Helen James’s recipes and tips on making a house a home
The designer, cook, mother and creative director of homewares for Dunnes Stores shares recipes and tips from her new book
Helen James: her book reflects her strong feelings about what make a house a home
“I have a mantra that every room should have a plant, a book and at least one natural object.” Helen James, designer, cook, mother of three and now author, has strong feelings on what makes a house a home, and food is an intrinsic part of the equation.
“Is there anything that says ‘home’ more than food?” she asks in her first book, A Sense of Home: Eat – Make – Sleep – Live, which is a collection of recipes – for natural beauty and cleaning products as well as delicious things to eat – in addition to design inspiration, household management tips, and suggestions on how to make your home a place that gives you pleasure.
When James was growing up, the taste of home was an exotic one. Her father was the Islamic curator at the Chester Beatty Library and her parents travelled extensively in the Middle East, bringing home with them an array of exotic ingredients that would have puzzled most 1970s Irish cooks.
“Lamb tagine, peshawari chicken and falafel were all regular midweek meals in my house,” James says, while admitting that what she craved then was the salad served at the home of her childhood friend. “Three lettuce leaves, a hardboiled egg, a tomato that had been sliced into quarters, a slice of ham, pickled beetroot and my favourite addition, salad cream.”
Nowadays, with three boys ranging in age from 18 to eight to cook for, and a demanding working life as creative director of homewares for Dunnes Stores, her cooking falls somewhere between those two goalposts of her childhood.
“I try to pre-prepare food for the week on Sunday, or at least have an idea of what each meal will be, but cooking for the week is more a task than a joy. For pleasure I bake and would usually bake at least one thing, but more likely two, every weekend.”
Her failsafe family supper dish is fish pie. “It is not necessarily the quickest thing to make, but it is if you make it on Sunday and refrigerate for the following day, and actually it is one of those things that tastes better for it. Then I can just pop it in the oven when I come home. It’s a recipe of my mother’s and all my boys love it.
“The older boys [18 and 16] are great eaters . The smallest, who is eight, definitely is a product of third-child syndrome and got away with being a much pickier eater than his brothers, so I have to make a real effort with him to get fruit and vegetables into him. Recently, one of his elder brothers brought a girl home who he took quite a shine to. ‘Mummy, I want to make her soup,’ he said to me, like in his mind the way to her heart was to make her some soup. This boy will go far, I thought.”
Baking is James’s passion, and her therapy, of sorts. “Baking really is a kind of meditation for me and a creative pursuit. I can get lost in it. A day spent baking is heaven to me.
“A few years ago I did a sourdough workshop at Ballymaloe with Chad Robertson from Tartine. As I sat there on the first day listening to him talk about hydration of the dough, I actually started crying, tears just started streaming down my face, I was just so happy . . . maybe I should give it all up and just bake bread every day. Maybe one day.”
When she returned from her second stint working with Donna Karan in New York, in 2011, James bought a house in Castlepollard in Co Westmeath, photographs of which – her sittingroom, bedroom, bathroom and numerous tasteful arrangements of treasured objects – pop up throughout the book.
“It was really important to me that we shot some of the book in my own home, showing my aesthetic. Really, this book is a very personal project. All of the styling was done by me using my personal items, not props, and all of the food you see was cooked/baked by me. There wasn’t a team of stylists and chefs behind the scenes.
“There are also a lot of my own photographs, from daily life and family photos. When I first showed my mum some of the proofs she looked at a picture and said, ‘Goodness, when I bought that wooden bowl in the souk in Sudan 50 years ago, I didn’t think one day I would be looking at it featuring in my daughter’s book.’”
She sold the house in Westmeath earlier this year and is searching for a new house in Dublin to turn into a home.
“I am renting at the moment which is a challenge as I find it hard to live somewhere that I can’t completely make my own. But I have made it my own as much as is possible. I fill my spare moments with the dreams of what I would do if I actually owned it, and what I will do when I have my next home,” says the former co-presenter of the popular RTÉ television show, Home of the Year.
