Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To Donegal

We were thrilled to have visitors over the Easter weekend. Rebecca and Scot arrived on Thurs, April 9. We had dinner Thursday night at The Winding Stair, and Friday we set out for a quick trip to Donegal, the Northernmost county in Ireland. Even farther North than Northern Ireland. We heard varying accounts of how long it would take to get there, but found consensus that it's a long drive for a one night's stay. But, we are Americans and are not afraid of a little road trip.

We enjoyed our stay in the lovely Frewin house in Ramelton. We had arranged to have dinner there, and that turned out to be a great idea as many restaurants are closed on Good Friday, one of two days in the year that alcohol cannot be sold. On Saturday we set out for some scenery, and County Donegal delivered generously. We drove around the Fanad Peninsula to the Fanad Head Lighthouse and back through Doon. We stopped for lunch at a pub in Kerrykeel. And we saw a lot of lambs.

In case you were wondering. It took 5 hours to get there with a stop for lunch and a bit of traffic, and only 3 to return.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What We've Been Eating

The other day one of Bill's coworkers asked him if he avoids dinner when he's had a large lunch. Good Sir, Bill replied, placing his right hand on his chest (as I imagine it), I never avoid dinner. The Irish are really good about having only one large meal a day, frequently having "tea" in the evening, which I think is a sandwich or something else light. That's a pretty good approach, but we were amused at the notion of avoiding a meal. Run away!

So, here are a few examples of our non-avoidance:

If your husband ever emails you at work to say, I'm going to make the maple glazed pork loin from Cooks Illustrated, you should say, Alrighty! I believe I declared this pork with sauteed snow peas to be the best meal I had ever eaten.

My recommendation for any expat with a desire for Mexican food is to bring your own chef! Bill made these tasty sopes, which are basically thick corn tortillas pinched into small boats, and filled them with black beans, apetina (cows milk farmer's cheese), red onion and greek yogurt. Served with a few sausages and avocado.

Restaurants can also provide delicious meals, and Bill doesn't have to slave in the kitchen. We hadn't been out to dinner in City Centre for a while, so a few weeks ago, Bill came into town and met me for dinner at La Mère Zou on a Monday night (March 30). Our meal was lovely. I had a spring pork terrine for starter; Bill had roasted quail on truffled white beans. My seabream with white asparagus, girolles & jerusalem artichoke fricassee was very nice, but Bill's lamb tasting (pictured) was the star of the meal--roasted loin, herb crusted fillet, braised spiced shoulder and glazed sweetbread. The braised shoulder was terrific. I finished up with a smooth and light almond panacotta, and Bill had pain perdu, which is indeed French Toast!

We recently dined with friends at The Winding Stair, a restaurant that has been on our list for a while. The buzz in the dining room was great, with large windows overlooking the Liffey. We were impressed that the menu contains many Irish ingredients without falling back into stodginess, or forward into inaccessible nouveau. I had a seafood meal, scallops (pictured) followed by mussels and chips. The perfect chips were served with a wicked aioli that was widely appreciated by the table. Bill's starter proved our theory that black pudding works much better as an ingredient rather than a patty on a fry up. Served with chorizo and potato aside dressed greens and chewy brown bread, this dish was a knock out. Bill's main of pork, kale and blue cheese was also delish. Dishes our friends enjoyed included a lovely butternut tart and some pearl barley risotto, which was admittedly not super attractive, but tasty. We just had coffee and tea to end the meal, as our portions had been generous.

Southern Fried Tour continues--Part 2

We met my parents and brother in Little Rock to drop off our rental and have a tasty dinner at a fun fish restaurant in the River Market, The Flying Fish. I had an oyster po'boy. Bill had the shrimp version along with some gumbo.

Bill had requested certain breakfast items for our trip. In Huntsville we had sausage biscuits. The featured item in El Dorado was breakfast casseroles. Thursday's offering was a breakfast burrito casserole with scrambled eggs wrapped in tortillas covered in a sour cream green chili sauce and cheese. Yeah. A great way to start the day. Once mom accidentally made it with jalapenos--it was sublime.

To stay on our healthful path, we headed to Sista Sista Sista's for lunch. We were the last folks in before they closed for lunch at 2:00. Sistas serves up soul food--fried chicken, smothered pork chops, turnip greens, mac n cheese, and hot water cornbread. I picked mashed potatoes and cabbage--two very Irish sides. I have to say the cabbage was better than any I've had at a carvery. Sadly it is frequently cooked to death and bland. The Sistas use hot pepper flakes! Bill reveled in his southern roots with black eyed peas and turnip greens. Happily Thursdays are Senior discount day. A good lunch all around. Thursday night Dad cooked some excellent steaks.

