When chef and TV personality Neven Maguire is in front of the camera there is usually a full professional crew behind the lens. But during the country’s initial Covid-19 lockdown, Maguire released a hugely successful series of cooking videos on Instagram and Facebook, shot on his mobile phone by his wife Amelda.
The couple made one video a day during the lockdown period and the most popular of these, for a simple chicken korma, has been watched by almost a quarter of a million people. “I had the very easy part. I got to just hold the phone and then eat the food,” Amelda Maguire says. “Amelda is very humble, she doesn’t give herself enough praise,” Neven responds.
Sharing credit with his wife of almost 14 years, and remarking on her talents is a recurring theme in our socially distanced chat. I’m in Dublin and the couple are at their home in Co Cavan, just minutes from their business, MacNean House and Restaurant, right on the border in Blacklion. The couple’s children, twins Conor and Lucia, are at school, having just started back in third class.
'It’s like living in a restaurant. We’ve all been spoiled, I forget how to cook'
“I’ll tell you how it all started. Before we closed, ahead of St Patrick’s week, I put up something on social media … if anyone wants help or inspiration in the kitchen, get in touch, and in 24 hours we had over 400 emails come in to the restaurant, and they were all giving out to me in reservations. But it made me realise, people really wanted help,” Neven says.
“So I said ok, let’s do this. It’s done on my phone, Amelda holds the camera, I do the prep and the cooking, and I upload it.” He is delighted with the level of engagement the simple, homecooking videos have generated, remarking on the 15,000 additional Instagram followers he now has. “I am laughing here at Neven saying he’s gained extra followers. I’ve gained extra pounds,” says Amelda.
It wasn’t all plain sailing however, Neven admits. “With Instagram you’ve a maximum of 15 minutes and I didn’t know that when I started. My very first video for Bord Bia, I couldn’t download it. I’d gone over the time, so I had to do it again, it was quite stressful.”
Most families had good and less good experiences of being cooped up together in the spring lockdown, but for the Maguires, there were considerable advantages. “We got into a really good routine. We could do our videos, I could do my work, and I don’t have to be on the road as much, that’s one thing I’ve learnt. I feel a lot more in control and can have a lot more quality family time. I’ve only been in Dublin three times since March, which is incredible, isn’t it Amelda?”
“Yes, it’s a huge change,” she replies.
Neven Maguire can’t say exactly how many miles he usually drives in a year, but estimates that it would be in excess of 30,000km, and that’s a conservative estimate. As well as cooking in his restaurant, he is always on the move, filming, doing demos, and working with the Simply Better team at Dunnes Stores, for which he is an ambassador. He has also designed an extensive range of cookware for the supermarket chain.
So how was it having him at home all the time? “It’s great, it’s like living in a restaurant. We’ve all been spoiled, I forget how to cook,” Amelda says. “Even as busy as he was before, he’d be very good and he’d be trying to prepare things ahead, so that we would never go hungry.” Both of their children are good eaters, with risotto and roast chicken their favourites. But when dad’s not there to do the cooking, Amelda takes on the role.
'I really think we have a new model, which is a better experience for the guest,'
“Before, we would have just lived off fish and rice. I would have panfried a bit of fish and cooked some rice. The kids love fish, but I think I overdid it with Lucia and put her off a bit. Doing those videos, I was watching and thinking, well that’s doable, I think I could do that. So I’m thinking now, when it gets busy again and he’s gone, I’ll be watching the videos myself.”
For now though, Neven is working from home, well, from a few miles down the road. The restaurant, and its adjoining 19 bedrooms, is open for business after a lockdown that saw the team forced to cancel 1,600 reservations over three months.
“I am in work, back in service, meeting my guests. There’s a lovely feeling to that. We are not doing the numbers we were doing; we have 50 for dinner tonight.” It’s a Wednesday in September when we speak, so 50 sounds like a decent number, but previously MacNean House would have served between 80 and 90 a night, with more than 100 over two sittings for Sunday lunch, in addition to dinner that night.
