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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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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

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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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Last week, I hosted our first freshly-foraged DIY wreath workshop at the farm.  I served up winter salads with freshly baked soda bread, spiced mulled wine, and my best snowy white cake all covered in rosemary-mint icing, garnished with herb sprigs from the forest of rosemary growing in front of our house.

….Merry memories were made.

The evening before the gathering, I wandered down to the wood to collect branches of laurel, holly, pine & cedar for the occasion….

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 ….and,  set up a wabi-sabi DIY Wreath Bar in my wee little workshop space

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The girls arrived, and we played for hours….

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One friend decided to make holiday dinner name cards which nestle right into little pine cones…so sweet.

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It was a wonderful afternoon which will hopefully be the first of many freshly-foraged workshops on the farm. I was also able to experiment with some of Sony’s new portable lenses for smartphones on the day. The image of the wreath bar was shot using the amazing Sony QX-10 lens which easily attaches to your iPhone or Android and takes endlessly lush images that rival those shot on my big girl camera. In the spirit of gifting, Sony sent me an extra Sony QX-10 lens to give away as a holiday present to a reader of this blog. Simply leave a comment below to be in the draw. I will announce the winner on Christmas Day.  THE WINNER OF THE SONY QX-10 LENS IS CLAIRE KENNEDY, Congratulations! I will email you for your shipping details. 

Snowy White Cake with Rosemary-Peppermint Icing

Ingredients
2 1/4 cups/280g cake or cream flour
1 cup/250ml milk
6 large egg whites
2 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups/350g granulated sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp table salt
1 1/2 sticks/170g unsalted butter, softened but still cool

Method
1. Heat oven to 350f/176c. Prepare two 8-inch cake pans.
2. Pour milk , egg whites, and extracts into medium bowl and mix with fork until
3. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed.
4. Add butter (cut into cubes) and continue beating on low for about 1-2 minutes.
5. Add milk mixture to flour mixture and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes.
6. Pour batter evenly between two prepared cake pans.
7. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 27 to 30 minutes.
8. Allow cake to cool to room temperature, and then ice with rosemary-peppermint icing.

Rosemary-Peppermint Icing

Ingredients
1 cup/227g unsalted butter room temperature
3-4 cups/375-500g confectioners (powdered) sugar, SIFTED
¼ teaspoon table salt
1/2 tablespoon peppermint extract
¼ tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp rosemary simple syrup
2 Tbsp milk or heavy cream

Method
1. Beat butter for a few minutes with a mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed.
2. Add 3 cups of powdered sugar and turn your mixer on the lowest speed until the sugar has been incorporated
with the butter.
3. Increase mixer speed to medium and add peppermint and vanilla extract, rosemary simple syrup, salt, and 2
tablespoons of milk/cream and beat for 3 minutes. You can add more milk or cream as needed.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos by Imen McDonnell 2013. 

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Stinging Nettle Tea

10 May 2012

Nettles.

They sting.

Yeah, me and nettles haven’t exactly been fast friends over the past few years, but that is changing. If you will allow me to get a bit metaphorical, I will explain.

When I first moved to Ireland, I didn’t know what to expect. I was head over heels in love and braying-like-a-donkey-excited to embark on this new chapter of my life. As anyone who knows me personally will attest, my most profound challenge after relocating to Ireland was obviously not “marrying a farmer.”  It’s pretty easy to be married to my husband, no matter how rough things have gotten, we’ve managed to stay in love (no small feat). No, the hardest part was something I naively never anticipated: losing the stubborn identity that went along with a career that, for better or worse, defined me.

It’s not like I had a six-figure job, nor was I the president or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When I moved to Ireland, I was working in the wacky world of advertising, producing television commercials that shlepped global beauty, fashion and food brands. The work often involved collaborating with talented directors and took me around the world. Before that, I was at the Rosie O’Donnell Show in NYC. But, don’t get too excited; I was very young and merely a serf who spent a whole lotta time buying Christmas pressies on behalf of Ms. O’Donnell. Memories of maniacally running around the west village in search of rare redcoat army figures for Tom Hanks, or toy shopping for Cruise-Kidman clan will forever more be imprinting on my brain.

Still, I was passionate about my work because I got to be creative and work with people who inspired me on a daily basis. The work was very social and there was always something new on the horizon. Of course, this was before the recession when clients still had bottomless pockets of money to be spent on hefty advertising budgets (yes, somewhat Mad Men-esque despite being the noughties).  I lived, breathed, ate, and drank work. I was so consumed by it that there was room for little else in my life (ahem, like farmers). Sure, at times, I would become keenly aware that I needed more balance. And, those days became more frequent as Richard and I became serious about our relationship.

When we decided it would be best for me to be the one to move, I genuinely assumed I would still be able to work as a producer. If not for the agency I had been with for 5 years, then in a freelance capacity in Ireland. I was excited to experience new opportunities.

Suffice to say, those options didn’t really pan out. I became a mommy. CEO and chief nappy changer of the house. When Geoffrey was still a baby, I designed a line of infant one-pieces that fell through when I discovered my BABY EIRE branding was not acceptable in Ireland (There are still 300 of them sitting in the attic, if you want one). I worked on one television series, and also some small food-related production projects on a gratis basis. I help out on the farm. I am paid a small salary to write a country living column in a national newspaper. I am trying to restore a period thatched farm, whose potential is not seen as clearly to others than to I. I have done a handful of cookery demonstrations at events around the country. I started this blog, which has evolved into so much more than I anticipated…but, as much as I am committed, a blog alone is not a career.