Friday's breakfast included two casseroles: the classic sausage, egg, bread and cheese, and a hash brown casserole. Two of my absolute favorites. And I recall a bit of fruit.

One purpose of our visit was to celebrate my mom's 70th birthday, so on Friday afternoon family and friends gathered together. Unfortunately Mom had to plan her own party, but of course she planned a great spread. Aunt Gay and Zac came in on Thursday night, so Mom had a few helpers.

Our week started out rainy, but we enjoyed some glorious spring days during our trip. Of course, El Dorado is covered with a dusting of pine pollen, like powdered sugar on a beignet. But more allergen, less confection.

Saturday (March 21) Mom and Dad drove us back to Little Rock for our flight to Dublin. This time we had a suitcase full of Robin's eggs, Reese's eggs, refried black beans, Better than Boullion, and peanut butter. And black out curtains to fight Ireland's 4:30 AM sunrises.

Southern Fried Tour continues

People have accused me (encouraged?) of a food bias. So, let's get straight to the point. We have two Must Eats whenever we visit Bill's mom in Huntsville, AL:
  • Gibson's Pork BBQ--the sauce and slaw are vinegary, North Carolina Style, and the pulled pork is smoky and tender.
  • Greenbriar's Catfish--the hush puppies are the real draw, but the catfish ain't bad (i.e., really good).
Peggy had Gibson's waiting for us when we arrived, and also whipped up a bowl of Cherry Fluff. I LOVE that stuff. As far as I know, Cool Whip does not exist in Ireland, so this pink flavor-cloud studded with cherries and pineapple tasted truly exotic. We did a bit of shopping in Huntsville, including a stop at the always wondrous Target. I bought some extremely cute felt Easter baskets which have quite impressed my friends here. They cost a dollar! So great.

We visited the fancy Bridge Street shopping center Monday night, and had dinner at Red Robin (which always makes us think of Jered--our friend, not the Subway guy).

In St. Patrick's Day I awoke to realize I had brought nary a green item to wear. Weird since my wardrobe is 50% green. Our Paddy's observances were low key. The day was lovely in Dublin I hear. Last year we were a bit chilly at the parade. One of my friends said March 17 brings childhood memories of being cold and wet. My informal survey revealed that many Irish families celebrate St. P's with a family meal akin to a Sunday dinner, and some kids would get a new outfit. Lots of folks attended the parade when they were kids, but almost no Dubs I know attend now.

Tuesday was a glorious Alabama Spring Day. Bill and I had lunch with his friend Merri-Beth, and we shopped a bit more in the afternoon. We met Bill's brother Danny and family for dinner at Greenbriar's Tuesday night. True to form, I took pictures of the hush puppies but not of any relations. I've tried to explain hush puppies to people here, but they don't understand. How could they possibly understand?

Peggy sent us away with a bowl of fluff. She offered us the leftover BBQ, but we had something else in mind.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

36 hours in Birmingham

Friday, March 13

9:00 PM--Arrive
If you fly from Dublin to Chicago and on to Atlanta, then drive to Birmingham, you can be visiting with friends a mere 20 hours after your departure. Even if you're a bit bleary, it's worth staying up a few more hours because you're time with the Holts is precious!

Saturday, March 14

7:00AM--Orange Rolls
A great part of traveling west is that you can pretend you're a morning person for a few days. Luckily your hosts will play along and wake up early to make orange rolls. You can enjoy several hours with your friends until they depart for their Spring Break trip to Disney World. Always good to see these folks, however brief.

12:30--In Search of Tacos
The rest of your Saturday will be spent in the company of the Ross Family, so head over to their house at the first opportunity. You'll have heard about a taco truck on West Valley, so the two-car convoy takes off in the rain in search of tacos. What you find will thrill your soul and taste buds. It is such a treat to find Austin-type tacos in Birmingham. Some Al Pastor can fix much that is wrong. You'll be near church; the handy cafe tables in the common area are a great place to eat. And you can tour the space as well.

3:00--One word: Pie
Johnny Ray's is always a must stop on any Birmingham trip. And even though the place is called Baby Ray's now, the pie is the same. Lemon is a favorite, but to be fair, the table should order a selection including coconut and chocolate.

6:30--It's all about the fries
Birmingham offers lots of tasty BBQ, but Jim N Nick's stands out for its excellent hand-cut fries. Even if you come from the land of potatoes, these fries are a welcome treat, along with mounds of onion rings. Leave the Ross kids at the sitter, and meet up with Earl and meet a new friend, Laura for a relaxing dinner. The turkey sandwich has always been a favorite, and the BBQ salads are popular as well.

