Monday, January 31, 2011

Slow Cooker Crockpot Casserole - Comfort Food for those January Blues

The 30-year old Tower bible!
Today I made a nice beef casserole in my Slow Cooker which is fantastic. I love it, and it is great when I'm going out for the day.I went to Cork to visit son Shayne, fiancée Jany and granddaughter Sofia who's almost a year. Where did the time go?

I had been to Dublin yesterday for a meeting and visiting friends and middle son Martin afterwards, and travelled up and down with another friend who was meeting her daughter in Dublin, so it's been quite a weekend.  When I came home tonight - dinner was ready. I just had to do the spuds (for teen daughter and me) and heat some rice for hubby, and that was that. No pressure.

Lovely colourful warm stew
Pre-fry everything if you have time - no worries if not!
I made my own combo of about three different recipes and it turned out lovely - I used a beef stew base but as I had some pork I added that, with seasoning from another recipe in a Slow Cooker book I have. It's great comfort food for the January blues.

We got our Slow Cooker as a wedding present nearly 30 years ago - it's a Tower and has a 2-litre capacity, so it's not enormous - but it's more than adequate for four-six people if they've got average appetites! I resurrected it in the past few months after years of not using it or only occasionally taking it down to see if it still worked, as a friend had been raving about hers. So I have enjoyed making some great comfort food with it. Today was great as I put on the dinner before going to Cork and when I came home about six hours later the dinner was done to perfection.

Beef and Pork Casserole with Mixed Vegetables


Finished dish
  • 500g/1lb stewing beef - cubed
  • 300g/12ozs pork chops/steak - cubed
  • 500ml/1pint beef stock (use a quality stock cube if no home made stock about)
  • 250ml/glass red wine
  • 6 chopped tomatoes
  • 3tbsp tomato puree/paste
  • 1 teasp. sweet paprika 
  • 1 teasp. hot paprika (optional - I use delicious smoked paprika from Spain, wonderful!)
  • 1 teasp. Allspice
  • 1 teasp. ground coriander
  • 1 teasp. mixed herbs
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
  • 3 carrots - sliced
  • 3 peeled potatoes - diced
  • small turnip/swede - diced
  • 150g/6 oz button mushrooms - halved if big 
  • 2 onions - chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic - chopped
  • 2 Bay leaves.
    At the start of cooking

(These spices and herbs give it a lovely North African exotic flavour but it's still non-threatening to traditionalists who love their casseroles tasty but not fiery!)

  • Preheat the Slow Cooker on High for about 30 mins. 
  • If you have time, brown the  meat and onions and garlic in a little oil in a pan. This gives a bit of extra flavour to the dish. 
  • Add all the other ingredients and mix well.
  • Transfer to the warmed Slow Cooker and mix well.
  • Cover and cook for 4 hours on High, or if leaving all day turn it down to Low after a half-hour or so, and cook for around 7 hours.
  • If you leave it longer don't worry as you can't burn the food or do too much damage as it doesn't really overcook. 

Handy Hint: 
Cut root vegetables smaller than you might for a stovetop dish as they take longer than the meat to cook to soft. Nothing worse than hard potatoes in a casserole! So ensure you leave enough time to thoroughly cook them. I assure you 4-5 hours on High was enough to cook them through for me.

Enjoy with boiled Basmati Rice or for the ultimate in comfort food - mashed potatotes. I used Rooster spuds with lots of butter, a little milk, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Hard to beat it, worth a try. Hope you enjoy it and don't be put off by the long list of stuff you need. It's mostly in your kitchen cupboards.

Nearly gone!
Ready to go!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winter Woollies - StayingToasty in Turbulent Times

Cap and Scarf in Super-Chunky wool
I have been busy knitting warm woollies to help me cope with our winter of discontent. Not alone has the weather been unseasonably cold for Ireland and we've had to cope with frozen pipes and a waterless Christmas, it's now clear that this was but a portend of the disastrous political turmoil of the past week.

