From ocean to table, week 3 at Ballymaloe Cookery School. (Image: Sophie Gilmour).

The Irish chef who turns the humble potato into a “life-changing revelation”

Week three introduces a new character, the gregarious Rory, who’s brimming with Irish banter and clever kitchen tips.

Just when I thought we couldn’t be any more thrilled with our teachers, Rory O’Connell returned from holiday and “took me to church”! Rory is Darina’s younger brother and co-founder of the cookery school. He’s a chef who’s been spent his career in top kitchens, most recently as head chef for 10 years at the prestigious Ballymaloe House, a related but separate business a few minutes down the road in our new ’hood, Shanagarry.

Rory clearly loves teaching people to cook, which sounds like an obvious thing to say, but what an awesome reminder of the difference that passion makes. He is as excited as we are to master the perfect panna cotta: “You may not have used gelatine before but now that you have, suddenly 10,000 possibilities have arisen for you!” He pays attention to every element of a dish while it’s cooking. “Listen. The sound of the tagine has changed! It’s cooked enough and looks unctuous now.”

Rory O’Connell and sheets of gelatine (Image: Sophie Gilmour)

Rory has an amusing way of explaining the basics, and he always takes time to do so thoroughly. “Boiling is something volcanic, simmering — just bubble, bubble, bubble here and there.” He carefully explains what he is doing and why he is doing it. “Prick figs before you roast them so they don’t explode, because an exploding fig is a disastrous thing.” He always explains what we should strive for. ‘You want your guests to be wishing there was one spoonful more, not thinking ‘this is too much’ – that’s just hopeless.”

His tips are already replaying in my head when I walk into the kitchen each morning. In bread making, always use a “big, unglamorous bowl, one that is too big for the job”. I now know never to leave a cake cooling near a draught (it will go crunchy on the outside). Rory always adds a pinch of sugar to tomato dressings and dishes to elevate the tomato flavour, “because we don’t live in Sicily”, and he, like Darina and Rachel, is firm about not cutting corners or trying to save time at the expense of flavour. “The smallest things can be the making or breaking of a dish!”

Rory is an encyclopaedia of cooking rules (too many to mention here) and a stickler for etiquette. We spent time on “rules of tasting” this week. Rory emphasised that we are to taste each dish at the beginning (“a bit of raw egg won’t kill you”), in the middle and at the end of its cooking time to give us reference points as to the changing flavours. We were taught never to double dip when tasting, “unless you are home, and solo” (correct tasting etiquette is to pour from your wooden spoon onto your tasting spoon). Lastly, we were told to remember that tasting “is a totally different thing to grazing… quite a different matter”.

Rory has great technical knowledge and I’m pleased to say I’m going pro on filleting fish and jointing birds. He eases our nerves with titbits like “if your knife is touching the bone while you cut, you’re hardly ever doing damage… always cutting north-south, never east-west”.

Rory is completely meticulous – we learned to perfectly cook prawns, crabs, shrimps and langoustine this week and he insisted that he always measures both his water and salt, even though he has been “cooking for 400 years”. He also said they must be dropped into boiling salted water “in one swift movement, not eight faffs” to ensure even cooking.

Rory in action (Image: Sophie Gilmour)

What Rory does that I love most is give human characteristics to ingredients. We are warned that “once a meringue is beaten, it doesn’t like to wait. It can be a little cantankerous”. Of a freshly baked cake, he instructs “don’t bully it if it’s not ready to come out of the tin” and when he demonstrated how to fold egg whites into the custard we made for crème patissière, “if the egg whites are being belligerent, fold them in like this – take control of the situation!”

He is wholeheartedly committed to perfect plating, and believe it or not, that’s an understatement. Much to our amusement, he often gets completely carried away with eccentric garnishing, in one instance splaying whole spring onions across a frittata, calling them “quite ridiculous but entirely appropriate”. He also recognised (in concert with a room full of sniggering students) that he has “rapidly passed the place called STOP” when he was unable to stop himself painstakingly decorating a cake to within an inch of its life.

