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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a curatorial here, but good things come to those who wait, right? As a fledgling food stylist embarking on my first cookery book, I am absolutely engrossed in the work of real professionals like Susan Spungen. At a time where it seems like virtually (literally) everyone seems to be an online stylist of some sort, I am even more reminded that it is important to revere the great + founding professionals working in the business of beautiful food.

Ironically, in my former life I had the experience of working with iconic food brands while producing ads for television. I won’t mention names, but on more than one occasion I could be found in a commercial NYC kitchen studio watching a camera rig cruise at 500 frames per second attempting to film mass amounts of pepperoni slices flying in the air. The result? Slow-motion pepperoni. The reality?  A food styling crew who had to work ultra fast and furious, making sure each and every slice of pepperoni was shiny and mouth-watering, and the process had to be repeated for essentially a full day for each flying ingredient. This crack team of stylists would cook and treat the ingredients as well as produce a VIP end product an ooey-gooey pizza that would rival the Mona Lisa. They were very serious. And, extremely gifted. I often thought that despite the fact that I had hired a director whose daily production rate cost more than a year of my university education, the stylists were the real directors on those shoots.

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I guess what I am trying to say is that creating something beautiful in the space of your own studio, on your own timeline, in your pajamas and pigtails (yes, by “you” I mean “me”) is far different than working on the set of a professional print or film shoot with a client who is someone other than yourself. Therein lies the profession.

Susan Spungen has inspired me ever since I took my wonderful mother-in-law to see the delicious film, Julie and Julia in 2009. I waited for the credits to roll up so I could see who had styled such a beautiful food-oriented masterpiece. Of course, Susan’s calling began long before that assignment. She has had an illustrious career in styling and cooking, beginning with her work with Martha Stewart in print editorial and television. She has styled the feature films Julie and Julia, Eat, Love, Pray, It’s Complicated, and most recently, the new Jason Reitman picture, Labor Day, in which  Time magazine reported that the lead character “cooks with sexual authority.” Imagine that creative brief! Susan is a constant contributor to cookbooks and magazines, see the latest Thanksgiving cover + editorial from Food and Wine below. Susan also styled the cover of this month’s Bon Appetit, which featured holiday cookies that appear as artfully drawn as they look chompworthy. She has written two books of her own, RECIPES: A Collection for the Modern Cook and her fabulous latest release, What’s a Hostess To Do?

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Let’s face it, I am smitten with all things styled by Susan Spungen.

When I approached Susan to be interviewed for my blog, she warmly accepted. Not only is her food inviting and beautiful, but she clearly has impeccable table manners too. {smile}

Here’s what she had to say…

Hi Susan, thank you so much for having a chat here. Tell us about your formative years…where are you from…where did you grow up?

I grew up outside of Philadelphia- but I left town at 20, never to return! My mom had a variety of careers, and was a bit of a trailblazer for women executives in the 70′s when she worked for Western Union, selling Mailgram- which was at the time revolutionary! She also owned a health food store that I kind of grew up in. My father was always in the paper business.

What was your first job as a food stylist?

I guess you could say that my very first experience was doing some shots for a caterer that I worked for at the time- it was an unknown world for me, but I knew I liked it, because it was bringing together my artistic side with my love of cooking. After that, my first real professional experience was my first day on the job for Martha Stewart Living, when I was hired as Food Editor. I worked with Maria Robledo as photographer, and was styling side by side with Martha.

Where do you live now? Are some places better than others to live in order to work as a stylist?

I live in NYC, which is probably one of the best places to work as a stylist since almost every major magazine is based here and does most of their shooting here. Major ad campaigns are shot here too. Other cities have slightly different markets, but still a lot of work. A lot of packaging gets shot in Chicago, and in LA and SF, TV commercials and cookbooks dominate.

You worked with Martha Stewart for many years. What did you take away from that experience? Has she influenced how you work or vice versa?

This is hard to answer briefly, but it was the seminal experience of my life. I learned so much while working there- about food, about people, about business. working there when I did, and with the people that I did, it gave me a lot of confidence in myself, and the courage to do things differently, even if they haven’t been done that way before.

You have styled the films Julie and Julia, It’s Complicated and Eat, Pray, Love.  How does styling for films differ from magazine shoots?

It couldn’t be more different! There are practical differences and artistic differences. Artistically, film food has to have real presence, just like actors do. It has to act, so to speak. To see what I mean, check out the peach pie in Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s latest film, out Christmas day. Logistically, it is way more difficult- my motto on film shoots is “Expect the unexpected”. You have to be prepared for anything, including prepping all day for a shot, only to have it not happen and be rescheduled for another day. This can happen repeatedly!

Did you ever work in commercial advertising production for tv or print? Is that role more restricting creatively?

Advertising is always less creative, whether it’s print or TV, because you have a very specific story to tell, and the agency and client are looking to achieve a very specific vision, so it is my job to deliver that, in the best way possible. There is some creativity in that, but not in the same way that there can be on an editorial shoot, where you really have to bring it, to elevate the food to a whole other level.

Which is your favourite medium to work in, and why?

I prefer a good meaty, editorial assignment with major payoff. Dec Bon App cover, case in point!

