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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R and the Girls, Circa 2010

Here we go….Mr. McDonnell: UNCOVERED. Well, not really uncovered…I wouldn’t go that far-at least not for the purposes of this blog anyway. Between cows calving and garden ploughing, I was able to corner R to sit down and answer a few questions that had been submitted by readers and a couple thrown in from me. {can you tell whose are whose?}

How on earth did you meet Mrs. McDonnell?

I met Imen when visiting my friend Aiden who is living in the States.  We got together a couple times for dinner and I was very intrigued. Let’s just say that there was a universal pull towards Imen and a very big WOW factor to say the least. She told me that her Dad was going to be her Valentine that year and so when I was leaving to go back to Ireland on the 12th of February, I arranged to have a large basket of flowers sent to her office for Valentine’s Day. The card with the flowers said, “Well, you’re my Valentine.”   I think that won her over a little bit.

What have been the challenges of marrying someone from another country/culture?

It has been a bit difficult for the Imen to settle in at times here and I can totally understand because her life is completely different from before and also because she lost her father in 2008 which was very hard on her. We are constantly working to strike the balance in bringing elements of both of our cultures into how we live our day-to-day lives here.  Her distinctiveness is also what I love about her. But honestly, the hardest thing would have to be accepting that fact that the word “awesome” is now frequently heard on the farm.

Tell us about the farm, what do you love about farming?

The farm is a family farm in which myself, brother and parents run the business. We specialize in dairy, free-range poultry and renewable energies. I have a great love for animals and the land. I‘m my own boss, which is brilliant. For me, there is a tremendous sense of pride that goes with farming and producing quality foods for the Irish marketplace.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working on the farm?

I work really long hours on the farm so when I have some time off I try to make the most of it. We have taken some brilliant holidays and there are many more to come… We all love the cinema so we try to go for a Sunday matinee and lunch on weekends. I play soccer on Tuesday evenings with a group of friends in the area and enjoy going sailing with my father when the weather conditions are good.  I am a big fan of gardening and we’ve just begun planting an organic kitchen garden which will be a family endeavour.

What is the best thing(s) about Ireland?

Guinness. Hurling. The relaxed pace of life. Irish pride. To put it simply, Ireland is my home.

What do you think of this blog?

I was pleasantly surprised when I first read the blog…. My wife has amazing talent for writing, a talent I’d love to have! It’s a funny yet fact-based blog that will inform you and keep a smile on your face. I am proud of her and really love it.

How is Ireland different from America?

The big thing that comes to mind is attitude. Bono once proclaimed that the main difference between Ireland and America is this: There is a huge, beautiful mansion on a hilltop. The American says “Someday I’m going to be that guy in that house.” The Irishman says, “Someday I’m gonna get that guy in that house”  Also, the weather is far nicer where Imen is from and the people seem to be more positive and are so open and friendly–especially when they realize you are Irish!

What is the biggest challenge facing farmers today?

Surviving poor costs for our products. For example, milk prices are the same now as they were in the 80’s, yet costs to produce have soared. Also, the more extreme weather conditions of late makes farming a constant challenge to be reckoned with.

What would you be doing if you weren’t farming?

That’s a hard question. I have a wide range of interests. I studied philosophy and history at University and am very interested in theories and universal laws. I’d love to write a screenplay. I’d like to learn more about economics and global business and get my MBA. When I was a boy, I wanted to become a zookeeper!

If Imen could persuade you to move to the USA what would you be doing?

Well, first she would have to promise to get VISA’s for all of my girls (cows) to go along.  But seriously, if that were ever the case (very doubtful), maybe I could farm or teach Irish history or open a real traditional Irish pub which would be Irish through and through from the turf in the fire to the Guinness in the glass…with poetry and politics and a regular named Paudy always sitting at the bar.

If you have any questions about R or the farm we would love to hear from you….

I am off for a long weekend in NYC….and next week is St. Patrick’s Day so fun times ahead. Have a great week!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

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Our dear son, Geoffrey, is technically Irish because he was born in Ireland. But naturally I had to make sure that he would legally be both Irish and American. (You’d be amazed at how patriotic you become when you move out of your home country.) Being pragmatic, I immediately requested an American birth certificate and then applied for a USA passport so now he has 2 passports and 2 birth certs. He is fortunate to have dual citizenship and I hope he will take full advantage of all the wonderful opportunities that this will afford him.  Of course, I practically have him admitted to Harvard or Yale on a full scholarship straight after his Irish secondary schooling (and on the crew team, no less)

It’s fascinating to observe both his Irish and American characteristics as he grows up.  The best of the Irish traits has to be his absolute LOVE of tea. He simply loves to sip cups of tea with loads of milk and copious amounts of sugar cubes, “mommy, mommy, mommy, can I have a cream tea?” It started when he was about 2 and now he will have a cup of tea nearly every afternoon on it’s own or with a queen cake (i.e. yummy cupcake with buttercream frosting in the middle) or possibly a slice of brown bread with butter and raspberry jam. It is all very dramatic, he insists on doing it all on his own–boiling the tea kettle, steeping the tea in the teapot, putting milk into the tiny milk pouring cup, bringing over the dainty little brown sugar cubes, his distinctive porcelain cup & saucer and special teaspoon.  I suppose he picked this up from everyone around him, but I personally think it’s innate because I don’t drink tea and I don’t ever remember small children taking up coffee drinking like our parents in the States….in fact, just the opposite, my friends and I thought that coffee was the most disgusting smelling, bitter tasting thing ever and could not fathom how anyone could bear to drink it. No, I think his fondness for tea is part of his Irish-ness and it’s just the sweetest thing.  Plus, it’s great way to get more milk into his tummy.