Like his sister, Rory embarks on wonderful rants about the diminished flavour of cooking clichés today and the value in reminding oneself why they became a thing in the first place. “As a general rule, all potato salads are disgusting. They’ve been bathed in some filthy brine and covered in ordinary mayonnaise, with a dash of paprika from the next parish if you’re lucky. A well-executed nicoise is an exception to this and can be a life-changing revelation.”

Oh how Rory loves a potato. “Some people have been through their entire lives without eating a good potato salad, which is rather dreadful when you think about it!”

Meanwhile, all in the Pink Cottage are getting on famously. My young American housemates dressed up in my Miss Crabb frocks yesterday for a bit of fun. We all went on a fishing trip after school on Tuesday, to catch mackerel of course. West Cork again this weekend, we stayed in Clonakilty this time for the night — the live music was everything we had heard it would be. On the way back we had lunch at a fantastic restaurant called The Pilgrim in Rosscarbery.

Fishing with friends (Image: Sophie Gilmour)

WEEKLY LOWDOWN

Camille:

Fun fact There are only two seaweeds in the whole world that are inedible (and, in fact, are poisonous).

Best meal Crab mayo with triple-cooked chips, and Thai crab salad.

Best tip When cooking a duck breast, start with a cold grill pan and put the duck breast in  skin side down. By the time the pan heats up and cooks the breast, the fat is rendered and the skin crispy.

Best recipe Thirty-second omelette with mushrooms à la crème

Feeling after week three Settled and pretty stoked with the daily routine of morning coffee, cooking, delicious lunch and afternoon demo.

Anything else? At Ballymaloe waste is a bad word. The teachers are constantly giving us tips on how to get value from your top-quality and top-dollar ingredients — if you bone a duck carefully and correctly and cut all the fat off, you can render it down into three small jars of liquid duck fat off one duck! Perfect for those roast potatoes. And we all know how many potatoes we are eating in Ireland.

Sophie:

Best meal Rory’s Italian buffet lunch with glazed bacon, roast red pepper salad and pickled beetroot and carrot salad.

Best tip Cook carrots in just a little water instead of boiling them – not covered. This way the water evaporates and is reabsorbed into the vegetable rather than it losing the flavour and nutrients into the water.

Best recipe Classic panna cotta (recipe below)

Recipe of the week – a classic panna cotta. (Image: Sophie Gilmour).

Feeling after week three I can’t believe how much we’re learning! The demonstrations are packed, with around 10 recipes each afternoon, each full of new techniques.

Fun fact Parmesan grated on an old box grater has three times more flavour than that grated on a microplane.

Anything else? Something Rory said today made me want to try it when I get home – “risotto made with turkey broth is stupendously good, completely off the charts”.

VANILLA PANNA COTTA

Serves 8

600ml cream

1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise

50g caster sugar

2 leaves gelatine

softly whipped cream, mint leaves and raspberries (when in season) to serve

Brush 8 100ml-capacity (or thereabouts) ceramic, glass or tin moulds with non-scented oil.

Put the cream, vanilla pod and sugar in a saucepan and set over a gentle heat to warm the cream to a bare shiver. 

Remove from the heat and check that the sugar is completely dissolved. 

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod using the tip of the knife and whisk into cream. 

Place the gelatine leaves in a bowl of water and allow them to become collapsed and pliable. 

Pour the cream into a clean saucepan and add the well-drained gelatine leaves. Stir to encourage the gelatine to dissolve completely. If the gelatine is not dissolving, it may be necessary to warm the cream slightly. 

Divide the cream mixture between the oiled moulds and refrigerate until set (at least 4 hours).

Unmould the panna cotta on to cold plates. It may help to briefly dip the moulds into warm water to help loosen the panna cotta before turning out. They should be just barely set. Serve immediately with a spoon of softly whipped cream,  a few mint leaves and raspberries, when in season.


Read Sophie Gilmour’s previous diary entries from Ballymaloe here.


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