Take us through your process upon being awarded a new assignment.

I gather all of the information, which is usually recipes, test kitchen photos, reference photos, shot lists. Then I start breaking it down into a to-do list. My assistant usually makes the shopping list, which I then refine. If there are specific hard-to-get ingredients, I immediately start to source them, like say summer tomatoes in February or March (this happens every year) or pumpkins in July. (also an annual event)

Do you cook everything yourself? Or how does that generally work on a shoot? Are you both a food and prop stylist?

Yes. my assistant and I cook everything. That is the biggest part of the job- though shopping is the single most important part. Many people don’t realize that a food stylist cooks the food for a shoot. There’s a misconception that someone else cooks and then we come in with tweezers and brushes to “style” it.  Generally, I don’t do props, but I have on occasion. In NY, the jobs are separated.

Do you consider yourself a creative?

Absolutely!

How did you get your start in food, training etc?

Another long story- I was a student of fine arts, but always did restaurant work on the side, eventually, cooking took over as my career, but I tired of the food business, and longed to make more use of my creative, artistic impulses. This led me to connect with Martha Stewart when she was just starting the magazine. Ironically, I ended up being an executive and a department head, but it was still incredibly creative, because I had to impart the idea of how to be creative to my whole team, even when I wasn’t doing it myself. Problem-solving is creative in its own way, too.

When you prepare a meal at home with friends, family, even alone, is presentation important to you?

It is, but it comes naturally. I just try to make my food look pleasing and appetizing, even if it’s just for me. People often remark at my plate when I am going through a buffet line at a party “Why does yours look so good?” is something I hear a lot!

What do you love to eat?

What don’t I love? I love anything that’s good! I especially like Italian food- well made pasta is one of life’s great pleasures. Ice cream is another. Excellent French fries are up there- I guess I sound like a kid who loves comfort food! I love haute cuisine too, but only very rarely these days.

What advice would you give to people interested in a food styling career? Does it take a certain personality?

It is definitely more the just the talent. You have to be able to work well as part of a team, and learn to communicate really well, with the photo editor, the editor, the photographer, the prop stylist, your assistant, and on advertising jobs the agency people and clients. You might be doing a cookbook, where often the author is at the shoot, so you also have to be diplomatic at times, and be mindful that it is their baby you are working on. The best advice is always to seek out someone whose work you admire and try to assist them. Offer to work for free.

Is there any other career would you like to attempt? (forgive the James Lipton-ese)

Believe it or not, I sometimes have thought about acting! Also, maybe being a shrink!

Tell us the most surprising bit about food styling?

That it is often more about solving problems than being creative

What is the most important tool in your styling kit?

I guess I’d have to say my favorite tweezers and my Joyce Chen scissors (which everyone should have whether they are a stylist or not)

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I have!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photo of Susan Spungen by Jake Chessum. Pumpkin bars + Roast Turkey photos courtesy of Food and Wine Magazine photographed by Con Poulos + Bon Appetit cover shot by Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriot.

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grandad

{excerpted from Irish Country Living}

If you walked into our kitchen on Saturday afternoon you may have mistaken it for a confectionery. There were all the inner workings: steaming stainless steel pots of bubbling sugary concoctions on the stove, candied apples drying on waxed paper, tiny bottles of food colouring lining the countertop, finely chopped nuts of every sort in bowls ready to be dipped. It looked and smelled like some sort of candy heaven, which, of course, is always a good thing.

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Building this kitchen confectionery actually began days earlier when my father-in-law said he had spotted a crab apple tree bursting with fruit in a hedge while checking cattle one afternoon.

So, when a sunny window of opportunity welcomed us, Geoffrey and I met Grandad at the gate of the pasture; ladder and empty rucksack in hand.  We swiftly walked as a trio toward the tree, acknowledging that the weather could change and blow us and our dear apples hither and tither at any moment. Time was most certainly of the essence.

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The tree was situated on the edge of a shallow stream running through the paddock so Michael had no choice but to plant the ladder into the water and climb on up.  As he quickly plucked the abundance of fruit, Geoffrey and I stayed below to catch any falling apples. This turned out to be quite laughable because each time an apple dropped into the water, the current would hastily whisk it away before we could grasp it in our hands. We came away soaked, but with smiles and an overflowing sack of dainty apples.

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I perused Pinterest in search of crab apple concoctions and came across several delicious looking images of tiny candied apples which are a popular treat in other parts of the world. Descriptions revealed that sweet candy coating plays perfectly with the tart apple taste creating a tantalising balance of flavours.

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It was decided. As well as preserving a few jars, I would pick out the smallest fruits with the longest stems and try my hand at bringing this world-class candied treat to our Irish country kitchen.  And, let’s just say: there were no regrets.

