My heart was enlarged and beating irregularly

CHRIS DUNNE talks to a talented chef from West Cork about her successful career, quitting cigarettes and recent health scares
My heart was enlarged and beating irregularly

Karen Coakley.

TV cook and mother of four sons, Karen Coakley, 46, says her last wish on death row would be a Silk Cut Purple — but that’s not happening any time soon because, after a long love affair with cigarettes, she gave them up 10 years ago.

“I smoked 30 cigarettes a day, starting the habit in the school toilets,” says Karen, from Bantry, and now living in Kenmare, who appears regularly on the Today Show on RTÉ, demonstrating her mouth-watering nutritious recipes for all the family.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” says Karen, whose decades of puffing have long disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Did she ever try to stub cigarettes out when she was addicted to them?

“I did,” says Karen.

“But whenever I had a drink I was back smoking.”

So how did she kick the habit that is a leading cause of avoidable death?

“It was accidental really,” says Karen, who is an only child, married to Vincent. The couple are parents to Caolann, Aodhán, Conor and Ruairi.

“Vincent wanted to give cigarettes up himself because he was training for a marathon in Athens,” says Karen.

“He gave up a month before me. And the boys wanted us both to give them up. Our twins were only three and the older boys hated me smoking.”

Karen Coakley.
Karen Coakley.

Karen agreed to try to stub out the habit once and for all.

“I agreed to try, planning to do it for three days, hoping to bide my time and get the boys off my back before they put pressure on me again!” says Karen, who has almost 14,000 Instagram followers as ‘kenmarefoodie’. Her blog and food tours are renowned up and down the country.

How did the three days go nicotine-free?

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,”

“By day three off the cigarettes, I decided I could never go through that ever again,” says Karen.

She was a new woman after quitting her 30 a day smoking habit.

“I didn’t put on any weight after giving up cigarettes,” says Karen.

“I took up running and regularly exercised; I toned up. I had more energy.”

She had more attention.

“I got comments from people saying how well I looked,” says Karen.

“The stars aligned for me. There were no obstacles in my way anymore.”

“I realised there was nothing I couldn’t do,” says Karen, who began her working life in SuperValu in Bantry, and who was a mum at 19.

“I didn’t go to college, but I’m very happy,” she says.

Her happy disposition is infectious.

“I am a glass-half-full person,” she says.

“I had a charmed childhood, picking mushrooms, hazelnuts and berries in the great outdoors. Holidaying during the summer in our caravan was idyllic heading off to Killarney.”

Karen has other fond memories.

“It was a pivotal moment for me when I crossed that finish line in Kerry,” says Karen.

Karen Coakley.
Karen Coakley.

She has a positive outlook and a positive message.

“Don’t ever doubt yourself because you never know what you’re capable of.

“Completing the 25-mile road race, crossing the finishing line, I knew I realised I could do more than stand at the kitchen sink and I could do anything. It gave me a new lease of life.”

She threw the kitchen sink at life and the talented chef became a force to be reckoned with, playing a key role in the start-up of Kenmare’s Food Festival, starting her hugely successful blog, building up legions of followers and fans on Instagram. Her online cookery class via Whatsapp is also hugely popular, offering tutorials, practical tips and meal plans for all the family. Then she landed a TV role.

“I love working in front of the camera,” says Karen.

“Everybody working on the Today Show are really fantastic. They are a great team to work with.”

In recent years, fate threw up another obstacle that Karen had to get over.

“Five years ago, I was at the hairdressers when she brought a black mark on my head to my attention,” says Karen.

“On the Camino walk, one of my friends, a veterinary nurse, advised me to have the mark checked out.”

Two weeks later, Karen found herself in the South Infirmary. Having been diagnosed with stage one melanoma, she was back in the hospital to have the black mark removed.

Karen, a glass-half full person, counts herself lucky.

“Melanoma is the most aggressive form of cancer. In hindsight I was very lucky,” she says.

Karen took each day as it came.

“I held onto the fact I took it one step at a time.

“It was just two weeks between diagnosis and the surgery, to our world being turned upside down.”

“Vincent was fantastic,” she says.

But fate wasn’t quite done with her yet.

“I had been aware of a problem with my heart that was picked up when the twins were born 13 years ago,” says Karen.

“During the surgery for melanoma it became clear I had early onset heart failure.”

Karen Coakley and her family.
Karen Coakley and her family.

The condition can be life-threatening.

“Basically, my heart was enlarged and beating irregularly 45% of the time,” says Karen.

There was better news.

“The good news was that it was curable and I underwent a procedure called an ablation; involving a three hour operation.”

But it was a frightening experience.

“They put a rod in through your groin and burn the piece of heart causing the problem but you have to be wide awake,” says Karen.

“It took three hours and I wasn’t able to move a fraction and I’ll never forget the sensation.”

But the woman capable of anything vowed to get back rowing and running.

