Favorite Irish foods

As I begin to think about packing to return to America on Monday, my thoughts are turning to things I’ll miss about Ireland. My fabulous in-laws, of course. The wonderful hospitality and Irish spirit. The gorgeously green scenery. And, yes, the food.

Here’s a short list of the Emerald Isle foods I’ve grown to know and love:

Taytos. Taytos is Ireland’s answer to Lay’s potato chips, and like the latter, you can never eat just one. You see the little red and blue bags everywhere – in gas stations, quick-stops, bars and homes. The standard flavor is cheese/onion, which even my husband scarfs down. Now THAT’S saying something.

Bulmers. Even though I’ve tried, I can’t seem to develop a taste for Guinness. And while you can easily find American lagers like Budweiser and Coors in Ireland, it seems silly to me to order them here. Whiskey is a little hardcore for a relatively light drinker like myself. This leaves me with Bulmers hard cider, a choice I am more than happy to make when visiting the pub. It’s light and easy to drink, it’s slightly sweet but not too much, and it’s yummy. I’ve been told they now make Bulmers in pear and berry flavors, but I haven’t had opportunity to ask for them. A goal for my next visit, I suppose.

Cadbury chocolate. Cadbury Snack. Cadbury Dairy Bar. Cadbury Buttons. Cadbury anything. Yes, please.

Jaffa cakes. Part cookie, part cake, all good. Jaffa cakes are to Ireland what Little Debbies are to America. Start with a flat little spongey cake the size of a cookie, put a spoonful of orange marmalade in the center, then coat the whole thing with chocolate. Enough said.

The Irish fry. Anyone who’s ever stayed in Ireland has been asked two inevitable questions: “Will ye have a drop?” in the evening and “Will ye have a fry?” in the morning. The “drop” of whiskey is never just a drop, and for the uninitiated, a “fry” might bring to mind an order of crispy shoestring potatoes or a greasy Friday night fish extravaganza. Au contraire, mon frere.

For those who believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the Irish fry is like brunch on steroids – a gluttonous and manly amalgamation of a fried egg, sausage, rashers (thick Irish bacon), black and white pudding, half of a tomato (fried, of course), and classic Irish brown bread or toast. Sometimes you’ll see other mix-and-match additions like baked beans and mushrooms. The whole thing is washed down with lashings of scalding hot tea, although coffee is gaining more favor in some circles. Somewhat surprisingly, potatoes usually aren’t included in a traditional fry; those are saved for roasting at supper later in the day. (More on this later…)

It’s not the kind of breakfast you could eat everyday, but as a once-in-a-while treat, it’s fantastic.

Potatoes. I would be remiss not to include the humble spud in this list. You can’t get away from potatoes here. Even meals like lasagna, curry and pizza come with chips. And let me clarify: here, “chips” are what we call fries, usually the thick steak-cut variety. What we call chips are known as “crisps” here, and that include Taytos and all other varieties. So when I say chips, I really mean fries. Got it?

The younger generations sometimes get away with a potato-free meal, but for traditionalists like my dear mother-in-law, a dinner without potatoes is unfathomable. I’ve tried and tried and tried to replicate her delicious homemade roasted potatoes at home in Indiana, and never gotten it just right. Something about the potatoes themselves, I believe, or perhaps my preparation technique. Who knows. I’ve given up trying to compete and accepted that when it comes to roasts and potatoes, she is and will always be the reigning champion.

Brown bread. While we’re on the subject of my mother-in-law, let me just say that her brown bread is delicious. Found in every restaurant and home in the country, Irish brown soda bread is not like the wheat bread you find in America. It’s a flat, dense, chewy disk of whole grain goodness that’s cut into thin slices and served for breakfast or lunch.

Again, I’ve tried to make it at home without the same success, although hubby has experimented enough to come up with a very tasty version of his own. I once asked my mother-in-law for a brown bread-making lesson, taking copious notes the entire time as she casually threw handfuls of flour into a bowl saying things like “use about this much and then add the buttermilk until it looks right.” She usually apologizes after making it, saying that it doesn’t seem quite right when, of course, it’s always perfect.

I know there is more I’m leaving out, but these are the biggies, the go-to items I seek out when we’re here. Two more days until we leave. I wonder how many last taste blasts I can cram into my diet before we go.

Ballymaloe bliss

Last night, I got to check a major culinary goal off my bucket list. I got to eat and stay at Ballymaloe House.

Ballymaloe House inn

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Ballymaloe is owned and operated by a woman named Darina Allen, who has created something of a culinary empire in Ireland. She runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, has authored a whole slew of highly regarded cookbooks, and is pretty much the localvore food authority around these parts. Think Martha Stewart without the snooty attitude or jail time. Darina is a huge proponent of the Slow Food movement, and every ingredient she works with is either grown on the Ballymaloe grounds or comes from a local purveyor. Her daughter Rachel is something of a foodie celebrity in her own right as well with a set of cookbooks of her own.

Knowing my culinary aspirations and affinities, several of my in-laws have gifted me with Ballymaloe vouchers for Christmases and birthdays within the past few years, and they’ve been burning a hole in my pocket. I was thrilled when my mother-in-law said she’d mind the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a stay at the Ballymaloe House inn. We arrived around 2 p.m. to make as much use of our baby-free time as possible.

Ballymaloe House is simply beautiful, a majestic 15th century ivy-covered stone structure in the middle of wheat and barley fields waving in the sea breezes. Although the place is plenty busy and there are more than a few small children running around, there’s still a zen aura of tranquility about the place.

