gooseberrykettle

This summer has officially been one big rain shower.

But, at least we have gooseberries.

And, memories of sunnier days.

Right?

When the weather gets me down, I try to recall my first BBQ in Ireland for a little comic comfort. I wrote a little ditty about it in Irish Country Magazine last year, and thought it would be apropos to share here today, so here goes:

hen

Early on, I figured out that the Irish summer can be quite different from its American counterpart. Practically no matter where you find yourself in the United States during the months of June, July, and August you are basically guaranteed a daily dose of blue skies and a long stretch of strong, bright sun that will warm both your skin and your soul. At least that’s how I prefer to remember it.

If it rained when I was growing up, the pavement would literally steam. And, if you were like me and my childhood friends you would happily rejoice, splash and stomp about in the streets, getting thunderously drenched by those warm showers and simply enjoying the spectacle of it all. We couldn’t get enough of that summer rain because it occurred so rarely during the season.

Precipitation took on a whole new meaning after moving to Ireland. I first learned about “getting on with the weather” when it came to planning a summer party. Until then, the business of partying in the rain was a foreign concept to me.

During my first Irish summer, I tried my hand at hosting a garden BBQ party at the sweet little bolthole that we inhabited in the nearby village of Adare while our home on the farm was being built. This gathering was meant to be my concerted, heartfelt effort to be social and meet people in my newly adapted surroundings.

Naively, I never considered the weather report for the big day. It was summertime, right?

I had spent the entire week planning and preparing what I consider a proper, traditional, American-style BBQ feast: creating a tangy barbecue sauce and spice rub for both chicken and brisket, digging frantically through unpacked boxes to find my tried-and-true recipe for baked macaroni and cheese, ringing round robin to locate various ingredients that didn’t seem to be available at the corner market (sweet corn, watermelon, big fat marshmallows for toasting over hot coals, all of which I soon found out, was seemingly unheard of in these parts at the time), skimming through old Martha magazines for suggestions on being the hostess with the mostest. I wanted the day to be absolutely magnificent; full of fun, folly, fantastic food, and most of all: new friends!

I woke up that Saturday morning only to hear the rain bucketing down. It was worse than anything I had seen on Universal studio lot production shoots. It was coming down in sheets and looked totally unrealistic to me, it was so heavy. I just couldn’t believe my eyes.

I panicked and rang my one and only acquaintance, Yasmin, a friendly, local female expat from England who had ironically spent her years prior to Ireland working in television and film production like me and had also married an Irish farmer ten years earlier. Yasmin essentially (and very generously) created the guest list by inviting all of her family and friends.

When Yas picked up the phone, I cried out in my typical Yankee twang, “Oh my Gawwwd, what am I going to do? No one will come, it’s raining and I’ve made all this food. We must cancel. I am so, SO disappointed.”

Her response cut right through my sobbing with a calm and clever giggle followed by, “Imen, we get on with it here in Ireland. We just get on with it. Put up a tent or marquis if you feel the need. Everyone will come, you’ll see.”

Honestly, I wasn’t going for it. I thought to myself, why would anyone want to come to an outdoor BBQ party in the rain? Call me a fair weather friend, but I’m pretty sure I would have bailed on that party.

Ultimately, yet oh-so-shockingly to me, she was dead right. Every single guest showed up. And, we all milled around the garden in the cool (okay, cold!) lashing rain, eating smoky, spicy American-style bbq’d chicken, southern-style baked macaroni and cheese, beautiful fruit and salads, while happily sipping cider and shivering under a tent.

My father-in-law suited up in his rain slicker and graciously stepped in as rookie grill master, valiantly manning the bbq cooker, which was strategically placed underneath the awning of the house. My husband organized a game of spoon and egg with the children. I just kept feeding everyone with a big smile and a brolly in hand. “What’s a little rain?” seemed to be the theme of the day.

Nobody flinched. I was literally in awe of this extravaganza. To me, the idea that people would carry on like normal while it poured rain was bold and magnificent, and, well, a bit mad.

