March 29th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
I have long argued that British cuisine has not been given its fair due. (See “The Best of Britain” September 2007 for further rantings on this subject.) Well, now it’s time for me to argue in favor of the Irish, too.
On a recent trip through Ireland I experienced firsthand the country’s culinary renaissance. Whether in the Republic or in Northern Ireland, the menus featured fresh, seasonal, and locally produced foods. Fish caught right off the coast. Cheese made down at the town shop. Eggs laid in the innkeeper’s backyard. It couldn’t get much fresher or more locally produced than that.
Irish cooks seemlessly melded the old with the new. Take creamy leek and potato soup. Intead of pairing it with the customary hunks of brown soda bread, the soup was partnered with micro greens or a salad of frisee, arugula and radicchio. No more bland iceburg lettuce or pale pink tomatoes in this land.
At the bright and cheery The Farm on Dawson Street in Dublin the updated fare was organic, all natural and utterly delicious. The salmon came with sides of sauteed spinach, mashed potatoes, and roasted tomato confit. The “no burger burger” consisted of a thick Portobello mushroom dressed in melted Brie and placed between thick wedges of tomato foccacia bread. From wine to coffee the drinks were likewise organic and tasty.
On the north coast of Northern Ireland the Bushmills Inn offered a new twist on a classic dish, onion soup. Made with a stock of Guinness and served with a parmesan-crusted crouton floating in the middle, this surprisingly light yet flavorful first course sounded all the right notes. It preceded another hit, a maple glazed filet of salmon resting on a bed of sauteed bacon and savoy cabbage. Surrounded by a chestnut mushroom cream sauce, the salmon was a gustatory delight. The timeless British dessert, warm sticky toffee pudding with fresh cream and toffee sauce, capped off the night.
Desserts are my favorite part of any meal and never more so than in Ireland. Puddings. Crumbles. Trifles. Pies. Banoffee, or toffee and banana, pie was a popular offering. Whether topped with carmelized bananas, shaved chocolate, or a drizzle of toffee sauce, this sweet, chilled treat never failed to please.
While renowned for its traditional, filling breakfast of sausages, bacon, fried eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms and possibly a side of boxty or brown bread, Ireland also had lighter and more creative morning fare. At Dublin’s Elephant and Castle - no relation to the mediocre American chain – I began the day with a glass of kir royale and a plate of poached eggs accompanied by sauteed wild mushrooms, toasted muffin, chopped chives and a creamy madeira sauce. If only all mornings were this festive.
Along with Ireland’s updated classics and new creations, there were a host of other cuisines to explore. Suffice to say, I could have spent another six months on the island and still not sampled all the glorious food.
My own version of this classic Irish dish.
1 pound Idaho potatoes, washed, peeled, cut into chunks and boiled
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk
1 pound Idaho potatoes, washed and peeled
1 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda, sifted
1 cup buttermilk
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons butter, for frying the boxty
Mash the boiled potatoes with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 cup of milk. Set aside.
Using a box grater, grate the other pound of potatoes into a bowl. Strain or squeeze out the liquid from the grated potatoes then add them, along with the flour, baking soda and buttermilk, to the mashed potatoes. Stir well to combine then sprinkle in the black pepper and stir again. The batter should be quite thick.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large, non-stick skillet.
With either a 1/4 cup measuring cup or small ladle, pour the batter onto the fraying pan. Cook the cakes on medium heat until the batter has bubbled and appears slightly dry, about 3 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook the other sides. Place on a platter and serve immediately. Makes approximately 18 potato pancakes.
March 24th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Having followed the Troubles in Northern Ireland since childhood, I had more than a few notions about both the country and capital. Belfast would be grim. It would be gritty. Bomb-scarred buildings would line the streets. Police would pound the pavement, poised to quell sectarian violence. Everywhere I turned, I would see evidence of not just decades but centuries of fighting.
That’s the problem with preconceived ideas. So often they are wrong.
Thanks to generous revitalization funding from the EU and Great Britain, Belfast resembled an active, modern city. Sleek, pricey hotels like the Malmaison dotted the cityscape. Huge, glittering shopping complexes, such as the newly opened Victoria Square, drew in hordes of spendthrifts. Briefcase-wielding business people, not gun-toting police officers, dominated the sidewalks. Cranes and construction equipment filled the skyline.
In spite of this hustle and bustle, Belfast was a quiet tourist destination. During our time there most of the sites — the Ulster Museum, the St. George’s farmers’ market, which originated in the 17th century, and the Belfast Cathedral – were closed. In the case of the 19th century St. Malachy’s Church, reputedly the best example of the Victorian architecture for which Belfast is known, the building was encased in scaffolding, missing all of its windows and not slated to re-open for several years.
