Monthly Archives: November 2012

Fantastic Vegetable Side-Dish: Sauteed Green Beans with Pearl Onions & Toasted Almond Flakes. (serves 6)

Fantastic side-dish

This looks yummy, right? Take it from the one who devoured it: yes, more than yummy though, more like scrummdiddly!

There are certain ingredients I buy without any notions about what to do with them, or indeed in what dish I should use them, and green beans and pearl onions happen to be in that category. The reason for such purchasing abandon is that both of these vegetables are very hardy and can languish for weeks while I ponder and procrastinate.

green beans also last for ages in the fridge

Green beans are the greatest green vegetable around. They can take all sorts of abuse, like long slow cooking with beef or pork, and at the other end of the cooking spectrum, can be quick fried with a little soy sauce and mirin and taste equally delicious.

netted pearl onions (good for weeks!)

I love these little onions which give a sweetness to any dish they are part of. The only finicky part is getting off their very thin onion skin, which actually puts me off cooking them more often. There is a trick to that problem (blanching them first), but it is still a bit of a pain, and takes more time than I have most evenings.

There are other times however when they are worth the trouble, and this was one of those times. I cooked them as part of our Thanksgiving meal last week and am strongly thinking of making them for Christmas too. Sauteing beans with little pearl onions, while adding a few more ingredients I happen to have lying around, made this a feast unto itself.

I strongly suggest your arming yourself with onions and beans, and when the humor takes you…make this!

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You will need:

2 cups pearl onions

3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/4 lbs green beans, cut into 1/2 ” to 1″ pieces

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

6 sprigs fresh thyme

1 cup slivered almonds (finely sliced almonds) & Toasted (directions below)

1 tsp coarse sea-salt (I used Maldon sea salt flakes)

freshly cracked black pepper,

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes (optional)

1 tsp cumin (optional)get

Method:

chop green beans

1 – Prep ingredients (chop beans, chop garlic, and gather the rest of the ingredients. Toast almond: Preheat oven to 350* and spread almonds in a single layer on baking sheet. place in oven and cook for 4 minutes, turn and continue to cook for another 4 minutes. Place in bowl to add in dish later.

blanch onions

2 – The onions need to be blanched and peeled as follows: Put pot of water on high and when it boils add the onions. Cook at a rolling boil for about 3 minutes. Drain in colander and when they have cooled, snip the root end with a scissors and pop the onion out by squeezing the other end with your thumb and index finger. The onion will pop right out. (you may loose the first layer of onion, but what you loose is made up greatly by how speedy and fuss-free this process is)

saute onions

3 – Put big saute pan on med/ high heat and add oil. When it is hot, add the onions and cook until starting to get brown spots all over (about 6 to 8 minutes).

add green beans

4 – Add the green beans, garlic and thyme sprigs and continue to cook, stirring occasionally. Add more oil if necessary. Cook until beans are cooked but still have a bite (pop them in your mouth as you go to test).

add seasonings and almonds

5 – Add the salt, several grinds of pepper, cumin and pepper flakes (if using) and stir. Taste and add more of everything if you think it needs it. Finally add the toasted almonds and stir.

Serve immediately or cover and keep warm until ready to serve. This can be made hours before and reheated very quickly in the pan right before serving.

Time to Make The Christmas Pudding!

vintage christmas postcard

There is no getting away from the fact that Christmas is definitely coming! Everywhere I turn I am bombarded with reminders, starting with the twinkle-y sea of every iconic symbol of Christmas covering the entire lawn of my neighbour’s house, and ending with even the meat in the grocery store bound up in shiny cellophane and strung with red ribbons like some special present to be placed under the tree. To mention everything in-between would be an exercise in how poetic and tacky I could be at the same time. I may write something about this a little later, but for now I am really excited to talk about Christmas Pudding and share the recipe

I love any holiday or celebration that involves food, and Christmas dinner is the ultimate feast as far as I’m concerned. So yes, even though this one meal is one month away, I am already planning the menu and soaking the dried fruit for my Christmas pudding as we speak.

soaking the fruit, an important step in making a great pudding

Depending on what part of the world you are reading my blog from, you are either salivating at the thought of a slice of warm fruity pudding smothered in equally warm custard or brandy butter, or, you are puzzled as to why I would make a pudding a month before eating it! If the former, I suggest you get started, if the latter, it’s time to be exposed to a deliciousness enjoyed on Christmas day in most Irish and English households (and I suspect in strongly transplanted countries like Australia, India and North America).

Well, this deeply rich, dense steamed pudding, bejeweled with all sorts of dried fruits, came into its own in Victorian England (although apparently has existed in less evolved forms from the 15th century). It is traditionally made about 5 weeks before Christmas and used to be the highlight of the Christmas feast eaten on December 25th. In the early 19th century the most precious ingredients were spices and fruits, and this pudding was deemed special enough to have it all. The fruit most commonly used was raisins, but today people like to add their own particular favorites.

The recipe for this pudding varies greatly from household to household, region to region, and like every Italian “Mama” who is adamant that the best red sauce must have onions, (or absolutely not have onions), the serious pudding makers have strong opinions too! I am more the go-with-the-flow type and use what I like, and what is available in my supermarket on the day I take upon myself to buy the ingredients.

