Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Day in Dublin

For the month of September, on top of their regular farmers market at Dublins Temple Bar, Sarah and Patrick take the Gallic Kitchen market trailer to the Farmleigh farmers market located in Phoenix Park in Dublin.  

 In 1662, when Ireland still officially belonged to England, the 1752 acres of land, now called Phoenix Park, was purchased to house the royal Viceroy of Ireland.  Its expansive grounds, enclosed within a stone wall, originally functioned as the royal deer park.  The single largest enclosed park of any European capital city, Phoenix Park is now a national landmark containing the residences of the President of Ireland and the United States Ambassador, among other historic monuments, and remains a lush sanctuary to many birds and animals.

Anyway, as a designated driver, one of Jonathans duties was to transport Sarahs freshly made wares the hour and a half drive up to Dublin for the Farmleigh Farmers’ Market; no need to work the market as Patricks nephew, Anthony, had that under control.  The market started at 10:00 a.m. and finished at 5:00 p.m., which gave us a good seven hours to kill in Dublin; a real hardship, let me tell ya.

Being the whiskey girl that I am, I insisted that our first outing in Dublin be to the old Jameson Distillary, established in 1780 but now only an historic venue as the actual whiskey is now distilled at the Midleton Distillary in County Cork.  Even though the tour was a little pricy at €13 a pop, we still signed up knowing that at least we would get a “free” shot of Jameson at the end of the tour.  Ignonore the fact that it was only 11:00 a.m., we’re on vacation!  While we waited for the tour to begin, we browsed the gift shop, almost buying expensive Jameson chocolates, a Jameson flask, a classy set of leather Jameson coasters, among other over priced items before settling on a €5 deck of Jameson cards.

 On to the tour itself.  It began with a hokey ten minute video about a reporter who is late for his interview with Mr. Jameson.  In trying to find Mr. Jameson, the reporter is consequentially led on a tour of the distillary as every scene finds him to be just one step behind Mr. Jameson.  At the end of the “tour“, he finally finds Mr. Jameson who offers him a shot of the famous triple distilled whiskey.  Upon sipping the magical liquid, the reporter hears music from the heavens and for a moment thinks that he sees an angel surrounded by a bright glowing light.  Like I said, hokey.

Our overly excited guide then led us on our own tour of the “distillary“, rooms designed to replicate the steps of the whiskey making process.  I knew it was going to be a long day when in the first room, which displayed the barley store rooms, the guide pointed at a stuffed cat that looked like the work of a blind taxidermist on LSD and enthusiastically told the story of the “legendary” cat who was rumored to have been the factory’s record mice catcher.  Good lord.  The actual process was quite interesting (sprouting the grains, drying them over hot coals, adding yeast and water before triple distilling the liquid to make a smooth finished product); however the overall experience was killed by the ridiculously camp delivery and nice but very unfunny guide.  No wonder they give you a shot of whiskey at the end; trust me, you need a little pick me up just to forget the last half hour and feel normal again.  My advice?  Save your €13, go buy a 350ml bottle of Jameson, and drink a glass or two while you read about whiskey making on Wikipedia.  I’m just sayin’.

As the tour came to a close and the time for our free shot arrived, the guide asked if there was anyone out there who would like to participate in a demonstration and drink more than their allotted shot.  PigWizard and Baby Bird’s hands shot up, duh.  We first chose our preferred poison along with the others, Jameson straight up for me and Jameson & ginger ale for Jonathan, before being seated at a banquet table with the 6 or so other demonstration volunteers. 

Arranged on a place mat in front of each person was a glass of water and three plastic shot glasses filled with about a half ounce of brown liquid.  Clearly a whiskey tasting was in order.  During the tour, the guide had talked about crowd pleasing smoothness of Jameson whiskey which is a direct result of the triple distillation process through which each drop of Jameson passes.  She also explained that due to amount of smoke to which the barley is exposed during the drying process, Scotch whiskeys tend to have a smokier flavor than Irish whiskeys.  American whiskeys are aged in casks made of young wood as opposed to the older casks used for Irish and Scotch whiskey, which of course affects the flavor of the finished product.  Predictably, the glasses in front of us were a sample of each: the glass on the left was the most popular (i.e. best selling) Scotch whiskey, Johnny Walker Black Label, the glass on the right was the most popular American whiskey, Jack Daniels, and in the center was the most popular Irish whiskey, of course, Jameson. 