“I swore through my tears that I’d get back rowing which is my first love, and get back running,” says Karen.

She didn’t hang about, crossing the finish line back to full health.

“Just three years after the whole episode started, my heart rate is back to normal and I’ve had my second row.”

And didn’t it feel good?

“OMG! Did it feel good!”

“Life is for living and grabbing every opportunity.”

You can follow Karen at kenmarefoodie.ie

Her, she shares some of her recipes...

Apple and Cinnamon Custard Tarts For the pastry by Karen Coakley
Apple and Cinnamon Custard Tarts For the pastry by Karen Coakley

Apple and Cinnamon Custard Tarts

For the pastry

175g plain flour

100g butter

50g caster sugar

1 egg yolk

A splash of water

For the custard

1 egg yolk 50g caster sugar

25g flour

200ml cream

½ tsp cinnamon

A pink lady apple, quartered, cored and each quarter cut into thin slices.

Method:

  • Place all the ingredients for the pastry into a food processor and pulse it until it forms a dough. Place it onto a floured work surface and knead it gently until it comes together. Shape it into a round and chill for an hour.
  • After an hour place the pastry onto a floured work surface and roll it out so that it’s big enough to line the 4 pastry cases. Line each case with pastry, prick the pastry with a fork and bake blind at 180 degrees for 10mins. Turn the oven up to 200 degrees once they’re out.
  • Whisk the egg and Caster sugar well before adding in the flour, cinnamon and cream, giving it a gentle whisk to combine.
  • Place the apple quarters, 1 in each party case with skin side up. Pour over the custard and bake in the oven for 15mins.
  • Enjoy with fresh whipped cream or homemade custard.
Chícken with Smoked Bacon and Tarragon served with Creamy Cannellini Beans by Karen Coakley
Chícken with Smoked Bacon and Tarragon served with Creamy Cannellini Beans by Karen Coakley

Chícken with Smoked Bacon and Tarragon served with Creamy Cannellini Beans

Ingredients

150g smoked bacon lardons

I medium leek, washed, trimmed and sliced

140ml wine

125 ml hot chicken stock

50 ml cream

1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 tsp fresh tarragon, chopped

2 chicken fillets

Salt and Pepper Oil

Method:

  • Preheat your oven and when it’s hot place the chicken in an oven dish, rub a little oil over the skin, season with salt and pepper and bake for 20-25 mins (depending on size) until the chicken is cook through but still juicy.
  • While the chicken is cooking heat a frying pan, add the bacon lardons to the dry pan and let them cook until golden and the fat has rendered down.
  • Put the chopped leeks into the pan with the bacon and cook gently for around 5 minutes until tender.
  • Pour in the wine, let it bubble and reduce down by half before adding the stock and allow to bubble.
  • Add the beans and stir well, cook for a few minutes to make sure they’re heated through.
  • Pour in the cream and finish with the chopped tarragon and black pepper.
  • Serve the beans in deep plate or bowl with a chicken fillet on top.
Bharat Spiced Lamb Meatballs by Karen Coakley
Bharat Spiced Lamb Meatballs by Karen Coakley

Bharat Spiced Lamb Meatballs

Ingredients

800g lamb mince

I medium onion, chopped

5 dried apricots

2 tsp of pine nuts

Small bunch coriander (approx 3 tbsp)

Grated zest half lemon

1 egg

1 tsp ground cumin

Sauce I onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

Handful of coriander stalls

2 tins chopped tomatoes

2 tsp Baharat (see below)

1 tsp Harrissa

Pinch of sugar Grated zest half a lemon

400 - 500ml chicken stock

Salt and pepper

Oil

Baharat

3 tsp Black Pepper

3 tsp Coriander Seeds

3 tsp Cloves

4 tsp Cumin Seeds

1 tsp Green Cardamom

1 stick of Cinnamon

6 tsp Smoked Paprika.

For the sauce:

  • Heat the oil in cast iron oven dish and add the onion, garlic and coriander stalks, cover and sweat for 10 mins. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, baharat, harrissa and grated lemon zest. Season with a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper and cook for about 5 mins then blitz to a smooth sauce.
  • Put the chopped onion, garlic, coriander stalks, pinenuts and apricots into a little hand chopper and blitz to a smooth paste.
  • Put the lamb mince in a bowl, add the onion past, egg and ground cumin.
  • Season with salt and pepper and with your hands mix everything together well. This will take a few minutes.
  • Take a walnut sized piece of lamb mix and shape it into a ball. Repeat with the remaining lamb (you should have 24-26 balls.
  • Heat a frying pan and when hot add some oil. Fry the meatballs in batches taking care not to over crowd the pan.
  • Once browned on all sides pop them into the Casserole dish with the hot tomato sauce and bake in a low oven with the lid on for around 1hr 30 mins.
  • Serve with Lemon Couscous and a dollop of Greek Yoghurt.

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