Rum-soaked fruit

The one step that is of the utmost importance is to let the dried fruits soak in alcohol before being mixed into the batter. Then the pudding needs to be steamed for hours, stored for a month, and then steamed again before finally being served. The reason that this pudding is worth all the trouble is to witness it’s grand entrance to the dinner table. It is served flambeed in alcohol amidst the hopefully cheering and applauding guests. There is nothing like a little indoor fire to get the party started.

 I am not a culinary traditionalist by any stretch, and my sinful admission is that I hardly ever make a Christmas pudding! My Christmas desserts have ranged from trifles to cheesecake, to a wild assortment of handmade chocolates. My problem is I never remember in time enough to let the pudding age before it is eaten. The only reason I remembered in sufficient time this year is because I was thinking about my mother’s traditional dessert for this special day, a christmas cake (next year perhaps?) while also walking by a shelf with a bottle of rum on it collecting dust, which she gave me several years earlier.

Christmas table (at my friend Tom’s last year)

She brought it over on one of her visits and we never opened it. When she died I swore to only break the seal if it was for a special reason, and, as I was thinking of how she went “all out” for Christmas I decided it was time to use it as a loving remembrance. That’s when dried fruit soaked in alcohol popped into my head, followed by the thought of a flaming Christmas pudding.

This pudding is a snap to make and you can pretty much bind any kind of fruit into bread crumbs, flour and eggs and it will work. The only inconvenience is that it steams for hours so you are more or less held captive in your kitchen and surrounding area until it is done (great time to read, or clean the bathrooms!).

I encourage you write down my list of ingredients below (take note of the bowl you will need for the pudding to cook in) and make this wonderful fruity, festive dessert for the big day next month. I will be sure to post pictures of my pudding (in full flame) soon after Christmas!

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*The pudding needs to be steamed in a “pudding basin” which is essentially a strong plastic bowl with a fitted lid, or a thin metal “plum pudding mold” which also has a lid. (I could not for the life of me find a pudding bowl anywhere close to me, and in fact got lots of funny looks from shop assistants when I asked. I did manage to find a metal mold which I have never used before, but am confident it will do the job. do not use a mold with a hole in the center.)*

my new metal pudding steamer

*One more point: If you do not want to flambe your pudding, that is totally fine. The process has nothing to do with flavor. It’s all about being dramatic!*

You will need:

1 cup mixture dark raisins, golden raisins & dried cranberries

1/3 cup dried cherries

1/3 cup chopped dried prunes (pitted)

1/3 cup chopped dried dates (pitted)

3/4 cup rum or brandy (I used Bacardi Gold, but any rum will do)

1/2 cup self-raising flour

3/4 cup fine white bread crumbs

1/2 cup, plus 2 tbs vegetable shortening

1 medium apple, peeled and grated

1/2 cup, plus 2 tbs dark brown sugar

zest of 1 orange or lemon (or some of both)

1/2 tsp all-spice

1/4 tsp salt

3 large eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 cup vodka or brandy (to flambe before serving)

decoration for the top (holly, berries or some non-flammable ornament)

Equipment: 1 pudding bowl or mold (see note above in red ) to hold about 4 cups of batter.

Method:

1 – Soak fruit in rum or brandy in a covered container overnight, or up to a week.

mix batter

2 – In a big bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients (except the vodka or brandy) together.

add fruit to batter

3 – Add the fruit and mix well.

cover with wax paper

4 – Turn pudding into greased bowl or mold and place a piece of parchment over the top, before putting on the lid.

cover entire bowl with foil

5 – Cover the whole bowl in tin foil and set in a saucepan of gently boiling water (the water should come halfway up the bowl. Put lid on pot and cook, checking every now and then to see if water needs to be topped up, for 3 1/2 hours.

6 – Remove from pot and allow to cool before removing the tin foil. Leave in the container in a cool dark place (not the fridge) for 3 to 5 weeks. *Some people add a little more alcohol to the pudding every week or so, and you can do this if you like (I don’t as I’m not a big fan of alco-tasting desserts)

christmas-pudding-recipe - Picture of Christmas Pudding

On the day you are serving: re-steam the pudding (wrap in foil again) for another 3 hours. If you want to flambe the pudding for presentation purposes, put the brandy or vodka into a pot and place it on medium heat. Just before it comes to a boil, turn the heat off and set it alight. Immediately pour the flaming liquid over the pudding and serve. Serve warm with custard, brandy butter or fresh cream (recipe for custard and brandy butter will be posted before Christmas!)

Dinner From Eataly! Recipe for Fried Rustic Wild Sea Trout With Thyme &amp With Lemon Served With Artisanal Bread, Parm Cheese & Sauteed Escarole (serves 4)

Eataly!

I just got back from visiting my friend Bird for her birthday, and on Monday, the day after her big birthday bash (stayed tuned for that story!), we went to a place that I have been dying to experience (you don’t just go to this place, you experience it), the Italian food market in the Chelsea area of New York City: EATALY.