We were instructed to smell the Jameson and take a small sip…smooth.  Sip of water.  Smell the Johnny Walker Black Label and take a small sip…stronger and quite smoky in comparison.  Sip of water.  Sip the Jameson…ahhhh, smooth.  Sip of water.  Smell and sip the Jack Daniels…bleh, too sweet (which is hilarious because not that many years ago, my drink of choice was Jack and Diet Coke, both of which are far to sweet for my taste buds of today).  It was a fun little exercise, especially comparing the smokiness of the Scotch to the smoothness of the Jameson.  I left the remaining bit of Jack Daniels and tossed back the rest of my Johnny Walker and the tour was complete. 

On our way out of the factory, we stopped in the whiskey tasting room just to see what we could see.  Jonathan’s buddy and the owner of The Cheese Shop in Carmel, Kent Torrey, had recommended that we sample Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey.  Heck, we’re in the whiskey tasting mood, why not?  At €22.50 per glass, we shared one.  Pricy, yes, but also incredibly mouth coatingly delicious.  At €140 a bottle, and not available in most American liquor stores, Midleton definitely qualifies as a special occasion whiskey. 

We chatted with the bartender, learning a little more about the differences in Irish whiskeys, before finally probing him for a restaurant recommendation, something a little special but not to hard on the old pocket book.  As we exited the tasting room, heading to Mulligan’s, a shiny glass case caught my eye: 

Complete Collection of Midleton Very Rare
“Ireland’s Most Exclusive Whiskey”
Dating From Its Creation in 1984 to The Current Vintage
 Holy rusted metal, Batman, that’s all I gotta say.

With visions of Middleton Very Rare dancing in our heads, we went in search of Mulligan’s for a bite to eat.  With Jonathan’s handy dandy iPhone, we did not have to search long; in fact the restaurant was only a few blocks from the Jameson Distillery.  We walked into a dark pub with old wooden furniture and what looked like 75 different beers, a dozen or so on tap.  Our waiter handed us our menus, two antique books with the printed menu wedged in the center.  Unable to pass up the chance to choose from 75 beers, I forced myself to stray from my one and only (Guinness) and instead went for an O’Hara’s stout (it was just the once, Guinness, I promise!).  Not as thick as Guinness but even deeper in flavor.  Yum.

In perusing the culinary choices that Mulligan’s had to offer, I came across a Scotch Egg.  What the heck is a Scotch egg?  Never having experienced a soft boiled egg wrapped in sausage then breaded and deep fried, we ordered one as an appetizer.  Served on a wooden board and perched on a bed of greens, the Scotch Egg looked beautiful!  And I must say, taste-wise, I was not disappointed.  Of course the mind started to run away…imagine breakfasting on a soft boiled egg wrapped in PigWizard’s chicken sausage with poppy seeds and candied orange rind!

For my main course I chose the vegetarian burger made of eggplant and garbanzo beans and topped with goat’s cheese and beet root slaw.  It was not only large and in charge in its presence and beauty but also in its flavor.  The “burger” was well seasoned and tasty, and I don’t mean tasty for a veg burger, I mean tasty, full stop.  Beet root slaw, yummy, healthy and colorful…put that one in the bank.  Also delicious was Jonathan’s pork belly with mashed potatoes, carrot puree and zucchini noodles.

Full and happy, we toddled back over to the Farmers’ Market to buy some last minute duck eggs (anyone know a source in the Monterey area, cause I’m hooked), Irish cheese and artisan bread before packing up the Gallic Kitchen trailer and heading back home to Durrow.  It was a good day in Dublin.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bacon Jam?: A Day with Ed Hick

Article Disclaimer:  This article is in no way perfect!  Adding photos to Google Blogger has frequently been the bane of my existence in this whole blogging process!  I'm sure the article could use some editing for typos, etc. but I just can't re-do all the pictures AGAIN if this doesn't save properly!  Aaaccckkk!