Today the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen resigned as the main government coalition party leader but decided to stay on as Taoiseach. This brings us back to GUBU days - no, not Glory Days, but Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented. This famous acronym dates back to 1982 when a double murderer was found to be hiding out in the apartment of the Attorney General, and the term was coined by Conor Cruise O'Brien apropos of the controversy in which the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey found himelf embroiled.  We wonder now if the planned General Election - announced last week for March 11th - will be brought forward again as the confidence in the government plummets to new depths.

They say that a week is a long time in politics -well here's a timeline to what went on in the past week and as the week wore on it became apparent that an hour is a long time in Irish politics - the farce could have been written by any one of our wonderful playwrights - though John B. Keane would probably have done it fair justice, what with his acute eye for morality in the human condition, not to mention political shenanigans. The Field, one of his most famous plays, is now showing in Dublin and the radio ad for it is prescient - the voiceover of the Bull McCabe asks - "would we rather have our principles or be millionaires?"

Well, it's evident that the political rulers of the past 14 years veered spectacularly towards the latter, and in the words of Charlie McCreevy, then Minister for Finance in one of the giveaway budgets of the boom years - "when we have it, we spend it". Quite. And now we're left holding the baby the IMF has given us - a debt of billions that will be a legacy for future generations and is going into the black hole of the banks that went under due to the lack of proper regulation.
The woolly gloves

That it coincided with week after proverbial Blue Monday just added to the irony, and it is proving hard for all us political junkies to keep up with the daily upheavals. I won't even go into the detail, suffice to say for those living on Mars for the past few weeks that the country is now being misled by a government with a rudderless party.

Today the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen resigned as the main government coalition party leader but decided to stay on as Taoiseach. This brings us back to GUBU days - no, not Glory Days, but Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented. This famous acronym dates back to 1982 when a double murderer was found to be hiding out in the apartment of the Attorney General, and the term was coined by Conor Cruise O'Brien apropos of the controversy in which the then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey found himelf embroiled.

So you can understand why I immerse myself in reading and knitting or crochet. Of late I have been mostly
knitting scarves, hats and gloves - and in warm winter russet tones. You can see the fruits of my January labours in these photos - even the self-consciously self-timed one gives an idea of the hat and scarf set, which was made with James C. Brett's super-chunky Marble yarn, which I got in the lovely Lismore Design Workshop from Angela - she has only been open for a few months but already has inspired a lot of knitters to get their needles out and she has also got a knitting circle up and running on Tuesdays - morning and evening! I went last week and it was a lovely few hours, spent sitting by an open fire chatting away to fellow-knitters. The gloves are pure wool, which have to be hand-washed, a slight drawback offset by their cosy warmth.

Mary, Paul and Catherine - the Knitting Circle Table Quiz team (& me!)
We even got a team together for the Table Quiz last night in Ballyrafter House Hotel - a fundraiser for our Travel Writing Festival, Immrama, which happens in June each year. I have blogged about it frequently. We came 5th overall, not bad with a score of 61 out of a possible 72.

Coincidentally, today's Irish Times had two articles about Lismore and its environs - both by Immrama speakers. One was by Manchán Magan, on the joys of staying in Lismore in rhododendron or any season, and the other by Thomas McCarthy, a poet of international renown from nearby Cappoquin, who name-checks Lismore in his writings on the downfall of Fianna Fail, the current political pariah party

This post has just touched on the events of the past week - the Labour Party is coasting towards the General Election and we have a Selection Convention on Monday night in Waterford to formally nominate two candidates - a man and a woman - to contest for the four-seat Waterford Constituency. We hope they will double the representation by securing a second seat this time - watch this space for updates!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Tokens and Reviews - from Knitting to Nemesis

I got these books - the Knitting and Crochet one was in the bargain bin, but Nemesis was full whack - with my the last of my book tokens which I won in the Terrible Typos competition in the Irish Times a few months back. The Knitting and Crochet book has some great patterns and I look forward to idling away the dark winter evenings with some cool and colourful projects which will be shared and blogged about in due course.

