Brilliant – we got through January and celebrated St. Brigid's Day so now it's upwards and onwards. Spring is just around the corner and romance is in the air. St. Valentine's Day kicks off the season with an excuse to paint the nails, pop on our glad rags and definitely a day to crack open a bottle of fizz - doesn't have to be Premier cru champagne, could be a prosecco or one of those sexy little Pet Nats that are all the rage. And it’s not just for the 14th of February, a date night treat is for any time... For a celebratory experience that's truly special, nothing quite tops a special home-cooked meal that's designed to be delicious, comforting and chic.

Light the fire, lay the table and pop a few little flowers into a vase, you could go low-key or all out romantic with lots of cheesy hearts and red roses, depending on the particular occasion. So, what will you cook? Perhaps you already know your partner's favourite dish, could be mac and cheese or even Spaghetti Bolognese, which, according to Google, are among the top favourites. It's good to choose dishes that are not too complicated and can be prepared ahead and finished off in a few minutes, so you can serve the meal effortlessly and spend maximum time at the table rather than faffing around the cooker....

I know they are not everybody's cup of tea but I love oysters, They are at their very best just now, plump and delicious, while there is still an R in the month, plus they have a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.... It's all that zingy zinc.....
Oysters are super easy to serve. I love them just as they are with a little squeeze of lemon juice. I'm not a fan of Tabasco sauce with them but there are lots of good things to spoon onto oysters to enhance (or mask) the briny flavour, as you wish. Many people who don't necessarily enjoy oysters au naturel love them when they are cooked. Here is the much-requested recipe for the Ballymaloe oysters with champagne sauce. This could be just the time to indulge, and the good news is the sauce can be prepared and the oysters opened ahead and kept in the fridge. Just pop under the grill to gratinate for a couple of minutes just before you serve them proudly with a flourish.

Some chaps love a juicy steak, which sounds complicated to cook at the last minute but actually you can slightly undercook a thick steak and leave it to rest on an upturned plate in a cool oven for 20 minutes or more. I love to serve it, thickly sliced over a bed of watercress or rocket leaves with lots of crispy potato wedges and a drizzle of Béarnaise sauce.
Alternatively, how about a tagine or a bubbly stew made several days ahead. It will just need to be heated up and popped into the centre of the table for sharing... It can also be a vegetarian or vegan version and all you'll need is a little rice, couscous or potatoes depending on the dish. Better still, do a one pot version that includes the potatoes or pasta. (Darina Allen’s One Pot Feeds includes lots of suggestions).

There are so many delicious romantic desserts, it might have to be something chocolatey... Alternatively, serve a kumquat compote with some unctuous vanilla bean ice cream and some little wood sorrel leaves from your walk in the woods.... and how about going all out with heart-shaped shortbread biscuits with a 'subtle' message piped on top....cheesy but fun.... Here are a few options for you...

Ballymaloe Oysters with Champagne Sauce 

8 rock or Japanese Oysters
Champagne Sauce
This sauce makes lots, but it is also excellent with baked fish, e.g. turbot, black sole and brill.
¼ bottle champagne or sparkling white wine
12g (½oz) finely chopped shallot
2 large egg yolks
110g (4oz) butter
150ml (5fl oz) whipped double cream

First make the champagne sauce. Boil the champagne with the shallot, reducing to 1 tablespoon. Remove from the heat and beat in the yolks. Return to a very low heat and add the butter bit by bit as for Hollandaise sauce. When all the butter has melted, fold in the whipped cream.
Oysters: Scrub well.
Just before serving, put into a hot oven 250°C/475°F/Gas Mark 9 until they just start to open and release their juices. Using an oyster knife, remove and discard the top shell, place a little champagne sauce on top of each oyster and put under a hot grill until golden. Serve immediately and garnish with frothy fennel and a lemon wedge.

Chargrilled Sirloin Steak with Crusty Potatoes and Béarnaise Sauce 

An irresistible meal on a sharing plate, just tuck in and enjoy.
Serves 2

2 x 175g (6oz) sirloin or 1 rib steak 2 inch (5cm) thick
700g (1 1/2lbs) small potatoes
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 bunches rocket, watercress or mixed lettuces
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper

• To prepare the steak, drizzle both sides with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
• Meanwhile make the Béarnaise Sauce (see recipe below).
• Wash the potatoes (cut in half if large), dry and rub with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put the potatoes onto a baking sheet and roast at 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7 until crusty and tender in the centre - about 35 minutes.
• Put the rocket or watercress into a bowl. Mix the red wine vinegar with the olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Arrange on a serving plate.
• At the last minute, grill the steak over a charcoal fire or on a pan-grill, allow to relax for 5 minutes. Slice at an angle. Arrange the slices of steak over the salad and serve with Béarnaise Sauce. Finally scatter on the potatoes.
• The flavour of chargrilled steak is wonderful, but an iron grill pan also gives a delicious result.