As I have mentioned in previous posts, our hosts in Durrow, Ireland, Sarah and Patrick bake and sell quiches, savory pies, sweet tarts, savory and sweet roulades, brownies, soup, and much more through their business called The Gallic Kitchen.  They cater events, supply cafés with their wares, have a stand at two farmers’ markets in Dublin, as well as owning their own café location in Abbeyleix.  Oh, and they have two young children, Flo, 10 and Artie, 8.  Busy, busy folk!

Upon our arrival in Durrow, one of our stops on the way to the house was to drop off some supplies at the café.  As soon as Patrick led us into the Gallic Kitchen Café, the first thing I noticed was a display refrigerator with an array of products: local Alex’s Chicken Liver Pate, membrillo from Spain, Irish cheeses, Sarah’s own delicious chutney, etc.  And, the most eye-catching item, I must say, was Ed Hick’s Bacon Jam.  Bacon Jam?  Intriguing.

Hick Family Portrait
We soon found out that Ed Hick and his brother Brendan come from a line of industry standard breaking, successful pork butchers and sausage makers and are quite famous across Ireland.  And, it just so happened that along with being almost neighbors at the Farmleigh Farmers’ Market in Dublin, Ed was a good friend of Patrick and Sarah’s.  Needless to say, we were delighted when Ed kindly agreed to allow us to visit his processing plant on sausage making day!

As sausage making operations at the plant started at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and the plant was located in Dun Laoghaire, about a 2 hour drive from Durrow, we decided to stay the night at a hostel in Dublin, about 20 minutes north of Dun Laoghaire.  After finding a suitable overnight parking spot for the rather conspicuously blue and large Gallic Kitchen van (graciously loaned to us by Patrick and Sarah), we grabbed a drink at Market Bar, dined on lamb kebabs, and hit the sack in preparation for an early morning.

Each Bin is a Separate Recipe
Using the navigation tool on Jonathan’s iPhone, we found our way to J. Hick & Sons Traditional Pork Butchers without much trouble.  We knocked on the metal grate door and were first greeted by the purr, ok, roar of a large capacity bowl chopper (channel: giant multi-blade whirling Cuisinart) and then by Ed himself, outfitted in blue plastic overalls and industrial ear muffs.  In preparation for a full day of sausage production, the day before, Ed and Brendan had premeasured the spices and weighed the meat for each recipe so that today they could simply mix and stuff.

The first sausage of the day was always their one and only organic sausage, a breakfast link special ordered by a local hotel.  Clearly this is a relatively large account given the specific and extensive protocol that the facility is required to follow in order to be able to call their products “certified organic”.  Mixing and stuffing the organic sausage first ensures that no non-organic ingredient has so much as touched the machinery after it was sterilized by the specific cleaning products authorized by the certified organic powers that be.  Specific percentages of “lean” (pork meat), fat, oats (unusual choice of cereals for a sausage) and spices are mixed in the bowl chopper until the contents are a smooth, almost creamy consistency.  While the product is mixing, Ed intermittently adds scoops of ice partially to maintain a cool temperature while the meat is whirling around in the machine (if the fat reached too high a temperature it will melt and turn to grease) and once the ice melts, the water will aid in the emulsification process. 

Sausage Making Terminology Note: hot dogs and mortadella are familiar examples of emulsified sausages.  The inside is smooth with no definition between meat and fat.  Contrast with PigWizard’s Artichoke Heart and Manchego Chicken Sausage: ground meat and fat mixed with distinguishable chunks of diced artichoke heart and manchego.  Both styles are important to have in your sausage making repertoire.