The Goal: all things Eataly for dinner

This giant marketplace is the result of the collaboration between two rock stars in the world of food, chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. They are married to Italian food like a religion and that passion makes them experts in all things Italian. Their philosophy to food is my kind of religion too, the best ingredients should highlight a dish, with little need for complicated sauces and an over-zealous hand.

Mounds of fresh squid-ink pasta

They believe, and I quote, that “Good food brings all of us together, and helps us find a common point of view” That is what I have been writing about in my blog for the past two years. I firmly believe that if the food is good, no matter who is sitting around the table, there is joy and pleasure. It is so corny to say it out loud, but if the food is good, there is no need to talk about anything else but the food, (forget politics and religion for once!).

Fresh baskets of fruit

This beautiful market that is an explosion of fresh pasta, olive oil, fresh fish, meat, bread, vegetables, cured meats, dried foods, salts, chocolates, and on and on. If you can say it in Italian, it’s here! There are seven restaurants interspersed over the entire market, located conveniently near the produce stall or counter which sells the type of food it serves.

Shelves upon shelves of Dried Pasta

As I said, it was a massive place, but somehow felt homey, with restaurants and food areas designed in a way that made each space appear intimate, dispelling that feeling of being overwhelmed by choice and general panic at where to begin your food shopping or dining. It felt exciting to walk around with hoards of people who were just as passionate about food as I was. I spent some time in Italy this year (3 months to be exact) and had visited enough food markets to know that this one felt very close to the genuine article, and lots of Italians apparently agreed with me as there was constant Italian chatter to be heard all around me.

Too many oils to choose from

My poor friend had to work Monday (she is usually off that day) and so we decided to meet at the big marble bar in Manzo Ristorante (a place for meat lovers) and enjoy a cocktail while we discussed what we would make for dinner. The goal was to cook with ingredients only purchased from Eataly that evening, so we had to think carefully, while not thinking too much at the same time – what a delightful task.

beautiful, but pricey greens

We both enjoy the same foods (down to cold sardines eaten from a can) so I didn’t foresee any fighting between steak or fish. of course we settled on fish, and then I thought about what Mr. Batali said about the cooking of fish in one of his cookbooks that I often peruse while sitting in my kitchen: “leave it alone!” He said that Italians are so proud of their fish that masking it with anything like a sauce or powerful seasonings borders on criminal (his thoughts, my words!).

Fresh Wild Sea Trout from Eataly

Bearing that sound advice in mind, we decided to fry the fish is olive oil, infused with a little fried thyme sprigs and garnished with fresh lemon juice and sea-salt. After our delicious cocktails we made our way to the fish counter and choose some gorgeous wild sea-trout. I know I bought too much, (2 lbs for 2 people) but I loathed to think if I wanted more I would have to do without (eyes-bigger-than-belly syndrome).

Tardivo Radicchio (a whopping $18 per lb!)

The rest of the shopping was easy: a little bottle of extra-virgin oil, a couple of lemons, coarse sea-salt, cheese, bread, and finally something green to go with everything. We choose a head of escarole (which we discovered later when we looked at our shopping bill at home that it cost $8! We called the store in disbelief and sure enough it was $8 per lb – all the more reason to enjoy it!) The last, but by no means least ingredient, was a nice bottle of wine to go along with everything. We settled on a Sardinian wine, Argiolas Perdera from the Eataly wine shop. We were now armed with EVERYTHING EATALY and left Chelsea with an eye on Bird’s kitchen and the prospect of good food.

pots & pans cleverly installed on an old bird-cage walls

As I familiarized myself with the part of the living space called “the kitchen” (no more than a few feet with a sink, with cupboards above, stove, 2 feet of counter space and a window sill and alcove that acted as the hold-all-pots-pans-and-utensil shelf), we opened the wine and poured a couple of glasses. It was perfect. I sliced the cheese and breads, and we contented ourselves with munching on this while I lazily prepared the fish.

! drizzled every bite with the little bottle of oil from EATALY

It was a great test to my culinary prowess to restrict myself to only using what was in our grocery bag. I had to resist adding a drop of white wine to the pan or a little stock to perhaps poach the fish. And, all good Italian cooks were proved right again about how simply fish should be cooked.  With oil, thyme, lemon and salt, I cooked the best trout of my life. I will take a little credit, but the majority of the success was due to the fabulously fresh fish.

Bird’s massively compact cooking utensil corner!

Our evening would not have been better had we gone to the best restaurant in the city. We had it all, good food, wine, a kitchen that smelled of Italy, and the best company imaginable (referring to my friend, not me of course).

My favorite building in New York City: The Flat-Iron Building

I have plans to go back to EATALY on my next visit and maybe this time stand at one of the high marble counters enjoying a pizza and glass of earthy red wine, while I ponder what to throw into my shopping basket.

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This is a great meal with strong flavors all the way around, from the zingy meat fish to the spicy sautéed greens. I really hope you give it a try!