“I really think we have a new model, which is a better experience for the guest,” Neven says. Tables are not turned, and the bar area has become additional dining space, with pre- and post-dinner drinks moved to an outdoor terrace. The menu has been streamlined a little, but “we want to give the guest the same experience.” Staff numbers are now at 55, instead of the previous 75.
'If you look at the way the Irish palate has changed, even since I started cooking at the ripe age of 12, we’re so well travelled'
The good news, for anyone who has struggled to obtain a reservation in the past, is that there is more availability, even with the reduced numbers. “We are getting an awful lot more cancellations, so we’ve learned to put availability up online on the website. On Friday night I spoke to two people who just booked last Monday. That would not have happened a year ago, but it’s great for people who can come last minute. It’s changing day by day, the numbers fluctuate. We haven’t done more than 55 guests and the least we’ve done is 45. The bedrooms are the key to surviving.”
In addition to getting the doors back open at MacNean House and Restaurant. he has been putting the finishing touches to his latest cookbook, Neven Maguire’s Midweek Meals. It’s his 15th book, all of them with his longtime collaborator Orla Broderick, and it’s bang on the money for home cooks looking for inspiration for quick, easy family meals. “These are meals you’re not going to be in the kitchen cooking for four hours, a lot of these dishes can be done very quickly, that was the focus in the book.
A great many recipes among the 100 that are included draw on foreign cuisines, but the spicing is gentle and the heat level tempered, to suit family mealtimes. “If you look at the way the Irish palate has changed, even since I started cooking at the ripe age of 12, we’re so well travelled – and now you can get the ingredients in your local supermarket.
“I think people want interesting food, they want variety. It’s about bringing people on a food journey. I love Thailand and Vietnam, and I love all those kinds of flavours.”
'Even when I’m in the supermarket, people come up, they could show you a celeriac and say "what is this? What would you do with it?" People feel that they can talk to you'
Asked if he misses his regular foreign trips, Neven says, “I’m just about to cry here. I love exploring, especially when we’re doing the television work, I’ve learned so much over the years. As a family we love going to Portugal, we love travelling to Italy. But we’re lucky, we had a staycation, we went up to our good friend Brian McDermot in Moville and then we went down to Killarney.”
Before our conversation has to come to an end, so Amelda can collect the twins from school, I ask them both what they think it is that makes Neven so popular with his legions of devoted fans?
He laughs it off. “I suppose it hasn’t happened overnight, there has been a lot of goodwill over the years. Remember I am 46 now and I’ve been on the road doing demos and lots of different food shows for years. It’s all about meeting people and having time for people.
“Even when I’m in the supermarket, people come up, they could show you a celeriac and say ‘what is this? What would you do with it?' People feel that they can talk to you, that they can communicate with you.”
Amelda adds. “I think you just love people and that comes across, and you never get tired of talking to people. You have a generosity of spirit that people just love. There is no such thing as no” she says good naturedly.
It must really take you a long time to do the weekly shop though, I suggest. They both laugh and it is Amelda who answers. “ Yes, yes it does actually.”
Neven Maguire’s Midweek Meals : Simple Recipes for Easy Everyday Eating, is published by Gill Books (€22.99). Photography by Joanne Murphy.
QUICK CHICKEN KORMA WITH SWEET POTATOES AND CHICKPEAS
This quick and easy curry has everything you need in one bowl – it’s nutritious, filling and packed full of goodness. It’s also delicious made with monkfish instead of chicken. I like to serve it with warmed flatbreads or pitta breads for scooping it up, but you really don’t need them.