For such an upscale inn, the staff is totally laid back. When we checked in, I asked if I needed to present my gift vouchers or even ID, but they just waved me off like “Pshaw! Bring it down whenever.” Still completely professional and helpful, but extremely easy-going and friendly about answering our requests and questions.

For being so off the beaten path, Ballymaloe offers a number of on-site recreational activities — walking trails, a bird sanctuary, a pool, tennis courts, a five-hole golf course, and croquet in addition to inviting sitting rooms, a solarium and porches where you can simply take a load off and bask in the glorious sunshine. A nice touch — there are free bikes you can borrow to take a spin around the property, which we did. Hubby was so excited, he even used his to explore the surrounding area. Since I’m more a social biker, I instead spent a wonderful hour or so wading around in the heated pool. This is a perfect time of year to be here; everywhere you look, there are lush blooming flowers and herbs.

Inside, there’s a small bar and a tiny tv room. Because there are no televisions in the guest rooms, you’re forced to get out and make use of the property. This is actually pretty smart. Otherwise, we probably would have just camped out in front of some stupid movie we’ve both already seen a million times and wasted a beautiful day.

The rooms aren’t numbered; instead, each has its own specific name and personality — the Rose Room, the Blue Room, the East Room, the Bamboo Room and so on. We stayed in the River Room, which was absolutely lovely, with period furnishings, a door that opened out onto the green lawn and a bathtub long enough to lie down in. Everything was cozy and spotlessly clean.

With a couple of hours to kill before dinnertime, we decided to take a leisurely drive out to nearby Ballycotton, where we spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the spectacularly scenic cliffs, taking in the sea views of ocean waves breaking on the rocks.

The bike ride, pool time and fresh sea air served to whet our appetites and by the time 7:30 rolled around, we were starving. The standard Sunday night dinner at Ballymaloe is a buffet of cold seafood dishes, cold salads and roast meats. Normally, I’m not an all-you-can-eat fan, but I figured if you were ever going to get a good one, this had to be the place.

This was no Golden Corral, food-standing-around-sweating-all-day-under-heat-lamps kind of buffet. It was one long table laden with homey earthenware bowls and platters, each containing food that was prepared that very minute and brought out from the kitchen still cold or hot as the case might have been. It was like having Sunday dinner at your grandma’s house, provided your grandma is a certified kick-ass culinary rockstar.

The meal started with a bowl of soup for each of us – the choices being onion thyme and cabbage. You can imagine hubby’s reaction when they were recited to us. He ordered the cabbage soup just to be polite, but refused to eat any of it, filling up on bread instead. I actually found the creamy onion soup to be very mild and tasty. Sort of like garlic gets all sweet and mild when it’s roasted, the same thing was going on here.

The seafood section was kinda wasted on us, but still beautiful even just to look at. Oysters, deliciously sweet tiny steamed shrimp, langostines, smoked fish of all sorts, a whole smoked salmon, crab mayonnaise, mussels — you name it, it was here.

sumptuous seafood

The salads really showcased what Ballymaloe is all about – ingredients picked from the on-site gardens at the height of their freshness, served simply to highlight their true flavors. Gorgeous red ripe tomato salad with chopped basil; julienned cucumber, peppers and onions; herb salad with edible flowers; roasted eggplant slices; mushrooms; beets; and an intriguingly pickled shaved carrot salad that my hubby couldn’t get enough of. The only nod to Ireland’s signature item was a nicely done potato salad.

The roast meats were no slouch, either, all carved to order by an attentive young server. This was like a maximum-strength carvery. The selection included roast pork, roast beef, leg of lamb, some kind of tongue, glazed ham and turkey – with enough complementary sauces to make your head swim. The only tongue I want making its way down my throat is my husband’s, so I opted to try the roast pork with applesauce and the roast lamb with mint sauce. I also ended up bogarting hubby’s glazed ham slice. He said the turkey was very moist and yummy as well. All the meats were expertly prepared, extremely tender and full of rich flavor in spite of their simple preparations. I was somewhat put off by the fatty crunchy roast pork crackling, but once I tasted it, I was totally hooked. Turns out Emeril was right all along. Pork fat rules.

the selection of roasts

Dessert was served tableside from a traveling cart of selections, and what selections they were. The choices included a flourless chocolate cake/tart, gooseberry fool (pudding), fresh strawberries and peaches, lemon meringue, housemade strawberry ice cream, whipped cream and shortbread cookies. Mercy. My tummy was reaching its limit by this point, so I figured the lemon meringue would be the lightest option, although I did taste hubby’s chocolate cake and strawberry ice cream. Every bite was heavenly.

the decadent dessert trolley

I washed down my meal with a nice gerwurztraminer – half bottles were a nice option from the extensive wine list. Hubby enjoyed a cup of coffee at the end of his dinner and pronounced it good.

I was impressed with the table next to us, populated with a couple around our age, an older couple (grandparents?) and four small kids, the youngest of which couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 sporting a head of wild curly blond hair and a South Africa football jersey. I can only hope my son will grow to eat as well as these kids did, cleaning their plates soup and all using grown-up cutlery and everything. I made hubby hang around just so I could see their reactions when the dessert trolley rolled up.

An added thrill, we got to meet Darina Allen herself, who was in the house supervising the buffet line, bringing in fresh herbs and greenery to garnish the table, and personally greeting each group in the dining room and urging everyone to enjoy more of everything. It says a lot that this woman has created such a reputation for herself throughout Ireland and beyond, yet still manages to be so hands-on and down-to-earth. I was delighted to see her in the flesh and actually get to speak with her briefly.

