Chef Clodagh McKenna: Let's live for every night

Cork-trained chef Clodagh McKenna shares her joy at raising chickens and weekend recipes that really work with ELLA WALKER
Chef Clodagh McKenna: Let's live for every night

Clodagh McKenna  who has published a new cookbook.  Picture: Dora Kazmierak/PA.

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.”

Clodagh's new book includes lock-down suitable dishes, non-stressful suppers and famly-friendly midweek meals and more. Picture: Dora Kazmierak/PA
Clodagh's new book includes lock-down suitable dishes, non-stressful suppers and famly-friendly midweek meals and more. Picture: Dora Kazmierak/PA

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, aged 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, who also presents recipe segments on the Today Show in the US.

“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.”

Clodagh McKenna who was trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork.
Clodagh McKenna who was trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork.

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. “My dog Nolly is very jealous every time I come in, smelling me like crazy, like, ‘Who are these other girls in our lives?’ But 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 restoring and 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 notes that alongside the hens there are plans for pigs.

“And we’ve got our own working beehives now. We’ve planted a whole orchard and I’ve got my own cutting garden going.”

There’s woodland too (“All the mushrooms are coming up there,” she says, speaking in mid-October).

“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.”

Much of the last couple of years has been spent getting to grips with the land, and the art of growing her own – which this year did benefit from Covid restrictions.

“It was a big learning curve because we’d never done anything like this before. So you know, a lot of things never came up. And then a lot of things came up in abundance,” she says, namechecking her artichoke, named after Elton John.

Clodagh's Weeknight Kitchen by Clodagh McKenna (published by Kyle Books. Picture: Dora Kazmierak/PA. 
Clodagh's Weeknight Kitchen by Clodagh McKenna (published by Kyle Books. Picture: Dora Kazmierak/PA. 

“Then we have things like my melon plants, they stayed this small throughout the whole summer and then just died,” she says, her fingers measuring just a centimetre or two on zoom. “I feel like I’ve learned so much over the year and I kept a diary throughout,” — she’s planning to share her findings too, to help others with their veg plots, and so she can carry on trading wisdom with her online community.

“The comments are amazing,” she says with a grin.

“I never knew that you put cloves of garlic into the chickens’ water and it stops them from getting mites! All that brilliant information – that’s out there. It’s like, I don’t know, what would you call them – granny skills.”

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. Photography by Dora Kazmierak. Available now.

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