This is a post for all of you preposterously lucky people who can imbibe copious amounts of butter and still live to tell about it. If you have been following the chronicles of my adaption to Irish country life from the beginning, you’ll know that butter and I have been in a significant long-term relationship for many years. In fact, and funnily enough, butter kind of catapulted me into the world of food writing.

It began quite innocently; the act of making butter came early on in my Irish farm life, once I discovered the simplicity of spinning cream from our cows into rich, velvety, spreadable bliss. After that, it seemed like pure negligence not to make butter from the dairy at our farm on the weekly. Fresh butter was literally the most delicious creamy delight I had ever laid my lips upon. And, with my darling little boy holding onto every move I made in the kitchen, this was as much to his delight as mine. Nothing pleased him more than fresh brown bread out of the oven coated in just churned butter that we prepared together.

It was in 2011 that I shared my newly honed butter making skills via an incredibly erudite step-by-step blog post. The next day I woke up to see thousands of visits to my site, which, compared to my usual meagerly double digit clicks, was quite a staggering improvement. Lingering through the comments and email responses, I was stunned to see how astonishingly arousing this post was to readers. Butter had boosted me up to level of food writing that significantly piqued the interest of my subscribers. It was surprising, but also quite gratifying because I loved the process and was gleefully pleased to see that many others might enjoy making their own butter too.

BUTTER AEROBICS

In a matter of weeks, I weirdly ended up touring Ireland making butter at food festivals, on stages, and at schools, showing people the way of my butter madness. Quite an odd turn of events for a former American producer with very little background in food, but these unusual requests kept flooding in, so who was I to decline? It was fun! I did countless radio and print interviews espousing the wonder and simplicity of butter making. I donned spandex and led Butter Aerobics classes at Electric Picnic (complete with terrycloth sweatbands for all participants, I might add), and introduced the Butter Boogie to the Irish landscape. For a minute, we even considered creating our own brand of Irish farm butter called Ím (thank you Ella McSweeney who alerted me that Ím means butter in Irish) — must admit that I have often had a tiny tinge of regret that we never did go down that path.

Of course, I wasn’t the first to make Irish farm butter, but possibly the first American expat who thought it was worth making a big deal out of it? Couldn’t resist (I am American, after all). Anyway, what we all DO know is that there are towering doyennes of Irish food who have long made this bovine-derived-sweetly-whipped-vehicle-for-bread-slathering nectar of Gods in their kitchens. In my little film Small Green Fields, the Sheridan Brothers remind us of the story that Myrtle Allen told, how she met a farmer who could literally taste which field her butter came from. Now, that is a form of mastery that is nearly impossible to fathom, and is 100% to be revered. It’s true, butter anointed me with a food career that I had no intention of creating, but one in which I couldn’t imagine living without. Butter gave me life.

But now, sadly, me and butter must break up.

You see, butter– my beautiful, loving, career-boosting comrade, tried to kill me. Not in a homicidal sense, there was no pre-meditated intent that I am aware of, a bit more like a sort of slow-release manslaughter in the 5th degree I suppose.

While my work in food is still going strong, my bond with butter has unfortunately come to an abrupt end. You may have spotted a few pity posts on insta-stories about a certain post-op recovery this week. You might have also noticed that I really haven’t been sharing a lot of food/cooking/baking/recipes besides my Lens & Larder retreats or for my professional styling/photography assignments for quite some time.

What started as niggling digestive issues about a year ago that could not be pinpointed after a series of hospital appointments for every test, scope, and scan in the book; in February it became clear that I had gallstones. Gallstones that needed to be gone. Simple right? While it’s not totally clear what causes gallstones, the most common type of gallstones are made up of excess cholesterol. Butter and fat laden diets can contribute to gallstone formation. When probed on my health history, I realized I probably had one or more minor previous gallbladder attacks, so the surgeon was recommending the immediate removal of the gallbladder as he warned “where there is one attack, there is more, and it will only get worse.” (It’s also worth mentioning that at least one gallstone was the size of a golf ball which is quite deadly if it were to decide to leave the gallbladder and go for a hike to my bile duct or fuss with the pancreas.)

I wanted more time to think about it so devised a plan to change my diet, cut out some fats, red meat etc. and see how I get on. I continued to use my beloved butter, just not as often. The thing is, I was holding out to see my primary physician in the USA on our GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP we had planned for over the summer, get her opinion, and possibly even have the surgery done stateside if necessary.

But, then Covid came.

Dammit.

Surprisingly, I was fine for the last 8 months. I starved myself strictly managed my food in fear, and while having little or no butter (or fats, meat, cheese, dairy, even gluten would give me trouble) was so hard (yes, I caved a number of times only to be met with discomfort), I really had no massive flare-ups…..

….until a couple of weeks ago. For whatever reason (Covid emotions?) we had decided to stage a fatty feast for all feasts. Butter was cast as lead actress. The next day, I ended up being ferried to the ER by ambulance, with what was thought to possibly be a “cardiac event”. Pain that radiated and squeezed my chest like someone had their arms around me trying to crush me into pieces. Maternity labour is nothing compared to gallbladder pain or biliary colic. Nor is the agony of appendicitis. Or, the explosive hurt of a burst ectopic pregnancy. Or, just anything I have ever experienced. Essentially my body called mutiny on me. I was forced to put the white flag up.