All in all, for us, I’m not sure the buffet was worth the 70 euro per person price tag, but for someone who loves seafood, it would definitely be of more value. Still, it was a lovely dining experience. More than anything else, I suppose you’re paying for the Ballymaloe name and the ingredients, which were of superior quality for sure. Hubby and I agreed we’d love to return for lunch next time.

Breakfast was another high point. Our Sunday special 80-euro-per-person rate covered both bed and breakfast, which was more than fair. We slept in and arrived toward the tail end of the service, but everything looked as if it had just been brought out moments earlier. When we walked in, we were encouraged to help ourselves to the continental items: a table laden with muesli, porridge, fruit, yogurt and fresh juice; then another full of breads, butter and jams. The items included a few offbeat, grown-on-the-premises fruits such as gooseberries, rhubarb and blackberries. As expected, everything was top quality and uber fresh.

When we sat down, an older waitress came over to get our hot drink order and present us with a menu of hot items. Featured, of course, was the quintessential Irish fry plus a fish choice. Hubby went whole hog with the full Irish minus the mushrooms. Still somewhat full from last night, I modestly selected just the scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon (or rashers as they’re called here). In retrospect, not quite the picture of restraint.

the standard Irish fry at Ballymaloe

The coffee was served in a French press, which I always love, and the cream on the table was still cold in its tiny pitcher. The farm-fresh eggs were delicious. I daresay they rivaled those we’ve had in France, and those go down in my memory as the best I’ve ever tasted. Hubby didn’t eat his because they were slightly runny. I thought the waitress was going to cry when he politely told her he didn’t like them that way; she fell all over herself offering to bring him a new plateful. No matter, we were full of yummy, salty fried breakfast meat by that point. The sausage and rashers were delicious, as was the biscuity scone I enjoyed. For someone who wasn’t hungry when we came in, I still managed to clean my plate.

To sum up, Ballymaloe was excellent. If you are anywhere near the southeastern part of Ireland, I highly recommend paying a visit for as long as you can manage it.

A tale of two dinners

The night before last, hubby and I paid an inaugural visit to Paprika, the Indian restaurant in Millstreet. I keep asking the folks around these parts and no one seems to have any idea what it’s like, never having eaten there. Hubby and I decided it was up to us to bravely blaze the trail.

We made our entrance around 7 p.m. on a Thursday night and we the only diners in the joint. Could very nearly have heard crickets chirping, the place was so quiet, and no one else proceeded to come in the entire time we were there for takeaways or otherwise. Hm. Not encouraging, but we soldiered on.

The waiter was Indian, which fueled my belief that the food would actually be authentic and yummy. However, he seemed somewhat flustered by taking our order, which made me nervous. I worried about our entrée requests getting lost in translation, but hoped for the best.

The freebie poppadum was a little stale, but tasty, and came along with a trio of sauces — a tomato chutney, a herbed yogurt raita and some sort of sweetish curry thing. We ordered up a chicken tandoori tikka masala for hubby and a lamb badami korma for me, both with pilau rice, and an order of cheese naan bread. For being the only diners within a ten-mile radius, it seemed to take an inordinately long time to prepare our food. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad sign.

By the time the food finally arrived, I was nearly ready to gnaw my own arm off. The bread was fresh and tasty, but the cheese absent. Our entrees were mostly sauce and skimpy on the meat; the sauces were interestingly spiced but not spicy. The tikka masala was basically a creamy tomato sauce. My korma was more intriguing flavorwise — a yellow yogurt curry thickened with what tasted like ground almonds. Some veggies and a little more meat would have gone a long way to round things out. Both dishes were fine, not stellar, but fine. The meal was a little overpriced for what we got.  To be honest, Shalimar in Indianapolis would put this place to shame.

Don’t know that I’d rush right back to Paprika anytime soon, but wouldn’t be opposed to ordering some take out there at some point in the future.

I fared better last night at my sister-in-law Margaret’s 40th birthday celebration dinner. Bandon (the town where she lives) is much bigger than Millstreet and therefore offers more dining options. The scene of the dinner was a place called Marmatiece, an upscale trendy fine-dining restaurant on the river the flows through Bandon. I’d seen the menu posted in the window during previous walks through town and was excited to see if it was actually as good as it sounded.

The party was a vivacious group of Margaret’s female family and friends, a lively crowd of 15 or so sophisticated ladies that I was honored to be a part of. In spite of our waiter who seemed a little out of sorts about serving that many ladies at once, everything seemed to come off without any major hiccups. We kicked off the evening with champagne and things rolled on from there.

The Marmatiece menu was not extensive, but the dishes all sounded delicious. Think traditional Irish ingredients given modern twists and surprising interpretations. I nibbled the complementary bread and pesto, finally settling on the daily specials for both starter and an entrée.

For my appetizer, I enjoyed an egg roll stuffed with creamy crabmeat and sautéed summer veggies. It was served with a little shallow dish of addictively sweet soy sesame dipping sauce. Although the egg roll wrapper was a little chewy, it was still yummy. The egg roll was pretty good sized, and I kept telling myself it was ok to leave some and save room for my dinner to come, but I couldn’t help myself and polished off every crumb.

About half of the table ordered the monkfish entrée, and most were disappointed when they discovered that the monkfish was really only a small garnishing section of what was actually a large salad. Not me. My perfectly cooked fresh cod was completely delicious – a huge filet that I couldn’t even finish, drenched in a rich beurre blanc sauce atop a bed of sweet peas, bacon and sautéed onion. And because this is Ireland, a few roasted baby potatoes around the edge of the plate. Excellently done.

