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A couple of years ago, I had the fortune of being asked to talk about my greatest taste memories for a food festival in County Kerry. After agreeing to relish this summons of flavour nostalgia, I made a strong cup of tea, grabbed the last queen cake, and sat down to give my task some serious consideration.

In a matter of moments, in true thought-bubble style, ideas started rushing to my head. I quickly scribbled notes, bandying between surprising things like bratwurst and bologna, Boston cream pie and pierogi. Just as I was about to start devising a way to satisfy an acute Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch craving, Geoffrey walked up with a jumbo marshmallow in hand and pleaded with me to allow him to roast it over the flaming turf in our sitting room fireplace.

The kid in me smiled and said, “sure, go right ahead” while the mom in me flashed him my “you better be careful” eyes.

As I glanced over at Geoffrey merrily toasting his marshmallow over the fire, I put my No. 2 pencil behind my ear and just sat and pondered how important food memories are, specifically when you are an expatriate.

I realized that there are things that I eat solely for memory’s sake that I definitely would not consider as special if I were still living the USA. Absolute Americana: Sloppy Joes, S’mores, Angelfood cake (so much better from scratch!), Chicago-style hot dogs, to name a few. I also must confess that I have gone as far as to whip up a bowl of glow-in-dark green “pistachio” Jell-O brand boxed pudding brought back from a Stateside trip years ago.

It sucked.

But, certain food hankerings undeniably hinder homesickness.

Are food recollections and their delicious by-products meant to be crucial remedies for melancholy when adjusting to a new culture? And, if so, are the edible results of these nostalgic cravings really just another form of soul food?

In the U.S. “soul food” tends to be evocative of a certain style of food prepared in the American south. While I don’t disagree with that, I do wonder how to define the soul nourishing foods that I now prepare here on the farm, or the chinked with time classics that I’ve left behind which now provide me with an odd form of heightened, toothsome, soul-affirming pleasure.

Each year that I live in Ireland, I embrace what our farm and the bounty of the land lends to us. For me, I am building new taste memories, and for Geoffrey these ingredients, techniques, and traditional skills will become lodged in the fabric of his food and taste memory bank. They are his soul food.

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One of the most extraordinary, yet absolutely unsullied wild Irish ingredients that I have come to love are ramsons, otherwise known as ramps, wild garlic, or spring leek.

We have a wooded area on the edge of the River Shannon where you can see clear across to County Clare, where the honeybee hives live, and where there is a wellspring of wild edibles. Each spring we look forward to our excursion to collect ramsons, sorrel, ground elder, and stream watercress as well as seaweed and dulse on the shoreline.

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Today I built a bridge between wild Irish soul food and an eponymous soul food from the American south.

And, it was SAVAGE.

We collected a modest amount of ramps, cleaned, and simply dipped in a bit of olive oil for the grill, then served them charred and hot on a bed of creamy, cheesy, country grits.

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Comforting doesn’t even touch on the feeling that went with the satisfaction of preparing and sharing this simple yet exceptional dish with our family and friends.

What foods nourish your soul?

Country Grits with Grilled Wild Irish Ramps
Serves 4
1/2 cup/75g of yellow, stone ground grits (can substitute polenta or coarse ground maizemeal if absolutely necessary, or just order grits online at Amazon.co.uk)
2 cups/500ml boiling water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
15-20 freshly cultivated wild ramps (could sub spring onion here if you don’t have access to ramps)
1 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt
Light a charcoal fire in your grill and allow coals to get white hot, or prepare and oil a grill pan. Coat the wild ramps with olive oil. Set aside.

Stir grits into a saucepan of rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook and stir until the boil comes back up then over and continue to cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cheese, cover, and let sit on stovetop while grilling the ramsons.

Place ramps on your grill and cook until just charred. Remove and set aside.

Spoon creamy grits into individual bowls, top with 4-5 grilled ramps, sprinkle with sea salt and serve.