8:30--Nomad Supply
A shop owned by some cool people in Birmingham that occasionally hosts artist and music events. You might be too late and miss the singer you wanted to hear, but it's cool just to see the shop which is born out of the amazing heart and vision of these friends.

9:30 PM--Coffee
In America coffee shops stay open past 6:00 PM, so happily take advantage of this fact. O'Henry's is a cozy place in Homewood that has been serving Joe since before you left Birmingham in 1998.

Sunday, March 15

11:00AM--A Special Congregation
Shades Valley Community Church has always been a special place, so you definitely like to visit whenever possible. The renovations to the former Ice Lodge in Homewood are pretty amazing, and it's always good to see familiar faces and lots of new ones too.

12:30 PM--Southern Goodness
Bogue's has conveniently expanded with a location adjacent to church. It's a handy spot to catch up with Scott and Renee and to dine on good ol' Southern cookin'. If you're not careful, you'll linger over your refills of tea and diet coke until all the chairs are up on the other tables. Oops!

3:00 PM--Chatting away
A Sunday afternoon is a great time to stop by and see friends. It's great to catch up with Marjorie and her family.

6:30 PM--A Burrito with Everything
Bring together all your relatives in the city for a visit over burritos. Moe's is a favorite of both sides of the family, and it's an easy place for everyone to get exactly what they want.

Monday, March 16

9:30 AM--On the Road Again
After a breakfast of homemade granola that your friend Renee made for you, hit the road for Huntsville. It was a great weekend--you saw lots of friends and family, and enjoyed everything on your Must Eat List. Til next time everyone!

Oh, if you want to stop for a Chick-fil-A biscuit on the way to Huntsville, that's not a bad idea.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Brief, Inaccurate History of Jambalaya

  • 14/15th C--New World is discovered
  • 1694--rice arrives in South Carolina, probably originating from Madagascar *
  • 17th C--Spanish and French colonists settle in pre-Louisiana, subsequent generations are known as Creole
  • mid 19th C--rice is cultivated in Southern US *
  • 1849--first occurrence of the term jambalaya in print in English *
  • 1878--Jambalaya appears in The Gulf City Cook Book, by the Ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church (South Mobile, Alabama) *
  • Circa 1988--Bill Gunter eats jambalaya in Bruff cafeteria at Tulane University
  • 1992-1993--Armed with Paul Prudomme cookbook, Bill makes use of his bachelor pad kitchen to develop mad jambalaya skills
  • 1994--Bill takes jambalaya to church picnic; Sharon Lamb eats large portion and takes more home
  • 1995-1998--Sharon and Bill (now married) periodically have jambalaya dinner parties, as it's as easy to make jambalaya for 12 as for 2. Okay, it's impossible to make jambalaya for two.
  • 2002-2007--Jambalaya dinners morph into Annual Mardi Gras Food Fest with the addition of more dishes (red beans and rice, crayfish étouffée, boudin rolls and king cake)
  • March 7, 2009--Sharon and Bill host resurrected Mardi Gras party (albeit belated) in Dublin
*see Wikipedia

As I mentioned on the menu, while the terms Cajun and Creole have distinctions for some, most folks use them interchangeably. You can find jambalaya in Dublin, but we haven't tried it. After an unfortunate Cajun chicken wrap incident, I'm wary. Like "Tex-mex," we've found the term Cajun applied to any vaguely spicy dish. Ah well.

The concept of Mardi Gras partying is not well known in Dublin either. Shrove Tuesday is celebrated as Pancake Day. Not a bad thing at all. Although I think we were among the few having American-style pancakes on Pancake Day. Pancakes here usually means crepes. Again, not a bad thing.

Since I knew I wouldn't find Mardi Gras decorations in Dublin, I contacted Heather of Party Imports (really just my awesome friend Heather) and she shipped us a package of masks, beads and other purple, gold and green decorations. Thanks, Heather!

We had eleven people over for a tasty meal of Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, and Mini-Muffaletta. Bill made the boudin this year, and we made boudin balls rather than boudin rolls. We couldn't find wanton wrappers and spring roll wrappers just aren't the same. The boudin balls were a hit, served with Zatarain's Remoulade. The best remoulade! And of course, Bill made King Cake!

I forgot to take pictures before we ate everything; above is a shot that's trying to pretend the King Cake is still whole, and a picture of our leftover boudin and shrimp creole the next day.

Thanks, Bill for making such a delicious meal for all of us!

Note: Not all our attendees are pictured. Not a good night for my photography skills!