I was so full I had to pass on dessert, although I must admit, I wasn’t blown away by the choices. The servings I saw looked lovely, especially the pear crumble served in individual French Le Creuset-style baking dishes with tiny carafes of custard sauce and whipped cream, but I wasn’t heartbroken about missing out.

Tomorrow, hubby and I are off for a sneaky romantic getaway at the Ballymaloe House inn. Several of the in-laws have given me gift certificates to use at Ballymaloe Cookery School (think an Irish Cordon Bleu culinary academy), but I couldn’t find anything on the schedule of classes that really tempted me. Fortunately, the kind folks at Ballymaloe said it was no problem to transfer the vouchers to use for accommodation and dinner at the inn, bless them. I’ve been to Ballymaloe once before with my sister-in-law for a fabulous three-course lunch, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll do for their famous weekly Sunday night buffet… stay tuned.

Irish eyes are smiling

I’m sad and embarrassed to admit I’ve neglected my blog so much these past few months, but let’s get jumpstarted back into the entries with my current trip to Ireland!

Hubby is doing a bunch of business in Europe this summer, so instead of a series of trips back and forth over the pond, the toddler and I came along for an extended stay. We’ve settled into my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork as our home base for about six weeks. We’re currently halfway through the trip, and with all the side jaunts we’ve been doing to see various and sundry relatives, the time is flying by.

This is my sixth trip to Ireland, and the weather this time around by far blows away any other visit. Warm, sunny and barely a hint of rain in the past three weeks. Unbelievable for a country where you are likely to experience, as they say, four seasons in one day. I’ve packed horribly wrong by bringing jeans, long-sleeved shirts and even a sweater or two when I could have gotten away with shorts, sandals and sundresses. Who knew? Oddly enough, from what we can tell, Indianapolis has been plagued by terrible thunderstorms and tornado watches since we’ve been away. Talk about a role reversal…

Although Ireland is still full of the same gorgeous green ancient scenery as it has been in the six years I’ve been visiting, I do see some changes happening in my two most recent trips. First of all, the younger generation (and by younger, I mean mine) seems to be moving away from drinking tea into a coffee culture. Cafes and coffee shop/bakeries have been springing up like weeds, serving all manner of hot beverages including fancy flavored lattes. Starbucks hasn’t yet taken over; there was a location next door to the hotel where we stayed in Dublin, but it’s been the only one I’ve seen so far. Sadly, most of the coffee is mediocre at best. Lots of instant powdered, and lots of not-expertly prepared versions. Of course, hubby and I are coffee snobs, having sampled the really good java in France and Italy where baristas really know what they’re doing. Still, I imagine the quality of the Irish joe will only keep improving within the next few years to meet the growing demand.

Other big changes are taking place on the restaurant scene. In the past, dining out in Ireland has been a limited proposition. Menus were very abbreviated, most items automatically came with fries/chips, and everything was pretty expensive regardless of quality or quantity. For that reason, people here don’t seem to dine out very often. Add up the costs for two adults and a couple of kids and you’re likely to drop some serious cash on a dinner or a take-away. (That’s take-out for my fellow Americans.)

Thus, most of our meals have been eaten at home, lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law or one of hubby’s sisters, and they’ve been delicious. But I’m also happy to report I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the meals we’ve enjoyed out these past few weeks.

For example – hubby and I escaped for a date night dinner a couple weeks ago while staying with my sister-in-law in Bandon. Destination? A renovated gastropub called Poachers, renowned for its fish dishes. The place was fairly busy at 8 p.m. on the Tuesday night we were there; obviously, the local community is embracing the changes.

Poachers Inn, Bandon

The menu was nicely upscale, full of pretty fancy, borderline fussy stuff with elaborate garnishes and saucing. Hubby ordered a stuffed chicken breast served with ratatouille vegetables and mashed potatoes. I went for a three-course prix-fixe menu for 25 euros. My starter was a handful of small toasts topped with a whipped goat cheese mousse-like concoction, slivers of preserved lemon and thin slices of beet. A fresh herb salad with pickled cucumbers anchored the center of the plate. Yum.

My main course was two delectable crab-and-prawn cakes topped with a mango plum salsa relish, creamy mayonnaise tartar sauce and more salad. Not a potato in sight – crazy!!! For dessert, hubby and I shared my warm gingerbreadish sticky toffee pudding with a scoop of whipped cream and hearty drizzle of caramel sauce. All in all, a splendid meal. And even more impressive, our total bill (with a couple beers and two glasses of wine) hovered around $75 dollars, easily fair value for the amount and caliber of food.

Restaurant diversity is expanding, too. On an overnight in Dublin, I was thrilled to see all ilk of ethnic eateries. Even in little Millstreet, there is an Indian restaurant and a new pizza place I’d like to try. In Dublin, we ate dinner at a small, modern Italian ristorante near our hotel. Hubby ordered his tried-and-true standby – a pizza salami and I opted for a penne pasta with pesto and thick shavings of pungent parmesan. The food was solid and authentic, not the best I’ve ever had, but certainly tasty enough.

Breakfast the next morning was another story. Thanks to hubby’s fortuitous suggestion to follow an unexplored side street, we came across a tiny café advertising breakfast all day. Sold, and in we went. As I mentioned earlier, cafes are popping up a dime a dozen all around these parts, but this was a particularly good one. We nestled into a small table toward the back under skylights next to a small open-air patio and started browsing through a menu full of breakfast choices.