Once anything heart was completely ruled out, I got in to see my gastro surgeon who again said I had to have the procedure to remove gallbladder straight away via laparospoc cholestoctomy. We went through the risks, of which there are terrifyingly many, but thankfully mostly never happen. I whined that I had a really fantastic tv assignment coming up. He countered by saying that’s even more reason to have it done right now. Again, “where there is one attack, there is more, and it will only get worse.”

From there, it all happened fast and furious. Pre-op Covid test. Cosy jammy shopping. Fridge/freezer stocking. Last wishes written (well, you never know).

On Monday morning, Richard dropped me at the door of a private Kerry hospital where I waited alone (thanks again, Covid), shivering with nerves in my mask until I was called inside to begin my prep for surgery. After a rush of health questions and two valiums from the coolest female anesthesist ever, I found myself on a gurney heading to “theatre” (that’s Irish for operating room which I LOVE for the Broadway drama of it) When the surgical team transferred me to the operating table they were all asking me how on earth someone like Trump could happen to America. The last thing I remember saying before going under was “Don’t get me started!”

I spent that night in the Bons and left the following late afternoon. Staff nurses looked after me, Irish mammy style, offering pain management top-ups, and tea and toast every 3 hours. I never felt more safe and secure.

As I write this it’s Saturday and I took the dogs for a walk for the first time since last weekend. I am doing just fine. But, I will say – and after Googling I know I am not the only one, the pain after this surgery can be immense. Whether it’s the trapped air from the keyhole method or it’s the actual pain of having an organ (albeit one that is not needed) removed, you will likely have pain when you awake from anesthesia. I am lucky so far, knock on wood, that once I had the pain under control (do insist on strong pain relief and I found both ice and heat packs a necessity) I have been recovering well and I hope that things keep going in that direction.

Now the only real conundrum is how to eat for the rest of my life! As fun as it was, I will not go back to the diet I have had for the last 10-15 years. As a food writer, eating anything and everything can be specific to your work, especially if you are reviewing restaurants or products. But, seriously, how on earth I am going to live with little or no BUTTER? Cheese? Burgers? Bacon? Cake? Butter? Doughnuts? Some people even struggle with any amount of alcohol….wait, did I mention BUTTER?

I know that many people just go back to eating whatever they damn please, but this is not recommended. The gallbladder exists as a reservoir for the bile produced by the liver, a place for it to rest between meals and during the night. When you eat, that bile is there to digest the next feast. Since you have no place to store bile anymore, the liver just constantly secretes its bile straight into the intestines. You need more bile to process fats, and if you don’t have the excess stored in a gallbladder to break those fats down, it will cause uncomfortable digestion and diarrhea. Digestive issues are something that I have EVERY intention of AVOIDING from here on out.

Butter, you were good to me when I needed you most, and I am ever so grateful. We enjoyed many deliciously fulfilling years together. But, we now must part our ways. You will always hold a special place in my heart, just not in my belly.

Love,

Imen

PS Any good gallbladderless recipes are most welcomed.

Beautiful, handcrafted butter dish from Arran Street East

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RichChocolateButtermilkCake2

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, 

so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

-Joseph Campbell

I met this fine-looking farmer when he was visiting the United States one particularly frigid week in February 2004. It was his second visit to the Twin Cities of the American Midwest, where I had been hunkering down in hibernation mode for the winter. He had come to visit a childhood mate who had moved to St. Paul, Minnesota after secondary school. It was only his second time in Minneapolis, the beloved city that I had recently returned to after a production stint an at Emmy award-winning television show in New York City.

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Prior to New York, I had spent a chunk of time living the hazy, surreal, set-life of Los Angeles. I loved the buzz of film sets and sound stages and just being a part of the team behind-the-scenes. I grew up an ambitious girl in small-town Wisco, and was always eager to break away to the bright lights of a big city. In Minneapolis, I had found balance working as a creative producer for an influential, (if somewhat Mad Men-esque) advertising agency, while traveling globally to execute broadcast television campaigns for international beauty and food brands. I lived comfortably in the middle of the picturesque city, and if I was going anywhere else, you could hedge your bets that it would be back to Brooklyn.

On the evening we were introduced, I hadn’t fancied going out, but I was persuaded by a colleague who was desperate for a fun night after a long workweek. I wasn’t feeling terrific that day, so I prettied myself up as best as I could and got on with it, as you do when all you really want to do is lounge around in flannel pajamas and sip chamomile tea all evening. Before I knew it, my taxi arrived, and I mustered the energy to run out the door.

We were having a laugh with friends at a newish downtown lounge when a handsome flaxen-haired fella breezed past our group, turned his head and shot us a smile. As he was waiting for his drink at the bar, my friend starting chatting with him. Or was she chatting him up? Either way, I could see that he was very polite and by the lilt in his voice, I noted that he was clearly not from the United States, though I couldn’t quite place his accent.

After a casual introduction, I learned that this striking man with the unusual accent was named Richard McDonnell. And, judging from his fair-skinned, ginger-topped mates sipping pints of Guinness, I put two and two together and wielding some heavy-handed stereotypes guessed that they were all either from Ireland or perhaps the UK.

The evening was becoming far more interesting than I had anticipated.