“The most interesting interiors are the ones that have been created over a long period of time without the mark of an outside designer. I realise that not everyone finds that an easy thing to do, and the best interior designers are the ones that listen to their clients and reflect them, as opposed to a copy of something they want to do, or have seen.”
- A Sense of Home: Eat – Make – Sleep – Live, by Helen James, is published by Hachette Books Ireland, £19.99
CHOCLATE CHIP COOKIES
When I lived in Brooklyn in 2010 I ate a cookie in a small café on Smith Street. It was large and caramel-coloured with big chocolate chunks, crispy edges and a soft, chewy centre.
This recipe, based on the New York Times 48-hour cookie, is the closest thing I have found to that heavenly specimen. You can wait anything between 24 to 48 hours to bake these – the longer you wait, the richer and more caramelised the cookie will taste. My personal preference is somewhere around the 36-hour mark. Don’t substitute chocolate chips here, you want good-quality chocolate broken into chunks, at least thumbnail size. This will affect the taste but also the texture of your cookie. These cookies can be frozen once they’ve had their waiting time – just defrost at room temperature before you bake. Do not skip the stage of weighing out the cookie dough. As with all my recipes, I have made this the shortest route to the desired effect.
- Makes 18 cookies
- 480g plain flour
- 1¼ teaspoons baking soda
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons sea salt
- 280g unsalted butter
- 280g light brown sugar
- 200g caster sugar
- 2 free-range eggs
- 200g dark chocolate (60-70%), roughly broken into chunks
Measure the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl and stir with a whisk to remove any lumps. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and both sugars together until pale and light, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well between each addition.
Add the flour mixture to the bowl and mix until well combined (don’t over-mix). Add the chocolate chunks and mix through. Now, fashion golf ball-sized rounds of the dough with your hands (each one should weigh 100g). Cover the bowl of dough balls with cling film and put in the fridge for 24 to 36 hours.
When you are ready to bake, place the cookie balls on baking trays lined with parchment paper, leaving plenty of space between each one – I find four cookies a sheet works well if you don’t want them to melt into one another. Allow to come to room temperature (about half an hour) while you preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the tray.
These cookies are best the day they come out of the oven but if kept in a completely airtight container will last up to three days.
LEMON AND BLACK OLIVE CHICKEN
This dish has a Middle Eastern feel and the combination of sharp lemon and salty olives is delicious. It is really very simple to put together and can be assembled ahead of time (the night before would be good) and kept in the fridge, then just thrown into a hot oven to cook when you are ready.
Dish Serves Four
- 8 free-range chicken thighs
- 2 medium onions
- 1 lemon
- 2 pieces of preserved lemon, chopped (see recipe below)
- cloves from 1 head of garlic, peeled
- 24 kalamata black olives (pitted)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, lightly crushed
- 1 teaspoon sumac water
- a bunch of fresh coriander, to serve
Pre heat the oven to 180°C. Remove any excess fat from the chicken thighs and pat dry. Peel and slice the onions and slice the lemon, keeping the slices as thin as you can. Place into the bottom of a roasting pan and evenly scatter over the cloves of garlic, olives and chopped preserved lemon.
Lay the chicken thighs on top and sprinkle with the salt, coriander seeds and sumac. At this point you can place in the fridge until you are ready to cook, or proceed as follows. Add enough cold water to cover the onions and lemons and roast in the oven for 45 minutes. Meanwhile roughly chop the coriander.
Remove the pan from the oven, check that the chicken is cooked through and scatter with the chopped coriander.
CHARRED PRESERVED LEMON
Charring the lemons before starting the preserving process adds a whole extra taste dimension to this Middle Eastern condiment staple. You only need the skin to impart flavour to a recipe – often a quarter or a half lemon skin will suffice.
- 3 unwaxed lemons
- 4 fresh bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 300-500ml olive oil (depending on container)
- Cut the lemons in half and place cut-side down over the fire on the grill.
Leave for 3 to 6 minutes then turn and grill on the other side. The time will greatly depend on your fire temperature, so you will need to judge yourself when they are done. You want a nice blackened and caramelised lemon (see photo).
