Monday, September 29, 2014

Ireland, Part Two: The Sights

Hope you enjoyed reading my previous post on all the wonderful food I had on my recent trip to Ireland. Now for the beautiful places we saw.

My friend Val and her husband Tim are Austinites who split their time between here and Ireland. They bought land a number of years ago, and built a house in County Mayo, just north of the County Galway border, not quite an hour from the city of Galway. Their house is situated up on a hill, about three-tenths of a mile (seems longer!) from the narrow, winding, shoulder-less road. They allow their neighbors to let a small flock of sheep come and graze, so this is the view from the house. For me, sheep, and green grass, and stone walls were never tiring to look at!
The town of Cong is about 20 minutes away from their house, and many buildings there were part of the 1952 movie The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The town is extremely proud of it's association with the movie, and tourists can visit all the well-known sites in town and pick up their Quiet Man souvenir postcards and assorted tchotzhes.  Nearby is Ireland's oldest castle, Ashford, which dates to 1228, with several additions since then; it is currently a five-star hotel. It's backside looks over the Loch Corrib, which is dotted with tiny islands.
Ashford Castle's  beautiful grounds also house Ireland's School of Falconry where you can (for a fee of course) learn to hold and fly a hawk. Next trip! (The people in the background are looking at some of the birds in their enclosures; I think they have over 30 birds -- hawks, falcons, and an owl!)
Galway is a quaint city with a nice area of shops, pubs, and restaurants that is closed off to motor traffic. Unfortunately a number of tourist shops too, and once you see one shamrock placard or Guinness key chain, you've seen them all. Fortunately, there are other things to see, like the home of the claddagh ring, and just the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists.
We were there on a Saturday morning, and the farmer's market and a few food trailers are set up around St. Nicolas Church, which dates to 1320 and is the largest medieval church still in use in Ireland. We also saw the building where a young man named John Lynch was killed, giving way to the term "lynching".
It was then off to the Aran Islands, a chain of three small islands accessible by a 45 minute ferry ride from outside of Galway. We spent the night on the largest of the islands, Inishmor, which is roughly 9 miles long by 2 miles wide at the widest point. Part of the charm of these islands includes that fact that the native still speak traditional Irish amongst themselves (called Irish, as opposed to Gaelic, I learned) and English with the tourists. Inishmor only has a population of about 1000 people, and most everyone knows everybody. What once was a fishing industry has given way to tourism, and there are lots of B + Bs scattered throughout.

When fishing was the dominant way of life, each family would knit wool sweaters in a pattern particular to them (like a coat of arms), so if someone were lost at sea, the body could be identified by the sweater. (A bit morbid, but practical.) The anthropologist in me enjoyed seeing the different patterns and their meanings; these hung in the Aran Sweater Market.
We took a tour of the island by pony trap, and at the northern part of the island is the 3000 year old Viking fort, Dun Aengus. It was a bit tricky walking the path up to it, as the stone pathway was a bit slick, but the view headed up and from the top made it all worth it.
The fort was built with three concentric ring walls and a cheval de frise in place. This was a defense system, where they place the stones upright, pointy ends in the air, so if invaders did penetrate the island, they or their horses would have a hard time walking through the stones to the inner-most ring.
You can also lie down flat on the top of the rock and peer over the side and 300 feet down to the water! It was a bit freaky looking over the edge, but it's now one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Returning to the mainland of Ireland, we drove through County Clare and the geologic area known as the Burren. It is what's called a karst landscape, where the limestone was eaten away by glacial formations millions of years ago leaving a pavement of stones (for more explanations, go to Wikipedia or the Burren National Park's site).  The remaining soil is nutrient rich, and about 80% of all Irish plants are only found in this region, which accounts for about 1% of Ireland's landmass. It's also an area where many ancient tombs have been found, including this, Poulnabroune. It's roughly 5000 years old  (give or take a century!), and over 30 bodies were found buried in it, including children.
We also discovered the very off-the-beaten-path Burren Perfumery, which was a treasure in the middle of nowhere! Literally a cottage industry, they blend their own natural scents and make perfumes, lotions, soaps, and candles. There's a shop, an education room, tea house, and gorgeous garden to boot. Well worth a stop should you be in the area!
Leaving the Burren, we spent the night at a B + B in Doolin, and headed to the Cliffs of Moher the following day. (Doolin in the foreground, and the Cliffs begin just past the far point in the picture.)
While it was heavily infested with tourists, it was completely worth it. An accordion player (or maybe it was a concertina?) busks for handouts along the path to the visitors center, which was built into the cliff side. Going up the stepped-path to the top, a harpist is playing. And the views are stunning, even with the bit of haze on the horizon. On clear days, you can see the Aran Islands, and the similarities of the geology between Dun Aengus and Moher are evident. And if you remember the movie The Princess Bride, this is where the Cliffs of Insanity were filmed. You can walk all the way to end point in the pic below, which is looking south.
Just a few miles west of Moher is St. Brigid's Well, an homage to the patron saint of Ireland who lived in the 5th century. People come an leave their mementos for her in the little grotto.
We continued south to Dingle, which is the western-most point of Ireland, and home to some scenic views along the way.
Dingle is a such a cute little town, filled with pubs and shops, many of which have high-quality local crafts, such as paintings, ceramics, woolens and jewelry. I realized going through my pictures that I really didn't get any pictures of the town, but it's cute, so you'll just have to take my word for it! We took a drive out to the very western point, and along the way, stopped to see some of the ogham stones in the area -- writings from about 400-600 AD in the forms of lines and dashes.  And we found  a little sandy beach where we dipped our feet in the Atlantic!
Traditional Irish music (or trad music) has become a mainstay in Dingle's pubs, and a trad music festival was taking place the weekend after we left. We were treated however, to a fabulous show at O'Sullivan's Courthouse Pub, which is owned by friends of my Irish hosts. Turns out one night we were there was a CD release party for two well-known Irish musicians, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, so I shall leave you (almost!) with the one and only video I took (and I never take video!) of some fabulous foot-thumping music!
Ireland was a fabulous place to visit, and of course it didn't hurt that I had the best hosts ever. Ever! I can't thank them enough for their hospitality and helping to plan such a wonderful trip. Like I said before, green hills, grazing sheep, and miles of rock walls are amongst the things that make me smile and think very fondly of this beautiful emerald isle.(As well as the crazy narrow roads with no shoulder!)
And, our faithful travel companion, Rua! Slainte!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ireland, Part One: The Food