Candied Wild Crab Apples

adapted from mattbites.com

Ingredients

10-15 small ripe crab apples
 with stems intact
675g/3 cups granulated sugar
180g/1/2 cup golden syrup (or light corn in USA) syrup
250ml/1 cup of water
1/2 teaspoon of red food colouring

Method

1. Clean and dry the apples and set aside.
2. Heat and stir sugar, golden syrup and water in a saucepan until sugar has
dissolved.
3. Boil until the syrup reaches 150c/310f degrees on a candy thermometer.
4. Remove from heat and stir in food coloring.
5. Allow to cool slightly and wait for bubbles to disappear
6. Dip one apple completely in the syrup and swirl it so that it becomes fully coated. Hold the apple above the saucepan to drain off excess.
7. Place apple onto a baking sheet that’s greased or lined with waxed paper or silpat.
8. Repeat the process with the remaining apples. If your syrup thickens or cools too
much, simply reheat briefly before proceeding.
9. Let the apples cool completely before serving.
10. Chomp away!

Recipe Notes:
Do not allow candy temp to go over 150c/310f degrees or it will burn.
Be very careful, this mixture is extremely hot. Not a project for the children.

The winner of Pat’s Irish Beef Book is: PAULA LYDON. Congratulations!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos + Styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. Excerpted from my Country Living column 7.11.13  

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sloegincollage

Tis true. I am writing a book! Umm. Rewind and playback: “Imen, you are writing a book.” Sorry, but I have to do that at least once a day for it to really sink in. At least that was formerly true until my lovely and amazing editor, Rochelle Bourgault, assigned my first deadline last week.

YIKES!

I guess we are all aware that I have been on one helluva(n?) epic journey, both culturally and gastronomically since moving to Ireland. However, I have only been able to reveal small snippets via this blog, insta-love, FB, and the twittaverse.

Now, I get to share, no-holds-barred, all the nitty-gritty, slurrifically soaked bits about life on this Irish farm and the pantry of pretty remarkable food that goes along with it. Perhaps my beginner’s step-by-step guide to milking your first cow? How-to pluck-n-process a chook? Dressing tripe 101? Or, new recipes like Farm Fresh Buttermilk Beignets, Lobsta Blaas and Peggy’s Potato Stuffing? There is so much to share, and I am thrilled and honoured to do so.

With the generous assistance of my patience-of-a-saint literary agent, Sharon Bowers, my book will be published in the USA and Ireland/UK by ROOST in autumn 2015, is provisionally titled FARMETTE: Adventures and Recipes From Life on an Irish Farm, and will be an illustrated cookbook/food memoir chock full of modern recipes, stories, and vibrant imagery from our kitchen and farm.

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Since leaving urban America for my Irish farm(er), I have tackled the task of building a foundation of kitchen skills and time-honoured cookery traditions, gaining wisdom from my dear mother-in-law, and other amazing connoisseurs of cooking both in Ireland and abroad.  Building that base, has been for me, an absolute essential requirement of my lifestyle change. I have become a home cook and baker in my own right, first by necessity, and now as one of my life’s greatest (and most creative) passions.

If I do it right, Farmette will become an absolute devilishly delicious + stunning diary of my expat journey into Irish country cooking, following my five-year culinary home/farm schooling—or as I like to think of it, a charming confusion of cake and cream and all things in between.  

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to visit here and hold my hand on this journey. I only began blogging to record the crazy happenings of my new life to share with friends and family overseas. Over time, this journal has healed homesickness and forged some fantastic new friendships. And now, it will create a book. (rewind and playback) I am astonished and so very grateful.

But hey, it’s not all about me! I don’t know about you, but I was taught that it is not courteous to applaud when others are celebrating your achievements. So, in keeping with that mantra, I would like to share a extraordinary new book authored by a very dear friend. The Irish Beef Book by 5th generation master butcher, Pat Whelan (with Katy McGuinness) is the consummate guide to Irish beef (and beef in general!) As the doyenne of Irish cookery, Darina Allen says, “This book is filled with recipes that use every scrap of meat from nose to tail, and provide a noble end for the animals Pat rears and butchers.” I am giving away one copy to one lucky reader. If you want to be in with the draw, please leave a reply below telling me your favourite cut of beef. Will announce/ship on my next post!

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Now, a toast to new books, good friends, and plenty of plum pudding…..cheers!

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Wild Sloe Gin Rickey

Since moving to the farm, we have made a ritual of searching for sloes in our hedgerows each autumn. They are usually put to use in a gin or vodka infusion. But, I have also made sloe jelly, which is a lovely compliment to game dishes as well. The Gin Rickey is a classic American cocktail, and since citrus pairs so well with the sweet, tangy sloe, why not call it a Sloe Gin Rickey? Slurrrp. 

Makes One Serving.

1.5 oz Wild Sloe Gin (here is link to my somewhat science experimental-esque step-by-step recipe for lavender + sloe gin)

1 squeeze of  1/2 lime

carbonated water (or tonic), depending on strength/taste preferred

ice

Pour juice of lime and gin into a highball glass over ice cubes. Fill with carbonated water and stir. Add the wedge of lime and serve. You can also shake gin and lime juice and pour over cubes in a highball or lowball glass.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos & Styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. 

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chants

I rumbled into Geoffrey’s room early on Saturday morning spouting a crazy chirpy, “Tally Ho!”

There were still dishes in the sink from last night’s meal shared with kindred visiting friends from America; an epic curry feast of food and fodder that lingered long into the wee hours of the morning.

But, the wash-up could wait. I was captaining a magical mushroom mission five counties away, and time was of the essence.

