Article: Off the record . . .

Off the record
Published in The Sunday Business Post on November 21st, 2010, by Alex Meehan

At a time when it’s hard for qualified and experienced people to find a job, the challenge faced by those with criminal records, without a permanent address or with no educational qualifications, is even greater.

But while most people in these situations face an uphill struggle to get work, there are schemes specifically designed to help them back into the labour force.

One of them is Linkage, which is operated by the Dublin-based non-profit group Business in the Community.

It was Linkage that helped John [not his real name], an ex-criminal with a history of substance abuse, back into work and education.

‘‘I was locked up several times for periods of time between six and 12 months. It’s been seven years since I’ve been in prison, but I’ve been through a traumatic period. I found it very hard to reintegrate into society,” he says.

‘‘I had many issues to resolve, mostly caused by addiction. The truth of it is that I was a mess for around 19 years with alcohol and drugs.

All my prison terms were drink-related, every one of them, and looking back on it, all were the result of stupid, unnecessary incidents.”

As a result of his criminal record, John faced huge difficulties when it came to finding a job. ‘‘I’d basically never held down a proper job before, other than stretches on building sites in Britain and here,” he says.

‘‘I wanted to make a fresh start, and through Linkage I was encouraged to re-engage with education.

I didn’t know what I ultimately wanted to do, other than that I wanted to work in an office. I got lucky, I suppose. I have a good personality and I’m good with people.

I started doing volunteer work, with meals on wheels programmes and with homeless shelters, and now I’m studying for an honours degree in social studies.”

For John, it was an opportunity that many in his position never get. ‘‘I’m getting closer to that job in an office, and I will get it,” he says. ‘‘I may experience discrimination and I know it will be hard, but nothing is going to stop me.”

The Linkage programme has been running for ten years and has had over 5,000 ex-offenders referred to it by the Probation Service.

Around 70 per cent of participants have been placed in training, employment or education. According to Tina Roche, chief executive of Business in the Community (BITC), ex-offenders face a lifetime of discrimination.

‘‘In Ireland, you’re allowed to discriminate against people who have a criminal record,” she says.

‘‘If you get a criminal record when you’re 18, you carry that for the rest of your life – there’s no expunging that record, and there are no spent sentences here like there are in other countries.

That’s a huge barrier for reformed criminals who want to get their life back together, and get on the straight and narrow. It makes it very hard for them to carry on their life the way that the state wants them to.”

According to Roche, the Linkage programme’s clients are likely to have experienced unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as homelessness, family breakdown or stigmatisation because of public attitudes to offenders. ‘‘Most normal people look back and cringe at the mistakes they made when they were in their late teens or early 20s,but for some people those mistakes are with them for life,” she says.

‘‘The crimes committed at that age are often stupid rather than sinister – someone may have kicked a Garda car, or have drunk too much and got in a fight. Even the government now recognises that this is a silly barrier to reforming someone.

We believe that once someone is five years out of jail and has maintained a blemish-free record, their record should be expunged.

Some offences are more serious than others and probably should remain on the record, but there are lots that aren’t.” According to Roche, employers are sometimes initially reluctant to work with ex-offenders, but not always.

‘‘We are basically asking employers to give someone a second chance.

The issues they always want addressed are, ‘Does this person have the skills for the job and are they trustworthy’.

We tell them that, ironically, they’ll probably know more about this person before they give them a job than anyone else who works for them,” she says.

‘‘A lot of people with records may not have qualifications, but they’ve often got experience working as bricklayers or carpenters, or even working in shops.

They frequently have left school before their Junior Cert, but often have a base to build on to get them back to work. About 30 per cent have a Junior Cert and about 10 per cent have a Leaving Cert.”

The Linkage programme is one of a number of schemes operated by BITC designed to deepen the ties between the business community and the society around them. Others include the EPIC programme, aimed at creating employment for people from immigrant communities who don’t have sufficient English or whose qualifications aren’t recognised in Ireland, and the Ready for Work programme, which attempts to specifically address the challenges faced by the homeless in the workplace.

‘‘It’s extremely important that we put something back into the community which we serve,” says Jonathan Smith, head of Marks & Spencer Ireland, one of the companies which has participated in some of BITC’s schemes.

‘‘It’s about getting out into the community to help and inform people about the wider business context that we exist in, and to give them an opportunity to experience what retail is all about. It sounds corny but it is important, because the retail sector is one of the biggest employers in the country.”

