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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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A Drop of Irish Cream

11 Mar 2015

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“Come in, make yourself comfortable in the sitting room.” The blood rushed to my cheeks as I said thank you, and nervously sat down on a beautifully upholstered high-backed armchair facing an identical chair positioned in front of a tiny, ornate fireplace burning with hot coals. “Can I get you a drop of sherry or a drop of Baileys?” I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as I chose the Baileys, a very warm and welcomed icebreaker.

It was my first time at the farm. I’d already had the great privilege of meeting Richard’s mother, father, and briefly, his brother, but it was time to meet the matriarch of the family, Mary McDonnell (may she rest in peace), otherwise simply known as “Grandma.” Grandma lived in the little flat attached to the main farmhouse. But, where she slept was only a matter of semantics, she clearly still ruled the roost at Dunmoylan. And deservedly so, in her day she could milk 20 cows by hand in less than an hour before coming in to cook breakfast for her family of 7. Badass.

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After I moved to the farm, my chat sessions with Grandma became more frequent. Over drops of Irish cream served in delicate cordial glasses, we swapped stories with one another; she was kind yet opinionated, and as curiously interested in me as I was in her. At a certain stage, Richard told me, “Well you passed the muster with Grandma,” which was no easy feat apparently. I felt welcomed and proud.

I loved listening to Grandma yarn astonishing tales of banshees, gun hiding and squabbles between political parties, which became very colourful because she cheekily favoured the opposite party of her husband and his family. She, like many Irish of a certain generation, believed in a bit of folklore, and recanted the time she found herself on a magic road in County Louth where her car actually rolled uphill in the Cooley Mountains, an anecdote for which I had no idea how to respond. (But look, Andrew McCarthy proves it’s true!)

Grandma had a certain savoir-faire and impeccable style, and, luckily for me, a generous sense of humour. I recall during one of our chinwags, her telling me about a weekend break she had taken to a beautiful, remote island on a lake in the northwestern part of Ireland. She described how breathtaking it was, and that you had to go barefoot and walk on rocks across the water to the Island and only drink a sort of broth with salt and pepper for three days. When I presumed she’d been to a natural spa retreat for some type of intensive 3-day cleansing detox, she thought I was absolutely mad because it was Lough Derg, a world-reknowned religious pilgrimage in Donegal. Again, something I could not fathom, but also could not help but respect.

With Mother’s Day this weekend here in Ireland, I’d like to propose a toast to ‘drops of Irish cream’ and a good old natter with the special ladies in your life. What are some of your favourite Grandmother memories?

Homemade Irish cream is second to none (sorry Bailey’s!) and super straightforward to make from scratch. Bring this tipple out at the end of a long lingering dinner party as a decadent way to end your feast, and the perfect invitation to share some more stories together….

Irish Cream
Makes 24 ounces
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. instant coffee powder
½ tsp. cocoa powder
¾ cup Irish whiskey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
Combine 1 tbsp. cream and the coffee and cocoa powders to make a smooth paste. 2. Slowly add remaining cream, whisking until smooth.
Add whiskey, vanilla extract, and sweetened condensed milk; stir to combine.
Pour into a 24-oz. jar and keep refrigerated until ready to serve, up to 2 weeks.
To serve, pour into a tumbler filled with ice.

Slan Abhaile,
Imen
Photo by Imen McDonnell 2014

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My beloved late mother-in-law, Peggy, and Richard’s grandmother, Mary (RIP)

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INT. Irish country bedroom. SATURDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start after all)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

I throw back the duvet and drag myself out of bed. As I draw open the shades I tell myself that I should always be the one who is awake first no matter what day of the week it is. Mother guilt, can’t go without a daily dose, right?

We rustle up some brekky.

And, text our goat mama friend.

FB goat mama friend.

Wait.

Weed. (highly recommend weeding while waiting, soothes anxiety)

Wait.

Wonder if..…. “Mom, let’s just turn up at their house.”

Nah, still not quite Irish enough for that yet. Need confirmation for visitations.

Wait.