Later, as the others trailed off in conversation and dance, Richard and I found ourselves at a table alone and began to get to know one another. He revealed that he lived on a farm in the Irish countryside that had been in his family since the 1800’s and that he had a university degree in philosophy. What a fascinating combination, I thought. Kant, Hobbes, Plato had been impossible for me to get my head around in my university studies, and farming….well, I had never stepped foot on a real working farm in my life.  He also shared that his star sign was Aquarius, as is mine. I warmed to him. Though I occasionally found it hard to understand his thick Irish brogue, he had no shortage of charming and funny quips, which kept me in stitches all evening long.

At the end of the night, Richard said he would only be in town for a few more days and asked if I would join him for dinner the following evening. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. Despite enjoying our lively conversation, I was still not sure if I really wanted to see him again. I wasn’t keen on romance at the time. But, he said “think about it and choose your favorite restaurant,” and suddenly I was torn between fun visions of the best melt-in–your-mouth butterknife steak at kitsch and campy Murray’s or the only authentic spaghetti and meatballs in town washed down with goblets of Barolo at the quiet little trattoria in my neighborhood. We exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways.

Early the next morning, he texted me to say he was looking forward to our dinner. I panicked. Happily busy with a creative career that kept me constantly working and traveling, I had convinced myself that I had no time or energy to put into developing a rewarding relationship, or was I just simply nervous and unsure of myself? If I knew one thing, it was that I had no designs on dating a farmer from Ireland! Still, Richard was awfully attractive, intelligent, and quite charismatic, so despite my hang–ups, I agreed on the stipulation that my bubbly Aussie friend and her lovely husband would join us. After all, a girl can never be too careful, right?

We met at a quaint new eatery that had been getting excellent reviews. Built into a historic neighborhood bakery, the space was intimate and filled to the brim with vintage bistro charm and personality. Looking in from the outside on a brisk winter’s evening you could see tables situated behind spacious steamed-up lead glass windows with enchanted looking people dining together in dim candlelight. The quiet sounds of Chet Baker could be heard under the commotion of lively dinner conversation, the atmosphere was romantic and convivial at once, the best sort of combination.

Richard walked in, all refreshed, pressed and dressed, and I must confess, I felt a twinge of excitement in my tummy when our eyes met. I introduced him to my friends, and the conversation, laughter, and Burgundy flowed all night long.

The food was sensational. We both ordered coq au vin, which was so rich and tender that I may have actually been able to eat it with a dessert spoon. For our final course, an unforgettable chocolate fondant with a lavender-laced molten center that took my breath away. I will never forget the perma-grin I was sporting from ear to ear all evening.

At the end of the meal, Richard excused himself and discreetly paid the entire bill. Clearly chivalry was not dead to him, but I insisted on chipping in as well. Later that evening he told me that it was his birthday. I marveled at his level of modesty, as such information would have certainly been divulged during dinner had it been my birthday.

I wondered, could he be for real?

After we said goodnight, I turned the events of the evening in my head over and over. I came to the conclusion that being selfless and humble is absolutely alluring. Not all, but plenty of men that had previously come into my life were far more preoccupied with their own interests and never seemed to cease speaking in a certain style of egoistic banter; a personality trait that Richard McDonnell did not seem to possess.

Richard was planning to return to Ireland on Valentine’s Day and inquired,

“So, tell me, who will be your Valentine this year?”

…to which I demurely replied,

“why, my father, of course”.

When I arrived at my office on the morning of his departure, I was greeted with an enormous basket of beautiful flowers and a card that read,

“Well, you’re my Valentine”.

I was hooked.

That romantic gesture launched over a year of transatlantic dating romance, the requisite meeting of the families, (my father gave his blessing the minute he realized I couldn’t stop “smiling like a Cheshire Cat” whenever we were together), and hopping around to holiday spots together as I traveled on production business overseas. Soon, we knew that we wanted to spend more time together on a permanent basis, which was a glorious notion, except this meant one of us would have to uproot and relocate.

We were two people who had fallen hopelessly in love who had to make a choice, which wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that Richard wasn’t in a position to “relocate” his family farm, and my work was seemingly more flexible, but I couldn’t be sure.

Finally, I decided brazenness could pay off; I took the risk and leaped!

 