After much consideration, hubby and I settled on the same item – a super-freshly prepared huge croissant sandwich with cheese, salty slabs of Irish bacon and scrambled egg, served with a small ramekin of delicious Ballymaloe tomato relish (a sweetish, spicy, chunky ketchup). For the toddler, we ordered pancakes — which I keep forgetting are actually crepes here — with sliced banana and Nutella. We also couldn’t resist ordering a “Babychino” for him, a cup of sweet steamed milk with chocolate shavings on top, which our picky little boy soundly refused to drink, although he did polish off the crepes and Nutella without much coaxing.

Speaking of Ballymaloe, Ireland’s well-known culinary school empire, I have several gift vouchers that I’m hoping to make use of with a wonderful lunch or dinner, if not an overnight stay at the inn. More to come on that later…

Other meals that stand out thus far – a simple traditional roast chicken and boiled ham dinner from my mother-in-law. Rounded out with classic roasted potatoes and vegetables, it was Irish cooking at its best. Also memorable was a fresh cannelloni my brother-in-law whipped up, complete with handmade pasta and a savory ricotta/mascarpone/ground beef filling and topped with tomatoes. Oh. My. Goodness. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous.

Here’s to more good eats to come, and slainte!

More Guinness goodness

The past few days have been fairly low-key – visiting various inlaws and drives through the gorgeous Irish countryside. Meals have been fairly low-key as well, but delicious, as always. Dinners of shepherd’s pie, take-out Indian food, and a true rarity – mother-in-law actually let me into the kitchen last night to cook! I made a beef stir fry with noodles, although mother-in-law and one of my brother-in-laws “don’t like the look of pasta” and opted to eat their stir fry over potatoes instead.

Here’s a classic Irish recipe that hubby and I have perfected at home – Guinness beef stew. (Hubby’s made it more than I have, actually, so he’s the one who really has it sussed.) The original version came from a Darina Allen cookbook, but we’ve finessed it into our own variation over time.

Darina Allen is sort of like the Martha Stewart/Alice Waters of Ireland. A self-made kitchen goddess, she operates the Ballymaloe House inn and Ballymaloe Cookery School in southeast Ireland, has written a shitload of cookbooks, and is a big proponent of using only local seasonal products. I would LOVE to attend the cookery school, but it’s a 12-week program at the cost of around $10,000. Uh. Not in the cards unless I hit the lottery.

One of my sister-in-laws drove me to check the place out when we were here visiting last summer and I treated her to a three-course lunch there to thank her for her troubles. The inn was beautiful and the meal was fabulous – very simple ingredients, but each at the absolute height of its freshness and quality. I recall a gorgeous heirloom tomato salad starter, a sumptuous light-as-air gnocchi with wild mushrooms, and a dessert plate full of about half a dozen samples of mouthwatering goodies – a tiny apple tart, a scoop of housemade chocolate ice cream, a few spoonfuls of raspberry yogurt, a madeleine and goodness knows what else. At 40 euros a plate, it was pretty pricy, but since it was a special treat and not something you’d do every day, I was happy to pay it. I hope to drag my husband there for dinner and a stay at the inn if we ever have a free night on one of our future visits in Ireland.  

But back to the stew… Even if you aren’t a fan of Guinness in a pint (like me), don’t let the inclusion of it here throw you. It blends well with the tomato paste and cooks down into a rich, wonderful gravy. This stew is easy to make and it creates a fantastic aroma to waft through your kitchen on a cold winter day.


Beef and Guinness Stew
Serves: 6 to 8


  • 2 lb. lean stew beef
  • 3 tb. vegetable oil
  • 2 tb. flour seasoned with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pints Guinness
  • 3 or 4 medium-sized carrots cut into large chunks
  • 1 cup fresh mushrooms, halved
  • 1/2 tsp. thyme
  • Fresh parsley

Toss the meat in a bowl with 1 tb. oil, then add the seasoned flour mixture and toss to coat all cubes of meat.

Heat the remaining 2 tb. oil in a large stewing pot over high heat. Brown the meat well on all sides to create a good crust. Add the onions, garlic and tomato paste. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook for about 5 minutes. 

Add carrots, mushrooms and thyme, then pour in enough Guinness to cover everything. Reduce heat, cover the pot and simmer gently (stirring occasionally) for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours until meat is very tender. Salt and pepper again to taste. Top with fresh chopped parsley to garnish and serve with roasted or mashed potatoes and a hearty bread to sop up the gravy. (This is also great to make in a crock pot.)


Ballymaloe Cookery School – http://www.cookingisfun.ie

Ballymaloe House – http://www.ballymaloe.ie

Killing time in Killarney

Last night was a rare “date night” for hubby and I. Mother-in-law watched the baby so we could escape for a few hours to enjoy dinner and drinks in nearby Killarney.

Killarney is about a 15- or 20-minute drive from hubby’s hometown in Millstreet, and we get over there at least once when we’re visiting to do some shopping or grab a quick meal. It is a tourist mecca with walkable streets full of tea shops, pubs, bed-and-breakfasts and souvenir stores selling all manner of things Irish. On the lookout for an Aran fisherman sweater, a bottle of Jameson whiskey, some Waterford crystal or a lucky shamrock? Killarney’s got you covered. There are also plenty of recreational and sightseeing opportunities nearby, including the Ring of Kerry and Ross Castle. If you’ve never been to Ireland and you’re at all nervous about being in a foreign country, Killarney is a comfortable place to get your feet wet.

Our dining options in Millstreet were few, consisting mainly of (fill-in-the-blank) and chips, an Indian place no one seems to ever have eaten at or know anything about, or run-of-the-mill pub grub. We thought we’d fare better for choices in Killarney. This being a freezing Sunday during low season and the dead of winter, it was not exactly hopping. We thought we’d take a nice romantic stroll through the quiet town, but it was cold as balls and we could only stand a quick jaunt before ducking into a pub for a warm-up.