Walk to our farm to feed our own babies.

Work out a plan to visit the following day with a bonus: another new kid happened!

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INT. Irish country bedroom. SUNDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

And, off we went…..

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Afterwards, I couldn’t resist making some fresh cheese. (see my fresh farmer cheese method here, just swap raw goats milk for cow’s milk and use a tbsp of lemon juice instead of vinegar for creamier texture)

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Followed by fresh cheesecake.

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Goats Milk Cheesecake with Woodland Honey
This is a super easy, non fussy fresh cheesecake that is always a hit with family and friends. Prepare in the morning and have it for dessert in the evening. The goats cheese provides a richer, fuller flavour than cow’s milk cream cheese, and making the cheese fresh makes it even more wholesome. The honey gives it a bit of a sweetness boost for the finish. I love my father-in-law’s honey from down in the wood, it’s delicious!
Ingredients
125 grams/ 1 ¼ cup crumbled digestive biscuits or graham crackers (Bourbon
biscuits would be nice too)
75 grams/ 6 tbsps soft butter ends ingredient
300 grams/ 10oz soft goats cheese (homemade or from the market)
60 grams/ ½ cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250 ml/ 1 cup heavy cream
Honey for drizzling
Method
1. Process biscuits in a food processor until they turn to large crumbs, then add the butter and pulse again to make bring the mixture together.
2. Press mixture into a 20cm / 8 inch springform tin; press a little up the sidesto form a ridge.
3. Beat together the goats cheese, icing sugar, vanilla extract in a bowl until smooth
4. Lightly whip the double cream, and then fold it into the cream cheese mixture.
5. Spoon the cheesecake filling on top of the biscuit base and smooth with a spatula.
6. Put it in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight.
7. Drizzle liberally with honey and serve.

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Mince pies. Those lovely little devils. If only they had been called mince pies when I was a child. There seems to be a bit more mystery to a mince pie than a minceMEAT pie. Meat was not something I desired in a pie when I was 10 and sitting at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving Day table waiting patiently for dessert. No matter if such a pie had been lovingly prepared, nestled up in a tea towel, and kept cosy on top of a warm tumble dryer alongside his sweet, fragrant friends, pumpkin and apple.

“No mincemeat pie for me,” I would say year after year, which was always followed by the obligatory “one day you’ll know what you’re missing.” (which, by the by, has now been inducted (inherited?) into my ridiculous lexicon of parental vernacular, alongside “were you born in a barn?” (close!) and “hold your horses!” (goes without saying)

Ironically, and most happily surprising, I really didn’t know what I was missing when I declined Grandma Johnson’s mincemeat pie. Turns out this mincing of meat is really pretty terrific. When it doesn’t have meat in it, that is. (Although, having learned that mincemeat pie actually originated in the Middle East, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a savoury/sweet Ottolenghi-fied twist on the classic…but I digress…)

In my humble mincemeat research, I found a North American filling recipe that was published in 1854 which included chopped neat’s (beef) tongue, beef suet, blood raisins (yikes!), currants, mace, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, apples, lemons, brandy and orange peel. It was said that this mincemeat could be preserved for up to ten years. Then, on one special Monday at the turn of the 20th century, meatless mincemeat was introduced and the world was a better place. Now that I have sampled a host of variations, I am proud to point out that I am particularly partial to a cranberry-walnut blended mincemeat filling.

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I mention all of this because mince pies are the cornerstone of Irish holiday baking. They are what hot cross buns are to Easter. Quotidian. They are always the first smattering of Christmas spirit to hit the bakeries and markets across this fair country and the last to leave. When you see the mince pies, you know that elaborate Christmas cakes are not far behind. Their debut tips you off to the perfect storm of puddings that lies ahead. From that day forward, you are granted the perfect excuse to whip up a boozy brandy butter, and sip copious amounts of mulled wine with friends and family… or, not with friends and family.

