Raindrops and Rhubarb

I love living in Ireland. Honestly. There’s always a learning curve when you uproot your life and move to a new place, but I honestly can’t imagine calling anywhere else home right now. I mean, where else in the world can you find this kind of beauty 90 minutes from your doorstep?

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Not to mention enjoy that I can build sand castles on miles of beautiful beaches, go for refreshing sea swims, and devour fantastic fish and chips 20 paces away from the fishermen’s docks – Irish summer can be such a beautiful thing!

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Unfortunately, all of these photos were taken LAST summer.

So far, things have been off to a rough start, with rain almost every day in May. Not gentle little showers either. Mean rain. Steady rain. Hailstones. Substantial gusts of wind. This is pretty much the normal view when I look out my back window.

 

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The upside to all of this is that the garden is growing at a steady rate, which is fantastic news for our crop of rhubarb, which is thriving like never before. Aside from a rosemary bush that won’t quit, rhubarb is the one edible item that I’ve manged to keep alive. We’ve had it for the last three summers and our two plants produce enough fruit for the entire neighborhood…I’m probably known locally as the rhubarb pusher in the middle of the terrace because I’m constantly trying to give it away!

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This year, however, I’m trying to branch out from crumbles and muffins and try to preserve the rhubarb in some new and interesting ways. Unexpectedly, I’ve discovered that rhubarb’s jeweled tones and sweet/tart flavour are the exact antidote to this wild weather. These recipes for Rhubarb and Vanilla Jam and Strawberry Rhubarb Soda Syrup have absolutely brightened these grey days of May.

The jam really couldn’t be any easier, provided you have a few clean jars and a bit of time. I also find a jam funnel very useful for preventing general stickiness and messy drips, but it’s not strictly necessary. It makes a fantastic host or hostess gift, birthday present, or thank you to your father-in-law who has picked up your kid from school on three rainy days this week (yep, I know this one from experience…)  I’m loving it thickly spread on good white toast, or dolloped on corn muffins.

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The simmering stage

 

 

 

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Ladle into warm, clean jars

 

 

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Sure, jam covers and labels are a bit twee, but the kind of twee that people like!

 

 

The next recipe is truly special and a winner even for those who think they don’t like rhubarb. It’s comes from one of my favourite food blogs of all time, Smitten Kitchen. If you don’t already own Deb Perelman’s cookbook, do yourself a favour and order it NOW.  It’s amazing and I’m slowly working my way through everything. But I digress…a few weeks ago, Deb posted this gorgeous recipe, which looks and tastes like summer in a bottle.

 

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Strawberries, rhubarb and lemon zest simmering

 

 

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Fruity pulp left behind after the straining process

 

 

I’ve used it to flavour soda water as a non-alcoholic offering at brunch, splashed it into sippy cups as a bribe to get my kids to drink more water, and made myself an indulgent Friday night cocktail. (Note to the wise: 2 oz. of vodka was probably too generous…1.5 would have been just fine…) This weekend I also see it being poured into a G&T, or possible a Rhubarb Collins, and I plan to use the pulp as an add-in to my yogurt tomorrow morning. I highly recommend RUNNING to your nearest greengrocer/farmer’s market and picking some up this weekend. Unless you’re one of my neighbours – you should probably come over and pick some from my garden. Seriously. It’s getting out of hand…

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When the Cupboard Is Bare

Meal planning takes a on a new challenge this week: I’m on a quest to clean out the fridge and pantry before my family and I head off on our Easter holidays. I concede that I will probably leave behind the odd tin of tomatoes or chickpeas, and that I should probably just throw away the custard powder that I bought for one really odd recipe back in 2012, but my general policy is that no crumb will be left behind.

This delights the boys, of course, as I produce usually verboten treats from the depths of the freezer. Oven chips! Fish Fingers!  They’ve been less enthusiastic about the frozen peas and tinned sweetcorn, but ice pops (definitely purchased last summer…) seem to be making up for it. I, for one, was delighted to find tinned sweetcorn, however, because on Tuesday, after a long day of toddler chasing and hailstone dodging, topped off by a dentist appointment, I arrived home cranky, hungry, and in need of a pick-me-up. Enter: sweetcorn fritters.

