Journeys in Taste Interview with Clodagh McKenna

“How long does it take to cook?”

That particular question, says acclaimed Irish chef Clodagh McKenna from her UK home (which just happens to be on the grounds of Highcleare Park, the on-site castle of which is known to you, me and everyone else as the grandiose setting for the television series Downton Abbey) is the one she is asked most frequently. “So many people say to me that they have only about ten or 15 minutes, and that if something takes longer then they just couldn’t be bothered because they’re so tired.”

Welcome to the modern conundrum of time not just equalling money but also, for many, of throwing your life onto the ground and not allowing it back up. Clodagh gets it, of course. We all live, she says, in a very busy world, a world that has changed so much over the past ten years (and even more so over the past 18 months). “Life just gets busier, and there are more things to do that are more demanding of your time, yet I think it’s really good to ask yourself what is important in your life. We make time for everything in our lives, for our workouts, to watch whatever we like on television, to watch a sports event, and so on. Yet it seems to me that some of us never make time for cooking.” Clodagh says that not to cook is doing yourself an injustice. Unsurprisingly, she cooks every day she’s at home “because I love it, and I feel, I suppose, that my life isn’t full if I don’t. I feel that I’m worth it…”

She knows it’s somewhat different for her, admitting that she has a library of cookery books in her head that she can reach for, open up and flick through. To these shelves (and actual physical ones) she can add her recently published (and eighth) cookbook, In Minutes. As can be discerned by the title, you might say that time is of the essence. 

“I decided that I was going to section off recipes into time slots of ten, 20 and 30 minutes. I feel those timings cover everything that we look for in the cooking of a meal. It’s really for those evenings in the week where you’re tired and you don’t want to be faffing about or reaching for those ready-made meals. Cooking for yourself isn’t expensive, it’s good for your health, it’s relaxing and it’s fun. Put on some music and pour yourself a glass of something, whether it’s a soft drink, sparkling water, elderflower, wine, or whatever you feel like, and just enjoy that ten minutes you have cooking away. When you a little bit more time, go to the 20-minute recipes, and the 30-minutes would be great for the weekends. I know for sure there is something in the book for everybody.”

Clodagh is right. From the Taco Salad and Gambas Pil Pil (from the ten minutes section) to Goan Fish Curry and Chicken Cacciatore (the 30 minutes section), there is no excuse to get stuck in. And, refreshingly for a cookbook/chef, she makes it clear that if you don’t have all of the ingredients, then something from a package or jar will do (“I love ready-made puff pastry sheets – my freezer is stacked with them”). There are items in recipes that are essential to be fresh, and items when it doesn’t really matter, she advises with no small amount of common sense. 

There is, however, something more than just the act of preparing food, eating it, and the time involved it takes to do that. For some time now, Clodagh has been a dedicated advocate for something broader than just eating well. Add to that is thinking and being well. Why is that important to her? And is it all wrapped up in self-worth?

Time constraints, she offers, are genuine concerns for people, but there is, she adds, “something about some people not being at their happiest at certain times of their lives that doesn’t give them motivation to do anything different to what they’re used to. The best thing to do when you’re in that spot is to shake yourself out of it, and push yourself to do something that will make you feel better. I will scream it from the hilltops – cooking makes you feel mentally better. There is no way you’re going to cook for yourself and feel depressed. Cooking makes other people feel better, too, and that’s important to remember.”

Clodagh goes on to say that for young children growing up cooking is one of the best things you can do. Never mind the latest online game or gadget that will soon be replaced with the next must-have item. The things you really remember, she suggests, are the lovely warmth and lively conversations around the kitchen or dinner table. It is these and their associated connections and relationships that build you as a person and which provides a sequence of interlaced personal safety nets. “It’s important to give that to yourself and know that it really does nourish you, physically and mentally,” she notes. “And it doesn’t take too much time, either, which is what the new book is about.”

We are back to the topic of ‘time’ again. It will, inevitably, continue to crop up as we all try to negotiate the far too quick passing of it as best we can. “We will never have again the same amount of time that we had when we were growing up,” maintains Clodagh. “There are too many distractions now, from social media and mobile phones to a countless number of TV channels. The numerous lockdowns really helped in that people just started to cook again, and that’s why I think the new book is perfect for this time. People have had a taste, so to speak, of cooking over the past year, and the recipes in the book can be built into their schedules as life becomes busy again.”

Of course, people have various ways and methods to deal with the level of how busy their daily lives are. It’s good to know that Clodagh takes her own advice. While she cooks every day she is at home, she views it a beneficial therapy of sorts. It is, she states, “a break from work.” The most incredible thing that has been brought into her life, she admits, is the rule of the daily grind stopping at 6pm. 

“I used to eat in the evenings, and then go back to work for a while, but my husband Harry and I now have this day-to-day routine of 6pm being shut-off time. I put on some music, I don’t look at my emails or anything like that, and I fix up some supper. I think about it throughout the day because it’s my little highlight at home after intense work. It’s all very simple fare – I light the candles, I have a glass of wine, and I’m in bed by 9pm!”

In Minutes, by Clodagh McKenna, is published by Kyle Books.
www.kylebooks.co.uk 

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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