10 Great Things to Know About Irish Food

Me, somewhere in in the Connemara (before I put on those five "Irish Potato Pounds").

Me, somewhere in in the Connemara (before I put on those five “Irish Potato Pounds”).

From the coffee in Ireland to the cheese, butter, and  joint of the day, it’s all good. And save room for some Irish fine dining, too.

Go ahead: Call me an eejit, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy the food in Ireland. I knew that it would fine—and probably better than what one might have expected 20 or so years ago. After all, there has been a shift upwards in food nearly everywhere one travels these days.

But what I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy it in all its genuineness.

I expected that at the everyday, moderately priced level, food would be fine, but nothing to write home about. I figured, too, that splurges were definitely in order: Gastronomy has definitely made inroads into Ireland, and I was told that, specifically, Kinsale is a major hotbed. I planned to venture to this coastal town, but we were staying in Cork, and we liked that city so much, we just didn’t make the mere 20-mile journey.

Besides—as readers of this blog know—I’m less interested in food that begs to be gasped at and fawned over and more interested in well-crafted food that bears a sense of place and brings simple, everyday pleasures to the table. I definitely found the latter, nearly everywhere I went. And yes, the splurges were grand, too.

A few observations/highlights:

1. Nobody knows how to cook a breakfast egg like the Irish.

A "Full Irish."

A “Full Irish.”

Every breakfast egg I had in Ireland was perfect. When it arrived at the table, it seemed less done than I usually like it. But the plates were burn-your-fingers-hot, so as you ate the breakfast, the egg set up and became irresistibly rich and jiggly without being runny. Brilliant!

2. The Irish Do Great Coffee—Nearly Everywhere

This is a macchiato--espresso with a bit of foam.

This is a macchiato–espresso with a bit of foam.

Most every single place we dined—little coffeeshops and cafes, pubs that served food, upscale restaurants—served espresso drinks. Really good espresso drinks, always made just the way I requested them.

Still, don’t go trying your Starbucks lingo in Ireland. I tried to order a “dry” cappuccino, and they didn’t know what that was. But when I explained (more foam than milk, please), it was graciously, perfectly served.

3. What to Drink: Guinness, Irish Whiskey, and….Prosecco!

When in Ireland....

When in Ireland….

I generally can’t handle spirits anymore…but for some reason, a glass of Jameson’s or Bushnell’s at the end of the night didn’t do me in as I thought it might. Perhaps that’s because the servings are small and the pubs are just so dang nice that you’re already “high” just sitting here, so it’s easy to sip rather than drink. Oh—and it’s good quality stuff, too. There’s that, of course!

And yes–it’s true: Guinness tastes better in Ireland. This non-beer-drinker found herself ordering it often. Avid beer drinkers will go nuts with all the other lesser-known options, of course….

Finally, Prosecco—that wonderful sparkling wine from Italy—is widely available and tastes great sitting outside on those warm (but never too-warm) days.

PS: They don’t “stick-it-to-you” on the wine in this country. The pours were generous, and usually cost around 5 to 7 Euros ($7.50 to $10). That’s incredibly reasonable, especially now that $15 glasses of wine are becoming the norm in well-traveled US destinations.

4. And The Award for Best Potato Chips on the Planet Goes to….Ireland!

My adoration for Irish potato chips might explain why I gained five pounds in Ireland.

My adoration for Irish potato chips might explain why I gained five pounds in Ireland.

The Irish are serious about their potato chips—there’s even a theme park devoted to one brand (Hiya, Tato Crisps!). Indeed, this country makes some seriously good potato chips (though, of course, they’re called “crisps” in Ireland). My favorite flavor: Farmhouse Cheddar and Red Onion. Dave (wisely) talked me out of bringing a case home.

5. Yes—You’ll See a Lot of Potatoes. 

Lasagna in Ireland...with chips.

Lasagna in Ireland…with chips.

Potatoes are served with almost everything here, so don’t be surprised if you see them served where you don’t expect them (e.g.: with lasagna). But I generally got into the spirit of them, and began to think of them like bread—the Irish version of an all-purpose starch you eat with everything.

6. You’ll Love the Butter and Cheese.

Cheese plate in Ireland, including a Guinness-veined cheese and Cashel Blue. Oh yes!

Cheese plate in Ireland, including a Guinness-veined cheese and Cashel Blue. Oh yes!

Irish butter is legendary. In fact, the city of Cork made a fortune in the 19th century shipping Irish butter to Australia. It’s truly great stuff, and so is the cheese. While I didn’t see the kind of funky-smelly cheeses that I adore in France, I totally enjoyed the full, rich flavors of what I tried—including blue and cheddar-like cheeses—here.

7. Cafés and coffeshops are wonderful for lunch.

A cute little cafe in a small town on the way from Galway to the Cliffs of Moher.

A cute little cafe in a small town on the way from Galway to the Cliffs of Moher.