This weekend, we had our 2nd annual DIY holiday wreath-making party. The first thing I did was bake up a batch of Ballymaloe mince pies along with a few fun variations. Afterward, Geoffrey and I headed down to the wood to collect holly and ivy, evergreens and laurel leaves. We snipped branches from the olive tree and rosemary in our garden. Then, we made our traditional rosemary-mint cake, this time with chocolate instead of a snowy white sponge. My sister-in-law and her three children came over on Sunday afternoon and we gathered round the table to craft three wreaths. One for each of our homes, and another to place on Peggy’s grave with a prayer. We sipped mulled wine and nibbled on warm pies slathered up in zesty orange brandy butter and planned the big Christmas Day meal. Then, when everyone went home and Geoffrey was off to the farm to feed the calves, I cleaned up our workstations, sat down, and savoured every last morsel of the lone mince pie left on the platter.

Grandma would be proud.

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Miniature Mince Pies

Ingredients
225g (8oz) plain flour
175g (6oz) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 dessertspoon icing sugar, sieved
a pinch of salt
a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind
1lb mincemeat (see recipe below)
egg wash
Method
Sieve the flour into a bowl. Toss the butter into the flour and rub it in with your fingertips. Add the icing sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix with a fork as you gradually add in the beaten egg (do this bit by bit because you may not need all of the egg), then use your hand to bring the pastry together into a ball. It should not be wet or sticky. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Roll out the pastry until it’s quite thin – about 3mm (1/8 inch) Stamp into rounds 7.5 (3 inch) in diameter and line shallow bun tins with the discs. Put a good teaspoonful of mincemeat into each tin, dampen the edges with water and put another round on top. Brush with egg wash and decorate with pastry leaves or stars.
Bake the pies in the preheated oven for 20 minutes approx. Allow them to cool slightly, then dredge with icing or caster sugar. Serve with Irish whiskey cream (or brandy butter.)

Homemade Mincemeat
Makes 3.2kg (7lb) approx 8-9 pots
Ingredients
2 cooking apples
2 organic lemons
900g (2lbs) Barbados sugar (soft, dark brown sugar)
450g (1lb) beef suet
450 (1lb) sultanas
224 (8oz) currants
110g (4oz) candied citrus peel
70ml (2.5fl oz) Irish whiskey
2 tbsp Seville orange marmalade
pinch of salt
Method
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Core and bake whole apples in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into a pulp.
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of the stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for two weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for two to three years in a cool, airy place.

The winner of Rochelle Bilow’s signed book, The Call of the Farm is YVONNE CORNELL. Many, many thanks to everyone for their heartfelt turkey comments, you have helped me in ways you’ll never know!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

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“Hold on, hold on, hold on…let me go and see, I know there is one tree out there with sweet fruit on it.” My father-in-law pulled on his wellies and rushed out the kitchen door to what Geoffrey and I like to privately call the baby orchard.

I had ambled in moments earlier after checking the gooseberries and black currants (sadly, very sparse this year) along with the young apple, pear and plum trees that he and Peggy planted about six years ago only steps from the scullery.

When I explained that I noticed one tree with a gang of green plums and wondered out loud if they were Greengages, Michael scratched his head and told me he couldn’t be sure, “Peggy wrote the names of all those new trees down when we planted them, but I can’t recall where that list might be now.” These are things you don’t think a second about until someone is gone and you can’t ask them anymore.

He just wanted to get to the sweet. Who cared about those sour green plums. We needed to plunge into a sugary candy-like plum, like the ones he and Geoffrey shared the week before. I couldn’t shake the subtle hint of metaphor between sweetness and sorrow.

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Michael came back into the kitchen with one piece of deep purple fruit, opened the cupboard and pulled three more from a brown paper bag. We stood in front of the kitchen sink eating those perfect plums. No words, just the sounds of bite-slurping into the fleshy fruits followed by the telltale mmmm’s and ahhh’s of pure taste ambrosia. When we finished our impromtu picnic, I thanked Michael and he suggested that I head out to the back orchard to check on the older fruit trees.