A few renowned locations were open,though. One landmark, the ornate, 19th century Crown Liquor Saloon, buzzed with business. Probably the North’s most famous pub, it served authentic Ulster food such as champ, oysters, and Irish stew.
Across from the pub stood another busy site, the 4-star Europa Hotel. Attacked 33 times by the IRA, it held the distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe. As perverse as it sounds, the war correspondent-wannabe in me found this wildly intriguing.
So, what did Sean and I do while in Belfast? Well, we did what the locals did. We went shopping. Actually, as the dollar remains so weak (1 pound = 2 dollars; 1 Euro = 1.60 dollars), I browsed through all the stores while Sean hung out in Starbucks. Like I said, it’s a modern city.
March 22nd, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Driving along the northern coast of Northern Ireland, Sean and I experienced the famous ever-changing weather of this country. Sun-warmth-clouds-rain-sun-wind-driving rain-sun-cold-wind, all within a half hour. While the weather may be unpredictable, the lush landscape and breathtaking sites are not. Rather than blather on about each and every site, I will mostly allow pictures, rather than words, to capture the beauty of the land.
Sheep – They’re everywhere!
The Giant’s Causeway — The 37,000 polygonal, balsatic rock columns of the Giant’s Causeway are reputedly Ireland’s top tourist destination as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dunluce Castle – On a dark and stormy night part of the cliff fell into the sea, taking the 16th century kitchen and startled cooks with it.
Bonamargy Friary – The ruins of this 16th century friary are now tucked into a corner of a golf course along the Coastal Causeway.
The town of Cushendun – Once a popular resort area, this little charming village still offers visitors ruins of Carra Castle, the National Trust house Rockport, a small beach, scenic walks and a touching memorial to the last animal lost in the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Quaint villages – Like the sheep, they are everywhere.
Rocky coastlines – At best a low stone wall separates you from the cliff’s edge. Safe driving and sure-footed walking are essential.
Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge – Walk 62 feet across a wobbly rope bridge spanning the North Channel. Your destination? A commercial salmon fishery on Carrick-a-rede Island. I like fish. I hate heights. ‘Nuff said.
March 21st, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Upon hearing that Sean and I were headed to Belfast in Northern Ireland, the Dublin car rental agent responded with, ‘You’ll be wanting a bullet-proof car then.’ Jokes aside, I had expected the border crossing between the independent Republic and British-controlled North to be somewhat momentous. Interrogations. Friskings. Or, at the very least, a much-coveted passport stamp. Instead we breezed across the invisible border without any fanfare. The only indication that we had left the Republic came in the form of mileage. Instead kilometers, distance in the North is measured in miles.
Deeper into the countryside the atmosphere shifted ever so slightly. Graffiti popped up, proclaiming ‘Sinn Fein is law,’ ‘Hang Bush,’ and ‘No more British control.’ Placards posted to telephone poles and tree trunks declared ‘Abortion is murder.’ Hmmm . . ..
Saving Belfast for later in the trip, we headed north to the village of Bushmills along the North Channel in County Antrim. Home to the Old Bushmills Distillery and within a short drive to the UNESCO World Heritage site the Giant’s Causeway and the 16th century, cliffside ruin, Dunluce Castle, Bushmills sounded like the ideal stopping place. We checked into the only open hotel — the 17th century Bushmills Inn Hotel — and then ate dinner at the only open restaurant, the Bushmills Inn Hotel.
After delicious meals featuring locally produced foods, we set out to explore our surroundings. At first glance Bushmills seemed a bit sleepy, if not deserted. Homes were dark. Stores were shuttered. Not a dog or cat was on the street. Everyone must be off on a St. Patrick’s Day-Easter week holiday, I assumed.
Then Sean pointed out that many of the buildings had burnt and were boarded up, not just shuttered. This wasn’t the the sort of one-row-house-catches-on-fire-then-another-one-joins-in scenario but instead appeared to be random fires throughout the village. Toss in a periodic empty lot strewn with rubbish and rubble and the town took on a mildly sinister air. I had anticipated such sights in war-ravaged Belfast but not in Bushmills, population 1,000.
By daylight Bushmills lost its edge. Yes, the abandoned buildings, vacant lots and ‘Scum Out’ graffiti remained. People were quite pleasant, though, and no one seemed to notice anything amiss. So, we set out on foot again to tour the oldest licensed distillery in the world, Old Bushmills, and sample some of its whiskey. And, as we all know, with enough sunshine and whiskey, things can look quite lovely.