Béarnaise Sauce
The consistency of Béarnaise sauce should be considerably thicker than that of Hollandaise or Beurre Blanc, both of which ought to be a light coating consistency. If you do not have tarragon vinegar to hand, use a wine vinegar and add some extra chopped fresh French tarragon. Serves 4–5
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 teaspoon finely chopped shallots
pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 organic egg yolk
50g (2oz) butter
1/2 tablespoon freshly chopped French tarragon leaves

• Boil the first 4 ingredients together in a low sided, heavy-bottomed, stainless-steel saucepan until completely reduced and the pan is almost dry but not browned. Add 1 tablespoon of cold water immediately. Pull the pan off the heat and leave to cool for 1 or 2 minutes.
• Using a coil whisk, whisk in the egg yolks and add the butter bit by bit over a very low heat, whisking all the time. As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece; it will gradually thicken. If it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water. Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. Finally, add 1 tablespoon of freshly chopped French tarragon and taste for seasoning.
• If the sauce is slow to thicken, it may be because you are excessively cautious, and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until all the butter is added and the sauce is a thick coating consistency. It is important to remember, however, that if you are making Béarnaise sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce!
• Another good tip if you are making Béarnaise sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so that you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if it becomes too hot.
• Keep the sauce warm in a Pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water or in a Thermos flask until you want to serve it.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Tomatoes and Honey 

This wonderful Moroccan dish, which Claudia Roden made for us when she was guest chef at the school, derives its name from the tomatoes in which it cooks (there are mountains of them that reduce to a thick sauce) and from the honey, which comes in at the end. It makes enough for six but it will reheat deliciously. Serves 6

6 organic, free-range chicken legs
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
225g (8oz) onions, diced
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
a pinch of saffron threads
1.3kg (3lb) very ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or tinned chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons honey
flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g (2oz) blanched almonds, skinned and toasted
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
a few sprigs of coriander

• Separate the drumsticks from the thighs and season with salt and pepper.
• Heat the oil over a medium heat in a wide 25cm (10 inch)/3.2-litre casserole and add the onion, garlic and spices. Cook for a minute or two, stirring, and then add the tomatoes and chicken pieces. Cover and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/4 hours until the chicken is meltingly tender.
• Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Return the tomato sauce to the hob and simmer gently, uncovered, for about 20 minutes until the sauce thickens – it should be concentrated and unctuous. The colour will darken somewhat. Stir regularly to prevent the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan as the sugar in the tomatoes begins to caramelise. Add the honey. Return the chicken to the casserole to heat through.
• Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon to a hot serving dish, spoon over the sauce and garnish with the toasted almonds, sesame seeds and sprigs of fresh coriander.

Vegetable and Tofu Curry 

You'll love this curry, relished by everyone including vegans. Even ardent curry haters can't get enough of this deliciously spiced dish. It's also an excellent base for other additions such as chunks of cooked potato. Serves 4 -6

2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 – 2 chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
zest of 1 organic lemon or 2 limes
110g (4oz) coriander leaves and stalks (coarsely chopped) plus extra to serve
60g (2½oz) cashew nuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1½ tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 x 400ml (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk
400ml (14fl oz) homemade vegetable stock
500g (18oz) pumpkin or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm (¾ inch) dice
1 small cauliflower, weighing approx. 350g (12oz), broken into small florets
225g (8oz) firm tofu, cut into approx. 2cm (¾ inch) dice
225g (8oz) chard, thinly sliced (use French beans in summer)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
organic lemon or lime wedges, to serve

• Combine the garlic, chilli, citrus zest, roughly chopped coriander leaves and stalks, cashew nuts, ginger, turmeric, cumin and 1 teaspoon of salt in a food processor and whizz to a chunky or smooth purée, depending on your preference.
• Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, stir in the garlic and ginger purée and cook for 3–4 minutes, stirring. Whisk in the coconut milk and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 8–10 minutes.
• Add the chunks of sweet potato or pumpkin and return to the boil. Cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower florets and tofu chunks and bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Add the chard and simmer for a further 3–4 minutes, uncovered, until all of the vegetables are cooked through.
• Season with salt and pepper, and squeeze over a little lemon or lime juice, to taste. Sprinkle with lots of coriander and serve with lemon or lime wedges.

Little Chocolate Pots 

Could serve with raspberries or toasted hazelnuts, and perhaps some crunchy shortbread or biscuits. Makes 6.

Chocolate Mousse
50g (2oz) good quality dark chocolate (we use 54% Callebaut)
50ml (2fl oz) cream
1 egg, separated
To decorate: fresh raspberries, chopped nuts, whipped cream, fresh mint leaves etc as liked.

First, make the chocolate pots.
Chop the chocolate finely. Bring the cream up to the boil, turn off the heat, add the chocolate to the cream and stir it around until the chocolate melts in the cream. Add in the alcohol, if using, and whisk in the egg yolks. Whisk the egg whites until just stiff, then stir in a quarter of the egg white, fold in the rest, gently, being careful not to knock all the air out. Divide between 6 pots or espresso cups.
Cover and chill and allow to set for at least 4 hours, or preferably overnight.
To Serve Decorate as wished - with a little softly whipped cream perhaps, and/or fresh raspberries/nuts and maybe a mint leaf.


Support your local restaurants...
The many restaurant closures can't have escaped your notice. Some of my favourite spots have had to close their doors. Difficult times we live in so let's do what we can to support our local restaurants. Even a little card to show appreciation and say 'can't come so often but a special thank you for what you do – we'll be around when we can' could be enough to cheer someone on...during these tough times for everyone.

Food to Share - 10 Great Recipes for Family and Friends at Ballymaloe Cookery School on Tuesday, 11th April 2023
Invite friends and family over for a feast of simple, but sumptuous dishes! We have a treasure trove of tasty ideas that you can use when you want to pull a fun meal together. You will learn how to compose an elegant platter of colourful crudités to whet the appetite, discover a selection of show-stoppingly delicious dips, find out how to make a bubbly casserole to warm the heart, an irresistible tear and share bread and a sweet treat so delicious you'll want to squabble over it. Master the art of stylish presentation and make entertaining easy with our tempting recipes for uncomplicated food that is full of flavour. For more information, see

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