not be diminished any further if her home was on the moon. Although not currently a feasible commute, she has made a speculative investment on behalf of the next generation and purchased a bijou plot overlooking the Sea of Tranquillity, located on the bright side of the moon, but within easy walking (bouncing?) distance of the entertainment quarter bound to be located on the dark side.

 

With precedents set in the land grab of America by the Mayflower settlers, and in the plantations of Ireland, the validity of this investment cannot so easily be dismissed by naysayers. The purchase from the Lunar Embassy takes advantage of the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which stipulates that no government can own extra-terrestrial property, but, neglects to mention individuals and corporations. Therefore, under laws dating back to early US settlers, it is possible to stake a claim for land that has been surveyed, by registering it with the US Office of Claim Registries, and by informing the General Assembly of the United Nations, the US Government, and the Russian Government, in writing, of the legal claim. These governing bodies have several years in which to contest the claim, which they never have.

 

However before my friend bedecks herself in the latest in Pioneer Women’s Fashion, a few practical matters must be addressed. While investing in foreign properties was a characteristic of the first bubble, and I am sure there have been guarantees made that the Luas link will eventually get that far, one must not overlook the unique challenges having a home not only in a different timezone, but also on a different calendar. Acquiring insurance in such a volatile market will have its own quirks and ‘acts of god’ will probably require redefining. Should one decide to lease their property, or enter into time-share, contracts will have to overcome the differences in an Earth year verses a Moon year (354 days). This difference in calendar will also have to be overcome by employers in the new lands as the Working Time Act, Public Holidays and indeed the number of hours in a working day will all need reinterpretation for the new environment (a day on the Moon lasts 29.5 Earth days).

 

However before rushing forth to these new lands, one must stop to think of the repercussions this absentee landlordism might create. I presume the strategy to populate these new lands will be much as it always has been in human history. Just as the conquests of old, an invading wave of mercenaries shall sweep before the settlers clearing up any misunderstanding the native population might have regarding land ownership, with the colonists to follow, flag in hand, ready for planting. However this general assumption seems to be that much like the Spanish had steel and the English had long swords, that we Earthmen will have the superior weaponry to clear the moon men/ women/ super furry animals/ beings from our path. Not once has anyone stopped to consider that much like playful lambs prancing into a pack of wolves and back out again, that the moon beings have been salivating since the first moon walk waiting for us to come back. Just because they didn’t eat Neil Armstrong on sight doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a shocked and confused alien expression away from his most famous words being “One small step from man, one giant – oh my god, what the hell is tha- it’s got my leg!! It’s got my leg?!”, with Buzz running for his life in the background. Although one could also consider that much like the UN protects developing primitive tribes from the onslaught of modernisation, so too could the advanced Moon civilisation be allowing this culture to grow at its own pace organically, and they are just waiting for us to get there to start selling us the Moon equivalent of sneakers, McDonalds, Coke-Cola and gin.

 

 

Entertaining on a Budget

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Someday I will have a house built for entertaining. That is what I covet in a house, a lovely open space for the throwing of dinner or cocktail parties and a kitchen with a very big cooker. I remember a scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks is dealing with a client (he is an architect if I remember correctly) and she is a little freaked out as her kitchen may not accommodate a fridge big enough to take platters if she was throwing a party. I think we are meant to take Tom’s side in this scene and find the lady a wee bit mad in her pestering of poor bereaved Tom however I know where she is coming from. That is the only scene in that movie that struck a chord with me, I too have known the pain of trying to fit too many things into a tiny fridge. Fridge Jenga I call it and it is a pain.

When you live in a rented house with a tiny kitchen and small rooms entertaining can be difficult but it can be done. Forward planning is the thing. I have managed to squeeze 12 people in to my wee dining room and feed them with great success.

The first thing to do is make a guest list. Sit down and think how many people you can realistically fit in your space. If you can’t fit everyone around your table then think buffet or drinks and nibbles.

Then plan your menu, be realistic about your budget. Do not go broke feeding other people. You should also be realistic about what you can cook in your kitchen. You don’t want guests arriving at your door to find a host seething with suppressed rage because you have spent all day in a hot kitchen goddammit and everything has gone awry. Look at cooking times. See how many rings you will need on the stove, how many things will need to go in your oven. Time everything, if you are planning slow cooked pork but you also want roasted vegetables will this work if you only have one oven and you need it at a low heat for the meat. I am deeply envious of my Mum’s three oven range and her five ring hob, I could go mad in a kitchen like that but I have to work with what I have and what I have is a 50″ wide single oven.

This might seem elementary but you should also look at your cooking equipment and your serving dishes, cook with what you have for what you have. If you have one pot and one frying pan then choose your recipe accordingly. The thing to remember is that your guests, if they are right thinking people, will be happy to have been invited into your home and given a meal, they are more likely to be interested in the conversation and the craic than in the actual food. I am not saying don’t try to impress to the best of your ability but you should not make yourself miserable by trying to produce something amazing that while not beyond your capabilities as a cook is beyond your current resources.

Invest in a few things. I have been buying plain white plates and side plates from Dunnes Stores over the past few years. They are cheap and as they keep the same design, easy to replace if you smash one. You don’t need to have matching plates, mismatched plates can look great on a table just make sure you have enough for all the guests. The other thing I invested in was a €50 folding picnic table, this little gem slides neatly in behind our couch when it isn’t being used. Our actual dining table is small and round and just about fits four people but it does fit the dining room. When it is up the picnic table takes up the whole room but since it is only for a few hours it’s grand.