hen

Rich Chocolate Buttermilk Cake
Over the years, I have come to the realisation that a farmer’s affinity for chocolate could quite simply be attributed to energy-craving exhaustion. Nevertheless, it is a family favorite so I decided early on that I would have to perfect a chocolate cake that the whole farm would love. I wanted to create a creamy, mellow, super moist chocolate-y-but-not-overpoweringly-so chocolate layer cake. The test was on. I started with a sour cream chocolate cake, then tried crème fraîche, and even tried cream cheese. While a couple of those tasted very nice, not until I incorporated buttermilk did I discover the ideal formula. This is a rich, dense, somewhat tangy cake with a super-buttery chocolate buttercream icing and creamy deep chocolate ganache. It is well suited for chocolate loving family and friends, yet still a treat for those who claim they aren’t crazy for chocolate. Make this decadent cake for Valentine’s Day, I swear it is totally tastes like love
Makes one 9” layer cake
For the Cake
1¾ cups (218g) all-purpose flour
2 cups (400g) granulated white sugar
¾ cup (90g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ tsp baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup (237ml) buttermilk
½ cup (113g) butter, melted
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup (237ml) hot coffee (or 2 tsp instant coffee in 1 cup boiling water)
For the chocolate filling:
7 oz (200g) dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids or more), chopped
2 sticks + 1 tablespoon (17 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
4 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups (156g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted
For the chocolate ganache:
5 oz (140g) dark chocolate (about 52 percent cocoa solids), chopped
1 1/4 cups (300ml) heavy cream
To decorate:
Chocolate curls
Unsweetened cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar, to dust.
Bake the cake:
Preheat oven to 350f/175c degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch baking pans and line with parchment paper circles. Set aside.
In the large bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Add eggs, buttermilk, melted butter and vanilla extract and beat until smooth (about 3 minutes). Remove bowl from mixer and stir in hot coffee. The batter will be runny.
Divide batter evenly between the two pans and bake on middle rack of oven for about 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Allow to cool 15 minutes in pans, then run a butter knife around the edges of each cake. Pop out and allow to cool on wire cooling rack.
To make the filling:
Melt the chocolate in a bain marie or a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of hot water. Set aside to cool slightly. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter in standing mixer for at least 10 minutes at high speed, until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and confectioner’s sugar and beat vigorously for another 5 minutes. Once the butter mixture is thoroughly mixed, remove 2 tablespoons and stir it into the cooled, melted chocolate. Then slowly pour the melted chocolate down the side of the mixing bowl (to prevent egg mixture from scrambling) into the butter mixture and fold it in quickly and gently until fully combined and smooth.
To make the ganache
Once the cakes are cooled, you can start making the chocolate ganache. Put the chocolate in a large bowl. Heat the cream to boiling point, then pour it over the chocolate, and stir until it melts. Set aside to cool. With a hand mixer, beat the cooled chocolate cream until it barely forms soft peaks, making sure not to overbeat it, or it will become too stiff to spread.
To assemble the cake
Split the cakes in half horizontally with a sharp serrated knife. Spread the chocolate filling onto each layer and sandwich the layers together. Frost the cake with the chocolate ganache and decorate with chocolate curls, if you wish.

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Slan Abhaile & Happy Valentine’s Day!

Imen x

Cake & farm photos by Imen McDonnell, styling by Sonia Mulford-Chaverri. 

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Thin Places.

24 Sep 2019

In the summer time, I walk the narrow farm boreen with its bikini wax strip of grass growing down the middle and cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace crowded hedge, once, maybe twice a day. Massive tree boughs join to meet each other high up in the sky and form a sort of canopy shelter along the way; the wind whistles through barley, maize or whole wheat depending on the season, and shiny marble cow’s eyes gaze into yours with curiosity as you say hello and count them up.  

On both the left and right hand side you’ll find fairy forts from ancient times surrounded by the glowing security of golden prickly gorse; while in the autumn, thorny brambles and bushes heaving with berries, rosehips and haws are on display. Sometimes it is so quiet, all you can hear is mother nature whispering sweet nothings into your ear. 

As resplendent as that sounds, many would say that there is actually nothing too remarkable about this boreen. It is essentially a 3-in-1 tool for walking our dogs, checking crops and cattle. There are a million lanes like this in Ireland, all of which look absolutely identical to this one.  

Still, for me, it is special. 

It might even be a Thin Place.

I mean, how many boreens have a creaking ash tree that sounds like a newborn baby banshee when the wind rattles it? Or, a robust family of pheasants and hares who team up, side-by-side to peak out of the ditch and rile up my girls whenever we walk by? Who knows, could be pishoguery at play, which makes it even more spectacular.  

Surely not every boreen shows daily evidence of rogue shrews or the odd hedgehog whom seem to have unfortunately met their maker while crossing from one side of the road to the other? Oh, what about the time an angry ghost dog in the corn field with a bellowing bone-shivering phantom bark made me run like the dickens only to realize he was merely a lost foxhound who strayed from his pack and was more scared than I?

Which reminds me, we can’t forget the time when the red coat hunters came cantering along causing a major traffic jam which I detailed in my national column and almost got fired from my post. Yeah, me and this boreen got history.  

One winter, Ireland was blessed with a powdery winter snowfall so substantial that the entire boreen was a whiteout that made our two black dogs stand out like a die-cut print greeting card. Etched in my mind. Sometimes the early morning dawn chorus of local birdsong cuts through the headiness of lashing rain and gives Hozier a run for its money. You just can’t beat the theatre of it all. 

Okay, entertaining. But, Thin Place, really?

When you walk this boreen, contemplation comes easy.  In fact, it invites all sorts of feelings to flood in. There is a rawness of reality here where you feel cracked open like a walnut with all those cradles and cavities that you pick at to get to the fruit within. Feelings. Sorrow. Regret. Jubilee, Joy. But most of all, a deep clarity of knowing ones place in this universe. And, despite the magnitude and gravity of that sort of clarity, you still feel swathed in safety. 

According to this article in the New York Times, “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter….Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic…” 

Hmmmmmmmm. Thin Places. Sounds familiar.