I just returned from a wonderful 10 day trip to western Ireland where a friend and I had the privilege of staying with another friend who owns a house north of Galway city, just over the border in County Mayo. I'll start with the food, and my next post will be the sights.

Fortunately, Ireland is a land of more than just potatoes, as evidenced by the beautiful array of produce in Valerie's sizeable garden.
The zucchini, or courgettes as they known there, grow INCHES every day; the large one here weighed just over 2.5 pounds. We did not go hungry while staying there!

From Puddleducks, a cafe in the town of Cong, a marvelous salad with copious amounts of Cashel Blue Cheese. We couldn't believe how much cheese was on here!  (Named after Jemima Puddleduck from the Peter Rabbit stories!)
McDonagh's in Galway -- fish and chips; this is pollock, but we also had hake which isn't as overfished. (I couldn't really tell a difference between the fish, they're both whitefish of very similar texture.)
Some of the most wonderful mussels I have ever had, and they were probably just hours out of the waters at Killary Harbor and the town of Leenane. Served simply at the Leenane Hotel with white wine, garlic, and herbs, along with brown soda bread and chips (french fries) of course.
Over to the isle of Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands. Near the entrance to the Viking fort of Dun Aengus (more on this in my next post!)  was the Nan Phaidi House cafe that catered to the tourists, but had delicious food. Here, Guinness beef stew; really nice flavor, though the beef could have been a little more tender. The islands, which were traditional fishing villages, are also known for houses with thatched roofs. And as throughout Ireland, gorgeous flower baskets on your house or business.

Back on the "mainland" and down the coast a bit to Doolin, where we stayed and dined at the Roadford House B & B. Trip Advisor rates them as the best restaurant in Doolin, and it was easy to see why. Beautifully prepared lamb three ways: sausage, medium-rare chops, and confited and made into a patty.
And on to the town of Dingle, which is on the western-most peninsula of Ireland. Lunch one afternoon was at The Garden Cafe, where I was delighted to have their Dingle Dog of the Day: lamb and herb sausage with caramelized onions. The sausages are made locally, as are the buns. This was so simple, and so good! I couldn't really identify the herbs in the sausage, and unfortunately, our waitress didn't know either, but it was tasty. We sat outside in the garden, where the local cat kept an eye on everything.

