Cathy was never charmed by the fact that I couldn’t cook. She didn’t think that it was cute that I had no idea how to use an oven. We were 21-ish, and there was nothing about my practical uselessness that endeared her to me at all. In the almost Shire-like coziness of her family’s Skerries seaside home, she rolled her eyes at me and said something to the effect of, “You really need to get over yourself.” She was right.
She knew the town butcher by name, would waltz into his shop through her hangover for rashers and sausages and eggs, her voice husky from the shouting of the nightclub the night before. She brought all of her own lunches to college and wouldn’t sniff the canteen food for the loath of it. It was her movement with food that stood out most clearly – like subtle sorcery. Tupperware box this, little tub of dressing that – her sandwiches were an Avoca tea room fantasy. I never knew what was in them; just that they looked delicious. She’d always have an apple on her, naturally. She wielded knives fearlessly, she cooked with her nose. She showed me how to inhale spices and ask them questions (though she didn’t put it like that – “Just use your fucking nose! Taste the thing! Delish, man!”)
She did not cook in measurements or quantities that I could tell. She always had only half an eye on the clock. It never felt like science; even though at the atheist root of it, that’s what cooking is.
Cathy made it look effortless because it was effortless for her. She showed me that cooking isn’t work, it’s magic. Witches are women who take stillness and turn it into energy. They’re alchemists.
Cathy often had spun gold highlights, and generally a perfect natural tan. She swore colourfully, and was deeply cynical and profoundly nurturing at once. She was an adventurer, in the truest sense – every year she would disappear into the horizon of Europe or America for the summer and return with outrageous stories, which she told to me after dinner as we assembled ourselves in front of her wardrobe mirror – half past a second bottle of wine, ready to go to the nightclub and prey on the wide-eyed male inhabitants of the seaside town. My paleness dismayed her, I awed at her fearless brushstrokes of bronzer. I’d smoke out the pokey window, blowing plumes of grey into the salty night air. She’d tell me I couldn’t go out in my runners, I’d need high heels – none of that art-school hipster shite would wash out here in Skerries, the Jersey Shore of the Dublin coastline. I wore her mother’s shoes one night (thanks, Etna) on Cathy’s insistence, so that I wouldn’t make a show of her.
Once she put strawberries in a salad in front of me, there in the kitchen. My eyes nearly fell out of my head. Strawberries? And spinach? Cathy no – but she looked me dead in the eye, viciously mixing a concoction in an old jam jar that turned out to be poppyseed and honey vinaigrette, and told me it was delicious and if I didn’t like it that was up to me, she’d only give me a small bit to see if I liked it.
I think, at the moment the strawberries and spinach and goats cheese and poppy seeds and honey all met one another at once, everything was different for me. Maybe this was the spell that had evaded me for so long. I drank a lot of fizzy drinks at the time – my palette is still evolving from being bluebottle basic – vinegar and sugar were all I cared about. They still kind of are. All wine just tasted like wine, but she already had the sense to dodge the six euro trash and go for something a little nearer fifteen. I still prefer the stuff from a box, to be honest.
Cathy was miles ahead of me. She cared about food. Through my excursions to Skerries, she taught me to care about food. For years after I’d still poison myself and burn dinner or skip dinner and drink two litres of Coke in one sitting if I was allowed – but she instigated something. She is the reason I cook. If it wasn’t for her, I would be still eating half crunchy pasta with watery, sugary sauce and oven pizzas every night of the week. I would never have asked questions of ingredients – why is this tomato better than that tomato? Why is it that balsamic vinegar and strawberries go so well together? I would never have learned what I was hungry for – maybe I never would have become hungry in the first place. Food is miraculous and weird and a force for connecting people. It’s magic.