When I was 11, I went horseback riding for the first time. Oddly, there was a riding school and stables just on the edge of my hometown, still within city limits and literally across the street from my elementary school. You could pay a few dollars and ride a pony with a guide around a meadow which overlooked the East Twin river.

After taking “Petey the Pony” out for several goes around this field, I felt I was ready for a larger model. I was, after all, 11 years old and well able for a grown up horse. The gumption. I persuaded the owner to throw caution to the wind and allow me take Stormy, a regal yet subdued white and grey Appaloosa, out onto the proper riding trail.

Initially, the route was quite narrow and rough; glacier-age rocks and rubble partially covered in verdant green moss and ivy form low walls on the thoroughfare, and fat old oak trees on either side moulded the most beautiful fairytale leafy roof overhead. Not an entirely ideal landscape for the sport of horseback riding, but so picturesque it made me feel cavalier and free.

As we trotted further along through a pastiche of grassy knolls, I remember feeling dumbfounded that this striking and pristine pastoral setting was right near my home and yet I had never been aware of it. It was like I had stumbled upon some sort of parallel universe, stepping into the scene of a Thomas Cole painting or a Tarsem storyboard.

I will never forget the otherwordly feeling of being there that day; nuanced and surreal.

Thin. Place. 

Suddenly Stormy stopped. At 15 minutes into our ride, she just would not budge. I pulled the reins and gripped her hind legs with my legs, pushing my hips into the saddle and clicking my tongue against my cheek to communicate for her to go. I tried every possible maneuver to get her to carry on, but she just stood there defiantly. In my mind, I had no other choice but to dismount and go behind her and give her a little nudge. I reasoned that maybe she felt stuck on the bumpy surface and needed to be freed. But, the minute my fingers lightly touched her back side, she forcefully bucked both legs out, kicking me in the thighs and winging me straight up into the air.

I landed about 4 ft away, where I laid crying in pain until I nodded off and awoke on our sofa at home to my brother Jeffrey’s unhappy face hovering over my head. He told me I was in BIG trouble. Apparently, I survived. Stormy had galloped back to the stables and I was transported home in a Meals on Wheels station wagon (don’t ask). The bruising was extensive and so was my grounding.

Fast forward to the Irish countryside, and the first day that I stepped foot on the boreen. I instantly felt that I had been there before. Sort of like but sort of not like déjà vu. Remember, I was not one who ever pined for Ireland, it was not on my radar. Intense memories of my pre-teen horse riding day enveloped me. Is it the landscape? The green? The tree canopy? Just the terrain? I couldn’t put my finger on what was provoking such an emotional recollection. It felt transcendental, a bit like I was disassociated from my body and back on that riding path back home. I wondered, am I dead or alive? Awake or dreaming? I might add that I am not particularly pious, though spiritually inclined.

All I know is that this happened. Still happens. It is profound and puzzling, and Thin Places or not–I find solace in it.

Have you ever been to a Thin Place?

Slan Abhaile,

Imen x

PS. Two autumn recipes and stories that I love : An Irish Apple Tart + Curried Parsnip and Apple Soup

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I fully intended on roasting a shoulder of lamb for this post, but when the weather went from rainy days to a full week of unadulterated sunshine, I couldn’t resist firing up the BBQ and throwing this beautiful cut from Garrett’s Butchers on the grill instead. 

For me, one of the most revelatory flavour combinations has to be harissa with honey. Spicy, smoky and sweet, the piquant nature of harissa, a North African spice paste made from roasted chili peppers, coriander, cumin, caraway, garlic and onion blends so perfectly with Grandad’s creamy honey from his bees on the farm. 

This shoulder of lamb is easy to prep and fantastic served straight off the barby on a plate of roasted potatoes and steamed veg, but it’s equally as dazzling if you keep some for a dinner salad later in the week as well which is exactly what I chose to do over the weekend.

European lamb is one of Ireland’s treasures. Never gamey, always rich in flavor and infinitely appealing for a lingering Sunday roast or chargrilled at a family BBQ. The shoulder cut is versatile and tender. Order ahead from your Bord Bia certified local butcher for the best quality. 

Chargrilled Shoulder of Harissa & Honey Lamb, Bulgar Wheat & Nectarine Salad with Orange Tahini Poppyseed Dressing 

Harissa & Honey Marinade

  • 30ml harissa paste (from store)
  • 20 ml raw organic honey 
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Salad

  • 175g mixed garden greens/rocket
  • 250-400g grilled lamb, thinly sliced
  • 2 ripe nectarines, pitted & sliced and grilled
  • 100g bulgar wheat, cooked 
  • 60g red onion, finely chopped
  • 80g cucumber, deseeded and finely diced 
  • Handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Fennel pollen fronds (optional)

For the dressing:

  • 80ml olive oil
  • 1 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tsp orange zest 
  • 1 tbsp tahini
  • 1 tbsp natural yoghurt 
  • 2-3 tsp poppy seeds
  • Sea Salt and black pepper

Mix together the marinade ingredients. Pierce lamb shoulder skin with knife and rub marinade into butterflied shoulder. Place in refrigerator for 2 hours up to overnight. Take lamb out of fridge an hour before barbequeing. Heat the BBQ to lowest temperature, place lamb on grill, cover and cook for 30 minutes each side, checking to make sure the flame isn’t burning the skin and turning as needed.  Remove from BBQ, cover with kitchen foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes. 