“Awww mom…Janey! Not so loud,  I’m still sleeping” cried the small farmer from beneath his tractor-patterned bedding.

I gave my co-pilot fifteen minutes notice, cast a blind eye to the pile of turmeric stained plates, and we walked our wellies right on out the door.

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I had designs on attending this obscure mushroom festival since last year when I received a friendly email from a person by the name of Lady Sue Kilbracken. A reader of my column in Country Living, she had asked me to help spread the word about her unique event.  My curiosity was piqued, but I had a commitment that weekend so I sadly had to give it a miss for 2012. However, I scribbled it on the calendar for 2013, and wasn’t going to let this year’s festival fade into the past without paying a visit.

I couldn’t convince anyone to join me on this mycological adventure despite the allure of a hike in an enchanted forest brimming with over 300 species of mushrooms. So, once again, Geoffrey was appointed sole co-navigator and song-singing partner for the 3+ hour trip. Whence awake, he was much obliged.

We arrived at Killegar House, Carrigallen, County Leitrim early on a perfect, brisk Saturday afternoon. As we strolled up the lane to the 1813 Georgian estate, Geoffrey immediately spied several species of mushrooms popping out of the moss and leaves along the side of the path. From that point on, we walked to the gleeful beat of,

“look mom! A big one!

look mom! A big one!

look mom! A big one!”

…… until reaching the house where the other guests had been gathering.

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We were graciously led on a fanciful foray through the massive expanse of native Killegar woodland to learn about the mysterious role of fungi in the forest ecological cycle. Living amongst this ancient forest floor covered in russet leaves and rust-tinted conkers, were puffballs, earthballs, honey mushrooms, ceps, and many more species than we could fit into our basket. Another in the group found an amethyst deceiver, which was a stunning shade of blue/violet.

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While most of our finds were inedible, we left with plenty of tasty apricot-scented and frankly, fallopian-tubesque Chanterelles to cherish, which I put to work into a tantalising tart of chanterelle, carmelised onion, fresh caraway, and Toonsbridge Dairy buffalo hard cheese for supper the following evening.

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Wild Chanterelle, Caramelised Onion, Caraway & Buffalo Cheese Galette

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 large sweet onion, cut in half and thinly sliced into half moons
450g/16oz chanterelle mushrooms (or any wild mushrooms)
Shortcrust pastry (here is my favourite/easy basic recipe)
Handful of fresh caraway, chopped coarsely (can sub thyme or other fresh herbs that you love)
Salt
Ground black pepper
85g/3oz grated Toonsbridge Dairy Buffalo Hard Cheese or a similar hard cheese.
Milk, for brushing

1. Preheat oven to 230c/450f
2. Add 1 teaspoon of oil to a large saute pan over medium heat.
3. Add onion, salt and pepper, tossing to coat evenly.
4. Cook 20 minutes, stirring often, until onions have softened and turned a lovely shade of golden caramel.
5. Remove onions to a bowl and set aside.
6. Add remaining teaspoon of oil and add mushrooms, caraway, a little more salt and pepper.
7. Toss to coat.
8. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have turned brown and released most of their liquid.
9. Remove pan from heat and pour mushrooms onto a paper-towel lined plate in order to remove as much moisture as possible from them.
10.On a lightly floured surface, roll out shortcrust and transfer to a parchment-lined large rimmed baking sheet.
11.Leaving a 2 to 3-inch border around the center, spread out 1/2 of the onions on the dough.
12.Layer with mushrooms & caraway mix, evenly distributing, and finish with remaining onions.
13.Sprinkle with a little more pepper.
14. Top with the shredded cheese.
15. Fold in sides of the dough circle roughly, pressing slightly to adhere pieces to one another.
16.Brush edges of dough with milk.
17.Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until crust is golden and cheese is bubbling.
18.Garnish with remaining fresh caraway
19.Remove and allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting into slices.

Slan Abhaile,
Imen
As with all of my recipes, I use a convection oven. Please adjust temp/time to your oven guidelines) Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. *Janey or Janey Mac is an Irish expression of surprise and bewilderment that Geoffrey has picked up here. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing. 

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oystercollageAka: three of my guiltiest pleasures.

Three things that I think about more than a farm any girl should. Three things that must really be done all in one day to fully appreciate. Add champagne to any and all and you’ve upped the totty. The best.

I have a few bits of bacchanalia I wanted to share this week in between recipe posts. They involve oysters, cake, and cinema.

I am doing a cookery demonstration at The Galway International Oyster Festival this year. What will I be preparing? Something oysterlicious, of course.  And, 50′s style Americana. Using amazing local Irish artisan ingredients and a drop of smokey Connemara Whiskey. The festival takes place today, 26th September through the Sunday the 29th with a schedule filled with remarkable oyster and seafood events. I’ll be there on Saturday afternoon at 3pm, after Birgitta of Burren Smokehouse and before Michelin star chef, Kevin Thornton. (don’t ask me how that happened!). On Sunday, the fabulous Clodagh McKenna will be cooking for everyone. Do come along!