Dinner that night was at Out of the Blue, which creates their menu based off of what they were able to get fresh at the fish market each day. This was a potato-crusted pollack with chives and cream; they shredded the potatoes to make the crust, and seared the heck out of it to make it marvelously crisp.
We also spent time at the Courthouse Pub where I did manage to try a Guinness. I normally don't care for dark, heavy stouts, and have not cared for Guinness when I have tried it in the States. I asked the bartender for a half-pour, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it and drank the whole thing! It wasn't bitter like I recall it previously, and apparently Guinness beer in Ireland is not pasteurized which may account for the taste difference.
The prize for the worst meal of the trip goes to John Bennys Pub -- our three separate dishes (pork loin, steak, and scallops) were all horribly overcooked. We got a good laugh out of it though, and went back to Murphy's Ice Cream for the second time that day! On my first trip, I had Dingle Sea Salt  (like heavy cream with a touch of salt) with Caramel Honeycomb (yes, as good as it sounds!), and my second, Toasted Irish Oats (subtle toasted oat flavor and texture) and Chocolate.
From the town of Ennis, at the Nolan + Lambe cafe, a very rich goat cheese tart with potato and Waldorf side salads.
And back in Galway, from the Charcoal Grill, a fantastic doner kebap (where the meat is roasted vertically on a spit, like a gyro) place, where I had chicken and lamb, topped with garlic and chile sauces. (This place happens to be the favorite of my friends who live in Ireland, and I can see why!)
All in all it was great eating in Ireland!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- Incredibly saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Art Blondin, founder of Artz Ribhouse, and pit master of the best baby back ribs anywhere. RIP to one of the good guys.

-- Olive + June hosts a Tasca d'Almerita wine dinner, September 3, $80/person, tickets here.
-- The upcoming Sunday Supper at Swift's Attic is a benefit for owner CK Chin's birthday; $10 or a donation of gently used business attire will benefit Dress for Success; more info here
-- Jack Allen's Kitchen (Oak Hill) and Hops + Grain Brewery are having a five course beer dinner, September 9th, $55/person, email for tickets.
-- Food, Fun + Fore! Golf Tournament  will benefit the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's culinary scholarships, September 19th at Falconhead Golf Course.
-- Russian House will host a vodka fair, September 25th, $10/person.
-- The Texas Craft Brewers Festival is September 27th at Fiesta Gardens, $10 and up.
-- Springdale Farm Aid will be September 28th at Springdale Farms, $50/person, tickets here.  This sip and stroll fundraiser event will feature many local chefs!

-- New prepared foods spot, Independence Fine Foods has opened at 1807 Slaughter Lane.
-- New trailer, Chico + the Fox has opened at 1311 South Lamar, specializing in pulled pork.
-- After much anticipation, Olamaie has opened (in the old Sagra/Mars spot on San Antonio St.), featuring modern southern foods.
-- Jacoby's Restaurant + Mercantile has opened on East Cesar Chavez.
-- aRoma Italian is now open for lunch, 11am - 4pm M-F, and 12 - 4pm on Saturdays; happy hour 3 - 6pm Mon - Sat.
-- The Parish Underground now offers a 25 cent martini with lunch, Mon - Fri, 11am - 2pm. 
-- The Kebabalicious trailer is joining The Picnic food trailer park on Barton Springs.
-- The Smokey Denmark BBQ trailer has a new pit master, formerly of John Mueller's.

And with that folks, I am off to Ireland for 12 days! Slainte!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- I recently got to try some of the new menu items at Lucky Robot during a media tasting. The restaurant opened in November 2012, and from the press release: "This is the restaurant’s first major menu overhaul and it reflects a move toward using local and sustainable ingredients like Texas-raised Wagyu, showcasing new flavor combinations and featuring a more robust sushi selection using fish from Tsukiji Market in Japan."  Their menus also offer gluten-free and vegan options, and don't miss the daily happy hour from 4 - 6:30 pm. The green manalishi sake punch with it's cucumber, mint, and serrano was a great accompaniment to the foods we tried. Particularly loved the seared scallop! Lucky Robot's eclectic Harajuku-inspired decor is in step with the sights and sounds of South Congress Avenue.
  -- Sugar Mama's Bakeshop at 2406 Manor Road is now open, and it's next door neighbor Dai Due is in it's final soft opening stages. They will have a restaurant as well as their fresh meats for sale.
-- Kerbey Lane Cafe is opening at Bee Caves and 360 in the Village at Westlake.
-- Punch Bowl Social officially opens in the Domain, Saturday, August 23rd, 7 - 9pm, with a benefit for the Dell's Children's Medical Center; $10/person. 
-- The Hightower is now serving a prix fixe menu on Tuesday evenings -- appetizer, entree and dessert for only $19! Menu items will change from week to week.
-- Vince Young Steakhouse has a new happy hour menu, available Monday through Saturday from 5 - 7 pm for $10/item, including lobster rolls and Wagyu brisket burger.
-- Thunderbird Cafe and Tap Room is offering free espresso happy hour, every Tuesday morning from 10 - 11 am.  They also offer pastries, salads, sandwiches, along with their coffee drinks and beers on tap.
-- Jacoby's Austin, a family run restaurant and mercantile, will open shortly at 3235 East Caesar Chavez; food will be ranch-style and the mercantile will sell their jams, meats, and home goods.
-- San Luis Spirits, the parent company to Dripping Springs Vodka is also introducing Dripping Springs Gin, and will open their distillery doors for public tours beginning September 2nd by reservation.