A friend back home in Indy has always urged us to visit a Killarney pub owned by her cousin’s friend, but she couldn’t remember the name. The only hint we’d gotten from her was that the name was a number. The only place we could find fitting said description was “98,” a small establishment with (gasp) an Indianapolis Motor Speedway banner hanging from the ceiling. (We’d guessed correctly; this was the right spot.) The owner had been to Indy for the Formula 1 race several years ago, and brought back some memorabilia. Needless to say, it made me feel quite at home to see something from Indianapolis in a little pub in the middle of Ireland. It really is a small world. 

We stayed at 98 for a quick half-pint, but food was not in the cards there so we hit the streets again in search of dinner. After checking out the menus posted on several windows, we decided to go for another pub meal at a place called the Laurels. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and we eavesdropped on the French couples occupying the next table over as we waited for our meal. This is the kind of place hubby says he could happily while away a rainy afternoon with a newspaper and slow pint after pint of Guinness.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of modern Irish pub cuisine. I considered ordering Irish lamb stew or fish and chips, but the server recommended a potato cake dish that sounded intriguing. Hubby ordered some kind of chicken breast stuffed with Parma ham, goat cheese and pesto atop a pile of potatoes gratin and pronounced it tasty.

My potato cakes, on the other hand, were AWESOME. Two huge cakes of savory mashed potatoes generously flecked with bits of chicken, ham and green onion, lightly fried and topped with a creamy mushroom sauce. They were so rich and filling, I could only eat one, but it was delicious. I also got a nice little salad of mixed greens with diced peppers, more green onion and a zingy vinaigrette. (The decor was really too dark to get a decent photo, but I did the best I could.)

I would have loved to try a slice of the sinful-looking banana cream thingy the French girls were sharing next to us, but I just didn’t have the room. We rolled out of there full and happy, hightailed it through the cold  to the car and back home to our little man. All in all, a very enjoyable (if short!) date.

The Laurels – http://www.thelaurelspub.com

The Laurels pub, Killarney

The Laurels pub, Killarney


Divine potato cakes and salad from The Laurels, Killarney

Divine potato cakes and salad from The Laurels, Killarney

Pop goes the Cork. County Cork, that is.

Here we are, safely ensconced at my mother-in-law’s house in Ballydaly, Millstreet, County Cork. We finally arrived yesterday after a hella long ride. Left Sligo around 11:30 a.m. and rolled into the homestead at 7:30 p.m., with several brief stops along the way including a tasty lunch at Moran’s the Weir on the river just outside Kilcolgan (famous for oysters and seafood, but we ordered toasted sandwiches), my husband’s aunt’s house in Charleville, and a quick stop so hubby could power-nap for 10 minutes before continuing the journey.

Mother-in-law had prepared her wonderful beef stew last night just waiting to be served when we arrived, bless her. The woman raised 7 children and professes to hate cooking, but let me tell ya, this lady knows her way around a roast. Her style of cooking is very old-fashioned, traditional Irish – roast meat, roast potatoes (and often boiled potatoes as well), and two veg. Nothing fancy, but all of it delicious. This is comfort food at its finest. With any number of inlaws and outlaws rolling in all the time, I have no idea how mother-in-law knows to judge how much food to make, but she always comes out right on the money.

When we can manage to resist the classic Irish “fry,” breakfast at the mother-in-law’s consists of tea, juice, cereal and brown bread. Mother-in-law is a whiz at making traditional Irish brown soda bread – a chewy flat disk of wheat and bran. She says she rarely makes it anymore, but always has a loaf cooling when we come to town, (my husband being her “golden boy,” after all, entitles him to special treatment). Like tea, brown bread is found everywhere you go in Ireland, from the neighbor’s house to the finest restaurant, and every family has its own variation. You’ll often find it served for breakfast, alongside a dish of stew, or with cheese. My mother-in-law knows her recipe by heart, of course, and demonstrated it to me once after I begged and pled pitifully. Imagine me trying to take copious notes as my mother-in-law casually pitches in a handful of flour or a palmful of baking soda, saying things like, “now, just add enough of this until it looks right.” Needless to say, the brown bread I’ve tried to recreate at home is nothing like hers.

traditional Irish brown bread

traditional Irish brown bread

Neither are my roasted potatoes. Since I got married, my husband’s been after to me to learn how to make roast potatoes just like mom’s. After three plus years, I seriously doubt it’s ever going to happen, although I think I am getting closer. The secret lies in parboiling them first until just tender, sprinkling them lightly with oil, then roasting gently until they are ever-so-browned on top, tender and fluffy inside. I can never get them exactly right. Hubby’s actually better at making them than I am, but I pledge to persevere until I succeed. Where there’s a will, there’s a spud. 

The Irish eat potatoes every day, no exaggeration. Whether it’s the aforementioned roasted version or the ubiquitous chips, nary a meal goes without some sort of potato accompaniment. Rice, pasta and other starches are few and far between, and even they are served with, yep, you guessed it. Potatoes. It’s a little strange to go into a restaurant or pub and see items like chicken curry or lasagna offered up with a side of chips, but that’s how it’s done here. 

Hubby and I stopped into the pub this afternoon for a quick pint while we were running errands in town, then headed back to the homestead for a delicious dinner of tender roast lamb with gravy, potatoes and a mashed carrot-turnip combo. Yummy, yummy stuff. Another pint of Bulmer’s, and I’ll be off to dreamland…

Sligo, day 2

Day two in Sligo. Spent a better part of the day sleeping, I’m embarrassed to report, but I always have a hard time with jet lag and it usually takes me at least three or four days to really get my bearings after the transAtlantic flight. Hubby has a much easy transition than I do, and even the baby is coping well. We all went to bed last night around 9:30 p.m. Baby and I slept for pretty much a solid 12 hours; hubby got up about 4 a.m. local time and escaped off to the lobby downstairs to do a couple hours of work before returning to bed. 