Anyway, back to Ed’s special order organic breakfast sausage.  After sausage is mixed, it is scooped into a large capacity piston stuffer where the meat is squeezed into the casing, and then hand linked and counted in preparation for packaging.  And no, these coddled little organic sausages cannot be packaged using the same materials as the non-organic product!  Keep your traditional foam meat trays and plastic wrap; we demand that organic weenies be vacuum sealed in expensive specialized bags, free from the wicked plasticizers that make plastic wrap stretchy and organic food non-certified.  I’m being a little cheeky here but the extent of the qualifications for certified organic products in this country are admittedly a leeetle bit over the top.   Having said that, after scarfing down a few of Ed’s organic weenies I understand why the hotel special orders their exclusive supply.  Cause they’re freakin’ good.

Following the organic sausages were trays and trays of different sausage recipes, some emulsified sausages, some ground.  Some with orange rind and parsley, some with bread crumbs and spices (the white pepper whooshing around in the giant mixer made me sneeze a few times!).  Jonathan always made his large batches of sausage at Kurt Schmitz USDA plant in San Leandro, so our field trip to Hick’s Traditional Pork Butchers was really my first experience with mass production equipment whipping through four or five hundred pounds of sausage.  As informative and interesting as the day was as a whole, I have to say that the highlight of the trip was learning to make the oldest and most traditional of Irish and UK sausages: black and white pudding.

I know what you’re thinking, “Ewww!  Blood!”  You have no idea.  Read on to experience second hand what the vegetarian Baby Bird of yesteryear never would have done for a million bucks.

Firstly, let’s start here: what are black and white puddings and why are they so integrated into Irish cuisine?  The “puddings” are traditionally breakfast sausages made with a base of flour, barley, spices and pig parts, which include meat, skin, cartilage and offal (organs).  Black pudding, add pig blood.  I know one or two of you pansies will stop there.  Come on, aren’t you the least bit intrigued?

For centuries, Ireland has been a country that relies heavily on its farming community.  It’s rainy and slightly humid climate combined with its vast open spaces makes it ideal for growing grass and grain and for grazing cows, pigs, and sheep.  One concept that too many of us city folk have abandoned or never practiced to begin with is this: “waste not, want not”.  It is too easy just to zip down to the supermarket and buy another sour cream if ours has spoiled.  We gingerly reach inside our freshly purchased whole chicken and with two fingers remove the package of giblets and throw them in the trash.  We have long replaced our mop with a Swiffer and a Costco sized box of replacements.  Have you ever been a guest in a house in which after dinner the leftover food heads straight for the trash?  I have.

Contrast this lifestyle with living on a fifty acre farm which borders another fifty acre farm until you have enough fifty acre farms to warrant a small village supply store.   Before cars, you couldn’t afford the time away from farming your land to spend the whole day hitching the donkey to the cart and riding into town for supplies more than once a week, I suppose.  Even now, whether you are driving your tractor (true story) or driving your car to town, you want to conserve your trips considering gas costs an equivalent of $10 per gallon!

My point is that living on a farm and depending on that farm for food and revenue, your holistic attitude is not going to allow you to waste anything that can repurposed into something else and that includes eatable animal byproducts.  Notice that every ingredient in the black and white puddings can be grown/found on a farm?  Why waste the edible innards, including the nutritious blood, of a pig when they can be repurposed into a delicious breakfast staple?   Given the references to black pudding in Homer’s Odyssey, which dates back to 1000 B.C., I am in no way implying that the Irish invented the stuff.  I am simply stating that at whatever point in history the recipe swept through the British Isles, the concept was embraced and became deeply imbedded in the cuisine.

These days Irish farmers are no longer allowed to slaughter their animals on their farm, even for personal use; they must be driven to the abattoir, in many cases the nearest abattoir is several hours away, and the farmer must pay to have the animal slaughtered.  And, even if the farmer did request their pig’s blood to be returned to them, only a few abattoirs are equipped to process blood rather than simply disposing of it (the blood must be stirred constantly while it is being collected to prevent coagulation).  This renders farm-to-table black pudding near impossible.  Having said that, black and white puddings are still an important aspect of Irish cuisine.  Seriously, if a restaurant has morning hours you can guarantee that you will find “traditional Irish breakfast" consisting of 2 sausages, 2 rashers (loin bacon), black and white pudding, toast, egg, tomato, beans and mushrooms, at the top of the menu. 
This breakfast is no joke, folks!  Photo courtesy of flickriver.com

Ok, let’s get back to Ed’s pudding tutorial.  White pudding: step one: place you meat and offal bits into a netted bag and poach in a giant vat of water until fully cooked.  Step two: reel in today’s catch of pork bits, dump them into the bowl chopper and chop/mix until meat is finely diced.  