-- Local non-profit Farmshare Austin has an Indiegogo fundraising campaign in progress through August 31st. Help them grow a new generation of farmers by providing funding for them to build their farm school!
-- The application period has now opened for the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's Culinary Grants program; they have a total of $30,000 to give in culinary grants.
-- Food vendors are needed for the annual Texas Book Festival; applications are due September 1st and the event is October 25-26.
-- The Edible Austin Third Annual Chef's Auction will be October 9th, and will benefit the Sustainable Food Center and Urban Roots. Tickets are $75/person.
-- Mandola's and Trattoria Lisina are hosting their 5th Annual Bocce Ball Tournament that will benefit the Burke Center for Youth in Driftwood. The competition will take place at Trattoria Lisina on October 25-26, with the grand prize being a trip for two to Italy.  Registration is $200 per team, but you can catch the early bird rate of $150 before September 15th.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NM Green Chiles (aka No Such Thing as a Hatch Chile)

It's that time of year..... for 1) New Mexico green chiles (or Hatch chiles) to come into season, which leads to 2) my annual soapbox on the aforementioned topic. Let me please direct you to a blog post I wrote at this time three years ago. And if you don't want to click on the link (though you should!) here's the brief soapboxy synopsis: there's no such thing as a "Hatch" chile. They're all varieties of New Mexico green chiles -- Big Jim, NuMex 6-4, and Sandia to name a few -- each bred for different qualities.  The green chiles are grown in southern NM, in the rich agricultural region in Dona Ana County between Las Cruces and Hatch, 40 miles north. "Hatch chiles" is a marketing misnomer (though clearly it works), as there is no varietal called Hatch.
Yes, it's the same picture from the blog post I wrote three years ago which I took in 2005! 
That's Picacho Peak in the background, which is a landmark in northern Las Cruces. 
Why does this topic roast my peppers, so to speak? Because my mother's family is from Las Cruces and they farmed all kinds of produce (green chile, pecans, cotton, onions, lettuce....) for over 50 years. Additionally, the agricultural department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces did chile research and cultivation of new varieties. My great uncle, Roy Nakayama, was one of the key horticulturists, and became known as Mr. ChileThe Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU is devoted to the research and education of different types of chile peppers. So there was a lot of my family's blood, sweat and tears involved in green chile production.

In New Mexico, they call them green chiles, because that's what they are. The term Hatch has become over-commercialized in my eyes, and people in New Mexico would probably look at you a bit strangely if you asked for Hatch chiles. Our local grocery stores here in Austin have all kinds of products with "Hatch chiles" in them -- popcorn, crackers, brownies, cookies, dips, pestos, chocolate bars -- and these are just the shelf-stable ones! Central Market (and I assume Whole Foods) has a whole array of their own freshly-prepared Hatch items, from baguettes to guacamole and queso to ready-to-eat enchiladas. Not that any of these products are bad (well, a couple of them are!), but they propagate the illusion that all the chiles are from the tiny town of Hatch (population 1600 +/-) when they are not.

A couple examples of New Mexican places using green chiles in their dishes (and calling them green chiles!). The Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, NM boasts the #7 best green chile burger out there (it's huge, messy and delicious). And Caliche's, a frozen custard drive-though spot on North Valley Drive in Las Cruces, with their green chile custard. Not so crazy about the green chile custard.... I'll stick to more traditional flavors for my desserts! (All pictures of mine from 2012.)
Maybe I am just a purist, both in chile nomenclature and palate-wise; I just don't really care for most of the commercial products as the flavor is never quite right to me. I do catch a bit of green chile fever this time of year (August and September is when the chiles get ripe and are harvested, so that's why there's all the "Hatch festivals this time of year), so allow me to share what's pretty much a family green chile recipe. This is also called "Green Chile" though I suppose you could add the word "sauce" to the end, though we never do; I guess it's just implied.
See the difference in size? The two chiles on the left are long skinny pointy ones, quite possibly the Sandia variety (known for their heat), while the one on the right is big and fat, and not as hot. The varietal Big Jim is milder, and was developed for its thick walls and length to make them easier to stuff for chile rellenos.