*This is a Blood Type A Friendly recipe (trout, escarole and olive oil being highly beneficial to A’s). Leave out Parmesan cheese if you want to be very strict*

You will need:

2 lbs wild sea-trout fillets (if 2 pieces: cut into 3, if 3 pieces: cut in half)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

18 (give or take) sprigs fresh thyme

1 tsp good quality sea salt (Maldon or some other course or flaked salt)

juice from 1 lemon

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1 head escarole, washed & chopped

1/4 lb good quality Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, sliced

freshly ground black pepper

extra extra-virgin live oil for drizzling

1 loaf good quality bread, thinly sliced (I used a delicious walnut bread and a Parmesan bread, but any good crusty, fresh bread will do)

Method:

1 – Cut fish as instructed above. Wash and pat fish dry with paper towels, and season with a little sea-salt and freshly ground pepper. Prep escarole, juice and slice lemon and reserve on a plate and into a little bowl. Slice bread and cheese and place on a wooden board or nice plate.

slice bread

2 –Put saute pan on medium/high heat and let the pan warm before adding about 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add 1/2 of the thyme leaves and let them sizzle for a few seconds before placing fish, skin side up, into the hot pan. You will probably do this in two batches. Do not crowd the pan or the fish will get soggy.

Add oil, then thyme

3 – Fry undisturbed for 4 minutes. Adjust heat up or down according to how the fish appears to be cooking. (you want it to look like it is slightly sizzling, but not so high that it is out of control. The more you cook fish, the better you will become at reading it). Turn fish carefully with a spatula or egg turned and allow to fry for another 4 minutes in which time the skin will get nice and crispy.

Add fish, skin-side-up

4 – When all fish is cooked, (you will need to add more oil and thyme leaves before you cook the rest of the fish), place on a warmed platter, and cover loosely with foil.  Keep warm while you cook the escarole.

flip fish and continue to cook

5 – Wipe out you pan (you may have to wash it quickly) or use another pan. Place pan on medium/high heat and let the oil warm. Place the escarole in the pan and cook undisturbed for about 1 minutes. Add a little coarse salt and pepper and give everything a stir with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook like this for about 4 more minutes until it is perfectly wilted but the ribs are still crisp.

Cook escarole

When everything is ready, squeeze lots of lemon juice over the fish and scatter a few lemon wedges on top (for diners to add more lemon to their fish if desired). Place the escarole, fish platter, and bread and cheese on the center of the table, along with a good quality extra-virgin olive oil, salt and black pepper. Add oil to bread and cheese if you like, and maybe add a few fresh thyme leaves to the escarole.

Lots of lemons

a memorable dinner (now time for chocolate)

The Perfect New York City Breakfast And A Word On The Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg

I am in Manhattan for my friend Bird’s birthday. We went out to dinner last night (which I will post tomorrow!) and stayed up late, resulting in a lazy morning of lolling in bed until 9am: shameful! Of course there is no crime in getting up late, and I realize that late is a relative term. so, relative to going to be at 2am, I now am beginning to think that I got up way too early!

one of last’s night’s birthday indulgences

I have escaped to the city for a couple of days on my own, and it doesn’t take long to be all consumed by what I, and I alone, want to do. When I am in Manhattan, a city I lived in for 8 years, I feel like I am in a place that knows me, so am automatically embraced and become part of the beautiful landscape of streets, buildings and people.

My friend Bird loves her little neighborhood, and knows where to find things like, the best sandwich, or where to get a good inexpensive bottle of wine, even where to go if your shoes need mending. As we left her apartment she knew exactly where we should have breakfast, bearing in mind that I needed a very good cup of strong coffee.

our Breakfast place

After a six-minute chilly walk she opened the big glass door of Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery and restaurant on 7th avenue, and I was immediately hit with the smell of warm bread and pastries. She said it is one of a chain, which is always a turnoff (it makes me think of assembly line food), but assured me that the quality of the food was as good as any boutique still counterpart. I believed her as she hadn’t been wrong yet when it comes to what good food should taste like.

lovely pastries

The glass display case right in front was filled top to bottom with mouth-watering croissants, fruit turnovers, muffins, brioche, Danish pastries, lines of coconut macaroons, mixed berry tarts, lemon tarts, pistachio tarts, crumbles, and the biggest chocolate chip cookies I had ever laid eyes on – one big YUM moment! It was going to be tough when it came time to placing my breakfast order.

more pastries

The place was large and airy with big wooden communal style tables, interspersed with wooden shelves lined with their own brand of jams, honey, syrups and sweet spreads.

some of the restaurant’s honey and syrups

Diners were jammed at tables in a very comfortable way and we ended up at a little table close to the window with a great view of the restaurant in all its bustling charm. It seemed to be filled with quite the international crown of tourists and locals alike, all enjoying coffee, pastries and of all things: softly boiled eggs.

Le Pain Quotidien’s selection of fresh breads

This was the first time I had ever been in a restaurant in the United States where the lowly boiled egg breakfast was elevated to the status of  such sophisticated snobbishness. A soft-boiled egg sitting in an egg cup and eaten from the shell with a spoon and a dash of salt and pepper was served on every breakfast table in Ireland on a daily basis when I was growing up. It was the quintessential starter of every school girl or boy, farmer and ordinary Joe or Mary. It was by no means held in anything close to the ranking it stood at in this fairly fancy bakery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where one egg was the price of 2 dozen.