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This “old” orchard, which dates back about one hundred years, was heaving with ripe fruit. When I say heaving, this is partially due to the tremendous storm earlier this year that downed several large beech trees and blew over the fruit trees with such a vengeance that they mostly now look more like arched Espaliers than Bramleys; the whole scene suggestive of a fine Dr. Seuss story.

I filled a basket with plums, most of them ripe, and a few with a way to go. And, in the spirit of summer fruits, this sweet surprise was born.

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Orchard Plum + Black Currant Madeira Cake with Mascarpone-Cassis Icing

Madeira Cake did not originate in the Madeira Islands, rather from the Portuguese Madeira wine that would have traditionally been served with this tea cake in Ireland and the UK many years ago. This wildly popular (and, once new-to-me), beautifully buttery, dense cake is normally prepared with just a touch of lemon zest, but I’ve pushed the limits and made it rich with summer fruits, balanced with a creamy mascarpone, cassis-spiked icing. I added black currant jam and a touch of smoked sea salt to the frosting, which is lovely, but definitely optional and not necessary if you prefer a less profound flavour profile. The pretty green plums in the photos were not used in the cake mix; sweet, ripe plums are a must for this recipe. You could cut the recipe in half and leave out the layers + icing altogether for a simple summer fruit Madeira. 

Ingredients
350g/12oz butter, at room temperature
350g/12oz caster sugar
6 free-range eggs
500g/18oz self-raising flour
6 tbsp milk
300g/10 oz peeled, pitted, thinly sliced sweet plums
200g black currant conserve
Method
1. Pre-heat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease two 18cm/7in round cake tins, line the base with greaseproof paper and grease the paper.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy about 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture well between each one and adding a tablespoon of the flour with the last egg to prevent the mixture from curdling.
3. Sift the flour and gently fold in, with enough milk to give a mixture that falls slowly from the spoon. Fold in the sliced plums.
4. Spoon the mixture equally into the prepared tins and lightly level the tops. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 40-50 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
5. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, turn it out onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.
6. Level out each cake layer with a serrated cake knife so that they easily lay flat on top of one another.
7. Spread a thick layer of black currant conserve on top of bottom cake layer.

Cassis-Mascarpone Icing
Ingredients
450g/1lb mascarpone cheese, softened
350g/12oz unsalted butter, softened
450g/1lb confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3/4 tsp. oak-smoked sea salt (optional)
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3-4 tbsp crème de cassis
1 tbsp black currant conserve (optional)
Method
1.In a large bowl, beat the mascarpone and butter with the mixer on medium speed until very smooth and creamy, about 1 minute.
2. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, crème de cassis, optional sea salt and black currant conserve and beat on medium high until blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
3. Cover the frosting and set aside at room temperature until ready to frost cake.
4. Dab a bit of icing on the cake plate. Carefully set the bottom layer of cake (the piece with black currant conserve spread on top) down on the frosting. Sandwich second layer on top.
5. Using a metal spatula, evenly spread a thin layer (about 1/3 cup) of frosting over the entire cake to seal in any crumbs and fill in any gaps between layers. Refrigerate until the frosting is cold and firm, about 20 minutes. Spread the entire cake with the remaining frosting.
6. Refrigerate the cake for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days. This cake is best served slightly chilled or at room temperature.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Recipe, Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

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Intermission

20 Jun 2014

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Tonight I sit at the table looking at life over the rim of an ingeniously crafted grilled lemon gimlet.* I am pondering this crazy, cathartic journey of love that I signed up for nearly 11 years ago.

Warm fuzzies take up residence on my forearms and I smile.

Still kismet.

As I gallop nearer to the finish of photography for this book, I am filled with emotion and pride. Looking back, I am simply struck by how life can take so many turns and twists in your one go ‘round.

Damn, destiny can be demanding.

I sip down the last gorgeous citrusy drop of my mixed drink and start wiping down the kitchen worktop.

Nine years in Ireland. (Pinch)

Where did that go? (Ssshhhh, don’t ask)

I hazily conclude that if you give life your best shot, demands are met with very handsome rewards.

Hic.