Galway Native Oysters back in season for the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival, 26-29 Sept 2013 (Large)[1]

Our film, Small Green Fields, has been selected to screen at the Food Film Festival in Chicago in November! We are so thrilled to share the stories of incredible artisan Irish food and farming personalities with audiences across the pond. In the Windy city where so many people can say they are proud to be Irish, I’m hoping will be a big hit. Have a look at the other films screening, fun + impressive company.  Also, on October 17th, Small Green Fields will screen at the IndieCork Film Festival in Cork City. More details to come.

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My friend and fellow Irish food blogger/author, Lilly Higgins along with Patrick Ryan of Firehouse Bread will be baking cakes for ACT for Meningitis at Bake Fest Galway this year.  The national festival takes place on Saturday 5th & Sunday 6th of October. Organised by Goodness Cakes, in association with charity ACT for Meningitis, Bake Fest Galway will be Ireland’s biggest baking festival and competition for both novices and professionals.

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Back soon with a new farm adventure + recipe to share.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

 

 

 

 

 

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currantpie

One of the very first meals I shared with Richard in Ireland occurred at the ridiculously charming Mustard Seed. I’ll never forget driving up the hill that evening to the stately restaurant and inn, which he explained, “was housed in a former 19th century convent.”  I had been prepared to enjoy a romantic dinner for two, but I suddenly began to worry: could my dashing and devout Irish farmer be shipping me off to a nunnery for a bit of parochial polishing up?

Deep breath.

We parked the car and found ourselves being graciously greeted at the grand entrance door by a handsome and attentive maître d’ whom swiftly handed us each a crisp and cordial glass of bubbles.

Exhale. 

After taking our coats we were shown into a wonderfully wabi sabi yet classically drawn sitting room oozing with warmth and tartan and books and pictures and bottles of scotch filled with smoke and history. We lingered on the davenport and sipped our bubbly glasses dry while giddily holding hands in front of a roaring fireplace.

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After just the right amount of time, we were summoned to a beautiful dining room all dressed in blue where we feasted on pan fried Kerry scallops, nasturtium jelly, wild mushrooms, freshly-caught roasted trout, a tender fillet of local beef and puddings galore which we washed down with chalices of wine and spirits and tea and coffee until the early hours of the morning.

Unforgettable.

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That night, there was no way of knowing that years later I would move and marry and become simmered in the spectacular world of Irish food, embracing traditional skills and championing artisan producers as I have done.  Perhaps involuntarily that meal at the Mustard Seed planted this special seed. A nice notion to ponder.

Last month, I paid a visit to the Mustard Seed to collect a gift certificate just as they were expecting a large group of local guests. The ebullient proprietor, Dan Mullane, was in the front of the house preparing glasses of fresh black currant cordial with soda + sprigs of lemon verbena for the impending arrivals. When he handed me an amethyst-coloured glass of the refreshment I more than happily obliged.

The flavour was out of this world.

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I am ashamed to admit that black currant offerings were a bit lost on me when I first came here. I tended to associate black currant with the flavour of bittersweet grapes, as the black currant juices that line supermarket shelves here resembled a certain deep purple grape juice that I never fancied in America.

Ignoramus.

That all changed once I had a taste of my mother-in-law’s homemade, fresh-picked black currant jam. To this day, both Peggy’s homegrown black currant and gooseberry jams are the conserves that I cherish most. They are also two jams that I never had in my life before moving to Ireland {and for the record, two more reasons to make a girl never leave Ireland.}

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Peggy’s black currant jam changed my mind about black currants. And, Dan’s black currant lemon verbena cordial at the Mustard Seed took my love for this little berry one step further. {and yes, I am reading your mind, indeed this clever concoction pairs wonderfully with a finger of gin and a splash of tonic, I know this from obligatory experimentation}

I contemplated: if fresh black currants were so damn good in jams and drinks, wouldn’t they be great in a tart? Because the lemon verbena matched so beautifully in the cordial, I decided experiment with a vanilla bean + lemon verbena glaze over fresh picked black currants. The result was a splendidly tangy (but not tart) velvety vanilla, bursting berry flavour with a cornmeal crust that comfortably cradles its filling.

currantpie

See what you think!

Black Currant Lemon-Vanilla Verbena Glazed Tart with Cornmeal Crust
INGREDIENTS
CRUST
300g/2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
30g/1/4 cup corn (maize)meal (medium ground)
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
113g/1/2 cup plus 6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
55g/1/4 cup nonhydrogenated solid vegetable shortening frozen, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 tablespoons (or more) ice water

GLAZE
2 teacups (or handfuls) washed fresh lemon verbena leaves
1 vanilla pod
450g/2 cups sugar
120ml/1/2 cup water

FILLING
750g/5 cups fresh black currants (about 27 ounces)
175ml/3/4 cup lemon verbena glaze
120g/1/2 cup caster sugar
30g/1/4 cup cornstarch
Milk (for brushing)
1 1/2 tablespoon raw sugar

METHOD
FOR CRUST
1. Blend flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt in processor.
2. Add butter and shortening; blitz on and off until mixture resembles coarse meal.
3. Add 4 tablespoons ice water and blend just until moist clumps begin to form
4. Gather dough into ball.
5. Divide dough in half; flatten each half into disk.
6. Wrap disks separately in plastic and chill at least 1 hour.