Step three: place your dry ingredients, including barley (also poached in the giant vat of water), flour, salt, cracked pepper, marjoram and pimento and your ground meat into a large mixing bucket.  Step four: hand mix until fully incorporated.  Step five: place mixture into the piston stuffer where it will be stuffed into plastic casings and sealed at each end with a metal staple.  Finally, poach the stuffed white pudding.

Now for the fun part (or the disgusting part, depending on your point of view): black pudding!  Follow steps one through three in the white pudding tutorial.  Step four: retrieve the bucket of defrosted, slightly congealed pig blood from the walk-in and commence pouring the contents from one bucket to another until the desired frothy texture and proper red color is obtained.  Side note: due to the difficulty in maintaining fresh blood (preventing coagulation, spoiling, etc.) most commercially made black puddings in Ireland are made from dehydrated blood (i.e. powdered blood), but not Ed’s!  He’s the real deal!  

Step five: place dry ingredients (see above), poached and ground pork bits and blood into a large mixing bucket.  Step six: hand mix until fully incorporated.

STEP SEVEN: TASTE THE MIXTURE FOR SALT!!!  True story!  I ate raw pig blood!  I’ve gotta be honest, mixed with the pork and seasonings, it tasted pretty damn good, not like blood at all!  That was until I noticed a little smudge left on my finger and licked it.  Yeah, straight blood; it was full of iron and tasted exactly like human blood!  Blegh.  (Ok, for clarification purposed, I should say that it tasted like my blood; I’ve never actually tasted anyone else’s blood before.)

Poached Pudding
Finally, stuff the black pudding and poach until the lovely bright red color of raw blood turns to dark brown color of cooked blood.  Upon purchasing the pudding, remove plastic wrapping, slice to desired thickness and fry in a skillet until heated through and crispy on the outside.  Truly fascinating stuff, folks.

When pallet after pallet of sausage meat and spices were finally mixed and stuffed into casings, we helped Ed package and label the finished product.  The mindlessness and repetitiveness of the task allowed Jonathan and Ed to share pictures of some of their record sized foraged mushrooms (Ed’s five pound giant puffball won, hands down).  They traded stories of nightmarishly nitpicky health inspectors and fussed about equally absurd rules and regulations (why do processors of local Irish pork need to take measures against trichinosis when the stuff doesn’t even exist on the island?).  In truth, I think the conversation was mutually beneficial in that both parties ultimately felt a little better about their respective challenges in the meat processing business and the sometimes fire-ringed hoops through which the small processing plants are forced to jump.  In this respect, PigWizard’s spirit redeeming revelation was that the stuff that grows out of the Irish soil is the only grass that’s actually greener on this side of the pond.  Pay attention, folks, cause this little detail may prove to be the key to the renewal of spirit that will spawn the PigWizard empire upon our state-side return.

We ended up talking for hours, long after the work day was done.   Not only was this experience a positive glimpse into our potential sausage-making, bacon-curing future, but I think Jonathan found a truly like-minded bosom buddy if not a respectable figure to add to his short list of mentors.  Thanks again, Ed and Brendon Hick; keep it alive and take no prisoners!  Cheers!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stagiare: Preston House

About a week after our chance meeting and subsequent meal at The Preston House, Kate came home from a day of work at the Gallic Kitchen Café and told us that Danny, the proprietor/quirky waiter had stopped in and told her to have Jonathan call him.  Did this mean that our day in the life of a Preston House kitchen staffer is going to happen after all?  Sweet!