A boiled egg fit for a queen

Nonetheless, it was presented beautifully on a plate in a white egg cup, surrounded by at least four different types of bread, some of which having been delicately sliced into fingers (presumably for dipping into the runny yellow yolk). The thing that was impressive to me was that each egg appeared to have the perfect ratio of runny yolk to solid white.

The coffee was really good (and ceremoniously served in big bowls. I felt like I was in Paris)

It is difficult to get the timing right and I became an expert at boiling eggs to soft perfection by my father. He never failed to get it perfect every time and he did so by “feel’. This was his very favorite breakfast and when he sat down to eat it, he placed his egg cup directly onto the table and poured salt in a tiny mound beside it. With each scoop of egg he dipped the end of his spoon into the salt before placing each custom-seasoned bite into his mouth. It was like watching a little piece of theatre from the time the egg went into the cold water, to the last scraping of white clinging to the shell.

Selection of jams

My friend Bird opted for a soft-boiled egg (I just couldn’t bring myself to ordering something so familiar to me in a restaurant filled with complex pastries and sweets), and when she began to tackle it, I realized she needed a lesson on the proper protocol of eating an egg from it’s shell correctly. Luckily she prides herself enough in being versed in all things cultural that she was only slightly insulted by my criticism (muffled laughter). I told her to use the side of her spoon to gently tap a circle close to the top of the egg and then remove the top by inserting the spoon through the cracked circle to remove the top, instead of using her butter knife to hack away at it like some cave woman. There were many more instructions, but suffice is to say she is now an expert in the art.

Apple Pear turnover with four Fruits Jam

I decided on something I would, and could never make to my satisfaction: a pear and apple turnover, which I split and slathered with one of their jams. That, along with my bright red bowlful of wonderful coffee put a smile on my face, and armed me with strength to get through what was bound to be a fun day in the city.

This pot of jam came home with me

If you ever get to this city I recommend giving Le Pain Quotidien a try. The food is fresh and organic, and everyone (at least on 7th ave.) on the staff cheery and helpful.

Feathery-Light Chicken Lasagna (serves 4-6)

good for lasagna!

Not long ago I wrote about how the humble wonton wrapper/skin can be used for more than just making fiddle-y and time-consuming wontons. There is a time and a place for making dozens and dozens of wontons, (because clearly when you go to the trouble, you might as well make mountain loads), but that is not the only thing they are good for.

Chicken Lasagna

I made a great fish lasagna the other night using wonton sheets instead of regular pasta, and posted the recipe. I figured anyone who hates fish (surprisingly a lot of people), might like to try out a similar recipe with chicken.

So here it is in all it’s comforting lightness, and delicious glory!

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You will need:

4 tbls unsalted butter

1 med/large onion, dice

2 bacon strips, chopped into strips (I used a scissors for the job)

1 stock cube

1 lb chicken breast, cut into small pieces (I bought thinly sliced breast which made it easier to slice)

a few sprigs fresh thyme (only if you have them, but fine without)

1 cup peas (I used frozen baby peas)

3 tbs all-purpose flour

2 cups milk (2% or Whole)

freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste (I use Maldon Sea-Salt flakes)

Method

Preheat oven 375*

1 – Put saute pan on medium heat and add butter. When it melts, add the onions and cook for 3 minutes, before adding the bacon stripes. Continue to cook until bacon begins to get slightly crispy (about 7 minutes). Adjust heat as needed.

Saute bacon and onions in butter

2 – Add chicken and cook for 5 minutes until the meat is tender (do not over cook). add thyme sprigs (if using)

Add chicken

3 – Add the peas and cook until peas have warmed up (about 2 minutes.

Add peas

4 – Add flour and stir into rest of ingredients. Add 1 cup of milk and stir with wooden spoon (it will thicken quickly into a thick paste). Add the rest of the milk and stir. Cook until you have a nice creamy sauce. Turn heat down if it starts to bubble. This will take about 4 or 5 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper and salt to your taste. Remove thyme sprigs.

add flour, then milk

5 – Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of your casserole dish, trying not to add much of the chicken.

Spread thin layer of sauce in casserole

6 – Lay 9 wonton sheets on top in an even layer. There will be slight overlapping.

follow with wrappers, filling, wrappers, filling and top with won ton wrappers

7 – Add half of the filling to the dish and layer with 9 more wonton sheets. Cover with the rest of the filling and top off with the last 9 wonton wrappers.

another layer of chicken and sauce mixture

8 – Place in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Take out of oven and let the lasagna rest for 5 or so minutes before slicing.

Bake for 20 minutes

This is great with a crisp green salad.

Serve

The Ireland Chronicles – Part 7: Ever Been to The Giant’s Causway, Dunluce Castle or Teetering on A Rope Bridge in County Antrim? I Can Take You on That Trip In Your Mind!

This was another one of those ambitious trips I planned while in Ireland this summer (read more of the Ireland Chronicles Here & Here & Here & Here & Here & Here), and by hook or by crook I was going it get it all done!