March 19th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Minus the beads, bared breasts and beer consumed on the streets. And the warm weather. And exceptional live music. (The only traditional tunes that my husband Sean and I heard were from a middle-aged man playing a recorder in a hot, packed pub. And he played quite badly.)
What wasn’t absent were the enormous crowds and tremendous police presence. After a series of violent fights on St. Patrick’s Day 2004 Dublin now imports about 800 police officers from around the country. On every block we saw 5 to 10 ‘gardai’ in their flourescent yellow jackets, waiting to spring into action. Most often they seemed to give directions to confused and/or drunk tourists. (Tuesday’s papers indicated that they arrested around a dozen car thieves-arsonists who set the stolen autos on fire.)
Celebrants there were many. Since Ireland has banned smoking in bars and restaurants, smokers clustered around the front entrances and along the sidewalks. Inside the pubs were wall-to-wall revelers. At one point we were relegated to the third floor hallway of a four-story pub. Forget about going up to the rooftop or back down the stairs. Just drink your pint and appreciate having a spot to stand with your Guinness in hand.
Daytime was no quieter. The parade drew roughly 650,000 spectators, all decked out in fuzzy, green top hats, face paint and ‘Kiss me – I’m Irish’ T-shirts. The parade began at noon at Parnell Square on the north side and ended by St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Patrick Street, where we stood. At one point Sean and I slipped into the 11th century cathedral to check out the final resting place of Jonathan Swift, former dean of the cathedral and author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ Pleasant way to kill 20 minutes before the festivities began.
As with Mardi Gras, there were loads of colorful floats and marching bands. No beads or — as with the 2005 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New Orleans – painful potatoes and cabbages hurled from above. There were, however, live trapeze artists as well as beautiful silk balloons bobbing into the crowds.
With energy — ‘green’ energy — as this year’s theme we were treated to floats featuring the sun, wind, oil derricks, electricity (a giant red robot accompanied by a heavy metal band! talk about electrifying!) and balloons of giant dragons, fish, bugs and owls. We suspect that the dragons came courtesy of Scotland and the Loch Ness monster. All that fire breathing power finally harnassed and used for good, eh?
March 11th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
With close to 20,000 restaurants in the five boroughs I am never at a loss for dining options. Although it feels as though I am constantly trying new places, I still manage to revisit more than a few favorites. A couple, such as David Bouley’s elegant French mecca in Tribeca, Bouley www.davidbouley.com, I save for special occasions. Others I frequent for specific meals, such as a bagel breakfast at Tal’s or the not-to-miss Sunday champagne brunch at Isabella’s www.brguestrestaurants.com. (As an added bonus, while my brunch buddies wait for a table at Isabella’s, I can slip across Columbus Avenue and shop for vintage photos, antique silverware or alpaca sweaters at GreenFlea Market. www.greenfleamarkets.com)
When I’m in a rush, I turn to grab-and-go spots like Two Boots Pizza, Chickpea and Artie’s Deli. There I can pick up a slice of vegetable-laden pizza, falafel-filled pita or egg salad-on-rye sandwich and eat as I walk down the street. If time isn’t a factor, I drop by Savoy in SoHo, Carmine’s and Acqua on the Upper West Side and Tabla and Gramercy Tavern in the Flatiron District. While the locations, cuisines and price ranges differ, these five favored restaurants share an emphasis on good service, creative recipes, and high quality ingredients.
Savoy – Prince and Crosby Streets, www.savoynyc.com – In 1990 chef-owner Peter Hoffman opened his ode to locally produced foods in SoHo. Almost 20 years later he continues to create wholesome yet innovative meals. At his Federal-style townhouse I fell in love with stinging nettle soup, a rich, deep green, velvety dish. This winter I returned again and again for grilled blue cheese sandwiches, parsnip and gruyere soup and arctic char with cider braised cabbage and potato and apple salad. With a cozy, wood-burning fireplace on either floor, seasonal, New American fare and congenial, well-informed staff it is no wonder that Savoy remains a beloved establishment.
Gramercy Tavern – E. 20th between Broadway and Park Avenue S., www.gramercytavern.com – Granted, the 3-course, prix fixe menu is painfully expensive and reservations are hard to acquire but Gramercy Tavern’s contemporary American cuisine never fails to please. By the time I have gobbled up an appetizer of butternut squash risotto, entree of Spanish mackerel, dessert of Grand Marnier mascarpone cheesecake – plus the amuse, palate cleanser and plate of petit fours – and accepted my complimentary take-home muffin, I am full, content and happy that I splurged on such a divine meal.