Marks & Spencer has been involved with BITC since 2000, and has a particularly strong link with its Schools’ Business Partnership programme. ‘‘Through our association with BITC, four of our stores are actively partnered with local schools.

The teachers can bring their students in and show them how the operation works, and our teams also go out to spend time in the schools.

The project helps kids understand a bit more about how the retail world works,” says Smith.

Marks & Spencer has also facilitated work placements for people attempting to get established after becoming homeless.

‘‘We allow people to work with us for a period of time to get them used to the business world again,” says Smith.

‘‘Very often, we end up employing them on amore permanent basis. It’s a real win for them, and it also allows us to find really good members of staff.

Regardless of how people end up there, getting out of homelessness is extremely hard, but programmes like this can help people get a fresh start in life.”

Recipe: fillet steak with bearnaise sauce and French fried potatoes

Okay, I’ve been getting lots of pressure from friends to post this, so here it is, my method for cooking fillet steak with bernaise sauce and French fried potatoes. It’s not particularly revolutionary, but it is awesome and pretty dependable. Try it out and let me know how it goes.

I’ll start with the béarnaise. This method is not the classical method, but it works fantastically and I’m rather partial to it, since learning it from my sister (cheers Alacoque!) who in turn learned it from Maureen O’Brien, the now deceased wife of my also now deceased godfather Mahon O’Brien. The O’Briens ran the well regarded Vale View hotel in Avoca for many many years, and were truly ahead of their time with regards to the food served in the restaurant there. Anyway, this is Mo O’Brien’s method, and it’s a corker.

First, here are the ingredients: Tarragon, unsalted butter, a shallot, salt, pepper, an egg yolk and lemon juice.

Bearnaise is one of the classic ‘-aise’ sauces, along with mayonnaise and hollandaise, all of which are emulsified sauces — made in a way that allows normally immiscible fats and acids to mix, usually by using egg yolk as a binding medium.

In this method, you finely dice a shallot, along with a generous handful of tarragon herb, before adding them to a small saucepan, and covering them with a splash of water. To this you add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and some decent quality salt and pepper.

Taste the water at this point, to check the acidity – it should be quite sharp because you’re going to add a lot of butter later — and set it to simmer gently until the water is cooked off. This creates a flavour base, gently cooking out the rawness of the shallots to create what at this stage should be a slightly harsh, lemon-flavoured herby sludge. Leave this mixture to cool, before adding an egg yolk. This is the crucial stage –if the mixture is hot when you add the egg yolk, it will start to cook and you’ll end up with scrambled egg rather than a sauce. Basically, you want your sauce base to be warm enough to slowly melt butter, but not actually hot.
Take a generous quantity of unsalted butter and dice it into inch-sized cubes. Place your small pan into a larger saucepan containing boiling water, but make sure the bottom of the smaller pan isn’t actually touching the water. The idea here is that you gently heat your sauce base, while whisking in butter one bit at a time. If you do this carefully, using enough heat to warm the sauce but not get it too hot – which is what the water bath is about – then as the egg yolk gently cooks, it will incorporate the lemon acid in the sauce with the unsalted butter. Once it starts to take, you’re away. You can whisk in more butter to get the consistency you like, all the way from thin to thick and mayonnaise like.  Taste it to adjust the seasoning. Your sauce is done and will keep for a couple of hours happily at this stage.

Next, to the chips. This isn’t rocket science really – you want the basic twice fried chips. The key to really good chips is the kind of potato you use – not all spuds are suited to all uses, and for great chips you really want something like a Maris Piper potato – these have a high enough starch content that you can get chips that are lovely and crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. It’s really worth tracking these down if you’re going to have a go at this.

I basically just hand cut mine to a uniform size, rinse them thoroughly to get as much starch off them as possible and then dry them using paper towels, to get as much water off them as I can. Next, they go into the deep fat fryer (in batches, if they won’t all fit in one go) so that they basically stew in hot oil for a while. When they are cooked through, but not crisp, I take them out, drain them off and let them cool down. They can hold at this stage for a couple of hours. Just before serving, whack up the heat on the fryer and put the chips back in to crisp up. The effect is totally worth it. Try it out.