FOR GLAZE
Put all ingredients into saucepan and slowly heat just until sugar dissolves and creates a thick syrup. Remove from heat and let cool and steep for 2 hours (or longer if you can, the longer you steep the more pronounced the flavour) Strain leaves and pod. Reserve syrup for glaze.

FOR FILLING
1. Combine black currants, lemon verbena glaze, sugar, cornstarch in large bowl; toss to blend.
2. Let stand at room temperature until juices begin to form, about 30 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 200c/400ºF.
4. Place rimmed baking sheet in bottom of oven.
5. Roll out 1 dough disk between 2 sheets of generously floured parchment paper to 12-inch round.
6. Peel off top parchment sheet; invert dough into 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish.
7. Carefully peel off second parchment sheet.
8. Gently press dough into pie dish, pressing any cracks together as needed to seal and leaving dough overhang.
9. Spoon filling into piecrust.
10. Roll out second dough disk between 2 sheets of generously floured parchment paper to 12-inch round.
11. Peel off top parchment sheet. Carefully and evenly invert dough atop filling.
12. Peel off second parchment sheet.
13. Trim overhang of both crusts to 1 inch.
14. Fold overhang under and press to seal.
15. Crimp edges.
16. Cut five 2-inch-long slits in top crust of pie to allow steam to escape during baking.
17. Lightly brush top crust (not edges) with milk. Sprinkle with raw sugar.
18. Bake tart 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 175c/350ºF and continue baking until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling thickly through slits, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
19. Cool pie completely on rack.
20. Serve with scoops of ice cream, custard, or whipped cream.

The lucky recipient of Nessa Robin’s, Apron Strings, randomly picked out of an old milk pail by our little farmer, is ORLA O’BRIEN. Congratulations Orla! Please email your address to me at imenmcdonnell@gmail.com.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013. Black currants for the tart were graciously gifted to us by the Mustard Seed, and also picked from our own orchard at the farm. 

 

 

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Apron Strings

07 Aug 2013

book3

She…

is a scratch-made girl who swears by using wholesome, honest ingredients. she is genuinely endearing….salt of the earth, if you will.  you want to eat and linger in her kitchen for days surrounded by sweet children soaking up every bit of tender love in the air. you want to watch butterflies and pick berries in her garden and then sit outside for tea and tart al fresco. she radiates a supreme goodness, yet has absolutely no pretense…….she’d make me a damn fine neighbour.

This is Nessa Robins.

bookcover

When I opened my copy of Nessa’s beautiful new cookery book, Apron Strings, I read it through from top to tail. This was not an entirely easy task given the fact that I was in wellies mucking out a shed in between chapters. The book embraced me, much like Nessa’s personal warmth. I went into the kitchen and immediately made a comforting crock of her potato soup for everyone. Not just any Irish potato soup; a savoury + spicy white onion, potato and chorizo number. It was pure velvet heaven on a drizzly, fresh day.

bookcollage

I am sorry if this seems a bit heavy handed, but the truth is, I can’t say enough about how special this cookery book is…..I mean, there is a chapter called Home Nurse. Emmmm, can I move in for a weekend, Nessa?

homenurse

For the record, this is not a review. We bought Nessa’s book; and will buy a few more before the holidays. However, her publisher has generously offered to give away a copy to a fortunate reader. If you are interested in being in the draw, please leave a comment below. Of course, will ship domestic or international. {If you are not chosen to win, you can buy Nessa’s book here or here}

Other quick bits of bacchanalia to share…

The very first Ballymaloe Garden Festival is on Aug 31-Sep 1st. We are hoping to attend; maybe will see you there?

Our short film, Small Green Fields, has applied for an Arthur Guinness Project grant to produce a feature length version…will the big dogs support a small dog? We will have to wait and see….you can vote here if you like.

Does anyone else use Eden knives? I recently bought two and they have changed my world in the kitchen. Would love to hear other experiences with this {new to me} brand.

Expedia recently asked me to review their new travel app. Since I don’t do formal reviews on this blog, I declined, but I will give it a mention it here as we frequently use Expedia for booking our travel to America and the app will surely come in handy.

Still going gaga over Toonsbridge Dairy water buffalo cheeses that I picked up at the Milk Market over the weekend, you can find it in the The Real Olive Oil Co. stall.

My friend, Niamh Shields, is writing a new BACON book and needs our support, here is a link to her Kickstarter campaign for Project: Bacon

Food 52′s Provisions has opened it’s virtual doors! I am coveting more than a few items in stock….

Oh, the Irish Blog Awards are coming up. They are accepting nominations from Irish diaspora this year too so if you are Irish and living abroad with a blog there is now a category for you.

Listening: Jake Bugg

Insta-loving: @dashandbella {Dash and Bella blog}

Hope you are all enjoying the summer.

Next post: An Irish Country House Tea…and a very special berry pie

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos of book by Imen McDonnell 2013. Nessa Robins did all of her own photography for the book.

 

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finalcrabboil

It’s summertime and the living is easy…

…at least that’s what Mimi of Manger says, so we’re  just going to go vicariously with it.

For the first time in a few years, we won’t be traveling stateside this summer. So, I’ve decided to bring a bit of Americana to the farm.

