Chef Clodagh McKenna shares her joy at raising chickens and growing her own vegetables with Ella Walker
Clodagh McKenna actually did what many of us vaguely imagined doing during March's lockdown: she went and wrote a book. During that first never-ending-feeling stint, when many of us were firmly confined to indoors, the Irish cook and telly presenter turned to Instagram. Posting a daily recipe video, she hoped to go some way in answering the many, many messages she was receiving from housebound people across the country in need of lockdown-suitable dishes, non-stressful suppers, family-friendly midweek meals, interesting dinners for one, and more.
"I did them every day," says McKenna of the videos. "Every single day - I did over 120 of them. It was exhausting, but it was also a real purpose."
A whole new community sprung up around these brief snippets of chic, blonde-fringed McKenna whipping up a solo bread-and-butter pudding, or a tray of retro chicken kievs. And that community provided real-time feedback that McKenna scooped up and used to help fuel the book: Clodagh's Weeknight Kitchen. She considers it a "a real community cookbook" - which is what made her blub when she first got to hold a finished copy.
"I wanted to focus on the weeknights," explains the Ballymaloe Cookery School trained cook. "We've got so much going on during the day and it comes to six o'clock, and it's like, you're hungry, you're tired and you've had a hard day, how can you put a meal together? Without it getting on top of you?"
The result is a 100-strong brand new cache - McKenna (45) wrote them on top of all those Insta videos - of recipes she says are "incredibly simple to make with ingredients that are completely accessible; but they're gorgeous and they're fun, and they'll make you feel good about yourself."
Split into sections including 'quick fixes', 'Friday night gatherings' and 'store cupboard standbys', the underlying message for McKenna is the difference cooking for yourself makes. "Especially when you've got to get up early in the morning, (you've got) kids or work to look after, you've got to keep yourself motivated to work at home; you need to have that something to look forward to in the evening.
"Sometimes a takeaway can be great, but it doesn't give you that same feeling of - I call it a sprinkle of happiness because that what it is to me," adds McKenna. "Whether it's for one or for two, you've made something for yourself; physically you feel better; mentally you feel better.
"That's where the importance of cooking yourself a lovely supper every night, or at least two nights during the week, (comes in). Some weeks go by and it's like you don't have any special moments at the table. It all becomes TV and a takeaway, or heated up food, and you live for the weekend. I'm like, let's live for every night.
"Only good can come from planning your week and cooking weeknights," she adds. "Only positive things can come financially, mentally, health-wise, everything."
When it comes to positives, something that has brought huge delight into McKenna's life recently is the arrival of her 'girls' - a brood of hens. "They're the light of my life at the moment," says the telly chef gleefully.
"They are an absolute joy. I mean, I was terrified the night before of them arriving - all of a sudden you've got six new animals that need looking after. But they're doing really well."
They even put themselves to bed: "One night it was getting kind of dark and we're looking everywhere for them, and they're all inside their beds all perched up waiting for the lid to go down! And they're making me breakfast every morning, which is great."
Born in Blackrock, Ireland, McKenna was a cheffing "city girl" in London for years before relocating to Broadspear - the home in Ireland that she and her partner have been turning into a fully sustainable homestead.
"It's been a dream," she explains, describing how they've built 10 raised beds in what was the property's dilapidated 18th century walled garden. And we've got our own working beehives now and we've planted a whole orchard.
"This is the first time, in the last couple of weeks, where we can see the whole eco cycle working, from composting, to the compost now going back into the beds for the winter," says McKenna, buzzing about her wormery: "It's like the gold compost for sprinkling on really important things," she says on a Zoom call.
As autumn crackles around us and winter looms, those skills, and that sharing of information, will continue to be vital says McKenna.
"There are things that we took up over lockdown that will stay with us now," she says. "You've probably stopped the things that you didn't enjoy that much, and you'll keep the ones that you did enjoy." And for new inspiration, there's always the kitchen.
Clodagh's Weeknight Kitchen by Clodagh McKenna is published by Kyle Books, £20
What you'll need
200g minced beef
200g minced pork
200g ricotta cheese
2 onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
80g Parmesan cheese, grated
40g fresh fine breadcrumbs
1 medium free-range egg, beaten
1-2tbsp olive oil
50g salted butter, plus 1tbsp (optional)
400g cavolo nero, roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the rosemary tomato sauce:
1tbsp olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
400g can cherry tomatoes
1tbsp tomato puree
1. Place the beef, pork, ricotta, onions, garlic, rosemary, Parmesan, breadcrumbs and beaten egg in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Using your hands, shape into 30 meatballs and transfer to a plate. Cover with cling-film and place in the fridge for one hour to set so that they don't crumble during cooking. You can also leave the meatballs in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze them for up to a month, until you are ready to cook them.
2. While the meatballs are chilling, make the rosemary tomato sauce. Place a saucepan over a low heat and add the oil, then stir in the onion, garlic and rosemary and simmer for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree, season with salt and pepper and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Next, get the polenta cooking. Pour 600ml water into a saucepan over a medium heat and season with salt and pepper. Once the water has come to the boil, whisk in the polenta. Reduce the heat, cover and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Once it has cooked, stir in a tablespoon of olive oil or butter.
4. Now back to the meatballs. Place a frying pan over a medium heat and pour in one tablespoon of olive oil, add the meatballs and brown on all sides. Then spoon the meatballs into the tomato rosemary sauce and cook for 15 minutes.
5. Place the cavolo nero in a pan over a medium heat with the butter and season with salt and pepper. Cook for five minutes, turning the leaves with tongs so they cook evenly.
6. Divide the polenta between four warmed bowls, followed by the meatballs, an extra spoonful of the rosemary tomato sauce and the cavolo nero. Serve.
Roast pumpkin with mozzarella and chilli
What you'll need
1 small pumpkin, deseeded and cut into 5cm-thick wedges
2tbsp olive oil
2 x 150g mozzarella balls, drained
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1tbsp balsamic vinegar, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
2. Place the pumpkin in a baking tray or roasting dish. Brush with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes or until browned at the edges.
3. Divide the cooked pumpkin wedges between two plates. Tear the mozzarella into small pieces and scatter over the pumpkin, followed by the thinly sliced chilli. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the extra virgin olive oil and the balsamic vinegar to serve.
Kimchi cauliflower rice
What you'll need
1 small cauliflower
2tbsp olive oil
2tsp toasted sesame oil
1 small bunch of kale, central ribs removed, leaves sliced into ribbons
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2tbsp freshly chopped coriander, plus extra leaves to garnish (optional)
3tbsp dark or light soy sauce
2 fried eggs and finely chopped red chilli, to serve
1. Cut the cauliflower into small florets, then pulse in a food processor until the pieces are the size of couscous.
2. Heat the olive and sesame oils in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add the kale and cauliflower rice and saute for three to five minutes until the kale is wilted and the cauliflower rice is beginning to brown. Mix in the spring onions, kimchi, chopped coriander and soy sauce.
3. Divide between two warmed plates and serve with a fried egg each on top, a sprinkle of red chilli, and some extra coriander leaves, if you wish.