Finally to the main event, the meat. In these pictures, I used a couple of 8oz fillet steak sourced from a local butcher near where I live who really knows his stuff when it comes to meat. It’s aged for 28 days and is really fantastic quality. For a long time, I didn’t eat meat, and now I tend not to be interested in eating it unless it’s of very high quality. Cooking fillet steak isn’t hard – the basic principal is that less is more. I heat a non-stick pan until it’s pretty hot, and then add some rapeseed oil – it’s a good quality oil that can take a high heat without burning, unlike, say, olive oil which doesn’t like high temperatures. Once the oil is smoking, I add my fillets, and leave them be for around a minute. Before I turn them over, I add a generous knob or two of unsalted butter to the pan, along with a couple of cloves of garlic which haven’t been peeled, but have been lightly crushed to break them open. 

As the butter melts and foams up as it hits the hot oil, I turn the fillets over and baste them with a spoon as they cook. After a minute or so on the other side, I flip them onto their side and cook them for a further minute or two on the sides, trying to get them evenly browned. This gives a good medium rare temperature, and so I take them out of the pan to rest for a few minutes. And basically, that’s it.

Recipe: Salsiccia e Lenticchie (Sausage and lentils)

So here’s the first of my recipes – a variation of the Italian class Salsiccia e Lenticchie, otherwise known as Sausage and lentils.

The first thing to say about this is that it tastes much better than it looks! This is a recipe that is traditionally served on New Year’s Eve at midnight as the New Year is rung in. I first had it in Rome on New Year’s Eve in maybe 2002 or 2003. Can’t quite remember now, but that’s not important. Myself and my wife enjoyed a nine or ten course meal in a low key restaurant, complete with wines and champagne. At the end of the night, as the count down to midnight was sounded around Trastevere, and long after desert was served, the kitchen produced steaming bowls of Salsiccia e Lenticchie.

This recipe is my adaption for the original. It’s pretty authentic, but the big differentiator will be the quality of sausage you use, whether it’s Italian or not – I don’t think it matters massively as long as they are good quality properly made sausages. The dish will be as good as the sausages you use. It’s well worth a try- it’s one of those recipes that’s extremely simple and yet tastes absolutely amazing. It doesn’t look terribly pretty in the bowl, but you have to taste it to get it. It’s cheap as chips and makes a great mid-week treat. Enjoy!

First off, the ingredients.

Mise in Place

I don’t have measurements for this, as I don’t use any. You sort of have to judge quanities as you go. Above, you can see all the ingredients laid out. I use a basic Italian soffrito, or equal parts celery, onion and carrot diced relatively finely. In addition, I use garlic, sage, pork and leek sausages, and finally equal parts brown and puy lentils.

I’ve mentioned the importance of the quality of the sausages, so now a word on lentils. Some lentils require pre-soaking but neither puy nor brown lentils do, so you can make this straight away, pretty much from store cupboard ingredients. Brown lentils cook right down to give a lovely gravy-like, thickened consistency to the finished dish but puy lentils retain their shape as they’re cooked so that’s why I’m combining them.

With both kinds of lentils, it’s really important to sort through them to try to find any small stones – I’ve nearly chipped my teeth in the past, but it’s just part of the peril of using a natural ingredient. It’s a pain, but you have to do it. Should only take five minutes really.


We’ll start with the sausages. You don’t have to fry them first, but it does give them better colour and flavour, so start by adding some decent quality extra virgin olive oil to a good sized pot and then add your finely chopped sage leaves. Leave these to sizzle and crackle for two or three seconds while you chop your sausages into chunks and then add them to the pot. They’ll cook out properly later on, so now you just want to give them some colour. After a minute or two, add your garlic – you don’t want it to burn but you do want to flavour the oil the sausages and sage are in. Toss the sausage chunks in the flavoured oil and don’t worry too much if it starts to stick. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t burn so you just need to keep the mixture moving.

I use a classic soffrito to make the flavour base for this dish, so next, I add carrot, celery and onion to the pot and give it a good mix around.

You should have something like this.

Next, add some neat stock – I use Knorr vegetable stock pots – and then then your lentils. Mix this thoroughly to combine all the flavours with the undiluted stock.

(You could also add alcohol here in the form of some white wine if you wanted, but I tend not to, and it’s not traditional to the best of my knowledge.)

All you need to do now is bring this up to a simmer and cook it for around 40 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t cook dry. If it gets too thick, just add more water and give it a good stir. You’re looking for a finished consistency which is a bit like a risotto in texture. Be careful to taste the liquid before you season it during cooking – some stocks are very salty and some sausages are also quite salty – it’s easy to ruin it by adding seasoning without tasting it first.

To serve

To finish, dress with some good quality extra virgin olive oil, some Maldon salt and and several twists of fresh cracked black pepper.