A couple of days later, it was arranged.  After a few chores around the house and a product delivery to the café, we arrived at The Preston House, our Japanese knives in hand and armed with a gift of hedgehog mushrooms, which were later stuffed into rabbit legs along with beer braised onions, bacon and chives.  Firstly we met the chef, an Englishman named Chris Denney, whose resume and list of fascinating experiences ranged from a stretch in a two Michelin star restaurant in Italy to guest cheffing at an event in India.  We then met a bloke whose real name was an Irish name too difficult for Chris to pronounce so was simply called “Feacle”.  Then came Andy (later dubbed “Butterfingers” for managing to drop both mine and
Jonathan's Japanese paring knives on their points), a young Irish lad who had apprenticed in a butcher shop for a couple of years and found his calling in food.  Finally the red-headed dishwasher whose real name I don’t remember because they always called him “Eddie the Swine with the scarecrow girlfriend”, and they meant that one literally.  Yup, apparently Irish kitchens are the same ass grabbing, dirty name giving, male part measuring saloons that American kitchens are.  Except there was a lightness to the air.  Constant toothy grins, needling each other with quick witted jokes, Chef Chris challenging Andy to eating 20 hardboiled eggs in a half hour, “Cool hand Luke” style (Andy accepted btw), all without sacrificing the precision and seriousness of the food.

Newfangled Gnocchi
Ironically, without any prior PigWizard knowledge, Chef Chris first tasked Jonathan with deboning a poached pig head while my first job was to trim the gnocchi pouches (newfangled technique mentioned in the previous post) and prepare them for poaching.  Traditionally, potato gnocchi is rolled out into a long ¾ inch diameter tube, cut into approximately inch long chunks, boiled and then tossed in their sauce.  These newfangled gnocchi were stuffed into a long tube of plastic wrap, poached until cooked through, and chilled.  When a ticket came up, they were then sliced into perfect two inch tubes, submerged in hot oil to heat them through and basted in butter to finish.  No wonder they were so delicious, right?

Next Jonathan deboned a dozen or so sous vide chicken breasts while I attempted to keep my fingertips intact while slicing raw turnips paper thin on the mandolin.  Ever tried a raw turnip?  Very nice.  Slice them thinly like a watermelon radish and toss in your salad…way better than boiling them to death in the typical Irish way.

While I was sorting through the perfect and the mutilated turnip slices, the first lunch order came through: the seven course tasting menu, €50 per person, €70 if you wanted the matching wines.  The tasting menu is typically the best bits on hand at the time, manipulated into perfect little mini courses designed to take your pallet for a spin.  First up was the Sweet Corn, Salt Cod, which I missed being so immersed in my turnips, fearful that chef Chris would fire my free labor for not producing enough perfect slices.  Not to worry, knowing that we were not so secret offal lovers, he made a special version of the dish for us to share, substitute the salt cod for deep fried lamb brains: crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, compare to an extra crunchy croquette.  The richness was cut with the sweetness of the charred corn and garnished with one of my expertly sliced turnip slices and other tasty treats from Tanguy’s garden.

Scorched Tomatoes in an Ice Bath
My next task was so engrossing that I honestly have no idea what Jonathan was doing, probably eating bonbons.  Prep cook, Andy equipped me with a paring knife, a mini blow torch, a bowl of ice water and a box of heirloom tomatoes and preceded to instruct me on how to peel the tomatoes without blanching.  Stand back.  Step one: score the tomato skin lengthwise in both directions just enough to break the skin but not enough to cut the tomato.  Set the tomato on a non-flammable surface and torch it until the skin bubbles and starts to peel back.  Submerge in ice bath to cease any cooking from the torch.  When cool, gently remove the skin with ease.   

You are left with a hauntingly perfect exterior of a slightly smoky skinless tomato, glossy even, ten times firmer than if you tried to blanch it for peeling.  Mesmerizing, right?  Eat your heart out.  We then roughly sliced the tomatoes in to six sections and left them to marinate in olive oil, salt, rosemary and crushed garlic.  Serve with a section of fresh buffalo mozzarella and a few crostini.  Clean and perfect.