Add all of the dressing ingredients to a screw-top jar. Seal the lid and shake well until combined. 

Layer the bulgur wheat, greens, lamb, nectarines, onion, cucumber, parsley and fennel pollen on a large platter. Drizzle over enough of the dressing to coat, then serve. 

Slan Abhaile.

Imen xx

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Alarm goes off. 

Snooze gets hit. 

Alarm goes off. 

Snooze button. 

Alarm goes off. 

Snoozzzzzzzzeeeee.

Ever wake up feeling more tired than the night before and just not ready to hit the ground running?

I always seem to feel this way when I don’t drink enough water the previous day. But, sometimes drinking 8 glasses of water a day is super hard unless I am sweating like crazy on the farm–which let’s face it, is NOT happening when I am mostly working the farm office these days.

I have come to learn that fruit-infused water is a delicious way to get your daily recommended intake of water to keep your body’s natural detoxification organs like the kidneys and liver functioning properly. 

And, I personally think strawberry water tastes the best. Amiright??

Make up a big glass jug of this and keep it in the fridge for refills throughout your day, and I promise, you’ll wake up with a spring in the step the next morning.

Strawberry Detox Water

A crisp and refreshing detox water with flavours of strawberry, cucumber, mint, lemon & lime. Perfect for rehydrating on a hot summer day. Getting your daily recommended 8 glasses of H2O has never been so delicious. 

2 cups Strawberries, hulled & sliced 

1 large Cucumber, thinly sliced

2 small Limes or Lemons, thinly sliced

0.5 oz Fresh Mint Leaves (about 3 sprigs)

8-9 cups Water (about 2 liters)

Rinse and wash the strawberries, cucumber, limes/lemons, and mint leaves

Thinly slice Strawberries, cucumber and lemon, lime

Combine all ingredients in a large glass pitcher and enjoy

This post was created in collaboration with the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia in celebration of #celebratestrawberryseason #naturestreat.

Slan Abhaile.

Imen x

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Back again with another sweet summer Strawberry recipe for Bord Bia (The Irish Food Board) This one inspired by a recent farm visitor and family friend who showed me the beauty and convenience of the “flat salad” combined with my back home BFF, Sonia, who reminded me of a crazy delicious salad we used to enjoy when I lived in America. (Don’t you just LOVE foods that you forgot to remember?)

I’m partial to adding local strawberries to summer salads, they are a sweet treat, but actually have many nutritional benefits too. Strawberries are high in vitamin C, water, folic acid, vitamin K, manganese, potassium, fibre, are low in sugar and low calorie. 

This citrus dressing is the best enhancement to all the raw ingredients and compliments the strawberries so well. 

Grilled Chicken, Strawberry, Spinach & Feta Salad with Citrus Poppyseed Vinaigrette

  • 75g spinach (or baby kale)
  • 75 mixed garden greens/rocket
  • 150g strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, grilled.
  • 60g Feta, crumbled
  • 60g pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
  • Handful flat leaf parsley, chopped

For the dressing:

  • 60ml olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest 
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp honey or maple syrup 
  • 2-3 tsp poppy seeds
  • Salt and black pepper

Add all of the dressing ingredients to a screw-top jar. Seal the lid and shake well until combined. 

Layer the greens, strawberries, feta, chicken, pecans and on a large platter. Drizzle over enough of the dressing to coat, then serve. 

Slan Abhaile,

Imen xx

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It’s strawberry season! And, oh how I relish the nostalgia I have for many summery recipes in which strawberries were the main attraction in my American childhood. I fondly remember my father taking me to countryside strawberry fields where you would pick the berries (and sugar snap peas too) yourself and pay per the punnet upon leaving. Strawberry glazed pie, strawberry shortcake, fresh churned strawberry ice cream, or just simply freshly picked strawberries topped off with fluffy whipped cream after a long day at the beach still makes me swoon.

This season I am working on some nourishing and healthful strawberry recipes for Bord Bia that have a wee bit less sugar, still – lots of flavour. As it turns out, this is a pretty delicious and easy job with which to be tasked. 

Since elderflowers are also in season throughout the EU, I thought it would be lovely to create a super light, refined sugar-free, fluffy strawberry-elderflower cheesecake. So light that it LEVITATES. Okay, not really, but you get the gist. Easy to prepare, and absolutely packed with flavour, this chilled, weightless cheesecake is the perfect pudding for a summer dinner party al fresco.

Choose local strawberries and whip up this no-bake wholesome cheesecake in no time at all. Your guests will thank you, I promise!

Levitating Strawberry- Elderflower Cheesecake

  • 250g reduced-fat tea biscuits (or graham crackers)
  • 75g grass-fed unsalted butter
  • 500g extra-light soft cheese
  • 200g tub 0% fat Greek yogurt
  • 150ml light whipped cream
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • zest of ½ lemon 
  • 20ml elderflower honey cordial (store bought or see recipe)
  • few drops vanilla extract
  • Blitz biscuits and butter in food processor until ground into crumbs
  • Press into parchment lined 20cm springform tin
  • Clean, hull and slice strawberries lengthwise down the middle. Set aside
  • Fold whip cream into cream cheese mix and combine well. 
  • Spoon mixture into pie crust evenly.
  • Place strawberry slices around the outside of the pie filling – cut side facing out. 
  • Cover with cling film and chill in refrigerator for a 3-5 hours, until firm.
  • Before serving, place in freezer for 30-45 mins for a firmer slice.
  • Decorate with fresh cut elderflowers and serve. 
  • Scullery Notes: Do not place in freezer until after chilled for 3-5 hours as it will result in ice crystals in the cheesecake.  You can buy Elderflower cordial in health food or artisan food shops, many will be prepared with sugar so check label if you want a refined-sugar free version, or use the recipe to DIY. 