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I’ve been floating around in my apron and wellies for the for the past month prepping, testing, cooking, co-styling and shooting recipes nearly every day, in and around our home, the farmyard, and the many pastures and meadows that cradle and surround us.

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Fortunately for me, my fabulous friend and food stylist, Sonia Mulford-Chaverri made it across the Atlantic to be my partner in all of this food fluffing. So far we’ve been having great fun making everything look awfully pretty together.

Of course, everyone in the family has been enlisted as well, including our Airedale Terrier, Teddy, who clearly seems to feel he has some directorial talents. He takes the biscuit.

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Sure, during week 3 the dishwasher died (that one last butter bell?) and our clothes washer waned (too many tea towels?), but thanks to our local dairy co-op, we were back in business in no time. Yes, I stumbled while eagerly trying to hoist a large piece of furniture (a.k.a “prop”) and subsequently spent the day at the hospital waiting for an x-ray (no break, just a bad sprain, but plenty of colorful chinwagging with fellow Irish patients.)

As of today, I am on oven burn #6 and wearing it like a badge of cookbook courage. Also, the donkeys breaking into one of my kitchen garden beds and eating most of my strawberries and newly sprouted Georgia collard greens was admittedly quite heartbreaking.

Ahhhhhh, farm life.

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On the other hand, we had a lovely visitor from Tennessee who brought and baked her special family recipe for buttermilk pie (yes, it will be in the book!) and afterward, we made beautiful buttermilk fried chicken with a big mess O’greens, so all was not lost. Thank you Lavonda Shipley.

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I must admit, the best bits have been shooting outdoors frolicking in all of the once-foreign-to-me fauna and flora (even if the sweet heifer calves that surround us in the fields are forever trying to guttle up our picnics before we can properly photograph them). Can’t blame em, right?

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It is the absolute perfect time of year to capture the breathtaking nature of the Irish countryside at its finest. Things don’t bloom here, they BURST…virtually everything is heaving with flowers and leaves everywhere you turn. Beguiling.

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Will leave you with some other bits of bacchanalia….and back soon, promise.

Last month, I was invited to travel to the charming Inishbofin Island off the coast of County Galway to enjoy a lovely dinner and night at the Inishbofin House Hotel. The island, which translates to “The Island of the White Cow” is reachable by ferry from Cleggan and boasts breathtaking beaches and ruins chockablock with history. BBC chef, Ray McCardle, is on board at Inishbofin House consulting on the menu with head chef Taidgh McDonald and their new menu is a treasure to keep an eye on. If you are traveling to Ireland and want to try something different than the Aran Islands, hop over to Inishbofin..it is truly delightful.

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I will be blabbing about food blogging on a fantastic panel at this year’s Hay Festival in the ancient town of Kells, County Meath on Sunday, July 6th. The Hay Festival is a vibrant mash of literature, world music, politics, comedy and film and is produced every year across Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. My friends at Sheridan’s Cheesemongers asked me to participate this year, and I’m proud as punch to join this renowned gathering. Come along if you’re free! On your way, check out the Hill of Tara and put an intention on the wishing tree.

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Shake, shake, shake ♫ ♬…..come and boogie with me while making farmhouse butter at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin on July 26th. More details to come.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

*Sonia’s Grilled Lemon Gimlet recipe: one sliced lemon, sprinkled with sugar and grilled. Fill one small tumbler with ice. Pour in two jiggers dry gin, healthy splash of lemon juice, and top with grilled lemon. Suck and eat lemon slices when you’ve finished your drink. Photo of rag tree by Bruce Friedman. All other photos by Imen McDonnell 2014. 

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Irish Spring

22 Apr 2014

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If the title of this post conjures up visions

of whittling bars of green and white stripy soap,

cast those clean as a whistle notions aside…

spring in the Irish countryside is

beautiful, raw, and green

filled with birdsong and new life…

but frankly, it mostly smells like manure;

also known as “that sweet country smell”

milking spodgesI am loving this fun sketch of me milking “Sally”

by Ailbhe Phelan, a fabulous Irish illustrator living in London.

What do you think?