Fritters, you say? Batter? Deep frying? Sounds too fussy for a Tuesday night. And you’d be right, if I hadn’t remembered this genius recipe from a blog post that I used to receive from my organic delivery service.  It’s simple, it’s light, full of flavour, and very quick.

A few confessions on my end though…I definitely used a tin of sweetcorn, and I have also used thawed frozen kernels as well. They’re not AS delicious as summer’s finest fresh corn on the cob, but they are more than adequate, and the fritters are way too nice to only eat a few months a year when corn is at its best. Also, I didn’t have any sour cream, so I spiked some natural yogurt with lime juice and drizzled that on top instead. (I also skipped the guacamole, again in the interest of not buying more fresh produce ahead of our vacation) And, my final confession: my husband and I ate them so quickly and happily that I completely forgot to take any photos, so you’ll have to trust us! It was a brilliant use of pantry staples (tinned sweetcorn, flour) and sad fridge items that might otherwise have been destined for the compost bin (a starting-to-wrinkle red chilli, a wilting bunch of spring onions, and some sad coriander left from last week’s Taco Tuesday). Somehow when they all came together it was just what the doctor (or maybe the dentist!) ordered.

Wednesday’s dinner was a bit more organized – out of necessity, really. I take a course on Wednesday evenings, so the boys have an early dinner and hang out with their granddad until my husband makes it home from work. We all eat at different times, and it can be hectic, so I find that the easiest thing to do is make a one pot meal that can easily be reheated. During Operation Empty Presses, this means Jools Oliver’s Pregnant Pasta.

I have no idea how this lovely, rich, meaty sauce got its funny name, but it’s a hit with absolutely everyone in my house. In less than 30 minutes, this hodgepodge of sad veggies and ordinary sausages becomes…

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…this wonderful, rich sauce flavored with fennel, oregano, and sweet, tangy balsamic vinegar.

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It’s absolutely gorgeous. I usually omit the red chili from the recipe, as my kids aren’t big fans, but I often sprinkle a pinch of dried chili flakes (one of my favourite pick-me-ups) on my own bowl. I usually serve this sauce with penne or fusilli (AKA ‘twirly whirly pasta’ in my house), but in a pinch, it’s also nice with spaghetti.

And finally, I needed a last minute solution to the Dessert Night dilemma We always have dessert on Wednesdays for a midweek treat. It is nice to enjoy something sweet once in a while, but I got tired of dodging constant requests for cookies and ice cream. Now that the boys know that they have a guaranteed treat coming one night a week, they don’t ask quite as often, and even if they do, I can cheerfully reply, ‘Yep, we can have that on Wednesday!’ Last week I forgot to pick something up at the bakery, and I didn’t want to buy a whole box of eggs for cookies or brownies, due to Operation Empty Presses, so I decided to use what was on hand and make these lovely little mendiants. I didn’t use the same posh toppings as Rachel Allen, because I didn’t think dried fruit would be an easy sell, so instead I used some mini marshmallows and mini Smarties that may or may not have been left over from Halloween.  They were a big hit, but a word to the wise – if you’re going to give these to a toddler, be prepared to throw him or her directly into the bath when they’re finished…

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More posts soon about some of Philly’s food offerings (not to mention all of the home cooking I’m going to soak up there…woohoo!)

 

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Spring has Sprung

So here is my new year’s resolution…3 months late is better than never, right? I’ve wanted to re-start the blog for some time, but have been struggling to make it a priority and find motivation. Since Monkey Number Two has started taking longer naps, and spring produce has made an appearance, I will make excuses no longer…and so, I bring you today’s naptime creation: Wild Garlic Pesto!

 

Wild Garlic Pesto

Wild Garlic Pesto

 

Wild garlic has always seemed a bit elusive…a lovely idea for serious chefs who have minions to forage for them, or people who can go hill walking for hours unencumbered by a buggy. As I fall into neither category, I always read blog posts and magazine articles about the stuff rather wistfully..until last weekend when I walked into Fallon & Byrne to buy bananas and discovered a gorgeous bag of luscious, piquant wild garlic leaves – €1.99 for 100g. Hurray for Wild Wicklow Foods!  As much as the idea of foraging appeals to the romantic food in me, this was too good to pass up. So far, I’ve thrown it into a whipped feta dip, some pizza sauce, and made Donal Skehan’s Wild Garlic Pesto. I’ll be serving it tonight over pasta, but I can also wholeheartedly recommend it smeared on some nice bread with a few slices of good cheese.