Nemesis was a nice treat as I rarely buy new hardback novels, preferring to wait for the paperback or go to the library. The cheapskate in me rails against such extravagance, but I'm always prepared to make an exception and Philip Roth is one of my favourite authors, in the same league as Updike, Ford and Franzen in my humble opinion. I read Portnoy's Complaint back in the '70s for the salaciousness of it being a widely-banned book, but since then I've returned for the literary merit and not the smut!

Nemesis is a deceptive book. It's written in an understated narrative style, with a structured formality - the story is told by a student of the protagonist, Bucky Cantor, a phys ed teacher who worked as a playground director during the summer of 1944 when polio ravaged Newark and beyond in a relentless epidemic.

Bucky is a young man old before his time after being dealt a number of short straws in life - his mother died giving birth to him, his father was a jailbird and he grew up never knowing parents but with loving grandparents in the Jewish Weequahic suburb of Newark. He is in love with a girl Marcia, from a wealthy family, who's also a teacher and spending the summer working in a summer camp in the Poconos mountains, Indian Hill. The contrast between the two locations couldn't be starker - the urban one full of disease, fear and helplessness, and the rural idyll with clean air, sure to keep polio at bay. The reality is very different.

The story focuses on Bucky's struggles with his demons. Marcia urges him to join her in the  summer camp and escape the city with all its danger. He is torn between going as he feels honour-bound to staying with the playground kids, yet he succumbs to the lure of the lovely Marcia.

Soon after he leaves, the playground closes when the epidemic gets out of control, and he realises he wouldn't have had to resign and incur the wrath of his boss who castigates him as a coward, had he stayed on a few more days.

Developments at Indian Hill take a sinister but predictable turn, and Bucky's guilt comes back to haunt him. The relationship with Marcia is intense and she is an uncomplicated sincere woman while Bucky is decent and honest but has low self-esteem which makes him feel unworthy of her love.

The ending was unexpected but understandable when the character of Bucky was considered, and it is very poignant and sad to see how a life can be shaped by events completely outside someone's control, and when one's sense of responsibility can be so extreme as to be hubristic, as I think it was in this case - Bucky blames himself for everything and when logic dictates otherwise he doesn't want to know.

I loved the way Roth writes; he has a lyrical descriptive style which draws the reader to the time and place, and is a great analyst of the human spirit and condition. In recent years I've read Exit Ghost and The Human Stain and other Zuckerman novels, and while this was not a Zuckerman book it was riveting in its simplicity and beauty. It was more like a novella than a full-length novel as it was such a page-turner, despite its 269 pages.

The topic of polio is an emotive one, and it has touched our family - my mother's father had polio as a child in the 1880s and it shaped his life - he became a master tailor as it was a skill for which he didn't need two good legs, instead of the farm labourer which would have been his destiny. Yet this was the first novel I'd read on the subject.

I've read The Cutter Incident which looked at the epidemics of the 1950s in the USA when a batch of polio vaccine was tainted with live virus that infected numerous children, killing some. Patrick Cockburn's The Broken Boy looks at a personal journey through polio in the Irish epidemic of the 50s and how it ravaged Cork in particular. These are all worth reading as much for social commentary of the day as well as human interest. Most of us will never experience the horrors of polio and the fear of the unknown legacy - iron lungs and calipers defined it for so many, and I am old enough to remember schoolmates who had polio and were permanently affected.

The tragedy is now the number of post-polio syndrome victims who are affected, 50 or more years after their original infection, with a debilitating malaise.