Instead of investing in a proper tablecloth as these can be ridiculously dear I went in to The Woollen Mills, now alas closed, and invested in a few yards of fabric. I got a very inexpensive length of cotton gingham that could be boil washed in case of wine or food spillages for less than €10. Folding chairs are always useful if you have the storage space. Never be afraid to borrow from people if you know they have a few bits you can use. Just make sure to return everything in good nick. There is nothing worse than loaning something only to have it returned damaged or worse still, not returned at all, do not be that person.

Use your imagination and be creative with what you have. I have quite the collection of glass candle holders and yogurt jars that I have carefully cleaned and now use for deserts. A friend kept bringing fancy lemonade in pop top glass bottles when they visited and these have also been scrubbed clean of labels and I use them to serve water. Any interesting jar is kept for flower arrangements. I will gratefully accept things I like when people are doing clear outs, I am not too proud to take used things, one man’s rubbish is another treasure.
Make sure your house is tidy before you start cooking. Once you are deep in dinner prep you will not have time to hoover or mop floors. Clean your bathroom, for the love of all that is holy please do this, put out clean towels, light a scented candle and put some flowers in there. People will be in and out of that room all night so make it a nice place to be.

Clear your entertaining space, move stuff in to bedrooms if needs must. People should feel free to move about without fear of tripping over clutter. This will also make your room look bigger. Set up a drinks station so people don’t keep wandering in to your tiny kitchen, you will need all the space in there for cooking.

Do buy some flowers. Virginia Woolf got the opening of a book out of the importance of getting flowers for a party. Don’t break the bank but go to Aldi or some other reasonably priced store and buy a few bunches of flowers and then break those bunches down and fill a few jars. Raid your garden, if you have one, for some foliage. Dress your table, light some candles put on some music and create the mood.

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It isn’t important to have the most expensive cheese or wine or the best plates and crystal. Good food, well cooked, even if it is just a bowl of pasta and whatever wine was on special offer that day, served picnic style on your sitting room floor will make your guests happy as long as you present it with confidence and grace.

 

Why DIY when you can PAM?

DIY

I come from a practical family, all of whom have had practical skills. My granddad was a mechanic, although with a help from a few books from the local library, he turned his hand to almost all the trades at one point or another. With the help of a few labourers (and my dad) he built his own summer home (impressive), and extended it many times (even more impressive). My grandmother was a dressmaker, but again, with a little acquired knowledge could make anything you could ever imagine from fabric.

In the following generation, my mother can do things with wool that would make sheep happy to be shorn, to call it knitting undersells the creativity involved. My dad is great around the house (and although cooking is where he excels), painting, decorating, fixing and repairing are all well within his range of skills. Bar advanced plumbing and electrics there is really nothing he cannot turn his hand to.

And then we come to my generation. And well, we are, well, a bit rubbish to be honest. I can’t really cook and my husband is not that handy. If this were the 1950s we would be held up as the cautionary tale. Perhaps we were pampered as children, perhaps it’s from years of renting and calling the landlord when something goes wrong, perhaps the education system is to blame (that’s always a reliable fall back). Whatever is to blame, we are honestly just not that good around the house.

However when we bought our first home, we soon learned the value in becoming more practical, mainly because we were broke.

When we first bought our home, I had grand ideas about doing it up, from the basement (which I was going to build) to the attic (which I was going to convert) there would be a homogenous yet diverse, eclectic yet homely design, filled with bespoke designs and one-off pieces.

Then I broke the washing machine.

I washed a dry-clean only blanket in a 60’ wash which caused it to unfelt and basically melt into clumps of red thread, which blocked everything – the pump, the drum, the drain, everything. I rang the repair guy who wanted a nights drinking money to come look at the thing, and that was before he repaired it, and he only lived 10 doors away. I rang others who wanted more.

I rang my Dad who said he would come over and look at it the next weekend (by which time we were wearing a clothes which hadn’t been seen outside since the 90s). Painstakingly Dad showed me how to unplug the machine (I didn’t even know it had a plug), remove the back and began to pull clumps of red thread from everywhere. We drained it, and washed it out best we could, put it all back together, plugged it in, let it run through a cycle, unplugged it, cleaned it out and repeated the process until there were no more clumps of red, or even stray red threads.

Result!

Then Dad sat down at the table with his calculator.

“Call out fee is e50. Trades-men conservatively get about e15 per hour, and we had been at it for about 10 hours, give or take breaks, that’s e150 +e50 giving us a grand total of e200.”

I was momentarily horrified. There was no way my Dad was sitting there, knowing how broke we were, asking me for e200.

“Now” he said “You should take that theoretical e200 that you have “earned” by doing this work, and learning how to do it yourself in the future, and put it towards something for yourselves. Be it a night in the cinema, a takeaway when you really should cook, or a few pints in the local.”

And there you have it – the reason you should DIY instead of PAM , where you can – aside from being too broke to pay someone else, it gives you another way to “earn” money for more enjoyable pursuits.

And to be honest, once we got the knack of it, we became more confident and slowly but surely this generation is learning some practical skills that hopefully we will pass on to the next lot.

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