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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Awakenings.

10 Mar 2019

I was awakened this morning by the lashing down of bullet-sized raindrops and sideways gusts of gale force winds rattling at our bedroom window. As usual, Richard was dutifully up and at the farm since 6am, despite it being a Sunday morning begging to be embraced by cosy turf fires, fresh scones, wooly slippers, books, papers and play. 

I stretch, yawn, and walk downstairs to the kitchen followed loyally by our four-legged furry girls nipping at my heels bursting to go outside for a loo break and a sniff around the garden.

In the kitchen, I ask Alexa to start my day. She replies in her robotic British tone with a funny joke about Chuck Norris and begins the play the American news from Reuters, plus a recap of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, followed by the local weather and then any “SHeduled” appointments in my “diary” of which there are none.

It’s 8am and I make myself a cup of coffee. Despite having had a full barista style Italian coffee bar installed when we built this house, I can’t use it without flooding the place so instant Starbucks (no apologies), or if I am feeling like a hipster, a pour-over locally roasted brew, it is. I stand over our Belfast sink waiting for the electric kettle to boil, and stare out the window at the back garden, pondering whether or not to plant that wildflower meadow this year or not because if I do want to then I’d better do something about it now. Out the of corner of my eye, I notice the gate leading to the back patio and how rusted and chipped it is, it clearly needs a new lick of paint, and in that case, well, everything on the back patio needs a new lick of paint doesn’t it? Fennel, roses, bay, and borage are thriving together in the raised bed that I built into the centre of the terrace, and I decide that this will be THE year that I plant my completely edible terrace that I dreamed up last summer. The kettle clicks and it’s back to reality. 

I light the fire, let the dogs in and then sip coffee while flicking through the treat of a copy of the Financial Times that I scored when I went to town yesterday. The Financial Times replaced my beloved Sunday NY Times when I moved here, and despite the fact that it comes out on a Saturday, I only ever read it on Sundays, and only the Sundays when I have an excuse to go all the way to the city on the weekend. 

When it’s time to think about breakfast, I open the fridge and take out a package of Meer’s black pudding, 4 smoked streaky rashers left from the previous Sunday fry, a vine ripened tomato grown in an Irish hothouse, and the last handful of mushrooms leftover from a pizza night. I set the whole lot down on my desperately dull Carrera marble countertop and then take 6 eggs from the basket and crack them into a big glass measuring bowl, along with a glug of raw farm milk, salt, pepper and a shimmy of curry powder before whisking it all into a speckled frothy blend. The bread box has a few cuts of brown soda bread and the butter dish has leftover churned butter from my food styling workshop earlier in the week, #FTW.

As I slice the bar of black pudding into thick squares, I wonder how anyone can eat this crusty cake made from pig’s blood. On my first tasting, the morning of my premier visit to Ireland, I likened it to eating a scab and to this day I can’t bear the idea of even a morsel of pudding hitting my tongue. (Pssst. Don’t tell anyone that. It wouldn’t be prudent to be a food writer and simultaneously not love black pudding) Since puddings are a revered staple in this household, I make a fist of it and prepare it quite often (true love and all that jazz.)

I stand at the stove frying, flipping, stirring, sauteéing, while slowly slurping my coffee and listening to Claude Debussy Claire de Lune perhaps too loudly over the Sonos speaker set up in the living room which lies just beyond the kitchen and dining room. Our open floor plan/somewhat minimalist decor essentially lends itself to concert hall acoustics so music sounds quite powerful in this space, but can also feel a bit empty.  

A teardrop wells up in my right eye, and lingers just on the edge of my lower lid. The smoke alarm goes off randomly. I jump, turn down the gas burner, and carry on cooking. Eventually, the ringing stops. And, Debussy fades back in.

The table is just set when Richard’s farm jeep (Not the Jeep brand, everything that is not a car or lorry is considered a “jeep” in Ireland) pulls up. He comes in, kisses my cheek, and sits down. I bring over steaming hot plates of full Irish breakfasts and we tuck in together. In between bites, we discuss how many calves were born overnight and who showed up to work at the farm this morning. When we finish, I show him my latest sketch and new samples of Irish wool to go with it. We both look at the clock and say frightfully in unison, “Geoffrey should be finishing his breakfast about now too” and check our mobile phones for any missed calls.  The only thing I see is the wallpaper image of Geoffrey on a recent mommy and son trip we took to West Cork. 

Richard and I seem too young to be empty nesters. But, empty nesters we are, as our only son now attends secondary (middle school-high school) boarding school, a concept totally foreign (to me) yet embraced by us all since September last. 