The lucky recipient of Ashley English’s Handmade Gatherings is Lori Matthews.

Congratulations!

I will be back with more recipes and stories very soon.

 Life is aflurry with trying my very best to complete a

truly special manuscript & fine-tuning recipes

for my upcoming book…

while feeding calves & milking cows

and simply…

being a mother and wife (the easy part)

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In the meantime,

head over to Spenser Magazine

for a beautiful Irish spring lamb story…

read all about my bucolic Zwartbles adventure

nestled alongside some outstanding food stories

on ancient grains in Arizona, Blue Heron Goat Farm

and some amazing salt-roasted spot prawns.

I will leave you to linger with a few more outtakes from the shoot

PicMonkey Collage

shed

justborn

knitting

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heather

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Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

No Zwartbles lambs were eaten for this post

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Handmade Gatherings

08 Apr 2014

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Rhubarb. Buttermilk. Bread. Pity it’s already gone. Gone in 60 seconds style. I blame the PMS hungry farmers. But, no worries, this loaf of rhubarb-buttermilk amazingness can be yours too. The recipe is in a most divine new book by cookery and craft writer, Ashley English.

Handmade Gatherings is filled with gorgeous recipes made from honest ingredients, but the best bit is that Ashley encourages everyone to bring something special to the inspirational celebrations she shares with us. Potluck, for me, is just a golden nugget of Americana childhood memories, and a girl who writes a book all about seasonal potluck gatherings is undoubtedly after my own heart.

Ashley says, “Anyone can put a call out that a party is happening. What makes a gathering truly memorable though, is the amount of thought put into its planning.” This is why all the parties in her book were conceived as communal affairs…meaning you share a great deal of the work with you guests. Conviviality in its best light.

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I never stopped smiling as I sipped tea from a flask and flipped through four fabulous chapters which chronicle parties for each season, all of which are beautifully photographed by the fiercely talented Jen Altman. I opened the book to the chapter on Ashley’s “Spring to Life” gathering, complete with a Maypole dance and setting seeds together. On the menu: pistachio crusted asparagus with feta vinaigrette, fried chicken, spring onion tart, buttermilk rhubarb bread and many more ambrosial goodies to delight in.

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Ashley is signed to the same publishing house as I, the very special ROOST (sidebar: keep your eyes peeled for some great new titles coming out this spring if you are into farming, crafting, nature and DIY) so we are automatically kindred, but as irony would have it, we transatlantically connected when both of our films were screened at the Chicago Food Film Festival last autumn.

My sassy friend and design director for Small Green Fields, Cassie Scroggins, met Ashley at the event and they had a right old natter that evening. Cassie emailed me the very next day to tell me “You should meet Ashley English, I’m pretty sure you would like her.”  I clicked on the link to the film vignette and instantly fell in love with her laid-back, homegrown style.

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Now, 8 months later, I am here to happily share Ashley’s new book with you, and compliments of ROOST, I even have one lucky copy to share.

Just leave a comment below sharing your favorite way to throw a party, and I’ll put your name in the draw to be announced on my next post.

But first, make Ashley’s bread…it tastes just like spring!

Rhubarb Buttermilk Bread
Ingredients
For the Topping
¼ all-purpose flour
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the Batter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Zest of one lemon
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
¾ cup chopped rhubarb
Method
Preheat oven to 350f.
Generously butter 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.
Prepare the topping:
Place all ingredients in a medium bowl. Using clean hands, mix everything together until the ingredients are fully combined and the butter is in pea sized clumps. Set aside while you prepare the bread batter.
Prepare the batter:
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, using either a whisk or a fork. Add the eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, lemon zest, and vanilla bean seeds. Whisk together until the ingredients are fully combined.
With a mixing spoon, stir in the chopped rhubarb until it is well blended into the batter.
Assemble the bread:
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Use a spatula to evenly distribute the batter across the surface of the pan. Sprinkle the topping evenly across the batter.
Place the pan in the over. Bake for one hour, or until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Blogpost food + styling by Imen McDonnell. Handmade Gatherings photography by Jen Altman. Handmade Gatherings is available here, here and here and essentially anywhere great books are sold.  