Wild Garlic Pesto with Bread & Brie

Wild Garlic Pesto with Bread & Brie

A brilliant start to spring if you ask me! Happy foraging & wild garlic-eating, whether in the wilds of the countryside, or your local green grocer.

 

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It’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas…

Freezing temperatures are the new norm here in Dublin, so my family and I have spent the last few weeks hibernating…we’ve been eating lots of hearty soups with brown bread, and slow-cooked delights such as lamb shanks in red wine and pulled pork.  (We’ve also become COMPLETELY addicted to Masterchef: The Professionals. Best cooking competition on TV, hands down!)

I had to peel myself off the couch, pull out the baking paper, and turn  on my Christmas brain though, as the countdown is now well and truly on! Most of my shopping is done now (my husband and I come from small families!), but there is still some gift-making ahead of me – neighbors, teachers, and co-workers are all taken into account as I begin my annual gift-making bonanza. I began with some sugar cookies for my office cookie tray (now conveniently awaiting their fate in the freezer), and had some very special decorators in to help me!

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The vast majority of the gifts that I give are food related, but not all involve hours slaving over an oven. One year, I filled gift bags with  jars of homemade chutney, Carr’s water biscuits, and a beautifully wrapped wedge of comté cheese. Another year, I filled mugs with a cocoa mix, marshmallows, and candy canes and wrapped them with cellophane and ribbon. Then, about 3 years ago, I discovered a recipe for the most wondrous thing of all: Winter Bark. The first year I gave it as an accompaniment to what I thought was a lovely gift – cashmere scarves for my son’s teachers. They all thanked me for the gifts, but no one actually mentioned the scarves…only these delicious, salty-sweet, totally addictive chocolate treats. The next year, I gave cinema vouchers and  more winter bark – same reaction! The thing is, Winter Bark is EMBARRASSINGLY easy to make, and not even particularly costly! The key is to use good dark chocolate (not necessarily expensive stuff though – I buy mine from Aldi)  and to make sure you buy salted peanuts. I will be making at least 4 batches of this stuff to give to friends and neighbors over the next week or so. It’s also great to have on hand in case someone pops in with an unexpected gift, or if you’re having a drinks party. It’s also a very good last minute gift if you just stock up on the ingredients.

Speaking of drinks parties, my family and I plan to restart our open house tradition this year. We took a year off last year, as we traveled at Christmastime, but we like to invite friends, neighbors, and colleagues over on the Sunday before Christmas for mulled wine, mince pies, and general merriment. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I just don’t have the patience to fuss with a load of handmade mince pies, so I let Marks and Spencer do the honors, but I do put together a few homemade touches. One of my favorite snacks for a get together (aside from a giant cheese platter…) are these Rosemary Brown Sugar Walnuts from one of the most gorgeous food blogs on the web. Sometimes I substitute dried cranberries for the figs, and occasionally I skip the dried fruit altogether, depending on the state of my pantry. You can also swap the walnuts for pecans.

One of the last things I bake every year is a coffee cake for Christmas morning. My mom has made this for Christmas breakfast as long as I can remember; it’s not Christmas morning without it, in my opinion! Perfect with tea or coffee, its nutty, cinnamon flavour is the essence of the holiday season.

Coffee Cake
4 oz. butter
8 oz, sugar
8 oz. sour cream
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 oz. flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
For topping:
4 oz. chopped nuts (I think walnuts are nicest!)
4 oz. sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 180/350. Cream the butter, eggs, sugar, sour cream, eggs, and vanilla.  Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Pour batter into one 9×13 inch cake pan, two 9 inch cake pans, or one 10 in ch springform pan.  Swirl the topping throughout the batter and bake  –   time depends on the size of the pan, but the top should be golden brown and springy to the touch. Enjoy!

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Frozen Assets

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m producing a show in the Absolut Fringe Festival. It’s keeping me on my toes ( along with the day job and family life) so I’ve been trying to use my time wisely and plan meals in advance. I had some quality time at home this weekend, so I decided to do some bulk cooking and freezing. This evening now finds me relaxing in front of The Sunday Game with a glass of wine safe with the knowledge that this week’s meals are done & dusted.