On the other hand, he cannot live without mac-n-cheese. And by mac-n-cheese, I mean that all-American, orange-coloured, boxed-up, macaroni and cheese. We have to stock up on Annie’s Organic each trip to the States because you can’t get anything like it here. I’ve tried to make it from scratch and it just doesn’t cut the mustard..something about that salty orange powdered cheese is wondrous to him I guess.  One of his all time favorite lunches is a hot dog with mac and cheese. Doesn’t get more American than that!

When it comes to potatoes..he is still on the fence. Sometimes he’ll eat mashed potatoes, but dislikes chips (french fries), baked, boiled, fried, hashbrowned or cold potatoes. He will eat the odd crisp (chip), but is not really crazy about them either. I swore I heard him mention the South Beach Diet on one occasion, but he vehemently denied it when I asked him to clarify. Dislike of potatoes=Clearly American.  But, the Irish in him will trump that by the fact that he absolutely hates peanut butter. Yes, indeed, we are a “no PBJ household”. I still find that unbelievable. I’ve tried and tried but can’t get him to eat a peanut butter and jelly sammy, or just plain peanut butter, reeses peanut butter cups or pieces, monkey munch, ants on a log, Nutter Butter cookies, nothing! He completely loathes the taste and texture of it. It’s really disappointing because it’s a good protein packed snack or lunch option that all my American mommy friends can rely on. Perhaps I should give Nutella a try…we’ll see.

I will be off next week for a girly trip to Paris. Geoffrey has asked me to bring back some new teas for him to try and I will most certainly oblige, a’ Mariage Freres!

Slainte,

Imen

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Wellies_2_036I used to be stylish. I sort of fancied myself as a girl who stayed on top of fashion. Of course, this can only objectively be spoken by someone who is clearly no longer stylish. Oh, how I loved creatively putting together a bad-assed ensemble each day to wear to my office/production shoot/post house where there would be many more bad-assed style icons, each striving to be the baddest-assed of them all. Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that glamorous, but let’s just say that I did take my fashion personae very seriously. And still do. Well, now I guess I’m just trying to. The truth is, I am still sorting out how to dress here…in farm country and in Ireland in general. I think I’m in desparate need of a Farm-over!

Sizing in Ireland and the UK is vastly different from the USA–and I don’t mean that in a beneficial way. Irish sizes go up two sizes from American sizes. So, if you are an 8 in the USA, you are a 12 (or maybe even 14 depending on the brand) in Ireland! A bit of a blow, indeed. I was a size 8…even a healthy 6 on good days (though on certain days of the month I could also quite possibly go up to a 10) so the size change was definitely a tad bit disheartening to me. I am still trying to work out if Richard meant an Irish 10 or American 10 when he guessed my size in the early days of our relationship…naw, won’t go there. Hmm, perhaps he just meant I was a “10”? Ha! When I got pregnant I gained 3 stone (42 lbs). A few weeks after I had Geoffrey I remember fretfully getting onto the scale, only to see that I had lost only 1 stone(damn digestive biscuits!). At that point, I basically gave up on shopping because I refused to buy a size 16-18 based on the sheer principle of it. I decided I would shop for my son instead. This is why he has the wardrobe the size of a Gap Kids store.

Not only are sizes different, but regrettably, styles are as well. When I initially came for visits to Ireland, I’d always look forward to bringing home some very chic 80’s inspired Top-Shoppy blouse, vampish high boots or deconstructed little jackets to flaunt back in the States…very swish in 2003/4.  Now, I can’t be bothered with most of the drivel that I see in the local shops.  A/Wear, Topshop, BT2, Zara, H&M have all been obsessed with trashy 80’s looks for forever or so it seems. I am sorry, but I am done paying hundreds of euros for throwbacks from the 80’s….can we please move on? I rarely see anything that I am truly inspired by, which is no fun really, but does make the bank account happy I suppose. I know the 80’s have taken over the USA too, but at least there are also real alternatives such as J. Crew, BR, AK, Anthropologie, GAP–even Target, if you’re in need of a reprieve. And while I love to browse the new collections by Vivienne Westwood, Karen Millen, Orla Kiely, McQueen and all the European designers in Harvey Nichs or BT, that means a 2 hour drive to Dublin if I want to see the best of it. I sorely miss seeing the latest displays from classic American designers like CK, RL,DK, MK in the big department stores that were basically right around the corner from me.  I guess the good news is that now that I usually only shop in the USA everything seems like such a better deal with the current decreasing value of the dollar.

Having said that, even if I wasn’t bothered by the size issue and if everything didn’t look so damned 80’s, I still wouldn’t know how to dress here! As I noted before, the weather is always a wee bit wet and windy so my fantasy “farm look” comprised of cute circle skirts with tees and Wellingtons never really works in real life. Besides women here don’t consider Wellies to be stylish in any way, shape or form and wouldn’t dream of wearing them outside of their home garden. And, if I could still fit into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe: various types of skinny jeans tucked into my favorite high boots, dainty silky blouses with shiny little tuxedo jackets, matching cashmere skirts and shells worn with bare legs and kitten heels, (yes, I am grieving this loss)….none of it is practical in my new life. When I try to wear sportier things like windbreakers, fleeces, cargos, sneakers, I just feel like a boy. Alas, not ladylike at all.

Hence, my search continues for my best Irish farm girl wardrobe…..

The suggestion box is open.

Slainte,

Imen

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