We’ve already gone all State Fair and made corn dogs; funnel cakes are on deck, and a few weeks ago we hosted a traditional American southern-style crab boil.

It is always surprising how little seafood you typically find on Irish menus. (with the exception of that glorious & ever so popular Irish seafood chowder, of course.) Crab and lobster are a fraction of the cost here, and I make sure that we take FULL advantage of this flavorful fact in our kitchen.

The crab and lobster that we source from our local fishmonger comes from nearby Kerry or Clare; two gorgeous Atlantic counties which border us. The Brown Kerry crab with its succulent claw meat and Clare’s luscious lobster tails both equate absolute divinity in my book.

Here is my basic recipe for a classic summer crab boil as was also recently {and very proudly} featured in the Sunday Times Magazine. A crab boil is more a method than a recipe; the fun of it is in the preparation and casual eating ritual which is what makes it especially delicious to me!

County Kerry Crab Boil

INGREDIENTS
New potatoes (2 or 3 per person depending on their size, cut in half-inch slices or whole if small enough)
Salt to taste
Crab boil seasoning (I recommend Zatarain’s or DIY a large sachet filled with mustard seeds, coriander seed, cayenne pepper, bay leaves, dill seed and allspice)
Live brown Kerry crabs (3 or 4 small crabs per person or 1-2 large)
Sweet corn (an ear per person, cut in halves)
Smoked spicy sausage (1-2 per person)
Plenty of melted butter for dipping
Newspapers or brown paper for covering your table
Little forks, claw crackers or hammers to get at the crab meat

METHOD
1. Put the potatoes in an oversized pot; they should cover the bottom.
2. Cover them with water by about two inches.
3. Add crab boil seasonings and a few generous pinches of sea salt.
4. Char or sear sausages to seal in flavour.
5. Place crabs, corn, and sausages in the pot and cover.
6. Put the pot over high heat. When the water reaches a rolling boil; reduce the heat
to medium high. Cook for another 12 to 18 minutes until the crabs are cooked
through.
7. Hold the lid of the pot ajar and dump the water, keeping the food in the pot.
8. Pour the pot onto the center of a table covered with paper.
9. Make sure plenty of melted butter is available and a couple bottles of chilled
pinot blanc, rosé wine, sangria or crisp cold cider.
10. FEAST!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photo and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013

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gate

“I’m bored”

It’s nearly 7am on our third day into summer break. I explain that it is impossible for you to be bored, you haven’t even brushed your teeth yet. Come back to me when your breath is a little sweeter.

We scamper downstairs to the kitchen and develop a new pancake recipe. We’re kind of on a pancake-a-day lark. I let him choose a flavour and he asks to try the chocolate version which he has been obsessing about for weeks. The same one I have been saying no to for weeks. While he goes outside to feed the dogs while I finely grate a carrot into the mix and pour batter onto the griddle and feel better about feeding my child chocolate pancakes for breakfast.

We sit at the table and eat. He gobbles two mahogany-coloured flapjacks while I carefully alternate spooning egg out of a cup with plunging crunchy toast soldiers into its gooey yolk. We slurp milk and coffee respectively. Yes, slurrrrp. It’s 7:44am.

In my best Fantastic Mr. Fox voice, I proudly proclaim “we shall go wild crafting today.” If I say we are going to clip elderflowers it won’t be as nearly exciting….the foraging adventure never wears off, but you gotta keep it fresh.

We pack up. I bring camera, bucket, shears. He brings a compass, my dad’s vintage binoculars, 3D glasses, and his dingy soccer ball.

I open the gate to one of our quiet grazing meadows which is enclosed by wild hedges teeming with flora. We see a row of hay bales all stacked up in a long row like one of those big tootsie rolls with segments. Bale jumping glee.

balejumping
We find wild honeysuckle, comfrey, meadowsweet, and, of course elderflowers. Geoffrey looks for four leaf clovers while I get drunk on the beguiling fragrance of wild roses.

cloversandroses

We near the elderflower hedge and hear cows lowing on the other side. They get louder. Through the thick hedge I swear I make out a black bull. Louder. A low warning moo. Louder again. We snip the musky vanilla coloured delicate flower heads that dangle like earrings from the elder branches and rush away…stopping only for a bouquet of honeysuckle blossoms.

Bale hopping.

Ball kicking.

Flower smelling.

Clover picking.

Elderflower clipping.

Honeysuckle sniffing.