That day, that rain, those people, moved me. And, if I’m honest, it just might be the moment I fell a little more in love with Ireland.

hen

Once we moved to the farm, I found out that nothing says Irish summer like gooseberries. Geoffrey and I picked the gooseberries on the ONE sunny afternoon we had last week, and ever since then I have been experimenting with combinations and flavour blends. I hay-smoked and carmelised some of our pickings which made for a lovely compote to accompany sausages and cider gravy; and was also splendid blended into ice cream. Right now I have a pint of gooseberry sherbet on the go in the freezer (fingers crossed it’s lovely!). Still, aren’t the classics just always the best?

gooseberrypicking tartoverhead tart

Grandma’s Gooseberry Tart
The first time I picked gooseberries with my mother in law, we collected a massive basketful. It was a gloriously sunny summer’s day and gooseberries (pronounced “gooze-berry”} were most certainly a novelty for me. We divided our berries into two lots: I took one and she took the other. Peggy made jam and I decided to bake tarts. The next afternoon, I brought the first tart I made to tea, and afterward my father-in-law kindly asked me if I would try making the next tart like his mother would have done, doubled up on gooseberries with a very short crust. I went back to my kitchen with his instructions and an hour later the most beautifully fruity pie popped out of the oven, and was later granted the honor of being “just as good as Grandma’s gooseberry tart.” 

Basic Short Pastry
2.5 cups/320g standard plain flour
1 cup/240g butter
pinch of sea salt
Scant 1/2 cup/100ml cold water
For the Gooseberry Filling
2 cups/300g gooseberries
A slug of elderflower cordial
½ cup/100g caster sugar
Place flour, butter and salt in large mixing bowl. Using your fingertips, gently rub ingredients together until they resemble rough breadcrumbs. Do not over mix or the butter will begin to melt from the heat of your fingers.
Add water and mix until a dough is formed. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight.
Gently re-work pastry before using, taking care to ensure it remains cold and firm.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry into 2 round sheets about 3mm thick.
Prick the bottom of the tart with a fork before placing a sheet of baking parchment over the top. Add beans, rice or baking weights. Place in the oven for 15 minutes or until cooked but still pale.
Remove from the oven and take out the baking parchment and beans.
Put the gooseberries, sugar and elderflower cordial into a saucepan and heat on medium until the gooseberries are just softening, check the flavour and add more cordial if desired.
Spoon the gooseberry compote into the part baked pastry case, cover with pastry top, sprinkle with granulated sugar and return the tart to the oven for a further 40 minutes or until pastry is golden.
Scullery Notes: Serve with a scoop of sweet cream ice cream.

 gooseberryg

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

(excerpted from my column in Irish Country Magazine 2014. Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2015 )

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

closeup

“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.

cake

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.

overheadjam

 

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.

cakex2

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Farm Fresco

07 Jun 2010

Ahhhh yes, the new season has arrived on our idyllic Irish farm.  And each year when the long winter gracefully grows into Spring, I can’t help but feel nostalgic as I ponder the contrast between my former frenzied life in the city and our sublime quiet life in the country. Ok so maybe nostalgic is not quite the right word..perhaps it’s more like agonized. Yes, agony is definitely more like it….

So, ahem…{now wiping the crocodile tears away}

Greener than green grass growing at breakneck speed, new potatoes cropping up in the garden and mummy cows constantly calving are certainly a stark contrast to the citified symbols of Spring that I used to indentify with…..and frankly, could even say I adored. For it’s at precisely this time of year that my heart longs for convertible cars (well, specifically mine I suppose) buzzing about with their tops surreptiously peeled down, busy city sidewalks aflurry with freshly pedicured feet nestled into open-toed shoes and the absolute best bit of all: dining al fresco after work with girlfriends, sipping cocktails, noshing on salads and sushi all whilst in true Bill Cunningham style–watching all the fashionable women and men trotting down the street in their best Spring hues. An invite to do this on any given night = simply irresistable.

So terrrrribly irresistible that I am constantly trying my best to emulate that experience here by creating more of a relaxed and “countrified” version of my old ways. It goes a little like this:  after a long day of working on various projects, I will change into a powdery little tee, a pair of my favourite Gap white capris and flip-flops and put on my new Cath Kidston apron. I will then proceed to make a huge Summery salad to start out our dinner. This salad will inevitable include the following (mostly locally) grown ingredients: mixed greens with plenty of rocket and watercress, red onion, vine ripened tomatoes, cucumber, steamed asparagus, grated carrot, goat’s cheese, roasted walnuts and poppyseed sprinkles tossed with one of my secret-agent vinagrettes*.  Then, I will take out anything from (again mostly locally sourced) prawns to fish, chicken or steak which has been marinating in another one of my secret-agent concoctions* all day and throw them on the BBQ.  As this protein is sizzling away on the grill, I will then make a pitcher of citrusy margaritas, Bootlegs, or G&T’s for R and I (and any visitors we are lucky enough to have) to sip on after our little boy is in bed. On dry and warm evenings we sit on our terrace taking in the absolutely stunning sunset behind the Shanid castle ruin on the hill, watching as the light changes and our trees slowly morph into those gorgeous die-cut images that seem to be everywhere these days. I call it “Farm Fresco” and though it’s not the same as those bold and bustling city evenings, it can nearly be just as satisfying…..