Which brings me to why I’ll never forget my first nettle sting. I was working in the garden. My first garden ever, I might add. Somehow summer Sundays had always been for shopping at Sephora or sitting by a pool, not gardening. Anyway, I accidentally brushed up against a nettle. What the hell was a nettle anyway? The sting was painful, but didn’t warrant my reaction. I swore at that blasted nettle. I damned it.

Then, oddly, I began to cry.
One of those horrendous heaving cries.
I cried about the hurt of the damn nettle sting.
I cried for my father.
I cried about the bloody Irish weather.
I cried that Geoffrey would never play Little League.
I even cried about not getting Rosie her tuna fish on poppyseed bagel anymore.
I cried the kind of cry that keeps your cheeks a slappy shade of red for the rest of the day.
Then, I rang Richard and screamed at him for the nettle abuse.
Nettles were just one more reason why we should move to America in my mind.
America, my imaginary land of opportunity, where I could have fulfilling work again. Where I could be me.
It was ridiculous.

Yes, life had a bit of a sting to it at the time.

This is why me and nettles haven’t been on the greatest terms. But, this is changing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been bravely experimenting with nettles. We’ve had a few good natters, the two of us. We’ve made a deal: if I wear gloves and blanch them in hot water, they won’t make me cry. In fact, I discovered that if you put them in hot water for long enough, you will create a most flavourful and completing cup of tea, especially with a tiny drip of honey. Perfect for the wintery weather we can’t seem to shake here.

I’m now embarking on a special new film project, Food Island. I get to take everything I’ve come to learn here on my food-and-farming-filled Irish adventure, and combine it with those good old production skills. For me, this feels like a match made in heaven. Next week, two wonderful friends will arrive from America; one a producer and one a cinematographer. We will be journeying around the country as I direct a short film about Ireland’s exciting new food culture. Not quite a new career, but definitely a good start.

That sting is history.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos by Imen McDonnell 2012


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Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. {Thank you so much for your kind comments..really, really heartwarming}

In other news, I ate rice pudding for breakfast yesterday.

This is significant because rice pudding was not a popular treat in our home growing up. That is not to say that other families in America didn’t enjoy the benefits of this beautiful, creamy delight (but, umm..did they?) It’s just that our place was more of a chocolatey….butterscotchy…poppyseed-y kinda joint.

Having said that, I secretly always loved tapioca pudding. I enjoyed how you could feel the pearls of tapioca rice in each mouthful…how you could roll those velvety little lumps around in your mouth this-a-way and that-a-way and then try to bite down on just one pearl which never seemed to work. I guess you could say that I loved the very thing about tapioca that puts many people off: the lump factor.

When I moved to Ireland, it took me awhile to get used to the Irish repertoire of confections. In particular, I found it peculiar that jam is used to sweeten many desserts and sweet treats. Jam on scones. Jam on sponge. Jam donuts. Jammy Dodgers. And, of course, jam on rice pudding. I had been accustomed to thick, buttercream frostings or custard fillings as a conduit to the sweet.

I discovered the glory of rice pudding shortly after moving out to the farm. We ventured to a lovely inn for a family Sunday lunch and in between bites of my roast lamb and three versions of potatoes, I noticed the constant flow of rice pudding in fancy dessert glasses being carried out by serious waiters to various patrons in the dining room. When it came time to order our final course, my mother-in-law, Peggy, ordered the rice pudding and I followed suit. It came with a dab of raspberry jam and a dollop of freshly whipped cream. It was ravishing. And, suddenly, jam made sense.

This week I received a long-awaited, anxiously anticipated parcel from my friend, Heidi Skoog. Heidi is a florist in Minneapolis and now also purveyor of gorgeous jams and jellies which are aptly named, Serious Jam. I got to sample some of her new jams over the summer and instantly fell in love. I couldn’t resist ordering some from her website to have in our cupboard for the winter. And, I specifically couldn’t wait to for this jam to grace the top of a dainty glass of rice pudding.

I found out later that rice pudding is actually Peggy’s favorite {with Victoria Sponge a close second} although she only eats it when dining out.  I decided to bake up a batch in the morning (with a taste-test for brekkie) and bring it over to share over tea yesterday afternoon. Popped a sprig of rosemary in the baking dish and topped it off with Heidi’s violette + plum jam and a wee bit of cream and that is all that needs to be said.

Happy days.

Recipe is pretty standard. Here it is excerpted from a classic Irish secondary school cookery book, All In The Cooking.{Moderate oven = 300 F or 150 C}

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos & Styling by Imen McDonnell. Jam by Serious Jam.

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We welcomed a new addition to our family last Friday when my sister-in-law gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He’s absolutely gorgeous and they are thrilled…as is his big baby sister! I decided to make up a few things for her to keep in the fridge/freezer so she would have less cooking to worry about for the next few weeks. Pies, lasagnes and bakes usually work out well because they can be frozen and reheated if necessary.

Raising free range chickens means that we eat a whole lot of chicken around here and this Rosemary  & Leek Chicken Pot Pie is super simple, yet packed with flavour….a perfect reason to make a few at a time to share or to have on hand.

Hope you like it as much as we do!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photo & Styling by Imen McDonnell. Assisted by Sonia Mulford Chaverri

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