Scullery Notes: When digging ramps, unless they are scarce in your area, be sure and get the whole root where the most profound flavour is found. The leaves are also great for making pesto, and the bulbs are great pickled and used for dirty martinis! Be mindful of how much you are taking from the land in relation to what is available to you. Never forage on the side of busy roads or where there is a lot of foot traffic which can be contaminating.  

I have some amazing news! Saveur Magazine has named me a finalist in the Writing category of their 2015 Food Blog Awards. I am stunned and so grateful for this honor. Out of 50,000 nominations, they have chosen 6 finalists for 13 categories. I am amongst writers that I totally revere and respect. The voting is open from now until the end of the month, so if you fancy, the link is here. If it wasn’t for you reading this blog, I would not be recognized in this way, so many, many thanks to all!

SAV_15_SBA_Badges_Finalists_writingSlan Abhaile,

Imen x

Photos and styling by Imen & Geoffrey McDonnell 2015

 

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13 Responses to “Country Grits with Wild Irish Ramson”

  1. Sarah says:

    Well you learn something new every day. For some reason I always thought grits were like potato cakes or corn cakes, not mushy. I used to collect ramps in Coole Park, the idea of pickling the bulbs is genius. I cannot wait for next Spring and that superlative aroma of fresh wild ramps after the rain.

  2. congratulations, I was always told to just take the leaves.

  3. We don’t have ramps in the interior of British Columbia, but I am going to use my imagination here and imagine that they are incredible with the cheesy grits!

  4. Hi Imen! We’re new Insta-friends, and your follow inspired me to come write a little blog love note. Which is to say, I absolutely adore Farmette, the beauty you share of your life, and, as you so perfectly capture in this post, your knowledge of how food and story become soul. I also feel a particularly keen interest in Irish homeland: I’m of Eastern European Jewish heritage, though my red hair has always elicited questions about Irish lineage. When I was thirteen and I heard the Lord of the Dance soundtrack of the first time I burst into tears; when I was fifteen I read the Mists of Avalon and became certain I had lived as a mystic woman of that era long ago.

    Though I can’t say Irish folk dance or pagan ritual are now a part of my daily life, my ties to that part of the world still feel strong. And I’ve never visited! Seeing your pictures brought me such joy this morning.

    I’m headed over to the Saver page to vote, and will be dreaming about foraging spring ramps and dulse (YUM) all day. xo’s from the wilds of Los Angeles! So glad to connect today.

  5. Jane Campbell says:

    Hi! Apparently ramps are big in places like West Virginia too. Not only Irish/European! ( Greetings from Australia!)

  6. Donna Baker says:

    Can’t get any more southern (soul) than grits.

  7. What a stunning spring dish! Ramps are almost impossible to come by here in Finland – they’re extremely scarce in the wild and I’ve never seen them being sold in stores or on farmers’ markets. Luckily, my mom brought a bunch with her all the way from Munich! I already made a pesto last night and was looking for more inspiration when I stumbled upon this recipe (thanks to Skye McAlpine!).

    Also, huge congrats on your Saveur nomination! Well deserved, lady. Love your writing and recipes.

  8. Dressfirst says:

    Wild Irish ramson is so special. Gourmet on the picture looks very healthy

  9. Kathryn says:

    I have a whole bunch of ramps at home and I was wondering what to do with them – how can I make anything other than this after the way you describe it?!

  10. Simon says:

    I love wild garlic. I was always told to just take the leaves. Leave the roots so the plant will be around for next season. Will definitely try it this recipe.

  11. What a wonderful and thought-provoking post. It brings me to the River, but all back home to the South. Lovely.

  12. Love your blog, Imen, congratulations on the nomination!

  13. Beautiful, Imen! Being FROM the American South,grits are definitely soul food to me. I love that you are gathering ramps there in Ireland at the same time that we are gathering them here in Tennessee. I didn’t know until recently that they are also known as “Tennessee truffles”. Anyway, gorgeous photos and recipe. Congrats on the Saveur nomination!

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