What is this? Only one of the seven natural wonders of the world!

I love the north coast of Ireland but rarely opt to drive in that direction when taking trips around the country. It certainly has something to do with that fact that when I was growing up, the political tensions in the North were so acute it was not a place that my father was inclined to take the whole family when going away for a relaxing week of sightseeing. When I though about the North, all I could picture was soldiers with machine guns, bombed out buildings and damning graffiti.

Belfast City

Things have simmered down dramatically since the 70’s, and this past trip I took in August with my kids and sister was probably the best experience of the North I have ever had.

Mystical Sheep Island, home to a colony of cormorant birds

This was going to be our last tour before leaving for the States and back to some sort of routine. I had planned so many trips this year I had become somewhat of an expert. I learned one thing for sure: plan well, but don’t plan too much. It was going to be a two-day trip and we picked three things that were a must, and after that, beaches and picnic spots would be chosen as discovered and as we got hungry respectively!

View from the ruins of Dunluce Castle, Antrim

The morning of our trip while my sister scrambled to get herself ready (It had become very apparent to me that when you don’t have kids, it takes longer to get ready: leisurely shower, not to mention the time it takes to style hair. Then there’s the pondering over what clothes to pack…OMG!), I got the picnic gear together.

The beautiful Northern coast of Ireland

I had become addicted to transporting a little single-gas camping stove around and anything else pertinent to dining outside, complete with olive oil, fresh herbs and wine! My sister June came home with it one day to take on our Dingle trip, and I had been carting it around everywhere since. Cooking outside and eating dinner in the open air had added a whole new dimension of fun to our trips, so my standing there in the kitchen carefully packing condiments and pantry items took precedence over any wardrobe angst I might have had.

Exploring the Giants Causeway

There was also great discussion that morning about the best driving route between my sister’s June and  Mimi. Mimi was the sister who could make this trip and at the risk of getting in trouble for saying this: her sense of direction isn’t the best. To say it more accurately, she is famous for continually getting lost, not just when she is miles from home, but driving on familiar roads doesn’t stop her from taking a wrong turn either (as you can see, I am taking great delight at poking fun at my sister, one of the perks of being loved no matter what!). Did we get lost? Most definitely.

Mimi at Dunluce castle

We finally got underway and everyone was very excited to get to our first stop, the Giant’s Causeway. Mimi or the kids had never been, so I was really excited to be there to see their incredulous facing when standing in front of the North West Channel where 40,000 perfectly formed massive black basalt columns stick out of the sea.

Giant hexagonal columns formed over 50 million years ago

The walk from where we parked to the Causeway was a steep cliff  road that wound down to the edge of the water, pretty spectacular. There was excited chatter with lots of picture-taking.

road to the sea

There was no way to be prepared for the approaching rocks. We had found out all we could, and, even armed with the knowledge that these columns were formed by volcanic action 50 million years ago, when oozing basalt rock was cooled in perfect horizontal sections to form a pavement of perfect hexagonal stepping-stones, the rocks looked like they were formed more by magic than by nature.

The polygonal columns of the Giant’s Causeway

We spent a couple of hours combing every inch of the rocks, from the ones jutting just a few inches above the water to the giant 36 foot pillars. There were people milling about from ever corner of the world from what I could here and they were all as awe-struck as we were by the sight.

Exploring

Some of the rocks were covered in algae and little barnacles which my son, as always, was the most interested in. When there is the possibility of finding a creature skittering about, Calder is sure to be right there to catch it for closer inspection.

looking for creatures

We hated to leave but we had more fabulous things to see on our little Northerly adventure. Climbing back up the hill made us hungry and so began to look forward to the prospect of dinner.

As we looked out towards the sea we spotted a little red sailboat on the horizon, perfect.

The next morning the plan was to stick to the coast road all the way to Belfast, where we would then make our way home in time for dinner at June’s house. Along the route would be Dunluce Castle and the famous rope bridge of Carrick-a-Rede

Dunluce Castle practically tumbling into the Atlantic

Our first stop, Dunluce Castle, was a medieval structure built on the site of an older castle from the 13th century. The ruin we were going to see was 16th and 17th century, and in a nutshell, its colorful history revolved around ownership, being passed from English to Irish hands over the several hundred years it was occupied.

A glimpse at the ocean from a castle lancet window

The part of the castle that interested me the most was its location, a cliff face that plunged 300 feet or more to craggy rocks and the ocean below. It was even its own little island and you had to cross a bridge to get to the castle proper. It must have been a magnificent sight when it was complete, sitting on that big outcropping of land surrounded almost completely be the endless blue ocean.

From the castle we spotted two kayaks turning into the little bay (we decided to follow them)

There is no doubt that it was beautifully appointed, (of course, the location being more about defence than about a pretty site to build your house!), but it was abandoned in 1690, the main reason was because parts of it kept collapsing into the ocean below.

They turned another bend. We waved, they waved back

There was even one story told where the entire kitchen disappeared, and the only survivor was a small kitchen boy who happened to be sitting on a seat in the only corner that survived.