She spent one summer in France as a summer camp supervisor, abundant with stories, overflowing with scandal, alarmingly fluent in a language I could barely conjugate verbs in. I remember lots of her stories. I remember that she missed the milk, the cheese, the cream that she could get there. I’d never thought about missing food before, or that there might be a difference between the produce farmed in different nations. Sitting in her kitchen, I watched her prepare another spinach salad. When she told me it was going to be warm, not cold, I was baffled, but I trusted her. I’d seen what she’d done with strawberries and poppyseeds. I remember this recipe clearly because I felt like I could do it – I felt like I could imitate her effortlessness until I felt it myself.
The year I moved to America, Cathy was living in Japan. She went on her own, adventured off out as far away as she could go. We Skype a few times a year, picking up where we left off, giving out about quitting the smokes, trying to exercise, being adults, living away from Ireland. She liked Japanese food fine – but said the milk and cheese and cream weren’t the same. We’d cross paths for only a scant hour the years I visited in the winter, hugs and chats about our ever dwindling contact with other college friends. The nightclub we used to haunt closed down while we weren’t looking. Now she lives in Wales, amongst the valleys and the pastures. I will visit her this year, for sure. I owe her a good meal.
Here is what I remember of her recipe. It’s simple, decidedly un-vegan and un-vegetarian and probably overloaded with calories – but look, the vegetables cancel out all the fat in it, right? Either way, who cares. Eat your heart out.
Cathy’s Warm Spinach Salad
A whole bunch of spinach If for a moment you’re like, woah that’s too much spinach, don’t worry. It’s not. Spinach wilts slightly when exposed to heat, and the dressing is going to come straight out of the pan. It’ll be a far more approachable size by the time it gets to the plate.
A box of cherry tomatoes Shoot for the Santini ones, they taste the best. Darker red, little dinky ones tend to have more flavor than the spherical, paler ones.
A clutch of spring onions
A punnet of button mushrooms – I use the crimini ones that are brown instead of white.
Goats cheese In my first go round with this recipe while preparing for this column I used Bella Carra Chevre, which was a little too sweet and lacked the bite needed to support the spinach. Chevre actually also goes really well with strawberries, as it happens. In my second go round, I chose a beautiful blue marbled goats cheese called Humboldt Fog, from Cypress Grove. That’s some California business right there. So when choosing a cheese for this meal, shoot more for the savoury end of the goats cheese spectrum than sweet.
Pancetta/Bacon/Rashers This is another one that’s up to you. Little packets of pancetta tend to be ideal for this, but if you’d like something a bit meatier and more substantial definitely go for a packet of rashers or bacon. Make sure to chop it up into little bits though!
Heavy Cream/Crème Fraiche I prefer the body that crème fraiche gives the dressing, though I had a mega hard time finding some that didn’t cost an arm and a leg here in California. To be honest, you can kind of use a mix of both if you’re feeling scandalous. Go ahead, live your truth.
Seasoning: If I catch any of you skimping on seasoning I’ll be sending a letter home to your parents or other adult guardians. Seasoning can change a bunch of vegetables into a life changing experience. Lack of seasoning is the reason that a lot of people think they can’t cook. Use your nose, and a tasting spoon to figure out how much of each you need to your own taste. Get involved.
Onion Powder or Granulated Onion Trust me, this stuff will change your life
Garlic Powder or two finely chopped cloves of garlic or BOTH Go big or go home
Herbes De Provence This is the shining golden key to the taste of this dish – it can get real intense real quickly, so put in a little, then taste – then a little more, until you’ve figured out how much you like. It’s really easy to overdo it with this particular addition, and it can make or break the dressing. Proceed with caution!
Chives For garnish – look, I’m obsessed with onions, so you don’t need to include them if you’re not as deep into the onion buzz as I am. This is your dinner babes, take or leave what you want!
White Wine Just a splash like, if you’ve got some open, or are looking for a damn fine excuse to open some. It burns off real quick and adds another degree of depth to the dressing. I’m sure there’s fancier language for that. I made this dish one this weekend with the wine, and once without – and you bet I preferred the one with the wine. I use Bandit Pinot Grigio, which, according to the box is ‘radiant and fresh’, containing a ‘charming’ mix of ‘citrus, peach, lemon and green apple aromas.’ Yes, I said box. Judge me.