 

 

 

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At precisely this time each year, I become consumed with any and all things garden. It starts with the pull of Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols from the bookshelf and onto my nightstand. For the past few spring seasons, I have read this book in its entirety in bits and pieces before bed in the evenings. And each year, the words seem to re-introduce themselves to me as if we’d never met and everything is new again. (Surely those are the best books?) Mostly pertaining to floral and formal planting, there are chapters detailing the flamboyant author’s very colourful conundrums with both his kitchen garden and orchards as well.

Down the Garden Path is wildly entertaining, but mostly it gets me thinking about what I intend to plant in our very own vegetable and flower beds for the year. It also creates a bit of an obsession in planning for time when I can get out and make a clean sweep to prepare for new growth. (By obsession, I mean waking up in the middle of the night worrying about how far the horseradish root has invaded into artichoke territory over the winter months, and how very sad, but very likely it is, that one of the Wisteria isn’t going to make it this year.)

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rhubarbduo

So it begins. With a pencil behind my ear, I peruse seed catalogues, gardening books, GIY Ireland meeting times and fancy landscape magazines. I chat with friends and neighbours, and begin scribbling and planning.

Essentially I decide that I am just looking for a few new offerings in the veg and fruit department, and perhaps a new tree or two. Luckily, I was gifted a peony plant from my generous neighbour, and I can see new growth already so blossoms will be something to really look forward to in July

hen

Right now there is an abundance of rhubarb and rosemary with pretty lavender flowers around the farm. I’ll make some rhubarb jam and slather it on a duck egg sponge, but first l shall dig into unknown territory with a syllabub featuring two ingredients that I can’t help but imagine will love each others company.

Syllabub is a classic dessert on this side of the Atlantic where people have been enjoying it centuries. It is essentially a dish made of milk or cream with the addition of wine, cider, or other spirit, and often enhanced with a natural flavor. In this case, I have decided to cut the cream with Poitín (formerly known as Irish moonshine) and sweeten it with a simple syrup made from rhubarb and rosemary.

For me, syllabub  simply spells spring garden party in BIG BLAZING LETTERS. And, while we’re not quite there yet, I am already dreaming of such a sunny afternoon dalliance. Admittedly, this is especially easy to visualize while spooning sweet, boozy, creamy bites of said fluffy syllabub into my eager mouth.

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Geoffrey already has his pumpkin and Purple of Sicily cauliflower seedlings started; his bumblebee garden packet at the ready for sprinkling. He gets a bed or two to himself; last year he grew upwards of 30 Romanesco courgettes, the long stripey ones. He was quite proud of himself, but he missed the pumpkins that he had planted the year before with great success so we are back onto those again.

I have seed envelopes from Ireland: Brown Envelope seeds from Madeline McKeever in West Cork, and from America: Baker Seed Company, an organic and mostly heirloom seed company out of Missouri.

I begin the whole seedy selection process. Colorado Red Quinoa and Collard Greens from Georgia go in the “TBP” (to be planted) pile while White Scallop Squash in  “NY” (next year). As usual, the amount of seeds I’ve ordered is dizzying and I make a note to cut back in future.

I look at the time a few hours later and then glance around the table. The syllabub is whipped, biscuits are dipped, tea is sipped, and the seeds are finally picked.

It’s spring, after all.

Rhubarb & Rosemary Spring Syllabub with Poitín
Ingredients
300g whipping cream
50g rhubarb & rosemary simple syrup
25ml Irish Poitín (or white wine, hard cider, champagne, sherry)
A stack of Ginger Nut biscuits, to serve
Rosemary stems to garnish
Method
For the simple syrup
1. Cut one large stalk of rhubarb into small pieces
2. Place in saucepan with two stems of fresh rosemary and 80g caster sugar.
3. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer until all sugar is dissolved.
4. Take off heat and let cool at room temperature. Strain into container and refrigerate.
For the Syllabub
1. Whip the cream and syrup together until soft peaks form. Stir in the Poitín.
2. Spoon into glasses or bowls, garnish with rosemary.
3. Serve with Ginger Nut biscuits or rhubarb compote.
 