And off they went, hugging the spectacular coast – bon voyage

We walked around the outside of the castle first and it was more than a little scary, with cliff drops right by our path, and possible holes covered by big grassy patches where unsuspecting tourists might wander. The thing about a lot of historical sites in Ireland is that they are left largely without protective barriers or warnings, and its pretty much up to the individuals exploring to use their common sense when off the beaten path.

Castle cavorting

With that in mind, my son wanted to go down a steep path to an interesting-looking bit of pebbly strand below. The other interest was a group of student divers being instructed on the rocks and in the ocean in a spot a little off the beach head. I told him he couldn’t go, but he got around me by using the argument that I shouldn’t make him afraid of “stuff” just because I was: fair enough, and so off he went.

Calder standing on the beach watching the divers on the rocks ahead. Can you see him, or them?

When I walked through the castle grounds I felt like I was back in Tuscany in a stone-clad Etruscan town like San Gimignano. It is always an interesting feeling when physically walking through history with some knowledge of what happened, but for the most part, I wished the walls could speak. The things I am curious about are quite basic really, like what happened in the evenings in the Great Room, what books were being read, an ear into the conversation between two children, to see the bustle in the kitchen in the morning when fires were being lit and meals were being planned and discussed: the stuff of ordinary life.

a pathway in the castle yard

Time to go, the rope bridge was waiting on the road ahead. This bridge turned out to be the “stuff” I was really afraid of.

Ide took some interesting shots of her feet while on the drive!

The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge has existed off the coast of Antrim in one form or another for the past 350 years. It connected the little island of Carrick-a-Rede to the mainland, and was used in the late 20th century by salmon fishermen who needed a way over to check their salmon nets.

View of Carrick-a-Rede from cliff path above (incidentally a path my brother Sean will be running on in a 100k in May!)

Today, the bridge exists in its most sophisticated state, but is still a very simple construct of wooden planks, secured with ropes, with more roping on the sides.

One view from Carricka-a-Rede Island

It spans 66ft  (20 meters) and sways 98ft (30 meters) above the rocky ocean below. The area is part of a natural trust and is home to rare flora and fauna. Nowadays it is a huge draw for naturalists, as well as people like myself and my family who want the experience of walking the bridge and living to tell the tale.

I had never seen such still and mediterranean-like water on Ireland’s coast

Well as far as coastal views in the North of Ireland are concerned, we saved the best ’till last. The day had become warm, sunny and put us in the mood for the pretty long walk to the bridge. Sheep Island, a small piece of lonely land jutting out of the ocean just off the coast, was the first of many amazing views to be had on the way.

walk to the rope bridge

On one side of our cliff path was the green mountain that continued to rise up above us leading to other paths going more inland, while on the sea-side we were kept company by a big grassy bank which disguised the dangerous drop to the rocks and ocean below us. After about a mile of walking by the calmest, clearest and bluest sea I have ever seen I could see the rope bridge dead ahead. People were being allowed cross in parties of about 10 and this was strictly monitored by a person at each side of the bridge.

Mimi, Calder & Ide crossing the rope bridge to Carrick-a-Rede Island

We had to descend a steeply pitched metal ladder before reaching the bridge and this is where my courage began to leave me, being replaced by large gulps of fear. I said nothing and cheerily walked behind Mimi and the kids. When it came time to cross, I told them to go ahead as I wanted to get a picture of their crossing. They walked slowly and carefully and when they reached the other side I was still frozen in fear on the other side. I just couldn’t do it. I told them to walk on and I would catch up to them shortly.

When they turned and disappeared up a path I stood there deciding what to do. People passed me and as I watched them cross, they snapped pictures and laughed, while I wondered what there was to be happy about. They were walking on a bit of swaying wood 98ft in the air with the mountains and sea raging around them!  I knew I had to get a grip and cross or my kids would be scarred for life, so my plan was to cross when the second last person in my group was nearly across making it possible for me to walk across in one swift efficient movement.

It was a good plan, and so with my eyes fixed slightly ahead, I held my breath and did not breath again until my foot found solid ground on the other side. I walked up the hill with my heart rate buzzing and my knees weak from fright. Why was I so scared? I’ve tried to overcome my fear of heights (among other things)  and even thought that it was a sign of failure in some way. I’ve decided that there are some things that are just part of me and there is no great shame in being afraid of something. I have been teased on countless occasions about my irrational fears of climbing up ladders and not wanting to go to the edge of sea cliffs to look down, but now I don’t get upset. I just say I’m afraid and I can’t be good at everything (you know, because I just about am!).

Calder, Ide & Mimi looking for me finding them trough my camera lens

The only reason I made the trip was to meet my family on the other side, so, I suppose you do what you have to in certain situations. I calmed down as I climbed up a beautiful hill that appeared to lead to the top of Carrick-a-Rede Island and as I walked I searched for my three companions. I spotted them way ahead. They were looking down (probably wondering where I was) and as they lingered, I took some great pictures of them. I noted how, among all the people milling about, it was so easy to spot the people I loved, where everyone else appeared like a moving part of the landscape.

looking out onto Sheep island in the distance

Carrick-a-Rede was amazing, and we walked around the speck of land marveling at the expansive view of the ocean and the islands dotted here and there on the horizon. There were birds everywhere diving for fish and we would have been quite content to stretch out on the grass and watch them for hours, but for the rumble in our stomachs calling for lunch.