Remove from the heat and place into a clean container like a sterilised kilner jar. Add the bay leaves, salt, peppercorns and coriander seeds, then pour over enough olive oil to cover the lemons completely. Leave to infuse for at least 3 days.
Use these oil-preserved lemons much in the way you would use normal lemons or preserved lemons, in tagines or chopped and added to salads or couscous. An added bonus is that the oil is delicious in salad dressing or poured onto fish or chicken. The lemons will keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 weeks.
HONEY, GARLIC AND THYME FLOWER TART
Cooking the garlic in the vinegar and honey before you add it really mellows the flavour of this tart, making it sweet and earthy. You can of course make this at any time of year, simply using the leaves of thyme instead of the flowers.
This is a great tart for a picnic too and best eaten at room temperature. It makes 1cm x 23cm tart and comprisies eight slices.
For the pastry:
- 160g plain flour
- a pinch of sea salt
- 110g cold butter
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 60ml iced water
- 1 free-range egg, beaten (for brushing pastry surface)
For the garlic custard filling:
- 3 bulbs of garlic (cloves peeled)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 200ml water
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
- 180g grated cheddar cheese
- 4 free-range eggs
- 180ml crème fraîche
- 160ml double cream
- a pinch of sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 20 thyme flowers
- 6 fennel fronds
First make the pastry. Place the flour and salt in a bowl and add the cold butter, cut into small pieces. Rub with your fingers until you get a fine, breadcrumb-like mixture.
Add the vinegar to the ice-cold water and sprinkle onto the flour mixture. Work quickly and bring together into a dough, then turn out and press into a round. Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour.
Heat the oven to 180°C. Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out on a lightly floured surface to a 36cm round. Transfer to a 23cm tin and let the edges overhang. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Remove from the freezer and line the pastry with parchment paper and baking weights or old butter beans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes then remove from the oven, carefully take out the paper and beans or weights and brush the surface with a little beaten egg. Put back in the oven and bake for another 10 minutes. Leave to cool (but leave the oven on).
Now make the filling. Place your garlic cloves into a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil, cooking for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain.
Dry the pan, pour in a little olive oil and fry the cooked garlic for 2 to 3 minutes until turning golden. Add the vinegar and water and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes. Now add the honey and thyme leaves and cook until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup just coating the garlic (about 5 minutes). Scatter the cheese over the base of the pastry case then distribute your garlic evenly over it.
In a bowl combine the eggs, crème fraîche and cream, season with salt and pepper and beat until thoroughly combined and no egg white or yolk are visible, just a creamy golden liquid.
Pour the custard over the garlic in the tart case and scatter the top with half of the thyme flowers and fennel fronds.
Bake in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes until the custard is just set but still has a little wobble in the middle. Decorate with the remaining thyme flowers and fennel fronds and serve warm or at room temperature.
Home cleaning tips
This method is magic – it takes all the heavy scrubbing out of the silver-cleaning process. For small items like cutlery or jewellery, you can use a smallish plastic, glass or ceramic container. For larger items such as bowls and teapots, you can use your kitchen sink.
Line the bottom of the container or sink with tin foil, shiny side-up. Place your silver items on the foil. Sprinkle liberally with baking soda. Add enough boiling water to completely cover the items. Leave until the water is cool enough to scoop out the items with your hands – you should be able to see them change colour and brighten up before your eyes! Buff with a soft cloth until shiny and dry.
Air Freshener Spray
This spray is antibacterial and fresh, with none of the toxic chemicals found in conventional fresheners. You’ll need a 250ml spray bottle.
- 20 drops tea tree oil
- 20 drops rosemary oil
- 20 drops peppermint oil
- 10 drops lavender or lemon oil (depending on your preference)
- 6 tablespoons distilled water
- 2 tablespoons vodka
Combine all the essential oils in a ceramic bowl. Pour your water and vodka into the spray bottle and carefully add the essential oil mixture. Shake to combine.
Keep this in your bathroom cabinet and spray when you need a burst of freshness. Make sure to shake well before each use. It will last indefinitely but the oil scent may fade slightly as time goes by.