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
2 tsp finely grated fresh root ginger
1 tbsp mild curry powder or paste
1 x 400g tin of Italian chopped tomatoes
1 × 400ml tin of coconut milk
1 tbsp mango chutney
4 × 175g boneless, skinless chicken fillets, cut into 2.5cm cubes
1 × 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
200g fresh or frozen spinach
juice of 1 lime
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
To garnish: chopped fresh coriander or basil leaves
To serve: warmed flatbreads or pitta breads (optional)
1 Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and fry for 4-6 minutes, until golden brown. Stir in the sweet potato and ginger and cook for 1 minute, stirring.
2 Add the curry powder or paste and a pinch of salt and cook for another minute, stirring. Add the tomatoes, coconut milk and mango chutney. Stir well to combine, then bring to a fast simmer for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is so well reduced that it’s almost sticking to the bottom of the pan.
3 Stir in the cubed chicken and slowly bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and completely tender.
4 Add the rinsed chickpeas, spinach and lime juice and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Season to taste.
5 Ladle into warmed bowls and scatter over the coriander or basil. Serve with warmed flatbreads or pitta breads, if liked.
SPAGHETTI PUTTANESCA WITH SPINACH
Using frozen spinach is a great way to access a green vegetable when the cupboard is bare and the flavours work really well in this Italian classic. Frozen spinach comes in cubes, so it’s super easy to use, which is why I always have a bag tucked away. It’s also less watery then the fresh variety, so it doesn’t thin out the sauce – a win-win!
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
6 anchovy fillets from a jar or tin, drained and finely chopped
1 × 400g tin of Italian chopped tomatoes
1 × 290g jar of roasted peppers in oilve oil, well drained and thinly sliced
1 × 200g carton or jar of black olives, pitted
225g frozen spinach
2 heaped tbsp rinsed capers
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
2 Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 6-8 minutes, until softened and just beginning to catch around the edges. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook for another minute.
3 Add the tomatoes, peppers, olives, spinach and capers to the pan. Season lightly with salt, as the anchovies are already salty, and plenty of black pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the spinach has defrosted and is nicely incorporated into the sauce.
4 Drain the pasta into a colander in the sink, then toss into the sauce until evenly combined. Divide between pasta bowls to serve.
CHAR SUI PORK RIBS WITH SLAW
These ribs are so tender that the meat literally falls off the bone. I like to finish them off in the oven or barbecue for that really sticky glaze. The easiest way to make the slaw is with a fine grater attachment on a food processor, which can be done in advance and kept in the fridge for three days - just add the coriander at the last minute.
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp clear honey
3 tbsp light muscovado sugar
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp hoisin sauce
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp freshly grated root ginger
1.5-2kg meaty pork ribs
1 litre water
20g fresh coriander
For the slaw
100g red cabbage, cored and finely shredded
100g white cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 large carrot, grated
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
To garnish: spring onion curls (optional)
1 Mix the garlic in a bowl with the honey, muscovado sugar, soy sauce, hoisin, rice wine vinegar and ginger. Spoon 4 tablespoons of the marinade into the slow cooker (reserving the remainder) and add the ribs. Top up with the water, mixing to combine. Strip the leaves off the coriander and set them aside for the slaw, then put the stalks into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, until the ribs are tender but not falling off the bone.
2 Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F/gas mark 7). Line a large baking tray with foil.
3 Remove the ribs from the slow cooker using a slotted spoon or tongs. Handle them carefully, as the meat will be very tender and may start to fall off the bone. Baste with the reserved marinade and lay on the foil-lined tray. Cook in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, until starting to crisp on the outside.
4 Meanwhile, to make the slaw, mix the red and white cabbage with the carrot and reserved coriander leaves. Put the rapeseed oil, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, caster sugar and salt in a screw-topped jar and shake until evenly combined, then use to dress the slaw.
5 If making the spring onion curls, cut the spring onions into very thin slices, then put in a bowl of ice-cold water to curl. Drain well and lightly pat dry on kitchen paper before using.
6 Arrange the slaw on plates with the char sui pork ribs and garnish with the spring onion curls (if using).