Wild Crafting.

pickedflowerssimple

We arrive home and simultaneously prepare a batch of elderflower + wild honeysuckle cordial, supper, and a homemade greeting card for a loved one. I have to go on record as saying that there are very few edible flower flavours that I tolerate. As much as I could bathe in rose or orange blossom water, for me, the taste harkens of eating chapstick.

honeysuckle

Elderflower and honeysuckle are different. Elderflower has a very distinct, almost muscat scent and the flavour is genuinely just on the right side of sweet. Honeysuckle has a fresh sugary tang that lingers in such a satisfying way. I had never sampled these amazing treats until I moved to Ireland and they have simply become a summer staple.

elderflowertreejellyduo

We wait 48 hours then prepare the jelly using a bit of our priceless cordial and save the rest. In Ireland, gelatin is “jelly.” If you are like me, you will order “jelly and ice cream” from copious amounts of kiddies menus when dining out. It goes together like oil and water, but that separation is addicting. Well, it is in our house anyway.

jelliesgalore3

Elderflower + Honeysuckle Jelly
Feeds 4 hungry farmers

250ml of elderflower cordial ( I use this recipe using 1/2 elderflowers and 1/2 honeysuckle heads)
750ml of water
150g of caster sugar
6 gelatine leaves

1. Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water until soft. Remove from the water, squeezing out the excess water from the leaves
2. Place the caster sugar, half of the cordial and half of the water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, remove from the heat and add the gelatine leaves. Stir well to dissolve the gelatine
3. Add the remaining water and cordial, stir well and pour the mixture one large or two medium jelly molds.
4. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate overnight until set.
5. Unmold and eat with scoops of ice cream.

meadowsweeticeduo

Meadowsweet Ice Cream
Makes 1.5 pint

500ml double cream
250ml whole milk
135g sugar
Generous handful of wild meadowsweet flowers*

1. Combine cream, milk, and sugar in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
2. Pour cream into a bowl and steep meadowsweet until cooled.
3. Pour cream and meadowsweet through a sieve into a clean bowl.
4. Chill in the refrigerator overnight.
5. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
6. Store in an airtight container and freeze for an additional 2 hours.

*Make sure you have positively identified meadowsweet or any wild edibles. Also, From Wikipedia: About one in five people with asthma has Samter’s triad,[3] in which aspirin induces asthma symptoms. Therefore, asthmatics should be aware of the possibility that meadowsweet, with its similar biochemistry, will also induce symptoms of asthma.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2013.

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salmontacoblog

Once a week, the farm kitchen is transformed into a Tuesday taqueira. Whether we use our own chicken, whatever is fresh and fun at the fishmonger (squid is always silly + sensational) or something meaty from the local butcher, I would simply not survive without having a little Mexicana on the supper schedule despite having a three-hour drive to the nearest margarita + mole.

Our new favourite standby: Hot Smoked Salmon Tacos.

I first made these special salmon tacos after an extraordinary day spent fishing with Birgitta Curtin of Burren Smokehouse in County Clare.  She was heading out to fish for the first of the wild Atlantic spring salmon in Ireland, and I asked if I could come along and document her adventure.

Irish Atlantic salmon spend the first years of their life in rivers before migrating to the sea to grow. To complete their life cycle, they return to their river of origin to spawn. In the case of these fish, they would have traveled as far as Greenland and back to Ireland to lay their eggs. The wild salmon season begins in May and ends in August, with strict regulations in place to prevent overfishing.

cot3

I arrived at a marina on the River Lee in Cork on a cool, rainy morning in mid May. Birgitta was suited up and ready to go, but the fish weren’t exactly going along with the plan. After a couple of hours, we decided to pull up anchor and move to the River Nore in County Kilkenny. We met Eurotoques winning producers, Mark and Tricia Murphy, who brought us out on traditional Irish cot boats for the afternoon. It was absolutely calm and serene as a we floated up and down river pulling a snap-net between the two handcrafted flat-bottomed boats.

snapnetting

Birgitta and I left Kilkenny with a small bounty of beautiful wild salmon, one of which was destined for the President’s residence in Dublin for a special meal that evening.

salmonbeforeafter

We are all fans of smoked salmon here so I when I came home with a few packs of Birgitta’s Burren Smokehouse tender, delicate hot-smoked salmon I absolutely had to experiment with using it as a taco ingredient.  It was Tuesday after all.

Combining the added smoke of chipotle with garden fresh kale and cabbage verde, these fishy tacos pack a rich and flavorful, yet balanced punch in the taco department {not to mention plenty of Omega 3s and antioxidants!}

We’re hooked on hot-smoked salmon tacos here….perhaps you will be too?

Hot-Smoked Wild Irish Salmon Tacos with Chipotle Crema & Kale + Cabbage Verde

Ingredients
SERVES 4 HUNGRY FARMERS
1/2 cup/125 g mayonnaise
1/2 cup/125 g sour cream
1 tablespoon sauce from tin of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (or 1 tbsp chili powder)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound/450 g hot-smoked salmon (or any smoked fish
. Burren Smokehouse Salmon is available in USA here)
Salt and pepper
8 flour tortillas, warmed
1 cup/250g of shredded white cabbage
2 cups/500g of tender leaf curly kale, finely chopped
1 small green chili pepper, finely chopped
A big handful of chopped fresh cilantro
1 garlic clove
Juice of one lime
2 limes, cut into wedges + cilantro for garnish

Method
1. For the crema: mix mayonnaise and sour cream together in a large mixing bowl and add the chipotle, cumin, lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. For the verde: Blitz cabbage, kale, green pepper, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, salt in food processor until smoothish.
3. Flake the hot-smoked salmon into each tortilla.
4. Top with crema and verde.
5. Serve with lime wedges and cilantro. (You can also flake the salmon into the crema, mix then fill tortilla and top with verde)
6. Feast.

Slan Abhaile,
Imen

Photos and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2013

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