Chef JP McMahon“We forget how, over the couple of hundred years, our palates change.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Chef JP McMahon has finally put in writing that most Irish of recipes – the crisp sandwich. If nothing else, that should distinguish his new cook book from the pack. But there are also plenty of seaweed recipes, although he would have liked to put in more. Still, he wasn’t sure about writing the book when the offer came in, as he told Sean O’Rourke on Wednesday:

“At the very beginning, I was hesitant, when I was offered, to do the book, because I thought, ‘Does the world need another Irish food cookbook?’ ”

Yes, is the conclusion he came to. The chef, who runs the Michelin-starred Aniar restaurant in Galway, reckons that the work that’s been done over the past 10 years in that restaurant on wild food and seaweed has left him well-placed to take Irish food and give it a 21st-century examination. And the seaweed is there, just not enough of it for JP’s tastes:

“I wanted a lot more seaweed in the book, but it was a negotiation between myself and the editors and I would have had seaweed everywhere, but, of course, they’re commercially-minded, as I amn’t, so they pulled back on the seaweed.”

The book includes lots of history about Irish food, as well as recipes inspired by historical Irish dishes. And this led JP McMahon to spending a lot of time in the National Library:

“I just love looking at very old recipes. Not so much to copy them, but just to get inspiration to try and find how we would make that palatable now because we forget how, over the couple of hundred years, our palates change.”

Seán decided to dive into the book to talk recipes. His first destination was cauliflower cheese. JP’s secret to the best version?

“My secret is blanching the cauliflower in boiling water and then either putting it into ice water or putting it directly on the tray beforehand, because when you bake the cauliflower, I find it doesn’t have enough moisture in it to become soft.”

Seán was surprised to find what he suggested was a modern-sounding recipe – for carrots and ginger – that actually is more than a hundred years old. JP explains:

“We forget that as part of the British empire we had so much colonial influence and that was a recipe I came across in a book on Joyce, actually, in recipes that inspired Ulysses.”

Potatoes cooked in sea water is another recipe that caught Seán’s eye. It’s actually something that’s become quite trendy in modern cuisine, JP says, but, for an island nation with a lot of potatoes, it made sense to cook them in sea water. And it leads to really nice spuds:

“They get shrivelled and the water sticks to them. And if you reduce the water right down – I mean, don’t put it in your best pot – and literally wait till the water completely disappears, and then the remaining salt will be stuck to the spud.”

There’s lots more to chew over (sorry) in the interview, including Seán’s disbelief at the inclusion of a crisp sandwich recipe, and you can hear it all here.

The Irish Cook Book by JP McMahon is published by Phaidon.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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