This is the first in (hopefully) a series of posts that I am writing as we begin an unfamiliar chapter, this time I am looking at life through yet another lens, paying homage to my history here in the Irish countryside and discovering where this path will take us now…

Could get bumpy. And, most definitely emotional. But, is there ever any other way?

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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I don’t know about you, but I just can’t get enough chicken soup during the winter time. When I was in New York a week ago, I made sure to get down to Katz’s Deli for a bowl of their famous Matzo ball chicken soup despite staying in a midtown hotel. That’s dedication! There is nothing better than steaming hot chicken broth with noodles, matzo balls or rice when it’s bitter cold outside.

So, for my second #MakeItYourWay chicken post for Bord Bia, I have chosen to do a riff on my classic Chicken Noodle Soup using chicken thighs and fine egg noodles instead of breasts and the thick egg noodles my grandmother used to make from scratch. This recipe is quick and easy, and the fine noodles make it a bit lighter as well, but it’s still hits the spot and warms the soul when a piping hot bowl is placed in front of you.

I am partnering with Bord Bia to celebrate how you can ‘Make it Your Way’ with Quality Mark chicken with a variety of new recipe inspiration.

Chicken Noodle Soup
This chicken noodle soup is super easy to make and tastes incredible!
Serves: 6
Time: 45 minutes
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into thin strips 2 tablesp. rapeseed or olive oil 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 celery sticks, finely diced
2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
11⁄2 ltrs. chicken stock, homemade if possible 60g fine egg noodles 1 teasp. thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 teasp. Worcestershire sauce
4 scallions, finely sliced
To serve: Brown soda bread
METHOD
Heat the oil in a large sauce pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, celery, carrots, a little salt and lots of black pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring gently. You just want the vegetables to soften, not brown. Stir through the chicken and cook for another five minutes.

Stir in the stock and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Then add the noodles and thyme leaves and cook for another 10 minutes. Stir through the Worcestershire sauce, taste and season.

Divide into four bowls, sprinkle over the scallions and serve.

Remember: Always look for the Bord Bia Quality Mark when purchasing chicken so that you know that it has been produced to the highest Bord Bia Quality standards which have been verified at every stage.

Check out www.bordbia.ie/qualitychicken for recipe inspiration and #MakeItYourWay and get cooking with chicken!

Slan Abhaile,
Imen

This post is in collaboration with Bord Bia.

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Since our farm rears Bord Bia Quality Mark certified free-range poultry, chicken is our definite go-to protein at home. I am always creating new recipes and/or looking for inspiration to prepare chicken in the farm kitchen each week because our fridge and freezer are always stocked with juicy table birds for the taking. Even if you don’t have chicken from your own farm to hand, it is always plentiful at supermarkets or your local farmer’s market. Let’s face it, chicken is the perfect canvas to create a delicious and nutritious – high in protein, low in fat (also, Keto, Whole 30-friendly and works into many fitness plans) every day meals. There are no limits to what you can do with chicken, you just have to challenge yourself to get creative and make it your way. I think chicken really is one of the unsung heroes of your shopping trolley!

From 28th January, Bord Bia is on a mission to give chicken dishes a new lease on life by providing consumers with inspiration and new meal ideas and reminding them about the benefits of purchasing Quality Mark chicken.

At a time of year where people are looking to start out afresh and are inspired to try new things, I am partnering with Bord Bia to celebrate how you can ‘Make it Your Way’ with Quality Mark chicken with a variety of new recipe inspiration from Bord Bia.

I am excited to share this new recipe, a wonderfully comforting Chicken Pot Roast with Smokey Bacon and Borlotti Beans, perfect for the polar weather and a fun spin on the traditional pork or beef pot roast. This pot roast is incredibly delicious, nutritious, and packed with flavour and protein. Serve with a side of Colcannon or Champ mash and some roasted veggies. (I like roasted brussels sprouts with this recipe.)

Chicken Pot Roast with Smokey Bacon and Borlotti Beans
Serves 4
Time: 1 1⁄2 hours
1 x 11⁄2kg chicken
2 tablesp. rapeseed or olive oil
120g smoked bacon lardons
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 stick of celery, finely diced
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
250ml chicken stock, homemade if possible
250ml dry cider or water
400g tin of your favourite beans e.g. cannellini, barlotti, kidney, rinsed and drained Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To serve: Creamy mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables
METHOD
Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 4, 180°C, (350°F).
Heat a tablespoon of oil in an ovenproof casserole dish big enough to take the chicken. Add in the bacon and brown for 3-4 minutes. Then add the carrot, celery, onion, salt and pepper and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Place the chicken in the casserole and season with salt and pepper. Pour in the stock and cider/water. Bring to a simmer then cover the casserole tightly and place in the oven.

Cook for an hour then remove from the oven. Add the beans to the casserole and stir them through. Add some water if the sauce is drying out. Return the casserole, uncovered, to the oven and cook for another 20 minutes.

Scullery Notes: Serve the sliced chicken with the sauce, mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables.

Remember: Always look for the Bord Bia Quality Mark when purchasing chicken so that you know that it has been produced to the highest Bord Bia Quality standards which have been verified at every stage.
Check out www.bordbia.ie/qualitychicken for recipe inspiration and #MakeItYourWay and get cooking with chicken!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

This post is sponsored by Bord Bia. (but please don’t let that stop you from preparing this beautiful roast chicken!)

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