My clean and perfect task was interrupted half way through with a little plate of creamy and dirty, the second course on the tasting menu: Foie Gras Parfait, Madeira, Fig.  Two smooth squares of foie, topped with a sheet of Madeira geleé, surrounded by dollops of fig preserves and scattered with peanut butter sponges, garnished with micro greens and an edible orange flower petal.  Again, Chef Chris slightly modified our humble taster plate keeping with the fig preserves but substituting sponges with a delicious lightly buttered house made bread.  I savored (I refuse to spell it savoured, even though I am in Ireland) the creamy rich foie gras, knowing that when we do finally return home, our sources for such a delicacy will be slightly limited due to the July 1st ban on the sale and purchase of foie gras in California.  Don’t feel too sorry for us, we know people.

As some of you know, one of the few foods that Jonathan has an aversion to, along with mayonnaise, avocados, and eggplant, is salmon.  So when our scoobie snack of the next item on the tasting menu arrived, Salmon, Nettle, Horseradish, Apple, Jonathan graciously allowed me the slightly larger piece of salmon.  Sucker!  Even he thought this salmon was delicious!  The low temperature sous vide salmon (yes, it’s fully cooked for the Irish pallet even though it appears raw) was slightly spiced with the cool, smooth horseradish panna cotta while the garnish of oats and a julienne of fresh apple provided texture and a little sweetness.  

I have mentioned nettles in a couple of The Preston House dishes so far (see previous post for the original Preston House food experience).  See that bright, beautiful splash of impossible green in the center of the salmon panna cotta cluster?  That is made from the self-same stinging nettles (and trust me, their sting is the gift that keeps on giving) that rule the Irish weed culture.  Nutritious and a brilliant green, they are blanched and pureed in a little liquid, funneled into a squeeze bottle and used to spruce up any plate that needs a pop.  I think their purpose in this preparation is not so much as a flavorful compound, even less for their nutritional value but more to exploit the beauty of their color, maybe giving a slight nod to their health benefit and definitely providing a thumb in the eye to the next nettle in your garden waiting to sting you.  Haha! I’ve used your evil for good, nettle!  Having said that, nettles are used here in Ireland for their nutritional value in soups, teas, and even in cheeses!

The next two items on the tasting menu, Beef Blade, Shallot, Bone Marrow and Plaice, Shrimp, Grape were a lookie no tastie operation, however, I did manage to snap a shot of the plaice (a halibut-like flat fish) garnished with my expertly formed gnocchi.  A touch of smooth potato puree held the fish in place and balanced its richness, as well as the sharpness of the radicchio and sweetness of the grapes.  Notice how the top of the fish is white, not browned as if should have become in the cooking process?  That’s cause it was cooked skin side down until the skin was crisp and delicious but then removed to again please the mild Irish pallet.  The missing crispy skin was fully enjoyed by Chef Chris, Jonathan and yours truly.  You snooze, you lose, Irish pallet.

In a tasting menu, having more than one dessert course is not entirely unusual; this menu offered two.  The first was a plate of “arranged chaos”, a plating technique which is, for better or for worse, becoming more and more popular.  The Goat’s Curd, Black Olive, Raspberries was truly a unique combination of the cool and creamy goat’s cheese, the salty earthiness of the delicious olive caramel and the sweet and tangy raspberries.  Not being a huge sweets person (once again, I am sweet enough), to me, this dessert was a homerun.  For those of you who crave the rich and decadent, not to worry.  The second dessert course was Peanut Butter, Caramel, Banana, a description which in no way does this plate justice.  Banana two ways, an ice cream with a toasted slice of fresh banana, positioned next to a shining pool of caramel and garnished with a delicate peanut butter brittle.  As a side note, don’t you just love those edgy slate plates?

As the bustle of the kitchen drew to a close in preparation for a couple hour break before the dinner shift, we chatted outside with Chef Chris, laughing (and nearly retching) at his tales of eating “foie gras” in India, which in reality was just a fly-covered mess of leftover offal scraps thrown together and allowed to “marinate” in the scorching sun.  Ultimately I determined that the nationally and culturally experienced chef, a witty and gritty man with an easy but demanding demeanor, ran they type of kitchen perfect for any cook with desire to prove his skills and learn along the way, truly a chef you’d happily bust your butt to please.