We all arose around 10 a.m. and set off in search of breakfast. There is a huge number of cafe-type places here in Sligo, so had our pick. This is a change I’ve noticed in Ireland since I started coming here four years ago – the coffee culture has definitely taken a firm hold. No Starbucks, mind you, but there are coffee shops popping up on every corner. You can barely spit without hitting one. We settled on a run-of-the-mill place inside a shopping mall across the hall from Tesco’s (the big supermarket chain here). It was almost a repeat of yesterday’s early morning meal – I had a muffin and a glass of milk while hubby again had a more-than-generous full Irish breakfast complete with eggs, toast, sausages, fried mushrooms, beans, a pancake and black pudding.

What is black pudding, Americans may ask? Well. Let me tell you. I’ve been urged to try it on every visit to Ireland thus far (and this trip makes my sixth), and I have refused. Black pudding is sort of a mush-like concoction – essentially, it’s a thinly sliced fried sausage patty that is held together with pig’s blood as a filler, which gives it a black-ish appearance. VERY popular here in Ireland, it’s seen regularly on breakfast menus, and sometimes incorporated into other recipes as well. At the wedding of one of my sisters-in-law, one of the entree menu choices was a chicken breast stuffed with black pudding. Many guests selected it. Not me, but many other. Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it knowing what it is.

After breakfast, hubby set off toward Rally Ireland. The baby and I retired back to the hotel for a nap. We arose mid-afternoon, baby had lunch and we set off for a walk around Sligo. This is really a nice town, there are tons of shops, cafes, bookstores and such. The weather is chilly and typically Irish today. Not terribly cold, but terribly wet, cloudy and off-and-on rainy. No problems with static electricity here, let me assure you. Every time I come to Ireland, I optimistically pack my hair straightener, and every time, I kick myself for having bothered and just resign myself to frizzy ponytails for the remainder of the trip. 

Baby and I stopped into a small cafe called Grappa so I could grab a cup of tea. Despite the recent influx of coffee shops, tea is still the thing here. It’s available everywhere you go, and never served iced, only hot. It must chase away the damp. Three years ago when hubby and I were married here, my brother and my dad came over for the wedding. They immediately idolized my father-in-law, as did I. When my mother-in-law offered them hot tea, they first looked to my father-in-law to see him readily accept before doing so themselves. I don’t think either of them had ever drank a cup of hot tea in their lives, but if Andy was having some, then it was obviously the right thing to do. My dad remains a hard-core coffee drinker, but when in Ireland, he enjoys tea instead.

I also chuckle at the memory of a trip to Wales with my hubby before we were married. We went into a small cafe to grab a quick lunch and a group of burly, local construction workers occupied the next table over. Every single one ordered a pot of hot tea. This is no biggie in the U.K. or in Ireland, of course, but as Americans, we are conditioned to view hot tea drinkers as stuffy, high-falutin’ types. I secretly chuckled to see this table of most manly men enjoying their cuppas. It changed my view of tea aficionados, for sure. 

Anyway, back to Sligo… We regrouped with hubby for a pub dinner tonight. My mission of the day was to find a nice location for our evening meal, and I chose a pub called Fiddler’s Creek, just down the river a short walk from our hotel. This is a quintessential Irish pub – heavy dark wood decor, a well-stocked bar, a handful of regulars, lots of casual tables and several strategically placed televisions alternately showing rally coverage and Eastenders, a horribly melodramatic night-time English soap opera.

The place was just crowded enough, I imagine they’ll get a lot of business over the weekend due to the rally. We started off with the hubby ordering a Guinness, of course. Everyone says Guinness tastes much different, and better, here in Ireland than in America. And it certainly seems true, these pints are poured in two steps and arrive at the table with a head of creamy foam thick enough to top a milkshake. Alas, I am not a Guinness fan. I really wish I were, but the taste is wasted on me. I can appreciate the pints for their aesthetic appearance, but when it comes to Irish libations, I’m a Bulmer’s girl at heart. Bulmer’s is a light, not too sweet hard cider that I love. Another selling point of Irish pubs is that you can order a “glass,” or half pint, of beer, cider or whatever if you don’t want another full pint. Nice!


a perfect pint

a perfect pint


Irish pub menus seem to have steadily improved in the past few years as well. You are still hard-pressed to find any sort of fresh salad or side that doesn’t consist of “chips” (fries), but it’s getting better. I ordered a large and juicy breaded chicken breast that came with mashed (“creamed”) potatoes, a little ramekin of peppercorn gravy on the side, and a little bit of salad that contained mixed greens, green onion, shaved carrots and corn. Hubby got chicken fajitas with the same salad. Very, very tasty stuff and we were well pleased. Dining out in Ireland is expensive though… this meal, a starter of garlic bread, two pints of Guinness for hubby and a pint and a glass of Bulmer’s for me, ran us 60 euros (not including a 5 euro tip). That’s about $70, and reasonable by Irish standards.

When baby started kicking up a fuss, we decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel room. Hubby has currently taken him down to the bar downstairs to enjoy a post-meal pint (for hubby, not baby) so I can write. Tomorrow, we’re headed south to my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork. Should be about a five hour drive. Wish us luck.