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014.  

 

 

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stickypud1

I woke up bright and early on the first morning of midterm break to a heartfelt request from an energetic little farmer, “Mom, can we pleeeease watch Attack of the Crab Monsters together this morning?”

I rubbed my eyes and blinked twice before yawn-smiling and stretching my arms out wide, “Morning sunshine, of course we can sweetie, now come here and give mommy a hug.”

But he was long gone on an intrepid search for a 1957 Roger Corman B-movie viewing device.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

I peel myself out of bed and totter on a trail of upsided darts Lego pieces that lead to the bathroom. The same Lego Ninjago trail that gets picked up and magically set down like clockwork every day.

After washing my face, pulling my hair back into something resembling a bobtail, and covering myself with the first three things I see in the closet, I go to my next order of early morning business: loading up the washer with slurry soaked dungarees and jumpers. Two pods/scorching hot/pre-wash/intensive/ medical rinse. Repeat.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

I go downstairs and make coffee. Standing at the kitchen counter I quietly slurp coffee and look out the window at the my garden beds which are weeping and weathered, but still alive with bits of chard and kale and new globe artichoke foliage peeking up. I smile. I turn to the living room and see Teddy’s dog grit smeared all the way across the top edge of our stone-tinted sofa (I know, you told me so). I drop my coffee cup and, well…..cry. No tears, but still.

Just then, Geoffrey skids into the room with an open iBook shouting in a burly voice with a timbre as towering as an NFL announcer, “YES! We can watch the Killer Crab Monsters now!”

I fall to the ground.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

Valentines came and went. We suffered a devastating gale the night before so Geoffrey challenged me to a fierce game of Settlers of Catan by candlelight while Richard was away with a group of men on farm business in England.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in and out of this house.

On a side note, we are surrounded by estrogen-charged maiden heifers ready to give birth any day.

Somehow there is still far too much testosterone here.

I patiently watch Attack of the Crab Monsters with my son. It is actually quite good.

I then try to convince him to take a shower. A task he once enjoyed.  We have to bargain about it.

Lately there is far too much testosterone in this house.

After watching one too many American sitcoms, my husband now has a man cave for when he’s home from the farm cave. There is a desk, a chair worthy of Larry Flynt, farm paperwork, whiskey books, a writing diary, a clunky old weight machine. Oh, and a weird wood carved wall hanging of Road Runner and the Tazmanian Devil.

I’m putting on my prettiest pinny and making sticky toffee pudding.

With whiskey.

And yeah, those are fighting words.

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Sticky Whiskey Toffee Pudding

Ingredients

85g softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

225g soft Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped

100ml Irish (preferably peated) Whiskey (optional)

175g flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

150g dark brown sugar

2 large eggs

For the sauce

300ml heavy cream

200g dark brown sugar

60g unsalted butter

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan160°C/gas 4. Butter 6 x 200ml individual pudding moulds.

2. Put the dates, whiskey and 100ml boiling water (or omit whiskey and add 200ml water) into a small pan and bring to the boil over a medium heat, then simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the dates are very soft. Set aside to cool.

3. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and a pinch of salt into a bowl and mix together well. In another bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar together with an electric hand whisk for 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition.

4. Alternate adding in the flour mixture and dates, a little at a time, mixing in each addition well before adding the next. Spoon evenly between the moulds, smoothing the tops. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of each pudding comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

5. Meanwhile, make the toffee sauce. Put the cream, sugar and butter into a pan and bring to the boil. Cook for 3 minutes, until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Pour the sauce over the warm puddings and serve immediately with or without ice cream.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

PS. My blog is listed on The Kitchn’s Homies Awards…so far it has 22 nominations for best blog from abroad, but it sure would be lovely to get more as today is the last day for voting! Have a look if you like. Thank you ♥

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Images and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. The plate was handcrafted by the very talented Trish Riley  for Sweetgum Co

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