To all anti-vaccine campaigners out there, this book should be required reading.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

From Hairshirts to Hippie Hats and Headbands - Happy New Year 2011

Happy New Year to all the blog-readers and loyal followers of Dispatches from the Deise from my first post in 2011 - I've been blogging just over two years now since I started just after Christmas 2008, and it's been a great journey as I've catalogued various events in my life and numerous random ramblings. I've enjoyed reading other blogs, following many, commenting on some (not enough!) and having over a hundred followers of my dispatches. It's an interesting and diverse community, and without any literary or journalistic pretensions, blogging's a great creative outlet for any aspiring writers - at every level.

Family photo - Christmas Day 2010
I hope you like the family photo taken on Christmas day on the patio - we were all wrapped up for a walk before the turkey dinner, and it was absolutely freezing. The next day it was about 8 degrees Centigrade (above freezing) - and the thaw has persisted but more frosty Arctic weather is forecast - just in case we get comfortable and complacent. The water's back by day, and down to a dribble at night; the pumps are turned off to fill the reservoirs as there are more leaks in the Irish water supply than Julian Assange could dream of in a lifetime - the County Councils here would give Wikileaks a right run for its money.

I wish everyone a wonderful 2011 despite the state of the nation and the economy and the dread and dismay we'll all find in out payslips in about a fortnight or so when the first haircuts of the hairiest hairshirt budget in history kicks in.
Cloche crochet hat with flower - on me.

I am trying all the positive mantras - lucky to have a job, many worse off than me, and amn't I lucky to be a vilified public servant - albeit frontline so maybe my job won't be one of those targeted for the chop if Fine Gael get into government after the General Election - probably March now. I just hope their expected partners in government, Labour, (my party affiliation) will be able to rein them in - Eamon(Gilmore) better make sure his charm offensive knocks the socks off Inda (Kenny) enough to stall the Blueshirts' proposal to slash and burn the public sector as they promised in their recent budget alternative. 

Jany and me with her creation - New Year's Eve 2010
 A question for 2011 - will Bono ask the IMF and the World Bank to Drop the Debt for his own country as he has so eloquently advocated for so-called Third World Countries? That would be a supreme irony as he has lost a lot of street cred since U2 headed off on a tax break of their own to The Netherlands when they moved their assets offshore for higher tax exemption savings - all strictly legal but morally very questionable given his holier-than-thou banging on about helping poor countries - surely the best way to do so would be to pay taxes in your own country?
Random-dyed pink flower detail on headband - crochet

Purple flower detail on headband - crochet

Crochet flower headbands

My thinking is that it can only be uphill from here as we can't get any worse than 2010 from an economic and national morale standpoint - it was a new low for our collective national psyche when the IMF rode into town, and we are still reeling from the shock of losing financial sovereignty with the bailout of €85 billion.

But enough misery - this Christmas and New Year I have been mostly crocheting new projects for myself and teen daughter and her pals - there's a resurgence in Hippie nostalgia and retro headbands and hats have become de rigueur -  at least around here.

Jany, d-i-l in-waiting, has been instrumental in reawakening this fashion fad as she has been busy with scarves, hats and headbands for little Sofia and her work colleagues. So when she showed me how to make 3-D flowers with the help of a wonderful YouTube tutorial from the wonderful Art of Crochet by Teresa, I was hooked ( I know, I used that pun in a recent post - guilty as charged!). You can see how wonderful it is in the link above or the video clip below.

I want to share some finished projects with you too, and maybe inspire you in the potential for a new cottage industry in the lean days ahead - a stall at the local Farmers' Market would be a terrific outlet for the crafty among you. You could do worse for in this age of austerity! 

Jany never crocheted till a few months ago and now she's teaching me techniques and new skills every week - so it's no excuse not to get down to it if you're motivated enough.If I can do it anyone can.

self-timer pic - scarf and hairband/headband with flower

Headband with flower - self-timed pic.

a bit too-close-up! flower cap with brim

 The Art of Crochet by Teresa - amazing tutorials on everything you need to know to crochet