Fiddlers Creek, Sligo:   http://www.fiddlerscreek.ie

view from our hotel room in Sligo

view from our hotel room in Sligo

I go, you go, we all go to Sligo

So hubby, baby and I arrived in Ireland today for a two-week stay. After a somewhat rocky start out of Indianapolis due to ice storms, we finally managed to arrive into Shannon Airport this morning after layovers in Detroit and Newark. The trip was long, but uneventful and we got in safe and sound, which is always the most important thing.

This being my sixth trip to Ireland, I’ve grown fairly familiar with some of the customs, culture and cuisine. I know what I like foodwise, and I know where to find it. As far as airport food goes, Shannon Airport has a pretty darn nice cafeteria breakfast, I must say. When we arrived at 5:30 a.m. local time with body clocks that had no idea what hour it really was, we decided breakfast sounded like a good idea. The airport cafeteria offers up a traditional Irish breakfast, a topic I’m sure I’ll cover in greater detail in a future entry, and my hubby can never pass it up if given the opportunity to partake. He loaded up on eggs, sausages, baked beans, fried tomatoes, toast, and I’m not sure what other artery-clogging goodies.

a traditional full Irish breakfast

a traditional full Irish breakfast

I’m a nervous flier. I rarely eat anything during a flight and usually don’t eat much before I get onboard either. With a nervous stomach like mine, I figure better safe than sorry. This means I’m often ravenous by the time I get to my final destination. When we land in Shannon, my first craving isn’t necessarily a standard Irish “fry” breakfast; instead, I seek out my favorite hazelnut yogurt. And, hello! Yoplait! Why,  oh why, can’t we get this stuff back in the states? With a scone, some juice and coffee, it’s darn near a perfect early morning meal.

After loading up, we headed northwest three hours to Sligo, where my hubby is going to be crashing (no pun intended) the Rally Ireland tomorrow to make some business contacts. Hubby didn’t paint a very appealing picture of Sligo, so my expectations were low. I’m ashamed to say I’d written it off as an industrial backwater sort of place before we’d even arrived. I must retract my words and say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised. 

For starters, our hotel is the most modern building I’ve been in anywhere in Ireland. The Glasshouse Hotel seems to pride itself on innovative architecture and outlandish color schemes, and it overlooks the rushing Garavogue River below. Our room is decorated in a neon orange decor, if that tells you anything. Not that this is bad, it’s really a very nice place, and the staff was great to accommodate us with an early check-in. 

After hubby lugged all the bags up to the room and we took a solid two-hour family nap, we were ready to go exploring. Sligo isn’t a huge town by any means, but it’s certainly well-appointed. We took a stroll through several pedestrian shopping streets and, realizing we hadn’t eaten anything since our Shannon Airport breakfast nearly 12 hours ago, suddenly realized we were hungry. 

For our first night back in hubby’s homeland, our first thought was to look for a traditional Irish pub dinner. However, a place called Bistro Bianconi proved intriguing. The handpainted rally-themed mural on the window was what initially drew us inside, but the enticing garlicky tomato aroma that hit us as soon as we walked in the door and huge wood-fired oven we spied were what convinced us to stay. Although they weren’t due to open for another half hour, the staff was more than accommodating and even let me enjoy a glass of delicious Valpolicella while we waited the requisite 30 minutes. 

Our son usually garners us a little extra attention, and the lovely servers made a much-appreciated effort to make sure we had plenty of room at our table for a high chair and the stroller. The menu was classic Italian, another pleasant surprise. This is the first time I’ve seen an Italian restaurant anywhere in Ireland, and I was hoping for the best. I’m thrilled to say Bistro Bianconi delivered the goods, and then some.

As soon as we were seated, our server dropped off a bread basket and a ramekin of garlic-marinated black and green olives that we couldn’t eat fast enough. We emptied that baby in record time and our server, bless her, offered us a refill of the addictive little orbs that we drained just as quickly. Hubby ordered up his first Guinness of the trip. For the meal, we split a Caprese salad – this being Ireland, I apologize, but I have never had a decent tomato here. I’m spoiled by those juicy, flavorful end-of-summer Indiana beefsteaks and nothing else compares. The mozzarella and the fresh basil were lovely. 

For our main course, we split a Bistro Bianconi specialty pizza – a thin crust version topped with cheese, thinly sliced little coins of ham, mushrooms and olives. Although the pie could have used a little more sauce in my humble opinion, (what can I say? I’m a sauce girl), the flavors were a delicious combination. The server told us that the restaurant has won awards in international pizza competitions and was voted best pizza in Ireland in 2006. 

She then tempted us with dessert. In a role reversal, I said no and hubby said yes. I conceded that I would eat a bite or two, and he went for for the first option the server recited – a chocolate fudge cake that turned out to be Chocolate Sex, Part II. This being Ireland and not America, we figured the serving would be smaller than we’ve grown to expect stateside. Nope. This was a full plate that took in a slab of sinfully rich chocolate cake slathered with hot fudge, a blossom of whipped cream and a scoop of chocolate ice cream on the side. Even the baby got to partake of a little bit of this chocolate nirvana. The doctor did say it was time to start introducing him to table foods…

We rolled out of there, full, tired and happy. I heartily recommend this place if you’re ever in Sligo. According to the brochure we picked up on the way out, there are also Bistro Bianconi locations in Galway and Dublin as well.  

I’d like to write more, but jet lag is overtaking me… much more material to come I’m sure in the next two weeks we’ll spend here in Ireland, then it’s on to Paris!!! For now, though, may the road always rise up to meet you.


The Glasshouse Hotel, Sligo – http://www.theglasshouse.ie

Bistro Bianconi – http://www.bistrobianconi.ie