Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Food for the soul

Being a blogger and foodie facebooker (I did just make that up) I meet people with different interesting connections to food. For instance there's Chris, or Soul Man as I like to call him, the founder of Dublin's only major soul festival. I wasn't sure at first how I could play any part in his magnum opus - the festival he dreamed up for our fair city, now in it's fourth year - but turns out there's a space for food and foodie-ism just about anywhere. Makes sense I suppose, when your aim is to enrich the soul. Food has always been up there with music as an agent of those same heady, evocative properties.

So after a few not brief meetings at various Dublin cafés and coffee shops - discussing music, food and everything else you can fit into the space of several cappuccinos - me and the Soul Man came up with the idea of a 'Soul Food Trail' or the 'Soul Food Restaurant Trail,' as it's turned out in the end. The basic premise was to see how many restaurants, cafés, gastropubs and so on would get involved in the festival: playing music, dressing up their space, but most importantly, having a signature 'soul food' dish on the menu for the duration. We hoped for other acts of participation too, like perhaps having special offers for festival-goers or giving away dinner vouchers as prizes, as part of the promotion of the festival. But the key thing was the soul dish, as the real point of engagement between music and food for the week that was in it.

Naturally, times being tough 'n all, people were less willing and/or able to deviate from the daily business of surviving (for many, according to strict budgetary plans), but there was also a surprisingly good turn out for the trail, in spite of things. This upped the ante somewhat, so we thought: what could we do to drive our participants to greater heights of creativity, to really push the food experience of the festival to the level we were hoping for?

Of course - and I know I'm biased - Bridgestone was the obvious catalyst! And Bridgestone being Bridgestone, they (John and Sally) couldn't resist the notion of such a sensory mélonge and, well, just the plain ol' thought of 'soul food.' So now we had a contest on our hands, making it the task of the Bridgestone judges to find the 'Best Soul Food' before the end of the week.

As the week of the festival approaches, we have no idea what to expect and the highest hopes for this unusual event, most of all of seeing the potential for something even grander next year. On a personal note, I'm just dying to see this great mix of food and music, tourists and home crowd, and the whole cultural shooting match in full swing!

It's also got me thinking quite deeply about what 'soul food' means to people? I like to think of it as a very broad term that could take on as many meanings as the imagination can allow, as long as it's edible and touches the soul in some way or other. The comfort food you reach for every time you need a happy injection. Or complex creations by a talented artist that make you close your eyes and think about it until you drift away to some other place. Or just something you make because the smell takes you back to another time in your life to which attaches some warm feeling or nostalgia you seem to need, explicable or not.

I am REALLY looking forward to seeing 'soul food' in all its forms next week, and hope the trail becomes a fixture, as the festival itself has now become. On that note I'll part with a 'soul food' dish of my very own, which contains two of the most evocative aromas for this foodie - roast chicken and cinnamon §:) (Dublin City Soul Festival 27 - 30 May 2010,

Caroline's Spicy Barbecued Chicken

One whole chicken
Olive oil
Chilli oil
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 tsp cinnamon
Small pinch nutmeg (freshly grated)
Sprig fresh thyme (picked)
Good hot pepper sauce, to taste (such as Piri Piri, I love Smoked Tobasco)
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp dried oregano
Good squeeze of lemon
Sea salt (Maldon's my fav)
Black pepper

I prefer to roast the chicken before grilling, for that essential roast chicken aroma, but the recipe can be cooked from scratch on the bbq (just be careful to cook it all properly).

1. Massage the chicken with generous amounts of olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, then roast slowly until cooked and juicy (get a good quality bird to ensure best results).

2. Once cooled, remove the legs (as drumsticks and thighs), wings, breasts, oysters, and any other good bit you fancy, and place in a large bowl of some sort. The carcass can be used for stock.

3. Sprinkle the chicken with all the other ingredients, as evenly as possible, as well as some more sea salt and black pepper and toss (very carefully to keep the skin in place) to ensure it's all well coated. Cover and allow to marinate from anywhere between 2 and 24 hours.

4. Finally, when your barbecue is ready, put the chicken on the grill until it's nicely charred and the garlic and spices have had a chance to cook. (I find using a grilling basket makes life a lot easier for turning so many small bits - and it means it all gets done evenly). Serve sizzling hot with lemon wedges, and make sure to eat the crispy fat and get the chilli oil all over you face!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What makes them special?

You know those cafés which, by and large, you don't notice? They're sometimes quaint but mostly nondescript, sometimes bearing intriguing titles or frontage a good deal fancier than the bill of fare inside turns out to be. They quietly do their daily trade below the radar of journalists and food writers, which for the most part is understandable.

Their ubiquity around Ireland seemed to accompany the burgeoning of the economy through the last decade, as indeed 'coffee to-go' and deli counter food - cornerstones of the modern foodservice and convenience offering - came to symbolise a new culture of 'cash-rich and time-poor' consumerism. Their standards seem to reflect the needs of their customers and their value for money perhaps a little more so nowadays than in the past. But in general they have one thing in common: homogeny.

And yet, on the rarest of occasions, you will happen upon one that seems to be of a different breed. On first appearances, it may seem the same, perhaps owing to the presence of chicken tikka and tuna mayo, or other such regulars of the standard deli. But then something about it sets it apart, and what that is only some people will appreciate.

I recently stepped into one of these 'special' coffee shops, just next to Patrick's Cathedral of all places. Almost instantly I began to wonder, 'what makes this special?' Is it little details in the decor or atmosphere - on this occasion, filled with the scent of cinnamon buns that were baking in the smallest imaginable oven - or perhaps the way they toast the bread, under an old fashioned grill?

Is it the way they make good old fashioned scrambled eggs, without the addition of cream or chives, but cooked moist nonetheless? Is it the way their coffee is unexpectedly good? Or is it the way their steady stream of regular customers flit easily in and out, occupying their favourite nooks and rattling off their usual orders to staff with whom they have a comfortably friendly relationship?

Truth is it's all of the above, but most of all, it's the owners of the business who give it its je ne sais quoi. Love, that is. Love of food, love of good service, love of the place. The most refreshing thing about 'it' when you do come by it is its authenticity, because it's something that can't be faked. Those little details that make a place special arise from a person's genuine interest in what they're offering, and a genuine love of what they do.

Bite of Life on Dublin 8's humble Patrick Street is full of love! Established in 1997 by husband and wife team Jorinde and Conor Moynihan, its small, simply furnished interior is more than well-equipped to give as much pleasure as some of the most popular brunch spots in town. What could be more perfect than Saturday morning with the paper, in the window seat next to the cosy log fire, watching the world go by while enjoying a breakfast of simple pleasures and the smell of freshly baked, homemade buns?

The food is simple: perfectly scrambled eggs and toast, with a choice of smoked salmon or bacon if you're feeling so inclined; perfect porridge with honey and banana; fresh homemade cakes and confections; and an array of homemade soups, salads and sandwiches on bread from Blazing Salads. And good coffee.

There's nothing to stand out and grab your attention in the humble offering at Bite of Life, and perhaps nothing special in its homely space or cheerful yellow exterior. However, if you also have a love of food and those things which people like Jorinde and Conor Moynihan appreciate deeply, you too will see what's special about their café, and those other gems that share the same love.

Review, 9th February

Bite of Life
Café and juice bar
55 Patrick Street
Dublin 8

T:01 4542949

Open Monday to Friday 7.30am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4pm
Caters for offices (platters), ring before 11am to order. Free delivery.