When traveling in the US, one of the hardest things to find is a truly pleasant spot for lunch—something better than a diner or fast food or chain, but not a splurge. Ireland has all kinds of these mom-and-pop spots, and they’re wonderfully gracious places to get freshly made sandwiches and salads. Often, the sandwiches would come with a great little salad and (wait for it)…chips. As such, one sandwich would often be plenty for two, and no one ever minded when we split a plate.

And most every single one of these sweet places served espresso drinks to get us back on the road in sharp condition.

8. Go for the Roast Joint of the Day.

Roast Joint of the Day: Pork. Filling, tasty, traditional.

Roast Joint of the Day: Pork. Filling, tasty, traditional, and great value.

Lots of cafés, restaurants, and pubs feature a roast or joint of the day, and these are great ways to fill up on good, honest, traditional cooking—at a great value (usual around 9 or so Euros). Pork was the most prominent joint, but I also saw some good Irish beef.

 9: Yes—you can go light if you wish.

With green beans, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, and potatoes, this was a little like a Salade Niçoise...but with wonderfully Irish bacon instead of tuna.

With green beans, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, and potatoes, this was a little like a Salade Niçoise…but with wonderfully Irish bacon instead of tuna.

You’re in Ireland. Why wouldn’t you eat the potatoes? Yet just because I put on five pounds in Ireland doesn’t mean you have to. There are plenty of options for going light—salads here were fresh, fresh, fresh, and combined with creativity and skill.

10. Above all, be sure to splurge now and then.

Pulled duck spring rolls, with fresh figs.

Pulled duck spring rolls, with fresh figs.

We were thrilled with the fine-dining venues we tried; the above photo was snapped at the restaurant in the Killarny River Court Hotel. Here’s another:

Not a great shot, but it was a beautiful pork belly dish at the Killarny River Court Restaurant

Not a great shot, but it was a beautiful pork belly dish at the Killarny River Court Restaurant.

Another favorite:  The Malt House in Galway. I’m sorry not to have taken pictures of:

• ”The Best of Irish” Platter: A charcuterie/cheese platter of smoked kassler, smoked Connemara lamb (it was like lamb prosciutto–and divine), corned beef (Irish corned beef! Yes!), Cashel blue cheese and Killeen goat cheese.
• Grilled Irish Rib-Eye Steak with Maldon Salt Rub and (wait for it!) … chips! But these chips were hand cut and totally amazing.

It was all just the kind of food I seek when going somewhat upscale in another country—inspired, yet grounded in tradition. No foams, no foie gras ice creams. In every bite, you knew you were in Ireland—and so glad to be here.

All photos taken by me (or Dave), except the Full Irish Breakfast, taken by JaredFrazer via Flickr.

PS: So, how am I going to take off those five “Irish Potato Pounds”? With my French Salads Diet, of course!

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My French Salads Diet

My French Salads Diet

French Tabbouli, olives, cheese, and prosciutto (or other charcuterie) = a fresh and light meal (provided you don’t eat too much!). Photo by my good buddy Richard Swearinger.

Current goal: Take off the five pounds I gained in Ireland, ASAP. How will I do it? My summertime version of losing weight the French way—by enjoying these great French salads during the height of the growing season.

I loved you, Ireland, but I came back five pounds heavier. It wasn’t your fault. I just couldn’t stay away from all those potatoes, in all forms. And let’s face it, you have the best crisps (potato chips) on the planet. They went great with all that Guinness.

Fortunately, I’m back here in Amerique profonde just in time for the peak of our growing season. Yesterday, still on Ireland time, I awoke at 3 a.m. and immediately started cooking up some salads to have in the fridge for the coming days. The rest of the summer, my plan is to keep the fridge continually stocked with some great all-purpose salads, to which I’ll add a small amount of whatever meat, egg, fish, or cheese is looking great at the market.

I’ll try to watch the carbs, but make no mistake, my plan isn’t low-carb….it’s “smart carb.” That is, I seek to make every carb count, chocking each one with a good amount of whole grains and/or nutrients.

Here’s a look at the way I’ll be eating. The plan is simple: Just get a few of these “anchor salads” in the fridge. You’ll be surprised at how quickly a fresh, healthful mealtime will come together. For recipes that are on this site (or elsewhere on the internet), I’ve given a link; for all others, I give you the page number in my book, The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day.

Summer French Salads Platter #1: 

Keep cured meats on hand (such as prosciutto) and serve with a hunk of cheese and those salads you have in your fridge. Pictured here:

Keep cured meats on hand (such as prosciutto) and serve with a hunk of cheese and those salads you have in your fridge. Pictured here: Tarragon-White Bean Salad (page 52), French Tabbouli (my BonjourParis version), and French Green Lentil Salad (page 51—I added sweet red pepper and omitted the cream). A few little chévre-tapenade toasts complete the plate.

Summer French Salads Platter #2:

This is my version of the "Salade Americaine"—the French version of the Chef's Salad. It looks like a lot of food, I know. But this was for quite a few people. Omit the bread if you're trying to shed the poids.

This is my version of the “Salade Americaine”—the French version of the Chef’s Salad. It looks like a lot of food, I know. But this was for quite a few people. Omit the bread if you’re trying to shed the poids.