Bread Real good crusty French bread. You know why. Because bread is excellent. I didn’t eat it for like, two years, you know, because whatever bleachy nonsense American flour mills pack it with was making me chronically ill. I became immune, eventually. I love it even more now. Go on, break off a few crusts of it while you’re cooking.
I swear you guys, twenty minutes and you’re done.
Start off by chopping up the spring onions and mushrooms. Lash them into a frying pan on medium-high heat with a few sprays of canola oil, or maybe melt down a spoon of Kerrygold butter (I can still get that in America!) but don’t use too much – the bacon is going to be pretty oily and you don’t want any of the oils and fat to build up on top of the cream. Not a good look.
While they’re browning, chop up as many of the rashers/bacon as you fancy including. Alternatively, lash the packet of pancetta into the pan too. Sizzle them all up nicely together and start seasoning. Bit of salt, generous on the pepper, onion powder and garlic powder for effect – then a tip or two of the Herbes de Provence. Start slow on this one, remember! It can get so overwhelming and perfumey very quickly if you’re not careful.
Pour in the cream next, and turn down the heat a little. Splash in a bit of that wine too – but not too much. Mix it all in together, and shortly it’ll start simmering. Keep one eye on it as you prepare the vegetables, give it a stir from time to time. Tend to it. Don’t let it start getting too foamy. We’re not making a latte here, lads.
Give your veggies a wash in the colander, and a pat with some kitchen paper or a spin in a salad spinner to dry them out if you’ve got one. I aspire to own a salad spinner one day, but until then it’s just me and the colander and the paper towels.
Throw the spinach in a big salad bowl. Yes, I know it probably looks like there’s a lot of it. It’ll wilt, I promise.
With a different knife than the bacon knife, and on a clean chopping board, slice up the cherry tomatoes – I like mine to be really finely chopped, but this is all to taste – then chop up the chives if you chose to use them. Add them to the spinach. I love how this stage looks – green and red all intense in the bowl. You can also feel free to season this part too – a little salt and pepper never hurt.
Crumble the goats cheese into evenish little bits – again, quantity is to taste. Know how much of it you want. Do you want this to be mega cheesy? Go all in. Do you want it to be kind of chill? Maybe go easy. Maybe you’re kinda like, “Nah I’m not mad on goats cheese so I used Philadelphia instead.” Live your truth; that sounds delicious. This is what I mean about asking questions – how do you want this to taste? If you’re not certain, leave it until the very end and scatter some of it on top of the salad. Next time you’ll know. I personally prefer to have it mixed in to the salad because you never know which bite will contain a secret pocket of goats cheese. Surprise -deliciousness!
Once the dressing has been on low and simmering for maybe, 7-10 minutes (if you used the wine give it a quick taste to make sure it’s not too boozy) take the leap and pour it right into the salad bowl. Make sure it’s all mixed in consistently and serve immediately – the good stuff might buzz down to the bottom of the bowl, so go looking for it. Gravity and bowls of salads are sometimes not especially compatible.
This recipe serves two for a main course, or four as a side. Dab up the leftover dressing with that French bread from the bonus round, you won’t want to miss a drop.
Sarah Griffin is an Irish writer about to leave America for the smoky shores of Dublin after 3 years abroad. She’s an Aquarian and a feminist. She has a masters degree in writing from NUIG and is only interested in video games that came out before 2005. Her current favourite foods are matcha flavored everything, but especially cheesecake, jasmine green tea and balsamic vinegar. You can buy her nonfiction book about moving away, Not Lost, published by New Island Press, in all good bookshops in Ireland. Her YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, is coming from Greenwillow Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the autumn of 2016. She tweets (mostly animal pictures) @griffski.