This Spring we welcomed a sweet preemie calf. His mum was not well so R had to induce her 4 weeks early and she produced a little boy whom we have named “Bogo”. Normally calves are up and walking in an hour, but Bogo struggled for a couple weeks before he would finally stand and now he’s up and walking, stronger than ever. Perhaps I too am like Bogo….when I came here I was nearly paralyzed by the change. Now…a few years later I am slowly, but surely, adapting to this new life and each day Ireland and the countryside are becoming more and more like home to me.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

*olive oil and a form of vinegar, crushed garlic and lemon juice or other fruit juice then close my eyes, choose some spices and hit pulse on the food processor.

photo courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Farm Kid/City Kid

01 Dec 2009

CIMG1050

Farm Fact: as a kid here in the Irish countryside you don’t necessarily have loads of neighborhood friends. Your “neighbors” might live a mile away so it’s not as easy to meet other children (if there are any) and have a constant stream of neighborhood playmates as you might have in the city. Thankfully, Geoffrey is meeting a few new friends at his Montessori (who will attend the same grade school as well), but at the moment most of his mates are my girlfriend’s children who live in Limerick City so we don’t get to see them as often as we’d like to. (note to self, must get out more!)

We usually spend summers in the USA, which is when differences in farm vs. city life really come to light. This past summer we stayed with our friends who live in a lively city neighborhood. So, as it goes, the street is right in front of their house and all around there are loads of small children playing away in their yards. Geoffrey, the social butterfly that he is, thought this was just the bee’s knees and kept trying to run across the road, not realizing how dangerous it was. (second note to self, maybe those harnesses aren’t such a bad idea). Basically speaking, he had no real concept of how a city street operated and so he had no fear. Glad he had no fear because I now need a triple bypass.

City Fact: there is a lively stream of colourful and exciting things to do with kids when you live in the city….children’s museums, art galleries, science museums, the zoo, karate, the pool, gymnastics, yoga, T-ball, the State Fair—everything is go, go, go and it seems that there is never, ever a dull moment. Nearly every restaurant in the USA is child-friendly (the opposite of Ireland) which is so brilliant. All summer Geoffrey enjoyed nonstop playtime with friends, relatives and neighbors and was in absolute heaven. I personally grew up in a beautiful small Midwestern town where summers meant playing outside with loads of friends until at least dusk every day…we would use an entire 3-4 block area to play kickball, hide & seek, kick the can or ring-doorbell-run (ssshhhh). It makes me happy to know that my son will be able to experience at least some of the same quirky people, places and things of my childhood as he grows up too—as this is very important business!

On the flip side, I have to remember that through his eyes Geoffrey is basically living a child’s dream here in the Irish countryside…what we read in his books and see in movies, he lives!  Charming castles, enchanting forests, sweet calves, little lambs, huge trucks, noisy tractors, busy building sites, prickly hedgehogs and red foxes with big fluffy tails…this is the “stuff of his life” here. What’s more is that he positively adores all things farm. He gets to go with Daddy or Grandad on various machines(the cool new John Deere models have an additional small seat and harness for your child)and do his “work” and he loves helping to feed all the farm animals on a regular basis.  Sure, we have to use our imagination a little more and be more creative to make our fun here, but that’s not such a bad thing. He loves playing outside with the dogs and going on “adventures”. We have planted an area of trees on one part of the land and that is now his “magic forest”(thank you Cat). There is also a lovely little stream running through the front yard over which he has built a bridge for his fishing “trips”. Our two Pyrenees dogs are “polar bears” and Ted is.. just Ted I guess. I love that Geoffrey much prefers gallivanting around the yard than playing on his swing set or his toys when we are here at  home in Ireland.

My only concern is that our little boy is beginning to become sensitive to the sun. He complains when it is sunny (which is hardly ever) and when we went to the States last summer, it took a couple weeks for him to adjust to the intensely sunny days..it was really blinding to him. But of course, after he adjusted, he couldn’t get enough of it (SPF 50) and by the time we got back to Ireland the weather here really started to get to him. He kept asking Daddy when it was going to stop raining. “Because if it doesn’t Dad, we’ll just have to go back to America!”

Thank you so much for your loyal readership.  I really enjoy writing and sharing these pieces with you all. I also want to say a special thank you to Liam and Corey of Irish Fireside whom interviewed me for their holiday podcast–we had a lot of fun! They have a great website and are currently featuring a holiday gift guide with lots of Irish goodies…so have a look.

Mind Yourself,

Imen x

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·
Saveur Sites We Love
Recent Posts