Summer French Salads Platter #3:

Here's that French Green Lentil Salad again, and yes the Tabbouleh. This time, the "main" salad is my Roasted Chicken--Fennel Seed Salad, page 60.

Here’s that French Green Lentil Salad again, and yes the Tabbouleh. This time, the “main” salad is my Roasted Chicken–Fennel Seed Salad, page 60 of The Bonne Femme Cookbook.

Summer French Salads Platter #4:

Yes! French Tabbouli is the gift that keeps on giving! I wrote about this great salad platter for my friend Richard Nahem at EyePreferParis.com

Yes! French Tabbouli is the gift that keeps on giving! I wrote about this great salad platter for my friend Richard Nahem at EyePreferParis.com

Summer French Salads Platter #5:

I saved the best for last. Ratatouille, a poached egg salad, and just a little cheese. Ranks as one of the best ways to serve ratatouille ever!

I saved the best for last. Ratatouille (page 262), a poached egg salad, and just a little cheese. Ranks as one of the best ways to serve ratatouille ever!

So–that’s my eating plan for the next few weeks. I’ll also exercise regularly….and I’ll let you know if those five “Irish potato pounds” come off!

PS: If you have a hard time finding French Green Lentils, find them on the link below (this is a great price on them, by the way). Hmmm…come to think of it, these little lentils might just be a great add-on when you purchase The Bonne Femme Cookbook. Thanks for your consideration!

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Five Favorite French Finds at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's Macarons by Jeremyiah via Flickr.

Trader Joe’s Macarons. Photo by Jeremyiah via Flickr.

Sure, I love to make everything from scratch as much as the next food-lover, but sometimes that’s just not going to happen. That’s why I keep a keen eye out for great French-food convenience products and readymades. (And if you’ve spent any time in a French supermarket, you’ll know that the French have no trouble at all with readymades—as long as they’re truly worth bringing to the table).

That said, here are some of the best French-inspired foods I’ve found at Trader Joe’s.

• Trader Joe’s Macarons à la Parisienne ($4.99)

Qu’est-ce que c’est: The quintessential French cookie, these are sandwich cookies made from airy disks of egg white/almond flour meringues with a buttercream filling.

The verdict: I’m not going to say that these are as good as Ladurée or those from your favorite French pastry shop. But seriously, they do, for the most part, what great French macarons do: They have that lightly crisp exterior, that somewhat chewy interior, and they’re so ethereal they practically float off the plate. Let’s just say that I’m so impressed with these, I’d serve them to my most discerning guests. And I have. When they asked me where I got them, I just smiled.

What? You want to make your own French macarons? Here’s help: David Lebovitz has written this really great French macaron resource page on where to find the information you need.

• Trader Joe’s Original Savory Thins ($1.69) 

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  Are they French? No, but they’re great. These shiny, crunchy crackers are made from rice meal, sesame seeds and flour, safflower oil, and a few spices.

My Happy Hour Crackers, made with Trader Joe's Savory Thins.

My Happy Hour Crackers, made with Trader Joe’s Savory Thins.

The Verdict: Stock up! I use them all the time to make French-inspired canapes. Top them with a little hummus and tapenade for a go-to appetizer with wine. Or, top them with a semisoft cheese (Brie, Camembert, Taleggio, etc.); run them under the broiler just until the cheese oozes a bit, then top with chopped olives and a few herbs or Piment d’Espelette(as pictured).

Tarte d'Alsace• Maître Pierre Tarte d’Alsace ($4.49)  

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  This is a version of Alsace’s “tarte flambée”–a traditional pizza-like dish that tops a cracker-like crust with crème fraîche, onions, and lardons (thick French bacon strips).

The Verdict: Go for it. Ah, the crisp-thin crust! The salty bacon! The sweet onions! The creamy lusciousness of it all! I found it amazing that a frozen product could truly approximate this time-honored dish so well. Or, put it this way: If a true tarte flambée in Strasbourg rates a “10,” and your own homemade-in-American version might score a “9,” this is easily an 8.5. And that’s pretty darn good for something this convenient and inexpensive.

• Trader Joe’s Frozen French Green Beans ($1.99)

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  These are those chic, slender haricot verts that go so well with …. well, just about everything, but specifically, roast chicken and steak-frites.

The Verdict: Get yourself some. Sure, if you can find fresh French green beans picked that very day at your farmers market, those will be better. But these are mighty good, and they’re loose-packed in a way that makes it easy to pull out a handful here and there. Just be sure to cook them the French way (that is, boil or steam them until just tender, and then saute them in….wait for it….butter).Trader Joe's Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce

• Trader Jacques Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce ($3.49) 

Qu’est-ce que c’est: It’s a real caramel sauce—and remember, a great caramel sauce is more than caramelized sugar—it has to have butter or cream, and this one has both.

The Verdict: Let’s start by saying that I love making my own caramel sauce, so any purchased product had better be pretty amazing. But if my homemade caramel sauce is a 10, this is about a 9.7—and again, that’s high marks for something so convenient.

So, have you found some pretty-good readymades at Trader Joe’s? If so, I’m all ears. Merci.

 

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