I started off by thinking about breakfast. Cereal is all well and good, and I do love my Special K, but it always leaves me wanting. I find that if I don’t have some kind of bread with my breakfast, I give in to the morning munchies and end up having a pastry with my eleven o’clock coffee – not good for training. So I used up the last of the garden’s summer bounty and baked a lovely batch of Rhubarb Muffins from Rachel Allen’s Food at Home and some Zucchini Bread from her brilliant Bake. The loaves of bread were sliced in half, double-wrapped  in cling film, and popped into the freezer. Muffins were popped into Ziploc bags and frozen as well. I’ll take them out the night before, leave them to defrost on the counter, and voila – breakfast!

On the savoury baking front, I also made two loaves each of brown soda bread and cheddar & bacon bread, which I’ll save for nights when we’re having some of the Minestrone and Lentil & Onion soup that I whipped up. (Seriously…I spent my entire weekend cooking…I barely ate!) Finally, I made the piece de resistance…an enormous lamb tagine a la Rachel Allen’s Easy Meals. (Do I have a Rachel Allen addiction? Maybe, but if admitting a problem is the first step to solving it, I don’t wanna!) This tagine will do us for at least three separate meals, and makes my entire family enormously happy. Served with cous cous, the ultimate fast food, it’s a great freezer treat. Here is one version of it, although if you have Easy Meals, which I highly recommend, give that recipe a try, as it uses dried apricots, which I love.

Last, but certainly not least…I also made a sweet treat to have on hand in case I need to brighten an upcoming production meeting, thank a co-worker, or keep the hubby sweet as I keep some looooong hours at work: these Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Blondies. They pretty much speak for themselves – super easy and sinfully delicious…try them. But don’t make the mistake of just making a single batch – double the recipe so you have some left for the freezer, because you will eat several straight from the oven…guaranteed.

 

 

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The Best Pasta Sauce in the World. Seriously.

I really don’t think that I’m understating things here. In fact, I can’t believe that I haven’t written about this recipe before. It’s the one I always share when I get a recipe exchange e-mail, or need to whip up something to drop off to a sick friend. (It’s a better cure than chicken soup – honestly!) I was reminded of it tonight when I arrived home tired and famished from the launch of the Absolut Fringe Festival*, and realized that I had never written about it.

This recipe is from a brilliant cookbook that I reference all of the time – Keeping It Simple by Gary Rhodes. This lovely cookbook is chock full of great recipes, but is also a great reference for things like cooking times, ideas for what to do with a veg box, and how to do the classics. It also houses my go-to roast chicken and rib of beef recipes…couldn’t do Sunday lunch without it!

The recipes that I want to share today though, is a weekday staple in my house…ladies & gentlemen, I bring you…Bloody Mary Sauce. It pretty much does what it says on the tin…it’s a rich, but zingy tomato sauce with a little kick, and it’s delicious over any kind of pasta (I prefer spaghetti myself, but really, anything will do…) Perfect if you have a cold or a hangover, or if you want a quick, substantial meal that’s full of flavor. In short, AMAZING.

 

With these ingredients, how can you go wrong?

 

Bloody Mary Sauce from Keeping it Simple by Gary Rhodes

serves four

a large knob of butter

1 onion, finely chopped

3 tomatoes (I have made it with a 400g tin of tomatoes to a fine, but slightly less fabulous result)

500g/1lb 2 oz passata

a squeeze of lemon

1 t. Worchester sauce

a dash of Tabasco

a pinch of celeray salt

a splash of vodka (optional)

Melt the butter in a saucepan and gently fry the onion until soft. With the point of a knife, remove the eyes from the tomatoes. Place in a bowl and cover with boiling water for 10-15 seconds before placing under cold running water/ Peel away the skin, then quarter the tomatoes, de-seed and cut the flesh into cubes. Add the passata & tomato cubes to the onions, simmer for five minutes. Add the lemon juice, Worcester sauce, and the Tabasco. Season with celery salt & a twist of pepper, finish with a splash of vodka.

While making the sauce as above, cook the pasta until tender, drain and add to the finished sauce. Eat while making unseemly, very happy slurping noises.**

 

*Click here or here to learn more about my involvement with the festival!