Green Chile
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup white or yellow onion, diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup roasted New Mexico green chiles, heat level of your choice, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/4 - 1/2 cup tomatoes, seeded and diced (can use canned)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

-- In a skillet or sauce pan, heat the oil over medium/medium-low heat.
-- Add onion, saute 2 - 3 minutes.
-- Add garlic, saute a few more minutes until both onion are garlic are soft but not burned.
-- Add green chiles, tomatoes, cumin (if using) and 1/4 - 1/2 cup water (or tomato liquid if using canned).
-- Stir to combine and simmer gently about 10 minutes.
-- Use on pinto/charro beans, tamales, burgers, scrambled eggs... wherever you need a little extra kick!
-- Cool and store extra in sealed container in fridge for several days, or freeze for future use.

Thanks for letting me rant a little about green chiles. I hope you'll see them now as more than just a "Hatch chile"!  Happy New Mexico green chile season!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Chen Z Noodle House (Oak Hill)

I am SO excited that Chen Z Noodle House has opened in South Austin!  A little back story: the original Chen's is at Spicewood and 183, and it's a tiny hole in the wall. I don't go that often because it's so far for me (and because I have to decide between Chen's and Asia Market), however, after a doctor's appointment up north in early July, I stopped in for carry out. Behold, their amazing green onion pancake and the fermented black beans with the knife cut noodles! (I might have eaten most of the pancake while sitting in traffic on Mopac coming back south.)
I love these noodles! You can kind of tell from the photo they are long and flat, with a nice doughiness about them. I believe in Chinese they're known as dao xiao mian, but there are multitudes of Chinese noodles! Anyhow, about a week after 4th of July, I heard that a Chen's had opened in Oak Hill. WHAT??!  A friend went for lunch and texted me a pic of the menu -- more options than the original location! Subsequently I heard from three people that the food was quite fine, including Mary Makes Dinner, who got take out from Chen's. She lived in China for several months, so she knows her noodles and dumplings!

Finally an opportunity came to check out this new Chen's for myself and with two other well-educated food lovers! The restaurant  is located in the strip center at William Cannon and Hwy 290, the former T + N Vietnamese, in the same shopping center where Flores Mexican is (which will move out soon for a new spot on William Cannon, and Via 313 Pizza will move in -- yay!). Construction abounds, however.

I've always thought Chen's made amazing green onion pancakes, and the new Chen's still delivers! Light and crisp, flaky and a touch chewy in the center with a very mild green onion taste....I could eat these for days.
The first item on the menu board was spicy cold noodles which intrigued us. These fat noodles with cucumber had a lovely flavor of sesame (kind of like tahini) and a distinctive mustard taste. There was also a bit of chile heat to the dish, which I think is vegetarian (no pieces of meat, let's put it that way). And for $6, a steal.
We got the spicy lamb buns and the black bean noodles. When I've had the lamb skewers (which they do have on the menu at the new location) at the original location, they've been nice chunks of meat with a decided szechuan peppercorn flavor (it's hard to miss the tingling sensation in the mouth that one often experiences with szechuan peppercorns). These had a cumin taste rather than the peppercorns (which are actually related to the citrus family, not an actual peppercorn!), and the meat was in smaller, more shredded pieces. Still good though!

If you are vegetarian, don't let the name "black bean noodles" fool you, as there is pork in the dish. It  normally comes with a different noodle (possibly the ones from the spicy cold noodle dish?), but we asked for them with the knife cut noodles, and they had no problem making the substitution. I love the savoriness of the sauce, with the ground pork and fermented black beans. (See why I posted the other picture of the knife cut noodles? You can't actually see the noodles in this one!) I really should try some of their other noodle dishes on my future visits, but I am kinda addicted to these.
And the pan-fried dumplings, which I always prefer over steamed because I like how they get crispy on one side. This was a huge plate of them, though they're not very big. But the dough consistency was perfect, and really tasty with the dipping sauce. The chile paste/condiment on the table had sesame seeds in it too, and a little of that added to the dipping sauce (soy-based) kicked it up nicely.
You can BYOB; we asked when we entered, and they said it was okay. You order at the counter, and the woman who took our order was very nice, as was the runner who brought out the dishes. Don't expect much from the decor at Chen Z's; I think it's entirely left over from the previous occupant. They could certainly stand to put some pictures on the walls or something. But it's the food that counts, and it's a winner, as are the prices. The three of us ate for a total of $39, and had some leftovers. Now since I was there, I've had one friend mention to me that she had a reaction to the MSG in the noodle soup, but I know she has a bit of a delicate system. I don't have reactions to it, but if it's not your thing, you may want to ask before ordering. I can't wait to go back and try other things on the menu!