Tabla’s Bread Bar – Madison and 25th www.tablanyc.com – I now skip the pricier, second floor dining room and instead dine downstairs at the cheerful, mosaic-tiled Bread Bar. Here the New Indian offerings are more casual but never any less delicious. A trio of chutneys, warm naan bread, tandoori black pepper shrimp, saag paneer pizza, the 9-bean and lentil Navaratan dal, chicken tikka and striped bass ceviche are among the highlights of the menu. Factor in cocktails such as the tart tamarind margarita, kumquat mojito and lemongrass and pineapple-infused Tablatini and it becomes obvious why Tabla is such a treat.
Acqua – Amsterdam and 95th, www.acquanyc.com – Right around the corner from my apartment, the Italian bistro Acqua scores big points for proximity. Likewise it earns marks for its delicious mushroom gnocchi, a lovely wilted spinach with white beans and pecorino romano salad and an environment friendly to single diners. On warm nights alfresco dining is a must. Bring a friend or a good book and savor the delectable rustic Italian food on Amsterdam.
Carmine’s – Broadway between 90th and 91st www.carminesnyc.com – While the charter buses parked out front and the hordes of tourists milling inside chill my blood, the generous and flavorful family-style Italian at Carmine’s warms my tummy. A great place to meet up with friends as well as take out-of-town guests, Carmine’s high points include the garlicky red sauces, mixed greens salads, soft tomato and carmelized onion breads, and enormous bowls of cocoa-dusted tiramisu. For smaller, less expensive portions, I stop by at lunchtime. More often than not, I miss the crowds then, too.
March 4th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Why, yes, I would.
When I was in my 20s, I thought that wine and beer would sustain me for life. A nice glass of Montepulciano at dinner. A couple of beers on a Saturday night. Older and more seasoned, I now realize that cocktails are where it’s at.
Whether inviting a few friends over for dinner or throwing a big soiree, nothing says ”celebrate” like a mixed drink. In the summer I whip up watermelon daiquiris, coconut mojitos and lemon drops. Fall and spring mean sidecars and Pimm’s cups. Winter marks the return of moose milk, steaming wassail and nutmeg-dusted Irish cows. Thanks to my spiral bound “Bartender’s Black Book,” I can make a multitude of drinks every day of the year.
Dolled up with a tiny paper umbrella or served au naturel, cocktails are, for me, the hallmark of adulthood. I have my parents to thank (or blame) for this view. Normally teetotalers, they would splash out and indulge at parties, receptions and upscale restaurants. Harvey Wallbangers, whiskey sours, and — yick! — scotch. Never left out, I received the requisite, maraschino cherry-topped Shirley Temple, a sickly sweet concoction that left me cold even at 10. What I wouldn’t have done for some fresh lime juice mixed with club soda or a trio of tropical juices served on the rocks.
Today I tend to deviate from my parents’ drink menu. When faced with a choice between rum and coke or a pomegranate gimlet, I’m going for the gimlet. Original or off-the-beaten-path, that’s what I crave. At home I also try to keep the cocktails fun and creative. Below are a few favorites, sure ways to make your gathering more festive. For larger parties, just double, triple or quadruple the amounts.
A warm drink for cold, late winter nights, this is a nice alternative to Guinness and green beer on St. Patrick’s Day.
8 ounces milk
8 ounces Bailey’s Irish Cream
splash of Kahlua, optional
freshly ground nutmeg, for garnish
Warm the milk and Bailey’s in a non-stick saucepan. (Do not let the liquids come to a boil!) Pour into glasses, top with freshly ground nutmeg and serve.
An imprecise but people-pleasing recipe. The more rum you add, the more pleased your guests will be.
Serves 4 to 5
roughly 2 cups of watermelon, cubed then frozen for at least 8 hours
fresh or Rosetree’s lime juice, to taste
white rum, to taste
3 to 5 tablespoons of powdered sugar
Place the ingredients in a blender and blend until pureed. Pour into cocktail glasses and serve.
2 ounces Pimm’s
Splash of ginger ale
splash of lime juice
Fill a glass with ice. Pour in the Pimm’s. Top off with equal amounts ginger ale and lime juice. Stir then serve.
From Nigella Lawson’s “Forever Summer” (Hyperion, 2003)
1 lemon, peeled and quartered
2 ounces limoncello
2 ounces Triple Sec
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
handful of ice cubes
Put lemon pieces in a blender, sprinkle sugar over the pieces and steep for a few minutes. Pour limoncello, Triple Sec and ice cubes into the blender and blend until smooth. Strain (if you prefer pulp-free) the mixture into cocktail glass and enjoy.