**Not in the original directions…I may have editorialized a bit. Sorry Gary.

 

 

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Dinner Dash

I was having lunch with some friends a while back when the topic of weeknight dinners was broached and a collective groan landed on the table next to my French onion soup. Everyone at the table was a working parent trying to juggle our own diary demands, plus those of our kids and partners’, while trying to satisfy our desire to sit down for tranquil family meals. It’s one hell of an equation…how can I bring child x to child y’s birthday party  whilst preparing a dinner that includes at least 2 of our 5 a day AND allows me to leave the house at 7 to dash off to colleague z’s leaving drinks? High school algebra was easier! (And that’s a strong statement coming from me…) In fact, I’ve had a draft of this blog post sitting on my computer for ages, but just haven’t had the time to proof and post it between meetings, appointments with the public health nurse, and managing the laundry.

Not everyday is like this in my house of course…I love to come home from work and lovingly stir a risotto,  roast chicken with spring vegetables, or make homemade cornbread while a pot of chili con carne simmers on the stove. In reality though, this happens a lot less often than I would like, so in order to keep dinner a budget-friendly, relatively nutritious event, I have a few recipes on stand by that I’d like to share. I can almost make them with my eyes closed at this stage, but no one has ever complained when they pop up on the table – tried and true family favorites.

The first is a lovely, summery pasta dish from Neven Maguire, one of my all-time favourite chefs. (his restaurant, McNean House is one of my happy places – get there if you can…)  This is a veggie dish with great substance and flavor without getting weighed down in too much cream, cheese, or butter.

Fettucine with Melting Courgettes (from Home Chef by Neven Maguire)

4 T. olive oil

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

450 g/1 lb courgettes (zuchinni where I come from!) or yellow squash

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1/2 t dried chilli flakes

250g/9oz dried fettucine

25g/1oz butter

2T flat leaf parsley, chopped

4T. grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan over a low heat. Add the shallots and saute gently for about 5 minutes. Add the courgettes& garlic, then saute for a further 15 minutes until a light golden colour before adding chili flakes & thyme, then season with salt and pepper. In the mean time, cook your pasta according to the directions on the packet. When the courgettes and pasta are both finished toss together with the butter & parsley, serve in bowls with Parmesan.

Another last minute favorite of mine is from Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals and is called (for whatever reason) Jools Oliver’s Pregnant Pasta. (In my house we just call it  Yummy Sausage Pasta –  it’s easier to sell it that way…) I omit the chillies, as my little guy thinks that anything spicier than chorizo is an attempt to poison him, and I’ve often used a yellow onion instead of a the spring onions listed. (Side note: If anyone in Dublin is wondering where to buy the best sausages, my absolute favorites are the breakfast sausages from  the butcher counter at Fallon & Byrne)

These fishcakes from my home cook guru, Rachel Allen are also a crowd-pleaser in my house. You can serve them with any green veg/spud combo for a very healthy meal. In my house we favor steamed broccoli and wedges with a light dusting of paprika. Sometimes I stick them into burger buns with a bit of mayo and sell them as ‘fishburgers’ – not that they need much selling!

Spicy Salmon Fishcakes (from Rachel Allen’s Favourite Food at Home)

350g filleted & skinned salmon, roughly chopped
50g butter
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
100g white breadcrumbs
1 egg, whisked
2tsp dijon mustard
2tbsp lemon juice
2tbsp chopped coriander
6 spring onions, chopped
2tsp Worcestershire sauce
1-2tsp Tabasco sauce or 1 deseeded chilli, chopped (optional)
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz to combine. Taste* for seasoning add salt, pepper, lemon juice, or Tabasco if necessary. Shape into patties with a 3 inch diameter. Pan fry in olive oil for 3-4 minutes on each side.
*I never do this because I dont like to taste the raw mixture, but it’s in the original directions! I eat raw salmon all the time, as I’m a big sushi fan, but for some reason tasting the pulsed mixture makes me shudder…
Well, I hope that offers a few dinner dash solutions. If all else fails, I call these guys or call into Marks and Spencer for their dine-in for two special, which can generally be split 3 ways. I have a hectic week ahead, so I’ll take notes on what I come up with and let you know if I find any other gems!

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