Hanging out a little too close to the edge for me

I tackled the bridge on the way back with the same determination an hour earlier and reached the other side none the worst for wear. I will say however I have no plans to repeat the experience.

ready to cross over behind Brave Calder!

Okay, where should we picnic? We were on our way east heading down the coastal road to Belfast while on the lookout for the optimum camping spot when it began to rain. We did not like that it was raining but we were not going to eat in some mediocre restaurant either. I had chicken and pasta, herbs and wine in the back of the car and a little water could possibly dampen our food, but not our resolve!

view from our picnic table

After a bit of meandering, which including breathtaking scenery, we decided on a spot with a couple of picnic tables by a pebbly beach. The rain stopped and we raced out of the car armed with our supplies and got situated. Then it began to rain again, this time a little harder, so we raced back to the car with everything and wondered what to do. As we sat the rain stopped again and we repeated the process. This happened three times, when finally we threw our arms into the air and made the decision to stay even it began to snow!

Cooking underway

I cooked a most delicious meal under the protection of an umbrella. Once we decided that we didn’t care everything became cheerful and the mountains around us seem to glow greener in the rainy air. We ate with a fork in one hand and an umbrella in the other and we couldn’t remember the last time something tasted this good. There was a moment when the rain that trickled like a little river from Calder’s umbrella spokes into Mimi’s pasta might have ruined the moment, but we figured it was just changing the consistency of the sauce for the better.

our rainy meal

On the way home we drove into Belfast city. We didn’t have a lot of time but we wanted to get a “feel” for the city before we left for the South of Ireland. We stopped in a little cafe and had hot chocolate and wine, and then it was back into the car and home. This was my last big trip in Ireland and I knew a few days later I would be on a plane, flying away from home and leaving my lovely sisters. My consolation was that I was going to be able to write about this 2 days and hopefully relive the moments through the process. I was successful.

Calder & Mimi enjoying the view from Carrick-a-Rede

A note about getting lost  – Taking the time to document all of our aimless missteps would have doubled the size of this post, so all I will say is this: We got lost coming out of Dundalk at a big roundabout (which we circled three times), which took us up to the giant’s Causeway in the completely opposite direction. We got lost finding the hotel. We got lost looking for a supermarket and lost again getting back to the hotel. We got lost (hopelessly actually), when trying to find the famous coastal road after Carrick-a-rede. We got so badly lost leaving Belfast, I don’t even want to think about it. We got lost taking the exit into our county, and lost again about 20 miles from home, taking us through the famous horse racing country of The Curragh. Lost again two towns over from ours, leading us back through The Curragh, and definitely a few other times that have been repressed by my memory.

Hmmmm?

I’m sure I was partly to blame, but let’s face it: It was mostly Mimi (99%)!

We miss you Mimi

Very Handy Chicken & Escarole Soup (serves 4-6)

If you only have 1 measly piece of chicken breast in your fridge, as I had last night, along with a 1/2 head of escarole and enough pastina (tiny pasta) to almost fill a 1/2 cup measure, then this is the dinner for you!

Very Handy Chicken & Escarole Soup

Soup has an uncanny knack of pretending to be more than it is, and frankly puts the Loaves & Fishes parable to shame. I can’t admit to being very “holy” but the parable of the Loaves & Fishes always intrigued me: I just think it should have been soup, far more believable.

If you don’t believe in miracles, invite 6 people over and make this soup. You may need a loaf of bread to go along with it.

*This is a Blood Type A Diet Friendly Recipe, (Neutral & Beneficial ingredients used)*

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You will need:

3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 good quality veggie or chicken bouillon cube (I use Rapunzel brand with herbs)

1 chicken breast, sliced into small bite-sized pieces

1 med/large sweet onion, medium dice

3 very large white mushroom, thinly sliced (if you use small mushrooms: double the amount)

1/2 head of escarole, chopped (4 to 5 cups chopped)

1/2 cup pastina (very tiny pasta granules. I used baby pasta stars by Barilla)

7 cups water

1 tbs mild curry powder (I used madras)

1 tsp coarse sea-salt

several grinds black pepper

Method:

1 – Prep all veggies and chop chicken.

prep all ingredients before getting started

2 – Put med/large soup pot on medium heat and add oil. When it warms, add onions and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.

Saute onions

3 – Add mushrooms and continue to cook for another 8 or so minutes. The mushrooms and onions will become soft and sweet.

add mushrooms

4 – Add the curry powder and mix. Add the stock cube and cook until dissolved.

add curry & stock cube

5 – Add the water and escarole and bring to the boil. Add salt and several grinds of pepper.

add liquid and escarole

6 – Turn up the heat and add the chicken. When liquid comes to a boil, turn the heat down to low, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Do not let boil.

Next, the chicken

7 – Add pasta and cover. Cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let soup sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Then pastina

Serve with lots of crusty bread (and wine!). You can garnish with more pepper and even a hot sauce of your choice.

chow time